Society's orphans and Austin's otherwise homeless called it home, but to many it was an unwelcome reminder of a side of life they'd rather ignore. The Alamo Hotel on the corner of 6th and Guadalupe was razed in 1984, but it stands in memory as a tribute to individuality and eccentricity—Austin past and nevermore. Take a walk on the wild side.
If mainstream Austin knew about the Alamo, it was via the Alamo Lounge, known for its poetry readings and acoustic music by the likes of Townes van Zandt, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. I went to hear Catfish sing “I ain't got no sweet potato” and the fishing song— “Mama's goin' fishin‘, Daddy's goin' fishin‘, Baby's goin‘ fishin‘, too.” A street musician on the Drag when he didn't have a real gig, Catfish sang with heart and a long lock of his lady love's coal black hair hanging from the neck of his guitar.
That was the Alamo Lounge—the public Alamo. The hotel had its own stars, including Sam Houston Johnson, Lyndon's black-sheep brother. The Johnson family leased a suite on the fifth floor for him, a lease that outlasted both him and the hotel. Then there were Annie and Melissa, octogenarian sisters who saw the hotel being built, held the record for length of residency and tenacity of habit. By 11:00 every morning, they could be found sitting side by side in the lobby, waiting for Zeke's Cafe to open for lunch. Zip, the ageless black elevator operator probably took home more secrets about the people of the Alamo than he cared to. He saw all, told nothing.
The shady side of the hotel was taken for granted: drug deals, prostitutes, suicides. No one registered surprise when a story about the dark side of the Alamo showed up in the paper or on the six o‘clock news. Some people lived there because they were down on their luck, others because their luck had just run out.
My passport to the interior of the Alamo was a friend who took me to see a “magical art gallery” on the fifth floor. When we arrived, the open door revealed the full aural and visual cacophony of the Kaffaga clan. Al Kaffaga, Lebanese expatriate of the Bronx, was a painter of objects and dreams. His wife Waverly, daughter of Zachary Scott and stepdaughter of John Steinbeck, was his muse. At that moment they were both parents dealing with their three sons.
“Mommy, we need some quarters for the video games.”
“Sorry. You guys aren't allowed in the lobby alone anymore. You blew it when you painted the stairway with the fire extinguishers,” Waverly answered.
“Aww, there's nothing to do. Someone could go with us.”
“No, we're working now, baby. There's nobody to go with you.”
”That's enough! Go!” Al took the reins. “C’mon you guys. Out! Go across to your room and find something to do.”
That settled it. While all this was going on, I marveled at my surroundings. I could not find one square millimeter of unoccupied space, and nothing remained undecorated. A bed pushed back against the windows dominated the room, pressing against the hems of green and coral striped hotel curtains pinched together with painted clothespins. Waverly cleared off a splatter-painted wooden chair for me. The only other chair in the room held books open and closed, a center for research in progress. Books, dishes, overflowing ashtrays, magic markers, and more books obscured most of the floor space and the shelves on the opposite wall. Almost everything was painted or splashed with paint. The lamps were painted, as well as the lampshades, which were also draped with scarves. Great plaster elephants served as tables, and these, too, wore coats of paint in many colors. My friend had not exaggerated—it was truly magical.
I accepted their invitation to return and within a couple of weeks became an enthusiastic participant in the work Al and Waverly had undertaken, even though to this day I do not understand exactly what that work was. The object was the journey, not the destination. Getting there was all the fun. We spent hours comparing creation stories from around the world—Christian, Islamic, Hindu, American Indian—trying to find cosmic truths concealed in their similarities. Waverly and I read aloud significant passages as we found them. Al painted and hummed or softly sang tunes from the 30s and 40s. Sometimes he offered an object he was painting for inspection. “Take a look at this,” he would say confidentially, almost in a whisper. “Waddaya think?” Waverly would utter a noncommittal “Hmmm.” I could usually find something that looked like something else.
As weeks and months went by, my life outside the Alamo dimmed as I became more and more convinced that all the painting harbored secret messages that were being channeled through Al, and it was our task to interpret them. We studied glyphs and hieroglyphs and compared alphabets—especially Phoenician, Greek, and Arabic. We read for hidden meaning and symbolism in the words of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Marcus Aurelius, Saint Germain. The Reflexive Universe and the dictionary became companion texts.
In addition to being caught up in their work, I was drawn like a moth to flame by Waverly's friendship and the opposition to my own personality of her outrageousness, the casualness with which she described the revered Steinbeck as “a toad,” her ready dismissal of people who had been her friends and confidantes. I admired her self assurance and the way she never seemed to question her convictions. At the same time I felt a faint foreshadowing of the day when I, too, could fall from grace and join the ranks of the dismissed. It didn't matter. I had plunged myself into the vortex of the Kaffaga spell.
Two of Waverly's favorite quotes—“he that hath eyes to see, he that hath ears to hear” and “possessed of minds and of minds possessed”—often sounded more like warnings than philosophical musings. Could be she was trying to tell me I was taking their games too seriously. Clearly, I was not possessed of mind during my time with them. I reveled in the ongoing word play that in just a few steps could transform the word “alchemy” to “alka-phage,” Al Kaffaga, King of the Al-amo. Conversation frequently sounded like a ping-pong match in code.
The Kaffagas did go to Vegas, and I chose not to go with them. My fascination with chaos and minds possessed had peaked, and it was time to cut loose and take up where I'd left off. When Zip clanged the elevator's iron gate shut for my last ride down from the fifth floor, I knew I had experienced something unique, but it was time to move on. I said goodbye to the Kaffagas, to Zip, and to the Alamo.
The last I heard from Waverly was a letter she wrote a couple of years after we said goodbye. She invited me back, saying that if they didn't hear from me they would assume I was no longer interested in what they were doing. Still speaking in riddles, she wrote,“When I tried to call you, the operator told me there was no electricity in your town.” Smiling to myself, I weighed the prosaic life I had settled into with my family against the tumultuous search for ancient wisdom, and I chose home. Nevertheless, nearly 20 years later and back in Austin, I look at the return address on the envelope and wonder.
Last thing I remember
An Extended StayAmerica now stands on the site of the former Alamo Hotel. It doesn't appear to house any homeless or eccentrics, nor does it invite music, muses, or magic.
© 2002 Nancy Grona Meredith