“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.
Flags on Porches
To butcher Robert Frost, something there is about a porch that loves a flag.
The most popular flag in the U.S. is, of course, the Stars and Stripes. Along with military bases, its customary perch is atop a vertical pole in front of and above city halls, courthouses, schools, and banks. The flag flies high, announcing an official status enjoyed by a public place.
The American flag signifies something different when it’s flown from a porch. For one thing, its pole isn’t vertical but mounted at a 45-degree angle. The flag becomes much less a symbol of dominion than of belonging, and the fact that it’s at a modest height and tilted toward passersby suggests an invitation, a belonging that is shared.
Part of this difference in signification is due to the porch itself. Porches are public and private places, unlocked and undefended. Passersby, known or not, can communicate with people on a porch. Strangers can step onto a porch.
I mention the American flag not only because of its ubiquity, but also because, like so many other public symbols recently, it’s become weaponized. To some flag-wavers, it’s a narrow and belligerent assertion of identity, a provocation to anyone not from America.
Those connotations melt away when America’s flag flies from a porch. The flag becomes a symbol of community.
In fact, it’s hard to think of an objectionable porch flag. Hard, but not impossible. It’s impossible for most Americans today to see the Confederate flag as anything much more than a symbol of white supremacy. Thankfully, in the past three years, I haven’t seen one on a Galveston porch. But during the 2020 election, there were several residents here who flew Trump flags instead of the American flag. One of them featured a steroidal Trump in a tank top wielding an AR-15, scowling. It was a weird combination of malice, virtue-signaling, and homoeroticism.
Resolved: Any flag bearing the image or the name of an individual is not a true flag.
A friend recently wrote that he gets annoyed when he sees someone in the U.S. flying the flag of another country. Why, I wanted to ask, be so thin-skinned? This weekend, one of our neighbors, a British national who’s lived in the U.S. for decades, flew the Union Jack during the coronation of King Charles. Who are we to begrudge her that? Is our patriotism so frail?
In Galveston, the second-most popular flag is our state’s. The Stars and Stripes + Lone Star combo is even more in evidence than the Stars and Stripes alone. Texans tend to be proud of living in Texas. It’s that rare thing, a harmless form of chauvinism.
Flag etiquette is a thing, too, even on porches. Last year, on the social media site Nextdoor, a neighbor took umbrage at someone who flew the Texas flag to the observer’s left of the national flag. It seemed an odd thing to be offended by. But ever since, whenever I see some poor sap flying flags improperly arrayed left to right, I’m half-inclined to leave a Post-it.
The third- and fourth-most popular flags here represent sports teams and alma maters.
This neighbor sometimes flies a University of Virginia flag, but it’s baseball season and the Astros won last year’s World Series, so it’s a clean porch sweep for Altuve’s team.
One flag is curiously underrepresented here. The Juneteenth flag was created in 1997 by Ben Haith. The event that the flag commemorates, General Gordon Granger’s belated 1865 proclamation of freedom for slaves in Texas, occurred in Galveston. In 1980, Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday and, in 2021, a federal one.
The Juneteenth flag, a symbol of freedom, is a natural complement to the original one, the Stars and Stripes. They belong together, and nowhere more than on a porch in Galveston.
Down on the Corner
The automobile has utterly transformed how we live and die, in ways big and small, for better and worse. But it wasn’t until we moved to Galveston that I realized it also killed the traditional grocery store.
Walk four blocks in Galveston’s oldest residential neighborhoods and you’ll probably encounter a structure unlike the others. Usually, it’s at an intersection. It sits much closer to the street than its neighbors, and the front door is at a 45-degree angle to the intersection.
It lacks a front porch, a fixture of virtually all houses built before 1940, another casualty of the car. In its place is a long awning that extends over the sidewalk. The structure appears more utilitarian than the others; it lacks the frilly architectural details that decorate even the most modest of Galveston’s old houses.
Today, it’s most likely a home or a set of small apartments. A century ago, it was a grocery store.
In the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, everyone bought groceries at a corner store. Stores had to be within walking or bicycling distance of a household, so they were plentiful. According to the 1890 census, there were 233 grocers and grocery stores in Galveston, one for every 25 households.
Since refrigerators didn’t become common in the United States until the 1930s, most residents visited the store several times a week. The store was the neighborhood hangout, more like a local bar than a contemporary Kroger’s. In fact, many of the stores had a bar attached.
Corner stores were a city’s most-trafficked public spaces. People sat and talked under the awnings, protected from sun and rain. Neighbors spent time with neighbors there, much more often than they did in churches, synagogues, or ballparks.
