Sunday, May 27, 2012

Clean Water, Dirty Bars (or, Austin on three dives a night..)

Sky fire
Road Trip!

Austin is an oddity in Texasi. Even though our major cities tend to be little blue islands in a sea of redii, Austin ...well, Austin goes the extra mile. It's proud of its weirdnessiii and takes great pains to convince you of it. However, for all of that need for attention (being the little brother of the Houston-Austin-San Antonio triangle), Austin does have an authentic flavor that is undeniable. All that being said, I love the place. What it does well, it does very well. And what it does well is dive bars, barbeque, and musiciv. I relish the chance to explore this city, and recently had the chance to do so for an evening with an ex-resident in a tour of some of the finer dive bars of north Austin.

A month ago, I took a job-sponsored road trip out to New Braunfels for a conference on bacteria source tracking in surface waterv. This is the first time in a while I had a colleague along, a gentleman of fine taste in music and drinking establishments. After the conference, while deciding where to eat locally, he suggested we take a short road trip and catch some music. Now the logical thing for us to do would be to go out with the rest of our work acquaintances in the local cantina. The slightly less logical thing would be to drive to San Antone, right down the road a piece. The completely illogical thing would be for us to drive all the way to Austin. So Austin it was. Road trips aren't road trips if they're sensible.

We planned to catch a late show, so we had some time to kill. My imminently wise colleague suggested a tour of his old haunts, which turned out to be a true connoisseur’s tour of choice dive bars of Austin. There is just some thing about a dive bar. That heady scent of beer, sweat, and mold mixing with the ozone of badly wired amps and desperation coming from the no-name bands plying their luck with the listless regulars. And nobody does dive bars like Austin.

We started at Trophy's Bar and Grill, an unassumingvi little place that ended up being my favorite for the night. It was straight ahead Austin, no frills. A bar stocked with Texas beersvii, a rundown stage with an equally rundown alt-country act playing to yet even more rundown locals. The bartender, one of the epic alternative girls who seemingly exist only as baristas in independent coffee shops and bartenders, could tell we, or at least I, were tourists, but was pretty cool about it. Austin's good like that. Trophy's was the California side of Austin; laid back, spinning its wheels, but not getting too stressed about it.

Trophy's Bar
and Grill

The next stop was the Carousel Lounge. Words fail me. The Carousel was that fine line where irony and sincerity drunkenly two-stepviii. There was a pronounced, and inescapoably creepy, circus theme, including an elaborate bar, and décor that seems to have gone unaltered since the 60's. But the beer was cold, so, actively avoiding the stare of the clowns scattered throughout the room, we had at itix. There was an odd bit of performance theater taking place on the other side of the lounge, with a scruffy alterna-gent speaking in serious tones about his art with a small and equally trendy group of youngsters. It amounted to him playing a video of some art piece, so it was a bit anticlimatic, but that's ok..we weren't in the mood for pretentious art that evening. In terms of dive bar aspects, the Carousel embodied the creepy side of the dive bar experience. Not as enjoyable as the Trophy, but part of the overall experiencex.

The Carousel décor, and some experimental pretentious music somethingorother.

The third sojourn of our dive-bar hat trick came as the result of a conversation with a grizzled old regular at the Carousel. Unamused by the pretentiousness expounding in the back room ,she began to talk to us about other places and what a shame it was some of them weren't around. During the conversation she mentioned a place that sparked my colleague's attention. They talked about “Lala's” as if it were a mythical lost city. I knew as soon as I saw the spark in his eyes, we were headed there hell or high water. After a bit of searching we finally found itxi. Well, if this place was truly the stuff of myth that the old gal had made it out to be, it was likely a myth from a people with somewhat subdued expectationsxii. , because the reality was a bit..understated. It was fairly ho hum. More like the small town bar and grill places I grew up withxiii. Except the Christmas decorations. It seemed the place was lit solely by the never-ending heaps of Christmas lights, santas, trees, and collected kitsch. Even more so than the Carousel, it was anyone's guess if a season's lazinees in taking down the lights devolved into irony, or whether it was specific fetish of the ownerxiv. For whatever reason, Santa watched us drink a single beer, and then hastily beat a retreat for the door. In the fashion of the other bars, I would say that Lala's is the element of desperation and loss inherent to a good dive bar. A misplaced whimsy for time gone by as life passes youxv.

Lala's interior – lit by the light of a thousand tiny LED suns.

