Spicy? Or Mild?

The great exterior to Steve’s BBQ, before it burned down. Photo from Democratic Underground
Most every day, I bumped into Jim and would ask if he was up for lunch. Most every day, he said yes. And most every day, when I asked him what he was in the mood for, he would chirp, “Steve’s BBQ!” At that point, I had lived in Denton for about five years. Although I was familiar with Steve’s, I can’t say I ever made a visit.

Steve’s BBQ was a Denton staple. Located on the east side of downtown, it’s red-and-yellow striped facade and belching smoke could be seen and smelt a mile away. The tiny building was both business and home for Steve Logan, a gruff, matter-of-fact gentleman who had been cooking barbeque for nearly two decades. Legend has it that he started the place, then later sold it and absconded to Jamaica, where he did God knows what. While abroad, he heard through the grapevine that the new owners just weren’t doing things right. So he came back to town, purchased his former business, and resumed barbequing with a secret rub recipe that also returned to Denton. In reality, he secured the recipe from a friend with the help of some beer, but I always perfer the myth.

The first time I visited, I went with Jim and Rob. “Have a snack and you’ll be back” proclaimed a sign on the front door. Walking inside was like stepping into the Tardis: the inside was bigger than the outside, but just slightly. It consisted of one room with some tables and bench seats. Pale light filtered through the small front windows and an opening to the kitchen behind the rear counter. Everything was dim and monotone, a dark tint of raw umber. Besides us, the place was deserted.

One of the first things I noticed were strange rectangular carvings decorating the walls. I couldn’t tell exactly what they were, so I approached one in order to make a more detailed inspection. Although murky, I could have sworn that its surface held some sort of text. I squinted my eyes, inspected further, and made out the words, “Harry Connick Jr.” This rectangle, along with the others surrounding it, were autographs of celebrities that had eaten here. And each one was laminated with so much soot and grease that they were virtually indistinguishable from the brown walls on which they hung.

Steve Logan. Photo from the film Barbeque: A Texas Love Story
As I approached the back of the room, I could hear the voice of Chuck Woolery echoing towards me. I came up to the counter and before me was Steve.

He was sitting on a low chair, crouching next to his smoker. Although the smoker was indoors and lazy sparks occasionally shot out, Steve’s attention was fixed on a nearby television that was broadcasting Love Connection.

Taped to the countertop were ragged sheets of paper which once held a neatly-typed menu. These days, the papers were tattered, covered with handwritten corrections and changes. If I didn’t know better, one would think these were the original menus from 1983.

Steve got up from his chair, greeted us, and asked what we’d like. I ordered the chopped beef sandwich.

Steve then asked, “Spicy? Or mild?” I shrugged and ordered mild.

Rob was next, and he ordered the pork ribs, which the menu said came with beans. He asked, “Can I substitute the beans for coleslaw?”

Steve looked at him and barked, “The menu says it comes with beans.” Rob silently stared, blinked a couple of times, then said, “Well…ok.” Never contradict The Menu, sayeth the Lord.

Our food was warm and smelled delicious. But after only a couple bites of my sandwich, I found myself reaching for water because the barbeque was so freakin’ hot. As the years passed by and I became a regular at Steve’s BBQ, I would come to discover that although Steve is polite enough to ask you, “Spicy? Or Mild?”, it’s always going to be spicy, no matter what. So you might as well always respond, “Spicy!”

Years after I moved away from Denton, I heard through the grapevine that Steve’s BBQ burned down. As I mentioned once before, the building served a dual purpose as both restaurant and home. When it went up in smoke, so did everything that Steve Logan owned because he didn’t have insurance.

It’s a testament to both him and the local community that that donations for rebuilding started to pour in. The local bank setup a relief fund, local entrepeneurs stepped up to the plate by donating money and services, and area bands like Centro-Matic performed benefit concerts that raked in much-needed cash. Steve has plans to rebuild the place just like it was , with the exception of two small changes: he’ll use a steel frame instead of wood, and this time the smoker will be outside. I have no idea where he’ll watch his Love Connection, but I do hope that he brings back those worn-out paper menus. Oh yes, and the grease-lacquered walls.

