Confessions of a Small Town Political Reporter
As curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections, Steven L. Davis is far removed from his former life as a working-class graduate student at what was then Southwest Texas State, cranking out city council stories to pay the bills. The San Marcos author has published two important books on Texas letters: ”J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind” and “Texas Literary Outlaws: Six Writers in the Sixties and Beyond.” The Austin American-Statesman has called Davis “one of Texas’ leading scholars of our indigenous culture.”
Yet Davis says he is still “astounded” by the number of people who ask about a nonfiction story he penned nearly 20 years ago — and never before published under his name. “Confessions of a Small Town Political Reporter” is “nearly all true,” Davis says, except for the name of the town and the names of the people who lived there.
In pre-suburbia Juniper, Davis got a front row seat to the unbelievable intrigue of a tiny Texas town in the twilight of its old ways. The stories that came out of Juniper were too good to be true. They were also too good to tell, until now.
by Steven L. Davis
My descent into journalism
was hastened, I suppose, the evening I agreed to work as a reporter for the San Marcos News. I recall now what struck me as strange at the time — the editor had called me at home and offered me the job. I hadn’t applied for it. I remember being flattered, thinking that the editor must have been impressed by my earlier work for an alternative magazine in town. Little did I know that my name had been the last one on a long list.
You always get signs. Pay attention to the signs. The paper’s “senior” reporter, shortly after meeting me, tried to sell me purses out of the trunk of his car. I passed this off as a minor eccentricity — reporters are famously weird, after all. Only later did I realize that there was a very basic reason for this man’s entrepreneurial zeal — pure economic desperation.
San Marcos, despite having two newspapers, was generally referred to as a “half newspaper town.” The News’ competition was moribund San Marcos Daily Record, a newspaper so ineffectual that it was published — despite its moniker — only five times a week. The Daily Record is legendary for its laziness — it once printed the Sunday paper on Tuesday. In ten years of living in San Marcos, I have never seen the Daily Record cover an event that wasn’t scheduled in advance. The paper is so timid that the only editorial opinion it has ever issued asked readers to consider possibly voting in an upcoming election.
Working for the News, I thought, would give me a chance to shake things up in San Marcos. But the paychecks never arrived, and the publisher changed his home phone to an unlisted number. I finally managed to recoup some of my wages by intercepting a check from an advertiser, and forcing the business manager to sign it over to me. After less than a month, I left to take a job doing data entry at a college bookstore serving the university where I’d earned my master’s degree. Two weeks later, the News ceased publication.
Around the same time, the rental market in San Marcos was experiencing an unprecedented upswing, and our landlord wanted in on the action. Finding nothing in our price range that didn’t have urine-stained exterior walls, my wife and I looked around the area, and ended up in a small town outside of Austin that I will refer to as Juniper.
Signs. There are always signs. We ate at “Chili Sam’s” our first day in Juniper. The bill came to $5.76. I gave the clerk — a man in his late 20s — six dollars and a penny. He looked at the money in his hand, and then back at me. “Sir,” he finally said. “the total is five-seventy-six. You gave me six-oh-one.”
“That’s right,” I told him. “That way you can give me an even quarter back.”
He looked at me like I had just performed a magic trick. “Wow,” he said, shaking his head in amazement. “You sure are a smart fella.”
After settling into Juniper, I ran into the editor of a local weekly newspaper. Upon hearing that I had previously worked as a reporter, he asked me to cover the Juniper city council meetings for him. This seemed a bit of a comedown to me. After all, a few weeks earlier, I had been in ascendancy, ready to challenge and entire town’s conception of its news. Now, I was reduced to covering the twice-monthly meetings of a town that I hadn’t even realized was incorporated. But the additional bit of income was needed, so I agreed to take the assignment.
Juniper was a poor town, and was still too far outside of Austin then to become much of a “bedroom” community. It was more “outhouse” community, complete with abandoned buildings, unpaved roads, and wrecked cars in peoples’ front yards. While folks in Juniper exceled at outdoor cooking, the city also had lowest literacy rate in Central Texas. The town’s largest employer was a flea market, and government relief checks were the biggest infusion into the local economy.
