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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Fort Worth on a sunny day

Driving through Fort Worth and finding my way to the northern district of the Stockyard District was easy: I just had to follow the yellow directional signs. "It's only about 15 minutes from here" said Slyvia before I left the Visitor's Center, and she was right. University Avenue took me right where I wanted to go.

I liked the Stockyard District although the commercialization of its history, with the dressed-up cowboys and the bored-looking horses and longhorns reminded me of Bisbee, AZ and its 1880s era reenactors who keep replaying the Tombstone Shoot-Out at the OK Corral (which actually did not take place IN the corral...).

"I work for tips only!" said one dressed-up Comanche (who behind his red-white-black facial make-up did not look Comanche) "So tip me generously!" He posed with a pony for photographs, holding a spear and dressed in deer skin and feathers. His preferred donation was $7 for a Polaroid snap-shot. Other "cowboys" loitering along the main street were charging the same amount. I kept my distance from them and took street shots.

One local who did intrigue me was Wichita Bob, an older man sitting at the corner of the Fincher House next door to the 1908 Colleseum. He was playing a lap guitar, and the music echoed through loud speakers. His music sounded like music I've heard before on western movie soundtracks. He was the one genuine artists in the crowd today. If I had had small change I would have dropped him some.
I had walked around the Stockyard District within 30 minutes of arriving, walking through the stockyard court, pass the famed Billy Bob Honky Tonk, the largest allegedly in the US with over 4000 square feet of dance space. The "Bob" charged admission just to walk in. I was not interested in paying to see a bar.
I walked passed the original corral for the horses, where the cowboys keep their horses inbetween walks through town. This area is closed off to tourists, but I walked through anyway just to look for all the cowboys and to watch them in a more natural setting. What I saw resembled more how actors would act in the dressing room: primming themselves before they walk on stage. The alley smelled strongly of horse shit.
Tourists were filling the restaurants in the renovated corral, eating and drinking or standing outside with their Bud Light bottles conspicuously hidden behind cardboard holders. A rather large group of Harley riders, complete with their black leather and red head bandanas, lined the streets. Tourists also lined up to take a peek of the longhorns below in their pens, where they are kept between their walks through the district for the amusement of the tourists. These tourists, though, pay $4 for the view. Somehow, paying $4 for something I can get pretty much in any corner of Texas seems ridiculous.
I walked over the old train tracks, and up to the old Armour and Swift packing plant, which is also the start of the not-so-touristy part of Fort Worth. The steps up to the old packing plant gave a good view of the area, but I walked down and returned to the main street. I still had an hour to spend before the 4pm cow run. Where to go? Why the Visitor's center of course! I always get great information from the volunteers there.
I met Bill Phillips in the Visitor's Center, who happens to be friends with Sylvia. He was just as eager to give me more maps like Sylvia, but all I wanted to know was where the brewpubs were in town. Somehow I must have stumped Bill, though because he had to look them up in the phone book. He did, however, give me one recommendation that I heeded: "Go down this street and enter the H3 Stockyard Hotel, enter the lounge and you will see a Buffalo Butt on the wall. The Rahr brewery in town brews a specialty beer for that hotel, the Buffalo Butt, that is quite good."
Somehow I didn't think a Buffalo Butt ale would be any good. It sounded like it could compare to "Flying Dog in Heat Wheat" brewed in Denver. The brewery makes several rather gross-sounding beers that are in actuality quite flavorful. The label of In Heat Wheat, though, shows a skinny bitch in heat persued by two crazed male dogs. I can't look at the label while drinkin that otherwise flavorful wheat.
The lounge was crowded and I found a seat at the bar at the far left corner. It was more of a saddle as that is what the bar stool was made from, and it made sitting hard. I had to place both legs over the saddle's handle to get comfortable. I should have just stood at the bar, but I had 45 minutes to spare and I needed something to do that didn't require dealing with disingenious character actors.
The bar had character. Cowboys and cattle were the theme throughout the bar, and the buffalo butt was a real butt right in the middle of the bar's mirror.
I felt extremely underdressed in Fort Worth, wearing my New Jersey marathon long-sleeved t-shirt and my baggy jeans. All the women around me wore make-up, styled their hair and wore either blouses or low-cut shirts that exposed cleavage. And most wore heeled shoes while I had my hikers on.
