A Tale of Two Cities – Why Houston is Unfairly Dissed in Favor of Austin

I guess city rivalries are a standard thing in almost every state of the U.S. I grew up in the Houston area, lived in Austin through most of the 1990’s, moved back to H-Town, and then recently back to Austin after living in Houston for many years. I like both cities a lot, for different reasons.

But there’s a lot of weird hard feelings and mean-spirited criticism of both cities by people that live in the other, and it seems dumb to me. Especially considering that there are a lot of ignorant fools from outside of Texas that think the whole state is populated with subhuman stereotypes, or that the whole area in unfit for human habitation. They think Texas sucks and that we’re unsophisticated and stupid. Those are the morons we should save our disdain for, not people living a little less than 200 miles apart.

Rather than determine that one city is “better” than the other, it would be far more accurate to just say that they’re very different in many key ways, and the things that make one place paradise for a person, might make it a Hell for a different individual.

There is a really REALLY tired slogan for Austin – “Keep Austin Weird.” Oddly enough, I generally see that bumper sticker or t-shirt being used by the most average-looking people you can imagine. Middle-aged dudes in khaki shorts and topsiders that look like they probably are executives at a bank somewhere, or their completely mainstream (but slightly different) equivalent.

When you’re really weird, you don’t generally need to advertise that. You just are.

That annoyance aside, Austin quit being un-self consciously weird years ago, perhaps decades ago. For good or bad, it went from being a magnet for oddballs from all over Texas and beyond to becoming a hip place to live. It went from being weird to being cool. And cool is only cool if you like it that way.

Yes, Austin is still a college town, and it still has a very lively local music scene. But its population has also boomed, with people from all over the world moving here in droves. That’s fine, but it’s killing a lot of the quirky, small town feel that Austin had been known for. Throw in gigantic music festivals like SXSW that seem to draw a mostly out of town audience while the locals avoid it, and this does not seem like the odd little college town with a great local music scene that it once was.

Yes, many of the local places and pastimes that seemed to mark Austin as a unique city are still around. You can still go cool down at Barton Springs, or see the bats on Congress, and there is live music happening all over town, but it seems more like a Disney World replication of the Austin of years ago. Seeing families with children all over town makes it seem like you’re in some sort of approximation of what a “cool college town” would be if it were sanitized for suburban consumption. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but the spirit of this town has changed a lot, and I suspect that it will continue to.

Houston, on the other hand was never burdened by an image as a hip weird place where “anything goes!” It always seemed to be considered a good place to raise a family and make a living by Texans, but hip it was not.

I have to report that in the decades that I’ve bounced back and forth between these two cities, I’ve experienced just as many weird shenanigans in Houston as I did in Austin. It’s actually a lot more accurate to say “Keep Texas Weird” because Texas IS weird, an enormous state marked by its diversity of people and places. This state often gets snubbed by people from outside of it because…well, because people are stupid and mean, and because some will use anything they can to try to feel superior to others.

Austin is the sort of place where everyone you meet is an “artist” of some sort, and everyone is self consciously trying to broadcast how weird and edgy they are… While producing very little.

Houston wears it’s weird more secretly. It remains hidden, not self promoted as much, and then one day you realize that the quiet normal looking guy you work with has created art or music that’s really cool and strange without most people even knowing it.

I’ve known quite a few idiots that can’t conceive of living anywhere except for a small handful of cities. Places like San Francisco, Portland Oregon, New York City, Seattle, and unfortunately Austin also seems to be on that list.

We all like what we like, and that’s fine and dandy. Acting like anyone living outside those places is a cretin is both pretentious and shows a stilted elitism on the part of the moronic clowns who think that only those places matter. There’s a HUGE country outside of those cities, and it’s not all hillbillies and idjits occupying it. I’ve been all over this country multiple times, and discovered that, almost without exception, people are pretty much the same everywhere. Yes, some cities and even states have a certain “feel” to them that sets them apart from others, but I’ve never found a place that just won over all the rest.

To the people that have found that place that is perfect to them, great. Please move there, enjoy your life, and shut the fuck up about how everywhere else sucks. No one wants to hear from people like you.

