Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sig Byrd's Houston

Sig Byrd
A recent article in The Houston Press reminded me that I needed to check out Sig Byrd's Houston. So I went on Alibris and bought myself the cheapest copy available, and sat myself down for a read. It was enthralling. Byrd was a newspaper columnist whose column, "The Stroller" was filled with street stories, mainly from neighborhoods where polite white folk rarely went. I'm sure reading it gave them an somewhat forbidden thrill, just as it does for me more than 50 years later. He chronicled the stories of Houston's black and Mexican population, as well as the demimonde of hookers, hustlers, junkies, dealers, bar-flies, beggars, street-corner preachers and honky tonk angels. These columns appeared in The Houston Press--the old daily newspaper, not the current-day weekly--in the 40s and 50s.

A lot has been written about Byrd. The modern Houston Press reveres him and wrote a detailed biography of Byrd, who was evidently a fairly prickly customer. Leon Hale was a colleague and similarly wrote stories about folks who generally weren't all that newsworthy--Hale's were more rural and gentle than Byrd's--and Hale wrote a great column about Byrd when Byrd died. And the record store, Sig's Lagoon, is a double tribute to the man--"Sig" for the man, and "lagoon," a term that Byrd recorded in his column that was used by the 5th Ward boogie-woogie boys to mean "cool."

For a book that has been out of print for decades (and will cost you a pretty penny online), Sig Byrd's Houston has its devotees. They tend to be hipsters with an interest in Houston history--mostly male as far as I can tell, many who are writers mining some of the same ground as Byrd did back in the day. People like John Nova Lomax, Alex Wukman, the owners of Sig's Lagoon, Scott Gilbert, and me.

Each chapter collects a group of columns and is centered around a specific geographic region. Congress Avenue starts off the book. Think of Congress Ave. today--one one side of Main it's all courts and criminal justice-related buildings and businesses. On the other side--some nice old bars like La Carafe and Warren's. I guess it wasn't all that long ago that it was still a pretty seedy street. But in Byrd's time, it was a place of hookers and junkies, like the pill-head protagonist of his first story, Twitchy Tess. Another story tells of the mechanics of how the drug deals on Preston went down., with a man with a scar on his face leaving the reds, yellows and dexxies under certain carpets in open doorways and picking up money from those carpets later. The next chapter is about the 2nd Ward, or "segundo barrio" as it was called. Then as now is was a largely Mexican American neighborhood. One story tells of Chento, a 20-year old veteran of Huntsville with a tattoo of a cross between his eyes and the letters H A T E tattooed on his knuckles (but not L O V E). But then Chento fell in love with Belen, a nice girl who would have nothing to do with a tattooed pachuco. So Van Gogh-style, he uses his knife to cut the cross and the letter E off--before he passes out from loss of blood. Belen witnesses this, screaming. And by the time Chento told Byrd this story, the scars were almost healed and he was walking around with H A T on his knuckles.

If you go to the 400 block of Milam today, one one side there is a multistorey parking garage, and on the other side is a parking lot. Back in Byrd's day, it was "Catfish Reef."
The Reef is bi-racial. The light and dark meet here. Generally speaking, the odd numbers, on the east side, are dark, the even numbers light; but the exception proves the rule.
You can buy practically anything here. Whisky, gin, wine, beer, a one-hundred-and fifty-dollar suit [about $1200 today, according to the BLS], firearms, a four-bit flop, a diamond bracelet that will look equally good on the arms of a chaste woman or a fun-gal. You can buy fried catfish on Catfish Reef. You can buy reefers on the Reef.
The Catfish Reef chapter has several stories about music in Houston; for instance, young boogie-woogie players recording at Martin Nelson's photo, recording and shoeshine parlor. He also uses these columns to try his hand at a little bit of black hipster dialect, such as in this sequence where Gafftop Powell, who has found a diamond ring on the floor of a dancehall, takes it into Marv Bernhard's jewelry store. to be appraised. Bernhard looks at it with his loupe and declares it worthless.
"This," he said, holding out the ring, "is one hundred percent fertilizer." ["fertilizer" is one of Byrd's many humorous euphemisms for more earthy phrases--these columns were written for a family newspaper, after all.]

"Well, I ain't gona lose my cool over it," said Gafftop, taking the ring. "I found it on the floor at the gloss house."

"You might win the favors of an idle fun-gal on an off-night with that," said Mr. Bernhard. "But in cash money, I wouldn't give you a rough for it."

"I ought to have knowed," said Gafftop, looking down at the circlet of rhinestones. "These-here rocks is too big. [...] Do you rebop, Mr. Marv?"

