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From New Orleans to Midland, Texas

by Alexander Cockburn

I love scrubby old state highways, warm with commercial life. Highway 90 runs from Florida through Alabama and Louisiana, then on across Texas. I got onto it at Mobile and trundled westward into New Orleans, in time to go along and pay my respects to John Sinclair, formerly of the MC5 and now one of the city’s prime musical figures, notably on his radio show. The night I got into town Sinclair was presiding over a benefit at the House of Blues, on Decatur St. for for Coco Robicheaux to whom some disaster has befallen. Robicheaux was wearing a bright purple suit. Sinclair is tall and has a goatee beard, which juts out, a bit like Don Quixote.

Sinclair told the crowd that a year earlier he and his wife had been grateful recipients of the proceeds of a similar benefit. Later he told me that the Coco Robicheaux benefit was the third in a recent series of “fire recovery events”, starting with Eddie Bo’s fire in what Sinclair thought to be 1999. “Jerry Brock, my wife Penny and some other people organized a benefit for Eddie and his sister Veronica which brought a lot of people together and helped raise money so Eddie could get back on his feet. Then our own house burned up in January 2000 while we were out of town and we would have been completely devastated if Jerry Brock and Bill Taylor hadn’t quickly put together a benefit concert at the House of Blues with music by Eddie Bo, Snooks Eaglin [one of my favorites], Deacon John, Wild Magnolias, Treme Brass Band, Jon Cleary, Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers, James Andrews, John Mooney, Coco Robicheaux and others. The show raised $12,500 at the door and another $7,500 in donations and sales of donated items that night, which allowed us to replace all our equipment, furniture and household essentials and get back on our feet after the fire.

“Then Coco’s apartment caught fire just before JazzFest this year and Dell Long put together this benefit at the House of Blues to help him recover. The musicians in New Orleans also play at benefits for people who need help with their medical bills and other catastrophes, and generally everybody helps take care of each other when trouble strikes. There are very few of us in the New Orleans musical community who have any resources outside of what we’re hustling up to get through the week or the present month. Few have insurance of any kind, let alone medical or fire insurance, so there’s what I call the “people’s insurance” when your friends get together and raise money to help you out. It’s a beautiful thing.”

It is indeed. I listened for a while, then went off to the Hotel Richelieu, and listened to a couple of new arrivals speculating on the career of the wily cardinal. I’ve never had time to explore the bayou country south west of New Orleans and resolved to spend a day doing that. 90 took me west towards the turn off to Abbeville. Encouraged by its sign I stopped at a roadside caf?, Badeaux’s in Des Allemands, Louisiana. For its soups the menu featured crab stew, shrimp stew, seafood gumbo and chicken and sausage gumbo, all at 5.50 the bowl or 3.50 for a cup. Plus soft shell crab when in season for $10.95.

Heartened by seafood gumbo and softshell crab and a bill under $20 I continued along 14 and soon saw a pick-up, with a sign saying “live crab at 4pm”. A jolly Cajun fisherman showed me two boxes, “big ones in the right go for $7 and the smaller ones $4”. I asked for three large ones, figuring I could boil them up in my motel room on an electric plate stowed in the Plymouth Belvedere for just such purposes. “That’ll be $2”, said the fisherman, looking a bit scornful. It turns out it’s $7 a dozen. So I bought $10 and cooked them in my room in the Sunrise Motel on 90 on the edge of Lake Charles, letting them cool overnight and keeping them in my Coleman ice chest for dinner the next evening.

But that last night in Louisiana I had crawfish etouffe in a diner at Creole, which is the intersection of 82 and 27. This was after a beautiful back road drive through sugar cane, sudden surprising vistas of shipyards, more can, endless bayous, with the sun tilting down over the vast panorama of wetlands. Foodwise, America’s highways are improving. I only had one really inedible meal between Landrum, S.C. and Petrolia, a horrible experience of supposedly Mexican food in Truth or Consequences, N.M. In that place in Creole, everything turned out right. Amidst Cajun oil riggers or fishermen belching and cursing over their Budweisers I had a great plate of crawfish in peppery rice for $10 and got back on the road with an optimistic outlook on the human condition. I stopped in the Sunrise Motel and fell asleep amidst the fragrance of the boiled crabs.

In Columbus, Texas, Jerry Mikeska’s Bar-B-Q, sign announces SEVEN DAYS WITHOUT BARBQ MAKES ONE WEAK. In the old days that probably would have read Makes A Man Weak. Not any more; and there were plenty of sisters chowing down. Mikeska’s walls were profuse with the relicts of innumerable hunting excursions: mountain sheep, bear, moose, deer, bobcat. Mr Mikeska himself, elderly and formally attired, moved from table to table, thanking the truckers, commuters and tourists for coming by. Old world courtesy and we all felt the better for it. I like Texas barbecue; not overstated.

I headed northwest again, planning to spend the night in Abilene but suddenly saw a sign for Midland, and resolved to pay my respects to the childhood home of George W. Bush, not least memorable as the place where he later lived with his bride, the divine Laura.

