Down Into The Levels of Travel Hell

Dante’s Inferno envisioned nine levels of Hell, with the hopeless condemned being subjected to various kinds of torment depending on the nature of sins they had committed.

Any traveler knows that there are similar levels of Travel Hell.  Yesterday, Kish and I got down to about Level 5.

angerWe first crossed the river Styx when an early morning snowstorm and de-icing needs delayed our flight out of Columbus.  We abandoned all hope when our flight was late arriving in St. Louis and the airline inexplicably did not  hold the plane for only the few minutes needed for us to make our connection — leaving us winded and desolate as we stood at the gate, watching our plane move slowly away — and instead booked us for a flight to occur 11 hours later.  We then wandered like lost souls through the St. Louis airport, moving from terminal to terminal in the bitter cold, enduring the initial levels of Travel Hell and hoping in vain to find an earlier flight option.  We moved even lower when we decided to take an earlier flight, through Houston, with the thought that we could then drive to our ultimate destination of San Antonio, and learned that the flight was populated entirely by screaming, thrashing children and inattentive parents.

We reached our final depth when we arrived in Houston, found the rental car counters in the terminal were closed, checked to make sure that their signs indicated they had cars available, then went to a rental car area only to learn that notwithstanding the freaking sign, they had no cars, and we therefore had to return to the terminal and board another bus to get to another rental car outlet.  The final indignity came when, after waiting patiently in the line at the rental car counter and finally securing a vehicle, we were directed to a car, got in, drove to the exit, and were told that we were in the wrong kind of car and needed to return it and get another one.  After that piece de resistance, the three-hour drive through the rain from Houston to San Antonio, with oversized pick-ups with their brights on powering up right behind us, seemed like a walk in the park.

Fortunately, we didn’t reach the lowest levels of Travel Hell — which involve things like being physically ill, getting food poisoning at an airport terminal food court, and then having to spend the night in an airport in the company of fellow travelers who won’t shut up — but Level 5 was bad enough.  After 14 hours, we emerged from the pits into the friendly environs of San Antonio, and the air never smelled so sweet.

When Should The Incentives Stop?

Most cities use tax incentives and tax breaks as inducements to development of depressed areas, to lure businesses considering relocation, and to promote other activities that are viewed as economically or culturally positive for their communities.

Cities try to be judicious and targeted in providing the incentives, but of course there’s no certainty in predicting how economic and cultural forces will play out.  Sometimes the incentive plans work and produce the hoped-for benefits, and sometimes they don’t.

608d7dbd-7704-4938-b6cb-ef2a77673a8eRichard recently wrote an interesting article about one aspect of tax incentives:  if they are successful and work as intended, when should they end?  The subject of the article is the Pearl Brewery area in San Antonio — which, by any measure, has been a fabulously successful use of tax incentives.  The incentives have helped to turn what was once a blighted area into a kind of tourist attraction with fine restaurants, pubs, office space, hotels and apartments.  When Kish and I have visited San Antonio we’ve gone to the Pearl area, and it’s hard to imagine it once was a depressed area.  Most cities would love to have a place like the Pearl Brewery District.

And the Pearl Brewery development has produced more tax revenue for the city:  property taxes for the area were $144,000 in 2003, when the development started, this year, tax revenues hit $6.7 million, of which $783,000 was refunded by the city under the tax rebate agreement.  It’s a classic example of how tax incentives are supposed to work.

Now, San Antonio is trying to decide whether the Pearl Brewery District is successful enough, and mature enough, to stand on its own without the incentives.  Some people in the city say that, with the Pearl having become a high-end, expensive area, the subsidies should stop and development efforts should start to focus on other parts of San Antonio.  The Pearl area developers, on the other hand, say that the tax incentives remain essential if the area is to reach even greater heights — with more jobs, more construction, and ultimately more tax revenue.

It’s a tough call — but it’s also a problem that a lot of other cities would like to have.

The Family Weather Differential

It’s cold in Columbus this morning.  It’s not really cold by absolute standards — at 32 degrees, it’s just at freezing, and a mere chilly precursor of the truly icy days that inevitably are coming this winter — but it’s an arctic blast by relative measurements, since only a few days ago the temperature was pleasantly in the 60s.

ios_weather_icons_1xWhen I checked my weather app to see exactly what the temperature was, I noticed that it’s a heck of a lot warmer in San Antonio, where Richard and Julianne and their dog Pretty make their home.  Down there in south central Texas it’s a fine 66 degrees right now, and I can imagine walking out into the San Antonio surroundings, clad in t-shirt and shorts, and thinking that 66 degrees is a nice cool start to the day — good for a stroll on the Riverwalk or, in Richard’s case, a jog.  Up in Detroit, Russell’s waking up to 36 degrees and a forecast of snow flurries.  And if you add in siblings and uncles and aunts, we’ve got Heidi out in Huntington Beach, California where it’s 54 degrees and the forecast is for partly cloudy skies and a high of 67, and Aunt Corinne and Uncle Mack down in Savannah, Georgia, where its 50 degrees and the week ahead on the weather app features temperatures around 70 and lots of those bright, unclouded sun icons that you always like to see.

