Friday, August 31, 2012

La Popular

Dustin calls from Texas to tell me, "I wish you were here..."

I am thinking this is a sweet sentiment, until he finishes the thought.

"...If you were here, I wouldn't have eaten a pound of tamales by myself."

A different hypothetical: if La Popular Tamale House was not, in fact, so popular, it might not sell its tamales by the dozen and Texas newbies might not assume that the minimum order corresponds to an appropriate serving for one person. Because, really, if I was there, we would just have tried to split two pounds between the both of us and then sagged together on the couch with the same repentance I hear now over the phone.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Marquee, or, The Taco Joint Part II

I like The Taco Joint, not because it has a four-foot by six-foot marquee out front in the parking lot, but because The Taco Joint staff slides the black vinyl letters across its plastic yellow face until their composition has exhausted the range of punctuation that comes in the set and what it is left is an urgent announcement, wholly unrelated to the Tuesday lunch special or the menu item called The Disaster. Tomorrow it will say something else, but today it is perfection:


Monday, August 27, 2012

The Bus, or, The Taco Joint Part I

Dustin likes The Taco Joint because it's kitty corner from the bus stop. This is important because the bus runs on a schedule it guards jealously from the prying eyes of mere mortals. Were it a sphinx, the bus would at least offer a riddle, some small hope that its timetable might in fact be knowable to the very clever and the very brave. As it is, however, one might show up every day at the same time and never gather enough data to predict the next day's bus. If you are my boyfriend the scientist, you count yourself lucky that you know at least this: if you get to the stop just in time to see the bus pulling away, you have time to cross the street and enjoy a leisurely breakfast burrito before the next bus comes.

Friday, August 24, 2012

An Offer

I mailed a letter at the post office. To get to the post office, I had walked enough blocks to be surprised at how many elementary schools you can fit in a single neighborhood. I had marveled, too, how Dallas neighborhoods do not have a single character, are not separated by one side of the tracks or the other, but might hold empty lots and boarded up buildings and restored historic houses bright with new paint in any order, as if at random. It was hot, and I was glad I'd worn a hat.

I was thinking, perhaps, of what I would have for lunch, or else the words I had just sent on their way out of state; I was walking the long side of a schoolyard field when an already slow car slowed down to the speed of my stride. It was a long goldish car, low and smooth the way cars were made in the 70s. There were no children in the schoolyard. There were no other cars on the streets. There was one man in the car, and he asked if I would like a ride. 

I wanted to tell him it was laughable, that strangers offering to take you into their cars was a thing one was warned about, not a thing that happened. I wanted to tell him people would get the wrong idea. But what I told him was No, thank you, and I wondered if I was wrong, if this was chivalry itself. I wondered, even as I waited to see which way he turned before I picked the opposite direction to continue on, if this was the southern hospitality I'd heard so much about.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

So Much Hotter Than Iran

My cab driver is a political refugee. Religious issues in Iran. When the U.S. government was trying to place him, its representative in charge of my cab driver’s destiny asked if he had family or friends here. My cab driver said no.

“So it doesn’t matter where we send you?” the representative asked.

“No,” my cab driver said.

“We could send you anywhere, and you wouldn’t care?” the representative confirmed.

“Yes,” my cab driver said.

“And so they sent you here?” I ask, waving toward the cab window at the skyline just beginning to approach us, and my cab driver says yes. Don’t get him wrong; employment’s better here than a lot of places. 

“But it’s so hot,” my cab driver says. “So much hotter than Iran.”

“If they asked you again—“ I begin to ask, but he interrupts with the answer before I finish the question.

“California,” my cab driver says. “I would tell them California.”

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Egg Roll Hut

I cannot recommend the food at The Egg Roll Hut, except to say that the portions are generous and that if you judge things by dollars spent per unit of weight, it’s also pretty cheap. The noodles are bland and the cashews in the cashew chicken are soft in a disconcertingly squishy way. I myself never plan to eat there again, but I would not discourage you from supporting their business. This is because I love the Egg Roll Hut, and I would hate to see it go.

Before it was The Egg Roll Hut, the property was some sort of Dairy Queenesque establishment: a squat brick building on a busy four-lane road with a kind of patio out front and a drive-thru wrapping around the back. The new owners have kept the patio and the drive-thru and the long marquee above the counter, though they have rearranged the letters on that marquee to spell out a different menu. One would perhaps not notice, except that they have also kept the previous sign, a big illuminated twist of vanilla on a glowing yellow cone, high on thick pole out front on the corner.

Viewed from the side street, the ice cream sign floats over rooftops and treelines, at night seems suspended like a beacon, disembodied, without context, except for a tube of red neon, twisted not into rivulets of cherry syrup but bent into four clear words that make no sense because what they say is: The Egg Roll Hut. It is so guileless and inexplicable, and for some reason that charms the pants off me. I will not try to articulate why The Egg Roll Hut on an ice cream cone is so unspeakably endearing, but I will add that it is all the sweeter because I never remember where it is, am never prepared for the shock of seeing it again, and so am forever discovering its sweet strangeness anew.

