Dogs of the East End, pt. 2

I mentioned that Astro and I would be attending Lord Byron’s 14th birthday party soon. Here’s Byron, with the card he sent Astro last week.

His penmanship is legible but crude. You’d think a dog that old would have learned cursive by now.

We’re just back from the party. Byron’s mom laid out bacon and chicken treats for the dogs, breakfast treats for the humans, and amazing take-home gifts – meat treats, Greenies, and a squeak toy for them; homemade jam, eggs from her chickens, and kale from her garden for us. She is easily the greatest party host ever.

Astro, on the other hand, continued his streak of unfortunate party behavior. He begged indiscriminately, hogged Byron’s stuffed-squirrel gifts, and humped a service dog.

Astro, with Byron’s stuffed squirrels

After the unpleasant interaction with the man on the balcony (see part 1), that alley became off-limits to the dogs and me, which is too bad, because it was one of our favorites.

Several dogs live along the alley, and I felt sorry for one of them. He was confined to an unshaded, peeling, second-story deck of a back building. Below him, next door, were two handsome Siberian Huskies who had the run of their larger-than-average yard. The deck dog went nuts when he saw us coming. As we walked under him, he would run to the deck’s other railing and bark some more. I would look back at him from two houses away and he was always still there, no longer barking, just looking. I imagined it was the highlight of his day. I always made sure to wish him good morning.

Galvestonians are good at recovering from disasters. The most recent example of this is how East Enders responded after the storm surge from Hurricane Ike in 2008 killed dozens of mature oak trees. Rather than cut them down, the locals decided to save what they could and turn their trunks into tree sculptures. Wander the neighborhood today and you’ll find the Tin Man and Toto, a grandmother reading a book to her grandchildren (this one’s next to a school), mermaids, dolphins, birds, alligators, the two-finger peace symbol, whatever took their fancy. One family decided to honor their Great Dane. His wardrobe changes with the seasons. Here he is in his St. Patrick’s Day garb. Soon it’ll be baseball season, so he’ll again put on his Astros jersey.

One thing that rankles me is the underutilization of all the marvelous front porches in Galveston. On a typical morning, we’ll walk past over 100 porches and not see man or beast on one. People might be too domesticated to sit outside, but you’d think they could let their dogs enjoy them.

Once a week we leave the neighborhood to take a walk on the beach. We used to let the dogs run loose there, which, come to find out, is illegal. The first time we did this, I threw a floatable toy as far I could into the waves to watch Astro and Bowie race to retrieve it. That’s when Astro learned that dog paddling requires both hind legs. After a minute of swimming in circles, he made it back to shallow water, where he’s remained ever since.

Bowie, as old as Byron, finds walking a chore but still loves to swim. I continue to let her off the leash to retrieve toys in the waves because she returns them to me without fail. If I did this long enough, letting her swim into the waves and swim back, her head disappearing under each wave before she surfaces again, gasping for air, she would surely die of heart failure, which is why I don’t. But what a way to go.

Dogs of the East End, pt. 1

In a couple days, Astro and I will attend Lord Byron’s 14th birthday party. We attended his 13th and, despite Astro scarfing another dog’s treats, we were invited back.

Like Astro, Lord Byron is a dog. Flor met him and his owner, Christina, two years ago at a nearby park. By rights Flor should be Astro’s chaperone, but she’ll be working, so the responsibility again falls to me.

I’d bring Bowie and Charlie, aka dogs B and C, but each has issues. Bowie is crotchety and puts on a convincing show of ferocity, even though she has practically no teeth and is harmless. Charlie is anxious around everyone and everything and nips whoever and whatever is handy.

This is how my golden-years days begin: After seeing Flor off to the salt mines, I walk our dogs. Astro, 6, is a male shepherd mix tripod who was run over by a truck and lost a hind leg when he was a pup; Charlie, 8, is a blind male terrier mix and Hurricane Harvey orphan; and Bowie, female, is a mystery, age and breed undetermined, but vets guess north of 13 and Google guesses Indian Pariah Street Dog. That sounds right. She was in the worst shape of the three when we got her. That’s her above, in 2017.

There are oodles of dogs where we live, in the working-class suburbs of Galveston’s East End Historical District. Residential lots here are small, so dogs can’t get much exercise unless they’re walked. In this neighborhood, most of them are. We encounter lots of dogs and their stewards each morning. Galveston, ideal for walking, is also ideal for walking dogs.

