The Dishwasher, the Drunk and Jerry Jeff Walker

The Texas Chili Parlor, midway between downtown Austin and the University of Texas campus, hasn’t changed much in 35 years. The chili’s still spicy, the beer cold, the ambiance weatherbeaten.

Once in the 1970s, my husband and I were sitting at the bar, drinking. A guy next to me was drunk and noisy. He talked, he yelled, he snorted. Someone behind the counter suggested he shut up. He didn’t.

A few loud minutes later, a blond-haired dishwasher in a white apron came out from behind the bar and walked up to the drunk. Without much ado, he smashed him in the face.

The drunk bled all over a bunch of paper napkins, saying over and over, “Hey, man, why’d you do that?” The dishwasher dusted off his hands and marched back behind the bar. “I told him to shut up,” he explained to no one in particular.

Well, so Austin has changed some since then. You no longer hear stories about the lieutenant governor getting all liquored up and unloading his gun when he felt like it. We have cappuccino now and high-rise condos and a veneer of civilization. My husband and I, who have changed as much as the city, no longer spend as much time as we used to in bars and I haven’t seen anybody punched out in decades. We all grow up.

It’s funny when you live in a place so long, though, that you see ghosts everywhere — both human and architectural. Leaving the chili parlor last night, my husband and I reminisced about the area. A few doors down used to be one of our favorite haunts, the Capitol Oyster Bar, where we’d feast on fresh oysters late at night after we’d finished studying. The oyster bar burned down several years ago, and now, some kind of osteopathic association is there — an ignominious ending for a bivalve joint, if you ask me.

Across the street, another bar with a Moroccan theme and peacock wicker chairs has given way to a towering office building — and I’m sure nobody but us misses it. We cross the street and jump into my husband’s Prius, which has replaced the battered old Volkswagen bug we used to drive.

Vanished places, vanished people, vanished times — they were everywhere we looked. I could have gotten all whiny and overly sentimental about it, but I hadn’t had that much to drink.

We hopped into the hybrid — more slowly than we used to — and I thought of the time I saw the country-and-Western singer Jerry Jeff Walker at a video store a few years ago. He was grizzled and he lurched when we walked and, after he left, a couple of the young clerks in the store chattered excitedly about how bad, how truly awful he looked.

Oh, good grief, I thought, as I paid for my videos, they’re so damned young and naive. Who cares what Jerry Jeff looks like? Don’t they realize it’s a fucking miracle that he — and the rest of us and the chili parlor — are still alive and semi-kicking?

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)



14 comments… add one
  • I recall a post you wrote awhile back about hiring out a service to tell folks when you were perturbed and couldn’t relay the message on your own, what was that again? Came to mind when you mentioned the dishwasher–he might be a good guy to hire for that. Love the memory.

  • ruthpennebaker Link
  • Guy Clark wrote a line in his song Dublin Blues about that bar–“Wish I was in Austin . . . in the Chili Parlor bar, drinking mad dog margaritas and not wonderin’ where you are.”

  • Sheryl Link

    There’s something comforting, I think, about being able to remember the old days and still be there in the same place to actually see how it has changed through the years.

  • had me thinking about how much the Drag has changed, too – and how it’s been far too long since I’ve been in Austin. a friend of mine has been playing in Jerry Jeff’s band this last while, by the way. he is still kicking.

    I can see Mr. Bojangles ghost now…

    a great post, Ruth. thanks.

  • Cindy D. Link

    Such a great post!! I loved it. I am near your age and was at Stephen F. Austin State Univ. while you were here at U.T. If I had known then what I know now, I’d have been in Austin. At the time, I wasn’t ready for the “big cool” world yet. One of the things on my bucket list is “to sit with Ruth and her husband and drink something wonderful while they tell stories about the good ole’ days.” I’d be like the little boy in the last scene of Camalot where Richard Harris says, “There once was a place . . .”

    Another bucket list item that is new, is to hear about your husband’s research on pronouns. I know I can buy the book and read about it which I will but I’d love to hear all the back story of the work.

    While I’m recovering from my hip replacement I’ll listen to some Jerry Jeff Walker and think about the great wedding in Luckenback I went to where his band played for the reception. Good thoughts while I submerge back into to my percoset haze.

  • I lived for 25 years in France. People exclaim when I tell them that, thinking I must have experienced something glamourous, but you know what? Living abroad deprived me of the type of American memories you recount here. If I shared similar memories about life in France, who could relate? And, I LOVED the word “weatherbeaten” after “ambiance.”

  • Merr Link

    What a visual, Ruth! Do you think the dishwasher is still telling that story…or likely it was one of many he “handled” this way?

  • I, too, was at Stephen F. Austin when you were in Austin. Tomorrow my husband and I are going to make a stop in Nacogdoches on the way to a camping outing on Lake Sam Rayburn. I’ll think of this post when I’m in Nacogdoches lamenting all the changes since I was there. Thanks.

  • There’s such denial in those random musings about older people and them looking awful isn’t there? As if we’re not ALL going to be in the same place at some point. I love your voice. I can always hear you in your writing.

  • Cindy D. Link


    When I was back to Nacogdoches a couple of years ago there were still bible verses on the sign in front of the hamburger place on “the drag.” Not much changes in East Texas.

  • Steve Link

    And before the Oyster Bar, the building housed a great nightclub called the Checkered Flag that, despite the name, was a great venue for local folksingers such as Mike Williams, Bill Moss, and others. Live music before Austin became the live music capital.

    In one of my favorite live music experiences (up there with Jerry Jeff and Pop Nelson at the Opera House on Academy) was Mike Williams stopping mid-performance one night and explaining to the couple talking not-so-quietly at a table near the stage that he would begin again when they finished their conversation. What a concept! Go to a live music club and get to listen to music! And music not amplified to a painful number of decibles!

  • Your tone captures a feeling I have so often, as I stayed in the area where I grew up. Most days I’m in the present tense, focused on what I’m trying to accomplish, but some days suddenly it’s like I’m being assailed by layers of ghosts, often triggered by driving a route I haven’t driven in awhile.

  • I an get pretty nostalgic when I don’t have much to drink. 🙂 We do the same thing when we go “home.” We haven’t lived here long enough to see changes.

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