I have to admit I’ve never met an old coot I didn’t like, and that does include the Coot El Grande who presently occupies the Governor’s Mansion. The reason is simple: coots are contrary—consistently contrary in an age of compromise—and there’s something noble about that. Ponygate? Well, every old coot has a bad day. Whatever else can be said of the guy’s behavior during the SMU affair, no one can deny he was, and still is, consistently contrary. When Clements was reelected (it’s no coincidence that he displaced a fellow who will never come close to being a coot), I got to thinking that maybe what we have here is a renaissance of the old coot.
It would be a bit of a conceit to say that Texas has more or better coots than, say, Indiana. But our state’s history does seem to have a rich vein of willful, obstinate characters who fit the bill. Say the words “old coot.” and the mind immediately strays to Pappy O’Daniel, Chill Wills, or Hondo Crouch. And there’s a big difference between Texas coots and coots elsewhere. Most non-Texas coots have retired from participation in the events that shape society. In Texas, coots are running things. We have our fair share of old coots who sit at home playing dominoes, but look at the number of coots who serve as politicians, businessmen, journalists, and civic boosters. Who knows? Maybe we produce more coots because we’ve got so many role models.
Now, don’t go confusing old coots with good ol’ boys. They’re completely different creatures. The good-ol’-boy ethic is political, more decidedly social and self-seeking. Over years of fine tuning, good-ol’-boy mannerisms become affectations employed for aggrandizement, monetary or otherwise. Cootdom, however, is the very absence of affectation. Genuine old coots are social only by fits and starts. They are full of opinions, and they love to talk, but they never, never schmooze. Iconoclasm is the coot’s creed. Historian A.C. Greene is a perfect example of a coot who has learned how to make a living by being contrary. For years he was a severe critic of Dallas. Now that everyone is dumping on the city, he is its greatest defender.
Coots are generous with their political views—”They broke the mold after Truman”—but just when you think you have a coot pegged as a conservative, he’ll up and fire off a savage bit of populism or libertinism. Any coot worthy of the name prefers style over content. Former state senator Babe Schwartz, for example, was always more a coot than a liberal. How else to explain what happened when Schwartz tried to block Frank Erwin’s appointment to the UT Board of Regents? The liberal professors Schwartz counted as allies were afraid to testify against Erwin, another classic old coot, so Schwartz lost the battle and his faith in the liberals. But he ended up as Erwin’s drinking buddy. That may not make sense, ideologically speaking, but it’s perfect coot psychology.
Trying to make sense of where a coot politician stands in the liberal-conservative spectrum is likewise a futile endeavor. A coot doesn’t think in those terms. State comptroller Bob Bullock is a prime example of a coot politician better known for feuds than for ideology. He was once considered a right-wing hatchet man for conservative governor Preston Smith and later heralded as the darling of the liberals. Now no one even tries to guess where Bullock stands on an issue. Yet you can be sure that he’ll be digging in his heels on one side of a controversy or another.
The use of the adjective “old” frequently preceding the noun “coot” should not be mistaken to suggest that cootdom is purely a matter of advanced age. At 44, George Toomer, for instance, is hardly an old coot, but a coot nevertheless. A barrel-chested, bearded Dallas writer and marketing consultant, he is what you might call an entrepreneurial coot. Toomer really works at it. He goes by the moniker “Buffalo George,” and as any dedicated coot-watcher knows, nicknames are definite coot indicators. From the loud Hawaiian shirts he favors to his ZZ Top-style beard and the 1955 Bentley he drives, Buffalo George is a living testament to the notion that some people are simply born coots.
Normally, however, it takes years to accumulate the requisite bramble of non sequiturs and contradictions that qualifies an individual for official coot status. Maturity can make all the difference when it comes to the subtle distinction between ornery and just plain mean. Then, too, it takes years to master the art of being predictably unpredictable. Coots are creatures of habit and damned stubborn, but they’re also the last of the true free spirits. They can be brutally blunt, but they are also accomplished liars.
As you can see, we seem to be surrounded by old coots, from the governor of our state to the guy who owns the gas station down the street. To help you develop your skill in identifying the Texas variety of this odd bird, I’ve put together an informal field guide. You may be surprised, once you learn the identifying characteristics, at how many coots you haven’t even noticed before. Not to mention the latent cootness in all of us. This field guide doubles as a handbook for those of you who want a head start on becoming a coot. Speaking for myself, I can hardly wait.
