A Masshole Visits America: Galveston

Texas looms large in the American imagination, and surely Texans like it that way. Like California a generation or two ago, it’s the economic powerhouse state of the moment, not only gobbling up northeastern states’ congressional districts, but also promoting its own politicians to the national stage. Crossing the border from Louisiana, the speed limit immediately increased to 75 and the roads felt not only smoother, but bigger, the way it feels when you catch the first glimpse of a great city on the horizon. I was headed to Dallas to visit an old friend who moved from Boston a couple months earlier, and given the possibilities, a night in Galveston sounded better than one in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Leaving New Orleans, I-10 cuts through Cajun country from Lafayette to the Texas border, where every roadside convenience store has a pot of homemade boudin sausage steaming away. I regretted my timing, for two weeks later Morgan City would be holding its annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, which narrowly edged out the New Bedford Cod and Methamphetamine Fair for sheer improbability. If you wanted to take things at a more languorous pace, you could spend a night or two on the Atchafalaya basin southwest of New Orleans and rent a houseboat or kayak to explore the largest swamp in the US (Queens was disqualified on a technicality), but I doubted my New England constitution would last more than a few hours in that gator-and-skeeter-laced 100 percent humidity stew pot, so I drove on towards the Bolivar Peninsula.

Leaving the interstate, the road narrowed to a vanishing point, passing through flat sandy farm country that was one part ranch and one part Cape Cod. The peninsula itself is about twenty miles long and barely over a mile wide, and in 2008 Hurricane Ike swallowed it whole on its way towards knocking out power and windows throughout much of Houston. It’s a quiet and beautiful place not unlike the outer parts of the Cape, but it takes a certain kind of wishful thinking abetted by government-assisted flood insurance to build anything more substantial than a wall tent in a place like this. In the wake of the storm, various government agencies have been aggressively buying out property owners, and while I’m ordinarily suspicious of that sort of thing, this is a case where it may be for the best.

Photos by Colin Kingsbury

Galveston too had been hit hard by Ike, and between that and it being the depths of the off-season, it was a pretty dead place. I had dinner at a waterfront restaurant surrounded by offshore drilling platforms taller than the buildings that ring Boston Harbor and visited a couple of bars along the Strand, where I would have expected my fat wad of tourist dollars to be greeted a little more warmly, but who knows. I was wearing my straw cowboy hat, and I suspected the locals knew I was a phony—the curl of the brim was probably wrong, or maybe I had it on backwards. You don’t really learn these kinds of things growing up surrounded by kosher delis and pizzerias.

I was about ready to write the place off as a total dud until sometime after dark when, stumbling down a deserted street I heard what sounded like live music and followed it to the end of the block where I was greeted by a neon sign for Bobbie’s House of Spirits. It had a distinct look of what oldtime Bostonians charmingly refer to as a bucket o’ blood, but sometimes you have to ask yourself: What would Keith Richards do? I walked in like I belonged there, but since I wasn’t Keith Richards, I chose a spot close to the door in case I needed to make an expedited exit.

The crowd looked like the extras from a Quentin Tarantino movie about a Mexican biker gang, but the music was good and the bartender friendly, so I ordered a beer and a shot of Beam to butch myself up good. Aside from one side of beef halfway down the bar who appeared to be trying to figure out how many times I’d manage to scratch him before he folded me up like a lawn chair, no one seemed to take notice of my presence. A little later the guy on the stool next to me turned and asked, “You a musician?” It turned out that I’d walked into the city’s longest-running open-mic night. “Pretty much everyone who comes here is,” he said, “especially on a Sunday this time of year.” I said I was just passing through, and he asked where I was from, so I told him Boston. “Ah, yeah, Massachusetts,” he said. “I used to go up by Carver every year, I worked at King Richard’s Faire.” I nodded and asked what he did there. “I’m a professional jouster,” he said, as if he was a plumber or business analyst.

For the next couple hours I sat as a dozen or so different people got up to play a mishmash of blues, country, classic rock, bluegrass, and after a few requests from the stage, my jouster friend got up and ripped out ten minutes of delicate Spanish guitar ballads. Many of them, no doubt, had to get up early for work the next morning, and they were all probably past the point of hoping that maybe some A&R man was hiding in the back to discover them, but they were playing for a more important audience: each other. The bartender refused to let me pay for my last two rounds and I finally left, buzzing from the most righteous energy I’d felt in a long time. Keith Richards would have approved.

Bottle of beer and a shot of Beam: $6.50
Estimated probability of meeting a professional jouster: 1/1,000,000