Sunday, May 22, 2005

Joe Nick Remembers

I alerted Joe Nick Patoski to yesterday's post about Leon Eagleson, and he replied with an e-mail so filled with the memory of Austin in the time just before I arrived there that I felt I had to share it with you. I've edited out some incriminating info, but here's pretty much what he said:

"You triggered several memories: the joke that the name of his place was really OK Book and Records because the one book left in the place when it became a collectors' record store instead of a thrift shop was some ol' porno rag that Rockin' Dopsie and all his Twisters used to pore over in the back of the store whenever they weren't smoking 'cat dick', their description for marijuana cola buds, or shooting craps.

"All the stars hung out there sooner or later. And whenever things were slow, there was always Antone's on one side, the porno peeps, Moma's Money, Benny's Tavern (the last men-only beer bar on Sixth) and Catman's Shine Parlor. Something was always going on at Catman's.

"The parade through the store was constant -- street people like El Paso Slim ("I wish I was your age and knew what I know now" and "If I had your hand, I'd throw mine away"), the great East Austin floating-heads-on-store-windows artist Joseph Henderson who carried a funk that forced the windows down and the door open, some burly guy who grumbled unintelligibly, Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams, former champion heavyweight boxer for a spell. So-called regular people like [the late] Clyde Woodward and N_____ F_____ who had hustler and con written all over them from the git go and you still loved hanging with 'em anyhow.

"That was the hubbingest half-block I've ever known. Oddly enough, that very same real estate had a historical marker dedication last week, noting that the site of the parking garage and mini mall was once the Bremond block, which was one of the oldest buildings in Austin when it was torn down in 1979, forcing Antone's and OK to move, taking all the fun with it."

What he's remembering here is an Austin I never knew. When I first started going there in the early '70s, I hung with the "progressive country" crowd, who, while they certainly didn't have anything against black and Mexicans, didn't hang out with them, either. And that's who was on 6th Street back then. Yup, the very same 6th Street that's lined with clubs and shot bars and frat-boy hangouts today, the Bourbon-Street-like "live music capitol of the world" centerpiece. This strip of 6th Street goes all the way east to Interstate 35, which has always been the racial dividing line for central Austin: east of the line it's solidly black and Mexican, west it's pure white.

Chasing out the dime-a-dance bars like La Plaza and the Green Spot, which closed around 6pm because their clientele was basically Mexican workers who had to be up early, and routing wild places like Scotty's Bar-B-Q, home to strange is-she-or-isn't-he hookers, was essential if the area was going to be made frat-boy friendly, and when I moved to Austin in October, 1979, that change was already underway. Moma's Money, a fake Cajun seafood place that was a front for something, although I never did figure out what, was one of the first incursions of the new scene, but there were still blues bars which opened occasionally and closed just as fast when I first started going there.

When I first visited OK Records, the one I wrote about yesterday, it was on East 7th, in the Webberville area, and the blues bar I mentioned that was just up the hill, Joe Nick says, was Marie's Tearoom #2, although I remember another one with the word "chicken" in the title -- not Ernie's Chicken Shack, though.

There's a school of thought which says that American likes to excise this sort of funk like it's a tumor instead of an essential part of its soul, and I admit I was in thrall to that when I wrote Joe Nick yesterday, but he replied that people seem to like Austin pretty well these days the way it is, and I have to admit there's still plenty of soul there if you know where to find it. After all, 6th Street was still a secret, despite being right downtown, when I first got there, and that secret has just moved. A lot of what produces the whole blues culture is stuff you wouldn't want to raise your family in, and this year when I was in Austin, I stayed on the East Side for the first time in my life, and was really jazzed by the pride the residents there -- black, brown, and white -- expressed in their neighborhood. Real estate sharks are a fact of life anywhere, and they've been particularly predatory in Austin, but there seems to be a heightened awareness of that on the East Side these days, and maybe this movie has played enough times that it'll have a different outcome this time.

Or, to put it another way, it's perfectly possible to have great barbeque and well-equipped health clinics, lovingly-restored 19th century wooden houses and minority-owned neighborhood-serving businesses, and maybe, just maybe that's what's happening there.

What a strange place for Leon's death to lead me to. Thanks, Joe Nick.

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