The Texanist

Q: My girlfriend and I live in an apartment in Austin that overlooks one of the many new barbecue restaurants here. She can’t stand the smoke or the smell that wafts into our place, and she has recently admitted to me that she doesn’t even like barbecue. She wants to move. The thing is, the smoke doesn’t bother me all that much, and I like the apartment and enjoy the proximity to the barbecue. How can I get her to live with the smoke? 
Tom A., Austin

Pastures of Plenty

From where I stood on the shoulder of Texas Highway 237, the dozen old buildings just beyond the barbed-wire fence looked like a movie set that had long ago seen its last take. The saloon and the blacksmith shop and the dance hall, though saved from rot and ruin, were empty inside. No cattle lazed by the man-made lake or lowed in the surrounding pastures. There wasn’t much for them to graze on anyway except thin patches of well-trod grass between dirt paths.

Biscuits

Culinarily speaking, the American South is having a bit of a moment, and any chef worth his or her White Lily flour has a biscuit on the menu somewhere among the sorghum and scuppernongs. Of course, this latest food fascination is nothing new to our part of the country, where the fluffy rounds of flour and fat, once a fixture of almost every meal, sustained our cowboys, nurtured generations of their descendants, and even influenced our politics (“Pass the biscuits, Pappy!”).

Formula 3

When the American National Bank building opened in Austin, in 1954, it boasted such marvels as the first escalator in town, au courant interior furnishings by legendary designer Florence Knoll, and a sophisticated parking system by which valets would retrieve cars by riding a chain-hoisted “elevator” to the desired floor. Once considered a candidate for demolition, the building recently underwent a loving rehabilitation and has been restored to its mid-century glory. 

What the Hay?

Have you heard the one about the pastry chef who walks into a feed store? “I’d like to buy a bale of hay,” he says. “What kind?” the clerk asks. Astonished to learn there are different kinds of hay, the pastry chef says, “I don’t know.” The clerk says, “Well, what are you feeding?” Realizing he probably should not announce that he intends to use the hay in cake and ice cream and feed it to human beings, the pastry chef says, “Er, horses?”

The Fight of His Life

Terry Daniels welcomes me to his home with a firm handshake, a startling reminder that once, long ago, his right jab was a fearsome entity. His voice, though, is faint. His 68-year-old body shakes like that of an older man. His close-cropped hair is snow-white.

My Brother’s Secret

I’d not seen my stepbrother Dale in more than two years when a bitter norther slammed into Texas in December 1989. Schools closed, pipes burst, and sleet-covered highways took on the look of salvage yards. I was sitting alone one blue-gray afternoon, listening to the frozen rain tick on the windows of my house in Belton, when the phone rang. 

It was Dale’s mother, and she was in a panic. She was at Arlington Memorial Hospital, where her son was in intensive care. “He might not live through the night,” she said. “You’ll have to tell your mother and stepfather. They’ll never believe me if I call them.” I knew she was right; ever since her divorce from my stepfather, more than thirty years earlier, he had done little to hide his loathing for her, even after he’d retained custody of their two sons, Elden and Dale, and rebuilt a family with my mother and me. I promised to be at the hospital as soon as I could, then phoned my mother in Oklahoma. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked, stunned. I told her I didn’t know. 

But that was not exactly true. Sitting in the car on my way to the hospital, inching across the ice on Interstate 35, I played news headlines from recent years over and over in my head. AIDS, a disease unknown to Americans just a decade earlier, was filling hospitals and clinics and hospices across the country with patients covered in lesions and fighting for each breath as their lungs were steadily destroyed. And in the late eighties, only one outcome awaited its victims: death. 

The disease was not an equal-opportunity killer. True, straight men, children, women, even one nun were among the dead. The disease could take years to develop after initial infection. A blood transfusion during surgery, experimentation with injecting recreational drugs, a one-night heterosexual stand during the wild seventies—even in the early years of the pandemic, people knew that any of these could lead to AIDS. But the overwhelming number of people dying from the disease were gay men who had contracted HIV, the blood-borne virus that causes AIDS, through unprotected anal sex. Some born-again preachers and politicians proclaimed AIDS to be “the gay plague,” God’s punishment for homosexual perverts.

My family came from a small town in Oklahoma that could hardly be described as open-minded. AIDS was not a topic that my parents discussed. (In fact, I can remember no conversations concerning sex.) My education on the disease had come almost entirely from the book And the Band Played On, which I’d read the year before. I’d recognized Dale’s life in its pages. Now, thinking of him, I gripped the steering wheel, dreading what awaited me in Arlington.

I arrived at the hospital to find Dale lying unconscious in the ICU. He was connected to a ventilator, and each time it breathed for him, his body jolted. After going bald in his twenties, he’d taken to wearing a toupee, but the dark-brown, almost black bouffant was gone, and his pale head on the pillow struck me as impossibly small. His hospital gown was open, revealing crusty lesions on his chest. I reached down and took his hand. He squeezed, but it seemed like just a reflex. 

I asked a nurse what was wrong. When she said she could not comment to anyone unfamiliar with Dale’s “underlying physical issue,” I lied, saying I knew all about it. She paused. “He has something that’s like pneumonia,” she said, “but not exactly pneumonia.”

“Pneumocystosis?”

“Yes,” she said.

I nodded. I knew about pneumocystosis from my reading. Caused by a fungus, it was a devastating lung infection similar to one that had been found only in rats—until, that is, gay men in San Francisco began showing up with it at hospitals in the early eighties. Only one thing could so damage an immune system that someone could contract the infection. My stepbrother, lying before me, was dying of AIDS

I found a pay phone in the hallway and called my mother. The diagnosis was complicated, I said, and she and my stepfather needed to come to Arlington quickly. 

Heading back to the ICU, I ran into my stepbrother’s business associate, Tony. We’d met just once before. He and Dale ran a dried-flower store at the massive Grand Prairie marketplace known as Traders Village, where you could seemingly buy everything from used tires to precious stones. It was there, maybe three years earlier, that Dale had given me a promotional vinyl copy of Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages, and Tony had shaken his head, muttering, “You like Willie?” He and Dale played LPs like Carly Simon’s Torch. But Dale knew I was as much shit-kicker as aging hippie, and he’d picked up the Willie record for me from a Traders Village dealer. 

“I guess you’ve figured out what’s wrong with him,” Tony said. I nodded again. “He’s so afraid his dad will find out. He’s told the doctors and the hospital staff not to discuss anything with anyone unless they know already.” 

Suddenly, he reached out to embrace me. I hugged him awkwardly. His eyes began to water as he shook his head. “He just can’t have his dad find out.” 

Last Man Standing

Amid all the changes in state government brought about by the November election, Joe Straus remains the most notable constant. The San Antonio Republican was first elected speaker of the House in 2009 after widespread dissatisfaction with the heavy-handed leadership style of Tom Craddick, the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction, led to Craddick’s ouster.

Fifth Circuit Hears Texas’ Same-Sex Marriage Lawsuit

Less than two years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in United States v. Windsor—which gutted the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that defined marriage as the union between one man and one woman—legislatures and judiciaries in state after state have overturned bans on same-sex marriage. Gays and lesbians can now marry in 36 states and Washington, D.C. Texas remains one of the last holdouts.

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