Anyway, while Austin has long attracted a certain dubious fame as a hip city, Houston never has. But let’s look a little closer at the things Houston has to offer a person.

1. Houston has Great museums and a good art scene.

Let’s just get that one out of the way first. Houston has many exceptional museums. I’ve been going to the Natural Science a museum and the Museum of Fine Arts since I was a kid. I took summer art classes at the Glassell School of Art, and have hung out at the Menil Collection museum since I was young. There’s a Printing Museum, the Children’s Museum, and countless galleries throughout the area. Then you have the Commerce Street Art Warehouse, and the Orange Show, two longtime havens for local artists of all types. Houstonians have the opportunity to see work by contemporary artists, or head to see work by artists like Andy Warhol and Van Gogh. The city has an enormous art presence. It’s also known as a hotbed of folk art, as places like The Orange Show, Beer Can House, and Art Car Museum demonstrate. Houston also has a vibrant street art scene, and if we’re talking about music, the often dissed city has had a huge impact of popular music, particularly the hip hop world.

Austin is full of artists of various types, and it would never seek to insult the creative people in this city, but its museum presence is negligible compared to Houston’s, which is world class. Musically it’s got a lot going for it, but a Austin can’t touch Houston in regards to museums or other artistic venues.

2. Houston is the most ethnically diverse city in America.

Yes, even more so than New York City, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. This is probably shocking news to some people outside of Texas, but would not surprise most Houstonians who’ve bothered to look around town in the last couple of decades. Houston is full of people from all over the world, and is truly an international city now. There are many areas of town that offer cultural experiences brought from places like Russia, China, Vietnam, Mexico, and the list goes on and on. Perhaps the most notable effect this has had on the average Houstonian is the emergence of one of the nation’s best food scenes, but more on that later. It is common to hear people conversing in many different languages, and this melting pot of nationalities has infused Houston with a wealth of multicultural experiences to enjoy. The idea that Houston is some sort of cultural wasteland populated by lily white faces with red necks is utter bullshit.

Austin, on the other hand, still has a majority white homogeneous population. In a brilliant recent article in Texas Monthly, writer Cecilia Balli brought up the fact that it’s one of, if not the top, most segregated major cities in Texas. Minorities still live behind certain invisible geographic lines in this city, and seeing anyone that’s an immigrant from another country is rare unless they’re in town visiting, or going to UT. It’s just not a diverse mixing pot of people.

What you see a lot of here are a cross-section of white people. Austin’s not even as influenced by Hispanic culture as many other Texas cities are. Austin seems to be full of youngish white folks, a lot of whom are pretty comfortable, having come from nice middle or upper middle class backgrounds. They tend to be more socially liberal than young people in some other Texas cities, and some may look “weirder” – getting a few tattoos, piercings and a weird haircut while they spend their parents’ money pursuing an Art Degree or whatever. They’ll hang out at Austin music clubs, and keep it all weird, until they hit their early thirties and clean up their acts to assume their entitled positions of privilege (that were waiting like the wings of an angel to catch them if they fell the whole time). Then they’ll have kids with whimsical names, and will trade in their Fuck Emos shirts for khaki shorts and flip flops.

One will hear a lot of political and social outrage from these young Austinites, it’s like a real life version of some pissy Facebook community. Of course, there are minorities and white working class people making this city roll along, but those Peter Pan type young Austinites sure are plentiful. A lot of time they’re just waiting tables and biding their time before they can cash in their trust funds and move to some other urban paradise like Portland, which strikes me as an even more affected “weird” city. Grow thy beards and ride thy unicycles. Please just do it somewhere outside of Austin. We’ve got enough of that crap here already.

I guess my point is that Austin seems full of entitled white kids play-acting at struggle, while the people that really ARE struggling (minorities and working poor whites) either can’t afford to live here anymore, or are too busy trying to survive to go check out some fucking music festival. Houston offers a lot more things for people of all types, and socio-economic groups to enjoy.

