The Lost Houston of Sig Byrd

Forty years ago, one writer captured our city better than any before or since. Now he's forgotten. And the Houston he saw? All but gone.

"This is how that happened," Stephen says. "He was bringing her a beer -- they always drank beer together -- and the staff said he couldn't bring it in. 'Well goddamn it,' he said. 'I'm taking her home.'"

The breakout was short-lived, of course. The state put Ruth back into the nursing home, and Byrd was then allowed only short, supervised visits with his wife of nearly 50 years.

The loss of his wife devastated Byrd. The bulk of his final manuscript alternates between descriptions of his ongoing love for her -- "And I must tell you that," he wrote with some of the tenderness and insistence of a young Andrew Marvell, "although my Ruthie is 74, her hair is still mostly light-brown" -- and the perfidy of the state. "Only since she has become a hostage of the Texas terrorists has the gray begun to show."

He searched desperately for help and revenge. Now Father Moss chuckles wryly when he recalls Byrd's explosive manner; the cantankerous man in his late 70s "spent most of his time yelling at me. His [telephone] style was to shout and then hang up." On his visits to Father Moss' parish office, Byrd "was like a hail storm coming in. The staff would say, 'Uh, oh. Here comes Mr. Byrd.' "

But Father Moss says, "I liked Sig Byrd," and, though he agrees that Ruth Byrd was probably better off in the nursing home, where she could receive professional care and where she could get some rest from Byrd's intense emotional demands, he says, "I loved the man, because I could see how deeply he loved his family, and especially his wife."

Sig Byrd obviously knew about devotion. All you have to do is flip the pages of Sig Byrd's Houston to find it. One citizen of Byrd's Houston was Jake Berman, who owned "a little one-man dry-goods store ... on one of the drearier reaches of Congress Avenue." Over the years Byrd spent prowling downtown, he never saw Mr. Berman do any business, so he began to seek out his story. He finally hit pay dirt with the barber, H.D. Lawrence (no relation to the writer, wrote Byrd). It happened that Berman had been living and working happily in his store, "one of the best places on the avenue to save money on clothes...," when a roving son called home after several years' absence. Mrs. Berman answered the phone, and the shock of her son's voice gave her a fatal heart attack.

"Just before she died, she made Jake promise he'd never close the store," Byrd reported that the barber told him. "Her death almost killed Jake. For two solid weeks he came to work every day in his sock feet, no shoes. And the only time he ever closes the store on a business day is on the anniversary of Sarah's death .... No, sir. Jake never buys or sells. He just keeps his promise to the woman he loves."

Byrd approached the lonely storekeeper, repeated the barber's story, asked if it were true and if he might tell it in his column.

"You a married man?" Mr. Berman wanted to know. "There is a woman you love?"
"I said there was, that I understood how he loved Sarah."
"Then write your story! Go ahead!
I don't care!"

Byrd's own act of love, or his own way of finding a continued purpose in life, was to continue his war against the state. He lost custody of his wife, and a nursing home staffer was appointed her legal guardian. As Stephen recalls, Byrd didn't do his cause any good when he began calling the presiding judge at home to harangue him. He continued to work on his final manuscript, which he titled Everything Will Turn Out All Right, and in the spring of 1987 he approached an Austin publisher, Ed Eakin, about publishing it and a revised edition of Sig Byrd's Houston.

Eakin declined both books. He recognized the paranoid bitterness of the final manuscript, in which Byrd described the entire city of Austin as being in league against him. And while he loved Sig Byrd's Houston, he didn't think he could sell it. Byrd then turned to his old competitor, Leon Hale, and asked for his help in getting his Houston book back into print. Hale approached his own publisher, but couldn't convince him. In a 1987 column he wrote following Byrd's death, Hale said, "A century from now it will sell, as Houston folk history, but not now."

With no broader public to reach, Byrd wrote his sister Mary two and three times a week. "I became his final audience," she says now. Asked to show the letters, she declines. "They are too painful," she says.

Byrd also enclosed the occasional poem. One, a lively attack on modern poetry, ends thus, "Read me sonnets by the Bard / But screw the so-called avant-garde." Another, "Of the Poet's Mother," recalled his mother's Saturday baking rituals, in which she "would make dainty fists and attack / White mounds of floured dough / Like Dempsey pounding Firpo's midriff."

But in spite of the poems, Byrd was in deep decline. After Father Moss had not heard from the old man in some time, he had "the feeling that something had happened," and made his first trip out to Byrd's north Austin home.

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