Out of Amercia: 'Athens of Texas' under siege from T-shirt salesmen

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The Independent Online
WACO - The most peculiar experience of a peculiar Easter was not awaiting the improbable resurrection of a gunman who claims to be Jesus. Rather, it was staying at the local Hilton and being woken by freight trains rumbling 150 yards away through the wasteland which passes for downtown Waco. At regular intervals each night, I was plucked from the deepest sleep by a wailing foghorn which might have been in my room. Each time I went to the window to watch the ghostly carriages clanking across the empty boulevard below. Waco seemed no more than a dream on a railway to nowhere.

For most residents, however, what is happening is less dream than nightmare. The dateline of Waco adorning every article on David Koresh is a mite unfair. Venture beyond the Hilton, or the convention centre next door where the FBI briefs daily on the siege of Mount Carmel 10 miles away, and you'd be pressed to detect a thing out of the ordinary. Understandably, Waco hates the notoriety. A rough justice there is, none the less. Well before anyone had heard of the Branch Davidians, this tract of Texas was a byword for violent and irrational crime.

A decade ago, the United States was shocked by the sadistic mutilation and killing of three teenagers in the Lake Waco murders. Barely 40 miles south lies the nondescript town of Killeen, where one lunchtime in October 1991, 23 people were shot dead in a diner by a disgruntled merchant seaman, the biggest mass killing in the US. On my way to Monday's briefing, I asked the price of siege T-shirts being peddled by a young woman. Her name was Janet Loop. She told me she had been in the Killeen diner when the massacre took place. 'I managed to get out of the back, but I still found three bullets lodged in my handbag.' Last week she lost her job with the Revlon cosmetics company and joined the booming Koresh industry. Her wares were good taste itself compared with what's on offer on 'Holy Hill'.

From Texas and beyond, they come to gawp from this gentle rise on Loop Road 340, transformed into one of the tackiest souvenir markets imaginable. A dollar buys a glimpse through a telescope of the Mount Carmel compound six miles distant. Over Easter, seven stands were selling Koresh memorabilia, from coffee mugs, baseball caps and postcards to 'Cyrus Messiah Productions' visiting cards from Mr Koresh's days as an aspiring pop musician in California. Black-shirted locals flogged Mount Carmel T-shirts, of which 'WACO/Weird Asshole Come Out' was the politest. One said he cleared dollars 6,000 ( pounds 3,870) last weekend alone.

Four miles closer lies the township of 'Satellite City' where up to 100 forlorn reporters live in tents and caravans waiting for the siege to end. The place has field latrines, a 24-hour buffet run by the Salvation Army, its own mayor and newspaper called Satellite City News (motto: If It Happens, It's News To Us.) The media inject dollars 2m a week into the Waco economy.

Once Mr Koresh disappears, Waco will revert to being a featureless way-station on Interstate 35 between Dallas and San Antonio, searching for its soul. Even in its 19th-century heyday, when the cotton industry flourished and the Dr Pepper soft drink was being invented in a drugstore on Austin Avenue, the place had an identity crisis: only in these parts could a city have been simultaneously known as 'Six-shooter Junction' and the 'Athens of Texas'. Since then, its centre has rotted into a wilderness of parking lots and half-empty buildings, featuring little more than the odd secondhand bookstore, seedy diners and grimy pawnshops. Its heart has moved to the suburbs of Anywhere USA, where department stores employ string quartets to lend a touch of class to the Easter shopping experience.

Heroically, the Chamber of Commerce tries to sell Waco's more wholesome attractions: the symphony orchestra, a multitude of churches and Baylor University, the largest Baptist- funded college in the country. On Friday a Texas Sports Hall Of Fame opens - yet another museum in a city which boasts 14, yet another effort to persuade drivers on I-35 to drop a few dollars in Waco. Alas, the siege is the only reason they come. So why not turn Mount Carmel into a museum? That is, if Mr Koresh and his followers ever come out.