Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler


Live Shots From The Austin Chronicle (3 of 5)

by Allen Varney

The Death of Marijuana

After uncounted years, one of the greats of Austin's dining scene passed away on November 21st, 1987. Marijuana the arawana turned belly-up in its tank at G/M's Steak House on Guadalupe. No autopsy was performed, and foul play is not suspected.

The arawana had reigned over the cheeseburger restaurant like an unapproachable magistrate, or a highly proper British aunt. Its dirty-white color and long, undulating, razor-strop shape lent a disquieting element to many a meal. Its underslung jaw and piercing eyes gave it a perpetually affronted expression. No doubt Marijuana stood (or swam) aghast at G/M's lowlife student clientele, and at the abuse they endure for those unequalled burgers.

The atmosphere is lacking at G/M's, it is true. In decor and matters of customer courtesy, the atmosphere once approached utter vacuum. I must admit that the cooks and clerks behind that long formica counter never actually said rude words to me, yet for a long while they used inflection to great effect. The contemptuous topspin applied to simple phrases like "Everything on that burger, sir?" showed the help to be masters of interpretive reading. The request "Please push your trays all the way down to the end, don't be shy" carried the threat of cattle prods and rubber bullets. At times their fishy expressions seemed to be modeled on the overseer in the tank by the door.

Nonetheless, I admired their conveyor-belt efficiency. I had never seen a restaurant that provided an entire meal without requiring the customer to speak a word. Indeed, even if you understood no English, you could simply nod when anyone spoke to you, and they would give you a cheeseburger cooked medium-well with everything on it, a large plate of fries, and a Pepsi. They took your money with machine-gun proficiency and hustled you off to a plain formica table. Those people could teach crowd control techniques to Disneyland.

Yet Marijuana presided over a change in management at G/M, a year or more back. The owner sold out (I heard he moved to Australia), and Marijuana moved behind the counter, to become guardian of the iced-tea jug. Breakfasts appeared on the menu, such as those astounding, wonderful breakfast tacos. The management began accepting pennies, and (so far as I know) G/M's no longer closes on Australia's Independence Day. The staff, once exclusively musclebound frat boys, became more varied and more civil. Now women work there, including a noble auburn-haired beauty who runs the register with aplomb amid the frenzied weekend rushes. Dear lady of the cheeseburgers, behind that formica barricade, what line can I use that you haven't heard from a thousand hungry undergrads? You lend that restaurant a class it has never known.

Amid the changes at G/M's, the food remained brilliantly constant. Oh, those patties, cooked firm to the touch, but tender and delightfully pink inside, and drenched with mustard and mayonnaise. The buns, heavily buttered and lightly toasted, and the fries, heaped high and wide. The chicken sandwich, done to a succulent turn and served on thick, buttery Texas Toast. This, friends, for all its grease and cholesterol, is American dining. The music is deafening, the posters bizarre, the service still occasionally totalitarian. But if a friend visits from Bombay or Cuzco or a Tibetan monastery and wishes to sample the native cuisine, G/M's is my first choice.

The cause of Marijuana's passing is unknown. "We fed him minnows instead of goldfish" near the end, says a cook. "They may have had parasites." Now the tank is wrapped with butcher paper, on which students scrawl eulogies of varying profundity. Will Marijuana have a successor? To me it's inevitable, for the arawana, like the eccentric management and odd decor, was part of the G/M gestalt: the restaurant as self-expression, as work of art. Here, any replacement is conceivable: lobsters, Chinese goldfish, baby manatees. "What about a shark?" said the beautiful brunette, laughing. "Nah," the cook replied, dead serious. "They only live in salt water."

One More Institution Passes (1994):

G/M's Steakhouse: No More Years Searing Steers

Soon after I moved to Austin ten years ago, the Stallion closed. I didn't understand then why longtime Austinites felt such regret. Now I do.

I won't deal here with the causes of the late May closing of G/M's Steakhouse on the Drag. An article from the local daily, taped inside the restaurant's dirty glass front door, says business fell off due to unsavory street people and increased competition. I no longer care much about nor comfort in such explanations. More and more, I find the passage of beloved institutions from the Austin scene both inevitable and fundamentally mysterious, like death.