Which brings us to…

3. Houston is cheaper to live in.

Surprisingly, that’s NOT true over all. Houston is actually a little more expensive than Austin in most ways that people measure their cost of living, and that includes rent, utilities, and groceries. But the average income is also marginally higher in Houston, and where the disparity comes into play is in scale. Houston is a big freaking city, and when we’re talking about things like rent that’s important. Yeah, it’s expensive as fuck to rent a decent place in the previously quirky and affordable Montrose neighborhood, but a broke ass Houstonian can find reasonably priced places to live in many other not so in-demand neighborhoods. Austin is not as small as rumored – it’s currently the 11th largest city in America, and grows with a steady influx of new residents with every passing day. But there are fewer and fewer cheap places to live here. Unlike the mighty sprawl that is Houston, pretty much every neighborhood here is getting pricey, so those rent averages are less “average.” If every place available is $1200 a month, does that make it better when Houston’s average rent is say $1300, but that takes into account rents in the $1500 range AND places that cost much less? You just don’t have a wide range to choose from if you’re on a limited income. InHouston, you’re more likely to find something livable for less.

When it comes to home prices, that also seems to be the case. I live in a modest 1300 square foot home with a train track behind it. It’s nice, but far from palatial. For the same money in Houston, I’d have my pick of much bigger places in some nice neighborhoods. Your home buying money just goes a lot further in H-Town. It’s been weird seeing formerly affordable neighborhoods mutate into hip hotspots over the last twenty years. The run down homes that I once rented in a South Austin would cost close to half a million dollars to buy now. That’s no joke. Some of those places were selling for $80,000 back in the 1990’s.

But this one is somewhat of a draw when either city is compared to other places nationally. Texas cities are just far more affordable for the average person than many other cities across the USA. Neither Austin or Houston bury the other on value.

4. Food. Houston is one of the nation’s best food cities.

It just is. I think it’s pretty obvious to any Houstonian who eats out a lot that the city is pretty special in that regard. It’s part of that international and ethnically diverse trend that’s been happening in the Houston area for decades. You can easily find many different options when it comes to eating in Houston. Vietnamese Pho is everywhere, along with a Indian food, Tex Mex, Cajun, and everything else under the sun. There are thousands of restaurants ranging from four star affairs down to food trucks dotting the culinary landscape of Houston.

Austin, on the other hand, offers much less variety.

Sometimes it feels like Austin has three types of basic cuisines – (mostly watered down) Tex Mex, BBQ, and “Breakfast.”

Be prepared to have black beans and home fries with every fucking meal when you eat out. Also be prepared to encounter vegan and vegetarian options everywhere, including the BBQ joints. I’m not saying that’s a “bad” thing, just that eating out here is pretty homogenized and boring after maybe a year. Houston in comparison is a dining adventure that seems like it could take a lifetime to explore.

But hey! You want some black bean goo on that burger! Fuck it, we HAVE that here!

5. For all of the negative stereotyping, Houston is a tolerant town in general.

Maybe it’s all of that ethnic diversity, or the huge gay population, but Houston is a pretty tolerant place to live. There’s an openly gay Mayor, making it the city with the highest elected homosexual person in the nation. Houston has the Pride Parade, and just feels like there’s a “live and let live” attitude there. Not every place in the country can boast that. I work with two lesbians who came from New York, and both have told me that they encountered a lot less discrimination when living in Houston than either New York or Austin. Granted, that’s anecdotal, but I see no reason to doubt their experiences.

Austin is pretty friendly to gays too, but they don’t have the developed community or leadership here that Houston provides.

When it comes down to it, Houston and Austin are both great cities in their own way, and we should collectively hone our hatred for the miserable shit hole that is Dallas, home of thieves and villainous scum.

OK, maybe Dallas is alright. I’ve never spent a lot of time there.

Let’s get a couple f other things out of the way. Houston by and large is not a “beautiful city”, although it has a sort of spiraling urban charm that some people come to love. I certainly do. Austin is in a very pretty part of Texas, and you’re never more than a few minutes away from some pretty bit of nature.

BOTH cities have traffic issues if that’s really important. I routinely drive during rush hour across town in both Austin and Houston, and I don’t get what the ruckus is. If you live in a big fucking city, traffic is part of the price you pay. I somehow have learned to avoid the traffic hotspots, other people should learn that survival skill too before bitching about “bad traffic”.