How to Identify a Coot
Coots come in all shapes and sizes. The only shared physical characteristic I have been able to detect is the absence of anything that remotely resembles a derriere. Coots don’t have rear ends for some reason, so whether you are on a street corner or wandering through a shopping mall, the easiest way to spot a coot is from behind.
Coots are old people who have made no compromise with the degenerative physical aspects of aging. Coots don’t wear toupees, and they don’t attempt to masquerade their hair loss b combing those six remaining strands of hair across the scalp. Hell with it; they just have the barber cut what’s left into a burr and toss on a hat—generally speaking, a bad hat. You won’t find coots wearing contact lenses, and they’ve long since stopped trying to suck in their gut. You’re not likely to encounter a coot waiting in a dermatologist’s office to have his liver spots removed. The complete indifference to vanity is part of the coot’s allure. There is something extremely reassuring about someone who has accepted exactly what he looks like with ease.
When a coot makes a fashion statement, it’s usually something like “I’m wearing this because I can get away with it, and you would too if you could.” Corollary statements are “I’m wearing this because it’s comfortable” and, most important, “I’m wearing this because this is what was in my closet.”
The basic characteristic of coot couture, or Cooture, is that coots don’t shop for clothing. They cut that out a long time ago. They wear what has been given to them, and not necessarily what’s been given to them recently, either. You’ll find the shirt Cousin Velma bought for Christmas and the pajamas from last year’s birthday still nicely pinned and wrapped in the original plastic they came in, tucked into some drawer. The coot’s waiting for his old pj’s to wear out first.
Since coots don’t throw stuff away, the typical coot ensemble consists of a two- or three-decade montage of sartorial history. I studied a coot at a bar the other evening and came up with the following exemplar. Footwear: desert boots (circa early sixties). Socks: those nylon see-through kind. Pants: double knit, with a macro-houndstooth pattern in a couple of shades of nonorganic green. Shirt: a new Izod, yellow (circa late seventies, but he must have just unwrapped this one). Jacket: corduroy, with lapels roughly the width of Montana and a fake belt across the back (circa late sixties). Hat: fishing type. Tie: string tie, with huge tortoiseshell clasp. Coots dress all the time the way the rest of us dress only on the weekend. Tell me the old buzzards aren’t smart.
The essence of Cooture is the tendency to put a single, personal signature on the look. Henry Wade, a former Dallas district attorney, sometimes wore a silly cowboy hat with his Brooks Brothers suits (speaking of hats, have you ever seen any hat that doesn’t look good on a coot?); San Antonio tax revolter C.A. Stubbs habitually dons one of those riverboat gambler-type ties; Dallas powerbroker John Stemmons favors bow ties; H. Ross Perot isn’t exactly a coot—he’s too polished and finally too rich to qualify—but that burr cut is a definite coot touch. And let’s face it, you heard a lot of talk during the gubernatorial campaign about how the aforementioned Coot El Grande had cleaned up his act. Then how do you explain all those sport coats that look as if they were ripped off a Herculon recliner? And what about all those short-sleeved dress shirts that he seems so fond of?
The Call of the Coot
A conversation with a coot can uplift a bad day and even improve an already decent one. But the sound most frequently heard from a coot is not a word or a phrase but a simple utterance—a deep, elongated, somewhat emphysemic grunt remindful of the sound your car makes when the timing of the carburetor is off. It’s the Cosmic Call of the Coot, and whether you’re in a darkened bar or standing in line at the grocery store, it’s a sure bet you’re in the presence of a coot if you overhear that distinctive “Aaaaaaawwwwwwwgggggghhhh!!!!!” This generic sound is usually followed by a more idiosyncratic coda, such as a disgusting smack of the lips or a sniffing sound.
The Coot Rap centers on two contrary attitudes toward life. One is best expressed through the International Cant of the Coot: “I’ll guaran-damn-tee you one damn thing,” an introductory remark suggestive of an intense concern with the machinations of daily life. Some examples of the issues that prompt such concern: the belief that everyone’s taxes are too high and his social security payments are too low; a passionate quest to eliminate a certain garden pest, such as black spot or webworm; a preoccupation with a recurring ailment, in particular, bursitis; an obsession with the weather, past, present, and future; and a conviction that insurance companies are taking over the world.
As rapturous as a coot can get about these matters, in the next breath he is likely to say, “Oh, well, who gives a damn, right?” A nice example of this coot dialectic may be found in recent columns by a couple of coot writers in Dallas, the Times Herald’s Dan Jenkins and the Morning News’ Blackie Sherrod. When Ponygate broke, each was moved—as any coot would be—to offer his two cents worth on the pay-for-play controversy. Jenkins took the who-gives-a-damn route, arguing that everybody does it, everybody has always done it, and so who gives a damn, right? Sherrod guaran-damn-teed us one damn thing: “If all this kindergarten fibbing had been exposed before the punishment was decided, the Mustang football program wouldn’t have just broken legs. It would have amputation.”
