Wednesday, April 25, 2018

April in New York

 If it’s April, it’s time for my not-quite-annual trip to New York City.

The trip started out as it usually does, waiting in the Walmart parking lot for the Megabus. I was hopeful that Thursday travel would mean that the bus wasn’t crowded; the seating is tight and I didn’t feel like getting intimately acquainted with a new friend. I reserved a seat on the upper deck. It wasn’t exactly the lap of luxury but it beat having to settle for the seat by the bathroom door.

Sure, I would miss the fifty yard-line seat when someone opened the bathroom door and a dead body with a needle still stuck in its arm fell out—something that really happened in State College—but it was a sacrifice I was prepared to endure.

As soon as we were under way, the driver got on the PA and announced that our rest stop would be near Mifflinville. I thought he said Mifflintown—which is en route to Philadelphia, not New York.  If someone could get on the Megabus to Philadelphia instead of New York, it would be me.

My fellow bus riders seemed like the typical Megabus crowd. Most of the people who got on with me were Asian students, but there were a handful of grown up academic types too. I sat across the aisle from two twenty-something granola types. They had lots of organic snacks with them.  The woman in front of me was carrying paperwork from the Allegheny County Jail. I think she might have been a former customer.

Soon enough we’d arrived at our rest stop. The driver announced that we’d be resting for 45 minutes.

Our dining choices were the truck stop’s convenience store, Arby’s, McDonald’s, and Subway. It was a veritable groaning board of fast food. It was no wonder that the bark eating couple brought free range heritage non-GMO organic kale chips flavored with sawdust. After taking the tour of the convenience store, I settled on McDonalds. I was hopeful that I wouldn’t see anyone I knew.

After lunch, I took a nap to make sure that my several weeks’ worth of saturated fats would be sure to settle in where they would do the most damage. I woke up when we hit a huge pothole on the far side of the Delaware Water Gap.  Welcome to New Jersey!

I make jokes about the Megabus being low rent, but my hat is off to our driver. He maneuvered that thing through Manhattan traffic like someone who’d done it a thousand times.  He was always in the proper lane, he didn't take any crap from New York drivers, and he wasn’t cowed by the throngs of pedestrians looking into their phones as they crossed streets, unaware of the world around them.

The bus stopped at 27th Street and 7th Avenue, right by the Fashion Institute of Technology. Banners hanging in its windows advertised an exhibition of the work of Norman Norell. I made a mental note to see it.

After grabbing my bag from the bowels of the bus, I took the subway downtown to my home for the next few days, the W Downtown.

My twenty-second floor room wasn’t a whole lot bigger than a king-sized bed, but the bathroom was generously proportioned.  My father used to say of campers and boats, “sleeps four, screws eight”.  If he’d been speaking about my hotel room he’d have said sleeps two, shits four.

From my west facing window, I could see a sliver of the Hudson River. I also had a view of Battery Park City and Cass Gilbert’s pre-Woolworth West Street Building. I’ve had worse views.

The WTC Transportation Hub, designed by Santiago Calatrava is just a block from the hotel. I've never caught a train there, but it's a great place to take a photo.

Bright and early Friday morning I went out for my obligatory shoe shine. It’s one of my New York rituals. Some folks go to Broadway shows; I get a shoe shine. There’s something very relaxing about sitting in the chair while, for a few bucks, the shoeshine person makes my shoes look better than brand new.  A shoeshine has to be the best deal in the city.

My go-to is Stanley’s, on Church St. in the Financial District. Stanley’s was established in 1957, just like me. It’s the kind of place where the Mets are always on TV, there’s always a New York Post to read, and I can scarcely understand what the employees say.

I usually look at a Playboy someone left behind. Yes, I’m all about the articles. Every year, I think, “Oh, they still print this?” The party jokes aren’t nearly as funny as I thought they were when I was in junior high.

After my shoeshine, I dodged raindrops and the going out of business sale at Shoegasm and headed over to the Whitney Museum of American Art to see the exhibition Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. He's not to everyone's taste, but I'm glad he may be getting his fifteen minutes of fame.

