Gotta love a city whose motto, emblazoned on shirts, signs, cups, posters and walls is “Keep Austin Weird.” And it seems they do their best to accomplish just exactly that. Busses run 50 cents a ride or a dollar for all day. Downtown and the University areas have ‘Dillos: four constantly running, set route, quaint bits of busses that are absolutely free.
I notice the city busses say “Ozone Bay” and remark, during one of our afternoon walks, on what in interesting name that is for an area. I receive a strange look. I also remark how it seems so many busses go there. It must be quite a place.
It is known I don’t see well and my traveling companions do their best to accommodate and cover for me. Of course, how to know when a mistake is a mistake, a joke, a misread or just plain “can’t see that, huh?” is a mystery. Just tell us when you see something wrong is like asking a person to check their perception with the other, spare set of eyes. The busses say “Ozone Day.”
I discovered this later that evening when we ask how late the busses run, as we were about three miles away near the University of Texas and two members of our group were carping of being tired, of not wanting to eat at any of the places we discover because the food has spices, or is yellow, or cooked in clay. We were told they were running until eleven and were free because it was Ozone Day and everyone is encouraged to walk, bike or bus. Ozone Day.
I find folks don’t mind taking up the visual slack for me. A good thing, this. Not that I can’t handle it on my own, as I have for so many, many years and still do, of course, as I usually do not have others to do reading for me. But, sometimes, it is a trial. In airports with security, too far away for me to see, waving dramatically at me to walk in their direction for check-in. Or, sometimes, when a Précis, quiet in the city traffic, is about to run me down because I’m counting on hearing a car before I see it.
Before The afternoon was, of course, the dreaded banquet. We got out at different times and I found no-one waiting for me. I glided/stepped down the two flights of escalators and out the door to walk across 4th Street to the Hilton to move immediately back onto three sets of escalators which, according to the sign, would take me to the sixth floor and the AVID Banquet. I was one of over two thousand people to enter the room.
I could see neither wall through the throng and the army of penguins carrying trays, pitchers, urns. I walk in, I walk out, grab my cell phone and it rings. Judy. They are inside and have a place for me and know I won’t be able to find them. She guides me in by description, telling me what to head for until I see her waving her arms in the air.
Salad is already being set out. A small salad and dressing is on it already. Creamy, white and I don’t know what’s in it. Then tea, weak and translucent poured over ice. I see the sets of utensils arrayed to three sides of the plate and remember, Left to right, outside to in. Or was that right to left? And what of the utensils at the top of my plate? I resign to using my fingers, or surreptitiously dropping my utensils onto the carpet so it appears I’m using only what is available. Where did they go? Where did what go? I have only this.
The main course comes: chicken crusted in what might have been almonds, might have been cheese. Two spears of asparagus and a roasted tomato.
“Hot sauce?” I hear Judy ask if anyone has seen any. The chicken is rather bland. We have both opened up the top of the pepper and tapped it onto our food.
“Hot Sauce?” I see none and say I’ll take care of this. I consider she might have me trained at this point. I ask penguin after penguin but no hot sauce. After a few minutes, someone has told someone and the head waiter comes to our table. He apologizes for the chicken and agrees it is bland, telling us how difficult it is to cook for three thousand people. He is sincere. He has no hot sauce.
He had eight bottles and has searched for them but they have disappeared, he tells us, into purses, pockets, backpacks. He is telling he has no hot sauce in Texas. Finished, coffee comes and it is lukewarm. Speeches come and they are lukewarm. A few are heart-tugging and people get to their feet to applaud.
Desert is being served: a pastry cup filled with heavy cream, six raspberries on top and one half a strawberry beside. Breakfast was a V8. I eat it all. We go back to our afternoon session and heads nod knocking on tabletops.
Keep Austin Weird. Street musicians, street vendors, and a University area that actually looks and feels like one. A sign hung, proudly and boldly from an Episcopal Church announcing “Torture Is Wrong.” Right in the middle of it, visible from all directions, is the capitol. Architecturally, there is much to be admired. Much of it is impressive and creative. Some of it makes all the sense we have come to expect from government programs but set in stone. And stone it is, pink granite within and without. It is the White House improved with the offices underground so the effect of the grand edifice is not marred with the actual daily business of government.
