Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Halloween Decorations

One of the first things Dustin noticed about the historic areas around Munger Place and Junius Heights and Peak's Suburban Addition is this: the fancy houses are on Swiss Avenue, and they are locally famous for their Halloween. It is, one must note, an enviably rare combination: old-fashioned mansions look all the spookier in the dark, and if they are not so run down as to look haunted, they are at least close enough together to guarantee a good haul. I haven't been trick-or-treating in twenty years, and I still know a good full-size-candy-bar house when I see one. But even if all they hand out are toothbrushes and pennies, it would be a good neighborhood for Halloween. The houses off Swiss are more likely to be genuinely run-down, but they are just as good about putting pumpkins on their steps and giant bats hanging from the eaves. There are no shortage of peaked roofs and devils and skeletons and witches looking out from them. There are fake cobwebs wrapping the shrubbery and fake ghosts swaying from porches. There is a front door re-skinned as a vampire face on an otherwise unadorned house. It's the minimalists that get me. I appreciate enormous furry spiders and walkways liked in glowing plastic skulls, but the white house with green shutters that has only changed out the white lightbulb over the entry for an orange one and then taped a little paper skeleton to the door: this is the house that draws me inexplicably nearer, even as it manages to repulse me away.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Swiss Avenue

Swiss Avenue had been Swiss Avenue for half a century when the first house went up in 1905. Most of the houses on this mile-long luxury lane were built by the 1920s, and what I love even more than the wide streets and the islands of grass and big old trees blocking the north-east traffic from the south-west travelers, what I love even more than rooms built out from the second story and hanging over the driveway on stiltswhat I love about Swiss Avenue is how it was built with what strikes me as a notably Texan aesthetic. Developer R. S. Munger put no restriction on the style of all these great homes going up side by side. No, he gave his builders the full independence of doing as they pleased: Tudors next to Craftsman next to Revivals of all stripes. He instead put his faith in the fact that everything would mesh so long as he mandated that all houses were sufficiently big (at least two stories) and sufficiently expensive (minimum $10,000). And, this is the part I love, he was right! It is totally cohesive, each grand house unique but the whole stretch of them seamless, the whole historic district like one long park visited over the day by dog walkers and gardeners and roofers and joggers and families pushing strollers until it is late and the dog walkers are out making their second rounds.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Final Note on the Texas State Fair

There is not a specific category at the Texas State Fair for "Thompson sub-machine gun made out of copier paper and transparent tape." Really, there's no category remotely so specific. But if, by chance, this is something you have made, you should know, for a fact, that it can win a blue ribbon from Department L: Scale Models, Children's Section.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My First Ferris Wheel

The car seats six, but the operator puts us in as a group of four. We tell the clean-shaven man and the woman with the charming bouffant that we've just come from the pig races, where we learned that we may be older than the target demographic of pig races. They laugh and agree, "Yes, you probably are."

From the freeway you can see the Texas Star, read both the words "Texas" and "Star" as they curve in an all-caps circle flat against the the spokes and supports that light up in a hundred, hundred bulbs burning and blinking against the sky in their patterns of red, white, and blue as soon as the sun sets.

From the Texas Star you can see the whole city. First it's the blue tent tops of the midway, the fortress-steep sides of the Cotton Bowl breeched by altitude to show its stadium teeth. Then the gaze spills out beyond the Fair itself, over the freeway and the houses and the light industrial to the cluster of skyscrapers downtown: the dandelion head of Reunion Tower, the Omni rolling words and waves of color along its slippery slick walls, the Bank of America building's sideways stair-stack of corners with every edged traced inexplicably in a neon green line.

There's a sign on the loading platform that says not to rock the car. I begin to wonder if you even can, so light and stable and floating we seem to be, as the view keeps changing but my stomach never registers the rise or fall of attaining 212 feet and relinquishing it again. The 44 gondolas are strung along the wheel in runs of color, and we occupy car 23, right next to the one golden car that no one sits in, a rest after so a litany of whole notes. The couple asks if we'd like our picture taken, and while I know I will remember all this, we still say yes, and so with sky still blue and blank behind us, she squares the lens. "Say Pig Races," she says, and we do, and the flash blinks one more light at the top of the world.