I wrote about G/M's in the Chronicle eight years ago: "This, friends, for all its grease and cholesterol, is American dining." But of course it isn't any more. I myself cut way down on red meat years ago. Still, the chicken platters at G/M's were heavenly. I ate there often, consciously experiencing the place like an Expressionist painting. Staffers threw pickle slices at the front window and heckled passersby through an outside speaker. On the back wall, near the nightmarish restrooms, two chalkboards promulgated G/M's Ten Commandments: "Stay in Line," "Pepsi Not Coke," "CHEESE!" "Worship Thy Tipjar as Thyself," and so on.

The staff guarded G/M's uniqueness like a holy trust. Some months before its closing, the restaurant incorporated the nearby Phil's Subs sandwich place when Phil's gave way to Aaron's Rock and Roll. Suddenly one could order a gyros or -- in G/M's Steakhouse! -- a veggie sandwich. Even now my fingers tremble typing the words; I should have foreseen the end then. The ill-advised G/M-Phil's merger meant that technically one could now order a burger with tomato, and indeed the Fourth Commandment, "NO Tomato," went away. But the priests behind the counter would not actually place tomato on a burger themselves. "You can take it down to the sandwich counter and get them to put it on," one clerk said sullenly, "but I won't do it."

Now butcher paper shrouds G/M's windows. The spiritual guides of history tell us not to grow attached to material things, and to delight in what the moment offers. I tried this by going to the fast food joint across the street.

We must thank the place for repainting and remodeling that nauseous pink eyesore, the defunct Sombrero Rosa. But in that sterile, neon-lit, white-tile reformatory, where stupefied McJob zombies stare at you dead-eyed with their mouths slightly open, where backlit panels manufactured in upper Cincinnati offer menus optimized in national marketing surveys, you feel keenly that no one involved in designing this food factory knows or cares anything about Austin. This faceless corporation, contemptous of the idea of community, would rather you believe that in walking through the door you have been transubstantiated to Miami, or rather to a slick prime-time evocation of the Miami Myth, palm trees and surfboards. In there we are not customers, we are units. (I saw cops eating there. If you want units, you can't do better than cops. In ten years I never saw a cop at G/M's.)

I had the Pre-processed Chicken-Derived Sandwich Product with a slice of provolone cheese the exact taste and texture of mucus. With every bite I said a silent eulogy for G/M.


Paramount Theatre, 5/12/1990

Venerated by Allen Varney

Wordsworth, or one of those guys, talked about the poetic impulse as "emotion recollected in tranquility." How would Wordsworth describe the actress I saw in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? As I recollect in tranquility the firework of desire she shot into me, I suppose Keats would be a better spokesman -- or one of those sensualists, you know, given to blushful Hippocrene vintages and a happy opium drowse.

She had a small part (I recall no lines, thinking on it) as a courtesan, Panacea. She danced, she strode, she undulated, she draped herself over men and scenery. Large eyes set wide, Roman profile, Hepburn chin, a bun of auburn hair, throat of pavonine sleekness, skin pink as Carrara marble. Over a magnificent statuesque figure she wore a red-gold bikini top and diaphanous harem pants of purest magenta. Their thin gold strap always promised to slip just past the rounded curve of her hip. Even now, memory reddens my cheeks and hoarsens my breath.

I still managed to follow the story, no small trick with a plot based on Plautus. Star Joe Sears did a great Zero Mostel, and fellow headliner Jaston Williams spoke his 30, maybe 40 lines brilliantly. Everyone had fun. But the sexist plot . . . in ancient Rome, sure, or even 1960s Broadway, okay. Today, who needs to watch men trade airheaded women like poker chips?

Yet even as I thought this, Panacea was hypnotizing me. Recollecting in tranquility, I find that lustful ache the bane of feminism. Women fighting for freedom, I applaud you! -- from the byways of the fallen. With the best will, my generation cannot overcome the conditioning of misguided youth. "Equal rights, of course. Freedom of opportunity, certainly. The right not to be treated as airheaded poker chips, absolutely" -- the mind says.

But Panacea lithely extends her leg (what extension!), and a primate impulse leaps up from somewhere around the prostate, bypasses the forebrain, and wraps vise-like around the autonomic nerve centers, saying, "Go! Conquer! Breed!" We keep trying to improve, but we're a lost generation. Either stop extending your legs, or start over with the new boys.