My Soulmate

Brooklyn Decker picking her nose. Yes, it can be a deal-breaker. Photo by Esquire.
Nearly every summer in college, I worked on a crew of conference assistants. Our job was to prepare the dorms for the presence of different summer camps, ranging from prepubescent cheerleaders to over-singing barber shop quartets. It involved a lot of cleaning, moving of supplies, and sweat in between. Mostly, it was a way to pass the summer, and not think too hard about the fact I was lonely and desperately wanted to fall in love.

One afternoon, I was part of a crew transporting some materials to West Hall, which was located at the crossroad of a three-way stop T-intersection. My coworkers Dan and Michael were driving a van, while I stood on the curb guiding them as they backed it up to the dorm’s entrance.

Suddenly, my concentration was broken by the epic sound of harkening trumpets. While trying to pinpoint their source, I came to realize they were coming from my heart.

To my left, a vision arose on the horizon. It shimmered like a mirage only to become material as it approached me. Soon, a black Jeep appeared, emblazoned with orange stripes that stood out like wings. Instead of rolling towards the intersection, it glided above the road on a cotton-like cloud that glistened with silvery brilliance.

As the vehicle came to a halt before me, the heavens parted and a shaft of the purest light shone from the sky. It beamed down like a spotlight on the Jeep, making all things around it inferior in comparison. Angels high up could be seen crying, and as their falling tears hit the ground, fresh flowers would sprout in their place.

It was then that I first saw the unearthly creature in the driver’s seat. She rode high, wearing a cute halter-top that revealed lean, sun-browned shoulders dancing underneath an ocean of strawberry-blonde hair. Sugar-sweet winds, like those that blow forth from Pan’s flute, whipped through that fiery mane, making it dance back and forth around her face. And that face — it was almost impossible to look at, it was so perfect. It was at this point that time stopped and all other people in the world disappeared, leaving just the two of us.

She turned to look at me, and the gleaming emeralds which were her eyes caught my gaze and wouldn’t let go. And with the voice of a thousand songbirds, as if she had known me her entire life and had been looking for me forever, she said, “Hi!”

I was so stunned, the most I could do was stare and murmur, “Uhhhh…”

Her stop now complete, she drove forward, away and out of my life. The heavens sealed back up, and the world resumed its normal schedule.

Dan and Michael poured out of the van, ran up to me, and couldn’t hold back their excitement. “Dude, who was she?!”

I was still reeling. “Uhh…I don’t know.”

“Dude, what did she say?!”

“Uhh…I don’t know.”

Dan couldn’t believe me. “Damnit, Matt”, he said, “that was your soulmate. And if you had said the right words, she would have stayed with you forever!”

And for the next several years, at every opportunity, Dan and Michael would not let me forget it.

It was the first day of Spring. The cloudless sky sparked with sunny warmth, and I celebrated by sitting in a horrible traffic jam during my daily commute to the office.

My drives to work occurred during the dark days before Tolltags, when there wasn’t an elite group of RFID-armed individuals that could easily zip past the huddled masses of the tagless waiting in queue to pass through tollbooths. No, at this time we were all equals. As in equally screwed, stuck in a slow, ponderous line to pay the piper.

While sitting in the traffic jam, I passed the time using my mirrors to check out my surroundings. My rearview mirror showed an endless stream of cars following me. Just behind my vehicle was a Jeep, itself tailed by a Toyota, followed by a Ford, and so forth. We were all lined up like lemmings with no other way to go but forward. My attention went back to the Jeep. Its top was down, providing a view of the beautiful woman behind the wheel.

A woman with strawberry-blonde hair.

Suddenly, a flair of recognition! The mirror became a portal back in time, and my mind drifted away from reality into memory. I saw it all as if it was yesterday, that provident event from seven years ago where I encountered my soulmate for the first and last time.

I snapped back to my senses and once again looked into the mirror. Her hair glowed in the sun. She was also passing the time, directing her gaze to the left and getting lost watching the sea of opposite traffic. But then she looked forward! I quickly took my eyes off the rearview mirror, but slyly used the side mirrors to continue my research.

Like the woman I remembered, the driver was slender and quite attractive. Her Jeep was black, adorned with the same orange stripes that were burned into my brain. Could this be my soulmate? Like Charlie Brown, was I in the presence of my little red-headed girl?

