This January morning, the Gulf of Mexico is dark blue beneath a blanket of fog peeling off to sea. The day begins with a rose sky and balmy air, a reprieve from last week’s wet and windy cold front and the one the weatherman predicts will arrive again by end of week. This morning the people of Galveston celebrate the weather by heading to the seawall.
After the 1900 hurricane, the great storm that knocked this once great Texas port city right off the map, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers swooped in and performed a miraculous restoration effort that included raising the elevation of the island’s east end with shipped-in landfill and building a 17-mile long concrete wall to protect Galveston from tidal waves and surging seas. Along the seawall, a sidewalk runs its entire length, a long, horizontal commons that, on a beautiful winter’s day, welcomes pedestrians of all stripes. If you are walking westward the sea is to your left, just past a severe drop-off, a pile of rocks and a strip of sand. To your right, four-lane Seawall Boulevard is the island’s primary thoroughfare, lined with hotels and tourist traps, skeezy motels and chain seafood joints, surf shops and ice cream stands. If you walk eastward, toward the sun, don’t forget your hat because you will surely be blinded by the harsh reflection of new light off the water. This morning the ocean looks like a placid lake.
This early, the only other pedestrians are runners or walkers — high school athletes in T-shirts with logos: Hornets, Tornados, Pirates, Abercrombie and Fitch; marathoners with leathery skin; senior citizens in white sneakers and windbreakers. No one alters their pace when passing, but a quick head nod is an expected courtesy. Even better, a mumbled “How you doin’?” with no expectation of an answer.
Scattered vehicles, some occupied and some not, are parallel parked along Seawall Boulevard, adjacent to the sidewalk. A rusted-out, formerly souped-up Torino pulsates with radio sounds behind rolled-up windows. In a tidy, recent model Toyota, a man in a shirt and tie naps, his head flung back against the headrest, windshield visors down. In the middle distance, the sun has risen high enough to outline the swirling shapes of the Pleasure Pier that juts out above the sea beyond 25th street — shining steel profiles of a roller coaster, a ferris wheel, curlicued monuments against the soft morning sky .
Closer to town, piers made of massive blocks of granite in jagged piles, as if dropped from a giant crane and left to settle, extend from the seawall out toward the southern horizon. Early morning fishermen and women carefully pick their way to the 53rd street pier’s end, gear hung over their shoulders. Those who have arrived before them are already settled, squatting on folding stools and covered buckets, their poles and nets propped upright in the deep crevices between the granite blocks. They cast at a leisurely pace, looking for pools of fish, stopping altogether to gaze at the sunrise and at the faraway ships waiting their turn to enter the harbor.
Bikers peddle down the sidewalk, sweeping past walkers like a quiet breeze, most of them on fat-wheeled cruisers. A very old man with silver dreadlocks peddles his three-wheeler so slowly that he rarely passes a walker, except one coming toward him. He pulls a small square trailer rigged with an ice chest and a shimmying fishing pole aimed skyward.
Here on the seawall, working people pass time before their shifts begin. A waitress from the International House of Pancakes across the street relaxes on a bench. She is dressed in black pants and thick-soled shoes, her order pad clipped to her belt. She watches a squawking bevy of seagulls fight over a cast off container of French fries. A man in shorts and flip-flops maneuvers a custom-built cart pulled behind his bicycle, a portable car wash and wax business, miniature and self-contained. Guys in trucks, construction crews, eat fast food breakfasts, steel-toed boots dangling off the flatbeds of their pickups.
It is full morning now and winter tourists begin to spill out of the hotels. Honeymooners and golden anniversary couples alike stroll hand in hand along the seawall. Beach bums stretch and rub the sleep from their eyes. One lone cloud, shaped like a trumpet, smears the cornflower sky. Traffic sounds swell over the rush and hum of the sea. And overhead, a V-formation of brown pelicans sails fast and silent out to sea with barely a flick of a wing.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.