[25 October 2004]
I grew up in rural America, the touchstone for politicians who want to contrast the decline of family values with the apparent utopia of small town life. For me it was a Petri dish of rarefied ignorance, where difference was barely tolerated and intellectualism was viewed the way that raccoons look at six-lane highways: wide-eyed and uncomprehending. If America’s virtues are to be found in our Wal-Mart-infested backwaters, we have an embarrassment of poverties to account for.
I arrived at college in Ann Arbor, Michigan, exhilarated by the existence of bookstores but completely out of my depth. Flooded by all the newfound “isms”, I devoured deconstruction, queer theory, and every obtuse tome I could get my hands on. In my hometown, Caro, I had been ahead of the game by reading J.D. Salinger. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that being gay was all right, let alone something that someone might celebrate or affirm. I had tried everything to rid myself of that particular “curse”, including a stint preaching in a whacked out fundamentalist church; a place of no music where hell was for your neighbors despite Pat Benatar’s claim to the contrary. I gave my gay to Jesus. He gave it back.
Send self-loathing into the world, and the universe will listen. Mr. Sandman brought me a charm school Jeffrey Dahmer for a first love who slipped into my life as quietly as a coral snake on a scrap of silk. What do you do when you’re in love with a spiritual arsonist, the kind of person who would eat you, not if their plane crashed in the Andes, but if he were peckish and the store was a bit of a walk? I’ll spare the details. Things got ugly fast. Put bad love and bad drugs into a cocktail shaker and you end up bringing new meaning to the phrase “this town’s not big enough for the two of us”.
The night I realized that I had to leave Ann Arbor, I was hanging out with my newfound “friends”, a couple of washed up rockers and a college acquaintance who had squandered a promising singing career for smack. It was a cocoon of cold non-judgmentalism, a group of people for whom passive suicide was as close to goal orientation ass they were going to get. The womb warmth that normally accompanied a hit never arrived. Instead, I felt stained. We were watching Howard Stern and his guest was this grizzled midget who was apoplectic with furor, espousing neo-Nazism. It was the most pathetic lack of self-awareness I had ever seen. It was worse than gay Republicans, who have always struck me as like black people going to KKK rallies for the potato salad. It’s not without a little bit of shame that I admit that Howard Stern changed my life. I kid you not, it struck me right then and there. “I’m the Nazi midget.”
I needed a change. I joined Americorps, Clinton’s domestic answer to the Peace Corps, a public service program partially designed to fix community programs from within while simultaneously lifting the yoke of student debt incurred by people who suddenly realized that college degrees and good jobs go together like luck and Blackjack. I picked Austin, Texas for my Americorps work because it made me laugh to think of a left wing, recovering junky faggot kickin’ it in the Lone Star State, home of the chaw spittin’ Marlboro men who liked their whoop ass in aluminum cans they could crush in one fist. I was still immersed enough in theory to believe that the best one could do in life was to choose ironically.
It’s amazing to me that even in a country so thoroughly enmeshed with the veins of modern technological communication, we retain an almost medieval sense of one another’s differences. When I announced my intentions to move to Texas, everyone stepped forward with dire warnings about how much my life would change once I plunged beneath the Mason-Dixon line. My parents told me to never drink the water and check my shoes for scorpions, spiders and rattlers. In their mind, everyday life in Texas was blood and guts battle for survival: a brutish, short, and rigged fight against that abusive drunk, Mother Nature, not to mention the ugly Texan-on-Texan scrapes assumed to be the norm. They had their sources, particularly Hollywood and television, and they could not be shaken from their conviction that their youngest son was about to leave civilization for the madness of the American Third World.
Granted, my kin are rural people, whose ignorance of outlier reality and Wonder Bread white existence has never prevented them from developing elaborate theories about other races and big city values, which in their view fall somewhere between cannibal and hyena. As much as I laughed at them, I, too, was worried that Texas was filled with people who aimed buckshot at anyone who accidentally stepped in their yard; a place where you had to win your first bar fight to buy your first drink; and to find a date with a deeply closeted, like-minded fellow I would have to learn some elaborate nonverbal communication, such as two winks means “behind the barn, hot Yankee”.
