My Hometown by Brian Roper

Posted: July 19, 2006 in Best of file 23, The Roper Files

“If you ever want to get depressed, just come to this town.”-Roger Miller

I was watching the Simpsons recently lying on the couch with my eyes closed (don’t you?) Marge lands a job as a news reporter and is coupled with a macho-acting photographer who brags about working in Iraq and Afghanistan as they exit a car and slam the doors, which triggers an avalanche. A boulder lands near them and his voice cracks. “Actually, I shoot wedding videos in Dallas and Fort Worth!” Another boulder crushes the car. “Well, actually just Fort Worth!” as he runs away. Ha Ha! F*** you, too Hollywood!

If Governor Braunschweiger wasn’t too busy smoking cigars and pimping the state away to the highest Japanese bidder while DOUBLING the state deficit, he should pass a law demanding everybody put down the cell phones and clean up the damn place. I’m talking about everyone going out front with a snow shovel and a trash bag and scoop the curb-high trash out of the street, just one day a week.

I just got back a few weeks ago from LA; I guess it’s nice to know what they really think of you. The first time I went out there, I came back ready to throw everything in boxes and move. “SCREW Fort Worth!” Little did I realize until a few trips later and took a good look around that the palm trees and the countless Paris Hilton clones were so much smoke and mirrors to distract one from the legions of homeless panhandlers in the street, the hookers, the crack dealers and the most grossly overpriced real estate in the world. Talk about a city that needs a REAL rain.

Not to mention the place is a geological stink bomb waiting to go off who-knows-when. There truly is no place like home. I know this may sound strange coming from a hardcore pessimist like myself, but it’s true. I’m always a little depressed when I come back from vacation (God, I hate reality) and one of the things I’ve learned to do over the years is eat at all my favorite places when I return. This always makes coming back a little easier. But something’s been troubling me lately. It’s this feeling that needles me constantly when I drive down the street. Clichéd expressions like “stranger in a strange land” apply here.

Take for example the house where I was born. It’s a parking lot now. My elementary school is no longer a school. My middle school and high schools are still there (this week) but very few of the places that make up my childhood memories exist in any form whatsoever. There’s a big pink building down the street from my apartment.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of this place; it was a department store then. I remember getting Alvin & the Chipmunks 45’s there. I asked my mom what the name of the store was and she says: “That’s the sort of question only YOU would ask.” There is only a street number on the building now. Cameras line the roof. There’s a bomb barricade on one side of the building. Not X-Files enough for you?

Try this one on fer size: a female friend of mine’s car runs out of gas and she rolls up in their parking lot, locks the car and walks to her boyfriends’ house. When she gets there, the phone rings. The caller ID has the name of a certain defense tentacle. A gruff male voice calls her by name and informs her she has 30 minutes to get her car or it will be towed and hangs up before she has time to respond.

I think this eerie little story exemplifies in no small way the way I feel in general about my ole hometown; I drive down streets that are familiar and strange simultaneously. It’s a changeling city; ever morphing.

Call me old-fashioned, or nostalgic if you will, but I drive down the street and I don’t see Fort Worth as it is, but as I remember it as a child. You might see an access road next to the freeway; I see Brooks Pharmacy, the Piggly-Wiggly, the barbershop and the Capri Theater that were all bulldozed to make way for it.

OK, so the Capri was a sleazy “adults-only” theater; it still had more character than the sterile shoeboxes we call theaters today. When the mayor and the city council start talking about “new growth” and “re-vitalization”, I cringe.

This usually translates into we want your neighborhood, and if you can’t afford to buy the whole block we don’t want to hear a peep out of you, unless of course you want a wrecking ball up your ass, which we’ll be ever so happy to provide.

I’m not hardly naïve enough to think this outright class warfare is unique to Fort Worth; I realize it’s a nationwide problem that will continue to fester for many years. I’ve heard this same complaint from people in LA and San Francisco.

There’s just no concern for historical preservation anymore, and I think this is a sad fact of reality. A lot of my childhood memories of traveling around Fort Worth are still that of the view from the backseat of my parents battered blue Volkswagen.

I knew even if I lay down in the seat when we had arrived at church by the sight of the neon palm tree above the door at the neighboring Oasis Liquor store next door to my mom’s church. One block over from the church was the Green Front, a nondescript store that seemed to sell everything and nothing as well.

Even I didn’t eat their candy; it looked like it had been on the shelf since WWII, and may well have been. On the other side of the church was Skillerns Drug Store. I loved tagging along with mom to Skillerns. They had a soda fountain, and if I was really, really good, I might get a chocolate malt as a reward for my good behavior. They also had a newsstand so I could get caught up on my MAD’s and my Classics Illustrateds.

There were records to flip through and an entire aisle of candy. What was not to like? On the other side of Skillerns were the A&P Grocery and Kincaid’s Grocery. Mr. Kincaid’s granddaughter Marcia and I went to school together.

When I was about nine or ten, Mr. Kincaid installed a grill in his store and began to sell hamburgers on the side. The rest is history; the grocery store is no longer there, but they’re still grilling those burgers at Kincaid’s today, one of the few things in this story that still exists.

