Farewell, O. Henry's
I stayed at the Hilton downtown, on 4th and Neches. This hotel is new – well let’s put it this way, it wasn’t there when I went to college in Austin 20 years ago. But from the moment I walked into the lobby, I had a weird feeling that I couldn’t shake. Like I’d been there before. Something familiar about the place, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Until I looked out the window of the second story conference room and saw this. It’s O. Henry’s house, the turn-of-the-century ironic writer who briefly lived in Austin in this tiny house until he stole from the bank he worked at and was uncharitably run out of town. The sight of it literally stopped me in my tracks, because the one thing I remember about O. Henry’s house is that it was directly across the street from O. Henry’s Back Forty Bar, the honkey tonk I practically lived at during my later college days. We spent so much time there that the bar’s owner, Louis, set up tabs for us so we could pay her once at the end of the month. We went there so much that Louis was invited to my wedding. We went there so much that Louis would often find us sitting on the front step, waiting for her to open it up at 3. We spent so much time there that it's the only bar my wife Lulu has been kicked out of, twice. (Lulu and Louis didn't get along very well as I remember it).
It was a run down bar in a rock house that probably should’ve been condemned years ago. Half the house was a bar-be-que restaurant and half was O. Henry’s Back Forty. Sometimes, when the wind came from a certain direction, smoke from the restaurant's fire pit would fill O. Henry's and our clothes smelled of pork sausage for days (but it had the benefit of clearing the fleas out of O. Henry's carpets and drapes). I always loved how the bar stole for its name two diametrically opposite themes: A literary satirical writer and an expression from a cowboy show on TV. The irony wouldn’t be lost on O. Henry himself. In fact the “O. Henry’s” part of the sign fell down at some point so newbies only knew it as – simply -- the Back Forty. Only veterans like myself knew that it was really called “O. Henry’s Back Forty”, or sometimes we called it Oh B-F. I think it was originally called O. Henry’s and then Louis added “Back Forty” to give it more street cred with college kids, most of whom went to public school and so had no idea who O. Henry was.
Anyway, as soon as I saw O. Henry’s house I took the elevator down and walked across the street to make sure. Sure enough, here is the plaque outside the house. Then I looked back at the Hilton, an imposing structure, on the very spot where O. Henry's Back Forty should be. What the hell?
So I rang my old friend Jeff Smith, who also frequented Oh B-F so much that he sometimes was confused with the furniture.
Me: “Jeff, it’s Harry. What the F—happened to O. Henry’s?
Jeff: “You mean the Back Forty?”
Me: (sighing impatiently)
Jeff: “Didn’t you know? Louis sold the real estate to Hilton for three million dollars. She bought a Dodge sports car which she called 'Baby Car' and then died."
Isn’t that always what happens? Poor Louis, wanted to be “Big Rich” (as she put it) for all her life and finally achieves that dream on the back of Conrad Hilton and then doesn’t live long enough to properly enjoy "Baby Car".
Incidentally, I knew that Jeff would know the story. He always kept up with the “bar characters” we befriended while in college, like the bartender/bookie/pimp Richard, No-Neck, the drunken state Senator who had to be carried home most nights, the barmaid Bev whom we all scandalously made out with at various times, (without regret, I insist). When I left Austin, I left the characters behind and didn't look back. Not Jeff. Jeff is a loyal friend to the end, even to bar characters. I think he even sent Bev a TV as a congratulatory gift when her son was released from prison.
So now O. Henry’s Back Forty is a fancy glass and steel convention hotel. They call that progress. I call it bull-honkey. At least Louis' other bar is still around, the Cloak Room. Now that's a bar.