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Lost and Found in San Leon

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Jody Horton
Sunday lunch at Gilhooley’s, San Leon’s destination oyster joint and local watering hole.

 

“Gator” Miller was stressing so hard about the upcoming Where the Hell is San Leon Festival that he barely finished his lunchtime bottle of Lone Star. The annual music-fueled bacchanalia isn’t just about power chords and raising the horns; it culminates with the election of the coming year’s honorary mayor of sunny San Leon, an unincorporated, 5-square-mile peninsula jutting into Galveston Bay that locals refer to as “a small drinking community”—pop. 5,000 or fewer—“with a large fishing problem.” Gator feared that Keith Heinze, a fix-it man with a reputation for helping out in a pinch, no questions asked, would win again. Keith had won all but two of the 14 prior mayoral elections, and he wasn’t even running in one of those. Gator insisted that Keith’s drinking had gotten out of control, that he was close to the brink. “Keith’s been kicked out of more bars than Cooter Brown,” Gator said. Gator was also convinced that Keith, though well intentioned, lacked the political savvy to fend off encroachments jeopardizing the freewheeling lifestyle of the handymen, bikers, retired cops and firemen, misfits and lifers who inhabit San Leon, including attempts by other towns to incorporate it. Gator didn’t want Keith to win for fear of San Leon losing itself.

This was a breezy Sunday in February 2013. The festival and election were soon: April 20. Gator was sitting on a barstool at Gilhooley’s, an adults-only oyster joint. Above him rusty license plates and Christmas lights hung from rafters. Around him two dozen grizzled patrons ordered the regular, and inland adventurers irritated the waitress with questions about the menu. Gilhooley’s is likely the only reason anyone would visit San Leon. In his book Southern Belly, food critic John T. Edge wrote, “You will not taste—I have not tasted—a better roasted oyster.” And in his Travel Channel show, Bizarre Foods America, Andrew Zimmern called Gilhooley’s probably the ultimate seafood dive bar in the world. Gator wasn’t eating this afternoon, but his usual is oysters on the half shell with horseradish and cocktail sauce and a cold beer.

Gator looks like a shriveled version of WWE wrestler The Undertaker. He’s in his mid-50s and has sunken red eyes and long brown hair that’s too dark to not be colored. He told me the story of how Phil Duke opened Gilhooley’s in 1987. Phil used to sling oysters at Bullfrogs, in Bacliff, due north of San Leon. When that restaurant mysteriously went out of business and a new bar took its place and started serving oysters that people assumed were prepared from Phil’s old recipes, well, Phil got pissed and was determined to show the world whose oysters were really best. Phil put his elbow grease into a vacant lot with two boxcars on it on Ninth Street in San Leon and started serving oysters procured by Misho Ivic, one of the most celebrated of the area’s many fishermen. Thus began the legend of Gilhooley’s, where Oysters Gilhooley—i.e. smoked oysters garnished with parmesan and garlic butter—are a signature dish.

Gator is an entrepreneur, like Phil. He grew up in nearby Seabrook, and his family kept a fishing house in San Leon that was eventually converted into their permanent residence. After dropping out of high school to serve in the Navy, Gator worked at newspapers in Florida and Texas until a disagreement with an employer over his attire inspired him to forge his own path. In 1998 he started publishing Night Moves, a monthly entertainment rag serving Galveston, Houston and nearby coastal communities. This led him to start The Seabreeze News, San Leon’s monthly newspaper of record, in 2003. It’s a forum for Gator and editor Steve Hoyland to cook up a witty, imaginative, politically incorrect mix of fishing forecasts, police blotter, advice column, small-town classifieds and even investigative reporting. (In June 2009, the Seabreeze exposed a surreptitious plan by Texas City, the industrial outpost to the south, to stick San Leon, which has its own water department and trash service but relies on encompassing Galveston County for electricity, with a sewage treatment plant.)

