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.

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