Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ruby and the Rangers


            In September five years ago a box arrived in the mail in response to my request for Texas' file on the Kennedy assassination.
           The last of the four principals who rode in the President’s car that day, Nellie Connally, widow of Governor “Big” John Connally had died a few months earlier in a nursing home and there were all those official promises, through the years, that all the facts had been revealed so—after the payment of $238 for copying costs and “staff overtime”—a little over 1,000 pages, the whole file according to the Texas Department of Public Safety arrived in the mail just like memorabilia from a long-lost aunt.
            There was a copy of Lee Harvey Oswald’s application for work at the Schoolbook Depository, his academic records in Ft. Worth (good at sports, bad at spelling) and a list of everything seized in a search of his home. There were the FBI notes of the interrogation of Jack Ruby as well as transcripts of police radio traffic the day the president was shot and witness statements taken on the street by the sheriff in and around Dealey Plaza. There were even statements by those present when Ruby murdered Oswald (one detective who knew Jack Ruby personally said he shouted out when he first saw the gun, “Jack, you son of a bitch, don’t do it!”) The scope of the documentation was wide—including the duty stations of every one of almost 500 cops working security that day—as well as detailed, with even a statement from the medical student summoned to the jail to put his finger in the suspect’s ass, in a belated search for hidden weapons. There was a letter a month afterwards from a representative for Oswald’s widow asking that her late husband’s things be returned to her, “the property I speak of includes . . . his rifle, pistol and other personal items.” But what wasn’t in the file was more interesting than what was: not a single page by the Texas Rangers.
            It was as if the files had been meticulously scrubbed to remove any trace of the Rangers or state troopers who worked security in Dallas that day, waiting at the Trade Mart for the president who would never show—any intelligence reports about what took place after the killing, the search for “subversives,” maybe Oswald but more likely Jack Ruby who lived and prospered as a law enforcement groupie, giving free cover and drinks in his club to anyone carrying a badge. There weren’t any Ranger reports on a case that involved not just the murder of the President of the United States but the serious wounding of the Governor of Texas followed by an investigation—statewide, national and international—that lasted a year and really has never ended.
            But wasn’t that peculiar?


            When the police searched Oswald’s home they found Russian literature from his time in the Soviet Union and his Marine dog tags with sharpshooter medal—and his library, all the books he owned, which tells us something about the man.
            Each page of the inventory was stamped by a Dallas police officer before being turned over to the FBI: something gloomy by Sartre, the anti-government bible 1984 and Revolution Must be a School of Unfettered Thought by Fidel Castro, along with enough pro-Cuba pamphlets to paper a protest march. Oswald also owned The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming. Like President Kennedy he was a fan of James Bond. The only title missing was From Russia With Love.
            A clerk at the Department of Public Safety noted in a nice letter, in response to my puzzled inquiries, that he was also curious how there could be no documents by the Rangers and he had, on his own initiative, contacted Ranger Company B, stationed in Garland, which covers Dallas. He was told there were no files, he said. No one documented anything. That was the Rangers’ story and they were sticking to it. Confronted with this apparent discrepancy, this Texas-sized hole in the Lone Star narrative, a later letter from the same guy in the Department of Public Safety’s legal affairs office explained, in a slightly-less helpful manner, that the Rangers file may have once existed but may have once been given to Texas Christian University—perhaps in 1968, nobody in Austin was making any promises however.
            “The Department does not know,” the gentleman in the legal affairs office reported the Rangers’ new position, “if these documents did or did not pertain to any investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy. There is no record to indicate that these documents were or were not returned to the Department.”
            Huh?
            A spokeswoman for the State Library said they had files on the assassination. The files had recently arrived from, you guessed it, the Texas Department of Public Safety, but only like those sent to me—none of the documents appeared to actually have been produced by the Rangers themselves. Colonel Thomas A. Davis, then-director of the Department of Public Safety, and ultimate boss of the Rangers, suggested in a letter to me that the files might have been destroyed as part of a “records retention schedule,” but the State Archivist said his office had never approved the destruction of any records of historical value, much less on the Kennedy assassination. Certainly nothing on the crime of the century, the Archivist said.
