Thursday, 18 August 2016

Drinking Until You Can't Stand Whilst Stuffing Your Face

It is April and Fiesta has come around once again, Fiesta being the week long festival commemorating the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto back in 1836. I've now done most of the significant Fiesta events - the river parade and that weird thing in the theatre with the kids of assorted local billionaires wearing capes made out of diamonds. The only event I am still to attend is called a Night in Old San Antonio, so that's the one we're doing this year.

I like to pace myself, not being a huge fan of crowds and all.

Old San Antonio here sounds like a term of endearment but refers to the old part of San Antonio located at the heart of the city, a village's worth of narrow streets of stone houses on the bank of the San Antonio river, just a short walk from Mission San Antonio de Valero, the building historically known as the Alamo. It's not quite the sort of thing you expect to find in America, or at least it wasn't quite the sort of thing I expected to find in America because it looks too old for something built by people who weren't native; but then I'm forgetting that we used to be Mexico.

A Night in Old San Antonio is actually four nights and mostly seems to be about drinking until you can't stand whilst stuffing your face. This is probably why I've left it until last as I've never really regarded either pursuit as a justifiable end in itself, at least not to the extent which is apparently customary for the festival.

We drive into the centre of town, myself and my wife, pay much more than normal to park, and then queue for admission to a section of the city into which we would simply be able to wander at any other time of year. It's all been corralled off, the old town, turned into a fairground with the majority emphasis on drinking until you can't stand whilst stuffing your face. We queue for about fifteen minutes and then the gates open. We already have tickets so we get wristbands advertising the fact. Most of the old houses are stores and their associated workshops during the day, mostly artisan stuff, people making things for tourists, but generally quite nice things, I suppose. We don't really have any equivalent of the plastic bobby's helmet so far as I'm aware. Most of the old buildings are closed up now because it's early evening, excepting those serving as either eating or drinking places. One road is lined with small scale fairground stuff, stalls in which you throw things in order to win underwhelming prizes, but otherwise it's food and booze.

We enter a Germanic tent, acknowledging the significant Texan presence of settlers from old Deutschland. There is an oompah band, and men in lederhosen and frauleins drinking from biersteins until they can't stand whilst stuffing their faces with bratwurst and schnitzel and all of that good stuff. We have something to eat and sit for a short while, pacing ourselves - basically saving room for tacos.

We rejoin the crowds and shuffle along the narrow streets, eventually finding ourselves in a sort of Gaelic appendix, a few stone steps off the main track leading down to the river where three verdantly attired persons play Irish music, one of them banging a spoon against a bodhran. Everyone wears green and clover-based imagery is in abundance. They're drinking the Guiness, in all in all in all, until they can't stand whilst stuffing their faces with potatoes, so they are. I'm beginning to feel uncomfortable because I know actual Irish people and I feel like I've stumbled into the equivalent of the Black and White Minstrel Show.

We're quite near some Irish-themed pub. I can't remember what the place is called but it's surely only a little way further along the riverwalk. There's a menu outside from which my wife and myself read out the names of self-consciously Irish sounding drinks to each other until the prospect of a refreshing pint of Black & Tan stunned me into silence. I knew the term only as the nickname of the notoriously brutal Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve, which is probably through my having had grandparents of vaguely Northern Irish heritage. I never realised that the Black & Tan was also an unrelated drink, so it initially struck me as kind of stupid and tasteless, like something with which you would wash down that delicious Sinn Féin pizza with a side of H-Block fries; and a top o' the mornin' to you too, pardner.

Having had our fill of the Emerald Isle, we visit one of the few shops which is still open. The place is run by Marisol Deluna, a friend of my wife. Marisol designs textiles, makes clothes, and is apparently quite a big deal in her field. I can see why, because the clothes and the fabrics look classy even to me; but the woman herself is in New York right now so we don't get to see her.

We wander further, and I have a drink to pass the time, which isn't so enjoyable as it should be. Drinking at events such as this tends to be more enjoyable if you're already drunk, in my experience. We watch people drinking until they can't stand whilst stuffing their faces. We have some tacos filled with beef cooked right there before us on massive grills big enough to accommodate several humans should the need arise, although thankfully it doesn't. The air is full of smoke, which is not unusual for San Antonio, and there is a live band playing in a sort of courtyard. They're very energetic, but unfortunately they're playing hits from Grease, Beatles numbers and that sort of thing. The crowd seem to like it, and I suppose the band are good at what they do.

The taco is stuffed with peppers and onions and I have to tip my head backwards to form a chute in order to eat it, which isn't very dignified but I don't suppose it matters. Three little girls are performing Call Me Maybe by Katy Perry at a karaoke booth on the corner of the street lined with all the fairground attractions. We watch them for a minute mainly because they're obviously having serious fun singing the song, and will remember this moment for a long time to come; and it's better than watching persons even older and fatter than I am singing You're the One That I Want. Then Bess throws a few foam balls at wooden boards in which holes have been cut, failing to win any of the prizes on offer; and we go home because we've already covered the ground twice and feel we've had all the fun there is to be had.

A couple of mornings later we watch the Pooch Parade, a less formal Fiesta event held in the suburbs. Everyone with a dog comes along and walks a set route for a couple of hours, and about half of the dogs are dressed as Batman, or Barack Obama, or some other public figure. This is the fourth Pooch Parade we've attended in the same number of years, and it's always fun. My personal favourite is the sausage dog who usuallys comes as the Red Baron in a scarf and occasionally with flying goggles, pulled along in a cart customised so as to resemble a blood red German triplane of the 1920s; but for some reason he's not here this year.

Maybe next time.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Country Club

It will be the kid's thirteenth birthday on Monday, by which point he will be away for a week at some sort of subaquatic summer camp, so he's celebrating now, it being the weekend. We've picked up his friend Tommy, and the two of them will spend the day doing kid stuff, eating pizza, and frequently addressing each other as either dude or bro'. The kid stuff is mostly beyond me, it bearing no resemblance to anything I would have done at that age. It involves iPads, memes, and YouTube celebrities - which are people who post amateur videos of themselves talking about Pokémon cards online. I don't really understand this generation, but it's probably no different to my parents' generation failing to understand mine.

