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.