All the sane people in my life assured me that Austin was a cultural oasis in Texas, a paradise of artists and slackers, where the pace was as hazy and lazy as a tendril of escaping bong smoke. Too gutted to care, I said my goodbyes vacantly, virtually running on autopilot in my heart-deadened state. What does it matter where I go, so long as I salvage what is left of myself and get away from my haunted haunts? I was convinced that my demons were tied to the soil, that I could escape myself with a ticket in coach to a town where I could sit in restaurants and movie theaters alone, hoping that the echo in my head would show me how to reclaim my will to live.
My first impressions of Austin were dominated by my delighted surprise with the terrain. Before I’d seen it, when I thought of Texas, I thought of tumbleweeds and cactus, deserts and sagebrush. But Austin looked more like a kid sister to Northern California; a valley cradled by enormous rolling hills stretching out for miles. My first boss here, a smiley spitfire named “Deb”, could have powered the Western seaboard on her Southern charm alone. Her Southern charm was like courtesy on crystal meth; mind-blowing. She invited me to Thanksgiving with her family out on a country ranch, where coyotes serenade the star-packed night. We made a barbeque pit near the river. A family friend led everyone in a sing along. For Deb, the idea that I would spend Thanksgiving alone in my apartment would have kept her sleepless and her family folded this loveable stray into their ranks as if I were just a long lost relative.
While Deb carted me everywhere those first few weeks; her enthusiasm for Austin was contagious. After all, before I’d been to Texas, I’d never met strangers so friendly and full of folklore, passing down the history of their land like a family recipe and rattling off regional factoids with an auctioneer’s ease. When cabbies found out I was new to the city, I would get a running historical commentary with the ride, complete with gruesome tales of famous murder spots like the University of Texas clock tower, from which Charles Whitman went on a mad sniping spree in 1966. People compulsively divulged the city’s secrets to me. I would get stuck holding up the Whole Foods line because the cash register clerk had to give me directions to the best place to get breakfast tacos. The generosity of the people I first met here matched the grandiosity of the environment, including one person I worked with who bought me a new bike, after mine had been stolen, because he didn’t want me to think badly of Texas.
My first place to live came about by the kindness of a random stranger. He was a lawyer and owner of several rental properties, and had heard about how difficult it was to afford decent housing on an Americorps stipend. Though he’d never met me in his life before, he offered me and another Americorps recruit a room in his home, at a steal, in exchange for a few extra hours of work fixing the place up. You can’t walk down the streets here without exchanging a few “hello’s” and if you go anywhere more than a few times, you’re bound to end up on a first-name basis with the people who work there. Austin is a city where the space between stranger and friend has a somersault fluidity like no other place I’ve ever been. It’s an open-door familiarity that, because of the city’s college town liberalism, extends to everyone including the elder statesman of street people, Leslie. Leslie is a homeless man who walks around wearing thongs on his feet and a plastic tiara on his head. He carries placards decrying the coming police state. Austin is the lid for every pot.
My first apartment in Austin sat within a block of the river and the perfect Driving Under the Influence (DUI)-avoiding distance from the New Orleans-esque bar district; a beautiful cacophony of loud music, milling crowds, and pizza by the slice. The Colorado River cuts through downtown, idling under the Congress Avenue Bridge, which also doubles as a home to the world’s largest urban bat population. During the hotter months you can sit on a blanket and watch the night flood with flickering beasties, turning the dark, flat sky into a screen of television static. From the high altitude vantage point of Mount Bonnell (700 feet above sea level, 200 feet above the surrounding land), Austin looks like a few stray skyscraper tusks busting through a shag carpet of greenery, incongruous amidst a surrounding desert, city where you’re never more than a few strides from a mighty fine tree. For some people, I’m sure cities are supposed to symbolize a triumph over nature, glass and steel monuments to humanity’s spasming greatness. But I’ve long been partial to cities laid gently in their natural surroundings, the kind of places that, absent the people, would grow over in a few decades, ruins swallowed back into the wilderness.
I would be remiss if I tried to write about this city and not mention that it’s the “live music capital of the world”, one of those self-proclaimed tourist lures that gets repeated so often it’s like a record played until the grooves have disappeared. But it’s true, people here love music and they’re willing to go out and stay up late on a “school night” in order to hear favorite bands and newcomers. On any given night at Room 710 or Beerland, you slip in for a pint of Dos Equis and a punk rawk onslaught. Or you go for the theatrical cock glam of The Rockland Eagles that perform with a tattooed bruiser of a female dancer, and their bassist that wears Sally Jesse Rafael glasses and a silver pleather jumpsuit. Thumb through an indie music rag and you’ll find names like Spoon, Centromatic, Knife in the Water, and Okkervil River, all of whom hang their guitar straps in a city teeming with bands seconds away from glossy recognition. For the more sedate, hammock sway of coffee shop listening, you could wander over to Café Mundi, a tiny little witches hut of a shop buried in a thicket of barkless trees that look more like petrified vines. There, you might catch the Wednesday night song swap that usually features antic-pop wunderkind Matt the Electrician.
