Sunday, March 27, 2011

On a Train Bound for Somewhere

On a train between two cities, I knew that I had gone wrong. I was headed east when I should be going west. — Jeff Talmadge


Singer-songwriter Jeff Talmadge dug through his repertory of songs last week while performing at Opal Divine’s on West Sixth Street in Austin to come up with a train tune. He was marking the one-year anniversary of Capital Metro launching its rail service from Leander to downtown Austin. I had e-mailed him of my plans to ride the rail for the first time, for a story and column, plus see him perform live — also for the first time.

I’ve been a fan of Jeff’s music for several years after being introduced to it by his wife. She was my boss in a former life. Jeff gave up practicing law in Austin in 2003 to pursue a musical career. His seventh studio recording, “Kind of Everything,” was just released. Check it out at He’s a fine writer, and the latest CD has some strong support from veteran session musicians.


SXSW, the massive music, film and high-tech conference recently concluded in Austin, attracts tens of thousands of folks to downtown. Riding the train in from Leander meant a one-hour trip with seven stops between there and downtown, where the line ends next to the Austin Convention Center. That is where much of SXSW was taking place. Literally dozens of other venues were within easy walking distance, which explains why the train I boarded in Leander at 8:30 a.m. had standing-room only by the time it stopped near the moribund Highland Mall.

The train was big-city subway crammed by the time we got downtown. A one-time round trip ticket costs just $5.50 — far less than paying to park, if one can find a spot. I doubt I could have driven there and found a parking space in an hour, even if I avoided rush hour. Not to mention the gasoline it takes to get there.

Cap Metro in March as an experiment extended hours into Friday night and also added a couple of Saturdays. It seems to me that the service is going to have to run permanently during those times to attract a significant ridership. As someone who loves both trains and not having to drive into the city, I’m rooting for the system’s success and expansion.

The trip into town was stress-free and on time. For the first few stops, it felt like taking a leisurely drive through the country with someone else at the wheel. My oldest daughter, Kasey, joined me at Lakeline, the first stop south of Leander. Passengers spent their time fiddling with cell phones, texting or Googling. A few actually read books. We showed up exactly as scheduled and began trekking toward Opal Divine’s, about 10 blocks away.


I spied Jeff and introduced myself. He was the second act performing on the front porch of this bar/restaurant. Jeff walked around for a time with guitar strapped to his shoulder, warming up. He graciously introduced us to other musicians playing that day, including Patterson Barrett and Ray Bonneville. Look them up. They’re legends, consummate musicians, writers and singers who rarely crack commercial radio’s limited playlist. Patterson accompanied Jeff on his brief set, one friend helping out another — neither likely making much more than tip money for the effort.

I read earlier that 2,000 or so bands were in town for SXSW. Kasey and I wandered around until early evening sampling the offerings. At one club with an outside garden, we listened to Brite Future, a dynamite band from Seattle, formerly known as Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head. Seriously. I can’t make this stuff up. The lead singer pointed at me and said, “You in the sunglasses over there, what’s up?” I had no clever rejoinder, just gave a thumbs-up. Kasey asked, “Daddy, was he talking to you?” Yep, the aging hipster in the back badly in need of a haircut, wearing the beret. That would be me.

We reluctantly headed back north. The train’s last departure from downtown on a weeknight is 6:34, but we caught the next-to-last one at 5:30 to be safe. The train started out full and stayed that way again until about halfway north. By the time it stopped in Leander, about a dozen passengers remained. I dozed a bit during the 15 minutes after my daughter got off and the last stop.

Sure beats driving. Just saying.


It’s not the wrong train that you’re on. It’s just another way to go. It’s not the wrong train that you’re on. You’ve found another way back home. — Jeff Talmadge

Originally published in The Hill Country News, March 24, 2011

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hurtling the Highway on Spring's Cusp

ON THE ROAD — Spring appears to have commenced earlier in East Texas and now is making its way toward the Hill Country. At least that is the impression left as I travel the highways most weekends, headed back to the Pine Curtain to visit both my mother, in failing health, and my lovely fiancé and future daughter. I’m again grateful I bought a hybrid Ford Escape four years ago, as gasoline prices shoot ever upward.

Once again, I’m flummoxed that prices rise here instantly because of turmoil in Middle East that may or may not permanently affect oil production. It is not as if the gasoline in the storage tanks here just arrived from the refineries. No matter. I’ll just grit and bear it — grateful the Escape gets 30 mpg. We have tried to write gas prices stories at every newspaper I’ve drawn a paycheck from, with dismal success. Trying to get a straight answer out of the folks who actually have something to do with prices — not the convenience store managers but the actual suppliers — is about as fruitful as trying to pin down state officials on how they propose to balance a state budget that is $25 billion out of whack without raising taxes.

