The Big Read Blog (Archive)

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.”

February 15, 2007
El Paso, Texas

Prohibition served to awaken the city to its possibilities as a tourist resort. Thousands flocked in to troop across the river to Juarez, and El Paso throve accordingly. Today thousands of out-of-State visitors come here. El Paso gives its visiting dignitaries a frontier welcome. Yelling cowboys with barking six-shooters meet the train, and conduct the usually somewhat surprised visitor to an old time stagecoach. The Rancheros and members of the Sheriff's Posse, two greeter organizations, ride in noisy escort to the stranger's destination.
-- The WPA's Texas: A Guide to the Lone Star State, 1940

This is the passage I read Tuesday in El Paso at the Doris Van Doren's branch library's Jazz and Blues Night -- to the modest amusement of the library's Jack Galindo, who had met me at the airport eight hours before with a disappointing lack of either gunplay or horseflesh. From the shadow of the airport's 36-foot-tall statue of The Equestrian, whom locals are still deciding whether to name after a conquistador or melt down altogether, Jack spirited me to a rendezvous with the C-SPAN Book TV bus at the Cactus Bookstore and Café, where the borderland city's Big Read of To Kill a Mockingbird was already in fine voice.

One of the pleasures of bucketing around the country this year, looking in on at least 50 of the NEA's Big Reads, turns out to be the discovery of all these quixotic little independent bookstores, many of them founded just in the last couple of years. Reading numbers may be in the tank lately, per the NEA's Reading at Risk report, but apparently nobody's told the Cactus's Ginny Fischer and her agreeably raffish staff.
After singing for my supper on C-SPAN (check your local listings -- or, this being Book TV, just tune in and hang around), Jack and I hopscotched our way to the aforementioned Doris Van Doren library, where I introduced Marcos Casiano and his suave band Kactus Jazz. There among the families gathered for the concert in the main reading room, from the moment I heard the bassist noodling around with John Williams's main title from Jurassic Park, I knew I'd found kindred spirits. I made my now obligatory WPA citation, invoked the famous line from the book about how "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make "music for us to enjoy," and relinquished the mike to the professionals.

***

Wednesday dawned with deceptive calm outside my hotel window, the bridge from Juarez over the Rio Grande into El Paso already jammed motionless, the adjacent El Paso-to-Juarez bridge all but empty. What followed was a happy blur of hammering out the last two essays in the NEA Lit department's forthcoming Big Read Reader's Guide to The Maltese Falcon, spreading the word about the Big Read on KDBC's (the local CBS affiliate) sleet-led but unflappable midday newscast, and participating in El Paso-born film scholar Cynthia Farah Haines's provocative discussion and screening of Horton Foote's 1962 movie version of Mockingbird. I finally fetched up at the not surprisingly beautiful home of gallery owner Adair Margo (Chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities) and her husband, Dee, whose gracious hospitality and addictive enchiladas I enjoyed with their guests until hoarseness, exhaustion and satiety did me in at last. Where's another Cokuccino when you need one?