            So the question came to mind: Who was more likely to know what happened in Dallas? Who was more familiar with the historic figures present, Texas’s top political leadership including Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Governor Connally?
           Who would have known the “atmosphere” in North Texas better than the Rangers stationed in the Big D?
            If there had been a conspiracy who was more likely to have learned about it?



            After the assassination the chief law enforcement officer in Austin, the Attorney General of Texas, decided to look at the bigger picture, the question of conspiracy, just as the Warren Commission was doing in Washington. At the time the A.G. in Austin was a man named Waggoner Carr.
            If Waggoner Carr was no legal scholar, that’s not what the attorney general does but he wasn’t a bad lawyer either—a former speaker of the Texas House, a self-described “Connally Democrat,” Carr himself would later be charged by the FBI during the Sharpstown scandal and defend himself and be acquitted. For whatever reason—not the least of which may have been publicity—Waggoner Carr was not ready to hand over the case to federal prosecutors. Instead he hired two “special counsels” to help him find out what had happened. He called his investigation a “Texas Court of Inquiry.”
            As it happens, half a century later, that was a lucky break for me.
            The files from the Court of Inquiry were released to the State Archives just after my request to the Rangers and Carr’s notes offer a different take on the crime of the century, one that makes the Rangers’ silence through the decades so deafening now.
            In an entry dated November 26, four days after the shooting of the president, Attorney General Carr wrote in his journal, “I talked with Colonel Garrison on the phone”—Colonel Homer Garrison, founding Director of the Texas Department of Pubic Safety, the man who sat in the top cop’s chair in Austin for 30 years and was boss of the Rangers—“and asked him to determine who went to Mexico with Oswald at the time he was there from September 26 thru October 3, 1963. He was advised to check all points of entry on the border. Several hours later Colonel Garrison made a preliminary report stating that two blonde women and another man either went from Texas into Mexico with Oswald or came back with him and they would make a more complete report later.” Within a week after the assassination the Rangers had checked all passengers on flights in and out of Dallas, determined that the same Jack Rubinstein who had previously been investigated by the Un-American Activities Committee was not the Jack Ruby who owned strip clubs in Dallas-Ft. Worth, and reported, according to Carr’s notes, “Oswald did not have a telephone during this period of time and they cannot check his calls. They are still checking Ruby’s calls.” The follow up led to a correction from Colonel Garrison: “Oswald entered Mexico at Laredo crossing on September 26. His transportation is not known and he entered Mexico alone. He returned from Mexico on October 3. He returned by private auto, apparently alone. His visa shows that he just went to the interior—no destination stated.”
            The first special counsel the Texas Attorney General hired was Bob Storey, former dean
of the law school in Dallas. Storey’s job was administrative, to keep the notes and do all the bureaucratic tasks that keep an investigation going.
            The second special counsel’s job was to solve the crime: To look at the witness statements and find the discrepancies to run the traps that would ultimately answer the question whether Oswald and Ruby each acted alone and, just as important, independently.
            That man’s name—the second “special counsel”—was Leon Jaworski.
            Yes, that Leon Jaworski—the future Watergate prosecutor who would, ten years later, take Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting and dismantle a presidency. In 1963, two months after the assassination, Leon Jaworski was a lawyer in Houston, a former Army colonel who, like Dean Bob Storey, had made a name prosecuting war criminals. Leon Jaworski was the man picked by Attorney General Carr to break the case—to find out if there had really been a conspiracy and if there was, what kind. He apparently had his own ideas about the Kennedy assassination. You have to read between the lines but Jaworski's preliminary take on the case echoes the suspicions that were already rampant among the public.
