a food truck & a bookmobile walk into a museum.

I’ll admit it.  When I left Austin for Houston last summer, I did not not have very high expectations, culturally speaking.  I figured that I was leaving this haven of music and free thinking for the hometown bubble of job security and family proximity, trading hipster- for suburban sprawl.  The Houston I knew before I left for college eight years ago led me to believe this, and rightfully so.

But then I got here.  Here here.  Montrose.  77006.  The Austin, Texas of Houston, Texas.  A little haven of the Greater Houston Area, amid all of its oil and sulfur and humidity and people, that somehow retains many of the things I loved (and love) about Austin.  It’s not at all the Houston I remember, simply because it is not the Houston to which I was exposed growing up.  Sure, there were those couple of times my folks took me to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on Free Museum Day or whatever, but as a general rule, we stayed, at the very least, a good twelve miles north of the north side of 610.  Until very recently, I had never experienced what I consider the true Houston, Texas, and that’s why I had such low expectations of coming here.

At the same time, what appeals to me about where I live now is its Austin-ness.  One thing I loved (and, when driving, hated) about Austin was how pedestrian- and bike-friendly it was.  Montrose is very similar in this sense.  There are certainly fewer bike lanes (let alone vehicle-friendly roads), but basically everything you need is within walking or biking distance.  Montrose is also gastronomically similar to Austin, and perhaps this is in part due to the direct import of Austin’s food scene into the Montrose area.  Three examples that come immediately to mind are Torchy’s Tacos, Uchi, and the Coreanos food truck.

Since moving to Montrose, food truck food has become a staple of my diet, possibly to the point of excess.  Sure, I appreciate food trucks for their accessibility, economy, and expediency, but the main reason I keep going back to them is because their food tastes so damn good.  So far as I can tell, Houston food trucks make some of the best food in Houston (shoutout to Bernie’s Burger Bus, Bare Bowls Kitchen, Ladybird, Fork in the Road).

Food trucks also speak to our ever-increasingly mobile society.  Don’t let anyone tell you any differently:  the main purpose of Twitter is for food trucks to alert their followers as to where they will be located on a particular day at a particular time.  Similarly, the main purpose of lists on Twitter is to aggregate food truck tweets, so that you know all of your food truck options on a given day at a given time.  A good 90% of my time spent on Twitter is spent seeking out food trucks (this amounts to about four and one-half minutes per day).

When I, jobless and with a fresh Master’s degree in Information Studies, first moved back to the Greater Houston Area, I proposed a business venture to a couple of my friends.  The idea was essentially this: a library/bookstore.  A place (particularly a relatively cheap commercial rental space in a strip center) where a customer could buy, rent, donate, trade, and/or sell books, music (cassette, CD, vinyl), and movies (VHS, DVD).  We’d start with our own personal collections and work from there – pay a months rent, buy some shelves, et voila.  (I understand, logistically, that this isn’t nearly all we would have had to do, but this is the gist of the idea.  I even at one point checked a “How to Write a Business Plan” book out from the library.)  But then I found a job, and I’ve sort of just been sitting on the idea for the past nine months.

As time has passed, I’ve become increasingly fond of making this (still very hypothetical) business mobile (i.e. of putting the business inside of a bookmobile).  Why not?  I imagine that we’d function very similarly to food trucks in terms of locations (coffee shops, bars, festivals, &c.) and networking (Twitter, the fb, $17/year website).  I also believe our services would very much complement those of the food trucks.  It is very easy to eat and read at the same time (no offense, food).

Last month, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) launched a program called Fine Arts + Food Trucks, where, quote, “A curated selection of Houston’s finest mobile food sources park in the lot adjacent to the main entrance of the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden every day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., or until quantities are sold out.”  I chaperoned a bus trip from my library to MFAH last month, maybe a week after Fine Arts + Food Trucks had premiered, and the aforementioned Bernie’s Burger Bus was there, just, waiting for me.  The Menil Collection (if you haven’t gone, you must go) similarly invites food trucks to utilize their parking lot and tweets their support.  In both of these instances, food trucks and museums are complementing one another as sources of culture.  I think that the bookmobile would fit right in here, right beside a food truck, offering the public yet other facets of culture.