So, right now, Columbus is the coldest place in the family, a solid 34 degrees more frigid than San Antonio.  That’s why the weather app offers both the bitter and the sweet.  It’s not great to be here at the coldest location, but one advantage of having a trusty weather app and a a family that is spread out from coast to coast and from north to south is we can live vicariously through whoever is getting the best weather right now.  Later today, I think I’ll take an imaginary walk on Huntington Beach.

Working Man, Burger Boy

We’re down in San Antonio, arriving just in time for lunch.  Richard said we had to go to the Burger Boy, a long time San Antonio institution, and when I asked one of the locals what to order he said I should opt for the Working Man combo — a double burger, crinkle-cut fries, and a tub of diet soda big enough to float a battleship — and to order it with “real” Kraft American cheese.  I’m a working man, so of course I took his advice.  

The double burger was succulent, the “real” American  cheese nudged it into the spectacular category — so much so I was briefly tempted to wolf down another — and the crinkle-cuts were deep-fried to perfection.  Fully sated, I exited the ’50s and headed back into modern America.

Psychedelic Church

Last night after dinner we walked over to the plaza in front of the Cathedral of San Fernando, one of the oldest churches in the United States.  A few times every night they project a light show against the facade of the cathedral that tells, in very broad strokes, the history of San Antonio.

It’s an interesting, memorable show, as new images slide up and down, faces appear and then vanish, and wavy lines move back and forth on the church and its two towers — but it’s disorienting, too.  After a while you wonder if you’re dreaming, or if someone might have slipped a Mickey into your drink.

The Tiled Stairways Of The River Walk


To get down to the San Antonio River Walk, you take stairways and ramps from bridges and overpasses.  Many of the stairways and ramps are of the bland, concrete variety, but some are special — gracefully curved, with wide steps and overhead greenery and delicate tiled facings that reflect a southwestern flair.

It’s amazing how a few colorful squares of tile can turn a generic stairway into an eye-catching addition to an already festive area.  If I had my say, every concrete municipal staircase would have bright tile facings with bold colors and geometric designs.  It’s a way to inject some much-needed art into our everyday surroundings.

Little Church Of La Villita

I’m not a huge proponent of organized religion, but I’m a sucker for churches.

The Little Church at La Villita, in San Antonio, is a gem.  Built in 1879, its clean lines, stone walls, and modestly proportioned stained glass window create a setting of simple beauty.  It’s well suited for quiet contemplation after a stroll on the River Walk — and it’s cool inside, too.

PTSD

We were in a small neighborhood bar in San Antonio on a Saturday afternoon in November, sipping beers and getting ready for the kickoff of the Ohio State-Michigan game.  There were only the three of us in the place with the bartender.  The door to the bar opened and a guy in his 20s walked in.

He looked at us and began talking . . . and talking, and talking.  Was that our car right outside the door?  Where were we from?  Columbus?  Hey, he was from Whitehall!  Watching the Buckeyes?  Well, he was a Buckeye fan, too.  What did we think of Jim Tressel?  Who did we think was the best Ohio State quarterback during the last ten years?  What did we do for a living?  Where did Russell go to school?  How did Russell like being an artist?  Kish left to do some shopping, and still the questions and running commentary kept coming.  What were we going to do while we were in San Antonio?  Did we know that we were there during the San Antonio bad weather period?

the-bonds-of-battle-ptsd-sebastian-junger-vfFor brief instants the guy would watch the game and root for the Buckeyes, but for the most part he was a chatterbox who simply would not stop talking or let us just watch the game in peace.  We answered his direct questions politely because that’s what people are supposed to do, but also because I didn’t want to do anything to provoke him.  My guard was up, because people don’t normally walk into a bar and begin a rapid-fire conversation with complete strangers.  Was the guy on drugs?  Was he getting ready to ask us for money?   What was his angle, really?

Halftime came, and the guy got a call on his cell phone.  When he took the call he walked around, seemingly agitated, and talked loudly to the person at the other end of the conversation.  A minute or two later he ended the call and announced he was leaving, and after we said goodbye he vanished into the rainy San Antonio afternoon without incident.  I admit that I breathed a sigh of relief.

We looked over at the bartender, and I asked if he knew the guy.  He said no, he’d never seen him before.  Then he shook his head sadly and said, “PTSD.”  The bartender explained that the San Antonio area is home to a lot of different military bases, and therefore to a lot of returning veterans who were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.  In fact, there was a Veterans Administration facility across the street, and he suspected the guy had come from there.