            From his office in Houston, on January 27, 1964, Jaworski wrote a letter marked “CONFIDENTIAL” to Attorney General Carr about how to get to the bottom of certain “rumors” they had heard surrounding the assassination—rumors which also help explain what may make the Rangers so nervous today. “In order to keep aftermaths from placing you in a position of possible criticism,” Special Counsel Jaworski wrote to the attorney general, “[and] to the end of being of the maximum assistance to the Warren Commission,” he suggested that Attorney General Carr send a letter to Washington. “Of course, it is to be assumed that the ferreting out of this matter,” Colonel Jaworski told his boss, “will be resourcefully and completely done. On the other hand if this is not done and something should show up at a later date, even a year or five years from now, there would be a clamor.”
            The letter that Jaworski was suggesting be sent to Washington refers to a meeting that had just taken place between Washington and Texas prosecutors about the course of the investigation, now two months after the assassination, and regarding “the subject of the discussion of last Friday at which Chief Justice Warren, you, my special counsel and I, [Dallas D.A.] Henry Wade and his assistant, Mr. Alexander, were present, I respectfully suggest that the Commission consider taking the following steps.” Jaworski’s plan was to find any connections the killers might have with others, yes—but the targets of the search Jaworski was suggesting were not the usual suspects in the deaths of President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Not the mob, or right-wing extremists, not Cubans or Communists.
            The suspect was a member or members of law enforcement itself.
            “The ferreting out of this matter,” Jaworski described to the attorney general, required three steps, each in sequence after the other. He already had two suspects in mind.
            First he wrote: “From the director of both agencies involved, there should be obtained the names of every agent and representative in service in the Dallas area between the months of August and December. This information must be complete so that every single representative who acted for these agencies in that area, whether only a few days or for several months, is to be included.” Second: “Each of the men on these two lists should be examined under oath to determine whether he has any knowledge of the subject matter under discussion.” Third: “The director—the number one man of each agency—as well as the district director of each agency (being the district in which Dallas lies) each should similarly be examined to ascertain whether any of them has any knowledge of the matter under inquiry.” The attorney general’s file doesn’t specify the nature of “the matter under inquiry” or who the suspects were by name. But in another letter, on May 12, 1964, from Attorney General Carr to Colonel Garrison, the general makes an odd plea.
            Carr tells Colonel Garrison that Texas law enforcement has been “most helpful” up to that point but that the Warren Commission needs to know if there’s anything Washington hasn’t seen.
            “’The Commission,’” Carr quotes a communication from Chief Justice Warren, “’would like to know whether any law enforcement agency in the State of Texas possesses any information not hitherto disclosed to this Commission concerning the association of Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby with any Communist or subversive organizations in the United States or abroad, or with any criminals or criminal groups either in the United States or abroad.” The second part of the letter hits the mark. “The Commission would also like to know whether any law enforcement agency in the State of Texas possesses any investigatory reports, police records, or other official data not hitherto disclosed to the Commission concerning the assassination of President Kennedy and the death of Lee Harvey Oswald.”
            Colonel Garrison’s response is not included in the attorney general’s files. And after the request for disclosure from Washington was transmitted—something happened to change the course of the investigation in Texas. The file got closed in Austin. The Court of Inquiry, under sudden pressure from D.C., went out of business. It seems someone didn’t dig what was happening in River City. It’s important to note that Attorney General Carr signed off on the findings of the Warren Commission—that both Ruby and Oswald acted alone. But that wasn’t the finding he came to independently, and he complained officially to Washington that, after he agreed to limit his investigation, he was denied promised information from federal investigators.
            In his letter to Waggoner Carr, and the proposed letter to Chief Justice Warren, Colonel Jaworski mentioned two government agencies “rumored” to have been somehow involved in Dallas, possibly running Oswald, or Ruby, as informants or agents, assassins or thugs. The FBI is presumably one. The other, well—conspiracy theorists have always liked the CIA as “accomplice” in the crime of the century. But there’s a better suspect. The agencies that Jaworski describes in his letter have district offices that cover Dallas. Of course the CIA would be a possibility—if the CIA had a North Texas office. Perhaps they do.
