The red corner building offered a quiet setting on this Saturday morning. The lone bartender was filling the coolers with beer so they could get cold enough before the regulars come craving and it all rocked me into a familiar rhythm. I found my place on a rusty old tractor saddle so rickety that I almost fell off, and in a movement of coordinated embarrassment and balancing act, I simultaneously looked for something more stable only to realize that the entire row of chairs looked like they needed a new set of bolts and screws. Whatever, rickety barstools would soon be of secondary importance.
Mile after mile of scorched cornfields followed me north along highway 95 and short after the brown fields where exchanged by a misplaced concrete viaduct, the journey continued alongside old auto dealers, corner shops and half-dilapidated dwellings. I passed a ten-track railroad yard holding ninety ton of humming diesel locomotives from Amtrak and Union Pacific. Desperate to leave and go on their journey northwards pulling up to one hundred cars in tow loaded with everything from grain to the newest model Toyota trucks.
To the welcoming sound of train horns, I park under yet another concrete viaduct, this one centrally located right next to the tracks on the edge of downtown. This is where you’ll find the only architectural evidence that the city of Taylor existed before the Great Fire of 1879 – Vencil Mares brawny barbecue spot, Taylor Cafe.
Returning home from World War II, where he served as medic – notably during the landing in Normandy – a 21-year young Vencil began working for the locally famous Jerry Stach at Southside Market and Barbecue in Elgin, Texas. Here he learned everything he needed to understand about barbecue; temperatures, time, wood, sausage stuffing, ribs, chicken, chopping and cutting – all kinds of meat handling. He also learned the fact that he would probably be better off operating his own place and put the profits into his own pockets instead of others. Smoking brisket, a cut on the rise, was one of the new technics he picked up working for Mr. Stach.
Investing every earnings he had saved from the war years and from working for Mr. Stachs, he bought the old railway hotel in Taylor – the year is 1948. 66 years later, he’s still here daily between 6 in the morning and 10 at night carefully monitoring the moves of guests and staff. This must be something of a record in the world of barbecue. By contrast, the nearest neighboring barbecue – Mueller – now has its third generation of owners, and they opened the year after Vencil.
I signal the need for replenishment, seeking eye contact with the bartender while slowly shaking my empty bottle, when a neighbor at the bar asks if he could get me one. What a typical Texan approach, I think to myself, when he introduces himself as Jay – a Taylor newcomer from Detroit since about a year and a half back. ”The bartender is my wife Audrey,” he explains when I ask him what he’s doing here. What I meant, of course, was what’s he doing in Taylor, but content myself with the answer already given. When a man offers a stranger a beer, it ain’t the time to ask for clarifications. Then there’s the fact that Jay appears to consist largely of a generous barrel chest on a six-foot-two trunk of aggression, all topped with two inches of straight up jet black crew cut. Of course, I soon learn he consists mainly of the equal volume friendliness and heart, and suddenly I am not alone at this Texas dive anymore.
Long before the viaduct over the railroad tracks were built, this neighborhood was packed with bars ready to serve the hundreds of seasonal workers stepping off the train every day during the cotton harvest in July and August. Periodically, there were upwards to 60 bars and entertainment venues of varying types in the neighborhoods closest to the tracks and Saturdays rarely offered the quiet calm of today. Vencil stayed busy serving world-class barbecue while at the same time disarming knife fights between unruly seasonal workers, still stubbornly taking care of his more well-behaved guest’s bar needs in a segregated Taylor.
The invisible line between blacks and those of more privileged color went right here by the railroad. Segregation was the norm, and who would face the hardest struggle for a decent existence was beyond doubt. Vencil soon realized the financial benefits of satisfying customers from both sides of the tracks – plus all the hispanic workers coming to Taylor during the summer months.
Vain attempts to divide society into colored and white sections were, as we know, standard procedure in those days, and in the few bars where the entire space was open to both, entertainment often found its way into the degenerated art of fighting. Vencil found his own solution; give both sides access to their own likings of music. And so it went. He acquired an additional jukebox, and now had two magnificent coin-fed music machines embellishing the popular cafe. One by the white entrance, packed with country music and one by the door for the blacks, containing more blues-inspired beats. And between the two, a pool table.
The jukebox segregation at Vencil’s survived long after public opinion had turned toward integration and continued until 1994 – only then had he had enough. Tired of constantly looking for new hiding places for the volume knobs and the constant fighting over which song to be played the loudest, Vencil shucked all the titles into one machine, threw out the empty one, and let the neon from a single music box, playing everything from George Strait to Big Mama Thornton, illuminate the previous white only entrance.
Bubba shot the juke box last night
Said it played a sad song it made him cry
Went to his truck and got a forty five
Bubba shot the jukebox stopped it with one shot
Bubba shot the jukebox last night
Well he could not tell right from wrong
Through the teardrops in his eyes
Beyond a shadow of a doubt it was justifiable homicide
Bubba shot the jukebox stopped it with one shot
Bubba shot the jukebox last night
– Mark Chesnutt
Today he’s the sole bar owner in the neighborhood, running the oldest water hole in a city that just started a slow process of regeneration – newcomers from Austin who gladly replace high cost housing for a few hours in traffic. The old quarters are in poor condition and will require careful renovation to keep from losing the atmosphere of the good old days, all while the town council try to catch up with modern times and lead Taylor into the realms of tomorrow. The concrete viaduct, built to prevent traffic from stocking up while waiting for the trains to slowly pass the crossing, has long put the corner of West First and North Main in the shade. Despite, Vencil and his staff persistently keep the dusty dim lantern of yesterday lit for all of us who need to find respite from a lifestyle too fast and too complicated.