Andrea expressed some concern about the present which Tommy gave our boy for his birthday, hoping it didn't seem too weird or lacking in thought. The present is a stick, one so large you might justifiably refer to it as a staff. Tommy found it on the land at the back of his house, stripped away all the bark, then sanded and treated it with oil; and it will no doubt come in handy should Junior ever encounter a surly giant whilst crossing a mediaeval brook.

We said not to worry. At Christmas the boy asked for a fly swatter and a broom. He asked for a broom presumably because I'd stopped him taking our broom into his room with him on the grounds of it being a broom rather than a toy. I wouldn't have minded had he been using it to sweep some of the crap from his floor, but it was serving as an armature by which to idly hit and swipe at remote objects whilst playing games on his iPad, or possibly just watching complete strangers discuss Pokémon cards. This hitting or rhythmically tapping at things seems to be one of his tics. I put my foot down with the broom when he somehow managed to smash the frosted glass shade of the ceiling light in his room.

'How did it happen?' I asked with near infinite patience.

'I have no clue,' he dutifully reported with typical excess of gravity, apparently having missed the point of that whole story about George Washington and the cherry tree.

I suppose the positive thing to take from all this is that the virtual world of iPads and games and YouTube has left him in a much less fraught relationship with material possessions than most kids of my own generation. I suppose it's a good thing. I have a suspicion that it actually isn't, but I can't quite put my finger on why.

Anyway, it's five in the afternoon, so the Texas heat has slackened off a little and we're taking them swimming. Tommy has a tiny hand-held waterproof camera the size of an asthma inhaler and he is making a short film.

'We're going to the pool,' he announces to his audience from the rear seat of our car.

'We're going to the Country Club,' Junior corrects him, quite unnecessarily seeing as the pool is located at the Country Club and that's why we're going there.

Byron - the boy's father - is a member of the Country Club, and so we are granted access by association. Country Clubs seem to be a relatively common thing over here, generally places in which Americans at the upper end of the economic scale hang out, swim in the pool, play golf, get drunk at the bar, smoke cigars and talk about money. I suspect you probably have to know the right people in order to be nominated for membership, specifically a better class of person - as I've overheard at least one overfinanced plastic surgery addict put it. Accordingly it's mostly us white folks, and I can't quite shake the feeling that any moment I will be rumbled as a Communist and escorted from the premises.

Bess and I find seats in the shade, and the boys dive into the pool. We've signed some book or other, so we have a right to be here, and a waiter asks if we require drinks. We say no, because it will all go on Byron's tab, which somehow doesn't seem entirely fair. Neither of us wish to appear like freeloaders.

We watch the boys and eavesdrop on the conversation of San Antonio's elite, the people from an area unofficially known as the bubble in reference to how little interaction they have with the rest of reality. They talk about money, trucks, and the prestige of certain schools. The funny thing is that these people really do consider themselves an upper echelon, a better class of person; but being from England I have encountered yer actual upper classes, and this bunch are really just regular assholes with far too much money and values based on never having to ask or to apologise for anything. The other funny thing is that they just love me as soon as they hear the accent, presuming we'll have things in common because I grew up in Downton Abbey, and the bubble is really the same kind of deal but with Mexican gardeners. I've also had people asking me if I make my own fish and chips, as though it's some sort of ancestral tradition like the Māoris with their tattoos. So I tend to keep my mouth closed because it's less exhausting.

The boys take it in turns to dive from the diving board, alternating with some other kids, one of whom embellishes each leap with spectacularly ornate somersaults. Our team sticks to diving, swimming, then out of the pool and onto the board again, over and over; until Tommy breaks the pattern to hand Bess his camera.

'Do you think it's okay?'

She casts a dubious look at the tiny slot in which one inserts the SIM card - or whatever that thing is. The cover is open and the camera won't turn off no matter how often the button is depressed. Also it feels quite hot in the hand.

'They're supposed to be waterproof, aren't they?' I ask.


'Why is it so hot?'

I imagine a battery shorting, overheating, leading to an explosion which removes the Country Club from the map of San Antonio, but logically I know this can't happen. If the thing is waterproof, then it really should be fine.

'Leave it with me,' Bess suggests, and the diving resumes. 'Andrea will go crazy if this thing is broken.'

'How much was it?'

'I don't know - couple of hundred dollars?'

We sigh, because there's nothing to be done. The boys switch to table football at the side of the pool, and we listen to and identify a succession of hits of the eighties - Madonna, the Eurythmics, Haircut 100, and others. They're all English records too, which strikes me as particularly weird, and I wonder if this generation will grow up hating these artists as much as I hated Herman's Hermits and Freddie & the Dreamers. We briefly discuss what cult religion Madonna is currently subscribed to, because we can't remember.

Another half hour passes and we go to Florio's for pizza, and the boys spend the rest of the evening doing kid stuff, eating the aforementioned pizza, and frequently addressing each other as either dude or bro'.

The camera turns out to be fine, and Tommy uploads a minute long edited clip of himself and Junior swimming to YouTube.

We're going to the Country Club, our boy announces, and my wife shudders at how privileged he sounds. The words slide out of his mouth as though setting some drooling serf right about the correct order in which cutlery is to be laid out on a table - not even superior, just delivering a correction from a position of implicit authority.

I shrug, because that's how he always sounds to me. I guess I've just got used to it, and it's not really his fault.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Born in the USA

Bess and I are standing in line at Mi Casa Tamales. The tickets are already paid for but we need to get wrist bands. We also need to get cash, she tells me, so as to pay for food and drink.

'There's an ATM right there,' I say, indicating the line running adjacent to ours. The venue has anticipated our requirements.