Just before I left to get ready for the cattle run, I struck a conversation with a young woman from Phoenix, a red-headed Elizabeth who loves to photograph and write herself. "Cool, another chick photographer!" she exclaimed when I admitted that I, too, enjoy writing and photographing (although lately it's been difficult to write anything of substance). We exchanged email and websites. I would have enjoyed talking with her longer, but I wanted to get a good seat for the cattle run.
A small crowd already stood around the main street waiting for the cattle to come by. Kids wore balloons styled into longhorns on their heads. Adults lingered with their beer bottles hidden behind their hands. They leaned against the concrete walls or took what few benches there were.
And out came the cattle, promptly at 4pm after a brief annoucement from one of the volunteers at the Visitor's Center. She warned us to stay away from the street curb, not to harrass the animals and to enjoy the show. I was ready, waiting with baited breath. I was expecting a mini version of the Running of the Bulls in Paloma, Spain.
Instead what I got was a tired, bored herd of about 20 head of longhorn who so obviously was tired of walking down the street twice a day for anxious tourists. And for the next three minutes I was one of those dumb tourists. I stood leaning into the street with my Canon ready.
The longhorn slowly sauntered forward, guided by a black cowboy and herded in the rear by an older white man. (Non of the actors I saw were Hispanic). The cattle's heads moved in rythm up and down, like cattle on display in a fashion show. After the first corner they turned back into their corral. I leaned too far into the street at this time, not paying attention to one of the guards who came right up to me and rudely yelled at me "Get off the street! Didn't you hear me!"
Apparently he hadn't made enough tips today to be any more pleasant.
The cattle run came and went so quickly. It couldn't have lasted more than two minutes. When the cattle turned back into the corral my first reaction was "That was it?!" and I left, along with the rest, on my way. The excitement I had been waiting for was over. Now what?
Feeling a bit like a sucker big time, I crossed Main Street, walked up the hill toward the west, but didn't see anythin worthwhile but more gift shops and boot stores. It was 4:30 when I got back to the van and I figured it was a good time to check out downtown's Sundance Square, a few blocks of trendy buildings and the ubiquitous restaurants.
Sylvia was right, Fort Worth's downtown is nice and rivals that of "East Fort Worth" (Dallas). It was also very crowded. I walked into The Flying Saucer (as per Sylvia's suggestion) but was ignored by the bartender and walked out. I walked into the Pour House, another beer bar with an upstairs outdoor deck but again was scared off by the thick cigarrette smoke.
I made several attempts to find the Rahr brewery. Bill gave me the correct address but when I finally found it, the place was closed for the day and it occured to me that it was not a brewpub, but a simple microbrewery! It brews its beers for the local scene. The neighborhood was not in the best side of town; it reminded me more of Dallas' homeless district: abandoned and board-up buildings surrounded by neglected yards and back alleys.
Where to go? After a few more city blocks of looking for a decent place to eat--the beer was a mere secondary requirement--I decided I had had enough of the loud crowd and drove back toward the Will Rogers Memorial Center, where Sylvia said there was a Ginger Man beer bar nearby.
The Ginger Man was off Camp Bowie Boulevard, something I stumbled on in the dark, but it too was smoky. Pints of beer varied in price, and the cheapest was $4.75 and many others selling for $5.75. Those are Chicago or New York prices, not Fort Worth prices. Again I walked out. An hour later, after driving around furtively I opted for a cheap meal at Taco Cabana, eating a chicken burrito and a frozen margarita. The bill came to $7.89 and with the beer at the Stockyard Hotel ($4.75!), the breakfast in Evant, I had come close to spending $20 on food today. I sat in a corner across from a drunk couple. People must have wondered what I was doing with a laptop with me. I was going through my photographs and picking a few to enhance and place in my blog here, always a tedious, boring process.
I drove toward the air base on the west side of town feeling that I had had enough of Fort Worth and its overt attempts at marketing its history. I am glad I got to see Fort Worth and I would recommend the Stockyard District if just to see it now and imagine what it must have been like 90 years ago, but it's not a place for an affordable meal. Is the town better than Dallas? It's hard to say, it's almost like comparing apples to oranges. Fort Worth grew because of the cattle trade; Dallas formed as a financial center for all the cattlemen and ranchers. The cities needed each other.
Fort Worth does seem to have more walkable districts, though, and is much nicer than I expected. The cattle history is quite obvious in town. Besides the genuine liveries in the Stockyard District, I also appreciated the monument to the Chisholm Trail, which started in Fort Worth at these corrals. The cattle traveled north to Kansas, where they were placed in railroad cars to Chicago for slaughter. Once again there's a connection between Chicago and Texas.

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