When Vencil leaves, the bar will probably close, and feeling this impending loss I decide to spend the rest of the weekend here. Neither my new friend Jay, nor his wife Audrey know anything about motels around here, but they forward my question to some of the regulars that has arrived at, what is now, early afternoon. The answer comes back; try the Luxury Inn & Suites on West Second Street. After booking a room at what would prove to be the local flea motel, I tell my new friends I’ll be back for more beer and some barbecue within a couple of hours, when Audrey’s shift ends.
Good thing the cities in this country are laid out with a ruler. The road to the motel goes straight past Taylor Liquor Company where I stop to pick up a matching bottle of Old Taylor Bourbon and after twenty dead-straight blocks with no corners or curves to challenge my driving I finally make it to the motel – no more driving today.
The room smells like a flea motel should – disinfectant and cheap solution odor control. I find a stack of plastic cups hygienically wrapped in separate well-sealed plastic bags to assist me in my drinking. My sentimental choice of bourbon proves to be a poor purchase. Cheap bourbon does not taste good in plastic cups and Old Taylor does not taste good in either plastic cup or in a glass. After a few attempts, I give up. This heavyweight in corn requires something to cut it with.
A couple of hours later, refreshed and with the bottle of bourbon safely tucked in a bring-along bag, it’s time to start the return to the cafe. The walk goes through neighborhoods of seemingly abandoned warehouses, some still housing active businesses, and I pass Mexican restaurants, long gone gas stations and trailer parks. On the 12th block I stop by a small shack hawking its business with hand painted letters advertising another Taylor barbecue place – West End Cafe. Anticipating the sweetness of a cold beer I enter the darkness of yet another beer joint. Temptation lures me to order a sausage wrap – a well smoked sausage in barbecue sauce sloppily wrapped in a piece of cheap white bread accompanied by a few slices of onion and pickled cucumber, a perfect little morsel – but the tasty bite does little to make up for the lack of good atmosphere. Most guests sit and stare into video poker screens and slot machines, showing little interest in the world around them until they need another round of Bud Light. The urge to bolt makes itself present and I do my best to quickly wiggle my way out of a conversation with the friendly bartender.
A pick-me-up to restore from the sad experience at the West End Cafe would be in its place and I decide to defy the law for the second time today. A lonely hay bale left by the railroad tracks turns out to be the perfect combination of seat and cover. For some reason, the whiskey tastes slightly better here in the shade of hay and an accompanying smell of creosote. Maybe the perception of hobo life was the missing link to enjoy this strong corn. My eyes slowly scan the railroad yard but find no trace of neither the sheriff or the railroad police. “Here’s to a second chance” I whisper – this one tastes just as good as the last one – and I’m now ready for the last trek down to Vencil’s. By seven o’clock I find myself back on a rusty tractor saddle with a beer in my hand.
First in place here every morning is Bobby Lou, one of the pitmasters, firing up the smoker and taking on his specific tasks for the day – brisket and sausage. Now he sits opposite me and next to Vencil at the bar. Audrey serves me a paper plate with smoked brisket, smoked sausage, beef ribs, beans and a hefty load of potato salad. My attempt to be invisible, to avoid attention from the four inspecting eyes in front of me, fails to my misfortune and I find myself in the lions den. To my good luck, the sausage is perfect with a heavy dose of roughly ground black pepper, the brisket serves a crispy crust and a juicy interior and the meat on the ribs offers small resistance before accepting its loss and finally end up where it belongs. No need for white lies, I’m out of the pin. The side dishes, though, leaves more to be desired but this is all about the meat. The price for this solid meal? 10 bucks!
Vencil, half serious and half joking; ”Bobby Lou here comes in at four in the morning so if I have to fire him because he drinks too much, I have to come down here myself and start up the pits, so he sits safe, even though he is here every night drinking himself drunk at my expense. And as you can see, he knows what he’s doing, ’cause I taught him.”
The situation feels slightly uncomfortable, and Bobby Lou acts worried, saying ”You’re not going to fire me, boss, are you, I work so hard?.” Vencil smiles a crocked smile, and I really hope that it’s all a little rough play between two guys. The jukebox looks like a good way out of this predicament and I head on over to look for something to lighten up the mood with. It seems like Vencil has stopped caring about the content and it’s a little thin on music of my taste but I soon find some good ol’ rhythm and blues and it doesn’t take long before Little Bob’s hit from 1965, I Got Loaded, share space with the background noise from patrons chatting about the upcoming hunting season and what-is-going-on-tonight matters.
Night before last I got loaded. On a bottle of whiskey, on a bottle of whiskey But I feel alright, I feel alright, I feel alright, I feel alright
Audrey’s shift is finally over, I’m stuffed and tipsy, and Jay is well on his way in the same direction when we decide that a trip to Type Store would be fun. It’s a beer-only joint a little further out the country. The sound of yet another train horn cuts through the thin walls of Taylor Cafe and like an earthquake warning system, it prepares us for vibrations to come slowly rolling through the former epicenter of Taylor.
We cram ourselves into the front seat of Rays Chevy pickup truck and then leave town while the v-shaped engine rumbles under the black hood. Vencil, now half asleep in his chair, will without a doubt be there tomorrow when we return for another day of beer and barbecue, but this sundown we steer our way through dusty country roads on our hunt for another cold beer.
Footnote: The 1990 Dennis Hopper movie The Hot Spot (featuring Don Johnson) was primarily filmed in downtown Taylor. Its fabulous soundtrack is composed by Jack Nitzsche and features an original collaboration between John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, Taj Mahal and Roy Rogers.