216 San Antonio, TX: Is For Tourists

Noted Texas historian and journalist Frank Tolbert once wrote, "Every Texan has two homes: his own and San Antonio."
By the Mercado, I jumped on one of the Texas Trolleys that whisks tourists around in wooden seats with brass poles modeled on San Francisco's cable cars. Underneath I-10 at Commerce Street, I watched a scene play out that my trolley driver explained. A guy came up in a red SUV and was mobbed by Mexicans who soon walked away from his car. The driver explained that the man was giving them a chance to work, but it was at too low a price. San Antonio was one of the first and main stopping points for Mexicans coming over the border on their way north my driver explained, and I asked, "To Dallas?" He looked at me like I was crazy, "No, to Chicago." The trolley driver sermonized, "people ought to be ashamed of themselves for paying so low. You get a bunch of people trying to take advantage of them," he harrumphed. A Mexican on the trolley chipped in, "I was paid five bucks an hour and worked for four days straight."

The trolley looped around back downtown to all the sights. San Antonio has always been a crossroads and a meeting place (as the missions attest), and now is the eighth-largest city in the United States, hosting seven million tourists each year. The annual Mud Festival was going on, when a mud king and queen are elected to coincide with the city's annual lowering of the river for repairs and maintenance. Hoses were replenishing the meager river during my visit. Ironically, the San Antonio area was originally called Yana Guana, which means clear waters or cooling waters. Texas was named for the local Tahaas Indians, whose name means "friend."

Sea World of Texas seemed out of place in this landlocked town, though the Cowboy museum could justify using the name. It, like the nearby Dinosaur World, exhibited beings that were extinct. Brackenridge Park, a sort of mascot of this town, was a large expanse of open land and woods. It was virtually deserted when I visited on a weekday, but locals assured me that it was filled up on weekends and in nice weather. It was home to a golf course, zoo, and Japanese Tea Garden (whose sign read "entrance to Chinese Tea Garden").

Downtown had plenty of Hopperesque sights. The Kress store had tall, thin windows and five terra cotta art deco capitals projecting from the roof line that held red letters spelling out K-r-e-s-s. Nearby was Hermann Son's Bowling Lanes, housed in a former church.

Ben Milam, who had rallied volunteers to the Alamo had a statue in Milam Square by the Milam Building, a Hopperesque art deco office building. The first floor was home to the Milam Diner and advertised, "home cooking, chicken fried steak, chalupas, beef tips with rice." There were no windows, just a shotgun-narrow room with red Naugahyde booths and swivel stools.

There were also many theaters downtown: the Aztec, the San Pedro, the Alameda, the McAllister Fine Arts Center, and the Spanish-style Texas Theater, which was now swallowed up by the SBC Building, built around it. The opulent Majestic Theater [locals pronounced it, "thee-YAY-ter"] had pillars sporting Sullivanesque or Egyptian patterns. Next door stood the Cowboy Cleaners, whose logo was "because that's what daddy named it."

The H.E.B. Grocery Company, a Texas institution, bought the old arsenal in San Antonio and made it their corporate headquarters. The name was meant as a tactful stand-in for founder H. Earl Butt. Nevertheless, locals often tell you they got their food "from the Butt."
Interesting that Texas institution H.E.B. chose an arsenal as their headquarters. Another Texas institution, Luby's diner chain, which started in San Antonio, was infamous for being the site of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. In 1991, a man backed his pickup into the Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, and fatally shot 23 people before killing himself.

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