El Paso News, The Dynamite Museum, The Bush Beat, Censoring Books
A few weeks ago, Left Field received a plaintive note from El Paso, praising Debbie Nathan’s Observer story on the lackluster performance of the El Paso Times (“Where No News is No News,” January 30, 1998). “We could not agree with you more,” wrote Joe Vargas. “After the Herald Post ceased operations, we felt very frustrated that El Pasoans had no other alternative but to read a newspaper only concerned with its own interests. The El Paso Times is clearly not interested in reporting news that matters … and this leaves El Pasoans in the dark.”
Vargas, a local businessman and civic activist, wasn’t content to stay in the dark. In September of 1997 he had founded an on-line classified ad service, then began adding local news. In response to readers’ suggestions Vargas is now publishing and editing the El Paso Internet Courier, a fledgling daily newspaper on the Web (www.ep-ic.com). The publication’s small staff is turning out a mixed bag of local bulletins, editorial opinion, and pop culture reviews, along with a smattering of local ads and web links. While it’s not yet polished or wide-ranging, the Courier has an independent, impertinent voice that should at least goose the lackadaisical bunch over at the Gannett-owned Times.
In a recent edition of the Courier, editor Vargas blasted the City Council for considering a monument in honor of the murderous seventeenth-century Spanish conquistador, Juan de Oñate. Under the admonitory headline, “If You Like Shooting Guns Off At Bars – Don’t Become A Law Enforcement Official,” reporter Nicole Vargas recounted a couple of unhappy incidents involving local officers. Meanwhile, film reviewers “Paul and Juan” each contributed their “two cents” concerning Mel Gibson’s Payback: “I give Payback 4 cigarettes,” wrote Juan, “’cause I don’t want it to beat me up.”
Interviewed by e-mail, editor Vargas said the Courier hopes to become “the voice for local El Pasoans … and to promote interaction with our readers by publishing their comments. We hope to be the newspaper of the people.” The Courier will emphasize local and regional news, Vargas said, but also plans to publish statewide commentary from an independent perspective. Ad revenue is not yet enough to sustain the paper, but it’s building steadily. “What started out as a small publication has evolved into a full-blown daily newspaper,” continued Vargas. “We are currently in the process of building a staff that will emphasize real local opinions, and who will not be influenced by controlling economic factors.” It was the same note struck in his earlier letter, in which he called for “a publication [that] recognizes the importance of reporting news that matters, unbiased, and without regard to ‘special interests.'” Vargas is inviting readers, especially in the El Paso area, to send comments and to alert the Courier to news that won’t be covered elsewhere (“email@example.com”). “We would like El Pasoans to know the truth.”
Interview: Emperor of Signs
Though Stanley Marsh may be more widely known for Cadillac Ranch – the line of old Cadillacs planted tailfins-up along Interstate 40 – the Amarillo television station owner has made a greater alteration to the local landscape by igniting the Dynamite Museum, the group responsible for putting hundreds of signs along roadways. The project began in 1992, when Marsh, reacting to a “Road Ends 300 Feet” sign, graced the highway with his own yellow diamond reading “Road Does Not End.” He next put up a “Dinosaur Crossing” sign at a road crossing, then a “Beware of Low-Flying Airplanes” sign, and ultimately a great Saussurean proliferation – of signs bearing pictures, or phrases such as “A Honey Pot,” “We Used to Go Shoplifting Together,” and “Lead Poisoning.” There are currently hundreds of the markers around Amarillo, most of them in front yards. The Dynamite Museum includes Marsh, Jackie Anderson, Brad Holland, Jamie Adams, Scott Garner, Bobo Marshall, and a man who’s officially changed his name to Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.
On the Signs
The Dynamite Museum is the name of a group of people, all equal. Anybody who wants to can join. It’s mainly college-age guys, and mainly men because in order to be in it you have to paint the signs, take them to people’s houses, and install them, digging the holes and pouring the concrete and so forth….
We don’t want to say things that are unclear [on the signs]…. We don’t want to say things that are murky and don’t make any sense. We don’t want some kind of science fiction gobbledygook, and we don’t want jokes, like “You Are Here Now.” It’s art in time and space. We might take a quote from a Hank Williams song, and the quote might be fine until you saw the way it looked on the sign, and then we would distort the quote to look good on the sign.
