From “Tales From a Great Indoorsman.”–(Originally posted Wednesday, January 25, 2006.)

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Nyssa, James’s wife, was given two paid days off as a Christmas present from her bosses, so she decided she’d spend December 28th going to San Antonio with me and James.

On the way south down I-35, they wanted to look at and price steel shipping containers, but were unable to find any. These are the big boxcar-like structures used to store things that are shipped on freighters and such-like. James and Nyssa want to buy one to put out on their ranch to handle their storage overflow. If that proves successful, they may encourage such storage-challenged friends as me to put storage containers out there too.

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Our first stop in San Antonio was the McNay Art Institute, which is housed in the 1920s Spanish-style mansion of the late socialite Marion Koogler McNay. The structure has always been one of my model dream houses. It looks like something a silent movie star would’ve built. Arranged around a huge courtyard, it has all sorts of cool spaces, a tower, galleries and balconies, tile work, and so forth. It was designed by Atlee and Robert Ayres, architects I mentioned in a recent blog.

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We went through a few galleries containing Mrs. McNay’s Monets, Renoirs, Van Goghs, etc. (what the hell happened to those Picasso collages that used to be there?), then went into the special exhibition halls to see what we’d specifically come for: a traveling show of Pre-Raphaelite art—paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, engravings, jewelry, furniture, and much more, even a copy of William Morris’s “Kelmscott” edition of “The Canterbury Tales.” Everything there was exquisite. Twenty years ago I decided if I ever got rich I’d collect Pre-Raphaelite art, but I never got rich, and the market blew wide open. I hear Andrew Lloyd-Weber has the world’s foremost collection of Pre-Raphaelite art now.

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I never thought of the McNay as a large museum, but it took us two hours to get through the regular collections and special exhibits, by which time we were very hungry. We went to Earl Abel’s, the legendary 72-year-old eatery that I recently learned is soon to be bulldozed to make way for a fucking condo tower. My family and I used to eat there when I was a child, after visits to the zoo, the Witte Museum, or Playland amusement park. I rediscovered the place in adulthood, and since I have a neurotic level of nostalgia for the past that, as I’ve said before, would put Charles Foster Kane to shame, I was gutted by the news the restaurant was closing.

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I will admit that the place is God’s Waiting Room to some extent, due to the advanced age of most of the patrons, but the food is delicious, the portions are large, the service is excellent, and the building is one of the finest examples of “Googie” architecture in Texas (though the interior is now more 1960s than 1950s).

We waited about 45 minutes in the crowded foyer, chatting with other customers. I knew the place was closing soon, but these others told me December 31st is the last day. We had great people-watching that hour, including a mob of old ladies from a “red hat club.”

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Although I wasn’t in the mood for fried chicken, I knew the restaurant was famous for its chicken. When Colonel Harland Sanders first started up KFC, he went around to established restaurants around the country and convinced the owners, Earl Abel among them, to sell chicken made to his recipe. Later Earl came up with his own recipe.

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I ordered two breasts, and damned if that was not the best chicken I ever ate, lacking all the bitter sections or gristle or other crap that usually gets in the way when one eats chicken. James and Nyssa were so hungry they wanted an appetizer, and decided to share a slice of chocolate icebox pie before they got their main course. The waitress thought this a bit odd, and I admitted, “Well, the part of the country I’m from we have dessert after we eat, so I’ll probably get pie later.” Then turning to James I said, “Now I realize I’m not a big believer in delaying gratification, but there are limits.” James responded to this by feigning masturbation under the table.

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But sadly, the chicken and taters and dinner salad filled me up so much I had no room for dessert. James said his happiest memory of Earl Abel’s (I’d taken him there before) would be the time he ate his dessert first. I took a bunch of pictures, tipped the waitress 33% for old time’s sake, thanked the cashier for all the good times, and left heartfelt encomiums in the guest book they had set up for the restaurant’s final weeks.

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From there we went to the San Antonio Central Library, where we caught the last hour of the daily book sale. This is a staple of the visits James and Nyssa and I make to San Antonio, but one of the strange attractions of the sale, apart from the books, are two of the volunteers who work there, an old married couple who argue bitterly with one another in front of the customers and patrons. After that circus I wandered the building, taking photos and re-taking others that I took last spring and that the fuck-wits at the camera store accidentally erased.

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The library is one of the most amazing contemporary structures I’ve ever been in, and the handling of light, color, space, and volume is such that no one entering the building can fail to be infused with joy.

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From there we headed downtown, intent on seeing the traveling exhibition, “St. Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes,” at the Convention Center. What none of us realized, though, was that the nearby Alamodome was hosting a major basketball game between some colleges from Michigan and Nebraska. I have never before seen and am unlikely to ever see again so many white-bread, honky mother-fuckers in downtown San Antonio, all dressed in either red or blue, like the Crips and Bloods of the Heartland, whooping, cheering, making team-related noises, and heading east in endless clottings.

Traffic was a bitch, but we actually found a parking place pretty quickly.James and Nyssa and I got a little caught up in the atmosphere, and I led them in a few verses of “It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time!”