When it comes down to it, neither Austin or Houston really “win” over the other. Both are cool places to make a home, depending on what is most important to a person. If growing a stupid looking beard and mustache, and scooting down the road on a unicycle playing your ukulele sounds like paradise to you, you might be happier in Austin. But please do us all a favor and just head straight to Portland with that shit.

Seriously. We’re sick of that crap around here.

OK, more seriously. A young liberal person that wants to be surrounded by people much like themselves, and who really likes things like frisbee golf and seeing bands every night might enjoy Austin more than Houston. Someone that likes living in a huge city, with the cultural activities that offers, while enjoying a diversity of people and neighborhoods would probably enjoy Houston more.

The coolest thing is that you can like both. These are two Texas cities, not warring city states. I love both for very different reasons.

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Sizurp… Houston’s drink of choice.

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Black beans… You’ll be encountering a LOT of those little bastards if you eat anywhere in Austin.

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Always nice to go out and see a band in Austin…. Oh wait… Fuck that.

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Requiem For a Studio.

IMG_3352 IMG_3353 IMG_3357 IMG_3367 IMG_3383I remember the first time I ever set foot inside The Studio. My friend Renee took me there. She was a concert promotor at the time, and was friends with an intense local band named Bozo Porno Circus. They had a very cool studio that was located in the heart of the Montrose neighborhood. Soon after that introduction to the place, I was asked to join the band, a decision that would radically change the direction of my life for several years. Possibly forever.

The Studio was located right next to a nondescript mom-and-pop convenience store about a block from the major intersection of Montrose Boulevard and Richmond Avenue. I’d probably passed the place without noticing a hundred times in the past. To the left of the convenience store’s entrance was a blacked out door and display window.  A location that spawned so much Houston music was hidden in plain sight.

“The Studio” was Bozo Porno Circus’s home base, and was a nice set up. It was big enough for a large band like BPC to comfortably practice, was a good storage place for the numerous props and gear that we needed to perform, and was also set up as a recording studio. It was decidedly not fancy but it was one of the better practice rooms I’d ever seen, definitely nicer than any of the band rehearsal complexes that I’d been in prior to that.

As that band became a second family to me, the studio became a second home, and I spent almost every day there for several years. The studio had a benefactor and “System Administrator” named Al that kept the technical end of things running smoothly, while also paying a lot of the bills.

I wouldn’t know it at the time, but Al would go on to become a very good friend of mine over the years.

Without getting into the history of the bands that played in the studio back then, eventually BPC moved on and Asmodeus X became the main client. Even though my band had left, I liked the space enough to want to keep my foot in the door. Spaces like that one were not something I ran across often, and I’d grown quite fond of it over the few years I’d been there.

So I made a deal with Al, and my catch-all music project Pitchforque moved in. By then, the studio was known as Fjardeson Studios and other bands had found homes there.

Honestly, the place meant more to me as a gathering place for creative types and a club house as much as anything else, but it also was the location of a lot of great music over the years.

I became a much less frequent visitor over the last three or four years. There were many reasons for that, primarily a demanding work schedule out in the real world, and I sort of lost touch with the newer bands filtering through the place. Most of those people seemed to view the place as just another practice facility, and a lot of the comradeship that had made The Studio such an important part of my world seemed to taper off. Things change. Places change too. That might be one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in life. Change is inevitable, and it’s probably best to accept that reality rather than to attempt to hold on to something forever.

The Montrose has been gentrifying for the last twenty years at least, and recently it seems like that process has accelerated. It’s sapped away a lot of what made the neighborhood interesting to me, and it’s also made rents skyrocket.

The seemingly inevitable cycle of a neighborhood becoming desirable because of its local color, and then driving out the creative types that gave it its specialness is in high gear. The owners of The Studio property, the family owning the convenience store next door, doubled the rent. Taking it steadily from a “great deal” into “almost a mortgage payment” territory.

Al couldn’t really hang on anymore, and no one else could afford it either. The Studio was going to go away. I actually teared up when I heard the news. Places become a big part of our lives, and like a seemingly eternal family home, it was a shock to realize that the source of so many good times would soon be gone, replaced by a stupid nail salon or flower shop, something ordinary and lame.