I noticed how unique that post-adolescent concert commitment was when I went to an “all ages” show on one of my vacations in another city only to discover that, outside of Austin, I’m already too “mature” to go to concerts without feeling like Matthew McConaughey’s character from Dazed and Confused; dirty, old and obliviously out of my element. Everywhere in Austin, from the airport to an upscale grocery store, has some sort of performance calendar posted prominently. Whatever the venue you choose, bar or restaurant, if you don’t get free chips and rock ‘n roll with your enchiladas, the restaurant owner probably ain’t from around these parts.
I used to off-handedly wish when I was younger that everything in life could have back-up music. Austin has gone as far as one could imagine in realizing that childhood dream of a chorus for every verb. Local coffee houses here are clearing houses of great music. While Starbuck’s punishes its indentured corporate brewers with readymade faux edginess (for sale, in pre-fab mixes), the other coffee shops frequently reflect the fact that they are staffed primarily by people who play in bands and by the people who fuck the people who play in bands. At this point, I have to give a nod to Ray Pride of the Crackpipes, who has turned me onto everyone from The Reining Sound to Skip James to Holly Golightly. On mornings where I could barely crack my eyelids, he gave me new treasures with which to brace myself against the day job.
Only in Austin will you wander through your local hippy food co-op to the sounds of Cibo Matto’s first record. Austinites are connoisseurs in wedding music to moment, a city full of tastemakers who care little for style, yet display it in spades. It’s not just the pockets of local musical genius, trend setting and hard working, inevitably bursting out of this outsized burg to achieve national acclaim. Austin is full of people that are passionate about finding unearthed gems and overlooked brilliance; it’s a city rife with devoted archivists, specialists who may or may not have a radio show, but who can definitely expound in colorful thumbnails about queer punk, Texas R&B, or whichever niche they’ve found their bliss in and other genres where they’ve just had a good time. I’m always walking into some vintage store, diner, or corner store and feeling compelled to ask what’s playing over the speakers. For someone like me, who has spent much of his life in pursuit of the next mind-blowing album, Austin is truly a city of co-conspirators in music that some might call community.
Another thing that stands out for me about Austin is the perpetual recurrence of Zen moments of aesthetic grace, where I’m suddenly rekindled in my passion for this place by a perfect storm of pleasures. One night, peddling home from The Horseshoe Lounge on my bike, I crossed the Lamar street bridge and looked over at the then newly completed pedestrian bridge with it’s Candyland curlicues in concrete, gracing each side. There, on the bridge across the water, a dance group was doing what looked like the tango, moving in a synced flow of hourglass diagonals against a backdrop of the river, blacksilvered in reflected moonlight. I caught my breath. It was one of those moments poets drink from and the rest of us just want to forever ourselves in.
I take refuge from the sweltering lash of summer in Barton Springs, a 60 degree natural spring that gushes up through slick stones on the outskirts of the city. I’d go to cool off enough to sleep on nights that the temperature fails to fall even though the sun’s long pocketed on the horizon. The people thin out some at night at the springs and you can just float on your back in the icy clear, watching bats dive-bomb the mosquitoes overhead. The locker rooms have no ceilings, just wide armed branches from the trees planted there that block out enough to make you feel secure getting naked, but not so much that you can’t stare up at the stars as you shuck off your clothes. One evening, I felt so soothed by the cool, flowing water that I felt as if my legs were going to puddle, but I knew I had to make it to the car so that me and my friend, Laura, could cap the night off with a frozen custard cone from Sandy’s drive thru.
I can’t count the nights spent sitting on outdoor decks drinking Mexican martinis, immersed in great conversation with the peerless circle of friends that I’ve accumulated here like Jessica Tate, future film directing legend, hair styling artiste, and the last person to stop dancing at the end of the night. I picked up my friend, Laura, through volunteer work at a local hospice, just as she was leaving that career to start a booking agency to promote the bands that she loves but felt didn’t they weren’t get the attention they deserved. Then there’s my boyfriend, a native Texan who plays drums in an all-queer rock band and spends his days building fantastical homes that are works of art unto themselves. When I think of it, everyone I hang with here is animated by some artistic dream. No one seems panicked by a lack of fame. Rather, they’re modestly trudging along wanting to make a living doing what they love. If that doesn’t work out, it seems that all of them will settle for peace of mind and time served.