It looks as though it should be run with red carpets throughout, but I was told that would be considered ostentatious. Did I spell that right? Perhaps it should be Austintatious? So, no red carpets, nothing ostentatious – just the biggest capitol building outside of D.C. Some of the doors were not locked.
So, I know exactly how messy the senators are. I spent a few minutes in the senatorial lounge. Oh, and they leave the gavel on the bench. I wasn’t dressed the part but I think I might make a good senator, albeit, perhaps, the shortest senator ever seen from the second largest state. (They hate to be reminded Alaska is bigger.)
Stars are everywhere. Even the insides of the hinges of the capitol doors have stars on them. Door knobs are starred. Nothing ostentations, mind you. A quiz. I was asked this. What does the capitol have more of than anything else. I answered, “Republicans.”
I expected Ann Richards to be guarding her portrait with a shotgun. She was not there. Alas.
After the capitol we headed toward Stubbs. I wanted to go there; I love the bar-b-que sauce and made the connection between the name and the product, and a correct connection it was, too. Judy wanted pork ribs while in Austin and when we heard Stubbs had live music and was in a 160 year old building, an old Mormon settlement, that clinched it. So we both got what we wanted. Well, nearly what we wanted. We wanted to walk but two of the four gals I’m with whined, cried, moaned groaned and complained about the distance. So a silver Â‘DillaÂ’ it was.
We take the bus from U.T. to Tenth Street and Congress. We walk he eight short blocks to our destination. The Redriver district. A hotspot for live music, it is reclaimed from a crack area as business moved in and cooperated with the local constabulary, the patrons squeezed out the dealers and now, it is moving, vibrant, alive, full. Cooperation and lack of fear, an economic incentive and in a few years an area is revitalized and renewed. We’ve stayed away from Sixth Street where most of the bars are. Boring, to say the least.
We planned this yesterday. I was called by Judy and asked if I wanted to come up to the room so we could plan the next few days. I enter, feeling a bit strange. I work with these people and there is only so much of their lives I want to see. Dirty laundry is not part of that.
Two beds, one on each bed. Two chairs, one in each chair. I stand. I’m asked to sit and the bed is patted at the foot. Judy gets up from one of the chairs and says, “Come on Baby. You can sit here.”
One of the gals on the bed says, “What? He can sit in the bed of he wants? What do you think is going to happen? We work with him.”
I reply that I hope it is my sense of right and wrong, my personality, their knowledge of what and who I am that tells them I am safe and trusted, not the fact I work with them.
“Of course. I mean, we work with you so we know you.”
This is said as Judy waves me to the chair and I take it gratefully. I have he feeling she knows I was uncomfortable and did this not for the comfort of the gals in gals in the room, who are not in any way uncomfortable, but for me. I am grateful for this.
We look over the map, through the visitor books, make calls. What kind of food do you have? A cover charge? What time? Most of the places we all have recordings and refer us to webpages. A few answer.
We call the coffeehouse about the poetry reading. No, none or June. A shame.
We make our plans and, while discussion ensues, Shammeeza says we could be out walking and talking. We have sat too long and our calls are being made on cell phones anyway. She gets up and I, quickly, gratefully, follow. Our afternoon began.
Stubbs was great. I went for an experience and had one; the best ribs I have ever had while we overlooked the stage/bandpit. There is an outside stage as well. Two of them. We ate and enjoyed and then Human Television started to play. Amazingly good.
It is dark within. We were sat near the center of the small balcony above the inside stage with the waiter, a young fellow, welcoming the ladies.
“I understand you are blinded by the brilliance and beauty of so many young ladies,” I exhort, understanding, “but there is one gentleman here as well.” He apologizes, hands us menus and bring us four waters. There are five of us. Guess who does not get water?
