If you’ve been reading this blog or if you know me even just a little, then you know that when it comes to memory and the past and driving around I can be a total sap. Fair warning, then. Move on or get in the passenger seat…
I lived in Austin for just a bit longer than three years — from 1996 to 1999, which was sort of like the roaring ’20s in that town, the decade everyone and everything became unbearably hip and people got rich just by being in the right action-figure-adorned cubicle farm internet start-up company at the exact right time. Being here this weekend really made it seem like forever ago.
Part of my nostalgia jag on this weekend was triggered by how much Austin has changed in terms of infrastructure (freeways, roads) and architecture (Christ, how many loft condos does a city need?). The pic above is one of those utopian developer photoshoppy-jobbies — but it’s pretty close to a fully realized vision. The smell of progress is also evident in the palpably increased density of restaurants, boutiques, and other places to spend money and pack on the fat grams. No city in America is better served by outdoor-seating-under-strings-of-Italian-wedding-lights opportunities. Austin may well be the most delicious city I’ve ever left behind (although Albuquerque puts up a pretty good fight).
More than one Austinite I encountered this weekend bemoaned what the city has become — the growth, the pace, the conspicuous consumption — but that’s always been a chief activity in Austin: complaining that it was so much better back in [fill in idyllic year here]. But I think Austin looks and feels better now, somehow. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and what I experienced this weekend felt like Austin Plus-Plus.
The basic quality of the place (happily dumpy, rusty, and stoney in more than one sense) is still intact, and so is the boundless civic pride. People have always loved living here; although it’s famous for being “laid back,” life in Austin requires of its people the most competitive style of laid-backitude. People hurl themselves into the weekend with gusto, determined to out-Austin one another: they are jogging around Town Lady Bird Lake early in the day; they are lined up for just the right breakfast tacos and brunch hot spots by 10; they are tailgating in deluxe style by noon before the UT game; they are in and out of all the right bars and night spots and arrive at favorite eateries with the reverence of hipster pilgrims. And they’re still record shopping, which gladdens me.
They’re also still voracious readers. Hooray! I read from and signed copies of Tinsel on Saturday afternoon at Book People, the lit’rature palace on West 6th and Lamar. I can only begin to guess how many hours I spent in this store back in the ’90s, fully absorbed in magazines and books. (More on that — my happily delusional, late-20s, literary life of letters back then — in a moment.)
Around 20-30 people showed up. Many of them were friends, including former colleagues from the Austin American-Statesman. Some were stray customers. More than a few were curious about the book, lured there by one hell of an article about by Patrick Beach, which ran in the Statesman on Saturday morning. More on that, too, in a moment — but here’s a snippet:
We have been here before, sort of but not really: Big-city journalist parachutes into Anywhere, USA, observes the curious folkways and mores of People Not Like Himself, writes a piece posing as fish out of water with tone of bemused detachment, which aims to fumigate persistent aroma of condescension toward his subjects.
Except this is my friend Hank Stuever, a prince of a guy, former American-Statesman writer, Pulitzer Prize finalist, brutally funny, warm and generous and a better writer than I could ever hope to be. I hate him.
Let us dispense with the notion of journalistic impartiality and the use of surnames on second reference and call the man whose talent I’m murderously jealous of “Hank.” And let’s talk about Hank’s new book, “Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present,” which is about three Christmases — and three households — in the Dallas exburb of Frisco from 2006 to 2008. It’s also about consumerism, an economy that conveniently imploded and red-state Americans who go to churches where they’re told “God wants you to feel good about your boobs.”
You will definitely laugh; you will probably learn; you might get angry. The scope is huge. It’s about, like, EVERYTHING.
And it just gets better. Go read it, unless you are sicker of me than I am of myself. Pat came to the reading with his sons, Adam and Joe, and like Austin, they’re all grows up! (This has been a distinct theme of the trip so far — people keep coming to my readings accompanied by tweens, teenagers, and college students whom I remember as babies.)
Of the rest of the people at the reading was a friend with whom I once sang a duet in a high school musical; another was Helen Johnson, who I profiled in 1996, and remains such a dear friend, though we don’t hear from one another as much as we mean to. The endlessly smart and entertaining Spike Gillespie was there, which is all the approval I’ll ever need. I had a happy time doing the reading, and signed as much stock as I could.
I got to have dinner with Michelle Breyer, my Austin touchstone, now the super successful goddess of coiled locks at naturallycurly.com; Michelle is yet another person blissfully aglow with newspaperdom’s afterlife. I got to see Marques Harper and his friends at a bar on 4th Street (eek — flashbacks to Oilcan Harry’s, etc.) on Friday night, at which Marques reminded me just how bad the gay dating scene can be in this otherwise enlightened town. I got to have breakfast with Pat Beach at a relocated El Sol y La Luna.