There aren’t many strays in our neighborhood, and yet, despite the many “Please pick up after your dog” signs (and one hand-lettered one, “THIS YARD IS NOT YOUR DOG’S TOILET!!”), every day I see dogshit on our walks. My good turn for the day is to pick up other dogs’ leavings. It feels both proper and unwholesome.

If anyone were clocking me, he would discover that I spend more time on our walks standing still than walking. That’s because Astro and Bowie stop every few meters to take in the smells of other dogs. Watching their nose flaps dilate and contract, each dog locked on a private rapture, is a vicarious pleasure. They close their mouths as they smell, forcing the scents into their nostrils and trapping them there. When they’ve had their fill, they’ll resume panting, the scents still present for them. Humans go sightseeing; dogs go smellsniffing.

For whatever reason, Charlie, the blind one, has little interest in smells. His superpower is hearing. He’s the first to note someone or something coming, and he barks himself silly either to let us know there’s danger ahead or to warn the danger he’s not to be trifled with. It’s annoying, but impressive all the same.

I’ve had only one unpleasant interaction with someone who took offense at Charlie’s barking. We were walking down an alley at 7:30am. Charlie heard a dog inside a house and started yapping. A shirtless man came out on his balcony. “What the hell is going on out here? What is this world coming to that you have to make all that noise?” He went on like this for some time, and since he was on a roll, I let him continue. When he was through, I said, “I apologize. I will find a different route.” “Perfectly fine, no problem at all,” he replied, confusingly.

There’s so much more to say about the dogs of the East End. There’s the sad upper-deck dog, the dog made of wood, dogless front porches, and Astro’s brave experiment dog-paddling in the Gulf with one hind leg. But all that and more will have to wait until part two.

Walking Galveston

Flor and I started coming to Galveston six years ago for three-day weekend getaways. I first visited Galveston in 1976, after my family moved to Houston. Two high school buddies and I used to fish off a pier from midnight till dawn, never catching anything. Galveston is where I had my first beer, my first time drunk, and my first time being threatened by an angry drunk. But Flor had never visited.

We stayed in an old mansion in the historical district and were captivated by the strange, antique beauty of the place. When we started exploring the neighborhood on foot, we discovered many more houses like it. It was like stepping back in time. Much of the magic of the place would have escaped us if we hadn’t been walking. Six years later, three years after we moved here, Galveston’s walkability is high on the list of what we love most about the city.

Walkability here certainly isn’t a product of urban planning. Galveston’s sidewalks are maddeningly inconsistent. One house will have a sidewalk; the next one won’t. You’re either forced to walk across a yard or venture into the street. It must be worse than maddening for the disabled. But the traffic is light enough that walking in the street rarely feels dodgy.

Much of what we love about walking is what we walk past in Galveston. When we used to take drives in the Texas Hill Country, we talked about the scenery, and that was the right word. Driving reduces what you’re driving past to a scenic backdrop, partly because you’re cocooned in two tons of steel, but mostly, because of how fast you’re moving.

Scenery is not the right word when you’re walking. When you walk, you’re part of the scene. You notice things you can’t notice in a car. The scene becomes a three-dimensional space with sounds and smells. You feel the ground under your feet. In Galveston, when the wind blows from the Gulf, you taste salt.

The speed of driving comes at the cost of these commonplace intimacies. Walking returns us to a human-scaled world. And walking is particularly suited to Galveston because Galveston is human-scaled. You can walk from one end of the city to the other in 75 minutes. You’d need more time to drive across Houston.

Our neighbor’s house, built in 1882

But walking Galveston is special because Galveston itself is special. Most of the houses in the historical district date to the nineteenth century. Many are grand, but many are not, and they too are unlike anything built today. Our neighbor’s house is a tiny, one-bedroom shotgun built for laborers in 1882, and even this little house has gingerbread trim on its front porch. Most old houses here have this idiosyncratic detailing. The carvings required time and craftsmanship, and I’ve yet to find two alike. The trim exists for no other reason than particularized beauty. Churches built during the Renaissance were built to glorify God, so they were designed to be beautiful. Our neighbor’s modest house shares this distinction with St. Paul’s Basilica.