Most of the stores’ owners lived upstairs. Sometimes they put their kitchen and dining room downstairs, connected to the store by a door that was often open, so they could keep an eye on shoppers while they ate. Grocers and their family members worked long hours, 5am to 8pm typically, seven days a week.
What have Kroger’s, refrigeration, and the automobile given us? Choices, mostly. Our ancestors would have been flummoxed by the range of food and drink available to even the poor. They would have been astonished that we could buy a steak and eat it a year later. They would have been stunned by our ability to go from the East End of Galveston to downtown Houston in less than an hour. I don’t imagine that many of us would turn back the clock. I doubt I would.
But obviously, we’ve lost some things, too, and right now, in this time and in this fractious and fractured country, those things seem to outweigh what we’ve gained.
We’ve lost regular and unavoidable contact with our neighbors. We don’t need to meet them anymore. We can stay inside our four walls, order everything online, and interact virtually with whomever we like, whether we know them or not, and now, whether they’re actual people or not.
Corner stores required residents to interact with the store’s owners. Residents knew the people who sold them stuff, whose livelihoods depended on their purchases. If the consumers appreciated what the merchants carried, they could tell them. The same was true if they had complaints or requests. Consumers had a direct line to sellers, and the sellers knew their needs firsthand. No surveys necessary.
The lack of a car and the necessity of a corner store brought neighbors together, whether they liked it or not. The store was a glue. What it glued was a community.
Quiet: Cutting Grass in Galveston, pt. 4
I opened the first entry in this exercise with a confession. Many years ago, a student who’d just discovered Edward R. Murrow’s 1950s radio show “This I Believe” asked me what bedrock belief I’d spend three minutes defending. I was stumped, but a day later it came to me: I’d go with push reel mowers.
The first three posts were my attempts to
not sound crazy make a reasonable case, particularly for Galvestonians, for choosing a push reel over a conventional rotary. But like so many things I care about, the most important factors have nothing to do with reason. This – the last unprompted thing I’ll say about reels, promise – is about those other reasons.
From the beginning, now a half-century ago, I’ve been drawn to the sound of the spinning reel. It’s not just the quiet, though that’s a big part of it, and the value of less noise in my life has grown as I’ve gotten older.
Push reels – at least, heavy steel reels1 – make a crisp, rhythmic whisking sound, a single note struck so rapidly that it almost sounds continuous. It’s a little like Edward Scissorhands clipping a topiary, except that Edward clipped frenetically. The reel whisks away at a regular tempo, like a dozen mechanically driven scissors snipping in unison.
I think I would have liked this sound even before steam- and gas-powered engines began to be grafted onto reels and drowned out the whisk. Today, the particular sound a mower makes is less important than its volume. Noise is one of the under-acknowledged costs of living in the developed world. Silence really is golden, and your neighbor could tell you that quiet is the next-best thing. Reels operate just above the volume of a whisper. Neighborly thoughtfulness is a good reason to prefer the quieter tool, but my enjoyment of the reel’s pre-industrial, agrarian sound is purely selfish.
Believe it or not, others have written about the sound of the push reel, but I’ve not encountered any testimonies to its intermingled olfactory, tactile, and visual pleasures. The smell of freshly cut grass isn’t limited to reels of course, but with gas engines, a mowed lawn’s green leaf volatiles are overwhelmed by fuel fumes. Battery-powered mowers don’t have that problem, but they can’t match the reel’s gift to the nose because they either shoot grass out to the side or into a bag. Apart from a mystifyingly popular Fiskars model,2 which shoots grass forward, reel mowers send grass backward, in a gentle spray, wafting the smell toward you. Grass falls like rain around your ankles. With a rotary, you’re smart to protect your legs. With a push reel, you’re better off leaving them bare.
Maybe for good reason, none of these qualities gets mentioned by sales folk, who too often over-promise and misrepresent reels by talking about cut quality and ease of use. For most of us, rotaries require less time and effort and are more forgiving of regular-joe slovenliness, like letting grass grow tall between mowings.
I’m certainly no less lazy than the average bear. But when it comes to cutting grass – and especially for cutting the stamp-sized lawns in subtropical, salt-breezy Galveston – speed and ease are massively overrated.
We live in a place where island time – a leisurely approach to life that gives pleasure its due – is celebrated. It’s the city’s motto! We complain about it when we’re shopping for contractors, but most of the time, we like it.
