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The Rambling Boy

By LONN TAYLOR

I have lived in Fort Davis for 12 years and I enjoy living there. I have a comfortable house which my wife, Dedie, and I built with the aid of a fine architect and a reliable contractor. I have a study in that house, a semi-detached room whose walls are lined with books, and in that study there is a big pine table which serves as my writing desk. That is where I do most of my work.

But I also love San Antonio, a city that I lived in 40 years ago and in which I still have many friends. I have a hideaway here provided by one of those friends, and that is where I am writing this column. It is a cottage on the grounds of her house off River Road, a cottage with a bedroom, a bathroom, a tiny kitchen, and a big room in which I write. That room has a desk in a corner, a desk embraced by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on two sides. There is a big window on the other side of the room, a window that allows light to stream into the room. It looks into a garden filled with flowering shrubs and palm trees, but the desk faces away from it and toward the bookcases. When I work at it I am not distracted by the birds in the garden, or the several cats that occasionally stalk them there, or the squirrels in the trees, or the raccoon that sometimes lumbers up from the river early in the morning. I am distracted, however, by the books on the shelves in front of me.

My friend is in her late 80s, a widow. Her husband was a playwright and a television producer, and together they operated a bookstore inherited from her husband's mother, a store that was a San Antonio literary landmark. The books on the shelves by the desk I work at reflect their interests. They lean heavily toward theatrical memoirs and plays, interspersed with book dealers' catalogs, American and English literature from the early 20th century, and books on Mexico and the Southwest. Most of them were published before 1950. Running my eyes over their spines while I sit at the desk I can see Footlights and Spotlights, the memoir of the American actor Otis Skinner; The Old Lady Says No, a collection of plays by the Irish playwright Dennis Johnson; three novels by Sinclair Lewis; an 8-volume set of O. Henry's short stories; Paul I. Wellman's A Dynasty of American Outlaws; and a volume of the poetry of Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and Robert Greene with an embossed Victorian binding. The title page is missing, but an inscription on another page says that the book was given as a birthday present to someone in Ogden, Utah in 1891. There is also a 10-volume set of short fiction, biography, and poetry called The Children's Hour, edited by Eva March Tappan and published in 1907.

I cannot keep my hands off of these books. They are a definite distraction. I find myself pulling them off their shelves and leafing through them when I should be concentrating on my writing. They remind me of my parents' library; in fact, some of the same volumes that are on my friend's shelves were on my parents', including the O. Henry set.

My friends house is at the end of a dead-end street leading off of River Road, surrounded by a large garden. It is a rammed-earth farmhouse, built in the late 18th century by Macario Zambrano, according to the Texas Historical Commission marker affixed to its front porch. My friend's husband's parents bought it in the 1930s, and when my friend and her husband moved into it they added a wing with a modern kitchen and a bedroom and bath. When I stay in thecottage I have a glass of wine with my friend every evening at the long tablein the kitchen and we go over the events of the day. Sometimes we are joined bysome of my friends neighbors, who are all interesting people because they live in River Road.

River Road is a palimpsest, a neighborhood of small bungalows interspersed with somesurprisingly large houses, laid out in the early 1920s on the old Zambrano family farm. Just over the fence from the cottage is an exposed section of the Spanish acequia that watered the Zambrano land grant, which was made in 1745. The acequia borders a community garden, lovingly tended by some of the same neighbors that gather occasionally for a glass of wine with my friend. River Road has always been a faintly bohemian neighborhood, a favorite of architects, professors, artists, and musicians. In the late 1920s its focal point was the River Road Country Day School, a two-story Spanish-style building next to my friend's house that housed a progressive school for young children taught by a mother and daughter named Browne. My friend's husband was enrolled in the school as a child, and she has a photograph of him at the age of ten hoeing a garden in front of the building with a group of other children.

Driving me around the neighborhood the other day, my friend pointed to a modest bungalow and said, "The theatrical producer Walter Starcke used to live there. Of course he fell into a tub of butter with Cabaret." Just up the street was a much larger house, a Porfirian mansion that resembled something in El Paso's Sunset Heights or an older suburb of Juarez. My friend said, "That was Madame Lucchese's house." She was referring to Josephine Lucchese, the San Antonio bootmaker's daughter who became an opera star in the 1930s.

Most of the houses have large yards, and some people keep chickens and the occasional goat. Several yards have circles of dilapidated chairs around sagging tables in them, evidence of outdoor dinner parties. Others sport rusting metal sculpture, some of it overgrown by vines. It is not a tidy neighborhood. Dick, Jane, and Spot live in some other part of San Antonio. Jim Cullum, director of San Antonio's Happy Jazz Band, lives in the old Country Day Schoolhouse, and in the afternoons I can hear ascending and descending trumpet scalesbeing played while I am working. I love living in Fort Davis, but if I lived in San Antonio I would want to live on River Road.


Lonn Taylor is a historian andwriter who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at taylorw@fortdavis.net.

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