Sometimes coot rhetoric can progress into the realm of sloganeering, as in the “I’m Eddie Chiles, and I’m mad” campaign a few years back. Part-time oilman and full-time old coot Eddie Chiles’s implicit invitation to the rest of the world to join him in cootdom got a quick response; within a few months, “I’m mad too, Eddie” bumper stickers abounded.
A staple of the Coot Rap on current events is that there is nothing new under the sun. Take A.C. Greene’s analysis of Dallas’ economic and social malaise: “What goes up comes down. Nothing that’s happened has been that surprising. It’s happened before. I always said it would be football that would really be the problem. I heard all the same stuff back in ‘51.”
You know you’ve run across an old coot when you hear, “I’ll guaran-damn-tee you one damn thing. I don’t owe anybody any damn money. Anybody, any money.” This sort of proclamation can be repeated as many as half a dozen times in a couple of hours. Once a coot stumbles onto a phrase he likes the sound of, he’s liable to go ahead and rip it off a few more times. The same with jokes. Coots are not the best joke-tellers around, but they laugh harder at their own jokes than anyone else does. Sometimes you get the feeling that the last time they told this particular joke, they got a big laugh. Now, even though they aren’t telling it with much finesse, they’re remembering how funny it was the last time. And they don’t care whether you get it or not.
On the other hand, old coots don’t take too kindly to being on the receiving end of a joke. Dallas Cowboys honcho Bum Bright is a coot whose lack of ideology and abundance of crustiness account for how he has managed to feud with both Mark White and Bill Clements.
Even though coots don’t particularly care whether you are listening to their rap, they do demand your physical presence. They want you there, like right there. It is at these times that you can get cooted—and yes, “coot” is a transitive verb.
To be cooted is to experience a form of passive rape. The scene: You’re sitting at a bar. You want to be left alone. Then, from the left or the right, a specter appears, a hand, a wizened, liver-spotted hand seeking another hand. You shake it and mumble some amenities. You think that the encounter is over. But the hand will return to be shaken again, and before you know it, you’re learning more about how to replace a blown 220 plug than you ever thought was possible.
How serious can cooting get? Well, I’d say Clements cooted SMU—and the whole state for that matter—pretty well. Ponygate? Nope. For my money, what happened at SMH was Cootgate.
Communing with Coots
Since being cooted is a hazard of Texas life, you may as well be equipped for the inevitable moment. A good cooting is a stream-of-consciousness experience, so the first tip is to go with the flow. Somewhere in his left hemisphere the old coot knows where the conversation is going, so, as in white-water rafting, your best bet is not to fight the elements.
An extremely useful tool here is what I call the all-purpose Yep. Neither “yes” nor “yeah” will do. “Yes” is a bit too formal, and “yeah” sounds like you’re kissing the old guy off. “Yep” cuts a middle ground, encouraging him just enough but implying that you do have your limits. That resonant, hard consonant on the end tends to have the effect of crossing the old fellow’s t’s for him—for which he will be at least subliminally grateful.
Politics? Sports? IRS? The all-purpose Yep will stand you in good stead on any front. And don’t be afraid to overuse it—that’s why it’s called the all-purpose. As in, “You know, they still invite me to the annual convention every year. Every year. But I never go. Never go. Who gives a damn, right?”
As you have probably gathered, the Coot Rap is called that because, in truth, it most closely approximates the rap-style music you hear these days. Its form is repetitious, rhythmical; its content, largely inscrutable. But once you start listening, for some reason you just can’t turn it off.
As long as you don’t do something completely ridiculous, like argue with the old fellow, you’ll probably survive your cooting just fine. Other than ignoring a coot or arguing with one, there is only one other potential pitfall. The guy starts talking about, say, network TV football broadcasts, and about two sentences deep you start getting this: “Now, him, the big guy with the red hair… what’s his name? He’s full of it. ‘Course my real favorite is the one on… is it NBC or CBS? Anyway, the one who always says, ‘Oh, my!’… what’s his name, now?”
Do not, under any circumstances, answer one of these questions. The old coot will remember if you did once answer one of those questions, and any subsequent encounter is a sort of cooting I wouldn’t recommend for anyone.
