Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

AUSTIN, Texas — I’m trying to balance myself against the door of the bathroom stall as I slip on my only pair of dress shoes. When the hell was the last time I had to wear a tux? Certainly it’s the only time I can remember — like a man on the run in some low-budget flick you’d catch on HBO Plus — that I had to put on formal wear in the men’s room of an airport. It’s Friday, three days after the election, and the roller coaster of the vote count continues.

My friend, the mystery writer Tom Zigal, a.k.a. T Ray, Texas T, Z-Man, et al., wrangled me an invite to the Texas Book Festival, given for the fifth year in the Lone Star state’s Capitol. Having what you might call a peripatetic and less-than-feted career in the publishing world, any venue that pays my way and throws in a hosted bar is my kind of event.

I figure I’ll at least get a glimpse of Texas first lady Laura Bush, honorary chair of the event, and the seemingly illiterate Dubya. It wasn’t easy for an L.A. guy to get an invitation. It wasn’t as if you had to be from Big Foot country, as my dad used to say, to be eligible to be a featured writer here. But of course, like any homegrown showcase, the indigenous talent is highlighted. T Ray, who went to Stanford and lived in New Orleans a spell (currently he’s working on a political murder-mystery book called The White League set there; it’s Huey Long meets David Duke), was born in Texas City, down on the coast. Jan Burke, who won an Edgar (an award given by the Mystery Writers of America) this year for her mystery novel Bones, went from here but was born there. Me, I’m an L.A. native, though my dad was born in Seguin, a small town east of San Antonio most noted for a statue of a pecan in the town square, and the home of Texas Lutheran University.

Anyway, the plane was late getting into Austin, and thus the necessity of getting gussied up on the fly. Z-Man drove me to the shindig, this black-tie opening gala at the Marriot in town. Laura Bush was on tap to give her remarks. But before that, I managed to snag a healthy dose of Maker’s Mark at the hosted bar, and hobnobbed with Austin’s writers, readers and glitterati, including — just to name-drop — former Texas Governor Ann Richards and Stephen Harrigan, a local talent whose The Gates of the Alamo is getting play and who, as a screenwriter, gave us the TV movie Cleopatra. Hey, they can’t all be winners.

And as people talked about what projects they were writing, the current political machinations invariably came up.

Given the administration of Dubya, and the influx of dot-com moneys into Austin, the city that once boasted its yellow-dog Democratic core (“I’d vote fer a yeller dog before I’d vote fer a Republican,” as the saying goes) is in the midst of some changes. To be sure, it’s still the most liberal city in the state. Ralph Nader received 10 percent of the vote in Travis County, where Austin is located.

Filmmakers Terrence Malick and Richard Linkletter hang there. It inspired Mike Judge of King of the Hill, with Arlen being a substitute Austin; the cartoon show is filled with in-jokes. Austin City Limits is still a place to catch music from Lyle Lovett to Leonard Cohen.

At my assigned table, my host Harris “Schrub” Kempner’s first question to me was something along the lines of what were my politics. I didn’t need the fortification of good whiskey to answer him, but was pissed, since I figured I was going to miss a free meal when I gave him a response. I imagined that, in the ensuing shouting match, the Secret Service guys, walking around with their earpieces and tucked-away nines, would escort my unruly leftist ass away.

As it turned out, Schrub and Peaches, his wife, were Dems from down Galveston way. Schrub is the head of Kempner Capital Management Inc. But the family had originally made its scratch, as Texas T informed me later, in sugar. Sugarland, near Houston, was not only the site of the family’s sugar refinery, but the location of the infamous Sugarland prison, where bluesman Leadbelly did time. And where he wrote “The Midnight Special,” as that was the train he could see out his barred window.

As Schrub and a man at the next table, a Bush supporter and local GOP functionary, discussed the events in Florida, Peaches and me cut it up as we talked about race relations, mystery writing, and politics in Galveston while I sipped on more whiskey.

When Laura Bush made her way to the podium, she was given a standing ovation. Her brief comments generally walked the line ideologically, stressing that the event was about raising money for Texas public libraries. She did quip that things were still a bit indecisive for her family in terms of where they might be moving. And she got rousing applause from the partisans when she said no matter what happened in the future, she wouldn’t be going to the Senate.

The following day, the festival, which took place on the grounds of, and inside, the state Capitol building, got under way as the sky clouded up. Since it was Veterans Day, there was also a parade down Congress Avenue, over the so-called Town River (the Colorado) and on to the Capitol, where the street dead-ended.

Inside the edifice and its newer extensions, VFW-ers, some in their garrison caps and others in Stetsons, mixed with the pierced-eyebrow crowd who’d come to see the likes of Mary Karr, author of The Liar’s Club: A Memoir. And panels such as “Pundits on Politics,” broadcast live on C-SPAN, were standing-room-only as the analysis, and the analysis of the analysis, of the vote tug of war continued.

In the afternoon, protesters favoring Gore waved signs with hand-drawn slogans such as “Vote Gate,” “Hail to the Thief” and “Jeb Bush’s Fuzzy Math” and gathered on the steps of the Capitol. The constables who keep order on the grounds separated these loyalists, which included a smattering of Greens, from the Bush-ites, who displayed their silk-screened campaign placards and were definitely a more yuppified, tassel-wearing bunch. As one side chanted, the other side would complete the chant for its candidate.

Inside the Senate chambers, Whitley Strieber, a heretofore horror and thriller novelist, recounted in somber tones his alien-abduction experience (written about in his book Communion, made as a film with Christopher Walken). Strieber mentioned that he no longer speaks at UFO conventions, as this only marginalized him and his experiences. Through the closed window in the chambers, the rhythmic exhortations of the protesters could be heard. I guess the surreal follows this cat around.

That night, at the Author’s Dinner, where we had to pay for our own booze (aw hell, the money is for the kids, after all), I got the word from Tom. See, he’d told me that we’d been invited to a Sunday breakfast soiree that Laura and Dubya would be attending. I was to keep this on the down low, as not everyone would have the, er, pleasure. Well, sir, ol’ Junior had been ensconced at his ranch up in Crawford since Friday night, burning up the phone and fax lines to Florida trying to keep the devilish Gore from taking up residence in the West Wing. Who would have had time for a group of pointy-headed, Che Guevara–lovin’ writers? Certainly not Dubya.

I was happy to be introduced by Tom and do my reading Sunday for the seven or so who showed up in the auditorium. I’d like to think the small turnout was due to competing with Ted Koppel, holding court in the House chambers, but I know better. Me and T Ray hung around some more, had a couple Shiner Bock beers, then it was back to the airport. The great thing is, only local restaurants have facilities there. People actually go to the airport, the former site of the Bergstrom Air Force Base, to grub at the Salt Lick Barbecue rather than drive the 45 minutes out of town to go to the original one.

As I headed home, the outcome of the election was still in doubt as spinmeisters traded accusations back and forth, and e-mails claimed grand conspiracies afoot in Florida. But what I was pondering was, how could I get the bureaucrats who run LAX to franchise an exquisite barbecue palace such as Gadberry’s here in South-Central, in a few of the terminals? Now that’s traveling in style, and something we could all agree on, y’all.


Gary Phillips’ latest mystery novel is High Hand, set in Las Vegas.

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