In 1999, Gator founded the Where the Hell is San Leon Festival in response to a common query from his Houston friends. The festival was also a way for Gator to get compensation from local bands that were delinquent paying for ads they’d placed in Night Moves. They would play for free, proceeds would go to charity, and Gator would get a tax write-off. Every year the festival draws a few hundred residents and curious outsiders to Waynos, the bar next door to Gilhooley’s, on whatever Saturday falls closest to April 20. Occasionally, Gator has added wet T-shirt and tobacco-rolling contests—wink, wink—to the mix. But the mayoral election has been part of the festival from the beginning, and its primary fundraiser. Votes cost $1 and anyone—San Leon resident or not—can vote as many times as they care to pay for. The first year’s election was a farce; Gator faced off against a dog and a baby. He won, but barely. The second year’s election was no joke. A group was trying to incorporate San Leon and Bacliff into the new town of Bayshore. Certain San Leon residents weren’t having it, just as they hadn’t in 1985, when a similar plan was proposed. Despite being roped into running only on the afternoon of the election, Keith Heinze seized the anti-incorporation sentiment and won. The referendum to incorporate was defeated. A tradition took hold, and a one-man dynasty was born.

Keith won repeatedly until 2008. In the months leading up to that election he had been terribly distracted by the death of his dad, his best friend, in September 2007—a year to the day before Hurricane Ike devastated San Leon. Even so, it took a sizable last-minute check for Scott Lyons of the San Leon Volunteer Fire Department to pull off the upset. Keith would resume his winning ways in 2009, but by then it had become obvious that Gator wasn’t the only one growing tired of Keith. In a town well stocked with drunks, Keith had developed a reputation as the town drunk. His victories grew increasingly narrower. One year, Kelly Railean, proprietor of San Leon’s Railean Rum distillery, came within about
50 votes (out of about 5,000) of winning the election.

Gator respects Keith. He knows he can call him for a favor at 3 a.m. on a Sunday night. But even though Gator has lived in Galveston since Hurricane Ike destroyed his house in San Leon—the relocation, he said, disqualified him from running for mayor himself—the preservation of his hometown’s rarified culture remains important to him. He figures if he can find a more articulate spokesperson for San Leon than Keith, the town might have a better chance of shielding itself from outside interference. “We want San Leon to be a refuge from the insanity of the impending police state,” Gator said. He also thinks a loss could scare Keith straight, and maybe save his life.

 

Keith Heinze at home  with his music memorabilia.
Jody Horton
Keith Heinze at home with his music memorabilia.

It could be said, only partly in jest, that San Leon’s original honorary mayor was the French pirate Jean Lafitte. In the early 1800s, Lafitte operated out of the peninsula that would become San Leon, though San Leon wouldn’t take its current name until after an 1837 hurricane. San Leon was later renamed North Galveston in the 1890s as part of a push to establish Galveston’s port as superior to Houston’s. North Galveston’s population rose to an estimated 20,000 amid a cacophony of new construction, railroad tracks and industry. According to the Galveston County Historical Museum, the pièce de résistance was to be construction of a bridge between North Galveston and the Port of Galveston for rail shipments of goods manufactured in North Galveston, including baskets, barrels and bricks. But then another hurricane hit, the monster storm of 1900, and North Galveston fell apart.

In 1910, U.S. Congressman Joe Eagle picked up the pieces. He purchased North Galveston and changed the name back to San Leon. Perhaps his main achievement was designating about five acres for the San Leon Cemetery, where card-carrying residents qualify for free burial. By mid-century, San Leon had transformed into a fishing mecca—and the home base of the Bandidos outlaw motorcycle gang, which Don Chambers founded in San Leon in the 1960s. Today, San Leon is swimming with both commercial fisherman, who fish primarily for oysters and shrimp, and hobbyists, who fish mostly to drink, like the guys participating in the regular Sunday “turkey” shoot at the American Legion on FM 517.

The scene is set to a cascade of cold beer and classic rock heating up a boombox. There’s Steve Hoyland, editor of the Seabreeze; Steve Jr., owner of a chain of pawnshops; and Steve III, or “Three.” Steve Sr. left League City when he was 15 and was living in San Leon by 19. This was in the ’70s. He loved to fish and was drawn to the freedom of the largely lawless land, nowadays loosely overseen by state troopers and Galveston County deputies. Steve Jr. and Three have followed suit in their devotion to the San Leon way, with Jr. leading fishing expeditions on the side and Three, already handy with a rifle, readying for the day he can compete in the turkey shoot. After Ike blew Steve Sr.’s house into a cow pasture, he put a trailer on a buddy’s property and rebuilt. San Leon is close enough to heaven for Steve, a good old boy on permanent vacation. So, too, is it for the 10 or so other middle-aged men on the range that day. They were shooting rifles—pop, pop, pop—at paper bull’s-eyes about 50 yards away. The Sandy Hook shooting had recently occurred and a mention of the gun-control measures that President Obama was trying to get Congress to enact elicited laughs and a muffled, “Get a rope.”