Friday, August 17, 2012

It's a Feature, Not a Bug

If you grow up in California, you have a certain affection for earthquakes. There is something civilized about their unpredictibility. They don't menace you for hours and days ahead of time, they just show up and a few seconds later they're done. They can be ruinous, of course, dangerous and destructive and devasting, and I don't mean to minimize that. But they're ours. I find this applies to wherever you're from. Midwesterners can take a tornado in stridetornados you can plan forbut an earthquake will loom like a threat and arrive like a sucker punch. Which is to say: the familiar, even the familiar threat, is better than whatever they've got over there.

And what goes for natural disasters, I think, goes for whatever is poisonous or venomous, too. Black Widow spiders are never exactly a good thing to encounter, but you accept them as part of the woodpile if that's where you live. Move to a state with scorpions, though, and venom lurking in tiny bodies just seems like bad manners.

Objectively, then, the Cicada Killer Wasp is an attractive specimen. It has the familiar black-and-yellow warning stripes and waggling antennae of your usual yellow jacket, but on a body nearly the size of the first two joints of my thumb. It's as if you could order insects in the large print edition. And I'm sure that if I grew up with them, I'd be telling you about how handy that is, that nothing that big sneaks up on you, that when you leave a drink on a picnic table they don't climb into your soda and drown without you knowing about it. I'd tell you that it's only the females that have stingers, and I might even claim I could tell the difference without having two side-by-side for comparison. I like that Texas version of myself. I want the shock and awe of this place to feel like it's mine. Which maybe is why even now, months later, I still have a pair of softball-sized hail remnants picked off our lawn, two furious little blobs still impressive at half their original size, which we keep in our freezer and show off to out-of-town guests.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cockroaches and the Like

I will say this for Dallas cockroaches: they are slow. I forget this when they only make a semi-annual appearance. Four in a week, however, and you have time to take notice. Slow emerging from under the ottoman. Slow scuttling around the sink. There is time, in fact, to retrieve a sandal or a paper towel from the other room and return to find your target more or less where you left it. It's so handy that Dustin and I were wondering if we should do more to encourage this desirable trait, if we should release these individuals back into the gene pool instead of selecting against them with a newspaper. But so far we aren't convinced it's the cockroaches themselves. It might just be the weather.

If everything is bigger in Texas, everything is also slower in the heat. This is only the 11th hottest summer on record in Dallas, a summer that drops from a high of 106 long enough to remind you that 94  can feel downright balmy, but still warm enough to put everything in slow motion. The cats lazing on lawns don't tense their muscles to run away, instead give us long looks before deciding it's not worth retreating to safety as we pass by them on our evening walk. Squirrels have likewise reduced their worry radius, letting us come within three feet before they manage enough interest to skitter towards a tree, and then reevaluating if they really have to expend the energy to climb up. The birds, too, have adjusted their risk tolerance, and maintaining a protective distance loses out to avoiding heat stroke.

Maybe it's the heat, too, that accounts for me dreaming of cockroaches. I dreamed last night that every time I went to crush a cockroach, it was a rhinoceros beetle or a scarab or something the size of a cockroach but with the most beautiful iridescent bodies. I remember that I had killed two, though their bodies were intact, and I needed to save them, one like a stick insect and one like a leaf bug, because my mother would want to see them.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Competitive Glue A Shoe

I have aspirations to big shiny belt buckles and the perfect cowboy hat, but when I contemplate the most perfect possible souvenir from the great state of Texas, I'm pretty sure that what I want in life is a blue ribbon from the State Fair. I don't grow things or raise things or can things, which I know sounds like a handicap, but if I can get my hands on a hot glue gun, I think I have a chance.

For a two dollar entry fee, I can become a competitor in Glue A Shoe. There are separate classes for Boot, High Heeled Shoe, Sandal or Flip Flop, Tennis Shoe, and Slip On. There isn't an all-around award for the Glue A Shoe pentathlete who can do them all, but the top three awards in each class come with cash prizes, including ten, count them, TEN dollars for first place.

If this exists in Iowa, that pinnacle of State Fairs, I missed it. The seed art I noticed, the origami on a stick. But otherwise I was always distracted by how the prize winning boar and the top giant pumpkin are so nearly equal in weight, each year one within about ten pounds of the other, and yet no pumpkin is ever named Tiny or Freight Train or anything at all.

Friday, August 10, 2012


Just last week, with only a little paperwork, the good people at the UT Southwestern Medical Center acknowledged my status as a "significant other." That was good enough to take my picture and print it on an ID card. Yet the ID cardwhich I only get because of this statusdoes not call me a significant other. The ID card says in little green print that what I am is a "Non-Employee, Non-Student."

