Living as I do near downtown Fort Worth, I frequently seek out my friend John and his lawyer compadre Bo for a few drinks and conversation at Billy Miner’s Saloon, across from what was, 20 years ago, the Caravan of Dreams club, apartments, theater, and rooftop cactus garden. The club is now the Reata Restaurant, the theater now a meeting space for Camaro drivers or corporate gatherings – no longer the Caravan of the poet John Allen’s dream.
Back then, Fort Worth was struggling with an oil and gas industry on the verge of disaster, and Ed Bass’ Caravan provided, for poets, the first light of hope in a then-darkened world. I performed a story from my then-recently published collection, This Land, and, with the generous and skilled help of the late Doug Balentine, gained entry into the arts, something Fort Worth mostly pretended to care about before 1983. Those Theater of All Possibilities plays, directed by the actors themselves, were a revelation to a writer looking for a stage and real actors from all over the world.
Downtown Fort Worth is now alive with all its restaurants, fine theaters, and the Main Street Arts Festival, which began with Greg and Maria and Johndavid, all the Caravan players, and of course, Ed Bass’ vision for a downtown embracing the arts. Only Billy Miner’s remains the same, probably the reason I enjoy drink and conversation there so much.
Gone is Dan Jenkins’ wife’s fine restaurant, Juanita’s. Gone are the empty stores of the ’80s. Now thousands of people live and work downtown. People still gather at Billy Miner’s after all these years, including lawyers like Bo, though their caseloads and dreams may be different these days. Sometimes the talk turns to money and ways Bo can make it.
On the anniversary of the day in 1914 when striking coal miners were burned to death at the hands of Colorado militia, I lose my patience with government and how it favors the wealthy over the poor. I think of the government-ignited slaughter of women and children at the church outside Waco, the bloody murders of innocents at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee.
I talk that afternoon with Bo, a 1969 University of Texas graduate. He was a wealthy and happy fraternity member. I was an angry free-speech advocate who opposed the Vietnam War in 1967 in demonstrations led by the Students for a Democratic Society. We walked the same streets of Austin but found different kinds of education. Bo grew up with the Dubya Bush sense of privilege. He’s a compassionate conservative, a good lawyer, and a gentle man, but he has no truck with the notion of working people owning their own farms and businesses. I told him of the farm cooperative at Elm Mott where 900 people live in places of their own, framers and roofers, stonemasons and carpenters. The men and women who do the work divide the profit and the successes. Democratically managed. Democratically owned and operated.
When I asked Bo what he saw in New Orleans the last time he was there, he spoke of the money being made buying “depressed” properties on the fringe of the city. He said a man could make a million in a couple of years flipping houses in “Narlins” and that entire communities are being rebuilt by what he called entrepreneurs – people who can borrow $100,000 then fix up the properties and flip them for a quick sale.
He said the banks are lending money for those purchases, and I said, “Thanks to the taxpayer.” I said, “You Republican free-enterprise capitalists get money off the backs of the workers – the men from Mexico who fix up the houses and live in fear of jail time and deportation.” I said the worker rebuilds, not the banker. I explained how the IWW calls for “worker-owned” companies. He said someone had to manage the money and prepare the legal contracts, and I said the manager would be a co-equal partner with the workers.
He called me a Communist as I ordered a Jack Daniels and Coke, proclaiming loudly, “Workers of the world unite! Break the chains! Throw off the oppressors! Get the bankers off our backs!” He downed a shot of tequila, shook his head in amazement, and rambled across the street to meet his family for a fine-dining experience at the Reata, once our Caravan of Dreams.
Kendall McCook is a Fort Worth teacher and writer.