            As it turns out though, there was a hint at the mystery agency’s identity in the records that came to me from the Texas Department of Public Safety. In the box was another list of seized evidence—just like the one detailing what was taken from Oswald’s home. Jack Ruby’s car was his office. After his arrest the Dallas cops found the vehicle parked not far from police headquarters. In it was everything Ruby had used to run his business and do what he did, whatever that was—the hustling, small-time thuggery, the booze and the girls. The inventory from the car lists more than $1,000 in cash, his clubs’ receipts. There was a pair of brass knuckles, tool of his trade. The only reason Ruby’s gun wasn’t in the glove compartment where he normally kept it, was that he had taken it with him to shoot Oswald.
            In the car there was also a stack of free passes to his shows that Ruby gave out as promotions, and a collection of business cards collected as connections. One card was from a local justice of the piece, asking any police officer to please render assistance to Ruby—a get-out-of-jail-free card, the kind of thing you show to a cop when you’re pulling out your license after you get stopped on a traffic offense. But there was also a business card for a man named “W.M. Naylor,” showing an address of P.O. Box 4087 in Austin. That was interesting.
            If you’ve ever made an open records request of the Texas Rangers, Box 4087 would be familiar. It’s the address of the Texas Department of Public Safety headquarters.
            “W.M. Naylor,” according to the Department of Public Safety’s own records, was in November 1963 the chief of the DPS narcotics squad—in other words, Texas’s top narc. But Naylor actually transferred to narcotics from the Rangers where—also according to Department of Public Safety records—he was in the “Bureau of Intelligence.” Historically, investigators have always tried to make a connection between Ruby and Oswald, or failing that, Oswald and the FBI. A better connection is Ruby and the Rangers.
            Unfortunately, the exact nature of the relationship is unclear because the Rangers report they have "no records" on the Kennedy assassination.


            The month after my request for the Kennedy material, an intelligence analyst for
the Texas Department of Public Safety contacted the State Archives about delivering some old files for safekeeping.
            According to an internal email sent soon after by the archivist’s office, “DPS Criminal Intelligence Service has called about records that fall under their series, Criminal Investigation Report . . . . Over the years they've kept reports of cases with historical significance, like JFK's assassination, and Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. They recently had an open records request for the JFK material and found out how much work goes into reviewing records and making them available . . . . Before they start shredding, they wonder if we have any interest in selecting any cases with perceived historical value for the State Archives. The records include police reports, evidence submitted (objects like money plates in counterfeiting cases), polygraph tests, affidavits, audiotapes of interviews. . . . [Texas Public Information Act] and privacy issues likely abound. The most voluminous case is the JFK assassination files . . .”
            The list provided by DPS included the most famous Ranger cases: Sam Bass, the 1969 University of Texas Tower massacre in Austin and a file called “Corruption in Texas,” a likely page-turner. A month later, the promised material still had not been delivered to the Archives, a Department of Public Safety intelligence analyst named Victoria Sungino, assigned to facilitate the transfer, wrote an email to the State Archives staff that there was a delay in deciding what to send over because, “I am waiting on my commander to view the list first. He said there are some cases that I will just have to shred because of the sensitivity of the case.”
            Eventually, all the files listed were sent over by the Department—according to Archives staff—but there is no way of knowing what pages did not survive the trip from the Rangers headquarters to the State Library. Because the Kennedy file had been thinned. Originally described by the Department of Public Safety as the largest part of the papers, measured in cubic feet, when the papers arrived at the State Library the file on a murderer named Henry Lee Lucas was the biggest, followed by the University of Texas Tower shootings. The Kennedy file was a distant third which may help answer the question about the second agency under suspicion by Colonel Jaworski.
           


            After his arrest Lee Oswald was given permission to use the telephone.
            Kept under surveillance by a Lieutenant Lord, who was in charge of the Dallas city jail the day the president died, Oswald was actually escorted to the phone by a guard by the improbable name, “J.L Popplewell.”
