Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Lights Have Dimmed, but They're Not Out Yet.

I wrote the following piece for a little neighborhood magazine. The pay's pathetic, but it's good practice, and I try to practice what I preach. Dorothy Browne and her husband, Jan Reid, are old friends. Until last year, Elliott was our state representative and a damn good one at that. You probably know who Ann Richards was. Dave Richards was her husband for a while. He's a legend in the Texas legal justice arena. Cecile Richards is their daughter. Again, keep in mind that this was written for a neighborhood magazine, so it contains inside information that you might find impossible to decipher. If you run across other names you don't recognize, Google them.

There are one or two questions about Gary Cartwright — the novelist and Texas Monthly writer who died last month — that Dorothy Browne told me she wouldn’t answer. They are the personal ones. Everything else is fair game.
At the time of Cartwright's death, Dorothy was his best friend. They met in the early 1970s. Cartwright was a charter member of a pack of artists, actors, former Plan II majors, politicos, guitar pickers, liberal lawyers, chicken fried steak connoisseurs and assorted cage dancers who dubbed themselves “Mad Dog,” then worked furiously to be worthy of the moniker.
Dorothy knew most of them through boyfriends and husbands and from working with the Texas Civil Liberties Union, which kept an office on the second floor of the Joseph and Mary Robinson Martin House, built in 1903 at the corner of Seventh and Nueces. It was, essentially, Grand Central Station for Austin progressives, muckrakers and do-gooders. The TCLU shared space with the Texas Observer at a time when its editors were Molly Ivins and Kaye Northcutt, and the first floor was occupied by the offices of  civil-rights lawyers Sam Houston Clinton and David Richards, whose acid-tongued wife, Ann, would later become governor.
Since she had a young daughter, Dorothy declined full Mad Dog membership, not that it mattered. Not much took place that she didn't have a hand in or on.
It's hard to believe, given idiocy and cruelty of the current state leadership, that progressives once ran the state, that people who thought minorities ought to get a fair shake  once a blue moon, that women knew better than old, white used car salesmen what was best for their uteruses and vaginas, and that the oil and gas industry should give back as much as they took, and they shouldn't skip town leaving sink holes and tar pits and benzine leaching into the ground water.
The epicenter of all that rabble-rousing was West Austin. It served as playground, practice field and launch site for this eclectic cluster of men and women who, briefly, at least, changed the cultural and political landscape of the state. It was the early 1970’s, the heyday of redneck mothers, cosmic cowboys and Shiva’s Headband, a time when UT kids could catch Bruce Springsteen at the Armadillo World Headquarters on back-to-back nights for next to nothing, when the 20-somethings, just out of grad school or law school or hippiedom, threw parties so over-the-top that the next morning, if they woke, they pinched their eyes shut or bled to death, and they were never sure if they wanted to remember what they did, who they did it with or to or what was done to them.
Of course, this is typically true for college towns, but it was — and very likely still is — very true for Austin, and it was especially true for Mad Dog, and it was profoundly true for its class clown, Cartwright, whose outrageous antics Dorothy was all too thrilled to describe in almost sordid detail.
For example, at her 40th birthday party, he popped out of a fake cake, clenching a dagger in his teeth and wearing nothing but his son’s date’s bikini undies, which she snipped off with the dagger. He then cannon-balled into the swimming pool.
That was vintage Cartwright. The Dallas Morning News’ story announcing his death described him as “colorful,” which is like describing Saddam Hussein as “impolite.”
Cartwright’s fans idolized him, and his Mad Dog brethren adored him, even when he over-reached because his heart was always in the right place. Many of them came from places like Wichita Falls and Tyler and Lubbock, where their notions that government could look like lunch at the local diner instead of brunch at the country club were considered as absurd as eliminating the oil depletion allowance.
So, Mad Dog sniffed tails at Sholtz Garten, the Texas Chili Parlor and the now-defunct Raw Deal to vent and bitch and brag and spill their drinks and guts. They married inside the pack and out, divorced and married again while playing whack-a-mole with their innards.