Above me is a ceiling fan. Above it, a dull light. It casts a quick on-off of light and dark on the menu and I can read none of it. One of the ladies asks if she can help read for me. The Shammeeza offers to trade places with me. After I make sure she does not mind, we switch and I can read again.
We order drinks. I ask if the tea is strong and I told it is. Drinks come. It is water. I don’t mean it is weak. I mean it is water. Judy tastes it and it is water. I call over the waiter and ask him if a mistake has been made and he tells me that is the tea. I think about a beer, but the local beers seem pale and wanting. I’ve heard nothing good about them. I ask for diet coke.
He takes orders. Each lady in turn and, as he writes down the last gals order, he leaves. I toss, “Excuse me” into the air after him but he moves away into the next room.
The girls are surprised. I am surprised. I’m invisible. I sing, loudly, “Mr. Cellophane.” The chorus teacher tells me she will gladly accept my help with chorus class and boys harmony. She has been told by students, as I tend to sing in class, I should be in chorus. She ells me she sees they were right. I continue to sing.
He returns to bring another table food and I move my chair back into the aisle. I ask him the question of the day. Â“I know you are blinded by their feminine glory but, do you think, perhaps, maybe, you might notice I’m here and, I don’t know, maybe, take my order?
He blushes and apologizes. He can’t imagine why he did that. He is sorry and takes my order, rushing off for it to join the others.
The food comes rather quickly. I ask for a fried green tomato. Just one. We don’t want a whole order, just one. I tell him it doesn’t matter of it came of another plate or followed the five second rule. He laughs, they nearly always do, and within a minute or two we have one which I cut into five pieces.
Ribs, brisket, chipotle cheese spinach, other foodstuffs. I said I’d enjoy myself and probably ate a bit too much. But, once in a while I think, I feel, it’s worth it. I can’t get this at home and if I go up a pound, I’ll go down a pound as well.
Judy and I agree the ribs are the best we have ever had. Not a drop of fat. Peppery. Moist and delectable. This was worth it. Food is food, even if it is good food. Even if it great food. There has to be another reason to go to a place besides the food, to make it worth the trip and the calories. All together, take it from Mr. Cellophane, Stubbs was worth it.
We spend about half an hour listening and then head back to the hotel. The day prior we could have been listening to Sonic Youth. Another day, George Thorogood, Billy Idol, Concrete Blonde, Indigo Girls, Willie Nelson.
It is about two miles. It is pleasant out. We talk, laugh, sing. We hear salsa from a club but we cannot find the way in. Judy stands on the sidewalk dancing. This lasts the rest of the way back.
I have come to realize I cannot go and do everything I want tied to these gals. One of them, who, it seems, has become a bit of a buddy; rather a Pagan sort, likes to walk, does not get people who don’t take care of themselves… getting along beautifully, is getting as tired of the others as I am as they complain about the walking, won’t try any food they haven’t had before or can’t pronounce, are afraid for our souls, know everything. This is Shammeeza.
I’d not think of ditching them, these two. But our other two compadres? We are rather tied and I must work with them so a cut and run tonight is not really in the cards, stars or picture. So we won’t get to the museum of art, or out to the Tibetan Temple, or other such places. I have not traveled like this before. This is a new experience for me as I’m either alone or with my wife and, either way, I get to see what I want to see and go where I like. Not so this time. Not so.
So tomorrow we may well play the ditchy game and go for a walk along the 1st street bridge where there is quite a bit of inventive graffiti, in fine detail, of blues singers, Tibetan art, political cartoons and requests to free political prisoners and all this done in the same intricate, detailed stenciling along a walkway attached to the bridge crossing the Colorado near Town Lake.
Tomorrow is my last night here. Last night. Then I get to go home and the joy of coming home is equal to the adventure of being away. It has been fascinating experiencing a new place in depth; a small, small part of a city, like getting to know a tiny but deep pond as opposed to a wide, shallow lake.
And I have experienced a mundane activity – finding one’s way around a few block area – with new eyes and new energy; like I was dropped in from the sky and told to get along here. And getting along I am. But there is no place like home. That is a platitude, true, but accurate.