At intermission I read in the program that she'd been in another play I saw, Something's Afoot, last December's musical murder-mystery parody at Capitol City Playhouse. Astounding! This voluptuous wench had played Lady Grace Manley-Prowe, quintessence of elegance and aristocratic hauteur. I liked her then -- she had a thrilling, resonant voice -- but her beauty hardly dazzled. Regarding her now, I saw how much clothes and acting can achieve.

"So, did you go backstage to meet her?" Yeah, right. I can imagine what I'd say: "Ms. Hyatt -- please, say I may call you Marianne -- your beauty has stunned my intellect, exposed my deepest emotions, and ravished my composure; and now I want to stun, expose, and ravish you in turn. Your talent, though evident, didn't draw me. Your character and aspirations I cannot know. But your two-piece harem costume compels me to set you down and study you closely from crown to perineum, ankles to aureoles, and points between." From there my conversation would slip gently to the level of mash notes and night-time 900 numbers, and soon I'd be cooling my ardor in a downtown holding cell next to some bibulous vagrant smelling of urine. I'd rather recollect her in tranquility, thank you.

Star Quality

Chicago House, 3/19/1992

Two years ago I saw an actress named Marianne Hyatt in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. She wore the slightest of harem costumes, and her beauty and grace kindled me like an explosion in a Roman candle factory. She looks a bit like Greta Garbo in the cheeks and chin, but with a Playmate's figure and eyes all her own. So after this non-speaking role I looked for her in other productions, wondering, like Garbo's early fans, whether she talked.

You couldn't find out from Slacker -- she played the hooker near the end -- but she talked big-time in a peculiar production of Jean Genet's The Maids a few months ago. Anyone who attends a Genet play expecting A Funny Thing Happened is asking for trouble, but even so, this woman had changed. Gawky, hollow-eyed, trembling with repressed rage, she pulled the audience into a 50-megawatt neurosis so intense it made me want to wash. I thought, "Forget the harem costume, who is this?" When a new play featured her in the lead -- her as half the cast, in fact -- I showed up opening night.

She looked splendid, unfortunately reminding me of a butterfly trapped in amber. Recalling (about 15 minutes into Act One) Thurber's helpful essay "How to See a Bad Play," I tracked her movements around the stage as she labored to breathe life into a dead role. Her intensity and sinuous grace served her; as a romantic, bored housewife, she projected tender happiness or frustration with her cloddish Neanderthal lover -- Meryl Streep playing opposite Magilla Gorilla. Though she wore a flimsy nightgown, I felt no harem-costume hormone surge. Instead, as she triumphed over an un-drama, I discovered a rare quality greater than beauty: magnetism.

Once or twice before I've met people with that quality, which writers always call "ineffable" or "ineluctable" or other film-critic words. Nothing ineffable about it: These people transcend the rules, the scripts the rest of us follow, to live life more highly than we do. Like Richard Garriott, the computer game designer who built a half-million dollar mansion west of town, and every few Halloweens he recruits a hundred volunteers to turn it into a gigantic haunted house. I saw another one like him at this hot-tub party six years ago, a thin young woman, not remarkably pretty but gracious and lively. During the evening someone spontaneously began rubbing her left foot, someone else (me, I think) her right, and gradually others took her shoulders and arms, all unmeditated, like a chimpanzee tribe picking lice off the alpha male. (The attention finally unsettled her, and she called it off.) You know one or two like that yourself, people who found a better rulebook than anyone gave you.

After the play the ticket-seller told me that Hyatt moves to New York this fall to study at the prestigious Academy of Dramatic Arts. That fits. How dramatic to pursue an ideal! Some of us merely feel gratified to see that the ideal exists.

On the way home, under a full moon with Ursa Major high up toward zenith, I saw a meteor streak across the sky. It passed in and out of my life in a moment, but that bright beautiful flash lingers still in my memory.

Simon David

Arboretum Market, 8/27/1988

"Come join us for an unforgettable culinary shopping experience" says this store's information brochure. This "speciality [sic] food store" opened in northwest Austin early this year, but I only found out about the place last month. I don't know why they call it Simon David, but the name sounds suitably upscale for this yuppified grocery.

