A Trip to Janis Joplin's Home Town

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Read about my trip to Port Arthur, Texas where Janis Joplin was born.

Submitted: May 03, 2020

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Submitted: May 03, 2020

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When I was six years old, my father, who had rather arcane ideas about little girls, gave me a tiny pink diary for my birthday. Each page had a quote from a famous person that was supposed to be positive, inspirational, and encouraging of hard work. I paged through the book without much interest until I came to a quote that resonated with me. 

 

“Don’t compromise yourself.  You’re all you’ve got,” Janis Joplin.

 

I wondered who this wise woman was, and when I asked my parents about it, they said she was a hippy who died because of drugs. They didn’t have Google in those days, and my World Book Encyclopedia only said that she was a blues singer who died at 27.

 

As a bullied teen I discovered the music of Pearl and was comforted by her raw and soulful voice. Her lyrics told tales of love I had yet to experience, and the feeling of isolation that I endured on a daily basis. After doing a bit of research in the school library, I discovered that she too had been a teenaged reject. 

 

I discovered that the other kids made fun of her looks and threw dimes at her, saying she needed the money. She’d been thought of as the school slut for hanging around with boys and she had been voted the ugliest man on campus when she was in college. Sadly, I could relate.

 

Always a progressive, Janis vocally supported integration as a teenager. This was remarkable, as she grew up in small-town Texas in the 40s and 50s. She grew up to be one of the most unique voices in rock and blues history.

 

After I read those articles a lifelong obsession began that would later result in a sojourn to the town where Janis grew up.

 

Port Arthur, Texas 

sabine

I began my Joplin Journey in a malodorous and overcrowded Greyhound Bus station in Houston. Although the bus was scheduled to leave at 4:00 am, the driver did not show up until 8:00 am. I had spent the night drinking with other tourists at the Moonshine’s bar and I was cranky and woozy when the bus finally left. An organ-based requirement brewed within me as we made the two-hour drive to Port Arthur.

 

By the time we were on the outskirts of town, I felt as though I might explode. To do what I needed to would violate the rules of Greyhound etiquette and civilization in general. I promised myself there would be a bathroom at the station.

 

The first thing you see when you arrive in Port Arthur is the ravaged remains of the downtown area. A brick building with swastika patterns on it caught my eye as we drove to the station. There were actually several buildings with the same pattern along the way. My stomach spasmed, it just got real, I was a Jewish woman traveling alone in rural Texas. 

 

We arrived at the station to find that it was locked. It was six hours before I could check into my hotel. A woman told me that I could do what I had to do behind the station and when I got back there, I discovered that many people had been in the same situation. Shaky and exhausted I headed to my first tourist attraction.

 

Museum of the Gulf Coast

700 Procter St, Port Arthur, TX 77640

Monday through Saturday 9:00 am to 5:00 pm

 

I walked through the doors of the museum the minute they opened and headed right for the Janis exhibit which occupies a large space on the second floor. A replica of Pearl’s Porsche is at the center of the room. There is a jukebox with all of her tunes in a corner and a display of poems, essays, and articles she wrote for the school paper. 

 

The gift shop is packed with Joplin merch and the gentleman who rang up my purchases told me that fans come from all over the world to visit Port Arthur. He seemed very confused by this fact. 

 

“Well, I’m sure Liverpool gets a lot of tourists,” I said.

 

He shook his head and handed me my bag.

 

My cell phone would not work and a woman who worked at the museum let me use the phone to call a cab. She told me that she went to high school with Janis, but did not know her. She was tall and thin and had a face that suggested former beauty. I guessed she was one of Janis’ tormentors.  She said that Port Arthur had been nice until it was taken over by the “wrong element.”

 

Janis’ Childhood Home

4330 32nd St Port Arthur, Texas

janis

 

The cab came by and I asked the driver to go to the house where Janis had lived when she was a teenager. Her first childhood home had burned down. He stared straight ahead and looked angry as we drove. 

 

We arrived at her house to find the front lawn was mostly mud. It is a modest white ranch style home with a colorful horse sculpture in the front. The front porch is decorated with hanging plants and bird cages. There is also a plaque dedicated to Ms. Joplin with a biography on it. It is a tradition for fans to leave their love beads hanging around the plaque. I left the beads I bought at the gift shop there and got back in the cab.