To the west was CandleLight Burgers, the Dairy Queen, the Pizza Hut and Joe Vigne’s BBQ back to back on the corner of Merrick and Camp Bowie. A couple of blocks west on the corner of Prevost and Camp Bowie was Adams’ Rib, where my parents would purchase drippy barbeque sandwiches.

Traveling between my parents’ house and church were other landmarks as well. The Safeway grocery, the Gulf service station and the Kentucky Fried Chicken were at the first light. Then there was the Bowie Theater, where mom would take me to see Walt Disney movies and later in my teenage years I would attend Midnight Movies like The Groove Tube and Flesh Gordon.

The Sinclair service station on the corner of Clover Lane and Camp Bowie. The Buddies grocery store on the corner of Hulen & Camp Bowie and the Toy Chest on the right meant we were getting closer to the church. Another memory framed by my view from the back seat of the VW is movies at the Parkaire Drive-In. Yours, Mine And Ours. Mail Order Bride. The Ballad of Josie. Cat Ballou. Flight Of The Phoenix. What classics!

My grandmother worked at a department store downtown, and every once in a while we went there for shopping. Parking in the big lot off Henderson and riding the M&O Subway into a tunnel and emerging in the underground Leonard’s Department Store seemed like such an adventure. Or driving down 7th Street past the 7th Street Theater, and then the big Montgomery Wards store. After cruising the bridge over the Trinity River next was the KXOL radio station.

Then there was Theater Row: The Hollywood, the Palace, and the Worth theaters. My father worked for years at a sheet metal shop just behind the Bill McDavid Pontiac dealership on Seventh Street. There was a small diner up the street from his shop that reminded me of Rough Houses Diner in the Popeye cartoons called Topsy’s he would not take me to.

There was also a bar across the street called the Iron Gate; Dad would constantly complain about the drunks puking and pissing in the shop parking lot, or about having to pick up their cans and bottles. When Mom & Dad were in a good mood, I got burgers at Griffs, or at Rockyfellers on Camp Bowie. A real treat was ice cream from Ashburns, but I had to be really good for that. When they didn’t feel like messing with me, I would get placed in front of the television. I would melt into a cocoon of watching Icky Twerp on Slam Bang Theater, Romper Room, or a mindless cartoon pap of Bullwinkle, Popeye, Luno, Richochet Rabbit, or those gawdawful Hercules cartoons. Later, KTVT would broadcast the syndicated versions of the Munsters and Batman.

In the afternoon WFAA would show a movie, and in between commercials they would call some lucky viewer, and if you could name the movie, you won whatever their current jackpot was. I would sit by the phone convinced they would call someday, but they never did. Dialing For Dollars, my ass!

When I was five, my uncle Sonny (who looked like a cloned version of the Dennis Quaid/Ed Harris characters in THE RIGHT STUFF) came by and picked me up. We were going to see the president! We drove through the gates of Carswell AFB and there was a huge crowd of people on the runway. They had ladders set up here and there for the kids to stand on, and I was placed on one. I remember JFK getting off the plane and everyone yelling, and then seeing him whisked off in a limo.

The next day he was shot dead in Dallas, and the next time I saw him, he was in a flag-draped coffin.

A gaunt Texan in a white hat everyone grimly referred to as Elbee Jay was our new president. Lee Harvey Oswald’s’ mother lived not far from my middle school. I remember people rudely pointing and staring at her as she shopped one day at the local Safeway as if she were The Wicked Witch.

She was a slightly foreign-looking woman with a very stern demeanor about her, not surprising considering the gravity and the nature of what the poor woman had been through.

My grandparents lived in a two-story house on May Street in south Fort Worth. As a very myopic child, their stairway gave me vertigo before I knew what the word meant. They had my mother’s former bedroom upstairs, and I would spend many hours up there away from the adults, laying on the bed and reading Richie Rich or Batman comic books. If I was a good boy we would walk to the nearby store and I would get chocolate Hostess cupcakes. I drove by there recently; the store had a sign advertising a long out of business upholstery shop. I couldn’t identify my grandparent’s house. Angry-looking Latino teenagers stared at me as I drove down their street. They knew damn well I didn’t live there. Who was this gringo? Just like my grandmothers’ house, there is a seemingly endless list of places I used to go that just simply don’t exist anymore. Buying used comics, magazines and books at Thompson’s Books downtown. (before Half Price Books became the 20something store empire it is today) Playing pinball at the Machine Scene. Buying records at Avalanche Records, LP Goodbuy and Budget Records and Tapes. Eating Yanni’s wonderful pizza. Going to the Triangle Newsstand for Famous Monsters of Filmland. Going to see movies at the Drive-Ins: The Fort Worth Twin, the Riverside, The Southwest Twin, the Mansfield, the Cowtown, the Corral, the Belknap, the Westside, the Cherry Lane and the previously mentioned Parkaire. OK, so you can’t go home; but I never left in the first place.

And yet as I said earlier, I drive through the streets of this town and I never really feel I’m “at home” anymore. A person shouldn’t live in the same city for 46 years and feel this alienated.

Was I more easily entertained when I was a child, or am I merely losing my appetite for life? I feel like I need either a psychiatrist or a drink.

Hey, now there’s a commercial idea; a psychiatrist with a wet bar! You could call it Shrink’N’Drink! Any backers out there?



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