Once coots retire, they have much more time to develop coot quirks. For the first time, they have complete control over how to structure their time, and they relish their independence. One place old coots go during the day is bars (don’t ask me how I know). Coots like to get their drinking in before there’s any chance they might get sleepy, which is right after dinner. The stop at the bar comes either before or after the stop at the hardware store, where the coot never buys anything, but he does look around—a lot. The visit to the hardware store comes before or after the stop at the bank to check his balance. Of course, he could telephone for such information, but coots don’t like phones, and they don’t trust any bank transaction they can’t make in person. Show me a coot who believes in electronic check transfer, and I’ll show you a phony.
A good deal of a coot’s day is spent in his car. This is not because coots like to drive but because they don’t drive especially efficiently. It’s not that they get lost. Driving 20 mph and taking time out at every traffic light to open the door, lean out, and go “Aaaaaaawwwwwwwgggggghhhh!!!!!” and spit eats up a lot of time. And getting from one side of Houston to the other will always take a little longer if you don’t use a freeway, and coots don’t.
Elsewise, coots may be found at coffee shops, in shopping malls, at the public library, and occasionally on the golf course, though no coot I know of spends as much time playing golf as he says. Mainly, however, you’re going to find coots at grocery stores.
The nature of the relationship between the coot and the grocery store is mysterious indeed. Every time I go to the grocery store, not only do I see a lot of coots, but I see the same coots. ANd they’re not just hanging out. They’re purchasing, all right. The thing is, they’re purchasing only one item, and they’re not using the express lane, which is something they consider to be in the same realm as electronic check transfer. It would be easy enough to chalk up their peculiar shopping habits to forgetfulness, but the real reason coots buy only one thing per trip is that they think they save money that way, and coots are always trying to save money. Generally their single purchase is something like tea bags. Sure, they could pick it up at 7-Eleven, but convenience stores also fall into the realm of electronic check transfer.
Before we get into particulars, one thing needs to be understood. No matter what a coot eats, he eats it three times a day at precisely the same times. Let’s take it by the meal.
Breakfast: Dyed-in-the-wool coots pooh-pooh the new concern for healthful eating and faithfully down eggs, bacon, and biscuits with gravy (don’t forget the prune juice). Those who have succumbed to cholesterol hysteria start the day with cereal—Mountain Trail, Raisin Bran, or anything that purports to have a lot of fiber; give a coot half a chance, and he’ll talk some fiber to you.
Lunch: This meal is eaten out, at the same place, be it a bar, a country club, or a coffee shop. The menu will vary. The only constant is that whether he is consuming a BLT or enchiladas, a coot will always have a cup of coffee with it.
Dinner: Some variation can be expected, but count on it—you won’t find a coot eating fettuccine. It’ll be meat and potatoes mostly, and, at that, things like pot roast, Swiss steak, and potatoes au gratin. And, always, gravy.
In Texas the single most important item of Coot Cuisine is chili. Young whippersnappers have begun invading the chili scene these days, but don’t forget that chili mania was spawned by that late, great trio of old coots, Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert, Austin journalist Wick Fowler, and humorist H. Allen Smith.
Coots and Work
Coots tend to favor work that is semi-solitary. You see a lot of coot mailmen. And coots frequently turn up at gas stations. A few of them even own gas stations, and all of them act like they do. You’ve got some coot barbers and some coot security guards. Coot maintenance men. And the guy from Orkin, the exterminator, he’s always a coot. Always. He will talk some bugs to you too. My favorite was a guy named Junior who used to take care of my silverfish problem. He’d pace about the house, peering into closets and cabinets and occasionally emitting a low whistle or a “Hmmm.” Then he’d say, “I’m gonna have to use the fog. Make sure you let that cat out. This stuff’ll kill her.”
Coots also work in hardware stores, and you sometimes find them working in the men’s shop of a department store—an encounter not to be missed. To begin with, the coot will want to guess your size: “What are ya? ‘Bout a forty-two regular?” (this is a spin-off of a favored coot bar game, which is trying to guess a young guy’s age). Then, if he is moved to make a recommendation, the problem is not that he will try to push old, out-of-fashion stuff on you. It’s just that he’ll always push the bad new stuff.
As for the upper echelons of the economic scale, coots in that range usually have only one job: vice chairman of the board of directors. They don’t do much, but they do have an office, and they’re pretty much always in it.
Coots and Vacation
A couple of simple rules apply when it comes to vacations. One, the destination is domestic; Las Vegas comes immediately to mind, or maybe someplace like Gulfport. Two, it’s probably going to be a road trip. Lodging will be a motel or, better, a motor court. Coots don’t stay in hotels, particularly hotels with atrium lobbies.