There is a neighborhood library of the Houston Public Library system right down the street from where I live, and the West University branch of my library system (not to mention several other branches of HPL) isn’t too far off.  It would make sense for either system to work with MFAH or the Menil Collection.  A bookmobile service would advance the services of either system (if people aren’t coming to the library, you go to where the people [with proof of mailing address] are) and encourage and strengthen their relationships with various cultural institutions.  And yet neither system has one, and I do not imagine that either will any time soon.  Unless…

I like to think of libraries as purveyors of culture.  Ultimately, I would like to use my (again very hypothetical) bookmobile  for the betterment of public library services, be it one particular library system (like HCPL or HPL [therefore, health care]) or for any library in continental North America (self-explanatory).

At my library, here in 2012, a not statistically insignificant number of persons have come in with inquiries about accessing our Digital Media Catalog and downloading eBooks for free onto their iPad or Kindle or Nook or Sony Reader or what have you.  Most of these questions can be very easily addressed by a knowledgeable person in a wi-fi-enabled environment.  In that sense, the bookmobile, filled with physical library books and audiobooks and CDs and DVDs, could also double as something of a digital bookmobile.  The bookmobile takes all of these services out into the community instead of waiting for the community to find its way to the library.

Librarian that I am (destined to be), I also see the appeal of a bookmobile-for-hire service to all public library systems (and college libraries, and museums, and Half-Price Books, and cetera) everywhere, where we would fill the bookmobile with their materials (including, in the case of public libraries, some library card registration forms, pens, library cards, a laptop with ILS software, etc.) and set up as a lending library (or exhibit, or pop-up shop) at a place of their choosing for whatever reason (within reason).    And I would personally find the experience of being a sort of Bookmobile Librarian freelancer extremely rewarding. (Brainstorming a name for this venture: Travels with Charley [where the bookmobile is named Charley]).

So, I guess the real question is, do I go to Seattle and buy this bookmobile?  Would it be worth it?  Would a twenty-seven year old bookmobile even be able to make it back to Houston?  Would everything go exactly according to plan?  A library/bookstore business (let’s call it a hobby) and libraries everywhere tweeting at me (@charleydabookmobile) for bookmobile gigs?  Should I crack open this Foundation Grants to Individuals tome I picked up at the library and give five or ten of those a shot?  Do you think I could qualify this as an Art project on Kickstarter?  What about you?  Are you feeling philanthropic?

Happy belated National Bookmobile Day, everybody!

Moustache-Less – A Piece on My Elephant Room Experience.

I thought I was having the best day of my life.  And maybe I was.

My November 30, 2007 went a little like this*.

I woke up refreshed.  Two weeks shy of graduating from college, I had found myself with relatively little to do in the way of schoolwork.  In fact, the only traces of school on my mind were remnants of our in-class viewing of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, but I wasn’t going to let the applicability of a film released in 1989 to the current state of race relations in our American society dishearten me.  Not today.

I also woke up anxious.  Two weeks shy of graduating from college, I had found myself an avenue for entering the real world by applying for a technical writing position with National Instruments.  On this particular day, I had an afternoon interview with two women, both fairly recent Southwestern alums, to become part of their department.  My résumé had passed the initial test.  It had made me look good.  In fact, it probably made me look too good.

So anyway, I spent most of my morning and early afternoon fretting over this interview.  I studied the company.  I studied the position.  I studied my cover letter and résumé, remembering how I had sold myself.  I even showered.

Eventually, I dressed in my most formal wear – my black Van Heussen outlet suit, my secondhand white button-up, my black payless dress shoes, my stepdad’s tied that I had to have my roommate John tie for me.  White undershirt.  Black socks.  A clean-shaven face to round out the commitment left me feeling severely uncomfortable and looking surprisingly sharp.

My first job interview.  And I looked the part.

I got there ten minutes early because – I don’t know – I felt like that would put a good taste in their mouths – the Starlight Mint of arrivals.

We just started early.

We went through the motions.  I was a nervous wreck with my signature nervous wreck reddened face.  They introduced themselves.  Through their questions, I kind of introduced myself.  When they had finished grilling me with hypotheticals, I asked them questions about life at National Instruments.  Their answers effectively made me eager to embrace adulthood, as a functioning and helpful member of our society.  This was, I had decided, the job for me.  I was a twenty-minute editing activity and a Christmas break away from a dream job.  I could feel it.

Somewhat less of a nervous wreck, I completed the twenty-minute editing activity, shook their hands and left, fairly confident in my chances.

