About ten years ago, I flew out to Austin (well, I flew into some airport tin Corpus Christi, if memory serves), and my friend Claire picked me. The plan was we were going to drive her old car, a big piece of metal the way American cars used to be built, from Austin, Texas back to Palo Alto, California. All I remember of Austin from that trip were the rainstorms–these giant, billowy clouds growing dark around the edges and the warm rain that fell violently, pummeling the ground and the streaks of lightning and roaring thunder that to a Californian native were strange, frightening, and awe inspiring–Barton Springs with its beautifully cool waters that were so refreshing in the high heat and humidity, that the city itself was very green, not this vast yellow flatland I had naively imagined, and the people were absolute sweethearts.
It’s funny to remember things in one way, and then go back, and have the current views contradict those memories. I remember listening to music, driving the big car, wishing I had power steering as big rigs passed us, seeing the painted desert, the petrified forest, Santa Fe, New Mexico and the resident artists, the Grand Canyon at sunset, and trying so hard not to be spooked by Needles, California in the dark. There was this one magical moment where we sitting in the dining room at Claire’s friend’s place in Santa Fe, getting ready for dinner. Her friend was in the bedroom and started to sing a couple of lines of Tom Waits’s “Chocolate Jesus,” and as if on cue, I sang the next few lines, stopped, and Claire picked up the next few lines, stopped, and then her friend picked up the next few lines. This was the kind of stuff that filled the road trip hippie novels I read: things happening on a spur of a moment, random, unplanned, and yet in those seconds the song was being passed around, sung slightly off key of course, it existed without context or time. It’s a singular moment that just can’t be repeated; it doesn’t mean anything. How did Claire’s friend know that I love Tom Waits or that I had listened to that particular song on repeat the entire previous spring?
That is what I remembered of Austin. The heat, the humidity, the greenness. I also remember the food (I’ll write about what is quite possibly one of the best restaurants I’ve been to anywhere in the next post) and the never-ending refills of iced tea and the chicory coffee with steamed condensed milk so reminiscent of my beloved Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê sữa đá).
So, this is what happened the first night my friend, Max, and I got there. We went to the hotel in downtown Austin, chosen for its location and ideal walking distance to pretty much anywhere, and tried to check in. Except I had made the reservations for the wrong weekend–I had in fact made it for a weekend in early April instead of the end of April. No big deal and they were nice enough to reverse the no show charges on my credit card. We walk over to a hotel a block away and there was no availability.
In fact, all the hotels in downtown Austin had no availability. So we spend two hours calling and checking online for a place that had a room. As it turns out, there were three big weddings that weekend and some hoopla about a Willie Nelson statue being erected and a reggae fest and who knows what else. I finally found a place not too far away that had just one room double bed suite left, the catch was it was meant for a handicapped wheelchair person. As it was so late into the night and no one was in need of the room, they let us have it. We were thrilled. We checked in, dropped off our stuff, called around and made reservations for a hotel for the next two nights we would be in town and headed off to dinner.
One of my favorite things to do is walking on a warm night. Coming from cold and foggy San Francisco, this is a real treat.
This is how I remember Austin: we are sitting at dinner and some guy and his date is sitting next to us. He has gelled back hair and is wearing an indigo shirt and some trousers and if he had said his name is Patrick Bateman, I would have believed him. His date is not so into him and she stays quiet most of the time, pressing her lips tight into a forced smile that doesn’t come out as a smile at all. A few feet away, a couple tries to start their motorcycle, an old British Triumph, maybe from the 70s, and it doesn’t have a muffler. So they throttle it and the sound ricochets off the buildings. It’s completely unpleasant. Mr. Bad Date decides to scream at them, telling them to “fuck off.” The couple responds by revving and throttling the poor bike even more. My friend, an avid rider himself and owner of no less that four motorcycles, is rolling his eyes. There is a screaming match. Eventually, a beautiful raven haired woman with tattooed sleeves come over. She says, “Look, I’m sorry my bike is loud, but I just got it a few weeks ago and we’re working on it. You didn’t have to be a jerk about it. You could have just walked over and asked why we were being so loud and I would have told you the bike is older than me and it’s missing a muffler. It takes time to start it.”
I fully expected Mr. Bad Date to go off on her, maybe get in a physical confrontation, and imagined myself having to restrain him or pushing him away. But no. His response to her is an apology and they share a sangria. They introduce themselves to each other, and he walks out of the barricade we were all dining behind to share a cigarette with her. All I could think about was “If this had been Oakland…” or “If this was NYC…”, but it was just typically Austin. My first and naive view of the city wasn’t too far off.
Mr. Bad Date still didn’t have a good a date, and she was obviously in a hurry to leave, though they did leave together.
Whether or not Austin is truly a friendly place, this is how I choose to remember it. Instead of escalating a situation that could have lead to an exchange of blows, people just would rather work it out. Talk it through. That despite my lack of attention to details and making reservations for the wrong day, and frantically trying to get reservations somewhere and wanting to kill my friend, who just started to grate on me, it was pretty nice to be able to sit outside at 10:00pm on a Friday night, eating a great meal, with an awesome server next to a crowd of lively people.
It also reminded me that I love cities even though I’m not really into traveling to them currently. I love the buildings, the architecture, the food, the scene, the people, the art and culture.