Mood piece

agin

horse

AUTUMN ARRIVED last week, and yesterday — driving down the mountainside to the state capital on a shopping binge — we spotted the best sign of fall hereabouts: Pink fields.

Our pink fields ever remind me of the springtime fields of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush that erupt in Central Texas, something I miss, that along with good barbecue sauce and pho tai.

But summer here is defined mostly by rain, which arrives in June usually and departs in October usually. The rain has been hesitant of late, the last week or so, as if trying to decide if continuing is worth the effort.

Let us pray not. Now and then, it rains on the Days of the Dead, the first days of November, really mucking up our graveyard traditions and disappointing the tourists who bring money to our tills.

But despite the expanding afternoon sunshine, it’s still overcast in the mornings. Stepping out to the upstairs terraza just after dawn, both the white horse next door and the distant mountains are gray and glum. But that does not last long, a temporary mood piece.

Saturday chicken

chicken

A COUPLE OF WEEKS ago, our favorite roast-chicken joint changed ownership. We lunched there virtually every Saturday for four years before heading downtown to sell our tasty pastries on the big plaza.

The new management had changed enough stuff that we decided to go elsewhere. That’s elsewhere you see in the photo. It is not Antoine’s or Galatoire’s, but the chicken is quite good.

It’s humble, to state it mildly. It sits next to a tire-fixing business and almost under a pedestrian overpass crossing the highway that heads to the state capital 40 minutes away. This place likely has a name, but I can’t tell you what it is. After four years at the previous restaurant, I can’t tell you its name either.

I don’t care about such stuff. I only care about the grub. My friend Don Cuevas, who writes a very good blog, can tell you the name of the previous place, and the names of the owners too. He’s a detail man and sociable, unlike me. He also once said the previous joint was the best restaurant in town, which was quite silly.

How can a restaurant that has only one item on the menu be the best restaurant in town? It did, however, serve some mighty fine roasted chicken. At times, Cuevas slips into hyperbole.

Roasted-chicken outlets are enormously popular in Mexico, and they are all over the place, almost on every corner. It may be one of the best reasons to live here. Roasted chicken rivals tacos.

There are basically three ways in which they are served, and the term roasted may not be strictly correct, but I use it as a catchall term because, again, I don’t really care about details. Cuevas knows the details.

Our previous Saturday eatery cooked chicken on a barbecue grill. A second popular way to prepare “roasted chicken” is on a huge, horizontal, revolving spit. The third style is what you see in the photo above. The young man is looking into a bottomless, metal box on the ground. Inside are chickens skewered upright on sticks that are stuck vertically into the dirt surrounded by hot coals. This style is less juicy than the other two methods.

Against the back wall is a homemade wood-burning stove atop which tortillas are cooked after the dough is smashed flat with a hand-pushed tortilla smasher. Rice is prepared there too. The old woman who does all this is off to the left at the moment. She’ll be right back. Click the photo for a closer look.

This roasted-chicken joint may well become our permanent Saturday replacement for the old spot. We don’t know yet — jury’s still out. The chicken-on-a-stick style is my least-preferred of the three methods, but it’s still quite good. And, God knows, these people need our dough. It’s a family business, and they’re neighbors.

The nearby train

rail

I THINK IT was Columbus. It surely was not Flatonia because, as I recall (it’s been quite a spell), that’s where the good barbecue joint was located just off Interstate 10 about midway between Houston and San Antonio.

Flatonia, that is.*

No, it likely was Columbus where my second ex-wife and I decided to spend a night in a hotel, just a fun way to get out of Houston, deep into the sticks, so to speak. We used to head out on weekends now and then, near and far, to spend nights in hotels just for the heck of it, a change of scene.

It was a train that etched that night into my memory so firmly even though it’s been about 25 years now. That wife’s long gone, and so is Texas, out of my life, but not trains.

That night in Columbus, we chose a quaint little wooden, two-story inn that had been a train-stop hotel way back, a place for travelers who arrived by rail in Columbus to easily step from the train almost right into the hotel lobby. But passenger service to Columbus went the way of cavalry charges and vanished.

The hotel went out of business and stayed that way a long time. Then some folks, probably city slickers dreaming of running a small hotel in rural Texas, answered an advertisement one day and, presto, the hotel was reborn, just as quaint as ever, but on purpose this go-around.