But that’s life. I realized that with the loss of the actual place, a location I’d been a part of for over fifteen years, that the friendships I’d made there were the really important things, and that those will last forever.

The Studio will always be part of who I am, and its memory will last the rest of my life. I imagine some of the other people that were a part of that place feel the same way.

801 Richmond Avenue. I will always remember that place.

How to Paint a Motorcycle With Spray Paint and Get Great Results.

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Masking off everything I didn’t want to get paint overspray on.

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The hideous “Tribal Armband Tattoo” paint scheme I was getting rid of. It smelled of Overcompensation and fail. The scent of 1000 “Tapout” tee shirts and Axe Body Spray. Had to go.

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More air brushed Power Fail.

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Pretty much summed up my thoughts anytime I looked at the awful original paint on my bike.

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My feeling after being quoted around $2,700 for a new paint job by two local professional motorcycle paint companies.

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IMG_3621 Masked off ready for spray can goodness!

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Then this happened, and it continued to rain like the mother fucking Amazon rain forest for a week straight. I trudged on despite this…

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The original tank in it’s horrid glory, complete with the scratches and big dent the previous owner inflicted upon it.

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Black… Red… Chrome… An “Ace of Spades” with some guy in it… So bad.

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The bare metal replacement tank I bought. Hanging from my improvised outdoors paint rig.

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First couple of coats of metal etching primer.

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After another coat of the etching primer, I did three coats of sandable filler primer. Wet sanded between every couple of layers.

 

 

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A few base coats in. I wet sanded in between each coat, probably did about 8 layers.

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Wet sanding is easy, and made a huge difference in the final quality of this paint job.

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I sanded up the fenders – Taking off most of the clear coat until they were dull looking. I didn’t re prime them, but started spraying coat after coat of new paint.

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Slowly, the ugly original paint began to disappear…

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… Like a bad dream.

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…. Until it was almost completely gone.

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The tank base coats done.

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The first coat of Urethane two part clear. looking shiny!

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My improvised “Inside a shed” paint room since the weather sucked so bad.

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IMG_3641 This was my secret weapon for a good looking and durable final product. This Spraymax 2K clear coat is basically the same stuff a pro painter would mix up. unlike other off the shelf clears, you actuate a little canister of hardener that’s in the can, and it mixes into the same type of clear that the pros use. It’s as resistant to gasoline and other solvents, something none of the spray paint clears are. You’ll want the goofy looking filtration mask though. This stuff is dangerous to breathe.

 

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Pretty much done.

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Old and new.

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The finished products back on the bike.

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The stuff I had to buy. Probably between $100 and $150 total investment with lots left over. Still WAY better than $2,700!

Several months ago I bought a used chopper from it’s original owner. Great bike, but it had a ridiculous looking “Tribal tattoo” paint job… Pretty much the exact opposite of anything I would consider cool.

I entertained getting a professional repaint done, figuring maybe a budget for a solid color might be around $600 – $800. I was wrong. Both places I contacted quoted me around $2,700, enough to buy another bike.

Was not going to happen.

So I did some research on various custom motorcycle forums, and there are lots of people doing great paint jobs with cans of automotive spray paint. The stuff you can buy at any auto supply store.

You’ll read scary warnings about how shitty spray can paint jobs will look, don’t believe that, those rumors are probably started by guys that paint motorcycles for a living. Any person willing to spend a few days doing prep work and taking their time can get great results.

A few tips:

Warm your spray cans with hot water. It makes the paint flow more evenly. Buy one of those little spray can trigger/handle rigs. they’re inexpensive and make it a lot nicer to spray.

Almost all spray paint is lacquer. Lacquer paints have solvents in them, and they dry as the solvents evaporate. they dry really quickly, and are easy to work with. The downside to them, is that if you rush things, the final product will look like crap, and any solvents that land on that paint will mess them up. Gasoline being a solvent, makes a lacquer painted motorcycle tank… Risky. Lacquer paints also tend to chip easily, and generally don’t last a long time.

These unfortunate properties extend to most if not all of the straight out of the can clear coats that you can get at an auto supply or home improvement store.

Fortunately, a few years ago new “2K” spray paint clear coats were developed. These are just like the stuff a pro would mix up and use to paint a vehicle, the two part chemical process is set up so a person can trigger it in the can, and then has around 48 hours to spray before the stuff hardens too much.