Our eyes go the front of the line, expecting to see a free standing cash dispenser with persons tapping away at the keypad, but there's just the sign - ATM in magic marker on a square of cardboard stapled to a broom handle with a woman sat at the table right next to it. She resembles Dale Dickey who played Patty the Daytime Hooker in My Name is Earl. She is taking debit cards and swiping them through a reader plugged into a tablet, then dispensing dollar bills from a tin cash box at her side. I recall that ATM stands for Automated Teller Machine.

'I guess it's just a TM,' I tell my wife.

'Really it's just a T, when you think about it,' she corrects me.

The event is called Born in the USA, and those in front of us now receive the dayglo paper wristbands which grant admission.

'I wasn't born in the USA,' I say. 'Do you think they'll let me in?'

'Sure they will.'

'Maybe I should have brought my birth certificate,' I mumble, immediately realising that it would serve only to confirm my not having been born in the USA.

Mi Casa Tamales, which Google describes as a boisterous Mexican bar and grill, known for homemade tamales, plus regular live music performances, is three acres of woodland on the right as you head out of San Antonio towards Boerne. The first few times I passed the place I assumed it to be some kind of adventure playground, having noticed swings and slides amongst the trees behind the wood fence next to the highway; then one day we went there to eat. The food was decent, but the main attraction was it being a place in which the kid could run wild and hopefully wear himself out; otherwise it was just outdoor dining, and outdoor dining really isn't that much of a treat in Texas. There's the heat to consider, and the insects you tend to encounter in proximity to woodland, and so it lacks the novelty of English equivalents wherein cold and rain confine the al fresco diner to somewhere with a roof and heating for eleven months of the year. Anyway, tonight it's Born in the USA which is more than just outdoor dining, and we have our wristbands so in we go.

Jana bought the tickets and she will be at table fifty-one.

The place is filling up, and people in clothes resembling parts of the American flag wander amongst the trees and picnic tables. We find table fifty-one inhabited by some woman who patently isn't Jana. She seems embarrassed and duly moves to the next table along, so we take our seats.

I've joked about my social life being confined to either facebook, a telephone connection, or the local supermarket, but it isn't strictly true. I socialise with my wife on a regular basis. We get on quite well together, which is why we got married in the first place. Occasionally I also socialise with Andrea, whom my wife knows from work. Andrea has a wonderfully dry sense of humour, entertains no strange or esoteric beliefs that I'm aware of, and is always good company; and she is additionally friends with Jana, whom I don't really know at all, but who wields a slightly darker version of that same dry sense of humour.

These are the sort of people I tend to get on with - not so much those sat by the stage chuckling at the funny man in his big red shoes, but those stood at the back trying to work out whether or not this is really the worst thing we've ever seen. The four of us occasionally meet around Andrea's house to play cards whilst combining our respective children into a single gibbering, game-fixated organism fuelled on pizza and Big Red; and although I've never been a huge fan of card games, it's always fun with this group; and before we proceed any further, I feel I should stress that neither the term socialise nor card game serve as euphemisms for anything Joyce Grenfell would have categorised as beastly. I'm afraid none of us are that interesting.

Like I say, Born in the USA is not just outdoor dining. There is also a live band and food trucks have been brought in to accommodate the attendant increase in numbers. The band are called the Spazmatics. Jana wanted to see them, and has treated the rest of us to tickets because she didn't want to go on her own.

I look around, noticing a covered stage set up at the far side of the field. I can also see someone vaping - if that's what it's called - puffing big white clouds of smoke from something resembling a novelty ballpoint pen, but no-one is actually smoking proper fags even though we're outside. Either cigarettes really are on the way out, or smoking might be forbidden despite our being outside, although I can see no signs to this effect.

'So where's Jana?'

Bess inspects her phone. 'She's already here. Maybe she's getting something to eat.'

Jana appears with a marguerita in a plastic glass just as a group of teenage girls noisily occupy the next table, joining the woman we have just ousted from our own - presumably somebody's mother. The girls are seventeen or eighteen, nearly all of them wearing way too much make-up and denim dungarees cut short. They're all bare skin and smiles and they wear large badges identifying themselves as tasty tart or material girl or major tease. The noise is shrill and deafening, and the bridal veil worn by one of the group indicates that this is a hen night.

'Jesus Christ,' I say out loud, half hoping to cause offense. 'It's like twelve Miley Cyruses.'

I've been in a bit of a strange mood all day, unsettled or just plain shell-shocked or something. The first news I heard when I woke this morning was that my country of origin has decided it wants to be 1930 when it grows up, but without the part about growing up if at all possible. I've spent most of the day trying and failing to get my head around this and what it could mean. I've been living in Texas on a green card for the past five years, and now it's beginning to seem like going for full citizenship might not be such a terrible idea.

Also, I've been smoking. I gave up years ago, but have since found myself driven to smoke in times of unusual stress, then stopping once I'm done without experiencing any further cravings. I've smoked several times since giving up, with years passing between each pouch of hand-rolling tobacco, and here I am again. I had to buy the tobacco at a head shop, a place on Austin Highway which also sells bongs shaped like skulls as well as esoteric pornography, because rolling tobacco is not readily available here and I've never liked regular cigarettes. I'm not even sure that smoking helps, but it feels as though it does, somehow - and at least I no longer have the additional worry of ending up hooked once again; because I actually quite like the fact of my having stopped smoking, generally speaking.

Andrea has arrived and joins us at our table, but the twelve Miley Cyruses - possibly Miley Cyri in the plural form - all fiddling with their phones and screeching ohmahgeeerrrddd every few seconds are doing my cake in.

'I'm just nipping off for a fag,' I explain, understanding full well that the word has a different meaning here but not really feeling like making a concession to the regional variation. One of the Miley Cyruses is explaining what she was all like and how this resulted in her friend being all like something else. They resemble animated Bratz dolls. Not only do they make me feel old, but they make me feel glad to be old.