And then there’s the beach. Walking along the surf, early in the morning, before the crowds arrive, reminds me of the ocean’s terrible power, of this island’s vulnerability, and of my own insignificance. I’m prone to inflate my own importance. This self-importance lifts me occasionally, but most of the time it’s a burden, not to mention untrue, so most of the time it’s a relief to have the air let out of the balloon.

The Gulf of Mexico reminds me that the world is big and marvelous, bigger and more marvelous than we can comprehend, and that we are small and contingent and inexpressibly lucky to live in a place beyond our fondest imagining. Walking Galveston’s shoreline humbles me, and that sort of existential, matter-of-fact humility is a comfort.

Galveston, Oh Galveston

“Galveston, oh Galveston” is the first line of the 1969 hit “Galveston.” The song isn’t really about Galveston, but it’s an evocative line and an apt title for some otherwise unrelated notes on an uncommon city.

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“Galveston” and Galveston, pt. 3

Galveston is a remarkable place – picturesque, historically significant, architecturally ornate, culturally diverse. The city owes each quality to its location.

Perched on the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico, situated on a sliver of sand three miles from the mainland, the city has squeezed more than its share of life and death into its not-quite two centuries. In the late 1800s, it was one of the country’s busiest seaports and generated vast wealth on the island. The wealthy repaid the city by erecting brilliantly colorful Victorian mansions up and down the city’s main avenues. Between 1839 and 1920, the Port of Galveston admitted 750,000 immigrants from around the world. From 1907 until the outbreak of World War I, the Galveston Movement gave refuge to thousands of Jewish immigrants from Russia and eastern Europe, many escaping pogroms.

When Galveston’s port was surpassed by Houston’s in the early twentieth century, the island’s economic engine turned to tourism. As in most seaports, vice – prostitution, Prohibition-era liquor, and illegal gambling –became a booming business. The city was a place apart, and by the Roaring Twenties, those in the know took to calling it the Free State of Galveston.

A crackdown in the late 1950s crippled not only the vice industries but tourism, and the island began to decline economically. But the weakened economy resulted in less pressure to expand and tear down old buildings. Inadvertently, the crackdown made it possible for preservationists to save much of old Galveston. The result, along with a fully revived tourist industry, is the charming city we have today.

When I hear Glen Campbell’s 1969 version of “Galveston,” this is what I imagine: Not the scared and lovesick soldier that Webb intended as the subject, but the soldier’s picturesque home. When I hear Campbell’s later version, or Webb’s, I remember not only the soldier, but something else about his home.

Galveston’s location makes it vulnerable. In 1900, a hurricane killed at least 6,000. It remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history. The extraordinary engineering projects that followed the Great Storm have prevented a comparable disaster, but weather-related catastrophe will always be the cost of living in Galveston.

And the weather is getting worse. Climate change has caused sea levels to rise and hurricanes to become more numerous and intense. The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a massive, $30 billion coastal barrier intended to protect the city, and it’s received initial funding approval from Congress. Will it be enough to ensure that Galveston survives into the next century?

As a Galveston chauvinist – someone who loves the city and can’t help but feel that a song named “Galveston” is about Galveston, even if it’s not – this vulnerability is what I hear in the more authentic versions of the song. The soldier’s vulnerability is mirrored by Galveston’s. But Galveston is more than a victim of its location. It’s beautiful and temperate and human-scaled, and it’s packed to the gills with history and culture.

There’s zero evidence that Webb was thinking of either the vulnerability or the beauty of Galveston when he wrote the song. He didn’t write a ballad about a city. But when I hear either Campbell’s bright-hued hit or the melancholy versions, I’ll think of Galveston. Together, they feel richer and, yes, truer, than either alone.

“Galveston” and Galveston, pt. 3

“Galveston” and Galveston, pt. 2

When Jimmy Webb released his own version of “Galveston” in 1972, it sounded like a long-suppressed protest: “This is not a happy song!”

He opens by strumming, arhythmically and for a full minute, a stridently dissonant chord. When the band enters, the tempo is more like Don Ho’s dirge than Glen Campbell’s hit. The arrangement is spare – no drums, no strings, no brass, no guitar solo – and Webb’s voice has none of the casual brio of Campbell’s. Webb’s “Galveston” lives in a different emotional universe. Curiously, Campbell’s revised lyrics – the changes that made it even more explicitly not a protest song – remain.