I got great results with using the SprayMax 2K glossy clear coat over standard Rustoleum and Duplicolor rattlecan paint.

I would do it again anytime before spending almost 3K on some pro job.

Is it perfect? No. But for a custom cycle with lots of personal touches and small imperfections already, it looks great.

 

 

Diary of a Teenage Devil Worshiper.

In the late 80’s, I was seventeen years old and freshly relocated from a podunk high school in a small town to a huge new school in the middle of Houston. I didn’t really know anyone there yet, and felt like an alien in a strange new world.

I still had good friends from my old school, but only saw them on weekends. I was a weird looking kid into weird music (mostly hardcore punk rock and thrash metal at the time) and while that had been enough to mark me as an outcast at my old school, nobody seemed to care at all in the new one.

I was like most boys my age, trying to find a comfortable spot in my own skin, trying to rebel a little bit, and trying to figure out exactly who I was. So I was basically a disaster as a teenager, a total mess. Pretty typical I’m sure.

Nevertheless, I’m sure I looked scary to some folks. I was a large, long-haired guy that wore Slayer t-shirts and leather jackets, maybe occasionally even sporting a pentagram necklace or something vaguely sinister that I’d picked up at a weird music culture boutique somewhere along the line. In a world of mainstream late 80’s high school kids, I was still one of the weirder ones.

But I was pretty much just a shy kid that would’ve liked to have made more friends. Maybe a little scary looking, but very harmless despite my attraction to dark music and horror movies.

There was a problem brewing however. In the 80’s there was a social phenomena called “The Satanic Panic” going in full force, and it was a witch hunt that claimed many innocent victims.

Somehow, a large number of extreme fundamentalist Christians, crazy people, and money-grubbing con men convinced enough people and law enforcement organizations that it was reasonable to believe that there was widespread Satanic Ritual Abuse happening around the country.

Many of those people thought any kid wearing a concert shirt or playing Dungeons and Dragons might be an agent of Satan, leading a double life as a murderous cultist waiting to sacrifice innocent Christian classmates to dark and unholy pagan gods.

In retrospect, the entire phenomenon seems ridiculous. Modern people made insane claims that, under even light scrutiny would’ve been proven impossible, and yet they were often assumed to be fact by the media and by some law enforcement agencies. Such an environment of hysteria, where outlandish claims were taken entirely seriously, and lives were ruined as a result? Yeah, the 1980’s had a seriously dark side to them. It wasn’t unseen devils or people killing because of their occult beliefs that made the decade that way. If anything it was the primitive religious folks who demanded that their simplistic view of good and evil be used to persecute others.

So back to me and my awkward teenage rebellion. I stood out, and I guess that in an environment where certain people actually thought Ozzy Osbourne was a Satanist, going to school wearing a Venom shirt was probably a good way to get the wrong type of attention.

After a few months at the new school I got it, and good.

I was sitting at my desk in History class when it happened. A stern looking toad of a man came in, whispered something to the teacher, and walked over to me, demanding that I follow him out of class. Turned out he was an assistant principal that I’d never seen. I hadn’t been at the school long enough to really know too much about its inner workings or faculty.

Principal McToad led me to his office, and I was met with quite an ominous scene. The head principal of the entire school, my father, and a campus cop of some kind were all gathered there. It looked like I was at my own funeral.

On the principal’s desk was the entire contents of my locker. They were picking through the pile like it was a crime scene, and any piece might be the vital evidence they were searching for. At the time I was drawing designs for a friend’s small skateboard company, so I had a couple of sketchbooks filled with typically sinister looking drawings. The types of things one might expect to see on a 1980’s skateboard – skulls, monsters, things of that nature.

Long story short, there was absolutely nothing criminal found, since despite appearances I was a pretty boring non-criminal kid. I hadn’t even snuck a beer at a party at that point in time. I mostly went to concerts with my equally non criminal friends, and hung out at arcades. We looked a little weird, and we listened to scary music and watched a lot of horror movies, but none of us was secretly killing babies under the full moon in exchange for magical powers.

In fact, I can’t speak for my other friends, but I personally didn’t believe in the reality of a Devil.