I wander off into the crowd, drifting towards the stage as I roll myself a cigarette. I notice security guards hanging around, chubby with the inevitable shades like we're at an Erik Estrada theme park. I'm aware that the practice of hand-rolling is probably more closely associated with marijuana than regular ciggies in these parts, so I maintain some distance whilst remaining purposefully conspicuous so they can tell that I'm not trying to hide anything.

Smoking allows you to see yourself in cinematic terms. There you are in the doorway. It's pissing with rain and you spark up as the music swells. Life may well have given you a short, sharp kick in the nadgers, but you're smoking a fag and everything will get better from this point on, just like in the films. It's a major reason why people smoke, but they never tell you that in the warnings on television, focusing instead on the cancer and all the money you've been flushing down the toilet  these past few years - even though it's unlikely that you would have otherwise spent that money on anything worth having.

I wander to the front of the stage and notice the instruments which have been set up - guitar, bass, drums, a bank of keyboards and several microphones. For a moment I actually wonder if the Spazmatics might be some kind of Plasmatics tribute act, maybe even a distant descendent. The Plasmatics had some great songs once you looked past the television sets being blown up or chainsawed in half on stage, and I remember there was that guy Spazz Attack, the one with the mohican; so given Wendy O. Williams having shuffled off this mortal coil, that must be it; and then I remember that Spazz Attack was some dancer who used to be in Toni Basil videos. I'm thinking of Richie Stotts, and the Plasmatics probably aren't going to sell out a field in south Texas thirty years down the line.

I've looked at the Spazmatics facebook page: four people, all of whom look like the same guy, all pulling the wacky face. They have goofy teeth and nerdy glasses. One wears a neck brace, and another keeps his mullet wig in check with a sweatband. They look like a comedy act, one of those trying-too-hard enterprises which has to tell you that it's funny just so you know.

If you liked The Big Bang Theory, you're gonna love these guys! They're called the Spazmatics, as in spastics! Ha ha!

But it's a night out and a new thing, and it's not pissy lager and turdy indie crap in some shitty south London toilet followed by a terrifying ride home on the night bus, and I'm here for the company rather than the music - whatever it is.

I rejoin the gals, and we play cards. Andrea happens to have a deck with her, one which I suspect she probably carries in case of emergencies. We play crazy eights, one of those games where the object is to get rid of all your cards, and if unable to go, you have to keep picking up more cards from the deck until you can. The band kick off just as we get going, four guys resembling characters from Revenge of the Nerds playing a faithful version of Kenny Loggins' Footloose. 'They play eighties songs,' Jana informs me, and they play them very well. The sound is great and the crowd are going nuts.

We keep on playing crazy eights as the Miley Cyruses get to twerking, or whatever that arse in the air dance is called. I suspect I will soon see one of the cowboys bellowing awesome as he pours beer over himself, or if not beer then Miller Lite or something of that type. The Spazmatics play Just Can't Get Enough, Take On Me, You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Summer of '69, I Love Rock 'n' Roll - all of the hits faithfully recreated before our very ears. At one stage they play a version of Whip It, and it really sounds like Devo, but still I find it difficult to lose myself in the moment.

Bess and I go to get margueritas, discovering that the bar does indeed accept payment by card after all, and as we return to our table, we pause for a photograph with our faces poking through the cut-out heads of Uncle and Auntie Sam because this is still Born in the USA. The name comes from a Bruce Springsteen album, and it seems to have been chosen for this event mainly because it has USA in the title - which is as good a theme as any - and they saved money in photoshopping the date and venue onto the existing record cover. Springsteen's Born in the USA isn't a particularly patriotic number, but I don't suppose it matters. Everyone is drunk and full of tacos, and we all know the words to all of the songs, and we've dressed in stars and stripes just because it makes us happy. There's no other reason. One guy is wearing a Trump t-shirt, but he seems a bit out of place.

We start up another game, and I admit to myself that I'm beginning to hate the music because I'm tired; but I get the impression that Jana and Andrea are enjoying it so I say nothing because I don't want to be the miserable fucker pissing on everyone's chips. It's loud enough to justify the earplugs I'm now really glad I slipped into my pocket before we left. It's competent and well done for what it is, but it still feels like we're at the wedding of somebody we don't like very much, or the world's most unnecessarily complicated karaoke evening. Gaps between songs are filled with lame banter and jokes playing on the nerdish appearance of the band, and audience members receive birthday dedications heralded by a sample from In Da Club by 50 Cent - go shortie, it's your birthday, with the offending fuck inanely bleeped out as though the censorship is itself worth a snigger. Then they play a terrifyingly convincing version of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir, and it begins to feel like something has gone wrong with the fundamental structure of reality.

We're on our fourth or fifth round of crazy eights. Thus far no-one has had to pick more than five or six cards from the deck before they're back in the game, but as the Spazmatics go into Bohemian Rhapsody, Jana just keeps taking those cards, a bitter smile on her face. 'I hereby rename this game Shitto,' she grimaces, and takes cards until the deck is gone. I laugh more than I've laughed all day, and realise that against all odds I've had a good evening. The music hasn't been entirely to my liking, but we've played some great Shitto.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Well Done You!

Americans seem to love ceremony, specifically the pomp and circumstance of some guy stood at a plinth invoking the future through breathy application of adjectives so that every heart doth swell with emproudenment and we all do be honourized. I lived in England from my birth in 1965 to jumping ship in 2011, and I probably attended about three, maybe four ceremonies in the entire time. Here it seems like there's something every other week, which is ironic given that the point of America was supposedly so we could get away from all those fucking Brits with their stupid wigs and their hereditary royalty and their never-ending speechifying; or a reluctance to pay tax on one's PG Tips, depending on who you've been listening to.

Here I am at another one, because Raphael has graduated from high school, or possibly from Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering, which is the name projected at the back of the stage behind the attendant row of teachers, professors, educators, and related boffins. Raphael's mother is amongst those sat to attention on the stage, wearing her gown and mortar board like the rest, and I know for a fact that she teaches at a high school so I suppose that's what the Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering must be. I don't really understand how it works, beyond that Raphael is my wife's cousin, and he's finished something or other, and that's why we're here.