Those who embrace the Galveston ethos should embrace the push reel mower. It’s the best tool devised to cut grass with human power. It requires more time than a rotary. You’ll have to go over some patches twice. You’ll sweat. But you’ll be doing a job deliberately, mindfully, and, if you’re like me, pleasurably, with a tool that doesn’t burden our over-burdened island or annoy your neighbors. It’s a small thing. To paraphrase John Lennon, give reels a chance.
 A few decades ago, manufacturers began making reels lighter by incorporating aluminum and making the reel’s blades of thinner steel, which changed the reel’s sound from a bright, crisp whisk to a duller, janky whunk. I was crestfallen the first time I heard a modern Scott’s. There are more important reasons to be leery of a light push reel – they struggle with southern grasses, for one – but the fact that they sound like shit rankles me.
 Don’t get me started.
The Good Tool: Cutting Grass in Galveston, pt. 3
What is a good tool?
Two caveats: There are any number of instances that would make my own attempt at an answer insufficient or simply wrong. Also, the reason I enjoy cutting grass with a reel mower isn’t merely because it’s a well-designed tool. But it is a well-designed tool, and that’s important, so here’s my best shot:
A good tool allows users to do work they either couldn’t do or couldn’t do as well or as quickly without it, with minimal impact on the world, with reasonable safety, and with a reasonable expenditure of time and energy.
The bicycle is the quintessential good tool. It enables users to travel five times as quickly as they can on foot with about the same expenditure of energy, and the only impact on the world is the cost in materials, energy, and labor to make a bicycle. Riding a bike is more dangerous than walking or running, but once the penny farthing gave way to the safety bicycle – the original name of the bicycle we know today – bicycles passed the safety test.
Reel mowers fit my definition of a good tool. They do a decent job of cutting grass, with minimal impact on the world, with more than reasonable safety, and require a reasonable expenditure of time and energy. But the acid test is whether reels are better tools than rotaries. Let’s compare.
The job: For those of us who don’t have the time, money or perfectionism to fuss over an immaculate lawn, an average rotary mower does a better job of cutting grass than a push reel mower. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ll ignore the fact that a well-maintained reel is better for a grass’s health.) Advantage, rotary.
Impact on the world: Undesirable impacts of rotaries include air and noise pollution, consumption of resources in the manufacture and operation of the mower, and, particularly for small plants and animals, injuries from the blast of grass, rocks, and sticks propelled from the discharge chute. Even with the latest generation of battery-powered rotaries, push reels are plainly superior. They have essentially no undesirable impacts. Advantage, reel.
Safety: According to a 2018 Johns Hopkins study, there were about 6,400 lawnmower-related injuries each year between 2006 and 2013. Most required surgery, and 21% resulted in amputation. The average cost to the user per accident: $37,000. Advantage, bigly: reels.
Time and (human) energy: This requires unpacking. No question, rotaries require less of each. Engineers design, marketers sell, and consumers buy tools whose chief virtue is that they make jobs easier and quicker for us. It seems silly to cavil at this.
But cavil I do. Assuming you have the time and energy, spending a bit more of each on a job is not necessarily a thing to be avoided, provided the work is rewarding. And, particularly in a place like Galveston, with its temperate weather, salty breezes, and small yards, cutting grass with a push reel mower is rewarding.
I’ll save the rewards for the next installment and close this one by exercising my prerogative as an old man to sound like one.
We Americans fetishize speed and ease. If we have to do a job ourselves, we want it over with quickly and with as little effort as possible. There are any number of unpleasant jobs where this makes sense, but cutting a Galveston-sized lawn isn’t one of them.
I don’t know if it’s the numberless contemporary impediments to living simply and in the moment, or the lazy assumption that quicker and easier are always desirable, or simple laziness. But our rush to get things done is degrading our capacity to notice a form of pleasure in labor that only emerges when we slow down. Zen masters know this. So do whittlers. But that’s the subject of part 4.
Pleasurable Labor: Cutting Grass in Galveston, pt. 2
How do you make the case for using a push reel mower instead of a rotary without sounding like a self-righteous prick?
I don’t know. But I’ve seen enough suppressed eyerolls to know I’ve failed that test many times. Instead, I’ll try to explain what made me fall in love with reels as a kid.
When I was a boy, I cut yards for money, and when our Briggs & Stratton died, my dad took me to Peer Hardware in Springfield, Missouri to buy a new mower. I can’t recall why we decided on a reel. I’m sure I liked the idea of not having to shell out for gas, but I can’t remember if that was the clincher.