Oh fickle fates, I thought! If it was truly her, I must make up for the mistake of letter her disappear seven years ago. I resolved that no matter where she was headed, I knew I must follow, even if she were to drive a hundred miles in the opposite direction of my office.

But before I could chart such a course, I had to be sure it was truly her. I had to gaze into her eyes and feel the same connection that linked us before. I looked once again in my rearview mirror.

I saw that she was picking her nose.

I then realized then that she wasn’t my soulmate after all.

I laughed and looked forward again. And this time around, angels did me a better favor this time around as the traffic before me cleared up. I threw my truck into first gear, drove away from that wrong soulmate, and went about finding my real one.

Wanda, the Bruce Hall Ghost

Wanda's AtticIn February 1947, Bruce Hall opened its doors for the first time, becoming the largest female dormitory in the Southwest. It kept that distinction for many years thanks to its eleven wings and over four hundred co-eds. Bruce remained a single-sex facility well into the 1970s, and until that time it was administered by a series of dorm mothers known only by the feared moniker of “Ma Bruce.”

Each incarnation of “Ma Bruce” was there to enforce the strict and sometimes unfair morals which society demanded of women. These included obedience, respect for authority, and above all, no hanky-panky with men anywhere in the building. Violations guaranteed a trip to the dreaded Dean of Women, who legend says was called many things but never merciful. Most people did what they could to avoid and possibility of working up this chain of command.

In these early years, there lived in Bruce a resident named Wanda that ended up getting into significant trouble during the 1950s. She became pregnant during the era when legalized abortion wasn’t an option in Texas. Ashamed of her condition and not wanting anyone (including “Ma Bruce”) to find out, she hid the truth for as long as possible. Soon, she couldn’t get away with simple concealment, so she began hiding out in the A-wing attic.

This attic, perched atop the A300 wing, was accessible via a short steel door barely tall enough for a petite girl to walk through. Wanda practiced her secret routine for months, until finally came her labor. Locking herself inside the attic, she shuffled along a narrow catwalk, through a web of pipes and wires, until she reached the far end of that cavernous space. At the far end of the attic where she stood, a round window let in pale light reflecting off of the nearby chemistry building. And it was there that she died.

How Wanda died is speculation. Some believe that she died during childbirth, while others say that she passed away from despair. Those with a vivid imagination are sure that she suffered from complications from a self-administered abortion. Regardless, her spirit remains in the A-wing attic to this day, and anyone that honestly believes can experience her.

Over the years, students walking along the north side of Bruce Hall could spot that same round window at the eastern end of the A-wing attic. And many of them are sure that someone stood inside that window staring down at them. They remark that although the details are hard to discern, the person’s shilloutte was unmistakable. It was that of a young woman.

Professor Edward J. Coomes (1929-2004)

Professor Ed Coomes Reclining in a ChairThe other day, I received my university’s alumni magazine. And as is my normal routine, I flipped to the obituary section in the back and scanned for recognizable names. And there it was–a name that I had expected to show up for quite awhile, ever since I bore witness to his frail yet vibrant academic wizardry five years earlier. Professor Ed Coomes had passed away.

It’s hard to describe the impact that he had on me. In brief, he changed my life and probably didn’t even know it. And in full, I don’t think I could ever stop writing about the times he amused and challenged me.

When I first went off to college, I decided to major in my greatest talent, which was art. Junior and senior high school were nothing but an extended studio class, and I produced a rich portfolio of comic-book art. My dream was to work for Marvel Comics, drawing brawny superheroes and their buxom female cohorts.

As time went on, I found out that I did not have “The Right Stuff” in terms of passion and talent, and that a living in art would be hard and ultimately frustrating. Unfortunately for me, the timing of my epiphany was proving lousy, since I was near the sunset of my undergraduate career. But I will never regret my art education, for it exposed me to large amounts of art history and criticism, and in turn this awakened the passion I’d had for history since my childhood.

As a kid, I devoured all sorts of history and fact books–at one time, I even read the World Book Encyclopedia cover-to-cover. And throughout high school, I was a persistent presence in the local library, reading whatever I could find about medieval England and the ancient Mediterranean world. And since all majors require a minor, soon enough I was pursing history as one of my many minors, and in the fall 1997 semester I was enrolled in a Greek civilization class.