Here is the Tobin Center in downtown San Antonio, which isn't the Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering, but is where they're having the ceremony contrary to my conventionally English expectations and assumptions. We arrive at seven and are directed up to the fourth floor, to some high balcony full of babies, or specifically persons with babies. One might assume that a long, droning public ceremony might not be such a great place to bring children under one year of age, but it's not like anyone had a choice, not since the 1997 constitutional amendment banning both babysitting and the practice of leaving your screaming infant with a relative - apparently. The baby behind us begins to howl, so we change places. After another minute we realise that now directly behind us is another vocally demonstrative infant, and the little guy in the row directly in front of us has decided to accept the challenge.

One of the ceremonies I attended back in England was my father's second wedding; two were graduation ceremonies at Maidstone College of Art; and I think there was something else but I can't remember what it was. The first Maidstone graduation ceremony was for the students of the year above mine. They had Laurie Taylor the radio presenter along as guest speaker. I had no idea who he was at the time, but his speech was very entertaining, even hilarious, and a good time was had by all. I seem to recall they'd had either Brian Eno or possibly Ralph Steadman doing the honours the year before, but unfortunately I missed that one. By the time it came to my year, all they could manage was some stammering corporate arse who, accustomed to public speaking as he wasn't, may as well have been reading a report on stocks and shares.

People say that fine art is useless, he stuttered in preamble to explaining how it wasn't because sometimes the managing director of ICI will notice the great expanse of wall behind the head office reception desk and decide that what it really needs is a big, blurry painting of nothing in particular, so hooray for us lot because we weren't useless after all. It was pretty depressing and as such a fitting conclusion to the three years I'd spent working towards that bit of paper which stood me in such good stead for my subsequent twenty-one years service with Royal Mail.

That was the only time I graduated. School was just a case of taking some exams and then not going to school any more, and it was the same with college and art foundation, roughly speaking. Here, on the other hand, they graduate regularly every summer. Well done - you've completed fourth grade, and you get a handshake and a certificate, and then you do it all over again next year, and the next, and the next, presumably until you arrive at the point at which Raphael now finds himself.

We can sort of see where he is if we stand and lean forward, somewhere within a bay of mortarboards lapping restlessly at the stage, but first there's the speechification to get through. A handful of educators tell us what a year it has been, and what an honour it is to be stood here upon the threshold of the future gazing across the frozen plains of destiny that shalt soon tremble beneath the hooves of this year's newly scholasticated flock as they go out unto the world to begin their lives knowing that they have only to dream and so mote it be. Each speech turns out to be only the long-winded introduction to yet another speaker with another variation on here we all are and be all you can be, and all working up to some old guy who is the head of something or other and may or may not be directly involved with  Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering. We've been here over an hour listening to people we've never heard of reiterating the central premise of Jiminy Cricket's When You Wish upon a Star.

Who would have fucking thunk it, asks the star turn - admittedly not in those exact words - in preamble to explaining what an honour it is to be stood here upon the threshold of the future gazing across the frozen plains of destiny that shalt soon tremble beneath the hooves of this year's newly scholasticated flock as they go out unto the world to begin their lives knowing that they have only to dream and so mote it be; but being the star turn, he really takes it to the next level - as we say - with longer, ever more grandiose sentences, really working that thing into the ground as he segues into a valuable autobiographical life lesson complete with impersonations of his own daughter and a mime of what she looks like when she's on the phone. In summary the tale is of his kid, and how greatly she didst want to be a nurse, and she wanted to be a nurse a very, very lot, but alas, her grades were shit so she wasn't able to be a nurse; and then she studied really hard; and then behold for she was a nurse. It was something along those lines, and the saga took about forty minutes to unfold.

Eventually we get to the kids - a half hour or longer roll call of Hispanic surnames because the school or academy or whatever it's supposed to be is on the southside, several minutes worth of Rodriguez and Suarez at a time with the occasional incongruity of a lonely Johnson to keep it interesting. A steady stream of kids fly across the stage, pausing to grin, shake a hand and take a scroll before swiftly exiting stage left. The girls all seem to be wearing massive clunky platform heels. We cheer Raphael as we catch his name, even though we're not absolutely sure which one he is.

Each of these kids is carrying the future with them, we have been told, so no pressure or anything. From this point on, the only limits to what they will be able to do are those of imagination, and presumably also the laws of physics, and the fact that someone has to be a fucking janitor or a mailman or the guy who drives the garbage truck.

The whole thing is exhausting, and the level of motivational horseshit involved makes me feel sorry for the kids on what is, after all, quite a big day for them. Maybe one of their number will design the saucer which takes us to Mars, but surely just holding down a job and not being a complete fuck-up is at least as worthy? The value of a celebration should not be diminished by simply admitting that not everyone gets to be Superman, and we - meaning everyone - really need to start thinking about a realistic world which works, rather than aiming for Disneyland with knobs on and in doing so just making everything else worse through singularity and ultimate futility of purpose. Not everyone needs a medal.

One week later we eat burgers with Raphael and his family as a belated, more low-key celebration. He warmly shakes my hand with a vice-like grip and I recall that this baritone giant was just some kid the last time we met up close, and that it can't have been more than five years before.

'Well done,' I say, and I mean it.

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Mysteries of Dance

Of all the supposed arts, I've never had much of a relationship with dance. I quite enjoyed all that stuff with the maypole when I was a kid, and I can appreciate the folklore of village ceremonies, or dance as defining the ritual space in which offerings might be made to Huitzilopochtli; but otherwise it generally doesn't engage me, and I don't regard it as either interesting or important. Many years ago I used to buy The Observer every Sunday, more or less for the sake of habit and because it was marginally funnier than the Radio Times, but I gave up when they printed some crappy Millennial list of the hundred people they saw as having most influenced the twentieth century. There were three choreographers in the list, because apparently choreography is important. It was probably the wankiest, most excrutiatingly middle-class thing I had ever seen in a left-leaning newspaper, so I stopped buying, at last understanding that such things weren't for the likes of me, mister.