Lots of his paintings have been reproduced in American history texts over the years, so I was expecting to see some familiar stuff.

Since I’d bought a ticket online I was able to skip the line of New Yorkers, all dressed in black. I was the only passenger in the elevator where the elevator operator called me “young man”. A modern building with elevator operator? What’s up with that?!

I didn’t know, that Wood, in the Arts and Crafts tradition, had tried his hand at metalwork, glass, and fiber arts before landing for good on painting. He designed a corncob chandelier for the Montrose Hotel in Cedar Rapids.

One of his early works, The Adoration of the Home, commissioned by a realtor, made me chuckle.

A guard remarked that I was the only person in the room with American Gothic. I resisted the urge to take a selfie.

The text boxes told me that Wood was a repressed homosexual, though they skipped the opportunity to reference say that his drawings foreshadowed the work of Tom of Finland.

Grant Wood died of pancreatic cancer in 1942, at age 51. I hear pancreatic cancer is a bad way to go.

After Grant Wood, I zipped through some of the other galleries.  I enjoyed the art relating to protest movements, but the show on Zoe Leonard was lost on me. One of her pieces was a big collection of suitcases, one for each year of her life. Oh, she has baggage, I get it.

There was the requisite amount of American Gothic kitsch in the museum shop, including a portrait bust rendered in Lego blocks.  Its price was available on request (member discount: 10%) which is another way of saying “You don’t want to know”.

After getting my fill of The Whitney, I took a walk up the High Line to 245 Tenth Avenue, home of  the Yossi Milo Gallery. Although the rain had stopped, it was still too cold for anything other than a brisk walk. Judging from the snippets of conversation I heard as people walked buy, most of the people on the High Line that morning were tourists from other countries. Perhaps the High Line has turned into one of those things that real New Yorkers don’t do, like the Statue of Liberty?

I enjoyed the few guys here and there who seemed to be getting photographed for their SCRUFF profiles.

I hadn’t heard of either the Yossi Milo Gallery or the photographer Markus Brunetti until shortly before my trip. Thanks to a front page review in the New York Times, I was now in the know.  Brunetti shoots photos of European churches in astonishing detail.

He takes thousands of digital photos and then somehow melds them together into one super high res image.  The images are large—the review said one was 10 feet tall. The detail was so fine that you could see a pigeon sitting high on the façade of one of the cathedrals, just waiting to take a crap on a sculpture of St. Swithin.

The show wasn’t very big but the work is amazing. In fact, I could get into having one of those images in my house. Alas, as J.P. Morgan said about the cost of a yacht, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. I didn’t ask.

Since I was in the neighborhood, the next stop was that Fashion Institute of Technology exhibition on Norman Norell.

I’d not heard of him, but he was a big deal as a women’s clothing designer in the 1950s and 60s.  He died in 1972, on the eve of an exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to Wiki, Norell, born in Indiana as Norman David Levinson, was “sickly” as a child. He loved the theatre and moved to New York City as soon as he could.  Sometime after arriving in New York, he stopped being Norman David Levinson and “adopted the more soigné moniker” Norman Norell.  My guess is that he was an unrepressed homosexual. It’s hard to be repressed and have a soigné moniker at same time.

I don’t know much about fashion, but I did learn that Norell was a great at a Pilgrim collar. Actually, I didn't know that there was a thing called the pilgrim collar. The secret is in the interfacing, whatever that is.

The mermaid dress, that was one of his successes too. Don’t quote me on this, but a mermaid dress might be something made from jersey and covered in sequins. Then again, it might be something else entirely; the room was pretty dark and the evening gown competition was never one of my better events.

After a quick bite of lunch, it was time to head up to Grant’s Tomb.

Yes, I know you’re asking the question. Who goes to New York City and goes to Grant’s Tomb?

No one.

However, I’d just finished the new U.S. Grant bio written by Ron Chernow and so it seemed like the right thing to do.  Officially known as the General Grant National Memorial, it’s the biggest mausoleum in America. It houses the earthly remains of both U.S. Grant and his wife Julia Dent Grant—who, interestingly enough, became a friend of Mrs. Jefferson Davis when they were both widows in New York.