Since a giant sack of heroin or human skulls wasn’t found in the locker raid, I was suspended from school and then totally transferred to another school across town. It was all very traumatic at the time, and it screwed up my relationships with my parents. There was nothing fun about it at all. The upside was that the school I got sent to was some sort of magnet for weird punk rock and heavy metal kids, and I met some people that I’m still very close friends with today.

It turned out that the reason I had been taken out of class was that a religious cheerleader that I’d never met or talked to felt threatened by me. I guess she thought I looked scary. At that point of time in the 1980’s that’s really all it took to end up on the wrong side of things.

I didn’t even know her name.

So when I hear people today talking about “Satanic Ritual Murder” or how Satanists really DO run some evil network of baby sacrificing Hell factories I may laugh a little at the obvious bullshit they’re spewing, but I’m always mindful of just how dangerous that kind of bullshit can be.

When I see Internet fools tossing around crazy conspiracy theories that involve the Illuminati or Lizard People or just the old classic evil Satanists, I never forget that all it takes for complete paranoid fantasy to ruin a few lives is for enough people to believe that the patently unbelievable might be true. That Ronnie James Dio was a devil worshiper, that listening to Judas Priest albums makes teens kill themselves, that kids wearing black and listening to Metallica are the likely suspects when someone is murdered, that Dungeons and Dragons unleashes REAL black magic, and that demons actually empower every album that has scary lyrical content…there are people that believe these ridiculous fairy tales, and they are dangerous. Not the things they fear and rail against, but them. THEY are dangerous. We should never forget that.

I know people that are, for lack of a more specific name, actual black magicians of one type or another. You know what? The vast majority of them are no more criminal than the average Christian. In a lot of cases, far less so. Sure, there is the occasional story of some usually deranged, drug-addled loser that’s read “The Satanic Bible” and claims to be a Satanist that does something illegal, but nine times out of ten, that person isn’t affiliated with any real occult organization. They are often people that used to be Christians, and who still believe the mythology that they grew up believing in. They just switched sides because they hated their parents or something. A lot of the time they’ll find their way back into the fold once they’ve been sentenced to prison and feel the need for forgiveness. It’s all a very simple view of good and evil, of light and darkness.

But the ridiculous things that the types of religious people who think certain music is “Evil” believe about the occult and its connection to the world? It’s all bullshit. The actual devil worshipers out there are not interested in using Twisted Sister to snare souls for Satan, and guys like Marilyn Manson are trying to get paid and get laid. It’s very doubtful that they are trying to lead kids to eternal damnation, or even believe in it to begin with.

Most organized occult groups are not actively battling Christianity or trying to pave the path for Satan to take over the world. Those are the kinds of fantasies that certain kinds of religious people have. Where would be the evidence of these activities? In a D&D manual? In the liner notes to a Motley Crue album? Or all in the too bored minds of people with a simple and silly view of the world? I’ll let you guess which one I think is closest to the truth.

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Brothers. Always.

Two weeks ago I got one of those calls people dread getting. My younger brother was dead.

Before shock set in, I started to get additional calls as word got around. The are a lot of cliches about what happens to a person when someone close dies, but I’m not sure how I feel about those things.

I don’t tend to grieve openly. Nor do I go through the various stages of grief that we’re supposed to all go through. I have no problem accepting when someone dies. I don’t go through denial, nor do I get angry at them for leaving me alone. There is no guide book for this kind of thing, and quite frankly anyone that’s trying to tell you what you are feeling, or should be feeling, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

My brother and I were not very similar to one another. While we lived near each other, we were not the types of siblings that saw eye to eye on everything, and we didn’t call each other on a weekly basis. Some might see “distance” between us, but that’s not true either. We were just cut from different cloth, enjoyed different things.

I mostly have been deconstructing our youth together. We lived out in the country, and for a lot of our childhoods, we were each others’ only playmates. I remember catching my brother playing with matches when he was three and I was five. I still feel bad about ratting him out.

That’s the weirdest part of this for me. Even though we never called each other with any regularity, now I CAN’T. I’ll never hear his voice again.