Day one came, and I took my customary place in the back of the classroom where I could get away with the murder of doodling in the margins of my 5-subject notebook should the discussion prove boring. Around me were a dozen quiet, well-tanned students, fresh from the summer and perhaps too relaxed for their own good. I laugh knowing now about the hurricane that would soon sweep over them!

The calm was abruptly halted, as the classroom door smashed open and a gruff, deep voice boomed, “Good morning, scholars!” Marching into the room was one of the oldest, shortest men I’ve ever encountered. His arms bore a stack of overstuffed manila folders–it was my guess that this stack was as tall as the man himself. It was hard to judge this for sure, because the second he walked into the door, before he ever reached the podium, he was already beginning his lecture. Pencils scratched furiously, papers flipped violently, as we struggled to keep up with the crazy old man. And this continued well beyond the allotted class time–the suffering ended only when an exasperated student was successful in penetrating the lecturer’s oratory and bringing to his attention that class ended five minutes earlier.

This, ladies and gentleman, was Mr. Coomes.

By the end of that first day, I was tired and frustrated, feeling that the old man was spewing voluminous detail only to serve his ego. I would drown in useless minutiae instead of learning useful facts. I remember talking to Jim about my first week of class. I explained in detail the insanity that greeted me every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10:00am, and how I feared that my teacher could keel over any second from a heart attack. And when I dropped his name, Jim’s eyes widened. “Coomes? Ed Coomes?! He’s still alive?!” I came to find out that Jim had Mr. Coomes for a teacher nearly a decade earlier, and back then he had made the same observations I had.

By the end of the second day, I thought he was eccentric. When in need of a piece of caulk, he’d often fumble instead with a pack of cigarettes, and each of his spoken words would count down the seconds until class would end, he could rush outside, then inhale that sweet, mild Chesterfield flavor. And then there was the in-class debate I had with him that involved Celtic civilization, the island of Atlantis, the element phosphorous, exploding glass tubes, nuclear Armageddon, Wooten Hall, and alien cockroach visitors from Alpha Centauri. I shit you not.

But by the third, I was hooked. The epic amount of notes became common-place, and afterwards I could focus on the minutiae of his lectures. I learned to write Greek and to think of my own reasons for the Peloponnesian Wars and not just what Hammond says. And when I took his history of Nazi Germany course, I was in awe of the scope of history and how events far beyond our lifetime influence the events of today–the class began with Tacitus in 70 A.D. and culminated with the fall of Berlin only a day before dead week that semester.

Despite his eccentric nature, the tendency to deviate from history lecture to social commentary, and the stress of reading and writing in ways that I had never experienced before, by the last days of our teacher-student relationship I was addicted to scholarship and completely sold on this gentleman into academia. Someday, I hope to complete a doctoral degree and have a teaching style akin to that of Mr. Coomes: articulate, detailed, full of concern for the whole story, and aware of perspectives besides those of the victors. Mr. Coomes might not have remembered me in the way that I recall him, for I was likely one of the many semi-anonymous students to have revolved through his world–to him, I was probably one of the many people that he knew only as “scholar” but respectively just as equally. I’ll miss the crazy man!

Photo credit: North Texan

Chocolate Éclair

Back in the day, before the dark times, before the Empire, I was a troglodyte working to support my university’s residence life system. Yes, ladies and gentleman, I was a resident assistant, living a life of butcher paper signs, happy markers, and 7-day meal plans. It was actually a great job, largely because of the bounty of wealthy personalities which surrounded me. But back in those days, I tended to get easily frustrated and was more prone to anger — often this would cause me problems, but every now and then led to an interesting story like this one.

Every semester, all RAs were mandated to return weeks earlier than the residents so that we might undergo residence life training (or RLT). The training itself wasn’t bad — from time to time we would learn something new. Unfortunately, when it came to training, the wheel was reinvented each semester — the training schedule and presentation were a joint production between the full-time housing staff and the RAs, where the administrators would allow the RAs to help design the training — this was done with the hope that the ownership they take in it will also produce attention and retention. Not a bad plan, but if a particular schedule or presentation method worked well one year, it was scrapped the next. Things would change because they could change, not because they should, if that makes sense. And because of this, I was fried each semester in terms of knowing where to be when.