Sometimes the color looks wrong. We know from experience that turquoise and lavender don’t show up as distinct colors when you’re driving along the road and your windshield’s dirty. You’ve only got a chance for one central image, so somebody wants to put a cowboy rounding up cattle, you better put a cowboy just rounding up one cow. You just glance at it. We don’t have anything political, religious, or smutty – too smutty – but that’s just because we’re in Amarillo, Texas, and we don’t want to be religious or political….
We do sometimes run into stick-in-the-muds who think they own the diamond shape – the people who run the small towns right around Amarillo. At any rate, you own the diamond shape just like I do. It’s in the common domain. The sign in your yard is the most important of all the freedom of speeches, because it’s where you live. So if you put a communist sign in front of a big mansion it’s different than putting it in front of a lean-to.
On Distributing the Signs
We have a stack of signs; we don’t make them to order. We go and say we have fifty made, we show people polaroids, and if they don’t like them, they can wait until we make more…. We’ve got four or five cars [distributing the signs on Saturday afternoons], and a sound system. In addition to the four guys that work, there’ll be fifteen people at lunch – there’s a carnival aspect. The neighbors come out.
The signs are not as prevalent in the part of town that is more affluent. My opinion … is that the signs are not class distinctive, but in the parts of town where people have gardeners, and fancy lawns and petunias and snapdragons, [they think] it takes away from their lawns. My mother does not have one. There are more signs in parts of town where the yards are okay, but more of the people are not gardeners, and there are people who may park their car in their yard to work on it on the weekends. I do not think the affluent people in town dislike the signs, they just think it’s inappropriate in their yards….
Of course there are a certain number of stick-in-the-muds who don’t like the signs. There are two ways to make a town nicer, one is to have more nice people move there. The way to make Amarillo, Texas, nicer is just to run all the soreheads down to Lubbock. That’s why we have a sign that says, “If you don’t like these signs, Lubbock is 120 miles south.” And, “Buddy Holly died to get out of Lubbock.” There are a lot of soreheads in Lubbock. Amarillo got all the nice people. Amarillo appreciates eccentrics. Amarillo cherishes its own, Lubbock eats its own.
We’re building a system of unanticipated rewards. The signs come as a surprise, just like Cadillac Ranch…. When you come upon them, it’s not like some crummy art museum where you have to go in and you can’t smoke a cigarette and you go past the docent, and see if you want to pay money for a little book. You can’t carry in a cold beer for god’s sake, and art is made to be appreciated by men drinking beer on a hot afternoon. Then you get to the art and it’s got this great big gold frame around it and it’s says Made Possible By Mrs. So and So, and there’s utter silence – you can’t even pop your bubble gum…. The Dynamite Museum puts art every place.
On the Dynamite Museum
I don’t think there are any members of the Dynamite Museum who are not romantics at heart. No one else is putting up signs in their hometown for no other reason than that it’s a nice thing to do on a Saturday afternoon…. We’re bigheaded about that. And we don’t hate people who like art museums. We certainly prefer them to the people who show off in their Cadillacs on a Saturday night.
The Bush Beat
When fifty-seven current and former congresspersons signed on as members of the Draft Bush 2000 committee last month, they declared the Governor “the perfect person to lead all Americans into the future.” But who among us knows what the future holds? Will George W. Bush even heed the committee’s call to run for President? The dull wait has dragged on for months, and Texans – nay, all Americans – still lack an answer.
Time to consult the professionals. Political soothsayers have just about made Bush’s announcement for him, but what say the people’s pundits? “I think he is [going to run] but he’ll keep delaying, let it build up to a crescendo, a wave of support,” said Joe Nicols, an Austin psychic and palmist who makes predictions using a pendulum. (“I say a prayer and surround myself with positive energy” while letting the pendulum swing, he said.)
Remarkably similar was the initial prediction of Ycenna Finnigan, an Austin astrologist. “There’ll be more delay, he’s going to stay wishy-washy and make sure the Clinton situation blows over, and then go with the groundswell of support,” Finnigan said. She had already delivered the goods on Bush to a local TV station – “he’s in a place of controversy right now,” she said – but agreed to do an over-the-phone card throw for Left Field. (“It’s a little better method,” she explained.)
