Steves’ Market and Deli doesn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of Brownwood, a sleepy little country town located in almost the exact center of Texas. The downtown restaurant occupies a turn-of-the-century building, its roof lined with colored glass bottles, its windows plastered with random bumper stickers. Inside, sayings from famous leaders and movie stars are pinned up next to photos of old Brownwood, while Mexican folk-art figurines of nuns stand next to paintings rendered on the sides of old suitcases. The menu is as unexpected as the decor, offering veggie clubs and aqua della madonna (Italian sparkling water), but no chicken-fried steak.
The out-of-place decorations and ambitious cuisine are no accident. “We don’t feed the majority of people here,” says co-owner Steve Harris. “Our clientele are really basically the outsiders. They’re the people who have come from somewhere else. They’re people who have lived here, left and lived somewhere else and come back.”
Harris himself is one of those people. Born in Brownwood and brought up in Waxahachie, he lived in Dallas, Houston, and Puerto Rico (where he worked as a party planner) before returning to Brownwood in 1993, with the idea of opening a business downtown by restoring the aging buildings. After a failed attempt at a flower shop with several other business partners, Harris settled into Steves’ Market and Deli with business partner Steve Puckett in 1996. For Harris and Puckett, the pineapple they place at the front door serves as a symbol of their beliefs and their business practices. “Our philosophy is the pineapple,” he said. “The pineapple is a sign of hospitality. Every morning a pineapple is at our front door because our door is open to people who don’t make an issue of what someone’s perception of you might be. We’re basically here to feed the hungry and that’s basically what we do. We feed their body and soul.”
But Harris has not confined himself to the restaurant. Ever since his return to Brownwood, he has tended to find himself in the middle of political maelstroms blowing through the small town. “The big problem with Brownwood is the lack of civil, honest dialogue about issues that affect all of us.”
From the moment he returned to Brownwood, Harris has been an advocate for change downtown. Along with his other friends and cohorts, Harris was able to organize events and restoration projects for some of the buildings. However, the more Harris attempted to get done, the more resistance he encountered.
“We organized downtown clean-up events,” Harris said. “We found that those who attended were not from Brownwood. Most were transplants and outsiders. The attitude of the city leaders was ‘You’ve done a real good job of pointing out what we already know.'” Since then Harris has been involved in many battles over downtown Brownwood.
There was the fight over the new Post Office last year. To make room for it, the city wanted to tear down historic buildings across the street from the deli. Harris and others protested and the city backed off.
Harris has continued to try to preserve older buildings downtown, calling in help from outside groups like the Texas Historical Commission. One of the buildings, which used to house a Montgomery Wards in the ’20s and ’30s, is now being renovated and will soon be opened as a multi-level clothes shop/spa.
In June, Harris voiced his objection to the language used on a local radio station, after local 96.9 KXYL-FM host Mikey Wayne used the word “fag” during a June broadcast. The next day, City Councilman Ed McMillian called in to tell the host that he’d won a six-pack of beer on a bet that Harris would protest the use of the word “fag.” McMillian then prodded the host to use the word again so that he could win yet another six-pack of beer. Harris was infuriated. “There are gay people here just like there are Hispanics and Asians here,” Harris said. “That’s not an issue. The issue is respect, tolerance and understanding.”
Harris brought his pineapple (and a six pack of beer) to the next city council meeting, but the council dismissed him. Name-calling ensued and the personal lives of both Steve Harris and his business partner Steve Puckett were publicly called into question. Citizens in trucks (not always just wily teenagers, says Harris) were videotaped driving past Steves’ Market and Deli, shouting “Fucking Faggots!” and other epithets after Harris spoke out against the radio program.
But Harris isn’t giving anything up. He says his sexuality is his business. He wants to be seen as a simple businessman and citizen trying to make his way in his hometown. “If someone wants to know my sexual orientation they can come ask me,” he said. “I don’t ask people when they come into a restaurant who they are, where they’ve been, who their family is, etc. Our philosophy has always been about the pineapple.”
Pineapple or not, Harris does realize how hard it has been for both him and his partner to make a normal life in Brownwood. During the fight over the Post Office, Harris and Puckett received death threats from anonymous sources when they both used to live on nearby Lake Brownwood.
“He started out nice,” said Harris, referring to a male caller who threatened him. “He became more agitated as we spoke. He then said that he had heard that I was planning a run for the mayor’s office. I said ‘What did that have to do with anything?’ He then became very direct. He said that ‘I’ve heard you guys are homosexuals. We don’t go for that sort around here. You’re going to lose your business. We’ll run you and your business out of this town.'”
That experience helped spur Harris to speak out against hate crimes, and he ended up testifying in Capitol hearings on hate crimes legislation this spring. He says he has always been interested in hate crimes prevention and anti-hate-crimes legislation, but some specific Brownwood incidents caused him to become increasingly concerned. “I had read in our local paper about a lesbian who had been raped, apparently because the attacker knew or suspected she was a lesbian,” Harris said. “If (such crimes are) left unchecked, how can we expect to progress as a community?” After that, he began researching hate crimes all around Texas. In Brownwood, Harris found that no hate crimes had been reported to the state, even though crimes that appeared to have been hate crimes had been reported in the Brownwood Bulletin.
“My vocal push for the hate crimes bill began after I found out our state representative, Bob Turner of Voss, was the only Democrat in the state of Texas who voted against the 1999 bill,” Harris said. “We just became more involved as incidents took place.”
In the end, Harris says he just wants to do the right thing when it comes to what he sees as hatred and intolerance. “I don’t call people names,” he said. “That’s not in my heart. It’s unacceptable in any community whether it is Brownwood or anywhere else. Those people here that use those words, I believe that’s in their heart. That’s hatred. That’s hatred and intolerance and bigotry and that’s what we’re standing against.”
David Greenfield is a writer in Austin.