It was a Saturday night Texas trilogy of sorts on G Street NW, at the Washington Project for the Arts. The bull was mean, the chili was warm, and the band was red hot.
Part one: The Bull. Two non-Texans at the Texas-tinged fund-raiser for the WPA seen staring fixedly at the mechanical bull, the one that was dragged up all the way from Gilley's nightclub near Houston just to make the locals bit the dust. The G Street cowboys look at each other. They look back to the bull. They notice the sign, which reads: "Suicide Sam, the Pelvis Pulverizer."
"You going to ride that bull?" says one.
"I don't know. Are you?" says the other.
"Well, I would if my arm wasn't broken."
"That arm isn't broken and you're a damn liar."
Up walks Al Nodal, director of the WPA and the man responsible for the benefit, and the new exhibit of Texas photographers that is hanging all over the walls. "I'm Cuban," says Nodal, dressed in satiny white Western shirt, cowboy boots and stetson hat. "But the clothes are Texan." The place is full, at least 500 guests. It's hard to tell the Texans from the non-Texans, but in general, the non-Texans go in for the flashier duds. Some of the Texans have that I-just-got-back-from-Neiman-Marcus look. Others look like they've been grappling with a stubborn fence post all afternoon.
"I just thought this would be a good way to let people know about the exhibit, and raise money for the big move," says Nodal. The big move comes in June, when the WPA will be forced to vacate its huge alternative gallery space on G Street for points yet unknown, a victim, according to Nodal, of a downtown revitalization that is sending rents into the stratosphere.
Nodal approaches the big bull cautiously. His friends (he thinks) cheer him on. "Put it at number six," says Nodal. "Number six is pretty fast," says the guy running the bull. "Put it at number six," says Nodal again.
"If he hadn't tried to hold his hat on, he might have made it," says someone standing near the campfire as Nodal bites the dust.
"That hurt," says Nodal.
"Yeah Al!" cheer his friends, many of whom are laughing and crying and holding their sides.
Part two: The Chili. "Don't worry," says a girl in a big red hat. "If that bull upstairs doesn't get you, this chili will. And that's no Texas tall tale, either."
"Wrong," says Washington writer and transplanted Texan Larry L. King, who is standing downstairs having a taste. "I've tasted hotter."
"Wrong," says Texas money man H. K. Allen, first vice president of the Export-Import Bank. "This isn't as hot as it gets."
"You think I'm going to come up to Washington and make this chili as hot as we eat it in Texas?" yelps Ed Paetzel, a.k.a. Mr. Chill Lee, a trophy-winning chili cook. "I'd have to be crazy!"
This chili, 200 pounds of it, is being rapidly consumed by the guests, some of whom have just come in, don't know the labyrinthine layout of the place and don't yet realize that there are rooms and rooms of party up every staircase.
Hey, this chili doesn't have any beans, exclaims a boorish fellow. And no onions! "No self-respecting Texas chili has beans," says King calmly. He comes from Odessa, Tex. "Odessa," he says, "like the place in Russia. This is my wife, Barbara." She says that she grew up in Corpus Christi, Tex. "That's 'Body of Christ,' Texas," explains King.
Part three: The Dance Hall. The lights are low, the Pearl beer is being guzzled and the cowgirls from every state of the union are kicking up their heels. Texas sculptor and musician Terry Allen and his Panhandle Mystery Band, from Lubbock, Tex., are playing, among other things, a little ditty that begins "feelin' easy, feelin' sleazy, I got a pierced ear and a bottle of rot-gut booze."
"I don't remember all the words," says fiddler Richard Bowdon, "but you get the idea."
Dozens of people have taken to the dance floor, moving in a circle and shouting 'bull----' every so often, at the top of their lungs. "What they're doing is called the "Cotton-Eyed Joe," says Texas artist James Surls, who has what appear to be, in the darkness behind the state, two small stone heart-shaped earrings dangling from his lobes. "But they're not really doing it right," he says, watching, taking a swig of his beer. "They're not really supposed to be bumping into each other all that often."
"Yeah," says John Alexander, a painter from Texas who now lives in New York, "this isn't a bad party by Texas standards, I guess. But what it really needs, to make it absolutely authentic," he says thoughtfully, surveying the dancers, who are in the middle of a hearty obscenity, "is a good fight."