Carlos and I wake up at the crack of dawn to go to the mechanic, which opens at 7:30. It is a mile or so of walking along I-10. We are pleased to see the van undisturbed where we left it, right outside the gate. Most of the morning is spent waiting for an estimate, drinking bad drip coffee and reading Houstonia Magazine. I learn about all sorts of things to see and do in the place I just left. A few hours later, we get the news. It is bad. Not only will the repair cost about $700, but they don’t have the part we need and have to order it. From Oklahoma. It will take two to three days to arrive. I ask about five different ways if there is some way to overnight or otherwise expedite this shipment, and even make the tactical error of saying I don’t care what it costs. But it is to no avail. We will be stuck here for two to three days, missing the Tucson show and at least two others. We try to think if there is any way to avoid this wait, even going so far as to consider buying a new van and scrapping this one, but we have no way of finding one for sale. The nearest Craigslist is in Houston, and we’re at the only dealership in town, and they don’t have any vans. I hear that one of the mechanics had a van he was considering selling, and try to buy it from him, but he has changed his mind and decided to hold onto it. It is probably just as well; part of the problem with this van is that we purchased it under a time crunch and didn’t take as much time to evaluate our options as we should have. I relay the news to my traveling companions, and walk back to the Scottish Inn to check in for another night. Why “Scottish Inn”? Is Scotland known for its inns? Outside the gate, a car slows down and rolls down its window. It is one of the mechanics, who saw me walking and offers to give me a ride. I had actually been relishing the opportunity to get some exercise after sitting in a chair fretting all day, but I am touched by the gesture and get in. It is starting to rain. Everyone gets a few days worth of luggage and food out of the van, and he circles back to pick them up. It is Monday, and the earliest estimate has us leaving Wednesday. We mentally prepare ourselves for an extended stay. This is our home now. I feel bad for Marie, who thought she’d get to see the West Coast with us. We’ll be lucky to even get to LA in time for her flight home.
A few of us decide to walk around town during a rare period of sunshine. There is not much to see on a Monday. A lot of antique stores, which are closed three or four days out of the week, including today. A soul food restaurant in a trailer in the parking lot of the supermarket. A bar, which the guys who helped us said was the only one in town, and it is rather early to have a drink. Later on in our stay, we will find that the bar closes around 9 PM and does not serve liquor or have a tap. A Mexican restaurant. I had seen the Mexican restaurant on Yelp, and inquired as to whether it was any good. Everyone spoke highly of it, so we decide to give it a shot. It is just okay. Not actively gross, but pretty heavy and salty. Good salsa, at least, much spicier than usual. We walk around some more, past a few churches and a graveyard. All of the deceased have German and Czech names. We do not see another pedestrian. A few cars pass, and the drivers crane their necks to get a good look at us. Nobody is hostile, but everyone is curious. This is apparently not a place where people walk around. We go to the bar, for lack of anything better to do. Five or six older people are deeply engaged in a card game. We order a few Shiner Bocks and shoot some pool, which all of us are terrible at. On the plus side, a game lasts a long time, so you definitely get your money’s worth. I put some songs on the jukebox, which is all country with the exception of Bob Seger and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I see some things I recognize: Dwight Yoakam, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash. We all drink our beers slowly and walk around some more. We go back to the hotel, where I nap and catch up on work. We drink some poor-quality wine from a gas station and watch movies. This will be our routine for the next few days: walk someplace, eat, go to the bar, and hang out in the hotel until bedtime. An occasional trip to the grocery store for vegetables and oatmeal. Our stay is punctuated by heavy rain and flash flooding, and I get caught out there a few times, soaking both pairs of shoes I brought. Mostly, I am in the room. I work and catch up on my TV shows, taking advantage of the better-than-average Wifi. The rooms are spacious and non-gross. I alternate between appreciating the relatively nice accommodations and champing at the bit to get the fuck out of here and play some shows. Everyone we meet is kind and hospitable, but they take it as a given that we didn’t choose to be here. “Y’all break down?” is a question we get a propos of nothing on more than one occasion. Certainly if we had family here, they’d know us already. Everyone we meet is over 40 or under 10. I get the sense that people our age just go to Houston to hang out, it’s only a little over an hour away. The guys who stopped to help us when we broke down were on their way there. I’ve traveled further on the subway to go hang out in Brooklyn when I lived in the Bronx, so I see how it could work.
I am pleased to find Real Deal Soul Food open the next time I go looking for it. It does indeed look like the real deal. A kitchen about the size of mine, and three or four small tables. It is the sort of place that has a menu but a substantial portion of the menu is not available on any given day. Carlos gets a pork chop sandwich, and I get the special: chicken fried steak.