But I digress. We were discussing spring. East Texas begins, by my definition, just east of Corsicana, with I-45 serving as the dividing line. Folks living in Corsicana might consider themselves to be in East Texas, and that’s fine. I bear a grudge against that small city because it takes so blasted long to drive through it. I once wrote that I would vote for anyone for governor who built a loop around Corsicana. There is still no loop, and Rick Perry is still governor. Those two facts might not be related, but there you go. With the budget crunch, I’ll probably be too infirm before a loop is built to drive this route and avoid the 9.6 miles of stop-and-go traffic that defines the home of Collin Street Bakery.

East of Corsicana, the grass is greener now. Ragged rows of daffodils carpet old home places, planted decades earlier on plots where the houses have long turned to rot. The various trees sporting white blossoms — dogwoods, Bradford Pears, and others — are in full regalia. Redbud trees add a purple accent to the sights as I whiz down the road, listening to the Simon and Garfunkel station on satellite radio. Yes, there is a station devoted entirely to Simon and Garfunkel, another for Bruce Springsteen, Elvis (of course) and others. For three hours I hurtle down the asphalt without hearing the same Paul and Art song twice — singing along as the lyrics return from deep within the memory bank. It has always baffled me how I often can summon and sing lyrics when a song is playing that I haven’t heard since Jimmy Carter was president — but can’t remember where I ate lunch yesterday.

Sorry, I keep getting sidetracked. We were discussing spring, which arrives officially on March 20 this year. In East Texas that means sometime before April Fools’ Day every outside surface will be covered with a sickly yellow pollen that will take a gullywasher of a thunderstorm to dissipate. You learn early to not open windows during the Yellow Tide period there, tempting as it might be for that welcomed breeze. Here on the edge of the Hill Country, so far my windows are open much of the time with no deleterious effects — save a sneezing bout from what is likely a mild case of cedar fever. I can’t wait to take a bluebonnet tour down toward Brenham when the time is ripe.

I spent the last weekend of winter here and not on the road for a change. The peeps are headed this way on Sunday since it’s spring break. I mowed with the blade low to capture the dead grass, used the bagger and filled seven biodegradable sacks with clippings. The rye grass my landlord planted out back to fill in until he can have sod planted had neared hay-baling height. I sneezed and wheezed my way through a pleasant and breezy morning of mowing, trimming and stuffing sacks. The sun was warm on my back, and the cold beer with which I celebrated completing this task sure went down well, washing dust and such down the gullet.

It won’t be long until such lawn cleaning requires gallons of iced tea and a towel to wipe off the sweat. I’m enjoying the early days of Central Texas spring, no matter how brief the season.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Par, Texas), March 17, 2011.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Still Just a Paperboy

What do Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Warren Buffett and yours truly have in common? Not much, since they are all geniuses in some manner, a title never bestowed upon me except sarcastically. The shared heritage is that we all were paperboys as kids, a job that is fast going the way of the slide rule and cassette decks.

A recent Time article says in 2008 paperboys (and girls) made up just 13 percent of newspaper deliverers. That number likely has dropped in half in the past three years, as paid newspapers shrink, and fewer afternoon papers remain. The shift away from afternoon delivery means adults now dominate when it comes to delivering newspapers, since it is done in the wee morning hours.

So it was heartening to learn that at the , near Allentown, Pa., publisher Fred Masenheimer still relies on an all-youth carrier force to deliver that paper to 14,000 subscribers. As the Time article put it, these kids still fill a canvas bag with papers, stretch the straps across a bicycle handlebar and head down neighborhood streets.

A photo hangs in my office, taken in the fall of 1968. It shows four solemn-faced boys standing next to a bicycle loaded down with newspapers in a pair of rear-wheel baskets. I’m one of those paperboys, the short fellow with the bad haircut and thick glasses — a 13-year-old entrepreneur with a canvas satchel strapped on my shoulder. My first job was peddling the afternoon edition of the Longview newspaper throughout downtown.

The paper cost a dime, and I got to keep a nickel. On a good day I cleared $5 by selling out 100 papers, plus maybe a buck or two more in tips. At Christmas, the oil wildcatters playing “42” at the Brass Rail, a smoky saloon near the old Arlyne Theater — both long gone — might even slip me a sawbuck if they were feeling flush. It was good money for a kid not old enough to drive, dependent on my cheap Sears version of a Sting-Ray bike for transportation from our home on South Twelfth Street to the newspaper plant downtown.

Like the Time article points out, just about everybody who worked as a paperboy has fond memories of those times. I have heard it for years when folks learn what I still do for a living, which is at its most elemental still peddling newspapers. “I used to be a paperboy,” they’ll say with a smile. “I threw the (insert name here) in my hometown.”