Having completed our study of the various aspects of divebar lore in Austin, it was time for a quick dinner before the main event. We stopped at Threadgills, a local fave, and as much as the BBQ enticed me, I went with the equally Texan, equally heart-clogging chicken-fried steak.

Chicken-friend Steak
Threadgills and a Chicken-fried steak

It was almost time for the show, so we meandered back to the center of town and made our way to the Continental Club for the showxvi. Sadly, the act we were there to see wasn't able to make it because of an injury. We stuck around anyway for the replacement act, which ended up being fairly goodxvii. AWe are even pretty sure that the small beareded gentleman in sunglasses who made his way from the private rear entrance at the Continental (with a decent entourage) was one of the guys from ZZ Top. He was pretty cool about it, if he was. He walked in, gave a nod to the music act on stage, and to the bartender, and then walked past us.

ClubDavid at the
Continental Club
The Continental Club, and a short snippet of main act David (pronounced Dah-veed) Garza.

All in all a good night...3 dive bars, a damn good steak, and a show. Counts as a good road trip in my book.

The only thing we ended up missing was the notable Gruene Dance Hall in New Braunfels. I stopped by for a picture, but it was closed.

iThat would have probably been better worded as “San Antonio is an oddity, EVEN FOR TEXAS.”
iiWhich completely doesn't jive with the virulently red State governance that squats atop the hill overlooking the City proper. It's been argued quite energetically over the years as to whether the wrought iron gate around the Capitol is designed to keep Austintonians out, or legislators in.
iiiEven though it's not quite as weird as it likes to think it is. More of an alt-country Portland.
ivA friend was planning a trip through Austin, among other cities, as she and her fiance prepared to be wed. I did not hesitate to give a three word answer (followed by a three page explanation) for Austin recommendations. BBQ, Music, Dive Bars. The holy trinity, though it's a matter of theological debate as to whether Music is the Father, birthing the Dive Bar, in that metaphor, or vice versa. Either way, BBQ is the Holy Ghost. It's somewhat hard to really comprehend, but it's presence is felt even after it's gone, and it can change your life. Sacrelicious.
vAnd here you thought this was going to be a Hunter S. Thompson-esque road trip story. We we there for SCIENCE ™, but got some shenanigans in on the side. Not Fear and Loathing, by any means...more along the lines of “Mild disquiet and General Antipathy in Austin”
vi..and deservedly so.
viiWhich are polarized between horrible swill (Lonestar, Pearl) and truly transcendant goodness (Real Ale, Independence). And a Shiner Bock to rule them all.
viiiIt really was impossible to tell if this was earnest at one point, and decayed into irony, or was irony taken to the nth degree.
ixLest that sound more rambunctuos than it was, “having at it” was not an alcoholic free-for-all. It was a beer. There was bacterial DNA analysis to ponder the next morning.
xAt this point in the evening we, or at least I, had decided that this was not just a tour of bars to waste time...this was observational/participational sociological study at its most honed. I was not just having a Shiner in a weird bar for lack of somehting better to do...I was having a Shiner in a weird bar FOR POSTERITY.
xiNone of these places were in especially good parts of town, but Lala's...well, I was pretty happy not to get shiv'd on the way to the front door. And most of the folks there were seniors...
xiiUnlike the Norse with their clashes of powerful gods at Ragnarok, or the Greeks with epic war heros and jelaous deities, the myth of Lala's is apparently more along the lines of “Yeah, one time Zeus saw this really cool tree. Yeah, that's it.”. In other words, not exactly cosmogenic.
xiii kind of depressing little joints with a lot of old pensioners and dust forming distinct strata on the unreachable high surfaces. Almost universally dark; threadworn of carpet and customer.
xivDear Hoarders, Do you give a finders fee?
xvAs Stevie Smith said of the celts, Lalas is like a lady “who was beautiful once, but is not so much so now.” I have no idea why that popped into my head. Especially since I thought Kipling said that...
xviThere seems to be some debate as to whether the Continental Club is properly classified as a dive bar. It has dive bar elements, but I'd say it's too nice and too prominent to be a dive bar. Or maybe, it's simply the Ur dive bar...the archetype for dive bars taken to some fantastic extreme.
xviiApparently the opening act was sort of a stuck-in-the-60's sort, so at first, a lot of the leftover clientele from her show were a bit of a mismatch for the current act, more of an alternative south by southwest feel with some jazz influences, etc.   