There were a handful of other visitors there when I was there. And I do mean a handful—there weren’t more than five of us at any one time. They’d probably read the Chernow book too. Not all that long ago, the place was in a terrible state—think Detroit ruins porn on the Hudson—but it looks pretty good today.

Getting to the memorial is half the fun—it’s a long ride on the #1 train—and then quite a walk from the station. Even so, you should go once, just to say thanks to a real American hero who, if not forgotten, has certainly fallen precipitously in the public’s esteem.

It's a huge thing, but then, at his death, US Grant was as big as Obama, both the Bushes and Carter combined. And marking death with a big something was hot in the 19th century. Napoleon and Prince Albert are not exactly wilting violets in the memorial department.

Right after Grant’s Tomb, I walked across the street to Riverside Church, constructed in the late 1920s through the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. If Gothic churches are your thing, you’ll love it.  It’s stunning. There was a choir of young adults making a joyful noise to The Lord.  It sounded lovely. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay long since I wanted to go back downtown to see a show at the International Center for Photography.

The show was Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II.

In early 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed an executive order requiring Americans of Japanese ancestry living in the western states be relocated to internment camps.

Though today it seems inconceivably racist, Roosevelt’s decision was later backed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Korematsu v. US

Approximately 120,000 US citizens and resident aliens were uprooted from their homes and businesses and forced to move into camps located in remote parts of the west. While this is a shameful episode in American history, no one should confuse the camps with Japanese or German concentration camps. No one was gassed, there were no crazy medical experiments performed on inmates, and prisoners were not forced to build a railroad through the jungle, as in The Bridge on the River Kwai

The exhibit documented the lives of the camp residents from FDR’s issuance of Order 9066 until late in the war when the “threat” had passed and the camps were closed. Some of the photos are by famous photographers like Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, while others were shot by unknowns (at least to me). It’s quite moving.

As I checked out the exhibits, they reminded me of the only time I remember my father writing his congressman.

The Federal government was considering giving financial settlements to Japanese Americans whose lives had been uprooted by internment. As you would expect from someone whose foreign policy views were best expressed by the maxim, “the only good German is a dead German”, he was against it. He pointed out to Rep. William F. Clinger that his high school classmate who went down with the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor did not receive a settlement from the Japanese government. 

In 1990, after action by Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush (and my father’s death) camp survivors began to receive redress payments of $20,000 to each surviving internee.

Run, do not walk, to see this exhibition.  Both the photos and the stories they tell are amazing.

Friday evening, I tried out reflexology and so, Saturday morning, with my qi reinvigorated, refurbished, and rearranged, I was ready for an early morning at the New-York Historical Society.

I went to see Pulitzer Prize winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed and Carol Berkin “explore the complex legacy of Thomas Jefferson”, focusing on his pre-Presidential career. At $48 a head, this was not going to threaten a shoeshine as the best deal in the city.

My first impression was that the two presenters didn’t look much like their photos.  I guess this phenomenon is not limited to realtors or guys on Grindr. Instead of a formal lecture, the two historians chatted back and forth, as if it were a talk show. Ms. Berkin played the part of Jimmy Fallon, and Ms. Gordon-Reed was the big star with a bad hangover promoting her latest movie. After the talk I went to the gift shop and bought Ms. Gordon-Reed’s new book so that I could have it signed.

Signed book in hand—even at the New-York Historical Society the line to have a book signed by a historian isn’t very long— I did the jiffy tour of the other temporary exhibits.

One was on Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the parallels in the last years of their careers. The second covered the use of migratory bird feathers in fashion in the 19th c.  Creepy stuff.

As I tried to go into marquee exhibit on the Vietnam War, a guard stopped me and told me that I needed to show my admission sticker. I explained that I’d paid for the talk and so didn’t have one.

She directed me back to the admission desk where they wanted me to fork over another $21, after my $48 lecture ticket and buying the book at retail. Yeah, no thanks.

