travelogue :: twentieth college reunion
I flew to Houston to attend my <gulp!> 20th college reunion in San Antonio. Because I hate to fly, Jim suggested that I fly direct to Houston and then drive to San Antonio, since I needed to get a car, anyway. I had a really great time, and there were a lot of things that I felt like writing down, so here's a little travelogue.
The first stop (after the rental car center) was, naturally, the closest Taco Cabana on the way out of Houston. I ate about 30 pounds of Tex-Mex fast food, and was finally, if more slowly, on my way.
During the three-ish hour drive, I realized I was driving solo the route that Renee drove solo to and from school. She always drove it in her big old boat of a Bonneville, and once or twice, I went with her. I scanned for classical music stations from Houston and Austin, and watched birds and scenery along the way. I thought some about the people who wouldn't be at the reunion, either because they didn't want to or couldn't. Renee, Bobby, Mary, Carl, Kendall, Pam--and wondered who else would be gone that I didn't know about yet. I also tried to remember faces and names, and made a mental list of the people I hoped to see: Ruthellen, Melissa, Claire, Clif, Robert, Shari, Mary and Chuck, Linda, Debbie, and a few professors. At one point along, there were some spectacular cloud formations with layers and layers in full sun, and the Howard Hanson Symphony #2 was playing. It was really beautiful. I took a mental snapshot of that, complete with musical score, in preparation for the weekend. I wondered how I'd handle someone asking me, "Where's Renee? How's she doing?" Or--even worse, "Oh, honey, how are you doing?"
Then, thank goodness, a respite: The Oakridge Smokehouse. I stopped there and got two large packets of jalapeno and black peppercorn jerky, which they make there. That was a place Renee and I stopped when we went along I-10.
Thursday was a solo evening in San Antonio along the Riverwalk. It was fun to wander down around there and see how much it has grown, and how well it has been maintained. It's getting more slick and corporate, but it still has a great deal of charm (and a less stinky river, from what I remember). I thought of the few times I was downtown with friends over the past 20 or 25 years--remembering my friend Bobby who was so entranced with the Arneson River Theater and imagined himself starring in "The Fantasticks" there. I remember his optimism and joy at this new discovery as he was bounding around the stage doing bits of scenes. That's probably about the time they began to lock the gate to the stage--to keep us theater punks out of there.
I asked around for the best margarita, and was told, "Casa Rio". Ahhh, good. From Casa Rio, with ducks swimming below, and margarita and warm corn tortillas in hand (with salt and margarine, naturally), I had a great conversation with my brother Christopher on the telephone. It wasn't as much fun as it would be to have him there, but it was so much fun to call from the table.
Unfortunately for Casa Rio, the best margarita I had was at Cafe Ole, a new spot on the walk.
Friday, I headed for the Mercado and shopping. Along the way, I stopped for lunch at a fantastic deli called Schilo's, that Christopher told me about years ago. I ordered a reuben and cole slaw. This is how good the place is: The waitress came back to the table to tell me she was sorry that the cole slaw wasn't ready yet. I told her that was actually nothing to be sorry for, because it means it doesn't come out of a bucket from the grocery store. I told her I would be thrilled to wait the ten minutes. During that meal, I spoke with my brother Bruce, my cousin Stephen and his partner Frank, who were in Laguna. As we agreed, it's so much fun to call from our exotic and varied locales, because we CAN. Bruce and I decided to suggest a new ad for the cell phone companies: instead of "can you hear me now?", we want them to use "can you guess where I am now?"
The Mercado was, as always, full of a bunch of junk...but wonderful to look at. Some beautiful artful things, and lots of...other things. Fortunately for me, this was Hallowe'en weekend, so there were shrines set up for "Dia de los Muertes". This is a holiday in Hispanic cultures during which the living celebrate the lives of their loved ones who have died. Elaborately decorated sugar-candy skulls are purchased and shared, and meals are prepared for the family and eaten at the cemetery, near one's dead relatives. While it is a time for mourning, it seems to be more a time of celebration and remembrance. I've always liked the idea of the holiday (sort of like All Saints Day, only with significantly creepier imagery). I remember seeing some examples of the folk art at one of the museums in Santa Fe, years ago, and thought it was really interesting--mostly consisting of skeletons and skulls, engaged in everyday activities (as if they were not dead, doing the things they loved to do in life). It's strangely un-creepy to me, despite what my husband might think.
Many of the shops were selling catrinas, or little papier-mache figurines depicting skeletons in everyday (sometimes humorous) poses, such as working on cars, or teaching, or in an aerobics class. Lots of skeletal brides and grooms--in limos with skeletal limo drivers, or at the altar. I asked one of the merchants why the bride and groom figure so prominently in Day of the Dead artwork. She didn't really know, but we opined that it was probably to remember one's grandparents or parents who have died, and now we can celebrate their lives on a day that was probably quite happy for them. (That made Ruthellen and me feel better; that it may not be in memory of all the Hispanic couples who tragically died in car accidents on their wedding day. Whew.)
