Carrier pigeon dispatches between my daughter Amelia and me on January 15, 2008 as I took my good old time approaching Austin, Texas from the west.
Me: “Hello from the hometown of Davy Crockett – Ozona, Texas. I’m writing an essay about the greatest seafaring movies of all time at the Ozona public library.”
Her: “Well that sounds . . . I don’t know how it sounds.”
Me: “It’s a nice life, wandering around, meeting people, writing what I want. I haven’t had to rent a hotel room yet. The Tacoma is really comfy with pillows and sleeping bag. Enough room to stretch out.”
Her: “Send greetings to the Ditzells.”
Me: “Will do.”
January 17, 2008.
I spent the day visiting the Ditzells, who in a year would become my Amelia’s Lone Star sister-in-law and brother-in-law. As my Mom likes to say about folks for whom she has respect and affection: “Good people.”
Marcie Champion and husband Sam Ditzell live in Austin, often called the Third Coast, the Texas state capital and home to the LBJ Library, where the pens Lyndon used to enact civil rights legislation are on display.
It’s the town of where – over several months in 1968 – the great Johnny Winter recorded a live album at the Vulcan Gas Company at 316 Congress Avenue before the world found him. The population of Austin was less than 400,000 when Johnny made that record. It is just about 800,000 now.
The city has boomed several times in the past 40 years and as a consequence a lot of what used-to-be, both physically and spiritually, is gone.
“Believe it or not,” said Baltimore blues guitarist Pete Kanaras, keeping an eye on things back home on Macon Street as I criss-crossed the continent. “I have never played in the city that changed my life.”
When you are driving cross-country, as I did about a half-dozen times over the pivotal year of 2008, arriving at the home of people like Marcie and Sam is like finding an oasis in the desert.
These are the comforts of home, the opposite of the nomadic sojourn: indoor plumbing, refrigeration, a couch for napping in the sunshine; the ability to unpack all of your shit, spread it out on the floor and decide what is necessary for the next leg of the journey (what to wash, what to stuff in the back of the truck, what to shit can) and what is not.
All of the above are available on the road, of course – McDonald’s for bathrooms and coffee; the mattress and sleeping bag in the bed of my pick-up to sleep for free on parking lots; roadside picnic tables to go through one’s stuff while making a peanut sandwich; Laundromats crowded with more kids than a nursery school on the bad side of town.
But everything under one roof, where you can lock the front door and go about your business – walk in circles if you like, scratching your ass – that’s comfort, however un-poetic, and that’s what I got at Sam and Marci’s, the walls of their home hung with front pages of the 20th century’s landmark events.
They left for work early in the morning (health and fitness conscious, I awoke to the blender making protein shakes) and, once alone, I wrote throughout the day while burning a few of their CDs to help shuffle the mix for the next 500 miles.
After my daily nap, I got a massage at Sam’s health club (thousands of miles behind the wheel, the body molding itself into stiff ropes of tension and pain) and joined the Ditzells for dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant downtown.
The food was very good, but the sort of place that didn’t exist when Stevie Ray Vaughn was honing his Hendrix meets the Alamo act at dives like the One Knife, music that would move fans to erect a statue of Vaughn near downtown a few years after his 1990 death in a helicopter crash.
Cruising by statues and reading the inscriptions – “Be sure you are right, then go ahead . . .” is chiseled on the Crockett statue on the Ozona town square – is often easier than accepting hospitality, however sincerely offered.
Unless it is an emergency or the destination is sacred, like the visits I have made over the years to my Aunt Dolores [born in Baltimore, 1929, in the city of Nelson Algren since the mid-1950s] – both timing and personalities have to be in sync to dock at an oasis.
If you have miles to cover and making good time (the coffee has kicked in just right; Dion singing about Elvis and Jesus; the sun or the moon is lighting the road in a way that draws you down the line) the person who lives beyond the passing highway sign has to be awfully special for you to stop.
[I like pulling over to take photos of highway signs for towns with the same names as friends or loved ones: Amelia, Louisiana; Norman, Oklahoma; Anna, Ohio.]
Other times you are dead tired, perhaps there is already 600 miles between you and the place you left at dawn. The folks that would let you stay a night or two are not bad people – neither mean nor stupid or especially boring – they are just people you’d rather not see.
This usually happens at places you’ve stayed once before and couldn’t wait to get back on the road. So you keep driving, droopy eyes peeled for the Golden Arches.
Ever the weekend before the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I left the Ditzells and made 136 miles to Cypress; from there to Prairie View and then another 136 miles, skirting Houston on the way, to Port Arthur.
Port Arthur, home to my motorcycle riding, seafaring Roman Catholic priest friend Sinclair Oubre, is a natural gas and oil town. It’s most famous native daughter – Janis Joplin – once distinguished Port Arthur from Beaumont, the hometown of fellow blues shouter Johnny Winter, like this.
“Port Arthur is the asshole of the world,” Janis reportedly told a reporter. “And Beaumont is 20 miles up it!”
[Wanna see Janis warbling a drunken sing-along with Rick Danko to the old prison chant “Ain’t No More Cane?” Rent the documentary “Festival Express,” a Woodstock on rails.
Wanna hear a funny story about the house where Janis lived from the time when she was a junior Girl Scout to the year she dropped out of college? Keep reading.]
I arrived in Port Arthur in time to cover Janis’ 65th birthday celebration – born January 19, 1943; alive for 27 years and dead for 38. I said hello to Edgar Winter – young, jazzman brother of Johnny – as he was inducted into the Museum of the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame.
[In 1974, at the height of his pop stardom in the wake of the monster hit “Frankenstein,” Edgar was my first concert. I saw him at the old Baltimore Civic Center. A local band called Appaloosa opened the show. At the Gulf Coast Museum, I simply said “Thank you.”]
Janis’ birthday fell on a Saturday and I went to her childhood home – 4330 32nd Street – that afternoon. There, I saw the historical marker (once the ugly duckling persona non grata in her own backyard, the years, and tourist dollars, have softened attitudes) and I met the family who unwittingly bought the house of a legend.
“I lived next door for 21 years,” said Almu Cantu, standing with others in the front yard. “Her Mom and Dad were my neighbors for years after Janis died. People from as far away as Brazil would come and knock on my door and say, ‘I guess you know why we`re here.’”
Janis loved the arts, was devoted painting and spent time in the garage – a makeshift art studio – running the clothes dryer to keep warm. Her initials – or maybe her first name and hand print – are said to be in concrete somewhere on the property.
How’s this for an American story?
A young couple makes their way from Mexico for a better life in the United States, landing in California about the time the greatest white female blues singer of the psychedelic era dies of a heroin overdose in Los Angeles.
The couple works hard and does well, saving enough money over the years to finally buy a home. Decades later, they migrate to Port Arthur where there is work in the refineries and housing costs a fraction of what it does in Southern California.
Innocently – how could they know if no one tells them? – the Sanchez family buys a dead rock star’s house. Not any dead rock star but an icon of the rock era, the woman for whom Leonard Cohen wrote “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” whose name is respectfully mentioned in the same breath as Hendrix.
David and Alicia Sanchez bought the Joplin family home in August of 2007 and were immediately distressed to find people hanging out on the front lawn with cameras, peeping in the windows and knocking on the door.
No one thought it important to tell them what they were buying.
Now there is a state historical marker out front to let everyone know.