You can see why George Bush doesn’t believe in global warming. Growing up in west Texas’ summers he doubtless believes it can never get any hotter. It was 101 F at 8.30 pm as I stopped to ask directions to motel row from the inhabitants of a Dairy Queen, two girls on an outing from Odessa (the grimier oil town down the interstate a few miles) and a solitary Goth in traditional black garb.

I liked Midland, even though I couldn’t find the intersection where Farm Road 868 crosses State Highway 349, where the 17-year old Laura in her late model Chevy ran a stop sign and struck the 1962 Corvair sedan of her 17-year old friend Michael Douglas, killing him on the spot.

Since Laura is the nation’s First Librarian I thought it only right to visit Midland’s library and was looking for it when I passed a building labeled Museum of the South West and stopped for a look. The first room had Audubon’s prints of Texas animals from his last book, Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, published between 1845 and 1848. He died three years later. They are marvelous, and some of them, such as the ocelot and jaguar (now extinct in Texas), so lively looking that you’d swear Audubon had sketched them from life. But by that time in his life Audubon rarely moved from his house on the Hudson, to which specimens arrived in various stages of putrefaction, sometimes pickled in rum.

Next to the Audubon room was dashing exhibits by young artists from the Wirral peninsula, in north west England, also by the London-born Indian twin sisters Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh, whose wonderful use of the Indian miniature tradition to portray in the Indian immigrant experience in the UK was arousing approving comment from Midlanders. The visitors’ book unanimously sparkled with “exquisite”, “beautiful” and, from Chris Adam, “fantastic show! The best to be seen here in years. I wish more of the locals understood it.” I bought a Wirral beach scene photographed by Geraldine Hughes and went on my way, wondering why Midland and Wirral, of all places, are sister cities. Maybe a Midland fan of Gerry and the Pacemakers, since Wirral is the place you get to from Liverpool when you ferry across the Mersey.

There are two splendid special collections in the Midland library, devoted to genealogy and petroleum. In a break from poring over Roemer’s Texas I chatted with the curator of these collections, to be told that Laura Bush, nee Welch, had worked as a librarian in Austin. In Midland she’d been a teacher. I’ve heard vulgar gossip about Laura’s racy twenties before she settled down, and I thought there perhaps a tinge of disapproval in the voices of two ladies in the genealogy section when they discussed local history with me and made mention of “the Welch girl”.

I rounded out the Midland visit with an excursion to the truly tremendous Permian Basin Petroleum Museum on Interstate 20, which does for hydrocarbons what the Uffizi does for the art of Renaissance Italy. The museum’s entry is framed by two oil pumps, like triumphal gryphons. Here is to be found the famous map by O.C. Harper, done in 1924 and reckoned to be one of the most outstanding feats of reconnaissance geology in history. Harper accurately deduced the whereabouts of the vast oil resources of the Permian basin of west Texas and eastern New Mexico. A year later other geologists, scouts and land speculators were rushing to Midland and soon, as an oilman later recalled in a news story of the 1950s displayed in the museum, “had married all but a few of the single girls who had finished high school and a few who had not. Whirlwind courtships of two weeks to a month prior to the wedding were not uncommon. The few remaining eligible single young girls had but to decide with whom and how many dates they would have each evening. The young women were outnumbered about six to one by the single young men.” By 1928 just one oil field, the 1,100 foot-deep Yates, was rated as having a daily production potential of 2.2 million barrels a day, just under the daily national consumption at that time of 2.6 million a day.

George Bush arrived in 1948, later recalling that “We all just wanted to make a lot of money quick.” The time I interviewed her back in 1980 I thought Barbara Bush one of the meaner women I’d met in a long time, and looking at the photos in the oil museum you could say why she might have been bitter. To ship out from the East Coast first to broiling, oil-sodden Odessa and then in 1950 to broiling, oil-sodden Midland must have been a jarring experience. George SR never did make a big pile out of oil and neither did George W. who spent the Fifties in Midland as a boy and returned there between 1975 and 1986 to try to make his pile.

The oilmen clearly had the time of their lives setting up the Petroleum Museum. At last, the opportunity to set the record straight, without any persnicketty interference from the enviro crowd. There’s heroic art of oil exploration and extraction by Tom Lovell and (better in my opinion) Frank Gervasi and John Scott. There’s a majestic reproduction of an entire coral reef of the sort harboring oil thousands of feet below our feet. There are drill bits and tableaux of all the good things oil brings. Outside there’s the largest collection of old drilling rigs in the world.

It was hard to tear myself away, but the placed closed and I drove down the interstate to seedy and depressed looking Odessa which one year edged Miami to become Murder Capital of the USA. The notorious aggressions of a slice of Odessa’s citizenry probably accounts for the fact that nearby, more prosperous and classy Midland county is Texas’s rape capital on a pr capita basis, according to Ms Betty Dickerson of the Midland Rape Crisis Center. So much for the timeless values Bush claims to have imbibed in West Texas. Leaving Odessa I passed a sign for the Harvest Time Church: “Jesus Knows That Life Can Be Hard As Nails”, then, to the right, black on gold and red, the more urgent, “ETERNITY, IT’S HELL WITHOUT JESUS”. CP

 

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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