“Is George Bush going to run for president, is George Bush going to run for president, is George Bush going to run for president,” she murmured. “He sure is restless about it.” After a moment, with a note of surprise in her voice, Finnigan reversed herself: “I don’t think he will this time! He might next time around.” A money-related card indicated the delay, she said. “It’s a concern of his, having money he needs to run, or it could be he’s concerned about the finances of Texas. He’s working out financial things in the state of Texas. I’m picking that up. Since I haven’t sat with the man physically I don’t know for sure.”
Other than Finnigan, all the mediums contacted by Left Field predicted that Bush would run next year. Oddly enough, the most cursory reply came from our one paid informant, Dallas of the LaToya Jackson Psychic network. “Why are you asking me this?” he asked, and then drew three tarot cards: justice, temperance, and the moon. “This is a yes,” he said curtly.
Finally, we turned to Grace Sandoval, an El Paso psychic who has her own radio spots and a horoscope column in Gateway magazine. “My impression is that he’s very indecisive. I pick up that he’s indecisive, for the next five or six months. I do feel that he will run for office, and I do see a win,” she said. Describing her methods, Sandoval said she doesn’t use cards or other implements. “It’s my own intuition, my own psychic impression that I pick up on it. It’s a gut instinct, a feeling for it,” she said. “Take Elizabeth Dole, if my energy pulls toward Dole, I don’t think she’s going to win, but if it pulls toward George Bush, I get that he will win.”
With friends like these, who needs consultants? Cosmos to George: announce already.
As Falls Wichita . . .
The children’s-book wars are not over in Wichita Falls, but for the moment the score is tied, 1 to 1. On February 16, the city council voted 4 to 3 to approve a resolution allowing citizens to petition the city library to re-shelve selected children’s books in the adult section, where they will remain available to all patrons. A previous resolution (defeated 4 to 3) would have restricted such books to adults only.
The trouble started last summer, when Christian groups, led by the First Baptist Church and the smaller fundamentalist Rephidim Church, objected to the library’s possession of two children’s books about gay-parented families: Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate.
Ministers from both churches condemned the books as implicitly “promoting sodomy,” and demanded their removal. “The Bible says a homosexual and lesbian lifestyle is wrong and God pronounced his death penalty upon them,” said Rephidim pastor Ron Killingsworth.
Proponents of the book ban in Bible-belt Wichita Falls may have expected an easy victory. But their opponents included not only the North Texas American Civil Liberties Union, but also several councilmembers, Mayor Kay Yeager, and a newly-organized Wichita Falls Coalition Against Censorship. The censorship drive lost momentum, although the controversy continued to rage in the letters column of the Times Record News.
The church groups returned to the city council in January, with a proposal to restrict any book to adults-only if 300 people (i.e., a couple mid-sized congregations) petitioned to do so. That was defeated, but the revised version, which would simply move challenged books to the adult section, won the swing vote of councilman Don Johnston. Although no books are named in the law, petitions are quickly expected against Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate, and the library may have to add staff just to confirm petition signatures. “My staff is going to be buried in petitions,” library administrator Linda Hughes told the Times Record News. “I’m wondering where I’m going to get the money to do this.” Opponents consider the law an exercise in gay-bashing, and the first step to more restrictive regulation. They note that the law does not provide for any reversal of a book challenge, or even an opposing petition.
Left Field spoke to the anti-censorship Coalition organizer Stormy Nicholas just before the February council vote. She said the battle is not yet over, and expects the 400-member organization to fight the new law. “This town has a very large religious background, and they tend to let that run the town. We’re trying to fight it.” Nicholas noted that her group has its own religious support. “First Baptist is probably the biggest church in town, but twenty-five other ministers – Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, you name it – published a letter in the paper opposing the censorship.”
The Coalition will continue to fight censorship battles locally and across the state. Observer readers interested in supporting the Coalition can contact the Wichita Falls Coalition Against Censorship, P.O. Box 1863, Wichita Falls, Texas 76307 (940) 767-2100; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.