Wednesday, November 07, 2007

My job kicks butt

It kicks butt for many reasons. I work for a fun, if somewhat dysfunctional company, a weekly newspaper that many in this city look to as "the real paper" in Austin. I think we've been a force for positive change in this city, and I'm glad to be one of the people making that happen now as one of our staff writers.

So here's the reason that's relevant to this blog — I cover politics, and one of the focal points for the political scene in Austin has long been Scholz Garten, a 140-year-old restaurant and beer garden in the shadow of the Capitol. Political events are frequently held there, and so I'm "forced" to go cover them. (And being that the Capitol and the University of Texas are just blocks apart, it also doubles as a major pre-game meeting place for Longhorns fans.) Under the guise of "working," I get to sit under those beautiful pecan trees and down pint after pint of Shiner, Spaten, Live Oak, and lots of other great beers. It's a rough job, but somebody has to do it. There is so much history behind this place, and it's even worth putting up with smarmy politicians to enjoy and be a part of it.

In fact, the late Billy Lee Brammer did a nice description of the place and summation of this history in his classic 1961 political novel The Gay Place. He never explicitly said that the state about which he wrote was Texas or that the city was Austin or that the central character was his former boss LBJ or that it really was Scholz's (his fictional name for it is the Dearly Beloved Beer and Garden Party), but it's unmistakable. I'm not exactly certain how much is accurate history and how much he made up, but I think it's mostly spot-on:

The two young men sat out under the trees in straw-bottomed chairs, barking their shins against the wooden tables. They sat waiting, looking glum. Record music came from a speaker overhead, somewhere in the trees. The music was turned loud so it could be heard above the noise from a next-door bowling alley. There were periods of relative quiet when the bowling slacked off and the records changed, during which they could hear half-hearted cheers from a lighted intramural field a block away, near the college, but the record music predominated. The sounds from the bowling alley ruined only the ballads.

The beer garden was shielded on three sides by the low yellow frame structure, a U-shaped Gothicism, scalloped and jigsawed and wonderfully grotesque. The bar, the kitchen and dining spaces were at the front; the one side and the back were clubrooms for the Germans who came to town once or twice a week to bowl and play cards. There Germans had bought half the block years before and built the bar and clubrooms. During the hard times of the 1930's they had begun leasing out the front part as a public bar, an arrangement that had proved so profitable that it was continued through the war years and was now apparently destined for the ever-after.

Just prior to the war there had been rumors of German-American Bund meetings in the back rooms. People in town talked about seeing goosestepping farmers through the windows, their arms raised in fascist salute. But nothing was ever proved; no one ever came forward to substantiate the claims and after Pearl Harbor it was nearly forgotten. There was even a little plaque got up to honor certain of the clientele gone off to war; there were waitresses who boasted of being Gold Star Sweethearts. Business — and the beer — had always been good, before, during, and after the war, and even in recent years when some of Roy's and Willie's friends had petitioned for a change in names: when they wanted to call it the Weltschmertz.

It's a heck of book, if you've never read it. I highly recommend it. So did the late David Halberstam: "There are two classic American political novels. One is All the King's Men. … the other is The Gay Place, a stunning, original, intensely human novel inspired by Lyndon Johnson. … It will be read a hundred years from now."

Hopefully, people will still be drinking beer under Scholz Garten's trees a hundred years from now, as well.

[UPDATE: Here's a little mini-history of Scholz Garten that we ran in The Austin Chronicle back in 2003.]

1 comment:

PM Summer said...

Four years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of polling voters on my cell-phone, from live lists off my laptop, at Scholtz' in support of Gen. Wesley Clark.

My line was, "Tonight, I am calling you on behalf of Gen. Wesley Clark from the biergarten at Scholtz', a place where President Lyndon Johnson twisted many an arm."

I felt like I was a little part of living history.