Category Archives: Austin

The Place You Love Will Always Move

Saturday night I took a break from hacking together my next demo reel to hang out in an old horse barn downtown. While a small jazz group sounding like a chainsaw fighting a swarm of bees turned up to twelve and spun the hot night air, I climbed between rotting wooden tables over dirt floors to stacks of paintings. The canvases were everywhere, heaped and discarded like old windows pulled out of an abandoned building. A selection of these had been hung around two walls and provided a variety of views into the same moments as a nude model moved through poses. The aged glass of these particular windows was rippled and cracked by each artists’ life experience such that their hopes, lost loves and living dreams made the same model, in the same moment, appear in one view bitter and hopeless and in another sweet, innocent and full of hope.

Outside bicycles spun back and forth between old houses and warehouses that shook with metal or blues bands. In one an older woman hammered passionately at a huge old electronic keyboard as three hipsters lurked near the bar, nursing cans of Lone Star. Only blocks away sat the house my ex-fiance and I had built several years before. I think the walls are still wonderfully “classy Alice in Wonderland” stripes and the spiral staircase that took up most of the 800 square foot house still climbs to a tiny loft space. At the time the neighborhood was entirely Hispanic. I remember talking to an older guy who had grown up there who explained that the whole place was entirely Swedish before that. I was increasingly troubled by my accidental role as the flag bearer of gentrification, the sign that it was “ok” for white people to start moving in. This reached its peak when a white guy bought a house down the street and installed two aggressive dogs and a huge metal fence. He himself took on the task of snarling aggressively at anyone who walked past and treated the place as if it were a bunker in hostile territory.

The trouble I have is that I miss the old place where my neighbors would ring me up and say, “hey, I got an order for drywall, is that you? I’ll just swing by with the truck after work!” We bought a dented stove and the guy who brought it by lived in the house right across the street, where at night his father and friends used to practice with their mariachi band.

I also dig the crumbling horse barns and warehouses full of enthusiastic artists chopping at stone or slashing up scrap metal with oxy-acetylene torches. Without the income to afford cars, a lot of these people are reviving the joy of zipping through the streets on bicycles. There’s nothing like feeling the wind tossle my hair while gliding among the people out walking. Being on a bike makes stopping to babble with random passerby simple and frequent. I love that there are more people sharing this experience.

But all of this is but a brief spot on a continuum. The cycle continues and the briefest moment is this one, a time when the old neighborhood still has some of its character and artists can afford to perform and create before all of it is swept away by condo builders intent on capitalizing on the momentum. There have been attempts to stop or slow this progression, but most have met with little success. Fundamentally, the world over, we are humans and motivated by the same things. In Germany artists poured into east Berlin when it opened cheap spaces and squats, and when developers rushed in to capitalize I understand that now west Berlin has emptied out enough to become the new affordable place to be.

This leaves me realizing that my favorite place to be will forever be a moving target. If I want to stay in the sweet spot I’ll have to be willing to migrate every few years, or at least stay within cycling distance of the purple spotlight as it sweeps across a city. The mechanized guard dogs in Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash heated up so much from their internal power sources that they had to stay in constant motion to stay cool and alive. I feel you my brothers.

The Power of Hats

As Mike, a cashier at Wheatsville, handed me a can of black beans I looked up past his grin to behold the end to a long search. It was crushed and mangled and the blue cotton had been crudely splatter painted by the sun, but it was none other than the perfect replacement hat.

My previous “normal guy” hat served me well for many years. It was just the right level of normal to get me through airports, police stations and other places requiring discretion with my culturally conflicting hair. It was also dear to my heart, as the logo on the front came from Enchanted Rock, a natural area near Austin revered by native americans and modern rock climbers alike. A wiry French speaking Tahitian man wears it now. After spending a night drinking on the beach with him, he gave me some amazing pearl pieces he’d pulled from the ocean and hand carved himself. I wanted to give him something of value to me.

Mike found his hat under a seat in the back of an Austin bus. He ran it through the washer and up onto his head where it had now been sitting long enough to have its own cowlicks. The patch on the front was circular and read, “City of Austin – Founded 1839” in light blue letters around a yellow and red shield. It was crude. It was simple. It was about my favorite place on the earth.

Sadly, he didn’t have many leads on finding another one of these gems and so began a quest, one of many in the collection of ongoing quests and missions that carry me through life. It wasn’t until about a year later, working as a theater manager for the SxSW Film Festival, that I saw the hat again. I immediately abandoned my post to run across the convention center and grab the man lucky enough to be attached to it. He worked for the Austin Department of Public Works, maintainers of my city and the secret source of the hats that are blue. While he at first feared for his life, after hearing my impassioned plea he said, “hell, I’ve got another one in my locker. I’ll just give it to you.”

Blue cotton Austin Department of Public Works hat

When he returned I told him that I wasn’t going to pay him, and at even the suggestion he held up his hands. Instead I wanted to give him something equally cool. My wallet had carried a treasure for six months, waiting for the right moment. I pulled out the crisp two dollar bill and gave it to him.

That exchange, the fact that he gave me the hat as a gift, is part of what makes it so valuable. It’s a thread woven into the cotton that hugs my head and rests gently above my ears in reminder of the simple kindness of the people of Austin, the city who’s name it bears, the city I love.

My dad’s father died when my dad was still a teenager. It was a fact that, as children, was so puzzling and mysterious and incomprehensible that we simply couldn’t grasp it. He was never overly willing to talk about it. He told us that it had made him sad and nothing more.

One day while poking around his closet I found an amazing old felt fedora and begged him to let me use it in the high school play. We were doing a production of The Sting and even with a couple of paint drops around the edges, it was perfect. That’s when I learned that it was the last thing he owned that had belonged to his father. When he at last acquiesced, I was extremely nervous that something might happen to it. Now I’m even happier that something did: it picked up another story, another thread, another piece of what makes things like old hats so magical. I’m glad that my new hat is well on its way.

[ed: It should be noted that the blue hat is, in fact, one of two normal guy hats I have. The other went with me to India and can be seen here. It has a Mad Penguin logo on the front, and is probably the coolest gift my sister has ever given me!]

SxSW Wraps

Another South by Southwest comes to a close. Hearts pour out in unison from stages all over my city, covering the sweating exhausted audiences. Together they build to the 2:00 AM climax of last breath vocal screams, blurring drumsticks and guitar strings bent beyond their limits, diving down to hell and wailing up to heaven. With a roar the crowd gives what they have left in response, slapping their sore hands together one last time before stumbling out into the street to shout over the ringing in their ears and feel their way through the waves of humanity towards the smell of greasy pizza.

I stand leaning against a barricade, chewing on the last few slices of organic dried mango left in my pocket. I slap a few hands and feel the warmth of hugs as friends and new acquaintances pass. This is still my city after all these years and I feel like welcoming all of the lost outsiders who drift by or ask how far they are from a taxi.

Today I am guided from my bittersweet sleep by the melancholy but gentle hand of the piano outside my room. Outside I find that beloved housemates have produced the soup of re-animation and are ready for post sxsw analysis — the music, the films, the crushes — the magic moments that seemed fleeting cast forever in reality through the sharing.