I got to spend a few hours Sunday with Spike, who showed me quilts at the history museum, bought me lunch at Kerbey Lane and then showed me what became of the old Mueller Airport land. (The abandoned control tower is still standing, amid a cookie-cutter subdivision, and it is a wondrously spooky sight. I wonder if they still affix a NOEL sign to it during holidays? Doesn’t look like they do.)
Also? I got to drive around a lot Austin, by myself, which I hadn’t done in, gosh, 10 years. This got me in one of my moods — not sad or anything, just reflective. (Self-reflective, of course.)
What was I here?
All I could think of was how much I worked. I kept wondering about the stories: Is Stevie Ray Vaughan’s stuff still in that storage unit on South Congress, and does the check still arrive each month to cover the rent? What happened to John Guerin after he sold his Guitar Heaven store in Georgetown, and did Denny keep the oft-traded Fender acoustic forever, like he said he would? Is the roller rink off 183 and Burnet still open and do they still do adult-only skate on Tuesdays? How are the Worthingtons, the northwest Austin suburbanites I profiled? Do the old men still meet every morning in the Lockhart Dairy Queen? Is that used office equipment still in the Quonset hut east of I-35, and if so, what did it look like during this Great Recession? How’s the funeral business treating Robert Falcon these days?
I don’t actually need answers to all those questions. (And, in a happy coincidence, Lupe and Sonny Falcon saw the Statesman article, called me at the front desk at Book People, and I went over and saw them on Sunday afternoon. If you’ve read “All Faiths” in Off Ramp, the story about the discount funeral home I wrote in 1999, you know who I’m talking about. The actual All Faiths strip-mall funeral home is still on South Congress and St. Elmo, but Robert left it behind years ago and moved on; he’s now running two funeral homes in Amarillo.)
So there’s that kind of nostalgia. But also I was thinking about my former world here. I had great friends back then (many now moved away), but I was also terribly lonely sometimes. I spent a crazy amount of time reading. On Saturday morning, I walked into the Little City cafe on Congress (shabby now) just to look around for a minute recall that young(er) man who spent so much time sitting there, deep into his books and magazines, or marking up his own story drafts with a red pen. (When I was feeling flush with cash, which was maybe once every six weeks, I would shift the locale to the bar at the Four Seasons.) You could not have convinced that Hank Stuever that he’d be back in Book People reading from his own book in 10 years.
Austin is like some kind of fever dream I once had. In 1996 and ’97, I got so down that I had to see a therapist, who had me try a variety of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, but I don’t think I was on them long enough to tell the difference, and pretty soon it was the work (and people) who lifted me out of that dark funk. What I did love was Ambien (I took one Ambien a night for almost three years — nearly my entire Austin tenure) and I wonder if this is why Austin has such a dreamy, gauzy quality in my mind.
That story Pat Beach wrote really touched me. He was under no obligation whatsoever to do such a thing, or do it with the care and thought that he did. Over breakfast Sunday morning, Pat and I caught up. When we sat two cubicles apart in the Statesman‘s features department, we used to really pay attention to what the other was working on. All of us feature writers did — we had good editors and the gang of us (Kallenberg, McLeese, Garcia, Corky, Hibberd, Barnes, others) were in the same essential hunt. It was collegial and competitive; our bosses wanted it that way. We cared about that most ephemeral thing: writing feature stories.
Now here’s Pat and me talking about it over huevos and tacos like prematurely old men. I so admire Pat for sticking with it — and sticking with it in Austin, when he could have moved to a lot of other papers, when things were still ripping along. Here, in 2009, he’s one of two (two!) full-time feature section writers who have a general assignment beat. I want him to keep hitting it hard.
It’s Monday morning now. I’m packed, checked out of the hotel, and having breakfast at Magnolia Cafe and reading the Statesman, which, I have to say, given the givens, looks and reads like a paper in relatively sturdy shape. I’m still worried about the fate of feature writing, not just here but everywhere, but a piece on the Statesman’s front page Sunday by Kevin Robbins, about one of the survivors of the Aggie bonfire collapse (there’s that 10-years-ago thing, again) made me think all this fretting is hooey. It’s good.
Gregory Kallenberg, if you were here with me at Magnolia, there’d be extra jalepenos in a little plastic cup, and yes, we could do an entree split.
I’m off to Houston for a reading at Brazos Books tonight. The fact that my rental car (a black Ford Escape; apologies to polar ice caps) has an iPod jack only sweetens the deal. Yes, I went to Waterloo Records, but once again the Internet ruins everything it touches: Instead of buying a heap of CDs and a couple of LPs, I simply wandered the store for an hour and made mental notes about what to go get from iTunes.