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Guns and Butter

I was having coffee with my friend Stewart at the Starbucks in Dupont Circle not far from where murdered intern Chandra Levy once lived. I often imagined her buying her Saturday latte here,  then wandering through the shelves at Kramerbooks just like I did.

Stew, my favorite government whistleblower, was born and raised in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., a second generation liberal Democrat whose parents emigrated from East Texas. Like mine, Stew’s parents matriculated at Sam Houston State Teacher’s College. His grandmother still lives in Huntsville — in a house not far from my childhood home.

Stew is fascinated by all things HTX,  a place as rube-ified, dangerous and moonstruck as the small Slavic village from whence came the likes of Borat. In Huntsville, however, the rubes wear camouflage as dress-up and fry bottom-feeding mudcats for Sunday dinner — making HTX all the more charming in Stew’s eyes.

I have learned not to waste time getting pissed at people like Stew.  My ex-girlfriend Sarah taught me that — at least. But I was tired of reminding him that we didn’t spark up condemned killers anymore, we marinated them into a twilight death with surgical drugs. We didn’t ride horses through town; there were even a couple of Priuses parked along the disused downtown hitching posts. But Stew’s image of HTX was durable and popular in these parts — the black wreath of smoke from the last execution rising above our rustic rooftops, the thoroughfares muddied with horse shit, wooden sidewalks caked with boot scrapings, the smoke-filled rooms stuffed with schemers and thieves.

Wait — what? That last part, yes, it’s true, I admitted. Stew’s eyes lit up with gotcha glee.

“You don’t think it’s true here, too, you supercilious motherfucker?” I said. “Your D.C. lobbyists, career politicians from both parties, the network of blood suckers —”

“Did you say both parties?” said Stew, arching a bushy eyebrow, which reminded me of a Paleozoic caterpillar.

“Of course not, because, as everyone knows, the Democrats are above corruption,” I said with a straight face, and the caterpillars above Stew’s ice blue eyes rested.

“You know I know what I’m talking about,” Stew said. “My grandfather was one of the men under indictment back in the seventies during those federal wiretaps. Gambling, money laundering. Pete Kay.”

“And the Chagra brothers,” I said.

Stew once considered kicking in green for a movie I wanted to make about the Chagras, Joe and Jimmy, and our homegrown thug Charles Harrelson, all connected by a federal court to the murder of U.S. District Judge John Wood in San Antonio in 1979. A murder some say was planned in a little house in my favorite Huntsville neighborhood of historic, clapboard homes known as The Avenues. Some say that wasn’t the first political assassination to be planned in The Avenues, Stew remembered, and I reminded him that during my research into the Chagras, a retired federal marshal insisted that Harrelson admitted to him his role in what happened in Dealy Plaza, Nov. 22, 1963.

“That takes us right back to JFK,” Stew said. “And the ways in which Texas can reach into national history and change the course of it like no one else from any other state.”

“Go, homies,” I said. “So why didn’t the feds ever try your grandfather?”

“Small potatoes,” Stew said. “The feds got the bigger fish and let the little ones go free, and your people still elect them to office.”

“Fish and fries,” I said. “Your mix of metaphors is making me hungry.”

Stew liked to say militant capitalism was incompatible with true democracy. Stew liked to say government in the hands of capitalists fed corruption on all levels, from City Hall in HTX to the halls of U.S. Congress. But, Stew said, then there was 9/11, Katrina, and the crash of 2008.  Even the GOP, their visions of the total privatization of government services still unrealized and the Cold War history, rediscovered the joys of big government through federal grant funds.

“The Big Tit,” Stew said. “It used to just be defense contracts.”

“It’s still defense contracts,” I said.

“And now it’s homeland security, stimulus funds, and economic development. And that lets Huntsville, Texas, in on the cash flow.”

But it requires the citizens of my pastoral hometown, many of them on fixed or declining incomes, to foot the bill for local matching funds. It sticks them with highways to still undeveloped cow pastures and near empty public facilities. It enriches the people — landowners, developers and contractors — who least need the money with little if any return on investment.

Stew checked his watch. “Well, what else are they going to spend their money on? Guns and ammo?”


“How’s your love life?”

Sarah dumped me for another British ex-pat, I said. “They spend their evenings sipping gin and making droll comments about us barmy Yanks.”

“Good,” Stew said. “Everybody likes you better single and sober.”

“Everybody but me,” I said.

Then Stew and I parted. He went up to the Hill, and I went into Kramerbooks to browse. I passed up the Politics section to leaf through the Art books. My soul was tired.


4 responses to “Guns and Butter

  1. EcceMono ⋅

    Your post got me reminiscing. I lived in El Paso back when the Chagra boys were there. I knew their daddy. Joe was a good boy. And Lee? Well, I’ll just say I’ve heard rumors about what he was involved in. But Jimmy, it was clear he wasn’t any good. He brought in drugs by the planeload and called himself a kingpin. And Jimmy was free with his money. He’d take his private jet and a few close friends to Vegas and think nothing of losing a half mil on a single roll of the dice. The people loved him, though. Back then, the smugglers were heroes. Of course that ended when he was indicted. Then he had to face Maximum John. I’d wager that was a meeting they’d both prefer didn’t occur … if they weren’t now both beyond this mortal coil. I know at the end, when he was living in a trailer in Mesa and using the name Jimmy Madrid, he had a lot of time to think about it. Maybe he thought about it and the other things he was behind, like that assassination attempt on the federal prosecutor who led the charge against him – what was his name? James Kerr? He admitted that. And what about his own brother’s death? There’s certainly rumor and speculation. But that’s all old news. Maybe it’s just like your buddy Stew says. It’s the little ones that went free we ought to be thinking about.
    From one monkey to another, tap, tap, tap …

  2. The murder of Judge Wood was allegedly planned at 1239 19th Street. Jackie and Janice Friday owned the house and there were many strange goings on in that part of what is now Russellville.

    When we purchased the house we found photos of Janice standing topless in a plantation of some kind of plants that are apparently popular with the younger set.

    She went to medical school with the money we paid for the house and a couple of years ago I read that she had died in Trinity. No one seems to know of what cause as she was still quite young.

    Janice’s absolutely knockout beautiful little sister used to work for me as an artist.

    She apparently became Pete Kay’s last mistress because the last time I saw her and Pete they were in the little store on 1791 and Bowden Road. He died or was killed soon after.

    Architecturally speaking, there are very few clapboard houses in Russellville. Most date from the teens and twenties when 117 siding was in vogue. That’s the siding that resembles the washboard patterns that develop on dirt roads in the country.

    Mike Fox’s mistress used to be a tenant of ours in another 117 siding house at 1918 Ave. M. She would sunbathe topless in the front yard and I would enjoy going by to visit with her. She would coyly drape a towel in a very seductive way when she sat up from her chaise longue.

    Mike’s daughter married Chad Davis, who is serving time for murder along with his dad and brother due to a drug hit that turned south.

    Chad and his “friends” used to party down on one of our isolated beaches on Lake Livingston and of course I was always friendly. “Have a good time and please be sure to pick up your empty bottles and cigarette butts when you leave.”

    The good old gangster days seem to have been replaced by white collar robberies of the city coffers that take place “legally”? but certainly not ethically.

  3. E Conner ⋅

    Pete Kay, Earl “Topper” Connor, Dave Tinsley and more of their crowd would frequent Steak n Spirits back in 1984. Pete would eat Mandrax at the bar and leave the wrappers in the ash try. I complained once about this and was told it was no big deal, Pete was snorting blow with the Feds.. so it was ok.

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