I got mad and maybe a little even with a bad review on Google.

There was just time to walk through Central Park (something I’d never done) to meet tour guide Deborah Zelcer for her tour Art Wars! The Founding of the Met, MOMA, and the Whitney, (and What Each Will Argue Is Art). Not exactly a catchy title, but it still sounded like an interesting tour.

I learned about Ms. Zelcer and her business Prowler NYC Tours by listening to the Bowery Boys podcast.  The Bowery Boys (Greg Young and Tom Meyers) talk—in an informal and engaging way—about the history of New York City. Ms. Zelcer was a guest expert on one of the episodes I’d heard.

We met on the street corner across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was skeptical at first. It was cold. It was windy. I’d already walked I don’t know how far, but it sure felt like far enough. I hadn’t had any lunch. But once the tour started, I was all in.

Deborah has an engaging personality and stage presence out the ying-yang. She was a true New Yorker when it came to dealing with wayward bicyclists, trucks, and crazy people, all of which New York has in abundance. They didn’t deter her in the slightest.

We went from the Met to the somewhat defunct National Academy of Design to the Guggenheim via Jackie O’s old apartment building. After the Guggenheim we went by Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie, ending up at the Met Breuer. Ms. Zelcer explained how the design of each building reflected on the movers and shakers who put them up. Her tour navigated that middle spot in a Venn Diagram of the things of interest to historians/architects and things of interest to the wider public.

It would have been nice if we could have included The Frick Collection and perhaps even the Museum of the City of New York in the outing, but I think Ms Z. believed in the show business adage, ‘always leave them wanting more”. I tried to tip her but she said that a good review was better. The next time you’re in New York, go on one of her tours—she offers a bunch. She was great.

After the tour made haste to the Downton Abbey costume show. It’s quite amazing that several years after the show was on TV, an exhibit of costumes and whatnot (more costumes than whatnot) is still packing them in. Grant’s Tomb would be astonished if it had as many people in a day as I saw at the Downton Abbey show in an hour.  The costumes were great, but since I’d learned all about Pilgrim collars and mermaid dresses, I was expecting technical details about silhouette, interfacing, plackets and all that. Uh, no. But hey, I saw Lady Mary’s basic black cocktail dress. That thing was tiny. She apparently did not eat.

Saturday evening was set aside for the traditional (at least for my friends C. and D.) dinner at one of Manhattan’s divey-est of dive bars, The Ear Inn. It’s two small rooms crammed with twenty to seventy somethings trying to be heard over the din created by twenty to seventy somethings who’ve had some cheap (by New York standards anyway) drinks. My friend Molly told me that a friend of hers (a jazz trumpeter) is in the band that plays there on Sunday nights. It would be the perfect place to take a date that you don’t want to talk to, hear, or spend much money on.

Sunday meant taking the train back to central Pennsylvania. I had about an hour’s wait in Penn Station since there was some sort of mechanical problem with the train, but once we boarded it was a pleasant trip.  At first, you look out at the back of every toxic waste dump and scrap metal yard in North Jersey, but soon enough, you’re looking at the back of the never going to be gentrified parts of Philadelphia.

Shortly after we left Paoli, there was an announcement over the PA asking any doctors or nurses on the train to come to the back of the train. They didn’t ask for anyone who had experience with insurance forms, so there wasn’t anything I could do to help. Then the train made an unscheduled stop in Exton. Obviously, something was going on.

When I got off the train in Lewistown, the conductor said that someone had a heroin overdose and had to be taken off the train in Exton.

Yikes.  I thought that only happened on the Megabus!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Not too long ago, my sister, my nephew Bryan, and I went to Midland, Texas to clean out my brother’s house following his death from congestive heart failure. Rob didn’t have family other than his relatives Back East, so if the job were going to get done, we were the ones to do it.  My sister and her family had lived in Midland from 1980 to 1990, so she and Bryan knew the lay of the land. That made our time there much easier.