            The prisoner’s first try at reaching his party in New York was unsuccessful. Most assassination buffs believe that Oswald called John Abt, the general counsel of the Communist Party USA to ask for legal help. Abt testified later to the Warren Commission that he never spoke to Oswald, in fact he was out of town the night the accused might have tried to reach him. In any case, whomever Oswald wanted to talk to wasn’t home.
            Later that evening, Oswald was taken back to the jail phone to try again. “Popplewell put Oswald in the telephone booth and was standing nearby,” Lt. Lord said in a statement that he gave to the FBI and is included in the box of Rangers’s papers that the Department of Public Safety says doesn’t exist.
            “I called to Popplewell and told him that Oswald was allowed to make his call privately. Popplewell was advised to keep Oswald in view but to stay back a reasonable distance. Oswald was in the telephone booth about thirty minutes, making his call and then talking to his party. After Oswald completed his call he was returned to his cell by J.L. Popplewell.”
            If that were any time since 9/11, imagine how different the scene would be.
           Concerns for Oswald’s privacy would be of minimal interest. Certainly we would know who he telephoned because the call would be recorded in Dolby. There would be video too. The telephone operator who connected Mr. Oswald with his party in New York would be followed home, and John Abt or whoever Oswald spoke with would be investigated down to the fillings in his teeth. The transfer Oswald was awaiting would be to Guantanamo not the local jail.
            Fast forward half a century.
            Lt. Lord and Officer J.L. Popplewell probably couldn’t find work at the Department of Homeland Security today. By the time of the 9-11 their kind of innocence was no longer in demand due in part to what happened in Dallas.
            So why is what the Texas Rangers knew still important?
            That is the way we were, and it’s a way we’ll never be again.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Frequent Fliers at Your Expense


            In most of the United States wrongdoing by public officials follows a certain pattern and involves certain set themes. In Mississippi and in Louisiana there are still cash payments, perhaps even in paper lunch bags, a tribute to the mode of financing that built political careers in years past. In New York sex is inevitably involved. In Illinois it’s patronage. In California, at least in recent years, there have been missteps with public pensions and comely housekeepers. In Texas there’s been a mix of some of the above—and state airplanes. 
            Aircraft figured heavily in the career of the widely-regarded, most corrupt, and most successful politician at the Texas Capitol in the last half of the twentieth century, Bob Bullock.
            In the ‘70s the Travis County District Attorney tried to nail State Comptroller Bullock for using state airplanes for campaign purposes—Bullock was never indicted—and in the 1990s the FBI tracked Lieutenant Governor Bullock’s use of private planes believing he might be receiving flights on private aircraft as quid pro quo for political favors. More recently the FBI also showed interest in the flying habits of Governor Bush and Speaker Laney. 
            The reasons why Texas politicians face exposure in the air are simple. It’s a big state in which airplane travel is considered a necessity (although not necessarily, as in the present tale, in a small state-owned aircraft.) Access to private planes is prestigious in Texas where there’s nothing wrong with showing off wealth or privilege. And, last but not least, most of the major state officials in recent years are pilots: Governors Bush and Perry, Speakers Laney and Craddick. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst is ex-Air Force said to have flown for the CIA. W trained to be a fighter pilot while Perry flew military transports, sometimes state officials rely on state pilots to chauffer them around, from home districts to the Capitol, and apparently that's when problems can arise. As in the present tale.
            If you flip through the pages of the Texas Department of Transportation’s aviation logs for, say, the last two years, the same name keeps coming up: State Senator Kevin Eltife of Tyler.
            Eltife, a moderate Republican—viewed as a standup legislator who is also former mayor of Tyler, Texas—is state government’s most frequent, frequent flier, using the Department of Transportation fleet as a kind of private shuttle between Austin and his home and business interests in Tyler. Chairman of the Senate Administration Committee, former recipient of the Texas Association of Business’s “Champion of Free Enterprise” award, Eltife’s official website declares that as mayor of Tyler he implemented a “pay-as-you-go” plan for municipal government. That's mostly what he has not been doing with the state's planes.