There's a faction in Non-fiction that feels it is fundamentally problematic to be defined, not by what a thing is, but in terms of its not being something else. I appreciate the argument in a theoretical way, I support the idea of things being valued for what they are, but as a practical matter I find I don't mind the term. On the contrary, I like the all-encompassing nature of binaries. I like that if you aren't one thing you're the other, that everything belongs somewhere, that everything has a place. Prior to Non-fiction, I worked in Non-profit, which was perhaps too busy writing grants to worry about its Non-ness, but in any case never made an issue of it. I have, in effect, made a career of Non-. So while I am impressed by how frankly and succinctly the little green words have me pegged, I am not surprised.

My significant other, on the other hand, is a total Non-non. His ID card lists him as an Employee and a Student. He is, his ID card suggests, everything I'm not. I'm impressed at how significant and how other that sounds, and then I'm impressed at how insignificant and how same it turns out to be, at least to the extent that both cards give the same chirp as we swipe them over a little black box to enter the university gym. There I am free to reserve a tennis court or take a class in the multi-purpose room or run laps on the 1/12-of-a-mile indoor track. The towels, I am assured three times on the facilities tour, are exceptionally clean, and the number of different greens they have faded to convinces me that at the very least they've been washed a lot. In the weight room, a man I've never met does not asked why I've tipped a Bosu ball-side down and am wobbling on its hard plastic platform as I curl ten pound weights, he asks only if I need some help getting down. I don't, as it happens, I'm fine. I've just purchased a combination lock for the day-use lockers and because of that I can't shake the feeling I'm about to start Junior High, but I'm fine. I've spent a lot of time in university gymsas a student, then as an employee, then as a student againand even if what I am now is a "Non-," it's comforting to be somewhere so familiar. It's comforting to feel like everything belongs somewhere.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


You know you want to shop at a place called Fiesta because there are tiny twinkling lights running around the sign like a Vegas casino and a welcoming mascot parrot and, well, it's called Fiesta. It is so festive that a friend of mine first mistook it for a restaurant, and while there is a fully functioning taqueria right inside, this, my friends, is a grocery store. A grocery store that sells perfect mangoes cheap. Where the international aisle has an astonishing array of Japanese sodas and the produce aisle offers five different kinds of banana. Lard is a prominent part of the baking aisle, while avocados are among the impulse buy options in the check out lane. Last week an end cap in produce was brimming with cactus cladodes, a riot of green paddles soon to be nopales, and this week they've magically transformed into a tumble of curvaceous "fairy tale pumpkins" whose fate I can't imagine. I never had a grocery store like this in California, and yet it comforts me to see piles of tomatillos in their papery jackets, even if I leave them in their bin untouched, because what I need today is yogurt and eggs.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Neighborhood Filming Notice

For the next ten hours, crews at the other end of my block will be filming "a series of Texas Lottery holiday TV commercials." This means a there have been notices taped to doors and slipped under windshields. The notices want us to move our cars off the street to "help maintain traffic flow." The notices want to thank us for our "hospitality." The filming also means both sides of the street have been studded with little orange traffic cones all weekend, and two houses have been lit up with Christmas decorations. And that means that Dallas in the beginning of August can pass for Dallas in late December, as if the camera always subtracts 20 degrees, or as if anyone ever dreamed of a heat wave Christmas. I am going to pretend this means that I live on the most December-like block in the city, that it is actually brisk outside, and not a temperature that causes me to break a sweat if I so much as eat a hot meal.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Cowboy Molar

I will admit that the highlight of my dental appointment, my very first with a Dallas dentist, was spending an hour with a cartoon molar wearing cowboy boots. I don't remember what the poster in the exam room was about, but I can tell you it's a very happy looking tooth. It has big eyes and a big smile and an enviable red cowboy hat. It has no arms, so I'm not sure how it's holding on to the lasso at its side, but the point is it's just so happy. Why, I have to wonder, did my dentists in California never have a poster with a blissful bicuspid wearing a wetsuit and carrying a surf board? Why no Iowan incisor wearing overalls? And why does my dentist just have a poster of this tooth, when another office half a mile away has painted the cowboy molar five feet tall on a brick wall facing the street?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The La Princessa Men

Ours is not a neighborhood of ice cream trucks. We have men on foot pushing carts and dollies strapped with blue coolers and smaller white ones and a bucket of squirt bottles for good measure. The carts have different names, but mostly they are named La Princessa, written in white script on the side. At first I thought there was one La Princessa guy, but then he kept changing, taller one day, younger the next, and when I started to pay attention I realized the carts kept changing, too: their number and configuration of different sized coolers like cubist sculpture, held together in innumerable variations. Sometimes there's a little line of bells across the push bar. It's a gentle sound, but I hear the bells even inside the house, sitting at the window, seconds before the mass of coolers pushes into view.