Midland, for those not in the know, is midway between Fort Worth and El Paso, which translates in English to the middle of nowhere. Vintage postcards said the place was "the land of the modern pioneer", which, I suppose is better than, "a place you don't want to live if you can help it". Midland sits atop a geologic formation known as the Permian Basin, which, fortunately for the town, is filled with oil. Population wise, Wiki says Midland is the 24th most populous city in Texas which puts it someplace between Mesquite (144,788) and Waco (132,356), two cities not on my bucket list.

Carolyn and I flew from Pennsylvania and rendezvoused with Bryan, who lives in North Carolina, at the DFW Airport, which has the largest Coke machines I've ever seen. The airport is so large that the tram from one terminal to another takes forever and a day to get you to your destination. 

My sister pointed out the Braniff International Chapel. I’m not sure if a chapel named after a dead airline is the most peaceful place in an airport, but it probably beats the reverie you’ll find in line at a tchotchke shop while waiting to buy a $47 neck pillow that is guaranteed to look stupid hanging from your backpack.

Once we landed in Midland we had plenty of time to hang out in the Midland International Air and Space Port (yes, that’s really its name) since we’d taken advantage of a free offer to check our bags. We had to wait at baggage claim while the airline found some undocumented laborers to carry them from the plane to the terminal. My sister had plenty of time to pick up our rental car.

According to Visit Midland, the Midland International Air and Space Port is a tourist attraction since it’s home to the Pliska Aeroplane, the first airplane in the state of Texas. It was built in Midland in 1911 as a knock off of a Wright Flyer by John V. Pliska, a blacksmith, and Gray Coggin, a chauffeur and auto mechanic. It didn't fly very far, but since Texas had an airplane before Oklahoma, there was general rejoicing.

I was surprised to see Jehovah’s Witnesses hanging out at the airport. Who hangs out at airports these days, even if you do have to meet a monthly quota of selling subscriptions to The Watchtower? Perhaps they sensed that I’d had my fill of religion-to-go in walking by the Braniff International Chapel, but I got out of the airport with my own Watchtower subscription.

Almost all of the advertisements in the airport were about the oil industry. Some of them made me scratch my head and say "Huh?".

We didn’t work on Saturday evening but watched Penn State spank Michigan on the TV in our hotel lobby bar. We consumed enough adult beverages to think taking a selfie was a good idea. It's sort of out of focus. I think there was part of a burrito stuck to my phone.

Bright and early on Sunday, after going through the takeout window at local favorite, JumBurrito,  we went over to my brother’s house to get to work. As soon as we pulled up to the place, two neighbors came over to tell us how much they liked Rob, how nice he was to their kids and so on. I was pleasantly surprised since he and I often had a difficult time getting along. Obviously, they saw a side of him that I didn’t.

Rob’s house was a disaster. I’m not going to go into a lot of details other than to say that his house was the dirtiest place I’ve ever seen, and since I have plenty of experience cleaning up student rentals, I have some bona fides in this department. We wore masks and gloves and at one point even Tyvek suits as we filled three 20-yard dumpsters with the leftovers of Rob’s life.

I’m glad his neighbors liked him, but why didn’t they tell someone that his house was unfit for human habitation?

When I cleaned out my mother’s house and my aunt’s house, there were occasional nostalgia-inducing moments where I would open a drawer and find an old birthday card, prom photo, or postcard of some motel in a town I’d never heard of. There was nothing like that at Rob’s house. Unfortunately, I never understood the gravity of his mental health issues and how they affected his ability to take care of himself.

Cleaning up the place meant garbage bags, duct tape, and so on, so we made a bunch of trips to Lowe's and the local hardware.

Lowe's in Texas is the same as it is everywhere else, except Texas was the only place where I’ve seen a guy wearing a #buildthewall tee shirt...
...and a woman in thigh high boots on the same day.

After a day of cleaning we went back to our hotel, showered, put our dirty clothes in the washer and headed out to dinner. We ate a place in downtown Midland called Wall Street Bar and Grille. It was a place my brother went to from time to time. For all his issues, he knew how to find a good meal. The restaurant was near the George H.W. and George W. Bush United States Court House.