Walking around downtown was fun; it's not changed all that much in 20 years. It's sort of lost in time, in some ways, and there are some beautiful old buildings and architectural details that I never noticed before, such as the post office (which was featured in some antique postcards I found as "the new Post Office"). The only modern things about the post office appear to be the post-9/11 metal detector and security personnel.
In college, we didn't spend much time downtown; it seemed like it was a million miles away (actually only about five).
I went into the Alamo. I don't know how long it's been since I was there--maybe 10 years? It was nice. I loved the sign out front: "Gentlemen please remove your hats". That must be for the tourists, because you'd rarely have to remind a properly-raised Texan boy to remove his hat indoors, especially in a shrine.
I was looking for something from the Alamo for the kids; there was a ton of useless stuff, but the most interesting in this post-9/11 day were the battle-related items. There were several toy guns, plastic Bowie knives and other implements of conflict. There was an Alamo activity and coloring book for younger kids which I thumbed through. I quickly put it down after realizing it was all about the battle, probably drawn in the 1960s, when it wasn't so awkward and sensitive to give kids guns and knives to "play Alamo" with. It made me really uncomfortable--though to be fair, war, weapons and death are all about why that building is even still in existence for us to visit. ...I just don't need my kids to ask me what color to make a Bowie knife just yet. Funny how things change.
Walking back to my hotel, I passed by the O. Henry House. It's a tiny, one-room house with a historic marker outside. I don't think I knew he lived there at one time.
Friday afternoon, I drove up to the University to begin the alumni festivities. I got there a little early to wander around and get my bearings. I was surprised at my sadness to see the Ruth Taylor music complex being demolished. I found out from one of the workers that the recital hall is going to remain, but that they're surrounding it with a new structure for classrooms, offices and practice rooms. I did several recitals in that hall 20 years ago, so it was a little emotional to see all the carnage.
While I was at the all-alumni get-together, I was walking around the relocated Murchison fountain to see someone, when an older woman and man stopped, and she said, "Susan Hodges! --Margaret Harren". Herman and Margaret were there for her 50th, along with Jack and Virginia Stotts, and Gayle Epperson--folks who I grew up knowing because they know one or both of my parents. I visited more with them than with my classmates at that particular event. I had asked to see my French advisor, and she came over and found me, which was really nice.
Then to our class get-together, which was crowded and noisy, where I had 15 conversations I couldn't finish. We have two or three celebrities in the class: one who worked with Ron Howard and Tom Hanks on Apollo 13 (among other projects), one who works at Lucasfilms, and one who married Weird Al Yankovich. Suzy Yankovich was very interesting and charming about the whole thing: I was sitting next to a guy who asked her what her husband does for a living. She replied very eagerly and sweetly that he is a performer--a comedic musician--and had he ever heard of Al Yankovich? The guy said, "Oh, sure; does he work with Al?" "No, he is Al." Long pause. "Wait--you married Weird Al Yankovich?"
My unrequited college love turned out to be gay (oh, yeah--of course I always knew--it couldn't have had anything to do with ME), and he's fantastic looking, lives in San Francisco and works as a psychologist. At least I am confident in the fact that I've always had good taste in men.
I found out about two more deaths: Tre Lopez and Shannon Shannon. Tre was really Teresa, and she was just about 6 feet tall, so we called her "Tre". She apparently died suddenly of an aneurysm, leaving her husband and 18-month-old baby behind. Shannon Yoder married Clark Shannon and thus became Shannon Shannon. They were a very well-liked couple. Shannon died recently after a battle with cancer, and Clark still came to visit with their friends. That must have been incredibly difficult. Both very sad. Ruthellen said that we're too young to have this many people die, and Linda added, "Or to have wrinkles." We toasted both those observations with a hearty laugh.
After the reunion evening, naturally, everyone headed for Bombay's. That's "Bombay Bicycle Club", but no one calls it that. Wall to wall people, still. It's an interesting place: the door is smack dab in the middle of the wall. Everyone who comes in looks right, then left, to see who's there and who to sit with. Everyone who's inside looks at the door to see who just came in.
It's not a pickup place, though--it's just a big mass of people drinking beer, margaritas and yelling pleasantries at each other. It's always been that way, and it is today, even with us fogeys there.