I do not usually like chicken fried steak. For one thing, it tends to come with sausage gravy, which I find disgusting. For another, it tends to be the shittiest cut of steak, and therefore tough and gristly. But there is a guy sitting at a table eating what appears to be the chicken fried steak, and it looks really good, and the special is the best deal on the menu: $7.50 for the giant steak plus two sides. It is not just good, it is spectacular. I feel like I finally “get” chicken fried steak. The gravy here is a white chicken gravy rather than the standard congealed sausage mass, flecked with black pepper, adding a savory saltiness to the other elements. The breading is insanely crisp, and the oil tastes fresh and clean. A patron of the bar will later remark that the oil is clean because they don’t have very customers, which seems to be accurate. I can’t imagine why, this stuff is amazing. The steak within is legit tender and not at all gristly. It is the best of both chicken and steak. Green beans are stewed with bacon, which imparts smoke and salt. Mashed potatoes are buttery, hearty and savory. This is what people talk about when they talk about “stick to your ribs”. It is way too much food and I eat nearly all of it because it is just that good and I have a lot of feelings right now and I have decided to eat them. I want to curl up in the fetal position and sleep. I chase it with a sweet tea, which is indeed quite sweet but nicely balanced with lemon. I get some more tea for the road, and inquire about the next day’s special. It is a pork chop sandwich. This is not the sort of food one should eat every day, but hey, what else is there? I am not going back to the Mexican restaurant. At least Real Deal Soul Food succeeds at what it is trying to do.
Another culinary highlight of Weimar is Kasper’s Meat Market, where Carlos and I stop in to see about some sausage. I buy a small non-sausage gift for the lady back home, and I make conversation with the proprietor. He gives us a piece of jerky to sample.
It is incredible jerky. It is not moist, of course, but feels that way, chewier and meatier than jerky usually is. Most jerky is too dry, a sort of leathery meat-cardboard alienated from its animal origins. Kasper’s is en pointe. Everyone behind the counter is excited to hear that we are from New York. The proprietor says he and his family visited recently, and they loved it. They went to Times Square three days in a row. New Yorkers love to hate on Times Square, and I am no exception, but in this moment I think I get it. Coming from a place like Weimar, silent at night, with pretty much one of every type of business and no people walking the streets, Times Square must be positively mind-blowing. It would probably forever alter your perception of the world to go there from a place like this. The sheer array of things to do, whether or not you choose to do any of them, is intoxicating. It’s a hard place to navigate on foot, especially if you’re in a rush, because crowds of tourists are walking at a snail’s pace everywhere you turn. I would always wonder what they were looking at. But now I get it: they’re just savoring the feeling of being surrounded by so much activity.
On Tuesday, we get an exciting piece of news. Becca has made friends with a few of the regulars at the bar, and they have suggested that we play a show at the Weimar Tavern. Two people have volunteered to give us rides, and one of them will even drive us to the garage where the van is to get our gear. This is Southern hospitality to the max. I call the mechanic Wednesday morning to inquire again about the part, but it has not arrived. Looks like the show is on. I grab a pork chop sandwich from Real Deal to fortify myself. Like the steak it is crispy, delicious, and terrible for me.
Our driver, Anna, is a regular at the bar and operates a forklift for a living. She used to play guitar and sing, but her arthritis has gotten the best of her in recent years. We insist on hearing her demo tape, which she fortunately happens to have in the car. It is legit really good. She has a beautiful, haunting voice and is a solid guitarist. A small contingent of regulars has banded together to make the show happen: Anna, Denise, Mason, Kim, Mary, and Lizard, and a few others whose names escape me. Lizard is, of course, not his real name; he is called that because he is skinny and a good dancer. I recognize all these people from our previous visits to the bar, and it is extremely cool to be welcomed into the fold. They sit at the same table every day, and we take seats around it. There is plenty of room. We play a stripped-down set with minimal gear, quietly because there is only one mic going into a guitar amp and no PA. We play for an audience of maybe twelve people, with reactions ranging from mere curiosity to extreme enthusiasm. It is not as satisfying as playing at full volume, but it does us all a lot of good to play a set after so much inactivity. Anna puts out a bucket for donations, and the crowd is generous, even the guys in the back who hardly looked up from their cards. A few people buy records and shirts, and we all pose for a picture outside. We hang out shooting the shit with our new friends until closing time at 9, sharing road stories and looking at family photos. Mason and Anna insist on giving everyone rides back to the hotel. Southern hospitality is not just a figure of speech, it is a real phenomenon and we are the beneficiaries of it tonight. I sleep better than I have all week. We could have done a lot worse for places to break down. In fact, before long, we will. But that is a story for next time.