Unforgettable is right. Did you think the local Safeway or HEB was big? Simon David sneers at these small-timers. This store "transports the customer" (I quote) "from the mundane world of ordinary grocery shopping into a veritable fresh food wonderland." A dubious claim, but this place delivers!

Briefly, Simon David is like an ordinary supermarket (it's owned by the Tom Thumb market chain), with the usual stuff at the usual prices -- and also, a truly vast selection of high-end gourmet items. I entered at the produce section and stared agog at the tall, orderly heaps of lettuce, Savoy cabbage, nappa (Chinese cabbage), fresh endive, cactus pears, star fruit, jicama, gobo root ("a popular Japanese vegetable"), sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms, black radishes, and edible flowers for salads ($2/lb). A popular theme is infant vegetables: baby pineapple, baby purple kohlrabi, white baby eggplant ($7/lb).

"New Crop Purple Potatoes," apparently ordinary, were priced at nine bucks a pound; I broke down and asked an employee why. "They're the first of the season," he explained, and said they would descend to ordinary prices as the supply grew. Evidently some customers place high value on beating the neighbors to the produce. Simon David started last season's cherries at $12/lb.

Wandering the aisles, you can find all the ordinary market items, but exotic items wait to waylay you -- green peppercorn garlic mustard ($3.79), Pepper Cheese Almonds ($6 for 11 oz.), Peanut Butter Straws ("A Fine Snack For Good Eatin'"), Kentucky Bourbon Jelly (produced and hand-labelled by the Jennivine Restaurant of Dallas, $6.50), and "Corn-du-Pop" Extra Dry. In Pasta, you can get generic spaghetti, but also lobster fettucini; saffron linguini; or tagliarini flavored with lemon mint, black olive, or Szechuan orange spice.

Simon David's sheer selection also boggles. I've never seen a store that offered five different brand names of sardines. The coffee shelves are 33 feet long and higher than your head; tea, 12 feet. An endcap unit offered 150 pounds of caviar, and truffles at $100 for 1.7 ounces. Seafood: orange roughy fillets, six kinds of smoked salmon, boneless shark loins, and crawfish tails ($11/lb). Meat: stacks of top sirloin and rib eye, fresh rabbit, pheasant, "free range chickens" ($2.29/lb), lamb sausage, 19 other kinds of sausage, calves' liver, and fresh quail eggs (49 cents each).

You want olive oil? Simon David offers dozens of kinds, as well as walnut oil, hazelnut oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, safflower oil, avocado oil, and, oh yeah, Crisco. Cheese? Cinnamon raisin cream cheese, cheeses from Australia and Ireland and Bavaria, and Swiss cheese that really comes from Switzerland.

There's a bakery (five strawberry cheesecakes on display at once!), cafe, ice cream shop, cosmetics, greeting cards, and a florist. But once transported to this "fresh food wonderland," you have to walk, and the place is as big as three football fields. Along about Frozen Foods and Deli Meats my brain reeled with exhaustion and grocery overload.

I jokingly asked for a sample of Black Mousse Trufee ($11/lb) and they gave it to me. Oh, wow! Rich, subtle, lingeringly delicious -- after one cracker, I felt refreshed, even sated. I asked where they got this ambrosial paté, and the sales girl said "Three Little Pigs, in New York." Later I saw it offered in Simon David's mail-order catalog as "from Les Trois Petits Cochons."

The future is here: the supermarket as tourist attraction. I hope they don't decide to sell tickets. By the way, the ground lamb patties ($1.99/lb) are delicious.


Austin, 8/20/1987

"You shouldn't be able to tell when someone gets a good haircut." Nonsense. A haircut is an accomplishment, and it should look like one. If I muster the energy to go downtown, the perseverance to sit in a shiny red vinyl waiting-room chair with steel pipe arms and wait my turn while Muzak or Donahue plays in the background, and the eight bucks plus a dollar tip, I want to see the fruits of my effort. Look at me and say "Gee, you got a haircut," and I feel it's been worth it. Say "You look different somehow -- complexion cleared up?" and I figure I might as well have left the hair alone.