I never danced as a kid, but I danced as an art student when I realised that the act was part of a process which, if performed correctly, might provide access to the contents of women's knickers; although it never did in my case. This was probably because I attempted to develop my own style - a kind of spastic bodypopping relative of David Byrne in the Once in a Lifetime video. I observed my peers dancing, mostly doing that thing with forearms moving up and down from a stationary elbow whilst looking bored, sort of like a mime of climbing a ladder performed by someone who is tired and doesn't really understand why you would want to know in the first place. I saw this and felt compelled to move rhythmically in a way which at least suggested that I was alive and maybe even enjoying the music. My style was knackering, but had the additional benefit of providing much needed exercise which tended to lessen the subsequent unpleasant effects of being full of beer, but it never led to sexual activity, or at least no sexual activity involving persons other than myself, and was therefore mostly a waste of time.

Nevertheless, here I am thirty years later going to a dance recital. We're going along to watch Jamie, who is seventeen or maybe eighteen and who is my friend's daughter. She's been attending a local dance class for at least a decade, and this is the big show at the end of the educational year.

We take seats and we watch.

There are four or five groups according to age ranging from five or six to Jamie's bunch, and each group performs three or four times to some song or piece of music; and as soon as it starts I realise just how much I'm out of my depth. I don't understand why I'm watching this thing, and these people have no reason to be on the stage moving around in set patterns whilst grinning or else looking confused. There is no reason for this thing to be happening, and yet here it is.

The youngest group aren't really dancing so much as going through a set sequence of vaguely illustrative gestures, more or less at the same time, and all staring intently at an off-stage teacher, aside from the one dancer who spends each performance facing the opposite direction to all the rest. It's puzzling, and yet sort of charming because it's little kids, which at least keeps my wife happy for a couple of minutes. They dance, or at least engage in roughly synchronised gestures to what sound like Shirley Temple numbers; but they really come to life during Blue Suede Shoes. Yes, they're all girls, but there's no reason why they shouldn't look
at least a bit like Elvis, and their shoes are certainly blue. Then as one, they point out at the audience, furrow brows into angry-little-girl faces and yell don't step on my blue suede shoes - a startling burst of atonal noise but you can tell they're enjoying themselves.

The older groups are probably better in so much as what they do looks more like dancing, or at least more like those routines which clogged up the British television schedule for most of the seventies - top hats, teeth and high kicks all swirling around the stage to a dubstep version of some Amy Winehouse song. I still can't quite see the point of any of it, and now I have the additional conundrum of why anyone really thought Back to Black worked better as some shitty crunk ringtone with the bass replaced by that wub-wub-wub sound. Is it not enough that the poor woman is pushing up the daisies?

I say the older groups are probably better, but it's all relative. I remain aware of lumps of meat hurling themselves awkwardly across the stage to land with a thump whilst trying to smile, but it's never a convincing smile. It looks like they're mostly on the verge of shitting themselves, and the ones who aren't smiling have a face suggestive of trying to remember what the hell comes next. It's awkward and a long way from anything you could describe as graceful, but it feels somehow like we're all in this together. We all have to get through this thing so we can go home.

The styles are tap, jazz, freestyle, and a few others I've never heard of. I can see there are differences. I know what tap dancing is, and mostly they've all got that one pretty much nailed. Jazz involves sparkly top hats and a whole shitload of grinning.

Inevitably there are a few disquieting anomalies even without the missed beats and screw-ups. One group includes a girl roughly three times the size of everyone else. She's probably just regularly proportioned, but everyone else being so tiny makes her seem enormous, ungainly, and very difficult to miss; but this is some dance class not Broadway, so she's stuck with midgets of equivalent ability and that's just how it is, and now I have to feel bad for even noticing. Also there are two males in the group, and they dance well, which isn't a problem; but from my circumstantially blinkered point of view it jars. It feels forced and awkward. It's all weird and pointless, and I'm aware that my opinions don't really count for shit in this context, which doesn't make it any less weird or pointless.

Jamie herself is on a few times, and whilst I may well be biased, I can't help notice that she dances well compared to her peers. Her moves seem graceful with less huffing and puffing involved, and she looks as though she's enjoying herself rather than grinning like she's at a job interview or communicating something to people with whom she shares no common language. This is great because at least it means I won't have to lie to her mother. She dances with the others to Nights in White Satin, and thankfully it's not the dubstep version. It's not even the Dickies version, although that might have been interesting.

We end with ceremony and applause, speeches and awards, even for just showing up in a few cases. Those who have been in the class for longer than ten years take a bow, and it's most of them. I guess that dancing must be a lot harder than I imagined if some of this bunch have been at this since 2006. I don't know how many of these kids are likely to end up on Broadway, if that's an ambition. I still don't know what any of us were supposed to get out of this.

Afterwards we visit the south side and eat at some place on Military Drive, which is fine during the day but can get a bit shooty in the evenings. Once we've eaten, we drop in on Flipside Records because it's almost next door to the restaurant and I've always wanted to take a look at the place. The incense is so thick I can barely see the bongs and related paraphernalia on sale at the rear of the store, but I browse the racks of used records and find a Stranglers album I've been after, which is nice. Three Mexican girls come in and begin looking for some Moody Blues album. I can't work out quite which record they're looking for, but wonder if it might be the one containing Nights in White Satin.

If there's a pattern to any of this, I don't think I will ever understand it.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Beer Run

The doorbell rings. My wife hasn't been home from work very long and we're watching Wheel of Fortune. Our front door is in the corner of the front room, adjacent to a window and a sofa. Cats sat on the back of the sofa have destroyed the lower slats of the blind over the past few years. Originally there was a just a peculiarly neat square missing from the lower right-hand corner of the blind, which Gus chewed out for herself so she could gaze from the window and see what was going on in the neighbourhood. We called it the Gus Portal after its architect. Subsequent cats have lacked the delicate touch for which Gus was renowned, and have just hacked away at the lower slats regardless of aesthetic concerns; so it's now quite easy to see out of the window without getting up from the other sofa, the one upon which we sit to watch Wheel of Fortune.