In his thick Southern drawl, Steve said there would be hell to pay if the government tried to take his gun away. He offered up canned beer from the cooler on the back of his golf cart. A bumper sticker on the cart read “I ♥ the Black Ninja Dog.” The black ninja dog is a local legend deployed to explain the high frequency of vehicular accidents—involving both golf carts and actual cars—in San Leon. Instead of blaming alcohol, people blame the ninja dog, which has the nasty habit of scampering unexpectedly in front of oncoming vehicles. The black ninja dog has been on the loose roughly as long as the Seabreeze has been in business, and it once caused a woman to drive her truck into the fence of the 20,000-square-foot mansion at Bay Shore Drive and 23rd Street, the former residence of ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill. It’s the mayor’s job to catch the dog. In 2011, Keith Heinze broke his neck as a passenger in a car that was trying to run it over.

The turkey shoot was coming to an end as a late-afternoon breeze turned to wind. Steve pointed me in the direction of Keith’s house over on 16th Street. “He’ll be talking fast and moving fast,” Steve said of Keith. Watch out for the Dobermans, Steve warned. There was indeed barking when I arrived, but it came from a Cairn terrier—a Toto dog—named Hoochie Mama. The house sat on stilts and a small group of men and women were prepping a crawfish boil on a concrete pad below, engulfed by a packrat’s paradise of signage, surfboards and hurricane detritus. Out stepped Keith, a slight figure in paint-splattered jeans, sateen Astros jacket, and sport sandals over mismatched socks. The text on his baseball hat read “HELL YES! I’m an S.O.B.” S.O.B. stands for Steve’s Organized Bunch, the nuisance-abatement group founded by Steve Hoyland around the time of San Leon’s first mayoral election to eradicate the community’s then-burgeoning scourge of crack and meth houses.

Keith introduced himself with his business card. One side announced him as mayor and promoted his carpentry business; the other side read “GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD.” Keith learned the trades—he’s also a decent plumber and electrician—from his father, Lon, a Bacliff man who rented properties in San Leon, and to whom many people tended to turn for guidance. Lon instilled a work ethic in young Keith. Before doing his homework, Keith had to do menial labor like pull nails out of old boards. His willingness to get dirty, even clean up others’ messes without question or judgment, is a quality that made Keith a popular candidate and a successful mayor. And it was this quality that had diminished since Lon’s death five years earlier. “I lost my damn mind drinking half a gallon of whiskey a day,” Keith said. “Didn’t give a shit about nothing. I wasn’t gonna hang myself. So I figured half a gallon of whiskey a day sure would.” Divorce ensued. It had been a tough couple of years.

Being San Leon’s mayor means everything from dealing with complaints about dogs chasing cats to setting straight extortionist mechanics to building wheelchair ramps for elderly citizens. The job costs Keith something like $15,000 annually in time and money, but at least he gets credit at the bars. He described Gator as a buddy who likes to bust his chops and is jealous of his popularity. “Either I’m an asshole or I’m a hero,” Keith said. The chance of anybody beating Keith for mayor this year is virtually zero, said a woman Keith introduced as his “sexetary.”

Keith led me on a tour of his house, which he built himself on land that cost $1,500 per lot when he purchased it in 1991. Walking up the steps he showed me how high the water had risen during Ike: 12 feet. His living room featured a golden view of the sun setting over Factory Bayou. Above the couch hung a 1946 map of San Leon. Bluegrass music blared. Keith was gregarious, an expert at befriending people. His bedroom overflowed with memorabilia: a giant hookah coupled with Emerald Triangle swag; a picture of Mona Stangley, the madam Dolly Parton played in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; lots of concert ticket stubs. In 1977, Keith graduated from high school, turned 18, and saw Led Zeppelin all in the same week. “That was a week I forgot,” he said.

Despite his pacemaker, Keith chain-smoked Marlboro Reds he said were imported from Russia—“real tobacco,” not the fire-safe sort with self-extinguishing additives—and downed a tumbler of rotgut rum and mixer. He keeps his San Leon ephemera in a walk-in closet. “This town will eat your ass up,” Keith said. “Folks show up on vacation, leave on probation, and come back on revocation.” Stacks of mayoral mementos revealed a campaign ad showing a virile-looking Keith with a shotgun in one hand, a bottle stuffed in his jeans and a bag of marijuana in his T-shirt pocket, and encouraged voters to re-elect him because “He ain’t been all that bad.” There was also a photo of Keith in the brace he wore for 153 days, from October 2011 to March 2012, for the broken neck he sustained in a wreck while trying to tag the black ninja dog. Keith’s deterioration since then was startling.