            According to numbers supplied by Eltife’s chief of staff Cheryl Vanek, since February 2011 the senator has made 15 separate flights, between Austin and Tyler, at a billed cost of $32,000 to the Senate of which Eltife paid $16,000, Vanek says, from campaign funds. The rest of the tab has been picked up by taxpayers. As the system works, Eltife calls for a state plane, takes the flight, alone, and the aviation wing of TxDot bills the Senate which bills Eltife, who pays or does not pay, as the spirit moves him. 
            The Texas Department of Transportation has four King Airs and two Cessnas. Five pilots. In the last fiscal year there were 1,014 flights, 207,000 miles flown and 2,700 passengers transported. The Department of Public Safety, the University of Texas and Texas Parks and Wildlife, among others all have their own aircraft, although UT still heavily relies upon TxDot’s planes. Eltife’s flights are particularly troublesome because there is commercial service between Austin and Tyler at something less than $500. Most of the flights the senator has made (with one or two state pilots in attendance) have cost in the neighborhood of $2,000 each. Not to be snarky, but the public would be justified in asking, like, if there are snacks offered in-flight?
            Senator Eltife is not alone in liberal use of the TxDot service. State Senator Judith Zaffirini,  Democrat from Laredo has cost the Texas Senate almost $29,000 for flights on state planes in more or less the same period, the last two years. “Our records indicate,” says Senate Secretary Patsy Spaw, “that no reimbursements have been made to the Senate for the specified travel.” Although a less frequent flier than her Republican colleague, and justified at least once or twice by conferences, it’s hard to see why Zaffirini needs to use state aircraft to go to Laredo, a four-hour drive from the Capitol. In the case of Eltife use of state planes may have been influenced by his predecessor, State Senator and Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff who represented the same district and was the previous political generation’s most frequent, frequent flier on state planes, and also considered a good guy and effective legislator. We're not talking evil here, this is all about temptation. A TxDot official notes that use of state planes actually ebbs and flows, according to the season. Recent big users include UT football scouts: “As the team has been losing, they [the scouts] seem to be flying more.” No doubt. Among Kevin P. Eltife's business interests, according to the Secretary of State, is a company called KPE Airplane LLC in Tyler. The company is not called KPE Airlines although that may be a good name for the service the senator so enthusiastically endorses.
             In fairness to Eltife this seems much less like a case of malfeasance and much more like a case of "BTTL," the acronym in politics for "Been There Too Long," whether "there" is Austin or Washington. The Senate's other frequent flier Judith Zaffirini—although considered one of the best legislators on her side of the aisle—has been at the Capitol more than a quarter-century. It's hard to imagine a freshman having the cojones to call for a state aircraft to take him or her home from work, although he or she technically has that right. Usually it takes a couple of terms in Austin to discover perks like these. (You have to find out where the slippery slope is before you can start sliding down it.) What's interesting in the present case is that both Eltife and Zaffirini are considered good public servants. Bob Bullock was born to excess. These two senators learned, like so many others, in Austin.
            More interesting than who is flying on state planes is who is not.
            Neither Governors Perry nor Dewhurst appears on the airplane logs for the last few years. Presumably they have other means of getting where they need to go and have concluded that use of state airplanes is too problematica blind side for attack by political opponents or investigators. (Everyone on a state plane must be listed in the flight log together with the purpose of the flight.) Like campaign interns, state aircraft are fast, convenient and fun to ride. But like interns, the convenience may involve unseen costs after you get there. Corruption can be a matter of bad judgment as much as dishonesty—of knowing or not knowing what gets you in trouble. Both the governor and lieutenant governor seem to understand that, at least in regards this particular perk. 