 

“Thanks,” I said with a grin.”

He nodded and headed for the hotel.

 

As we drove the cab driver continued to glare straight ahead with an angry look and told me he hated Port Arthur.  He didn’t understand why I came to visit. He said people there needed to stop killing one another. He told me there was a lot of crime and that he had been in the state pen five times. I wondered if he was going to kill me.

 

After a nap at my hotel, I met Jim, a local who was working as a handyman there. He offered to drive me around to see Pleasure Island where Janis and her friends hung out as well as her high school, and a store where she used to shop. We smoked a joint as we drove through the grey streets of town.

 

Port Arthur was an affluent oil town when Janis was growing up. From the early 1960s to the mid-1970s middle-class people began moving to the suburbs and business went with them.

Today the town has a post-apocalyptic 70s vibe. Many of the buildings downtown have been abandoned, the windows blown out by many hurricanes that have blown through the area and vandals. The few businesses that are still open there have handmade signs. Some of the gas stations still have petrol pumps. Roughly 25% of the city’s population of 53,818 live below the poverty level. 

 

 Many of the homes have water damage leftover from Hurricane Harvey and it is not uncommon to see furniture on lawns. It is one of the most humid cities in the United States. 

 

The town is home to the largest oil refinery in the country and the smoke from the flares that surround the city gives one the feeling of being inside of a toxic canyon.

 

Jim told me that his handyman business had been good ever since Hurricane Harvey damaged half the buildings in town. He said they tried to sell Janis’ house, but there was so much mold that no one wanted it. He told me there is a woman who lives in the woods and has a house filled with Janis memorabilia. I told him that I most recently lived in Portland and he began to open up to me a bit.

 

“I lived in Seattle for a while,” he said. “People were literally selling heroin on the street and I got hooked. I came back here and right away I got my girlfriend pregnant, so I can’t leave now. 

 

A dog runs in front of us, but we do not hit it. I clutch my heart.

“I ain’t gonna hit it. That’s the Mexican’s dog. They just let it run around in the street. The Mexican’s fuckin’ hate white people. Whatever happened to them isn’t my fault I didn’t oppress you! I went into their part uh town once and I got jumped. I got arrested for that shit.”

 

We head to Pleasure Island. As we are driving across the bridge, I ask him if most people work in the refineries.

 

“Yeah, that’s what Janis was screaming about. The air quality here is terrible.

 

“I thought she was screaming about the way they treated her in high school.”

 

“That too. The fucking Mexican kids used to pick on me. So did the rich kids.” This one guy Jake Barnes owns half the town his kids are fucking pieces of shit.

 

Yeah, a lot of my relatives have worked in the refineries. It’s dangerous though. My brother and my uncle were killed in accidents. They were blown up.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Yeah, I think about leaving all the time. I don’t know about Seattle. There were alota gays there. But, I ain’t really got nothin’ against no fags.”

 

I was beginning to wonder if he wasn’t being colorful just for me.

 

Pleasure Island

520 Pleasure Island Boulevard Port Arthur, Texas, 77640

 

Pleasure Island is a large man-made island that extends between Neches River on the northwest and goes to the Sabine Causeway. It is about 18 miles long and it is much more scenic than the rest of Port Arthur. It offers a yacht club, a lodge, bird watching, and fishing.

 

“This is beautiful. I love this.” I said trying to change the subject from racism to nature. 

 

“Yeah, we mostly come to pleasure island to have sex.”

 

“You mean when you were kids?”

 

“No, still. I don’t like bringing girls around my daughter. She’s only four. She’s spoiled.” He says with a smile. “Her mom and I are still pretty good friends.”

 

We drove downtown and I asked if we could go by the building with the swastikas so I could take a picture.

 

“You don’t ever wanna get outta the car here. Most of these buildings are abandoned. The Sabine Hotel is just a crack house. They were gonna tear it down, but there’s all these fuckin black crack heads in there.  That club over there is black and they're not gonna like it if you go in there.” They fuckin’” messed up this town.”

 

I took the picture and he drove me back to my hotel. 

When I was a kid I thought I had it just as bad as Janis. I stand corrected. I left Port Arthur the next day. 


© Copyright 2020 Eliza H. Gale. All rights reserved.

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