Monday, October 22, 2012

You Had Me At Fried

Deep Fried Sugar Cubes.
Cool-Aid Pickles. Fried Beer.
Chicken Fried Cactus Bites. Fried Mexican Fire Crackers.
Sweet Jalapeño Corndog Shrimp.
Famous Fried Ribs. Texas Steak Cone. Fried Banana Pudding.
Deep fried Jambalaya. Deep Fried Mac-N-Cheese Sliders.
Deep Fried Devine Chocolate Tres Leches Cake.
Fried Pork Wing. Fried Shrimp. Fried Picnic on a Stick.
Corny Cheese. Sloppy Texan. Fried Banana Supreme.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Big Tex Burning

Burnt, actually. The boots and the clothes and the face and the hat. The arm out toward the waving hand. The metal structure was left still standing. Also the outstretched hand and its cuff. The belt buckle survived, still pinned to the metal frame. A belt buckle on a faceless cage of a man.

The voice of Big Tex does not live in the 52-foot tall cowboy. The head is not empty, holds the speakers and the wiring that moves the mouth, but the voice comes from a man in a trailer without air conditioning on the ground a piece away. Someone had to tell Bill Bragg that Big Tex was burning, he was still reading announcements, and then the voice stepped out of the trailer, watched the icon smoke and flame, saying nothing.

They'll rebuild, of course. Tex burned a little after 10 o'clock and by noon he was a phoenix promised to rise again.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Of Girl Scouts and Butter Sculptures

Butter sculpture is perhaps my favorite state fair art form, better even than seed art or glue-a-shoe or tree man stilt walkingwhich makes it strange to find no line of people leading up to the refrigerated case where the shoulder of the Creative Arts building butts up to the Embarcadero. Perhaps there has been a controversy over the use of actual Girl Scout cookies in the butter tribute to the Girl Scouts' centennial. Perhaps the butter sculpture purists cannot abide this adulteration of the art form and are keeping away in protest, because I too, as I look at the butter girl scouts dropping real shortbread cookies at the giant butter boots of a metonymous Big Tex, as I study the butter scout leader behind them clutching real chipboard boxes I, too, wonder, "What is butter sculpture coming to?"

Sure, you might say, the shortbread cookies are basically butter anyway, but that's not really the point, is it? An olympic gymnast made out of butter is admittedly a little odd, a little amusing, but it nonetheless has an artistic integrity, a curious wholesomeness. But imagine the same butter sculpture athlete in a real spandex unitard and the result is grotesque. Butter sculpture, it had not occurred to me until I saw it compromised, makes sense as long as it promotes one absurdity at a time. Butter Michael Jackson is a delightful kind of conundrum: a tribute of labor and attention, and yet in this most mutable and marginalized and temporary kind of medium. Butter Michael Jackson with real sequined-glove, however, simply dismisses the gloriously ridiculous medium of butter as somehow insufficient. It's like putting a wood and leather slingshot in David's marble hand. It's like a charade where someone talks. And it suggests a lack of confidence not just in the materials, but in the audienceas if we wouldn't already know the signature shape of a Girl Scout shortbread cookie! As if we weren't the same people who step away from the bounty of fried food opportunities to queue up at the Texas Hall of State at 11 and 3 o'clock for the promise of free Girl Scout cookies. That line winds through three galleries and down the stairs and around an auditorium, always moving but never getting shorter until the volunteers run out of sleeves of shortbreads to put in your empty hand.

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Lascivious Wink

There's a 52-foot tall cowboy in Dallas' Fair Park. He used to be a 49-foot Santa in Kerens, 75 miles away, but the novelty lasted all of two Christmases before Santa was purchased, disassembled, and reinvented for the fair. The beard made of lengths of unravelled rope came off. The awkward chest-height waving hand remained. In a few years the cowboy's paper-mache skin was recast in fiber glass. He had facelifts to hinge a Howdy-Doody-esque jaw, a jaw to let him talk and then later to talk in sync with the PA system, so he might greet the crowds with a trademark, "Howdy, Folks!" and have the chin drop on the right words.