Midland Menus describes the place as “Midland as Midland gets.”  I couldn’t tell you how long it had been there, but a long time. Even the menu was old fashioned: steak, chops. No artisanal, heritage, free-range, non-GMO tofu dusted with kale pollen in this place. The service and food were top notch. And the place still hands out matchbooks too.

Downtown Midland is pretty generic, like Oklahoma City, though I didn’t see an office tower named Corporate Tower as they have in Oklahoma. Some of the older places, like the Midland Tower and Midland Map Company had a bit of personality. One of the banks had, in addition to the traditional time and temperature, a digital reader board that also showed the price of oil and natural gas, and the active rig count in the U.S. Yeah, they don’t do that back east.

After dinner we drove by my nephew’s old high school. We found the names of some folks he knew on the wall of commemorative bricks outside the main entrance. There were a few cars in the parking lot.  Judging by the kinds of cars and how they were tricked out, Bryan concluded that the “kickers” or as we would say, rednecks, parked in the same section of the parking area that they did 30 years ago. Plus ça change, podner.

Another thing that hadn't changed was the architectural gem known as the Pepto-Bismol House. It made me think of my Aunt Doris. She was on a first name basis with "Pepto".

Day two we were back at it and my nephew found the find of the trip, a VHS copy of Knockers #29. I didn’t get my phone out to take a photo since I didn’t want to accidentally drop my phone into a garbage bag.

For lunch on Monday, we opted for a place that my sister and nephew enjoyed when they lived in Midland in the 1980s, Johnny’s Bar B-Q. Johnny’s is a local landmark and has been in town seemingly forever. BBQ in Texas is a very personal thing. As they say in gay bars, "One man’s meat is…..OK, well, I don’t need to go into that right here.

Even though the place is surrounded by office towers worthy of oil barons, Johnny's wasn’t particularly upscale. Frankly, it was great to be in a non-chain restaurant, which is so easy to default to after a morning of beavering away throwing crap into a dumpster.

The owner, Tami Gilleam, has to be the friendliest bbq lady in all of West Texas. When my sister told her that she’d moved away from Midland in 1990, they chatted away as if they were long lost high school chums. Tami couldn’t have been nicer. She was way too polite to mention that the three of us smelled like my brother’s house, which no one would mistake for the Chanel No. 5 factory.

The bbq I’m familiar with is pork, most frequently served as pulled pork, in a sauce that’s either tomato or vinegar based. North Carolina is famous for its pulled pork. My thoughts on pulled pork are the same as my father's on drinking: if God made anything better, he kept it to himself. 

In West Texas bbq, is typically beef brisket, though there are other options like turkey and so on, if you’re a weenie. And in Texas, lots of bbq is cooked over mesquite. North Carolina has lots of problems, but thankfully mesquite trees aren’t one of them.

I had some brisket and turkey (yes, I’m a weenie) with side dishes of southwest corn (think creamed corn and then some), cole slaw, and Texas toast. It was delicious. My sister and nephew stuck to the brisket and thought it was topnotch, too.

After lunch, Tami told me that she had a local artist paint the pig vignettes that decorate the walls of the restaurant in order to give the place an Austin-ish vibe. Each one represents a special Midland organization or business. I loved them, but creating an Austin-ish vibe is a challenge in a place where in the last election 78% of the votes went to the Republican presidential candidate, and there wasn’t even a Democratic candidate for the Congressional seat.

Tami also told me that Laura Bush’s father was a friend of the original Johnny. He and Johnny used to engage in tomfoolery involving drinking, gambling, and whatnot back in the day. I didn’t ask for a whole lot of details since Carolyn and Bryan were waiting to get back to the work site, so, when you go, be sure to ask Tami about it.

On day three of the clean-a-thon, Bryan flew back to North Carolina. But Carolyn and I were there for two more fun-filled days.

That afternoon we knocked off early, showered, and went to Midland’s premier touristy hot spot, 1412 West Ohio Avenue, otherwise known as The George W. Bush Childhood Home. It’s near downtown Midland, my nephew’s old school, and the Pepto-Bismol House. The site consists of the house and the visitors center that’s across the street.