            Speaking of Caesar's wife, who must also be above suspicion, Anita Perry has made a couple of recent flights as part of her duties as First Lady and her work with the Texas Historical Commission, but she, like her husband, is very reserved in use of state aircraft. Filmmaker Richard Linklater was taken for a ride on a state plane by the governor’s Film Commission, must have been to scout sites. State Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson who is a former Marine fighter pilot seems to like the state aircraft well enough but nothing to raise eyebrows, and his office, after all, supervises vast land holdings across the state.
            Attorney General Greg Abbott has taken a few flights, but again nothing stands out, and that is also the case with Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Comptroller Susan Combs. There is cause, then, to respect their apparent husbanding of the state's resources. Staples, Combs, Abbott and Patterson’s offices all have statewide authority and all of their flights together in the last few years do not appear to be excessive—at least not in comparison with those of the senator from East Texas.
            Of the institutional wing of state government, setting aside University of Texas at Austin officials, who get around a lot by plane, probably too much, the most frequent frequent flier in the form of a state agency is the Texas Workforce Commission which regulates unemployment benefits: in the last two years, 21 flights at a cost of $58,000.
            The TWC seems to spend more time in the air than in Austin.
            But maybe that’s a good thing. 

Elephant Room


The Elephant Room is my bar. It’s on Congress Avenue about halfway between the Colorado River and the state capitol, downstairs, below street level, beneath what for the longest time was a Japanese restaurant—you go down this flight of stairs into what’s like a cellar or a cave. The Elephant Room is a jazz club, decent selection of alcohol, got its name because mammoth bones were found when they excavated the cellar. The Elephant isn't like a club in New Orleans or D.C., Philly or Chicago. It can't get rough, this is a more polite atmosphere. It can get kind of yuppie yeah but never chi chi.
My ideal of a real jazz club is the 1950s New York variety—there’s a couple sitting at one of the back tables, it’s dark back there, smoky, the music is smoky too, just a horn blowing somewhere in the distance. The couple is huddled together, been that way for a while and although nobody can see the dude’s hand is moving up the lady’s leg into restricted airspace. That’s not the Elephant Room. That’s not the kind of action you see there. If they’re huddled, talking low, it could be a prelude to a hook-up but they’re more likely discussing condo prices or new software or venture capitalor legislation to regulate the energy industry. What everybody likes about this town is what people like about the Elephant Room. Austin is a pretty self-absorbed city especially in about a five-mile radius of the capitol. You name it if it’s in town and man-made or mostly man-made and noteworthy, good or bad, it’s also somewhere in walking distance of my bar. The crowd at the Elephant is like that too, important, maybe self-important, big fish in a small pond, the cool and want-to-be-cool—some pretty high brows and techies, yeah, who need to chill after a long day riding the Silicon Prairie. They come to the Elephant Room to relax. Some come to play jazz. Others come and listen, like me.
There’s a semi-open mike most Mondays, music begins every night at nine-thirty except when there’s a band happy hour six to eight. Friday and Saturday there may be a cover, other nights no unless there’s an extraordinary act which means not often. The acoustics are only okay. That doesn't matter because the venue is too small to miss the music. The Elephant Room is cramped, candlelit and has a mediocre stage. Some nights musicians talk about their dialysis treatments between sets. Some nights the best song you’ll hear is “Girl from Ipanema” playing on speakers overhead while the band sets up, other nights the talk around you is about whether the time passed here would have been better spent at home watching the Big Game. In other words like any other bar.
With jazz, it doesn’t matter. The whole is much more than a sum of the parts. The setting can be better than the performance. There’s no pretense except maybe a little just because it’s so hard to play jazz without being pretentious. At the Elephant Roomfor the recordthe drugs have mostly been prescribed.
Never saw anybody big there, got to admit that, but in a way that’s what’s cool about the place. It’s small, only moderately pretentious, and nobody messes with you down in that cellar because everybody is so self-absorbed, so into their own thing, don’t you know?


My first crib in Austin was on the third floor of the Alamo Hotel between the not-yet existant Elephant Room and the original location of Whole Foods, before that funky little counter-culture grocery store became a nationwide symbol of conspicuous consumption.