Austinites understand the spirituality of leisure the way Parisians get wine and disdain. A best friend’s old school, hippy mother said that back in the day everyone called Austin the “velvet rut”, and it’s not hard to see why. Austin is not a city that inspires scrappiness or the kind of cutthroat enthusiasm of the social climber. Throw a rock in the air and it’ll most definitely come down on the head of an artist or activist of some sort, with flier in hand, trying to get a good turn out for a Tuesday night event (and he’ll probably be stoned enough not to mind the rock). I don’t mean to disparage Austin by making it sound like a perpetual Woodstock, albeit with bras. It’s not that the city lacks ambition, but Austin has taught me to relax in my own skin and not judge my life against some unspent future or the nagging voices of disapproval that always seem to emerge from other people projecting their own life dissatisfaction globally. I don’t mind striving, but I want to be able to die satisfied. But tomorrow, if need be . . . not just yet. I want to enjoy Austin a while longer.
Like anything good and cherished in our modern world, there’s a marketing hack waiting to take a shit in the middle of it. Even in my six years here, I’ve seen the toxic ivy of corporate Satanism strangle out patches of culture and bits of Austin that the old timers here still talk about in joyful fugue states. Whereas the main college drag used to be an oddball collection of record shops and vintage and bohemian mom and pops, it has slowly morphed into Every Street USA; a hodge podge of collegiate chains blanched of local color. Home to a formerly burgeoning high tech industry, Austin got swept up in the early ‘90s hysteria of the tech boom, as the haughty insta-millionnaires colonized the city, bringing upscale martini bars, a surfeit of contemporary furniture boutiques, and an unfinished Intel skyscraper that stands like a few knocked out teeth: testament to their hubris.
Austin became somewhat of a press darling, touted as a Mecca of the arts, a place for single people to get laid with impunity, and a city full of vibrantly intelligent young people devoted to the refinement of their leisure. With the massive influx of growth that such double-edged PR brought, the city’s planners did not initially rise to the occasion, leading to massively clotted traffic and huge stretches on the city’s perimeter where businesses were vomited in ramshackle strands of hideous strip malls, the kind of architecture that would be much improved in the event of Armageddon. Yet, despite the “sky is falling” proclamations of Austin’s demise heralded by long-time locals always politely nervous about the influx of outsiders, the city has retained more than most of it’s quirky character and sweet recline with the tenacity of an alley dog with its jaws clamped on a ham hock.
Though I worry that the business community here could easily destroy the social ecology of the city in the mindless drive for growth, I’m hopeful that enough people here care enough to beat back the poisoned blessing of “progress”. You see, businesses drawn to the city’s reputation as the live music capital of the world have built their downtown hotels and condos, only to complain that the “noise” disturbs their consumers. If Austin becomes to expensive to live in, it could easily lose its artistic center and implode from the algal bloom of the suburbs, where people not only don’t lament the perniciously viral spread of chain stores and malls, they giddily revel in the trough of the quiet life of conspicuous consumption and Rush Limbaugh (a form of empty calorie rhetorical gluttony) playing regularly in their decommissioned military sport utility child transport tanks.
Perhaps this essay erred on the side of intimacy, giving you a view of Austin suffocated in my autobiography. What do you expect? I’m not the Chamber of Commerce, luring business interests and tourist dollars with brochure-speak. Our rents are high enough as it is. But in a political environment poisoned by weaponized definitions of patriotism, where pride in country is little more than a synonym for building an enemies list, I think it’s a welcome anecdote to remember a love for place that has nothing to do with geography as an excuse for war . This is a love letter to my city, a place of laid-back rhythm and Dionysian embrace that has leveled my head and given my life a diaphanous and flexible sense of purpose.
In case you’re wondering, things have worked just fine for me. I’m no longer unhappy or unloved. I live like Kenny Roger’s gambler, picking battles with a more confidant sense of what I’m holding. I write in my spare time, I fell madly in love with a man who amazes me daily and I don’t regret for a second moving halfway across the country to start my life over. For the first time in my life, I’m home.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/tttp-6sawyer/