We were the only visitors in the place.  Based on our experience, tourists needn’t worry about a timed ticket, or the shuttle bus from the satellite parking area, or getting ptomaine poisoning from something in the museum café. If you want an intimate experience, it’s the place to go.

The very nice director of the site greeted us and asked us what brought us there. My sister said “I’m a Republican!” which fortunately meant that we didn’t have to go into the “We’re in Midland to fill a dumpster with our brother’s crap” story right out of the starting gate.  The woman was the epitome of Texas friendly. My guess was that she’d have made everyone from Al Gore to Dick Cheney feel right at home.

We bought our tickets and she gave us the rundown on the site as we walked across the street to the house.  The place was built in 1939 by a woman named Mildred Etheridge, who lived there with her sister. The docent didn’t mention if Ms. Etheridge wore sensible shoes, but my mind went there since she was notably without a husband. Ms. Etheridge had an entrepreneurial bent and went on to build several other houses in the neighborhood. The Bushes bought the house in 1951.

The house isn’t very big—1,500 square feet, but it was home to George H.W., Barbara, W.  and his sister Robin, plus JEB, and Neal, who were born after Robin died of leukemia. Youngest son Marvin and daughter Dorothy were born after the family had moved out.

The house is more museum than house museum, that is to say, only the kitchen, W’s bedroom and a portion of the living room are interpreted as if it were during the years the Bush family lived in the house. The other rooms have very well done displays on the history of Midland and, interestingly enough, the place of baseball in the Bush family. Had this been a museum devoted to the Bryant family, that last room would have been about the place of the Whoopee Cushion in the Bryant experience. No one would ever mistake the Bryants for the Bushes.

I’ve only been to one other house museum of this vintage, so it’s a new experience to look at someone’s idea of a 1950s kitchen and think, “Oh, my grandparents had that exact roasting dish”. I don’t believe that any items actually belonged to the Bush family though the china matches a pattern the Bushes owned, and the refrigerator was formerly Laura Bush’s mother’s “extra” refrigerator. That is, what my family would call a beer refrigerator.

W’s room was probably neater than it was when he lived there, but, absent an unmade bed, some dirty clothes on the floor, and a Playboy magazine hidden between the mattress and box spring, it seemed like a reasonable approximation of what a boy’s room would have looked like circa 1955. Our guide told us that when Bush 43 visited the place, he lingered in his old room in a reverential moment, so the organizers must have done something right. Then again, he might have been waiting for the right moment to retrieve that old Playboy when no one was looking.

The place isn’t Mount Vernon or even the Herbert Hoover Birthplace in West Branch, Iowa but if you are taking a break from cleaning out your brother’s house, by all means go. The gift shop was nice too. George W. Bush isn’t to everyone’s liking but compared to certain presidents with orange hair and tiny hands, he’s speeding down the HOV lane toward being immortalized on Mt. Rushmore.

After our visit to the Bush home, we went to the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum. The museum is all about Midland’s A#1 industry.


...Black Gold...

...Texas Tea.

Admission was $12, which I thought was steep. We started out our visit with the orientation movie. Big mistake.

Without a doubt the Petroleum Museum had the worst movie I have ever seen in any museum. The film was called Mythcrackers which is a takeoff on Family Feud. The chipper host quizzed the contestants about fracking, oil reserves, and so on. Real edge of your seat type stuff. I couldn’t figure out if it were intended to entertain high school kids, but it didn’t entertain, educate, or even amuse us in a kitschy way. Frankly, it was a bit patronizing. We left early; it was that bad.

The rest of the museum is all over the place. There was a gallery on the role of oil in our lives. It was just OK.

There was gallery of mineral samples; I skipped that.

I lingered at the Petroleum Hall of Fame, though its digital interface didn’t work well.
And then I did a jiffy tour of the gallery of especially meh western art. And I'm speaking as someone who likes western-themed art.

