“Hometown Noir” by Catherine Cuellar
To celebrate the release of Dallas Noir, we’ve invited some of the volume’s contributors to share their personal experiences with Dallas and with crafting stories for the Noir Series. Today, Dallas native Catherine Cuellar talks about her own experiences with the darker side of Dallas.
After Scott returned home to Dallas from World War II, he and Nancy were set up on a double blind date with a guy who got drunk, picked a fight, and was tossed in jail. Scott knew of a dice game at a speakeasy upstairs from the Highland Park Pharmacy, so after Nancy and the brawler’s date were safely escorted home, Scott went there to get cash and bail out his buddy.
Nancy married Scott in 1946, and nine months to the day after their wedding, my mother Susan was born. I was their first grandchild.
My paternal grandfather, Frank, was a migrant cotton-picking farmhand who left field work at the ranch where he grew up to become a successful Dallas restaurateur. Frank partnered with another family’s patriarch, Oscar, to open restaurants in the Oak Cliff neighborhood frequently mentioned in Dallas Noir, La Calle Doce and El Ranchito. Oscar was imprisoned on drug charges; ultimately, he was deported. Frank then partnered with Oscar’s wife, Laura. Soon it became clear either Oscar had been skimming off the top or Laura had the brains in the family, because both restaurants became far more profitable under her management. She even negotiated herself a majority ownership stake in both their restaurants.
My grandfather Frank died in 1995, and Laura’s son Oscar Jr. bought my family out of those Oak Cliff restaurants. Unlike Oscar Jr., when I was in my 20s, I had no desire to join my parents in their restaurant business except as their faithful customer.
Oscar Jr. married his college sweetheart, Theresa; I was a reporter moonlighting as a house sitter (drawing inspiration for my Dallas Noir “Dog Sitter” heroine Xóchitl). Oscar and Theresa lived a few blocks away from me. In 2005, a producer in my newsroom said his wife had been tipped an Oak Cliff restaurateur’s child was abducted for ransom. She called to confirm I was OK. But Oscar Jr. wasn’t.
Oscar’s mother Laura was on the phone with her son when he was rear-ended by Richie, a server from El Ranchito. Oscar told her he’d been hit, then said hi to Richie before hanging up. Shortly thereafter, Oscar’s kidnappers contacted Laura for ransom. Laura told police and obliged a demand for cash, which was never picked up. Then Oscar’s corpse was found. He was 30; his daughter was less than a year old.
Turns out the kidnapping idea was hatched by Richie, who wanted money to party and knew restaurants had it on hand. Richie seduced José, a schoolteacher I met once at a baptism in 2004, to aid in the botched plan. José was arrested trying to flee the US, then convicted. Richie found refuge in Mexico until Governor Goodhair [aka Rick Perry] passed life without parole into law (which was previously off the table when Texas led the world in executions). Richie was extradited to Texas. When Richie’s guilty verdict was announced, Oscar’s widow, Theresa, who had attended every day of trial, fainted in the courtroom. She told me she felt overwhelmed with relief, as well as grief when she realized justice could not bring Oscar back.
When editor and literary agent David Hale Smith invited me to contribute to Dallas Noir, I recalled these and other local memories as noir as any my fellow authors imagined. But I feared exploiting painful realities of my community and our city. So I was conflicted to realize this volume and the publication’s timing coincided with myriad tributes commemorating the 50th anniversary of a president’s murder in my hometown—more than any I recall during my four decades here. Less than five percent of people in Dallas today lived here half a century ago. Although my home and office are within two miles of Dealey Plaza, I rarely consider November 22—just as Lincoln’s death doesn’t deter me from visiting DC (and I work with a former general manager of Ford’s Theatre).
The other places I’ve lived—Memphis and Los Angeles—also saw tragic assassinations of dynamic 1960s leaders. Art—books, plays, photographs, and film—shaped my understanding of these cities and times, augmented by my life in their aftermath. Responding to the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, my colleagues in the Dallas Arts District—including the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Nasher Sculpture Center, and the Dallas Museum of Art—have collaborated to commission work, curate exhibits, and host events mourning, inspiring, and honoring in new ways. Dallas Noir complements these, adding accents, color, and shadows.
CATHERINE CUELLAR is a third-generation Dallas native with a degree in creative writing from Rhodes College. She cohosted North Texas’ literary author interview series The Writers’ Studio on public radio and has appeared in Dallas’ storytelling series “Oral Fixation: An Obsession with True Life Tales.” Currently she serves as executive director of the Dallas Arts District.
Posted: Nov 8, 2013
Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: Noir Series, Dallas Noir, Dallas, Catherine Cuellar, David Hale Smith, Dallas Arts District, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas Museum of Art, Oak Cliff, WWII, Highland Park
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