So, like everyone else that loved him, I’m left with a ragged hole in my life. Although it’s not a savage wound that feels like I will also die, it feels like it will always be there.

One thing his death has reminded me is that every day I wake up is a lucky one, and is not guaranteed. It’s also a reminder to live life – not to avoid doing things I want to because they carry some risk, but to embrace them because that risk is part of life. Cowering because death is around the corner is no way to go through this world.

One cliche worth observing is that nothing in life is certain, and spending time with those we love is important. It may be the only thing that is, and it’s not something to be pushed aside until later. Because “later” might never come.

Anyway, I probably would not normally share something like this so openly, but my brother was worth it.

I love you, James. Some day we’ll play by the creek again.

In The Claws of the Lobster Boy

In the late 80’s, I was still living in a small town outside of Houston, and was trying to figure out what to do next. I was recently out of high school, and trying to make that awkward transition into adulthood.

I was casually dating a lady I’d known in high school, someone I’d had a crush on and really liked, but the whole situation was confusing to me. Most things in my life were at that point.

I still enjoyed silly things like going to the County Fair (to be honest, I still enjoy stuff like that) and so the girl I was dating (I’ll call her “Alma”) and I went on a double date to the Fort Bend County Fair with my friend George, and his girlfriend “Donna” (also not her real name).

The night went well, a fun but typical outing to the Fair, when we stumbled across a seedy collection of freak show attractions in the back corner of the midway. I always loved freak shows, and while they were not common by the late 80’s, they were still a lot more common than they are now.

One had huge elaborate banners advertising “The Lobster Boy.” The garish paintings showed a little boy with red lobster claws instead of hands, engaged in a variety of activities befitting a mutant kid.

I knew I had to see whatever lay behind the door of the trailer framed by those banners. I assumed that it was probably some sort of gaff – a fake of some kind, probably a guy wearing fake claws. That was fine with me, I loved the fake stuff too, and had already seen a “Spider Woman” several years before that was nothing more than a big fake spider body with a woman poking her head through a hole in the floor. I counted that stuff as worth the price of admission.

So after a brief discussion, we all headed towards the line to get in, paid the admission, and were allowed entry.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for what lay behind that trailer door. The inside looked like some old guy’s home. It might as well have been anyone’s trailer house. There was no stage, no glassed off display area displaying a fake stuffed Lobster Boy or anything.

Instead the place was occupied by a slightly rotund older man with badly malformed hands. he happily berated us, and offered me his hand to shake. Instead of the normal five fingers, he had two large ones that really did resemble lobster claws. I shook hands, but we were all shocked by this meeting. I don’t think it really had anything to do with the man’s deformity as much as we all suddenly felt like low-lives exploiting some old guy with a genetic disorder.

I shouldn’t speak for anyone else that was there, but that’s how I felt. The Lobster Boy himself wasn’t particularly strange, nor did he seem uncomfortable. Decades of plying his trade in this manner probably made the experience completely normal to him.

After leaving the trailer, it seemed like a slight pall had fallen over our outing, and we left soon after that.

Years later, I found out that Lobster Boy was a famous sideshow performer named Grady Stiles that had been in the business since his boyhood in the 1930’s. He lived for years in Gibsonton, a town in Florida famous for being home to many circus and fair performers when not on the road. Stiles was an abusive alcoholic, and tormented his family members for years. He even shot and killed a man his daughter was going to marry. Despite showing no remorse for the crime, Stiles was only given 15 years of probation due to sympathy for his medical condition. Apparently this light treatment by the law gave him a sense of invulnerability, and his abusive tendencies became even more severe.

Eventually, certain family members had enough, and Stiles was himself murdered in 1993 by a hit man hired by his wife Maria.

Lobster Boy_Snap Wyatt

Looks Innocent Enough. Almost Sweet. That’s what the Lobster Boy looked like.

lobster_boy

This is what Grady Stiles, “The Lobster Boy” looked like. Just add about 40 years to him.

lobster666

The true crime novel about his odd life and murder.

I own the true crime novel about his life and murder, and every time I see it, I’m taken back to that moment at the Fort Bend County Fair all those years ago. Alma and I didn’t last together much longer,and that date sort of tanked, but we’ll always have our moment with the Lobster Boy.