Saturday, February 13, 2010

Day 85: Empty Beaumont

Bridge City to Beaumont. 20 miles/1546.1 total

Saturday, February 13, 2010

I’m in the wide median of Texas Route 87 just south of the Rainbow Bridge, heading through Port Arthur and then to Beaumont.

It’s overcast, with no rain predicted for today. It’s in the high 30s, expected to get into the high 40s. Maybe a little sunshine later.

Almost immediately I pass the Golden Triangle Veteran’s Memorial Park and I go in to have a look. It’s a collection of military hardware—a tank, a big gun, a helicopter, an anchor, a jet fighter—plus a miniature Statue of Liberty. In the middle of this arsenal of democracy are the names of the local people who have served in various wars, and the names of those who died. The Golden Triangle, by the way, is the area of Orange, Port Arthur, and Beaumont.

Across the road from the memorial is a large refinery or petrochemical plant, I’m not sure which, spewing out lots of steam, so much so that it creates its own weather along this part of the highway.

On Route 87 heading to Port Arthur I pass a succession of little one-story buildings--the Club Jaguar, a small Masonic Lodge, a little bar painted turquoise called Los Tres Reyes, a place called The Trilogy, and one whose sign says "Las Chicas Sexy, Opening Soon."

Right before I turn off of Texas 87 I pass the First Baptist Church, a brobdingnagian red brick structure sprawling out in all directions. Boy, these white Baptists sure do build ‘em big.

I realize I’m only skirting the outer edges of Port Arthur. I will say that it is the hometown of Janis Joplin and the artist Robert Rauschenberg. There is probably something in honor of these people downtown, but I will miss it. Port Arthur is a city of about 57,000, and was once the center of the largest oil refining region in the world.

I head north by northwest up Texas 347. I go past a large hideous high school, dating from the 60s, with the linear design, aluminum trim, and colored panels that were all too prevalent during that unfortunate era in public architecture.

Up past the high school the neighborhood is tidy and residential, with live oaks growing in the middle of a boulevard running off the highway.

Out here on the road I take comfort in things that used to repel or bore me. Walmarts, half-mile-long strip malls containing beauty parlors, jewelry stores, Radio Shacks, dentist’s offices, Chinese restaurants. Large car and truck dealerships filled with gas-guzzling mega-pickups and nobody gives a damn whether they get good mileage or not.

I cut across busy 347 to Greenlawn Memorial Park. It’s mostly English-style graves and headstones, with a scattering of French above-ground vaults. And some large mausoleums, too. One that’s particularly prominent is the Costello tomb, consisting of a vault on a raised marble platform, with vividly colored statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. I mean these statues look like something out of an old Disney cartoon, they’re so bright. Entombed here is Fatima Costello, who was born in 1949 and died in 2003, and next to her is space for Mr. Costello, who evidently put this huge deal up in his grief. Across the little paved road is another Costello tomb, this one containing the old folks, Bob and Dorothy Costello, born in the 1920s.

In more modest graves there are Whites, Lambs, Laceys, Trahans, and a Guidry or two. And Shirley and Vernon Shexnayder, like that priest in Crowley. Since my cousin tells me it is a Belgian name, I wonder if it has a German version, as well, and I think of Emmanuel Schikaneder, the Viennese who wrote the libretto of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute.

A few miles up 347 I go through Nederland, a suburb of Port Arthur, with about 17,000 souls. Nederland was settled by Dutch people in the late 19th century, and two of the prominent families were named Rienstra and Doornbos. We have plenty of both up in Kent County, Michigan. Today the mix is more local, with Cajuns and Anglos. According to Wikipedia this area has lots of refinery workers and has been heavily pro-union.

In mid-afternoon I enter the city limit of Beaumont, population 113,866. Beaumont has been around since the 1830s, and like other nearby towns was built on lumber, rice, cattle, and oil. I’m still a long way from the center of the city. In fact, it’s more bucolic here than it has been all day. There’s a cow pasture or two, and an armadillo is nosing around in the shallow ditch as I pass. It lets me get pretty close before shuffling away.

I take the cutoff from 347 onto Texas 380, also known as Martin Luther King Drive. A little way down is Lamar University, with over 13,000 students. It is part of the Texas state university system. Sure enough, it was named, in 1932, after Mirabeau B. Lamar, the 2nd president of the Republic of Texas.

I pass the Dishman Art Gallery at the edge of the campus of Lamar University. It’s amazing how many art museums there are tucked away in universities and cities like Beaumont and Orange, sort of off the beaten track of the art world. And they often have a work or two by someone who is world famous, as sort of the jewel of the collection. The Dishman is closed, so I won’t be able to check it out.

There’s some guy named Farouk running for governor of Texas. I’m seeing his signs along here. His full name is Farouk Shami, and he’s a millionaire from Houston, running for the Democratic nomination. Don’t know anything more about him than that.

It has warmed up and the sun is out here in the late afternoon in Beaumont. After Lamar University and Lamar Institute of Technology there’s an empty space along 380, which is almost an expressway here. Beaumont, the good and the bad of it, is laid out as if they had all the room in the world when they built the city. The streets are wide and the spaces between the large downtown buildings are wide, made even more so by the vacant lots that have been left from demolition. You can almost picture tumbleweeds tumbling down the streets.

Beaumont is the birthplace of Johnny Winter. Johnny and his brother Edgar. Johnny, the insanely thin tattoo-covered albino virtuoso, who just might be the Paganini of the electric guitar. What he lacks in elegance and subtlety and soul he makes up for it in pure speed. I think his collaboration with Muddy Waters in the late 1970s, during which he produced and played on three Muddy albums and toured with him, was some of his best work. Playing with Muddy Waters forced Johnny to slow down a bit and pay attention to his phrasing instead of just playing as many notes as possible in the time allotted. Muddy mellowed him out, I think.

At nearly 20 miles I arrive at the junction of 380 and U.S. 90. Instead of going west I go east on 90 toward downtown Beaumont, where the motor home is parked in a large vacant lot next to the railroad tracks. On the next walk I will go west on 90, after I’ve toured the center of the city.

The streets of Beaumont are quiet. I could walk down the middle of Highway 90. There’s some activity at St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica. St. Anthony is a big red Italianate church, very grand, with four massive gray marble columns across the front. In front are three sets of bronze double doors. Above the doors is the inscription “MATER ECCLESIA, PORTA CAELI.” Mother church, gate of heaven. I tell you, the Catholics know how to roll. None of those converted store-front churches for them. If you’re going to claim to be the church, you’ve got to be bigger than any of the rest, even the Baptists.

St. Anthony was founded in 1879, and this church was dedicated in 1907. It became a cathedral in 1966, and a minor basilica in 2006. They’re having Saturday afternoon service, so I don’t venture in.

From the steps of St. Anthony I can see the motor home, a couple of blocks away, across the Italian American Society Piazza.


Billie Bob said...

In response to your day 84 remark: I am thinking that if you’re going to be going around shouting, “God Dawg, I just got in to Texas. And I…”, you better break out the old orange fringed cowboy shirt. By the way God Dawg spelled backwards is Gwad dog.

dfinagle said...