Ordinarily it's Damean from across the way, come to hang out with the kid, but we haven't seen him for a while and there's a chance he might have signed up with the army or the army cadets or whatever. Occasionally it's some friend of Shooty the Drug Dealer asking if we want our lawn mown in the hope of raising funds with which he'll presumably make purchase of more num-nummy-numptious drugs of some description. It's always the same guy and he seems harmless, and he never seems to mind that we're completely capable of mowing our own lawn even though we be white folks.

'Who can that be?' Bess wonders.

The window affords me a view of a large-ish pair of tits in a grubby t-shirt, old lady tits I suppose. I wonder if it's Dee Dee and hope it isn't. She keeps herself to herself so when she calls it's something serious, usually sick or dying animals, struggling kittens she needs someone to look after while she goes to the store for food, kittens in such a state that they need a person to watch over them. It never ends well.

I open the door and experience relief that it isn't Dee Dee, then confusion because it's the hillbilly woman from down the road. I don't know her name.

We have a large fluffy cat who briefly went missing when we first moved here. We walked up and down the road looking for him, and eventually found him safe and well, but both of us had encountered a similarly large fluffy cat living down the road bearing a strong and misleading resemblance to our guy. Since the beginning of the year, the same large fluffy cat has started hanging out at our house, having discovered that I feed the strays in the morning. I've started calling him Gary for the sake of something to call him because he reminds me of Gary - my neighbour back in London - in so much as he's a big lad and he's always there. One morning I noticed he turned up wearing a lime green collar with a bell. Later that afternoon I found the collar discarded in our garden. I guess he hadn't been too keen on the thing.

I took the collar down the road to the house where I thought I had seen Gary, where I assumed he lived, then decided it looked a bit scary - shit car, weeds in the yard, bags of rubbish out front. I went to the next house along. It was tidier, and Gary's home might just as easily be this one, and it didn't look like a knock on the door would summon angry rednecks with firearms and tattoos. Unfortunately my knock on the door didn't summon anyone, so I took a deep breath and went back to the first house.

The woman was old and slightly stumpy with white hair. She looked confused as though suspecting foul play; so I tried to explain about Gary and the collar as quickly as I could before she called the cops.

'You mean Fat Cat,' she grinned and hee-hawed as realisation dawned, and I gave her the collar. I was a little shocked by the name, hoping Fat Cat was simply a misjudged term of endearment. On the other hand Fat Cat - or rather Gary - seems healthy, happy, and friendly, so I suppose he must have a good home, even if he always seems to find room for a little more at our place.

I've seen the woman once since then, as I was mowing the front lawn. She strolled past and yelled out something incomprehensible but obviously cheerful, probably something along the lines of you're mowing the lawn!

Now here she is again on my doorstep like an old friend.

'Can you give me a ride to the Valero garage so I can buy me some beer?' She says it twice because I didn't quite catch it the first time, or I did but couldn't quite bring myself to believe that this had been the question. Someone I don't know has knocked on my door seeking assistance, not medical assistance, or can I use your phone?, or I need someone to take me to the hospital, but I need to buy beer from the garage.

The Valero garage is on Rittiman Road, about ten minutes walk away. She may be old and slow but I'm pretty sure she can make it in fifteen.

'I can't drive.'

'You can't drive?' She is incredulous.

'I ride a bike everywhere. You must have seen me.'

'Well you got a car.'

It's true. The Prosecution has made a good case. We have a car parked in the drive way.

'That's my wife's car.'

'You can't drive?'

'No. I never learned.'

'Your wife here?'


'Maybe she can give me a ride.'

'She's not home.' It's a lie but I feel I have the right. This is one of the strangest conversations I've had in a while.

'I live down the road,' she grins.

'I know. The cat—'

'You're from England.'

'That's right.'

'I'm German,' again she grins, proud, although to be fair German ancestry - which I assume is what she means - isn't much of a boast around here. In San Antonio you're either Mexican or German or something else - everything that doesn't belong in the first two categories having been mixed up somewhere in that last one. That said, her accent is odd; although some of my wife's German-American grandparents barely spoke any English, so it probably only seems odd to me.

Miraculously she leaves, walking slowly back down the garden path. She isn't running any marathons, but I'm sure she can make it to the garage under her own steam if she really needs a beer that bad, and I've a weird, slightly unsettling feeling that this wasn't about beer. This was howdy, I'm your neighbour by someone with no real idea of how to go about such things.

Next day as I pass on my bike, I notice a second car in her driveway, and there's a young woman chaperoning a kid around the front lawn. They seem like regular people which comes as a relief. Maybe that's her daughter and a grandchild. She has people who care for her, and who can drive her to the Valero garage for beer.

Two weeks later, we do it all over again, except this time she needs a pack of cigarettes from the Valero garage.

Friday, 8 July 2016


I'm in HEB, my local supermarket. I've just ridden twenty miles so my legs are aching. I've bought chicken stock and now I need milk. I'm near the chiller cabinet when she accosts me.

'Can I help you?'

I lower my camera because I've just taken a photograph. 'No, I'm fine, thanks.'

'You can't take photographs in here.'

I've just taken a photograph so this confuses me. She must realise that I've just taken a photograph. I feel stressed and even a little angry. I press the button on the back of my digital camera so as to fill the tiny screen with the picture I've just taken.

'You want me to delete this now? Is that what you're saying?'

She has no reply but is squinting at me with that face which generally means the hard-drive is rebooting, having crashed at the sound of words spoken in a patently non-Texan accent. As the silence remains I consider that I'm in a fucking supermarket next to eggs and margarine, not furtively snapping some secret experimental Batman plane on a military base; and what the hell is she going to do anyway? I don't press the delete button but instead slip my camera back into its holster on my belt.

