Galveston, Sweet Galvatraz

One view of the beach at Galveston

At any seashore, the smell of salty air, rhapsodied by poets, is simply exaggerated.  Saltwater taffy and coppertone are fleeting smells, attached to memory, more than persistent aromas.   This afternoon, at Galveston Beach, the smell of fish is certain, recalling a wharf more than a beach.  I hope they are freshly caught, not washing ashore belly-up with oil in their gills.

As a disadvanged youth (in this case, geographically disadvantaged, having grown up 1,200 miles from an ocean), I loved the beach at Galveston.  When I first moved to Houston, I retained the same romantic view of the sea, happy to be living so close.  That has been many years ago, and I have become one of those people, privileged to live near the ocean, but seldom visiting.  Twenty years ago I played in these sands.  Today we now mock this place as dirty and smelly, in a city we (not affectionately) call Galvatraz, as if it is an island prison.

Alternate view of Galveston Beach...taken from the same vantage point

Walking in the sand once again, I purposefully gaze toward the Gulf of Mexico.  Beyond the beach and a dozen swimmers, I count four tankers or shipping vessels on the far horizon, as if painted on the stage backdrop for Offshore Drilling: The Musical.  The recent BP Horizon oil spill gives them an ominous feeling, a reminder of past disaster and the threat of a future one.I search for the adequate descriptors for the gulf water, my mind rifling through the clichés, none of which seem apropos.  Cerulean blue? No.  Crystal clear? No. Sparkling sea?  No.  Here the water is a translucent camoflauge green, like a Missouri lake.  I wade into the water.  Through water chest high, I can see my knees, certainly not my feet.  But I do not feel dirty.  I have heard many explanations for Galveston’s greenish-brown water color, primarily that silt from the Mississippi River washes this direction.  Because the coastline is shallow, more sand also washes into the mixture.  I console myself with the fact that this is the same Gulf of Mexico which shares its composition with Florida’s Emerald Coast and Mexico’s Mayan Riviera.

Quoted in USA Today, Paula Brown, spokeswoman for Galveston’s convention and visitors bureau, cheerleader for city tourism delivers a reality check, “A lot of places do have white sand and clean water.  Galveston doesn’t…it’s no surprise that the water is not clean or very pretty, so let’s focus on other things Galveston has.”  It seems to me that I used to see more people on the beaches here, but that could be the same revisionist history as the old people who say they can remember when the water here was blue.  The beach was a sparklier place when we were younger.  Between the misplaced memories of youth and the sparkling island calendars with perfect photographs taken with filtered cameras, this beach cannot help but disappoint.

From my vantage point 50 yards into the sea, I gaze toward shore.  Where the sand is wet, it takes the color of a parking lot after the rain.  Where it is dry, it takes not the hue of powdery quartz, but the hue of the Midwestern sandboxes of my youth.  The swaying palms of our beach dreams have been replaced by an unromantic concrete seawall, topped with yellow port-a-potties and a row of parallel-parked cars. Lined up above us, on a different plane, they appear to be on the upper deck of a parking garage.  The seawall is a blessing, saving the heart of the island recently, when nearby settlements were flattened by storm surge and washed out to sea.  But romantic it is not.

Galveston’s Seawall is not without some charms though in its mixture of grittiness and grandness, the 1911 Spanish-revival Hotel Galvez towers over a crumbling motel.  One of my favorite stops is Benno’s Cajun Seafood restaurant, on the Seawall, across the street from this beach.  The menu is a pimply teenage cook’s nightmare:  fried, fried, and fried.  But yummy, yummy, yummy.  Fried crabs, fried oysters, fried fish, fried hush puppies, French fries, cole slaw.  I’m not sure anything is good for you here.

The red-and-white checked tablecloths look stolen from Luigi’s Ristorante, but the rolls of paper towels on the tables announce the true nature of the food.  A single napkin would be futile here.  The deck, shaped like a ship’s bow, overlooks the traffic, the seagulls, and the shore beyond.  Too hot in summer, but a comfort in the off-season, when the beach reminds us of the times we spent as kids.  Here I sit, seagulls circling for a lost fry, looking out at the ocean.  There are more charms to the city than this, but this one is enough.  If I squint hard enough, framing a palm tree in the picture, I can see my younger self digging in the sand, running in the water, happy to be in an ocean of water instead of an ocean of cornfields, and I remember when this island prison was a paradise.

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