Monday, May 21, 2012

Greek Fest 2012

I may have mentioned one or twice before that I’m not a fan of the mega-church model that seems fairly prevalent in Houston(1). So it’s always been comforting that down the church from us  is St. Basil the Great Greek Orthodox Church. It's a small neighborhood church, with spaghetti dinners, a loyal and close-knit congregation, etc. It’s that classic American small church community.....well, except for the whole “we went and built a Byzantine castle” thing.

Perfect for solemn services, joyful celebrations, and holding off the Turks.

I cannot tell you how pumped I am to have this thing up the street from me(2). It’s a fantastic landmark,  an architectural triumph among a sea of strip malls and McMansions, and, well, when the zombie apocalypse comes it WILL be my redoubt.

Impregnable castle, built in sniper towers, and a lifetime’s supply of Gyros. Bring it on, Zombs.

The great thing about this church is that even with this massive cathedral of a church, the congregation still seems to be be comprised of old Greeks, families, and dancing children who have never, ever, heard of irony. It is authentic to the core, which truly shines during their annual Greek Fest.

Hipsters ran, hissing, from the unashamed wholesomeness of their dance

Even when we can’t stay long, we always stop by for a plate of fantastic Greek food,  to enjoy the atmosphere a bit, and support a great neighborhood institution. This year we only had an hour or so, so we walked(3) around a little, and then stopped delaying the inevitable, and sat down to eat ate a huge plate of pastichio and various pastries.

The Gyros, Souvlaki, Greek Pizza, etc all looked great, but the Pastichio plate was so good I forgot to get a picture until I was halfway done.

I was excited to get a chance to tour the new church. The inside was as impressive as the exterior, a blend of modern lines with byzantine art and classic touches. Two massive frescoed(4) alcoves flank an altar backed by panels of icons, soaring to a simple white dome with recessed windows giving a soft blue light. It really felt like a place out of time(5).

The inside made me feel a little blasphemous about considering it as a zombie-proof fortress. “Little”, not “completely”.

Of course, that was balanced a bit when we came out and the festival announcer was initiating the Gyro-eating contest. He called it “The Mount Olympus of mastication”(6).

I love this place.


(1) I mean no offense to anyone, of course, but growing up in a small village church surrounded by history and a sense of close-knit community, it’s hard for me to imagine how I could ever feel like I belonged to one of those generic, massive, multi-thousand person congregations that grow like city-states in the suburbs here. Add in a heavy dash of politics and a focus on buzz-words/jargon (and in some places, pretty heavy on the commercial side of things), and it just isn’t my thing.  

(2) If anything can break up the mind-numbing blandness of suburbia, it’s a massive octagonal fortress.

(3) I’m not as hardcore as some fellow planners about pedestrian friendly landscapes being the end all and be all of progress, but it is pretty great to be able to walk to a place like this.

(4) The frescoes were done in the gold-leaf sort of painting common to the GReek orthodox style, and was intricately accomplished. I wanted to ask someone there more about it, but didn’t get a chance to. It was such an odd contrast to the suburban landscape all around it.

(5) Cue Kansas’ “Byzantium”

(6) Which was hosted by “Major League Eating” which is apparently a real thing. The irony of this, given the current condition in Greece and the hardships of its people, was not lost on me.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Bird Migration Season 2012

Red-eyed Vireo

In the past few years I’ve been on an extended dalliance with ornithologyi. My original goal was to “learn” birds in the sense of being able to identify most normal species, and build up some degree of knowledge/loreii about them. Part of this is my own curiosity, part my role as a volunteer naturalist, and probably some appreciable part is a frustrated inner biologist stuck working in a windowless cubicle on dry regulatory documents. Whatever the impetus, I’ve spent the last couple years learning what I’ve could from the local expertsiii. I’m a far cry from the seasoned birders here who can identify something from even the slightest glimpse based on the most esoteric detail, but I have gotten a pretty good grounding on all things feathered.

Spring is migration season here on the upper Texas Gulf Coast. Many of the birds who migrate annuals from South America and Mexico are funneled through our couple hundred miles of coast before dispersing across the rest of US and Canada along the juncture between the massive Central and Mississippi Flyways. That all adds up to a lot of birds (and a lot of birders) all convening in the same location at the same time.

Sometimes quite literally...