'Well, here's the thing,' I say. 'I was in here yesterday, right here,' and I explain how I was ripped off for five dollars by some stranger. She was small with bright blue eyes and reminded me of Pennsatucky from Orange is the New Black. She was animated, fidgety. She jumped up and down as she spoke, although this is almost certainly just how I've remembered the encounter.

A month later I read an online article about a pseudo-hypnotic technique called neuro-linguistic programming in which a speaker partially duplicates the mannerisms of his or her subject and presents conflicting or bewilderingly vague information in order to influence them without their quite realising it. It sounds easy, and it sounds like what happened to me, particularly the references made to Australia presumably being based on my little buddy having falsely assumed that to be my nationality, as is a common mistake around these parts.

In the mean time I'm explaining this to a slightly sun-dried version of Warden Figueroa from Orange is the New Black. She's some sort of store supervisor or manager or something, and I am vaguely aware that I probably sound crazy. I've already tried to explain that I want a photograph of the store for the account I am writing of my being hustled by someone who resembles Pennsatucky from Orange is the New Black. I didn't take a photograph of the woman who ripped me off so I've taken one of where I was stood as it was happening.

'You know how when someone talks so fast that you can't think,' I hear myself struggle to explain, 'well, that's what she was doing.'

'Was this an HEB employee?' Warden Figueroa asks concerned. Either she hasn't been listening, hasn't understood, or doesn't give that much of a shit.

'No. It was just some woman off the street.'

Warden Figueroa visibly relaxes. It wasn't a member of staff so it isn't her problem.

'Do you have security guards here?'

'Yes.' She looks puzzled, maybe worried. She doesn't seem to understand why I'm asking.

'I mean, if that happened again, could I call for a security guard?'

'Well yes, but—'

'Does it happen much in this store?'

'Does what happen?'

'People being ripped off like what happened to me yesterday.'

She doesn't seem to know how to process any of this, and the exchange degrades into noise with me walking off.

'Never mind,' I tell her. 'Don't worry about it.'

I'm no longer even quite sure what has pissed me off, but it's probably the insinuation of my having done something wrong when I was the one who got ripped off for five dollars, coupled with Warden Figueroa's apparent inability to cope with an unfamiliar accent or a conversation about something other than the location of the aisle with all the barbecue sauce.

Never mind.

Next day there I am again, because I stop off at HEB on what is usually a daily basis, thus avoiding the burden of a single massive grocery shopping expedition every weekend. As I enter I immediately see Warden Figueroa berating one of the aged greeters who is usually at his post by the sliding doors.

'Oh fuck,' I mutter under my breath, 'not you again...'

She doesn't seem to notice me, instead concentrating on giving the old guy a hard time about a cheap t-shirt which has fallen from its rack. I already had the impression of the woman as a bit of a dummy granted a modicum of power, someone who takes pleasure in exercising what little power she yields because historically it's been her on the receiving end, the one who is told to pick up the fallen t-shirt. The old guy always says hello to me as I enter the store, but not today because he's been given an order, and so my initial impression of Warden Figueroa seems justified.

I buy cat food, then wander to the end of the aisle to see if they have feed corn. Each morning I've seen people feeding the deer in McAllister Park, and I want to try it for myself. The deer seem very friendly, and it's fun to watch them hoovering up the corn. HEB stocks only cracked corn, which is meant for birds I guess, and I notice Warden Figueroa walk along past the end of my aisle checking something on her clipboard.

She's there yet again as I buy milk, and again as I look for olive oil. What a coincidence.

I place a bag of flour in my basket and exit the aisle, and there she is fiddling with the display at the end of the shelving. HEB is a big store and we're now several hundred yards from the door by which I came in. As an experiment I double back on myself to a shelf marked seasonal goods, which is where they have the Christmas stuff or Halloween candy or whatever, depending on the time of year. Warden Figueroa glances down the aisle towards me as she passes yet again.

Warden Figueroa stands casually discussing something with another employee as I look at the bread; then finally around to fruit and vegetables. I stand by the chili peppers and wait for her to appear, as indeed she does. I stare directly at her to let her know that I'm very much aware of being under suspicion. It's kind of a challenge because I've decided that I don't like her very much. Aside from anything, such ham-fisted surveillance insults my intelligence. She hasn't actually pretended to read a newspaper with two circular holes cut from the front page so she can look through, but we're not finished yet.

I pay up then go out to where I've locked my bike, and there she is again, stood where employees nip outside for a cigarette, pretending to play with her phone.

Fuck you, Warden Figueroa, I think.

I try to work out what the problem could have been, as she presumably saw it. Maybe she expected me to whip out a camera and start filming. Maybe she didn't know what the hell I was going to do, but I had asked about security which had maybe suggested ill intent on my part. Maybe she just thought I was a bit weird and probably up to no good.

I avoid HEB for the next few days because I haven't actually run out of anything, but it hurts. HEB is as much of a social life as I have these days. When I eventually go back I have the confrontation rehearsed. I've shopped in this store for the last five years, almost daily, spending a sum getting on for six hundred dollars a month. I know half of the cashiers by name, and at least two of them are my neighbours; and you, Warden Figueroa, I've never fucking seen you before last week. I don't even know who you are.

It doesn't come to that. I shop unmolested.

I see her again weeks later. I'm crossing the parking lot and she's coming towards me when I hear someone call hello. It's Jennifer, a cashier who somehow resembles a little Mayan princess, and who I used to speak to fairly regularly but haven't seen since Christmas.

'I've been on the counter,' she explains, referring to the place where checks are cashed, or whatever it is they do.

'I thought you'd had enough and packed it in.'

'No,' she says. 'It's nice to see you.'

I glance across to Warden Figueroa and think a triumphant fuck you because now she is the one who doesn't fit in.

Another couple of weeks pass and my last sighting of Warden Figueroa is as she fills bags at the tills. I guess they are short on people. I guess she isn't quite the big shot I imagined she thought herself to be.

She probably just didn't understand my accent.