One morning in training, I was just getting started with the day and heading off for the scheduled 8am breakfast across campus. I’m accompanied by a fellow RA named Rob, who is the kind of guy that when he smiles his eyes disappear amongst great protruding happy cheeks. This was one of the many reasons he was known by the moniker Casper.

As we were heading out, we pass a gaggle of coworkers walking away from the cafeteria to which we were heading! We stop to talk and find out we had misunderstood the schedule: breakfast was actually an hour earlier, and 8am was when training started. Our stomachs were fucked. Rob and I were pissed and hungry, but we went with our fellow RAs for it would be bad to miss training (in other words, our salary would dip from $50 every two weeks to zilch).

My friends and family know that Matthew is an early-rising, grumpy piece of shit when he hasn’t had his first cup o’ morning joe. So before we entered remedial hell, Rob and I decided to make a quick pit stop along the way at the local Mecca, 7-Eleven.

Inside, I grabbed the standard coffee, stuffed an exquisite chocolate éclair into a plastic bag and hopped in line. I found myself mentally aware of just how much time was passing in direct proportion to the lack of speed in the queue leading up to the cash register. And while standing there, I bore witness to a remarkable change in the fabric of the universe. The laws of physics suddenly ceased to exist — either the molecular bonds of my bag cast away any positive-negative attraction to one another, and the mass of my frosted delicacy took a serendipitous climb. In other words, the bag was a piece of crap, had a defect or hole in the bottom, and out came tumbling my once-and-future breakfast.

We were late for training. This made me on edge enough as it is without watching my nourishment tumble away. Tense and in a rush, in frustration I muttered, “Damn it!”

And it was then that I met something of a guardian angel, albeit one clad in a red-and-green polyester vest instead of the traditional white robe. The 7-Eleven checkout lady was an older woman with a pleasant demeanor who heard my cursing. She quickly jumped in to ease the situation by saying, “Oh honey! Don’t you worry about that! In fact, you go get a new one. Everything will be OK — as long as you promise not to swear.”

I was stunned — never once had I married the concepts of “24-hour convenience store” and “social manners” (nowadays, that is probably in the top 100 Google searches). I stared, blinked like a cartoon character, and then silently went back to the pantry to fetch another pastry.

Soon, things would get worse in Ms. Emily Post’s ecosystem, thanks to me. I had another éclair, nested in one hand while I willed the other paw to fish out a new plastic bag from the nearby dispenser. It was a clumsy affair, as the bags were packed quite tight in the box and would not easily come out. I wiggled to and fro, back and forth, with scant success. So I figured that if I gave my bag a swift yank, it would become free quite cleanly.

Yank! Next thing you know, bags are flying throughout the air all over the aisle. At this point, I am now later for training. Later = tenser. Frustration mounted as I grabbed the edge of the counter, and in a textbook moment of angst I boom out my favorite exclamation of frustration at the time, “Fuck me up the ass!”

Just as quickly, I’m then tapped on the shoulder — I turn to see grandma checkout clerk, who then proceeds to slap me and dish out a stern, “If only you were 20 years younger I’d spank you into three days from now” look. I’m frozen in shock. Meanwhile, my silent witness Rob is literally on the floor of the opposite corner laughing his ass off. I assume that he was smiling enough that his eyes again disappeared.

We both go to checkout, and the clerk is giving us some life-is-a-box-of-chocolates crap in an attempt to make us see how insignificant chocolate éclairs are to the whole of life (apparently she isn’t aware of the butterfly effect). We stare, blinking often, soaking it up in silence. Rob and I then leave, and it wasn’t until we were halfway to our training location that we looked at one another and joked, “What the hell just happened'”

Later that day, Rob and I encountered another RA which set us off like you wouldn’t believe. And we became frustrated enough with him to walk out of training altogether that day. And when we were outside again, late for training again, we look at one another and silently agree that the solution to our anger is, “Let’s go talk to ‘mom’.”

We head back to the 7-Eleven — but the lady that helped us was no longer at work that morning. And to be honest, we would never see her again.

Could she have been a guardian angel, trying to curb my habit of over-swearing?

Shit, I hope not.

Photo credit: Bundy