At the first council meeting I attended, the main topic of discussion was a vacant council seat. The previous officeholder had abandoned the post when he skipped town after writing a series of bad checks. The council, after several weeks of trying, had been unable to find anyone to fill the opening. But as luck would have it that evening, a citizen happened to show up for the public comment portion of the meeting. By the end of the session, she was sworn in as Juniper’s newest city council member.
After a few weeks, I began to get a clearer sense of the personalities and issues involved in Juniper city government. The mayor, Dorothy Snow, was a vivacious, well-dressed woman who had enough charm to make you nearly forget her weight problem. She was sharply competent, and moved the proceedings along at a brisk pace. But Dorothy’s leadership of the council was often challenged by her nemesis, a gruff and serious woman who had attained respect in old-time Juniper by being tougher than most of the men. Hank, as this woman was known, usually came straight to the meetings from her ranch, and Dorothy was clearly offended by Hank’s smell of cow shit and sweat. Hank, for her part, distrusted anybody who took the time to color their hair.
The third force to be reckoned with on the council was Harold Sanders, who served as Juniper’s mayor from the 1940s to the 1960s. He was in his 90s now, and his health has been in serious decline ever since he turned 70. He frequently misses meetings for various surgeries and blood transfusions, but he always manages to call in from the hospital to cast his votes. He even attended one meeting on a stretcher with an attendant at his side.
Although Juniper is predominantly Hispanic, only one Mexican American serves on the city council. And sadly, this man is little credit to la raza. Chato Montes rarely attends meetings because they conflict with his son’s football practices. I learned later that Chato ran for council only because of a feud he was having. A neighbor of his had installed security lighting that lit up Chato’s property like high noon. Chato complained to the city, but was told that there was no ordinance regulating illumination. At roughly the same time, a city council seat came open. Chato ran for it unopposed, and once installed, he introduced legislation attempting to outlaw bright lighting. But the issue got bogged down in technicalities, and Chato’s electoral mandate faded away.
Chato then began introducing all sorts of proposals that were thinly disguised attacks on his neighbors. He wanted the city to buy the neighbor’s property, raze the house, and turn the lot into City Park. (He still calls himself an environmentalist because of this proposal.) Chato also wanted to alter the route of a proposed road to have it go directly through his neighbor’s house. None of the legislation ever passed.
Eventually, Chato became less interested in the legislative process and started taking matters into his own hands. He installed his own high intensity lighting, and aimed it directly at his neighbor’s windows. Folks in Juniper claimed that the light was so bright it made the walls glow inside the targeted house. Chato’s neighbor responded by staking barking dogs at the edge of the property closest to Chato’s home. Chato’s suggested anti-dog ordinance also failed to pass, since Juniper considers itself a pro-dog town. Shortly after this legislative failure, Chato’s neighbor’s dogs disappeared. The bodies have never been recovered. Chato and his supporters claim that the dogs must have escaped. The neighbor maintains that it is highly unusual for four chained dogs to disappear on the same evening. The night after the dogs’ disappearance, shots rang out in the neighborhood. No one was hurt, but the city agreed to erect a 20- foot high concrete wall between the two residences. Since then, things have been quiet, although still tense.
Other than these occasional eruptions, life in Juniper remained placid. My city council dispatches tended to focus on issues like the police chief’s complaints about the color of his new patrol car, or the plans to paint a happy face on the water tower. But then one day, Mayor Dorothy Snow tried to kill herself. Her children found her, wrists slashed, and the paramedics saved her life. She went into seclusion for several weeks afterward, and only slowly did the real story emerge. It seems that the mayor had been romantically involved for some time with the city’s public works director, a man called, simply, “Spurs.” Spurs was the opposite of the mayor in every way. He was as slovenly as she was neat. He was as uncommunicative as she was eloquent. He had permanent five o’clock shadow, and she was clean shaven. He was rail thin, and she, well, she was a bit on the hefty side. But Spurs, while enjoying the mayor’s company, came to find his one true love elsewhere. She was Denise, the county animal control officer. Denise, who I never got to meet personally, was said to be a real charmer with dogs and men alike. Spurs apparently fell under her spell, and when he broke the news to Dorothy she went straight for her cutlery.