Big Tex turns 60 this year, and his voice is broadcast live twelve hours a day for 24 consecutive days. Indeed, not much has changed about Big Tex in the last 50 years except who does the voice and who sponsors the outfit. For such a radical initial identity change, he's become a stalwartly stable icon since.

Still I wonder about the first Big Tex, about the Santa-cum-Cowboy of 1952. Why couldn't he keep his hooked nose, that pronounced drooping prominence lost in the 1953 facelift? And when the same artist decided that same year to change the eyes, to correct what Nancy Wiley describes as "a lascivious wink," what was it about the accordion crush of the eyelid, those sweet wrinkles at the corner of the eye? What was so important to say that it had to come out of the hinged-jaw on a straight face? And when this same expression was on a small town Chamber of Commerce St. Nick, did anyone call it "lascivious"? Did anyone object at all?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Most Creative

Rodgers and Hammerstein, on the subject of state fairs, wrote a song with the lyric "It's dollars to donuts/ That our state fair/ Is the best state fair in our state." You may or may not forgive these city boys for writing a whole musical in ignorance of the seemingly obvious fact that any given state has only one state fair. But if that defining feature of their titular institution was too nuanced to catch their attention, we should note that the song pays tribute to something, if possible, even more essential to the nature of state fairs. I mean, of course, the emphasis on superlative, the foregrounding of "best."

State fairs celebrate nothing so much as "most." Most pounds on a hog, most perfect kernels of corn, most whatever extreme seems desirable. That's not to imply that state fairs are all the same. For instance, Iowa state fair cuisine prizes things on a stick, while Texas emphasizes the fried. But if salad-on-a-stick and fried beer are regional treats, the universal appeal to superlative status remains. In Texas, there is an annual competition for "Best Taste" and "Most Creative" among fried entrants. I won't keep you in suspense: this year's Best Taste went to Deep Fried Jambalaya. And, in the grand tradition of fried butter and fried bubblegum, Most Creative was awarded to Fried Bacon Cinnamon Roll. I haven't tried it yet, but I feel confident saying that, dollars to fried donuts, it's the best Fried Bacon Cinnamon Roll in our state.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Tiger State

There are more tigers in Texas than roaming the wilds of India. Three thousand, or more. It's all perfectly legal to breed and to buy them here. The white ones are pricey, but you can get an orange cub for $500. One private tiger for every nine thousand people.

I have long thought of Texas as like India, a kind of sub-continent at once part of and separate from something larger. That the tiger parallel exists is less surprising than the fact I discover it watching a television crime procedural set in DC. If I had been paying attention, it's been covered by a number of outlets, including Texas Monthly and D Magazine. But how does this not come up constantly? When I say I live in Texas, why does no one ask if I own a tiger? Or a Blackbuck Antelope, for that matter, also more numerous here than their free-roaming brethren in India. Why aren't they on the license plate? Or maybe this, too, is a case of not paying attention. Maybe, now that I know to look, I'll notice the slinking shape of a tiger on the Panoramic Texas license plate, among the silhouettes of cowboys and oil derricks, beneath the space shuttle in a starry sky?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Window Shopping

The windows downtown at Neiman Marcus are sparsely filled just now. There is only one figure in a Main Street window that runs 15 feet across. In the right half a long black ribbon drops from the ceiling and knots to a coat hanger. The hanger supports a sleeveless top sewn with a hundred tiny mirrors, the top tucked into a pleated salmon skirt, from which emerges a pair of crossed mannequin legs in fishnet tights and capped with snakeskin stiletto heels. The outfit plus a jeweled-clasp, salmon-colored clutch sit on a gold framed chair with a red velvet seat. One mannequin arm, bent slightly at the elbow, sharply at the wrist, fits an invisible mannequin hand into a red glove draped over the upper knee in a pose both haughty and blasé. There is nothing else in the whole of the case. There is no face, no torso, no second arm. As if, when clothes make the woman, they make her piece by piece.