The Alamo was a residence hotel full of pensioners and transient musicians and people who couldn’t put together first and last month’s rent for an apartment lease—people like me. Had a barbershop and restaurant on the first floor but you probably didn’t want to get your hair cut there and you definitely didn’t want to eat the food. Four-poster bed, half-bathroom, hot plate and windows that opened over Guadalupe Street, who could ask for anything more? For a year it was my home and still has a special place in my heart because my first drug addiction was born and nurtured at the Alamo Hotel, in a tiny little room on the third floor.
The Alamo’s most famous resident, living downstairs from me was Sam Houston Johnson, former President Johnson’s little brother. The younger Johnson was alleged to be involved in a wide variety of improprieties and not a favorite with the rest of the dead president’s family, hence his chosen location, the Alamo Hotel—a kind of exile, sure, but still on the ranch so to speak. 
             So he dies one day—Sam we’re talking about because the great Lyndon passed away like five years before my arrival in River City—and my first instinct was to rush down and check out Sam’s room and see if he left behind anything incriminating. But everything had already been cleaned out by the Secret Service or whoever takes care of those matters. The point is this town may be the “World Capital of Live Music,” or whatever, but it’s still a political town and at one time the Johnson family ruled as far as the eye can see. Then everything became Bushland—except in about a five-mile radius around the Elephant Room, or equivalently the state capitol, where a non-partisan black man like me can still walk the streets unmolested. Point isif you have your music—in my case jazz—and a bottle to go along with it, who’s in the Governor’s Mansion or who occupies the White House is a lesser consideration.
Cedar Door used to be my bar, that's the truth. My inner nature is to lie about anything trivial but not absolute important facts like where to go drinking. 
             The Cedar Door back then: no live music, just booze, up there on Guadalupe at 15th Street, it's a lobbyist’s office now—Texas Medical Association, asshole doctors associated, how times have changed. Like the Alamo Hotel, the Cedar Door just went away one day, packed up and left my end of downtown. Tried to visit the new location once but somehow it just isn’t the same. The old Cedar Door was a courthouse bar, back in the day, a lot of lawyers, reporters after deadline, reporters before deadline, people just out of jail, people on their way in—just wanted to get a little alcohol in their system before fingerprinting—the kind of place where the judge, prosecutor, defendant, his lawyer and probation officer could all get together before sentencing. It only stays in my memory because it was my first official bar, the first place you could look at me sitting at a table with my friends/coworkers and say, “He drinks here, he’s a regular.”
My next hangout was the Chili Parlor up on Lavaca at 15th basically across the street from the old Cedar Door. My friend Guillermo introduced me to the Chili Parlour and me and him used to drink there a couple of nights a week until marriage and fatherhood cut down on his time away from home after dark. Chili Parlour has or had a pretty decent kitchen, two-for-one burger night every week, what turned me off permanently was it kept “almost” going out of business. Let’s try this marketing model: you have a license to sell liquor five blocks west of a Level III trauma center, four blocks south of a university with 50,000 thirsty undergraduates, five blocks east of the county jail, and three blocks north of the Texas capitol where more alcohol flows even than red ink. And you can’t make money?
Anyway, since then, since my break with the Chili Parlour—as painful as it was—the last few years at least my heart has belonged to the Elephant Room. It’s kind of cool being in a cellar, walking down those stairs into a dark room, candles flickering, shadows on the walls. You never know what you’ll find.
There aren’t any cowboys either thank you very much and even the sophomores from the university turn around once they figure out where they are, this isn’t a place to get drunk and throw up on the bar and Boopsie can’t take off her blouse and just start dancing—although, it should be noted, Boopsie is welcome if she behaves. It’s jazz, which is international and is cool even when it’s not being played particularly well. Because, like, how many people in the world really are competent jazz musicians?
Even at the Elephant Room most of the players, some of them doing it professionally for years, are just fans.
Like me.