The exhibition was fascinating, with artifacts from Roman times, charts, maps, drawings, sculptures, mosaics, documents, well-preserved vestments, dazzling chalices and other liturgical materials, the first map ever drawn of Australia, a full-scale replica of the tomb of St. Peter, located in a mock-up of the Vatican catacombs, and another mock-up of the Sistine Chapel as it looked when Michelangelo was painting it, complete with scaffolds and tarps.

But oddly enough, I was most interested in the items from the last 200 years. There was newsreel footage of my favorite Pope, Pius XII. One of the things about Pius I like is that during his reign a lot of post-cards and photos were produced with composite images of him superimposed alongside St. Peter’s, but at least twice as tall as the dome. These photos make him look like a Papal Godzilla getting ready to stomp Vatican City into pieces.

They had the tiny slippers of John XXIII (Odd, since he looked like such a stout guy). There was a gold hammer used in the past to tap on the bed-ridden Pope’s skull to ascertain if he was dead or alive, and then to crush his Papal ring if it was the former. There was an elaborate prie-dieux of inlaid wood that had belonged to Leo XIII, that I immediately recognized from an antique post-card I have of Leo’s bedroom.

This show was put together in John Paul II’s lifetime, and included many items pertaining to him. I was struck by how small his vestments were—he also seemed like such a large man—especially in his earlier years. The last exhibit you’d see before you left was a cast of his hand in bronze, which visitors were encouraged to touch and examine. Again, his hand was quite small.

I was struck most by a glass-and-tin Communion set that had been made by prisoners in a World War II prisoner of war camp, and by the bent pastoral cross John Paul always carried in public, especially on his foreign trips. It was, as James pointed out, much more powerful an item than the other gaudy, bejeweled things in the show, by virtue of its simplicity, if nothing else.

After this I went to prowl the gift shop and buy a show catalogue. They had a fairly predictable selection of merchandise: posters, coffee mugs, books by John Paul II, rosaries, crucifixes, and holy cards, and a stack of lavishly-illustrated Bibles—Protestant Bibles, that lacked the seven books that are part of every Catholic Bible.

We took only about 90 minutes to see the Papal exhibition, so we had plenty of time to kill. The hoop fans were still mobbing the streets; we fought through them trying to get to St. Joseph’s Church—we were going to photograph the statues and stained glass–but the door was locked. Nyssa suggested the Alamo.

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We walked the block over to Alamo Plaza, and I took them through the Menger Hotel, since they’d heard me talk about it a lot, but had never been in there. They picked up a major “Shining”/ “Overlook Hotel” vibe there, and said they could easily imagine a younger version of me riding a Big Wheel through the empty hallways.

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After that we went back out into the Plaza. Night had fallen, and several Hispanic families were playing football in front of the Alamo under the watchful eyes of a State Trooper. (There’s a lesson to be drawn from that image, but I’m too lazy to think what it could be.) We walked down several downtown streets, and took more pictures.

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Nyssa suggested we go look at the Riverwalk, but James didn’t want to, though we did get some great shots of the Riverwalk Christmas lights from a street-level bridge.

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We had dinner at Schilo’s German deli, but I was unable to finish. For most of this year I’ve only been eating one meal a day, even though that’s not reduced my weight any. We went back to the car, and stopped by Half-Price Books, where at last-call I was approached by a chummy Japanese gentleman who complained that when he goes shopping at a bookstore he loses all track of time—he looks up and finds the sun has gone down and they’re closing up, but that when he shops with his wife time drags one and on and on.

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We went back to Earl Abel’s on our way out of town. We didn’t go inside—we just took pictures of the neon-lit exterior. Once I got home I was less than impressed with the night shots I’d gotten. The only decent ones I took were those I’d used a timer on. James just showed me how to do that today, and I’m still getting the hang of it. The other night photos looked fuzzy.

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I pondered running across the street to get some full-length shots with my tripod. James said if I didn’t do it tonight I’d never get another chance. So I went across, and while I was snapping away, a car slowed down as it made a right turn, and the people inside waved and cheered at me for getting a permanent chronicle of the old landmark before it’s torn down.

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Later on James and Nyssa and I had just driven into the Austin city limits when we passed a self-storage place, marked by a tall electronic sign with red lights that sent ads, messages, and slogans in a crawl from right to left. I shouted, “What the hell was that?! That self-storage place just flashed a message that said, ‘Live the Dream!’ What the hell does that mean?”

James and Nyssa began howling and crying and James managed to spit out, “Yeah, live the dream. Get divorced by your wife, and have to move into some shitty apartment and put all your stuff in a tiny storage facility that costs three times what it’s worth a month!”

Nyssa, fortunately, recovered quickly enough to get one more look at the sign before it passed out of view: “Uh, guys? Apparently, the ‘Live the Dream’ is just something wishing luck to UT in the Rose Bowl.”

[Earl Abel’s is closing its doors forever at 1am on March 15th. I’m debating whether I should go down there for that.]

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