I went home, my roommates sitting on the couch, immediately curious of the shenanigans my suit and I had gotten ourselves into.  I answered them, extremely confident in my chances of getting this job.  It had nearly become a certainty in the ten minutes that had passed since the interview had ended.

Prior to my November 30, 2007, my roommates, the tie-tying John and Rubin (who can also tie ties), and I had decided to look for a decent bar to go to in Austin.  We’d all been over twenty-one for at least five months and had failed to really embrace what that actually means. Residing near the Austin area, where conventional wisdom equates Sixth Street with twenty-one-and-up heaven, we were slowly realizing how near-fatal this mistake had been.

For proximity’s (and drunk driving’s) sake, we tried out this bar on the Georgetown Square called The Loading Dock.  But the Shiner Bock and twenty-four inch flat-screen televisions glowing with images of football fields and basketball courts could not save this bar.  The experience was dominated by bad service, worse music, and that eerie feeling that we just did not belong, that nobody else thought we belonged either.

So we looked elsewhere, semiconsciously humming the theme song to Cheers.

What we found was wonderful (Thesis alert!).

Through an extensive search that delicately involved alcohol and music, with a preferred concentration in the Austin area, we came upon The Elephant Room, a seemingly quaint little basement jazz club with full bar.  Though the website engineer obviously had little training in HTML formatting, there was enough there to convince us that we should go.  And soon.

I listened to music samples and wrote down potential dates to venture down there.

Nov. 30 – Django’s Moustache and the Kat Edmonson Jazz Quintet.

Dec. 1 – Beto y Los Fairlanes.

 

November 30 was upon us, and I was wearing my suit.  And I was feeling festive.  Why not take a celebratory trip to Austin?  How can you not be excited to see a group called Django’s Moustache anyway?  The roommates agreed.  Our significant others consented.  We had tentative plans to do something in Austin together for the second time in our eleven-month roommate history.  The first?  The Peter Pan Mini Golf place on Barton Springs.  If you haven’t gone and enjoy frustratingly difficult mini golf courses, or worn-out concrete obstacles, I strongly recommend it.

John had an obligation, working ‘til close at The County Seat on that cursed (pronounced cur-sid) Georgetown Square.  To our understanding, the music at The Elephant Room started at 9:30.  To our understanding, The County Seat would close at 9:00.  Perfect, right?

Hardly.

9:00 rolled around, and Rubin and I spent a good deal of time playing foosball, with two balls, mind you, waiting to hear from John.  We were to take two vehicles, John his own, Rubin and me rock-paper-scissoring for it.  But it was our first time going to The Elephant Room.  And three is a more comfortable traveling pack than two.  So we waited for John.

9:30 rolls around.  No word from John.

10:00 rolls around.  No word from John.

10:30 rolls around.  No word from John.  Paper covers rock.  Rubin starts driving us to Austin. Fifteen minutes into the drive, John dials Rubin up.  He’s just gotten off work.  He’ll meet us there.

The Elephant Room is located at 315 Congress Avenue.  Naturally, we tried to park on Congress, between 3rd and 4th Streets.  Failing, we then drove concentric circles (or, should I say, squares?) around our focus.  After twenty minutes or so, I suggest we try the street byMoonshine, off of 3rd and Red River, towards the highway.  Perhaps I shouldn’t inform the reader of this, but after around 10:30, this is a surefire bet for a place to park in Austin.

By that time, for some odd reason, we both had to piss like proverbial race horses.  I know a place.  We walked into the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, which is pretty much made for (1) stragglers, (2) people that have to pee, and (3) people that have to wait on people that have to pee.  We were both #2.  We both went #1.

Coming out of the Hilton, who do we see but John, who is, incidentally, walking from the street by Moonshine.  From there, we, a comfortable traveling pack, make the rest of our way to The Elephant Room.

We got there sometime around midnight.  We walk downstairs.  A basement jazz club.  We’re greeted by a loveable bouncer – backwards cap, thick-rimmed low-hanging glasses, a copy ofThe Austin Chronicle under his arm, cover charges filling his hands.  We show him our IDs, give him five dollars apiece, and walk into The Elephant Room for the first time in our lives.

We are not in love with it.  There is no music, no open tables, and a bartender who doesn’t really want to deal with bar rookies.  Overwhelmed, I order a seven dollar beer called Chimay – they have neon signs, coasters, and special mugs advertising Chimay, so I figured I’d give it a try.  But seven dollars?  My god.