This was five months before the next election. After her attempted suicide, the consensus was that Dorothy would not be seeking public office. After emerging from her seclusion, Dorothy stunned the community by announcing her intention to run for a fourth term. No one was more surprised than the man who, assuming that there would be a vacancy, had filed to run for the post. Now Juniper had its first real political contest in years.
Dorothy’s opponent was Jim Bordin, a semi-literate man who spoke in a backwoods dialect of half-formed words. Bordin had deep roots in the community, but there were whispers about his financial troubles. He also had a reputation for losing his temper. I witnessed this firsthand when I interviewed him for a profile I was doing of the candidates. He answered every question with a bland generality. For example, when I asked if he favored giving developers tax concessions to build in Juniper, he answered, “I believe in Juniper. We got us a good city with good people. I’ll do right by it.” My follow-up questions were regarded as acts of impertinence. Finally, he exploded. “Now look here, son, why’re you trying so blasted hard to get me to put words in my mouth? Ain’t my word good enough for you?”
Dorothy, on the other hand, cruised along with supreme confidence during the campaign. She had lost a great deal of weight, and she had a sparkling new wardrobe. She looked good. Not good enough to bring Spurs back, perhaps, but good enough to attract the attention of many other eligible and non-eligible men. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the strongest supporters to come out for Dorothy was council member Hank, who told Bordin at a candidates’ forum that he was “no better than a cow tick.” Dorothy, for her part, avoided negative campaigning, since she presumably had more to lose in that department than Bordin did.
And, as in so many elections, the choice came down to the lesser of two evils. Who did the townsfolk want to represent Juniper to the outside world? A bright, attractive woman who may blow her brains out on the steps of the city hall? Or, a half-idiot businessman with a mean squint who might raid an already meager city treasury?
The vote was close. Jim Bordin pulled through, winning by 11 votes. A week after his inauguration, he attempted to negotiate an illegal contract with a developer. The plot was discovered by council member Harold Sanders who, while undergoing surgery for a kidney transplant, overheard a doctor with a financial interest in the development gloat about the deal to his colleagues. Bordin, in his defense, claimed that the developer’s lawyer had tricked him by using some fancy words.
It was at this time that my wife and I moved back to San Marcos. It took two and a half years, but we finally found a place to rent in our price range. To be honest, we don’t miss many things about Juniper. In San Marcos we have 24-hour grocery stores and fast food. We can walk to work. Our neighbors know how to read.
That’s not to say that we don’t still participate in Juniper society. We recently returned to Juniper to attend a barbecue given by our ex-landlord after his daughter graduated from junior high school. It was a festive occasion complete with music, banners, and balloons. Among the attendees were Mayor Jim Bordin and former mayor Dorothy Snow. Bordin was stationed near the cooler, drinking beer very quickly. I considered going over and talking to him, but then what the hell, I’m not a reporter anymore.
So I walked over to the barbecue grill, where Dorothy was talking with council member Hank, who was wearing a “Kiss the Cook” sweatshirt. Dorothy seemed very calm, and she appeared to mean it when she told me that she missed very little about being mayor. When I brought up Mayor Bordin, Hank volunteered that she was “keeping a close eye on the little pissant now.”
As we continued talking, I noticed a steady stream of men visiting the area behind a storage shed at the corner of the yard. Dorothy explained that the landlord’s plumbing had broken, and there were no indoor facilities. A little bit later I saw Mayor Bordin ambling toward the corner with a slightly unsteady gait. He stopped short of the shed to inspect a celebratory banner that hung from it. The big block letters read, “The Future of Juniper is Here Today!” Once he appeared satisfied with the banner’s meaning, Bordin walked behind the shed, unzipping his pants.
Signs. There are always signs.