This year was pretty slow as seasons go. Warblers, the bellwether group for spring, were down in numbers it seemed, and the winds were good. And by good, I mean they were bad. Let me explain…good winds for the birds (southerly tailwinds helping their flight over the Gulf) are bad for coastal birders because they push the birds far inland and disperse them over large areas. Northerly headwinds cause “fallout” conditions in which exhausted birds crash on the first specks of land they find, and allows for better birdingiv. Personally, camera and lens issues, and poor timing on a few tripsv led to a less than stellar season for mevi. Here are a few sort of highlightsvii, regardless (many of which are not even migratory.)

Willet on the
Avocets in flightSandwich Terns
Tanager (female)Orchard or
Baltimore Oriole (female) ?
SoraRoyal Tern in
Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Clapper Rail, Great Egret with Chicks, Blackburnian Warbler, Eastern Kingbird, American Avocets in Flight, Sandwich Terns mating, Dickcissel, Canada Warbler, Painted Bunting, Blue-headed Vireo, Black Skimmer, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Hooded Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Orchard Oriole, Sora, Royal Tern in flight, Green-tailed Towhee.

i Despite my emphatic insistence, the “birder” label is starting to creep into discussions about me. As I’ve pointed out, what I do is birding by default. I’m really excited about wildlife in general…and the preponderance of wildlife on the upper Texas Gulf Coast is avifauna.

ii Which are not always synonymous terms, in my experience.

iii Which, given the focal point of birding that is the Upper Texas Coast, are not hard to find here.

iv I secretly revel when people carp about bad winds, because it means it’s a good day for the birds, and bad day for the birders. Given the choice between the two, I’ll side with the former. It’s hard for me to make the ideological leap into being happy that birds will be falling out, just because it means I’ll have a better sightseeing experience.

v A large number of the folks involved in the birding passtime are of the retired set who can get out any day conditions are right. Those of us who work during the day often have to watch fantastic reports roll in during the week, only to be met with a virtual bird desert on weekend trips.

vi Nine new species, though only one was a warbler. Only 15 warblers total. 163 total species over 5 weeks. Given the usual bird density down here, this is not impressive.

viiWhile I included a picture of some Sandwich Terns mating, I would not consider this a highlight, per se. I had spent the better part of a half an hour slowly military-crawling up on wet sand, balancing a camer and binoculars, to a large mixed flock of terns and gulls. At about the same time, someone else on the beach spooked them, causing them to take off, and then resettle almost directly next to me on the beach. This was great for photography until several pairs of terns decided to get amorous right next to me. There is something deeply, deeply unsettling about being surrounded by squawking terns going at it.   

Friday, May 11, 2012


Old Iron (old jetty fixture)

I’ve spent a good portion of the last month down on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast for bird migration season. While most of my attention and effort has beeni in photographing feathered things, the Gulf Coast is a fantastic place for the detritus of human civilizationii, both that which washes up on shore, and that which is left thereiii. These are some shots of decay and discard from a visit to Bolivar Peninsula and High Island.

Kingdom of the
One-eyed Man
Kingdom of the One-Eyed Man


Out of the
Park (B&W)
Out of the Park



Sailing the
Seas (B&W)
Sailing the Seas

Party's Over




i Often futilely so…

ii And I’m, not just talking about Florida….hey-oh! Kidding, Florida, but you did kind of have that coming.

iii A lot of the upper gulf coast isn’t coast as much as it is a dense couple miles of marsh that gives the appearance of ground, but is something less. This vast marshy landscape is almost completely flat and relatively devoid of any human habitation. That is not, however, to say that it is devoid of human impact. As rich as this area is in things like ecosystem diversity and topographic….lackness?, it is (or was) equally rich in oil. The scabbered remains of thousands of wells, and all the attending infrastructure scars even the most remote pieces of the landscape. While these shots are mostly beach trash, there is an astounding physical record of our maiming of the landscape down here, simply because there’s not much use for the marshy coastal land, so whatever we build stays and decays there instead of being scraped away by the scouring wheels of progress in more developed areas. Old oil platform roads, levies, etc abound. There are several large National Wildlife Refuges in the area, most of them with old oil infrastructure throughout. Traveling through the area is like going among the inscrutable remains of an elder civilization, with crumbling metal monoliths and ancient paths giving little clue to their original purpose. It makes for an odd juxtapositions…feral places with no other human structure for miles will suddenly yield up unexplainable juggernauts of iron and stone.