Rubin buys the first round.  A table becomes available.  This place is looking better and better. Still no music, no Django’s Moustache.  But the twenty beers on draught, low black basement ceiling and candlelit tables make me feel more at (bar) home than my previous experience (singular) had.

12:30 (??!) rolls around, and the band returns to the stage.  This is not Django’s Moustache! This is a woman!  This is The Kat Edmonson Jazz Quintet, and within five minutes, I could not be any happier.  Her voice is entrancing.  Her backing band crafts a beautiful sound, working together harmoniously.  None of the quintet is overbearing.  They are all perfect.

I require a Long Island Iced Tea.  I request a Long Island Iced Tea.  This round’s on me.

At some point, Kat covers The Beatles’ Michelle.  Around this time, I decide to break all three of us from our respective unflinching gazes and conclude that “this may be the best day of my life.”

At about 1:30, to my dismay, The Kat Edmonson Jazz Quintet calls it a night.  We had caught the last of three sets.  We had loved every minute of it.  We seemed to make some sort of unspoken agreement to become regulars at The Elephant Room, got up, and left.

The good thing about parking a distance from a bar is that you can walk off your drunk a little bit before starting to drive home.  If you are a driver and ever intend on driving anywhere near me, I strongly recommend it.  The street we parked on is perfect.  It’s not so far away that the walk is exhausting, but it’s far enough away to have you thinking marginally straighter than you were before you started walking.  Another good thing about a designated surefire parking area is that it makes it nearly impossible to forget where you parked.

Again, please do not park here.  It’s ours.

My uncertainty in my declaration of my best day ever proved necessary.  Four days later, I declared Tuesday, December 4, 2007, the day after my twenty-second birthday, to be the worst day of my life.  My interview did not go as well as I originally thought.  I did not get the job, and I did not take it well.  On top of that, I got a message from Best Buy informing me that I needed to replace the motherboard of my laptop and, to do so, I would have to give them something like nine hundred dollars.

I know what you’re thinking.  Wow.  This guy must live a pretty good life.

I do.  I really do.

But, while part of my exhilaration on my November 30, 2007 was, well, unfounded, the exhilaration that The Elephant Room brought me that night stuck with me and, I hope, will for a long, long time.

We went back the next two Fridays.  We got there earlier.  We like to stay for two sets.  On December 7th, we saw Elias Haslanger, a fairly decent saxophonist that was fun to listen to. We had four rounds:  White Russian, Shiner Bock, White Russian, Live Oak Big Bark.  Though I drank twice as much, Eli wasn’t half as good as I thought Kat Edmonson was.  December 14th, John and I saw Beto y Los Fairlanes, a fun group with eight players, four horns, and an overall understanding of music as a whole.  I rank them this way:  (1) Kat, (2) Beto, (3) Eli.  We had three rounds:  Live Oak Big Bark, Christian Brothers & Coke, Newcastle.  I rank them this way: (1) Live Oak Big Bark, (2) White Russian, (3) Newcastle, (4) Long Island Iced Tea, (5) Shiner Bock, (6) Christian Brothers & Coke, (7) Chimay (for spite, and symmetry).

Same bouncer.  Same bartenders.  Good music.  Good aura.  Good friends.  Comfort.  Love.

Selfless as I am, I have recommended the hell out of The Elephant Room to people.  When my family was in town, I tried to convince them to overcome their sleepiness (and drunkenness), go have some drinks at The Elephant Room, and listen to The Kat Edmonson Jazz Quintet. They just would not.  Their loss.

I also recently wrote a letter to Chuck Klosterman (author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, et cetera) that, among other things, suggested we hang out at The Elephant Room.  I am heterosexually in love with Chuck Klosterman and have dismissed the idea that he would actually go with me.  These two statements may or may not be related.  So, if you ever see Chuck at The Elephant Room, convince yourself that it is my doing, and tell him that Grawl says hello.

 

(*I use the phrase “a little like this” for two reasons:  (1) because it’s a pretty great phrase and (2) because I don’t remember every aspect of the day.  Asking me to do so would be absurd.  Also, I recognize the “best day of my life” surpassed the midnight hour, and the technical part (read:  most) of me argues with this subtlety.  If you find yourself appalled by this misdating, (a) thank you and (b) get over yourself.)

 

(NOTE:  written December 2007, published 19th July 2008 for CA Jottings.)