The high-water mark of the museum was a gallery of vintage Chaparral racing cars built by Midland homie Jim Hall for the Can-Am series of races in the 1960s. They were really cool, but their connection to the oil business is tenuous. You could sit in a replica car as a photo op, but that experience wasn't designed with someone of my age and natural grace (or lack thereof) in mind.

If you go to the Petroleum Museum, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Go right to the cars, call it a day, and leave.

After topping off our tanks at the Petroleum Museum, we headed down the road to Midland’s more blue collar neighbor, Odessa, immortalized in the Buzz Bissinger book, Friday Night Lights.  We weren’t on our way to a high school football game. We were going to see Odessa’s version of Stonehenge.

Yes, Stonehenge.

Erected in the great American tradition of building something crazy in hopes that it will be a tourist attraction, a group of Odessans thought that their own Stonehenge would lure visitors from nearby I-20. I don’t think that archaeologists, or whoever decides these things, can really say that the Druids who built Stonehenge, didn’t build it to stimulate their own tourist-based cultural sector.  This Stonehenge, on the campus of the University of Texas-Permian Basin, is a very un-Texan-like 14% shorter than the real deal. The stone was donated by TexaStone of Garden City and apparently the company said to the LDD (Latter Day Druids), this is what’s free, deal with it.

I went to the real Stonehenge in 1978 and was underwhelmed. (I know, I’m a Philistine!) The one in Odessa is at least 14% more underwhelming, even if, unlike the original Stonehenge, it is right across the street from Home Depot.

This is the first fake Stonehenge I’ve been to, but according to Wikipedia they’re practically a dime a dozen. Carhenge, built from old cars in Nebraska, still exists but Fridgehenge, Phonehenge, Tankhenge, and Twinkiehenge have come and gone.  Surely Moanhenge, made from discarded VHS porn tapes--Knockers #1 to #28, perhaps, is on the drawing board somewhere. If you build it, they will to speak.

If you're into Stonehenge replicas, you should check out Clonehenge, a blog about that very topic. Who knew?!?

What could possibly top a Texas Stonehenge? The Odessa Jackrabbit, that’s what.

The big bunny, quite possibly the world's largest jackrabbit, is named Jack Ben Rabbit, after John Ben Shepperd, the man who spearheaded its construction in 1962. Shepperd was a segregationist and anti-communist, but pro-rabbitist, who, for whatever reason, thought that Odessa would benefit from a giant fiberglass jackrabbit statue. No, I don’t know what he was smoking.

Jack Ben Rabbit, who was wearing a red ribbon in a promotion of the local school district, is flanked by two historical markers. One, put up by the state of Texas, dishes out the facts about jackrabbits—fast, big ears, prized for food by the plains Indians and white folks too. Standard stuff.

The other marker, erected by Odessa Heritage in 1990 is about The World’s First Jackrabbit Roping. It’s worth repeating in full, through the magic of cut and paste:

Contest began as a “hare-brained” publicity stunt during the 1932 annual Odessa Rodeo, held at 3rd and Grant Street Site despite objections from out-of-town do-gooders. Local sheriff opposed event, but Mayor and Judge ruled no violation of Texas law. Cowgirl Grace Hendricks roped rabbit from horseback in five seconds flat, winning over numerous male competitors. Notorious contest revived in 1977 causing coast-to-coast outcry. Midand animal lover delayed action by liberating captive jackrabbits. Event proceeded on schedule when former prisoners returned at feeding time. Seven ropers competed on foot. Jack Torian placed first with a six-second scamper. In 1978, Humane Society blocked all future ropings with a court order. 

Texans really know how to write a historical marker, don’t they?

Interestingly enough, Grace Hendricks, here seen on the right, went on to become the first female Justice of the Peace in Ector County, Texas. I hope she administered justice with the same elan with which she lassoed jackrabbits.

After another day of work at my brother’s, my sister and I threw away our work clothes and headed back to Pennsylvania. Rob’s earthly cremains, which one of his friends delivered to us at the start of our trip, went ahead of us in a Priority Mail Flat Rate Box that I accidentally mailed to the wrong address. Oops!

Rob wouldn’t have wanted to go with us anyway: he hated flying coach.