These days there are fewer barber shops, but lots of high-fashion chrome-and-glass "hair design" or "hair sculpture" salons in shopping malls or along trendy avenues. The hair engineers in these studios treat your head as an artistic challenge: how to create a hair achievement somehow completely unlike what you gave them to work with?

Only once did I venture into one of these hair-spray boutiques. I fell prey to an artiste who tried to make me look like James Dean, a highly debatable proposition. This woman was 25 years old and said she had seven children already. Seeing her industry in scalping me, I could believe it, and they probably all look like James Dean too.

After this I looked hard for a barber shop, and beneath a candystripe pole found a little three-chair place that has harbored me safely every month or two ever since. Three pleasant guys, a few months older than the Hoover administration; TV and radio, hatrack, a vintage Coke cooler, and lots of magazines; on the wall, licenses. Yes, barbers are licensed, with expiration dates writ large for customers to see. I suppose after a license expires, the barber is untrustworthy and may slice your ears off or slash wildly with his electric clippers. Good thing the state guards against this potential menace.

In the haircut, life's unspoken ritual, you become the pampered object of a stranger's attention. Engage in relaxed conversation or abstain, as you wish; come away looking and smelling nicer. The only reason it's not good therapy is that patients would soon go bald.

My favorite barber, tall and peaceful-looking, is a quiet sort. I went to him for two years and he never showed a sign that he knew me. Every visit I asked the same thing, like a first-timer: "Off the ears, off the eyebrows, tapered in back, like it is now but shorter." He did fine every time, but never said much to my conversational gambits. I paid, left, and next time went through it all over again.

On my last visit to this barber, I heard the fellow ahead of me talking with him about gardening. So when my turn came up I said, "Got a garden, do you?" The Rosetta Stone. We talked volubly about tomatoes and growing seasons. His enthusiasm prolonged the session, in fact, and while finishing a discussion of asparagus he ended up cutting me rather closer than usual. But it was a good job anyway, and now, I think, he recognizes me.

The visit ended as always, when he strapped onto the back of one hand a gadget the size and shape of a hand grenade. That's right, a vibrator. The first time I went there, the idea of a neckrub in a barbershop astounded me. Now I relax and let my shoulder muscles unwind through my barber's gentle ministrations. Even a jeering schoolboy would not taunt this unaffected, uncorrupted service. Of how many other rituals in modern times can we boast the same?

Bad Haircut


Oh no, can I live with this for a month? A mere hour ago I entered that stylish chrome-steel/wood-grain salon, disposed toward change, light-footed with hope and trust, like the sample photo of that handsome square-chinned hero with burning gaze and rich, intensely black hair -- hair that swooped low across the forehead and swept back over the ears toward full accomplishment behind the scalp, hair that bespoke passion, Hamlet hair.

I pointed to that photo, and the doe-eyed hairdresser, with her frizzed curls and her fashionably baggy T-shirt and her modish name (Licia or Sasha or Tricia, one of those California beach names), that chipper ingenue smiled and said, "Sure." Beguiling snake!

I have now entered these trendy hair-traps twice in ten years. In both cases the hairdressers tried -- independently and unknown to one another -- without prompting, encouragement, or just cause -- to make me look like James Dean. Let me broadcast to self-deluded hair artistes around the city: Give it up! It's not going to happen! Get over it!

In moodier times I'd have fantasized condign revenge. Style her hair with hedge clippers. Spike her herb tea with herbal essence protein shampoo. Stake a cat-skin to her door with a message shaved in the fur: NEVER AGAIN. Now, saner, I search for the part on the left she eradicated, and in sequential pillow-saving showers I wash away her perfumed Nexxus Versastyle Designing Lotion.

And I sigh at the faceless attendants who trail us all like a cortege -- the ranks of barbers, busboys, bellboys, babysitters, carhops, counterpeople, caddies, hotel clerks, sales clerks, ticket-sellers, maitre d's, security guards, receptionists, registered nurses, agents, answering services, flight attendants, funeral directors, distributors, bureaucrats, and the infinite intermediaries who contain, restrict, and police authentic functions. In pivotal moments they all wield near and tiny powers that make self-decision a fancy.

It's astounding how she's managed to make every single hair on my head a different length. Maybe I'll just stay indoors for a week or two.

Live Shots index, File 1, File 2, File 4, File 5

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Copyright (C) 1999 Allen Varney.