A good part of the vacation will be spent eating. The rest of it will be spent standing on a street corner, hands in pockets, gazing at… oh, nothing in particular. The vacation will not last more than one week, because he is worried about his tomato plants.
Coots and Contemporary Culture
Let’s start with cars. Here too we have a strong domestic skew. I bought a BMW a few years back, only to hear my dad—probably my favorite old coot—comment. “Why’d you do that? It’ll screw up the balance of trade.”
The coot’s car of choice is big, comes in one of several similar shades of green, and hasn’t had the shocks replaced in twelve years. Coots aren’t happy about the downscaling of the American V-8 engine, not because they like the additional power but because they consider the V-6 a desecration of a national shrine. Hence, coot cars tend to be your early-model Chevies, Buicks, Pontiacs, and Olds Delta 88’s.
Next to the automobile, the coot’s most intense relationship with contemporary culture centers on the TV. Coot viewing habits are fairly uniform: the Today show, the weather station (if the coot has cable, which is also considered in the realm of electronic check transfer), Phil Donahue (coots consider Phil to be a liberal), any bad miniseries, and, most important, sports. It was probably a coot who first devised the by now well-known two-for-one mode of sports viewing, which involves watching one game on the tube and listening to another on a transistor radio. And coots prefer college athletics. For some reason, they don’t trust pro sports. They think the pros are overpaid, and they’re pretty sure the games are all fixed.
No television set has ever been tuned to the satisfaction of an old coot. I have never seen a coot watch TV for more than fifteen minutes without at least contemplating messing with the horizontal hold.
Speaking of coots and television, did anybody else catch the award-winning coot performance by Bette Davis on the Academy Awards show in March? She either forgot or refused to recognize anything on the TelePrompTer—i.e., anything she was supposed to say—and did so with remarkable adroitness. A reminder that cootdom is not at all a gender-specific institution.
Coots and newspapers? Funny you should ask. Coots may be the only section of the reading populace that reads everything in the paper. Well, everything except those chichi “Style” sections that every newspaper seems to have these days. Those sections have movie reviews and stories on AIDS and stuff, and coots just aren’t interested in reading that sort of thing.
What coots do read with abandon is the letters-to-the-editor and op-ed pages like the Houston Post’s “Sound Off” section. That’s because most letters to the editor are written by coots, so the average coot finds the intellectual environment comfortable. Coots also read coot columnists religiously. The Dallas Times Herald’s Molly Ivins is a staple read for any coot liberal, and Paul Thompson of the Express-News has a loyal coot following in San Antonio. My favorite is Felix McKnight, the former editor of the Dallas Times Herald who still writes an occasional column for the paper. It’s not uncommon for him to spin off a fond reminiscence about, say, J. Edgar Hoover.
Ultimately, however, the coot’s relationship with contemporary culture may best be understood as a series of fors and against. For example, alcohol’s okay; drugs aren’t. James Kilpatrick’s brand of conservatism is just fine; but George Will is regarded with suspicion. Suburbans are acceptable; vans aren’t. And for some reason, coots regard gangsters of our past with reverence, but they hold no such romantic view of any contemporary criminal.
Coots are for Social Security, of course; but they’re against any other form of government aid. Only old people need help. That is pretty much a direct quote from a conversation I had with an old coot recently. I said, “Yep.”
As for heroes, you can start with the chairman of the board. Want to start an argument with a coot? Mention in passing the myth that Sinatra got his start via the good graces of the Mafia. Phew! Better have that all-purpose Yep ready.
What Coots Mean to the Cosmos
Coots are among the few members of the human species who are what they are—they’ve worked long and hard to become something unique in these times: themselves.
I recently spent a few days relaxing in that international nexus of cootdom, Florida. Some buddies and I had gone on our yearly sojourn to spring training. We were the only guys under seventy in the ballpark on any given day. Studying the sea of coots, listening to the unending chorus of “Aaaawwwwgggghhhh!!!” I was struck by the realization that if coots haven’t won, they’ve at least stopped making any pretense that they can; and I’ll guaran-damn-tee you one damn thing: they’re not going to give up any more ground. I find that truly inspirational.
I don’t want to get too heavy here, but maybe that sort of tenacity is what it’s all about. Coots provide us with ballast. They’re society’s rubber. They remind us that some things are more important than others and that, finally, we can still choose to believe that life—after all—is simple.