It was a Scott’s Silent, maybe one of the first with a no-contact reel: The spinning blades didn’t make contact with the cutting bar; thus the “Silent.” The cooler innovation was a nifty knob that adjusted the cutting height.
Here’s what I quickly discovered. Reel mowers require more effort. (Duh.) They’re far worse than rotaries at cutting tall grass. Unless you mow twice a week during growing season, one pass is usually not enough for a decent cut. They require regular sharpening. Mowing with a reel takes more time because, in addition to usually needing two passes, you can only mow going forward. (Rotaries allow you to mow pulling as well as pushing.) Medium-sized sticks get stuck between the reel’s blades and the cutting bar, stopping you cold. Freeing them requires kicking the reel backwards with your heel.
And yet, I loved the thing. Despite having to work harder and longer, I was actually having fun mowing grass. Why?
I have reflected on this question longer than you might guess. This is what I’ve decided.
Reels turned a chore, something I was eager to be done with, into pleasurable labor. The pleasure came from the satisfaction of using my own power to operate a simple, elegant tool, and – I wish I could find a plainer phrase – the sensory gestalt of using a reel. Mowing grass became like whittling, or, to take a more purposive thing, gardening. It became my Zen.
When I was in my 20s, I owned a 1972 VW Beetle. Because the engine was so simple, I decided to learn how to do routine maintenance myself. I bought John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive and learned, among other things, how to gap my Bug’s spark plugs.
I will assume that this is beyond argument for adults of a certain age: There are any number of occasions when it makes sense to hire someone else to do work you could do. But unless you find the work unpleasant or dangerous or too time-consuming or impractical to master, doing the job yourself is inherently more fulfilling than having someone else do it. Similarly, since I and it were capable, using my body as the engine felt more rewarding than the labor- and time-saving gains of using a fuel-powered mower.
Today, the only things I remember from Muir’s manual are his advice to buy good tools and to take care of them. I’d read this advice before as a teenager in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Zen is one of those rare books that I re-read decades later and, rarer still, one that seemed as important to a middle-aged man as it was to my adolescent self.
What is a good tool? What is this so-called sensory gestalt that appealed to the teenager then and the old man now? What does any of this have to do with Galveston? And, most of all, why would anyone make reel mowers the subject of their “This I Believe” essay? Tune in tomorrow.
Cutting Grass in Galveston, pt. 1
This, believe it or not, is close to my heart, and like most things close to the heart, I’m not entirely sure why. It’s so close to the heart and, frankly, weird, that I’m going to start off with something that’s neither.
In Galveston, most people live cheek-to-jowl with their neighbor. Some roofs come within two inches of touching. Whether your neighbors are singing along with Neil Diamond on their porch or baby-talking their pets in their backyard, you’ll hear them. And if they are mowing their lawn with a power mower, it will be as if they are mowing your own. Noise pollution might be less dangerous than fouling air or water, but it’s more annoying.
Now for the weird. Many years ago, one of my students became infatuated with Edward R. Murrow’s 1950s radio program “This I Believe.” The challenge was that an essayist had three minutes to read something that expressed a core belief, something inextricably tied with who they were. My student was trying to figure out what she would say, and she asked me what I’d say.
Okay: Describe the most essential, the most elemental part of your identity – not just what you think is true but what, in the Proto-Indo-European sense of “believe,” what you love – in 500 words. That was the challenge. Like most people who aren’t fundamentalist about something, I was stumped.
I was still thinking about it a day later when it occurred to me what I would say: I believe in hand-powered reel mowers. Twenty years later, I think I’d stick with that.
Partly, this is an admission that, for me, the question’s an impossible ask. But it’s more than that. It’s not entirely facetious.
Weirdness, chapter 2: Once at a party in Austin, I decided to ask the room whether anyone felt there might be a local interest in a lawn care company that used only hand tools to cut and trim yards. This was in the Clarksville neighborhood, the beating blue heart of the People’s Republic of Austin, with graduate students in the humanities. They thought I was joking.
I’ll try to explain what makes the reel mower special in part 2. For now, I will only say that in Galveston, the reel mower should be the tool of choice for almost every yard. (I exempt hired crews. They need to work fast. Yes, it feels ludicrous to see crews zipping around stamp-sized lawns on riding mowers, but I get it. To a point.)
In my hundreds of walks in Galveston, I have seen exactly two people other than me using a reel mower, and one of them was my neighbor, who told me I inspired him. He’s an enthusiastic convert. But I’ll save the sell for tomorrow.
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.
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.
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.
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” 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.