Only two noticeable things have changed there: you can now see the floor, because they no longer serve pretzels. And they offer pizza, but not their own. At about 11:00 pm, they let a couple of pizza delivery guys come through with hot, fresh $5 pizzas. They bring in about 30 of them and walk around selling them out of the bags. They sell out very quickly. I'm thinking that if you lived in one of the homes near the bar, you could put in a pizza oven and make a mint going over there every night. Easy work.
Everyone has a cell phone. That's new. And more people took cabs home, which is also new (and a good thing).
We went to campus to see Colleen Grissom, who was giving a talk and celebrating her birthday with us. Unfortunately, due to a missing wallet, I missed the talk AND most of the birthday celebration. After locating my wallet...(at Bombay's, of all places)...I did greet her for a very few minutes before she had to leave. Afterward, Ruthellen, Cynthia, Linda and I walked the entire length and width of campus, going into as many buildings as we could. We went to the residence hall where some of our fraternity and sorority siblings live, and told them about how, back in the day, we used typewriters and record players. One of the young women discovered she and Cynthia are from the same Houston neighborhood. The observation from Linda was: "Say...I'll bet you babysat her!"
We walked past a football game in progress and stood on the balcony to watch for about three minutes. I noted that this trip had just about doubled the amount of Trinity football I had seen in my life. We moved on.
We drove by the original Taco Cabana, open 24 hours. It used to have 99 cent tacos at 3:00 in the morning, so it was always packed with college kids, some of whom came from parties, some of whom were pulling all-nighters studying. We lamented that it has changed now, because it's a state-wide chain. Cynthia said, disparagingly: "Yeah, I'll bet they don't even understand (drunk voice) 'TWOBEANANDCHEESESSSS' anymore".
Then to Chris Madrid's for a burger with cheddar and jalapenos, and super-greasy fries. Fantastic.
I stopped by the Japanese/Chinese sunken tea garden, which was something I remembered from family visits to San Antonio. It has a new plaque, which explains how it was built as the Japanese Tea Garden but was renamed to Chinese during WWII. The original name has since been restored, but an old gate remains that reads "Chinese Tea Garden". Some interesting history. I was quite pleased to see that the garden is still well maintained, and lovely as usual. And the little train that goes around Breckenridge Park is still running.
Saturday evening was our big dinner. I found Clif, Mike, and several other people I was hoping to see. I continued some of the 15 conversations from the night before. Melissa was there, and I met her new partner Stacy. Somebody better send me some good pictures.
I was thrilled to see happy, well-suited couples, like Claire and Ron, Shari and Robert, Melissa and Stacy, Chuck and Mary. (I guess the unhappy, poorly-suited ones don't show up for school reunions.) I was so impressed with people's partners and genuinely enjoyed meeting the people they have chosen to spend their life with. And it was an unexpected treat to visit with some people whom I didn't know very well in college, such as Elaine and Ross.
I was bemoaning the fact that there were only about 100 of us there, and the Chair replied that the University was really pleased with our turnout. I was really surprised, because that number seems low. It made me wonder even more where people's paths have taken them that they can't or won't come to visit with old friends. Hopefully, they couldn't come because they're out teaching people to perform open heart surgery while airlifting them to a rescue helicopter, or treating AIDS patients in Africa, or working on John Kerry's election campaign (oops--did I say that out loud?).
A few new people yet, and a continuation of the unfinished conversations, but at top volume here. We passed around yearbooks and composite photos, wondering where people were and telling embarrassing stories about our college days. Ross was staring at the photos, then he looked up at me and smiled, saying, "You'll laugh...but I don't have my reading glasses, and I can't see the names."
I got to spend more time with Ruthellen than I would have imagined, and it was lovely. We tried to go back to Schilo's for breakfast, but it was closed. No problem--back to the hotel. We ate, talked about the importance (and unimportance) of music in our lives, our kids and their development, and a bunch of other topics from the last ten or twenty years. Twenty years in an hour and a half.
I headed for home, tired and glad to have been there. But really missing my boys--all three. Houston and San Antonio used to be home, and it wouldn't be awful if they were again someday, but I really like where we are, and enjoy visiting Texas. When the boys are older, I hope we can come down here more as a family.
I saw a sign on the way home for the "World's Largest Cactus Ranch". What the hell is a cactus ranch? Do they roam free on the range? I'd imagine the herding dogs have quite a challenge keeping them in the herd, since the cactus have a distinct defensive advantage.
The bookend to the trip was a stop at Omar's Mexican Restaurant in Sealy. I saw a sign on the highway that said it was next to the Wal-mart, so I thought, "what the heck--it's not a shack behind Omar's house, so I'll give it a try." They served a decent combo plate, and it was a great way to round out the visit.
How do you catch up on 20 years in two days? That's 10 years for each day. Impossible. For a day, we all said our good-byes, and promised to be in touch more often than we have been.
I think we all hope so.