For me, the memory is different. I never outgrew being a paperboy. I loved that job, delivering the news to customers, many of whom I had to persuade to fork over a dime by recounting that day’s headlines. My route did not have subscribers as such but consisted of folks who decided daily whether or not to buy the paper. An ancient black woman who lived on Green Street, just south of Highway 80, was always a tough sell.

She usually could be found in the rocker of her front porch, a wad of snuff in her cheek. I once attempted to sell her an extra announcing that American astronauts had landed on the moon — July 20, 1969. Miz White, as I have decided to call her since she was black and lived on Greet Street, was having none of that foolishness.

“Ain’t no man landed on the moon,” she said. “They done rigged that up in a television studio.” My arguments to the contrary, being a huge space buff, had no effect. An extra edition cost a nickel and I got to keep all the money. In desperation, I tried to just give her the paper. That didn’t work either. She recoiled as if I was handing her a water moccasin.

More than four decades later, I’m still in this business. Looks like I’ll be peddling papers in one form or fashion until I get booted out the door. I like to think that at least a couple of those boys and girls delivering papers up in Pennsylvania will also catch the bug and decide to work at a newspaper. After all these years, I still can’t think of a more interesting way to make a living. For that, I feel blessed.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), March 10, 2011

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Silent Toast to a True Texan

As occurs each Texas Independence Day I drank a silent toast to Sam Malone on March 2. Not the fellow on “Cheers” but the real Sam Malone, as we called him back in the day. Sam was the archetypal country newspaper editor with a bottle of cheap whiskey (Evan Williams preferred) in his desk drawer, a loaded shotgun in the corner of his office, and a foul-smelling cigar constantly lit.

Sam was born on Texas Independence Day in 1920 and died in 2000 just a few weeks short of turning 80. He packed a lot of miles into those 79-plus years, all of it spent in newspapering from West Texas to Deep East Texas. His dad, Big Sam Malone, taught him as a kid how to set type back when a newspaper page was created literally one metal letter at a time placed inside a frame. You see the wooden typecases for sale at antique shops and bazaars. People buy them to hang on the wall and fill with knick-knacks.

He was particularly proud of his birthdate, which he shared with Sam Houston — along with the aforementioned fondness for whiskey. That confluence of events all occurring on March 2 explains Sam’s love for Texas history. He devoted untold hours to reading about it, reprinted a couple dozen arcane titles of Texana in his print shop, and infected me with the same fascination.

I first heard of Sam in the late 1970s, when Texas Monthly writer Richard West featured him in a story about San Augustine, in Deep East Texas, where Sam had founded a feisty weekly called The Rambler. West recounted how Sam took on the entire school board in his paper and managed to get a reform slate of candidates elected. A losing member cold-cocked him with her purse, an event that Sam duly recounted in the following issue.

A few years later I was quickly going insane working as a bureaucrat for the state in Austin. On a whim I called Sam Malone and asked if he needed any help. He told me he had sold the newspaper but the new owners were looking for a managing editor. A few weeks later we were driving a U-Haul to San Augustine. Several months after that I ended up buying the paper and stayed five years. Sam owned the building and still ran the print shop next door. Thus began a friendship that lasted until his death, more than a decade after I had left San Augustine.

For a few years I leased the public access channel from the cable company in vain hopes of making some extra bucks. There were two weekly newspapers in a town of 3,000, so making a living was tough. Sam conjured up the idea of us producing a weekly 30-minute show on Texas history, especially since the state was in 1986 celebrating its sesquicentennial. So every Wednesday afternoon at 3:30 we would sit behind his desk, piled high with papers, cigar ashes everywhere and Ventilator the Cat usually perched on the chairback behind Sam’s skull. We each held coffee cups. I tried to keep mine from clinking since both contained ice cubes, Evan Williams whiskey cut with tap water. Sam didn’t care whether his clinked or not.

Rambler Channel 2 was almost certainly one of the worst-produced cable-access stations in the state’s history. A video camera was propped in the corner, and Sam’s ancient mike was held together with duct tape. (He also did a morning radio show each day for 15 minutes.) We rebroadcast the Wolves’ football games each Saturday morning, using the grainy tape shot by the coaches in the pressbox. Sam would do the play-by-play, and I was the “color” commentator. Sam actually knew what he was doing, having covered football since the Giper suited up for Knute Rockne. On the other hand, I didn’t know a tackle from a guard, a tight end from a wide receiver. I still don’t.

But I learned a lot of Texas history in those weekly shows, enough to actually get a modest book published a few years back on a small slice of East Texas’ past. I wish Sam had been around for that event.

Texas celebrated 175 years since independence on March 2. I toasted a glass of whiskey in Sam’s memory after work, though it wasn’t Evan Williams. I never could develop a taste for that stuff.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), March 3, 2011.