 They raised rebellious children who somehow survived and emerged as responsible adults, and they’ve grown old and fought the ravages of time.
Dorothy has survived throat cancer. Jan battles chronic pain, the result of being shot in a robbery attempt by a Mexico City cab driver in 1998. You can read about it in his riveting book, “The Bullet Meant for Me.”
He was lucky not to have bled to death or been left paralyzed. He’s still walking. Other Mad Dogs and fellow travelers — Fletcher Boone, Ann Richards, Molly Ivins, Bud Shrake — were not as fortunate. Nor was Cartwright’s third wife, Phyllis, the love of his life. They transitioned, as the Baptists like to say, before their time.
And now, Cartwright is gone.
“After Phyllis died, followed by Bud Shrake, Gary definitely considered Dorothy his best friend,” Reid said. “Told her so. Our relationship was also close, but he was 10 years older. A bit of a big brother/little brother dynamic.”
Reid grew up in Wichita Falls, and like most Texas boys of his time and place, he was crazy about the Dallas Cowboys. Couldn’t get enough of them. Read every word he could find about them, and that brought him to Cartwright, who covered them from 1960-66, the “unspoiled and innocent” years, as he called them. He might also have called them “the doormat” years.
But, in ’66, they began to jell, thanks to a stubborn defense anchored by Bob Lilly, and an innovative offense led by quarterback Don Meredith, aka “Dandy Don,” the pride of Mount Vernon.
Of course, the higher expectations tail-spinned, the more devastating the losses to Green Bay and Cleveland were, and Cartwright’s free-wheeling prose looked like mockery in juxtaposition to the algorithmic precision that head coach Tom Landry demanded. But Cartwright was a Mad Dog, not a lap dog, so nothing was sacred. His most famous lead parodied a hallowed line by the legendary sportswriter, Grantland Rice:
“Against a gray November sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. You know them as Pestilence, Death, Famine and Meredith.”
It was clever and funny, but it wasn’t particularly fair because Meredith was, for once, following Landry’s orders. He threw where a receiver should have been, and the pass was intercepted, and the Cowboys lost to the reigning NFL champs, the Cleveland Browns. Meredith was pulled after his third interception and never played another down.
Some claim that two or three of Meredith’s teammates planned to defend their quarterback’s honor by kicking Cartwright’s ass, and they might have had Meredith been as thin-skinned as, say, Tom Brady.
But Dandy Don understood that Cartwright was doing his job and that football — like life —is a game, and you win some, and you lose some, and it’s not fair, but it’s good, so you play it honestly, and when it stops being fun, it’s over and you move on. Transition, as the Baptists say.
He walked away from the game at the end of that season and ended up sitting in the broadcast booth on Monday nights, tormenting Howard Cossell.
That was Meredith, and Cartwright probably regretted that his most famous line came at the expense of a man he liked and admired.
Years later, Cartwright was invited to an exclusive reunion of Landry-era Cowboys. As he mixed and mingled, he searched for Meredith, perhaps hoping to ask if they were good. As he observed the physical destruction visited upon these stooped and gimpy old men, he said to himself, “It’s the fourth quarter for all of us.”
Meredith never showed up.
A year later, Cartwright called it quits too. He left the Morning News in ’67 for a plum job in Philadelphia — a job he kept for a whole three weeks. He didn’t like them. They didn’t like him. So, he returned to Texas, bounced around, wrote a novel — “Confessions of a Washed Up Sportswriter” — became a hot commodity again, and in ’73 moved to Austin as one of two bell cows for a new venture, Texas Monthly.
The other was Billy Lee Brammer, the author of “The Gay Place,” a veiled portrayal of LBJ as an arm-flapping blowhard. It’s revered by the yellow-dog literati, who insist it’s as good as “All the King’s Men” or “Advise and Consent.”
Brammer and Cartwright were, as Reid calls them, “the adults in the room.” The rest of the reporters were 25, 26 years old. Thirty, tops. They were talented but green.