"I rebop," said the jeweler. "When easy rocks come too big, or the big rocks come to easy, they won't get you two. Look, I'll show you the difference."

From his wallet, Mr. Bernhard took an envelope, from the envelope a pill of lovely blue ice, the kind that doesn't defrost, even from its own red, white, and blue fire.

"Lagoo-oo-oon!" said Gafftop, his eyes as big and round and white as hundred-watt globes.
Byrd tells a number of stories set in the rough waterfront dives on 75th Street (aka "Six-Bit Street") north of Canal. There we get tales of foreign sailors, old Wobblies, and the hookers in tight jeans who would sit next to the sailormen at the bars. The corner of Hill and Lyons was known as "Pearl Harbor" for its violence--it was in the middle of the Fifth Ward, also known as the "Bloody Fifth." One of the best stories there is the one about the sorrowful Handsome Easley--released from jail on parole, his most beloved hobby was acting as an unpaid roadie for the jazz acts that came through town. He had been looking forward to handling the Duke's instruments--Duke Ellington would soon be playing in Houston. But Handsome was about to be taken back to prison for breaking parole by drinking beer with a hooker in a bar.  But the story has an unexpected denouement:
Handsome was at the City Auditorium, unpacking the Duke's instruments, like he'd always done. The Board of Pardons must have read that story about Handsome, because they had given him a full pardon just in time to let him be with the Duke and Johnny Hodges and the other musicians when they got to town.
This bit comes from a record store conversation about the inventor of boogie, Pine Top Smith, and his death by being stabbed in the back (while playing piano) in a Galveston night club. Others disagreed and said he was shot in Chicago. (For the record, that's what Wikipedia says as well.) Of course, the point was not the facts but the discussion among enthusiasts, killing time at the record store.

There's lots more here. Sig Byrd's Houston is a rich collection of muscular, unjudgmental writing about what was, for most Houstonians (and presumably for most readers of the old Houston Press) a fairly invisible part of their city.

One simply cannot imagine someone writing feuillitons like this for the Houston Chronicle today. First of all, the Chron wouldn't dare write about criminals with the casual sympathy that Byrd shows (he shows it by telling their stories straightforwardly). Addicts and prostitutes are to be condemned or pitied, but are not to be given voice.

Also, the circumstances were different then. There were three daily papers in Houston, all competing for the same pool of readers--generally a broader pool than what we have today. The Press, as the underdog, had to distinguish itself. If Byrd's earthy urban tales were not to some readers' tastes, well, the Press probably didn't have those readers in the first place.

The modern Houston Press carries on some of the old Byrd tradition, but Houston could really profit from something like "The Stroller" again.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you posted this, and especially the link to David Theis' 1994 Houston Press bibliography. That's what turned me on to Byrd. Theis, by the way, was formerly married to Susan Theis, formerly the director of the Orange Show Foundation, and who is now running Discovery Green.

--Scott Gilbert

12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We might could profit from a voice like that, but good luck trying to find a paper that would print it.

Look at what passes for that genre in columns at the Chronicle now. Make you want to puke.


6:22 AM  
Blogger Slampo said...

You wouldn't find a modern-day Sig Byrd, (who of course couldn't actually exist) anywhere near today's downtown. He, or she, would be out on Harwin and Hillcroft and Corporate and Wilcrest etc. He wouldn't be strolling, either. He'd be driving or wasting many long minutes waiting for a Metro. Nostalgia for a past you never knew and which may not have played out as you imagine is well and good and blessedly narcoticizing but can blind you to the timeless forms when they appear in front of your own lying eyes. Plato may have said that. Or maybe Leon Hale.

2:45 PM  
Blogger  Robert Boyd said...

Obviously a present-day analog to Sig Byrd--if one could even exist--would be inherently different. He certainly wouldn't be "the stroller" anymore. (Even back then, Byrd traveled by car plenty.) I'm just saying it would be refreshing to have a columnist (or blogger or "v-logger" or whatever) who covered the same type of stories as Byrd, and did so in a strong personal style, like Byrd. Obviously it wouldn't be the same geographic beat--as you said, he might be out in Southwest Houston, or up in Aldine and Greenspoint, or maybe in old Spring Branch. He might still hit some waterfront bars, though--but perhaps more in Baytown and Pasadena instead of 75th street.

I don't expect or want Houston to go back in time. But I do like taking little trips back there occasionally, and reading Sig Byrd afforded me that opportunity.

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Enos said...

Sigman Luther Byrd was a bum. Most of the stuff he spewed was from his own imagination.

8:50 PM  
Blogger  Robert Boyd said...

Enos--care to back that up? Or are your just a drive-by character assassin of the dead?

9:05 PM  

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