Before the crawfish were ready, Keith gave me an early-evening tour of San Leon. He got into the passenger seat of my Honda with a fresh tumbler even though he was on probation, he said, for DWI. Hoochie Mama sat in his lap. He described San Leon, with its two flashing traffic lights, as being in a post-hurricane state of transition, like so many times in its history. On the south side along Dickinson Bay, where Ike first hit, was the “lost” coast: salty-dog shacks and an occasional FEMA trailer or house, pickup trucks or third-generation shrimp boats stranded in yards. On the east side, facing Galveston Bay, was the “found” coast: vacation McMansions dotting the waterfront, flanked to the south by the upscale restaurant Topwater Grill, where a Maserati was parked. Corporate America, which had long avoided San Leon because of its fuzzy land titles, had recently arrived in the form of a Dollar General store. Keith ended our tour at the cemetery, on the north side, where a handful of sleazy motels and seedy bars line Bay Shore Drive near Trinity Bay. He was proud of the work he’d done restoring tombstones after Ike. He paused for once. “This is probably one of my most slackish years as far as doing real shit,” Keith said. “I’m just not a politician.”

 

“Gator” Miller talking  politics over beers at  Gilhooley’s.
Jody Horton
“Gator” Miller talking politics over beers at Gilhooley’s.

The 15th annual Where the Hell is San Leon Festival arrived on a noontime wave of heat and humidity. There was a tiki-hut bar with a trough of iced beer on the deck of Waynos. Waitresses ferried trays of Jell-O shots while bands churned out covers of tunes by Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Bush. For a dollar you could put someone in a jail cell; for $2 you could bust them out.

Keith was schmoozing and not sweating it. His main competition in the mayor’s race was sick with hepatitis, and the other competitors were no-names. Gator was there serving as emcee. It being April 20, national pot-smoking day, a marijuana haze periodically wafted through the air. Bikers, longhairs and tourists wearing straw hats and flip-flops got heavy in the head. Late in the afternoon, a crowd convened around the pool table inside Waynos. On the felt top lay thousands of bills used to buy votes. There was no ceremony—no fanfare at all—attending the mayoral announcement. Actually, the crowd had thinned out considerably by dinnertime, when word started circulating that the winner was… Kelly Abbitt? One of the no-names had done it! A hefty 11th-hour check from Kelly’s boss brought his total to more than $6,000. San Leon had a new mayor.

Minutes later, Kelly was sitting on the back of his golf cart in the parking lot. By his own admission he’d had way too many Jell-O shots. He described himself as a simple fella from San Leon who works at an IT services firm in Clear Lake Shores, a single father to two grown kids with a girlfriend he’s looking to marry. “Am I gonna get lucky tonight?” Kelly asked her. “You get lucky every night,” she replied. Kelly said he aimed to give back to the community, and he has, sponsoring a kid’s fishing tournament, hosting benefits and laying the groundwork for a parking lot at the local Little League field.

But if he’s going to win a second term he’ll need to pull off an even bigger upset at this year’s election, scheduled for Saturday, April 19. That’s because Keith’s coming back. And he’s a new man. Over the phone a couple of weeks ago, Gator told me he hadn’t seen Keith intoxicated in a year. “I’ve seen 30-day turnarounds in the past, but he’s for real this time,” Gator said. And despite Kelly’s contributions to San Leon, he’s more likely to conduct his business on Facebook, Gator said, than in the field, where Keith’s a pro. Could it be that San Leon needed Keith more than it knew?

I called Keith’s cell phone and found him—surprise—drinking a cold beer at a bar. It was a one-off, he explained, in honor of a friend who had just died. “I’ve not had two cases of beer in 14 months,” Keith said. He held his phone up so the bartender could vouch for him. “He’s 100 percent,” she shouted. Keith said he felt shamed after last year’s loss and couldn’t show his face. He said he could hear his dad up in heaven saying, ‘Dude, you dropped the ball.’

“I don’t want to be a loser all my life,” Keith said.

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