With the exception of Billy Lee and Gary, you could see that none of us knew what we were doing,” Reid admitted. “They knew I could write coming in, but I was still learning the ropes with the reporting.”
But he was learning quickly. A full-time reporter for the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, he covered high school sports, the cop shop, the courthouse and the carnage that is the city’s traffic circle during Wurstfest.
Then, after the paper went to press on Wednesday, he’d drive to Austin to check out Willie or Jerry Jeff or Delbert or Doug Sahm.
In ’74, he took off a couple of weeks to collect and catalogue his notes and magazine pieces and crank out a draft of what would become his first book, “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock.”
Though he returned to his job with the Herald-Zeitung, he knew he was done, that it was time to sink or swim, so he devoted himself to making it as a magazine reporter, and he did.
At the age of 38, he was still single and renting from a school teacher a small house on 125 acres near Zorn, which is 13 miles north of Seguin. He met Dorothy at a party thrown by a San Antonio lawyer, a guy he’d met and befriended while working on a story. The party’s theme, Reid surmised, must have been “Party ‘Til You Puke.”
Actually, he didn’t meet her. She met him.
Dorothy was standing with Fletcher Boone, the beret-wearing beatnik sculptor and one-time co-owner of the Raw Deal, Mad Dog’s central command headquarters. Boone was haranguing her about one of those frivolous matters that seems preternaturally important after you’ve downed four or five beers and a flight of tequila shots, and she’d heard it all before, so she turned and noticed Jan and thought, “I think I’ll go talk to him.”
They were married about two years later, and they bought the house on 11th Street, and the party rolled on. They traveled extensively with Gary and Phyllis. One of the more memorable trips was to Mexico City and Oaxaca the summer before the taxi incident.
Had our pockets picked on a subway in Mexico City,” Reid said. “Hit some of the same night spots, jumped in what could have been that fateful gypsy cab.”
They also loved Italy. From Montalcino, a beautiful little town on a mesa in Tuscany, they roamed the wine country. They returned to Italy again — after the shooting — for a friend’s wedding in Venice, then hopped a train to the northeastern corner of Italy, bordered by Austria and Slovenia.
For many years, life was good.
Someone gave Gary a medical alert watch, and a few weeks later called to ask him if he was wearing it, and he replied, ‘You know, I wore it for two weeks and nothing happened, so I took it off.”
He had joined Jan and Dorothy for dinner at Maudie’s — the one on South Lamar — and was according to Dorothy, “in great form, great mood.”
He’d been working out, trying to get back in shape, battling depression and chronic back pain that kept him awake for days on end.
In the middle of the night, he fell. Why? How? No one knows. He didn’t have a stroke or heart attack. Doctors couldn’t figure it out. But he was on the floor for four days and four nights. By the time neighbors found him, he was mess. They thought he was dead.
He wasn’t, but he was horribly dehydrated. Even so, he was alert enough to chat with Jan and Dorothy and explain how it was that he knew he’d been on the floor for four days and four nights.
 “Because it’s been light and dark,” he answered.
Well, duh. Doctors were optimistic. “Maybe this’ll be like a big bed sore, and he’ll be OK,” they thought.
But he died of renal failure, caused by muscle deterioration, which sent toxins flooding into his kidneys.
By the way, Dorothy never confirmed nor denied that she hasn’t allowed herself the luxury of crying over Cartwright’s death. Perhaps she fears if she talks about it, she’ll cry, and if she starts crying, she’ll won’t stop. But she will because eventually she’ll recall some outrageous antic he pulled, and then she’ll smile and then she’ll start laughing.
His death reminds us that this eclectic cluster of men and women not only changed the cultural and political landscape of the state back then, but it changed it forever. Some kid out there in Wichita Falls or Longview or Lubbock will stumble upon Cartwright’s Four Horseman lead or his “Confessions of a Washed Up Sportswriter” and decide “To Hell with it. Bring me a dagger and a fake cake.” 
So, turn on the lights. Maybe the party’s not over after all.