Campbell had sung “Galveston” as a soldier’s fond remembrance of home. The mood was at cross purposes with the lyrics, which were about a soldier longing to be delivered from danger and returned to his girlfriend and the place of their time together. Webb made his point unmissable.

Meanwhile, Webb and Campbell had become good friends and, over time, Webb convinced him that a slower, more reflective reading of “Galveston” better served the song. This version of Campbell’s, from 1988, and Webb’s own on his 1996 album Ten Easy Pieces, harmonically richer as a piano ballad than his 1972 interpretation, are in emotional sync with the song’s lyrics.

When I played Campbell’s 1988 revision for my father, he wasn’t having it. Dad’s a fan of Galveston the city, and I think that, generally, he prefers happy over sad music. I also suspect that whether he likes or dislikes a song is much more a matter of music than lyrics. In each respect, I’m like Dad.

There’s no denying that Campbell’s later version and Webb’s own are far closer in spirit to the song’s lyrics. Galveston is incidental to “Galveston.” Both of the later versions convey an emotional richness and complexity that Campbell didn’t attempt in 1969.

But musically, Campbell’s original version conveys a truth that the truer versions lack. Webb knew about Galveston from a couple boyhood trips he took with his dad, a Baptist minister who visited the city for revivals. He remembered the “big water” and “big boats,” as he called them in a 2016 interview with the Houston Press. The place left its mark. That memory of a place, wild but familiar, awesome but safe, is what comes through in Campbell’s original.

Together, these two very different approaches to “Galveston,” the celebratory and the melancholic, suggest a third way of regarding the actual Galveston.

“Galveston” and Galveston, pt. 1

On the rare chance that you are unfamiliar with Glen Campbell’s 1969 version of “Galveston,” brighten your day and sing along with Glen:

Galveston, oh Galveston 
I still hear your sea winds blowing 
I still see her dark eyes glowing 
She was twenty-one 
When I left Galveston 

​Galveston, oh Galveston 
I still hear your sea waves crashing 
While I watch the cannon flashing 
And I clean my gun 
And I dream of Galveston

I still see her standing by the water 
Standing there, looking out to sea 
And is she waiting there for me? 
On the beach where we used to run 

Galveston, oh Galveston 
I am so afraid of dying 
Before I dry the tears she’s crying 
Before I see your sea birds flying 
In the sun, at Galveston

The song was written by Jimmy Webb, and these are the lyrics he sang when he got around to recording it himself for the first time in 1972. But they aren’t the original lyrics. We know this because Don Ho sang “Galveston” in 1968, a year before Campbell took it to no. 1 on the country chart. There are subtle changes in the first and third verses, but the second verse is altogether different:

Galveston, oh Galveston
Wonder if she could forget me
I’d go home if they would let me
Put down this gun
And go to Galveston

Webb wrote “Galveston” during the height of the Vietnam War, and for the conservative Campbell, Webb’s original lyric flirted with an anti-war sentiment, so Campbell changed the verse. There were other changes. Ho’s lugubrious vocal was replaced by Campbell’s open-hearted tenor, the sluggish pace became brisk, and the syrupy arrangement gave way to soaring strings and a cheerfully galumphing bass guitar solo by Campbell himself.

Perhaps inadvertently, Campbell made Galveston the star of “Galveston.” The new version could have been commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce. (Sure enough, in 1969 Galveston invited Webb to be Grand Marshal of the Shrimp Festival Parade. Against his better judgment, he accepted, and got pelted with shrimp because of his long hair.)

But the song is not about Galveston. Nor is it a subtle protest against the Vietnam War, a once-popular interpretation even of Campbell’s sanitized version. As Webb has said more than once, it’s about a soldier wishing he were somewhere else. The somewhere happens to be Galveston, because (presumably) it’s his home, and because (emphatically) Galveston is the place he remembers when he remembers his girlfriend.

Why did Webb choose Galveston? Why did he choose Phoenix in “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” or Wichita in “Wichita Lineman”? As far as I can tell, Webb has never answered these questions. But I’m sure the answers have much more to do with the priorities of a good lyricist – meter, rhythm, images – than with anything unique to the places.

What is clear is that Webb thought Campbell got “Galveston” entirely wrong. Listeners would have to wait three years to hear how its author thought an authentic “Galveston” should sound.