Some time after that, we showed up and checked in. The hotel was all decked out in old-timey stuff, real cute, you know, and we liked it. That night we hit the sack around 10 or so, as usual.

The train arrived a couple of hours later. The tracks remained directly beside the hotel, and I mean directly. It was a freight train, and it did not continue through, which would not have been so bad. No, it parked right outside our second-story window. And it sat … and sat … and sat … with the motor running.

Didn’t get much sleep that night. On leaving the next day, I understood why we were the only hotel guests. Who would return after a night with your bedside lamp spitting distance from a rumbling locomotive?

I’m sure the new owners, possibly Yankees from New York trying to get away from it all, regretted their decision, likely losing their shirts, but all we lost was one decent night of sleep.

* * * *

Flash forward a quarter century. I live pretty close to a railroad track, and it’s a busier track than the one in Columbus, Texas, by far. But it’s not just outside our window. It’s like a block and a half away.

Our property extends from one street out front to another street out back, which is to say it’s a full block deep, and the house sits against the back street, not the front. Crossing that front street, you’ll see houses, and it’s directly behind those houses where the railroad runs.

We hear the trains, which pass at all hours of the night and day, real well. I don’t know how the people who live across the street, with the trains passing just behind them, put up with it.

The trains pass in a number of styles, depending on the mood of the engineer. The style matters more at 2 a.m. than at 4 p.m. Sometimes they pass quietly. Well, as quietly as a train can pass. Just the bump-bump-bump of the wheels, nothing more. Or it can be full-tilt boogy with horn blaring and bell clanging.

We did not notice the railroad when we bought the property, and we likely would have purchased elsewhere had we been aware. But guess what? After a couple of weeks back in 2003, we ceased to be rattled by the passing trains, even in the dead middle of the night.

Not only that. We like it now. From the upstairs terraza, we see the top portions of passing trains clearly, and it lends a sort of vagabond air to the neighborhood.

If you walk the 1.5 blocks from the Hacienda to the neighborhood plaza and look left you will see the scene in the photo above. The train tracks bisect our funky neighborhood, and we live on the right side of the tracks because where we live is, by definition, not the wrong side of the tracks.

* * * *

* The barbecue joint was directly next to a gas station. Once I used the john in that gas station and found it so unkempt and repulsive that I told the station manager than I’d seen nicer johns in Mexican whorehouses. She didn’t take kindly to my accurate comparison.

(Tomorrow: About milk. Stay tuned.)

Bazookas, Black Hawks, barbecue

BILLY BOB Pickering hoisted the bazooka to his shoulder when he saw the Black Hawk helicopter heading his way.

BushmasterBubba Thornton stood at Billy Bob’s side with a Bushmaster nine-millimeter, fully automatic, the kind of peashooter that gives Nancy Pelosi the vapors and makes her want to wash the feet of illegal aliens for Easter, which she actually did do. Neither of our boys’ weapons were legal, strictly speaking, but they really didn’t give a sticky chaw of Bloodhound Plug about that.

Bubba and Billy Bob had gone to junior high together. They had almost finished high school when they dropped out to serve together in Vietnam, which means the boys were not young. They were old boys who had killed lots of communists.

On hearing about the federal government mistreating a rancher in Nevada, Billy Bob and Bubba tossed the bazooka, the Bushmaster and lots of Budweiser into the bed of Bubba’s old Studebaker pickup and hauled out of Tupelo, heading west. They drove straight through.

And here they stood on this hot day atop dry scrub land in Nevada, the kind of dirt where you need plenty to graze enough cattle to make a living. The rancher’s family had done that for 100 years, and now here come federal cops to put a stop to it all, which was not right.

All because of some gol-durned endangered tortoise that can’t hold his own.

Billy Bob and Bubba had not gunned down little, slanty-eyed communists to live in this sort of Tom-fool America.

Billy Bob and Bubba watched the Black Hawk approach. Flap, flap, flap. Written in big letters on the side was BLM. Billy Bob triggered the bazooka and watched the Black Hawk explode. The two boys gave one another a high-five, and there were huzzahs from other hillbillies nearby.

The following week they were charged namelessly with a hate crime because the helicopter was black. The Studebaker, however, had barreled back to Tupelo, and Billy Bob and Bubba told a great story over Budweisers at LouAnn’s Barbecue Shack out on Highway 6.