The bartender himself was a veteran, he said, and he’d seen the guy’s kind of behavior before.  He said that when he returned from overseas, struggling with what he had seen and done, the VA’s first response was drugs, because “drugs are easy.”  So he took the drugs the doctors gave him, but he later decided that the drugs he was prescribed, and the kinds of mood swings they provoked, were just too much, so he stopped.  The talker’s behavior, the bartender explained, was showing the signs of the drugs he was prescribed for his PTSD.  His behavior wasn’t his fault.

We had no way of knowing for sure, of course, whether the talker in fact had PTSD as a result of his military service, because he hadn’t talked about it — but the bartender’s comments had the obvious ring of truth.  It turns out that the bartender’s view of the VA’s actions isn’t unique; it’s not hard to find news stories that talk about the VA’s approach to prescribing drugs to returning veterans and question its value.

I felt bad for doubting a guy who had served his country, been scarred by the experience, and wasn’t getting the help he really needed to deal with his issues and return to civilian society.  And I wondered just how many returning veterans deal with PTSD and why the government that sent them over to fight hasn’t come up with an effective approach to a common problem.

It’s just not right.

Giving Pizza A Bad Name

1024x1024Richard has a good story in the San Antonio Express-News about a cheap scam that is plaguing San Antonio hotels.  It involves people sneaking into the establishments, slipping fliers for local pizza under the doors of hotel guest rooms, and then when hungry and unsuspecting visitors order a pie, they frequently get inedible crap.  Richard did some digging, found some people who were victimized by the scheme, and even got to try one of the awful pizzas — which look terrible — in the process.

Only a real crook would make a scam out of pizza.  Why, that’s unAmerican!

Just Call Him Tex

Richard’s last day at the Florida Times-Union was Friday.  He’s left Jacksonville and, as we speak, is driving across the southern rim of the United States, skirting the Gulf of Mexico.  After a stop in New Orleans to visit a friend he’ll make his way to San Antonio, Texas, where he will be starting a job with the San Antonio Express-News.

Richard enjoyed his job at the Times-Union and gained some great experience there — but the opportunity presented at the Express-News was just too good to pass up.  The career of a young journalist tends to be an itinerant one, where moves from one paper to another are common.  Already Richard has worked for four dailies, in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and San Antonio.  And his move back to San Antonio is a return trip, because he worked there several years ago as an intern.  Richard’s experience shows the value of internships, because the Express-News staff remembered him from his intern days and sought him out for this new position.

So it’s so long to Jacksonville, and hello again to hot and bustling San Antonio, where Richard will be doing special business reporting and investigative reporting.

The Mission Trail

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The church at the Mission San Jose

San Antonio and its environs are home to four of the early Spanish missions — or at least, what remains of them.  From an historical preservation standpoint, the centuries have not been kind.

Yesterday I had a chance to visit two of the four missions, San Jose and Concepcion.  San Jose is the most complete mission, with its outer wall intact and the small rooms where Indian converts and visitors lived available for a look.  They are spartan, but practical — about what you would expect in a development that was intended to be an outpost of civilization in an untamed land.  Some of the outbuildings and outdoor ovens also may be found there, as well as the ruins of a convent.

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The facade of the cathedral at Mission San Jose

The centerpiece of the missions, of course, was the cathedral, and the church at San Jose Mission is striking — with a beautiful facade that features statuary of the saints and renderings of hearts, shells, and other meaningful symbols.  I wasn’t able to see the interior of the cathedral, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute.  At one time the church was covered with brightly colored tile that must have presented a dazzling sight for weary travelers on the dusty Texas plains, but most of the tiles are gone and the church now stands as a stone monument.

Mission Concepcion, which is found in the middle of a neighborhood, is much less complete.  It consists of a church, a well, some ruins, and a prayer area.  The church itself is simple, and what you would expect to find at a Spanish mission, with whitewashed interior walls.  Some signs of the former frescoes in the church may be seen, but for the most part the church interior has been decorated with modern paintings and furnishings.

The two missions must be popular wedding options.  When I visited yesterday, both were busy hosting nuptial ceremonies — which is why I was unable to see the interior of the church at San Jose.  That was disappointing, but I found myself feeling good about the fact that the churches were still being used as churches.  A lot of work went into building these missions, which served as agents of colonialism but also as a testament to the power of religious faith.  It’s nice to see that, centuries later, that part of the mission is still being served.

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At Mission Concepcion

A Sucker For Old Courthouses

IMG_4126I’m a sucker for old courthouses.  Take me just about everywhere in America and I’ll start scanning the horizon for a tower that might signal the presence of a county courthouse built back in the days when communities thought centers of justice were worth more than a just few tax dollars.

The Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio is a good example.  It a a bold, multi-towered structure made of red sandstone and granite that stands out against the perpetually blue Texas sky.  It was built in the Romanesque Revival style, with one spire that is topped with a beehive-like dome.  The large courtyard in front of the courthouse also features a large fountain with a blind justice statute.

It’s a fantastic building, and I have only one suggestion for San Antonio’s city fathers:  how about more shade in the courtyard?  It would be nice to be able to appreciate the beauty of the building without worrying that your brain was frying like an egg.