In the late spring of 1988, I set out on a major road trip with my former college roommate, Paula. I lived in Knoxville then, she lived in Tampa. I took the bus down to meet her and together we traveled in her car with my money to Victoria, British Columbia, and back. It was on this trip that I first set foot in St. Louis and also in Austin (not to mention about fifty other cities).
Austin came first, on the trip West it was three days of drinking and visiting the famous Sixth Street, listening to music at the Black Cat and dropping money in the musicians' tip jar which traveled the length of the room via a pulley clothesline system. We went to SoundExchange on the drag and picked up some homemade Daniel Johnston cassettes back when Daniel Johnston was really obscure (before Kurt Cobain started wearing his "Hi How Are You?" t-shirt). We ate at a little dump called Virginia's where, for five dollars, you could write down five items from the menu (all of them served drenched in melted yellow solids) and have them served up with a big jar full of iced tea and, if you were lucky, a mean lecture from the ancient Virginia who would tell you to sit down and shut the hell up, if you were in a hurry eat somewhere else.
I remember the sky really was much bigger than I could have imagined before I saw it (prior to that, I thought tales of big skies were some goofy myth). There was an impressive bookstore called BookWoman chock full of books by and about women's rights and needs and thoughts and deeds. And there was this really cool sculpture on the campus of The University of Texas web-footed horses rearing back and stomping through a fountain. For some reason these three things leaped out at me and stuck.
St. Louis came later, an unplanned stop on the way back East when I was out of funds save for a corporate check no one not even Vegas would cash for me. I had a friend in St. Louis, it was on the way (what wasn't?) and he said he could help. He also said I could meet his brother, which I did, and fell in love and, inside of a year, gave up life in Knoxville to live with this man in your curious Midwestern town.
But it wasn't too long before I decided I hated St. Louis, a sentiment that only many years and much hindsight would reveal to be inaccurate. It wasn't so much that I hated the place. I hated what was happening to me there I was stagnating, drinking too much, not pursuing my writing dream, working food service. I had a new baby and the isolation new motherhood could bring. And I was hardly the favorite in-law (in part, I suppose, because I wasn't actually an in-law, having opted to birth a bastard rather than tie the knot).
So when Paula urged me to move to Austin where she had moved to escape the spectre of her boyfriend's suicide I packed up eighteen boxes of mostly books, a few clothes, and no furniture whatsoever, and shipped them south via UPS. I hopped a plane with the baby (his dad joined us a month later). And I arrived in Austin, Texas, early September 1991, with no place to live, no job lined up, and no plan whatsoever.
I fit right in.
Actually, I didn't know I fit in for a while. The first few months were a miserable period of adjustment. Austin wasn't at all how I remembered it as a young, drunk, single, responsibility-free human. Austin was a strange land and I couldn't figure out how to make any money so I began writing term papers for a living, which just depressed me. By Christmas, and a visit back to St. Louis, I begged the kid's dad, "Let's just stay here. I was wrong. We shouldn't have left Missouri. Please. We'll just leave everything behind us."
But I came back. And in the beginning of 1992, I scored the first of a few key jobs that would help me to assimilate. Thanks to a St. Louis connection (Jeanine, with whom I'd waited on tables at Riddles Penultimate, had cousins who owned a joint in Austin), I got a table-waiting gig at the Magnolia Cafe. This is one of the most famous restaurants in Austin, and the location I worked at was the rock'n'roll branch, where all the music folk hung out. The cooks and waiters were a fine mix of artists, thugs, ex-cons, drug addicts, tattoo collectors, alcoholics, and sex fiends. I felt very comfortable in this crowd. When we rented a house around the block, ours became this round-the-clock stopping place for impromptu end-of-shift parties, which were often, as the Mag is a 24-hour restaurant with staggered shifts, so somebody was always just getting off and stopping by to say hi and pop a beer.
I also began writing for The Austin Chronicle, which was a good way to meet another group of poor, liberal, drug-crazed artists and musicians and wannabes and to score free tickets to sundry events. It served me well as a place to test my writing wings and, ultimately, netted me a nice group of readers and just a touch of local fame.
Finally, I got more work at a place called Esther's Follies, a comedy review of still more drug-crazed artists. The lunatic owners of Esther's, which is on Sixth Street, own a comedy club called the Velveeta Room. It
wasn't too long before I went from barker on the street trying to round up an audience for open mic night to cocktail waitress to manager. Never mind that the club was tiny and business slow-to-dead on any given night. I managed a club on Sixth Street, dammit. And that gave me insight into the entire famed entertainment district a good view of the drunk frat daddies out to tie one on before going home to date-rape their sorority-girl acquaintances, the tourists throwing back too many shots of Cuervo, and the too-cool-for-you-so-fuck-off rock'n'rollers in front of The Black Cat and Joe's Generic bar.
I just passed my eleventh anniversary in this town. A couple of years, during the high tech boom, I fantasized about running away from here, even maybe running back to gasp! St. Louis, which has become such a beloved city to me now that I have had a chance to experience it as returning citizen (albeit a brief citizen). Austin was falling apart as far as I could tell, with nouveau riche assholes on every corner clutching martinis and Cuban cigars, PT Cruisers all over the streets, and so many limousines that you thought you were in LA. It was awful.
Fortunately, the economy went bust and the assholes high-tailed it to their mommies and daddies' houses far, far away to live on unemployment checks and regroup. Which left me and my ilk back in a town we could really appreciate. Mind you, there are many versions of this city there is the political version of being the state capital, the youthful version of being a UT student, the suburban version of working for Dell and living the straight dull life, etc. But my version returned in full-force. Because as tired as the phrase "slacker" is, Linklater nailed the best version of this city in his movie by that name, a movie that was released the month I first arrived for good.
I love that the cafés are plentiful and always crawling with the curious. I love that you can be poor and still manage to talk your way into shows or get invited to spur-of-the-moment gatherings where hippie food will be plentiful. I don't drink anymore and many of the good old dives were driven under by the stupid boom. But still, out driving sometimes, I'll spot a little bar like Deep Eddy Cabaret and remember how fun it was to throw back cheap pitchers and cold Shiners.
I love the heat and how persistent it is, prompting people to always dress slovenly and minimally. I often go out in my pajamas and no one even gives a second glance. I love the abundance of foreigners who come for the University. I love the stunning number of tatoos and piercings and weird hairstyles and colors. When I first moved to St. Louis in 1989, I had a crew cut. I remember walking through the CWE, on a quest for a restaurant job. I passed an elderly couple on the sidewalk may they rest in eternal torment who were aghast at my appearance. "What the hell was that?" one said to the other, gesturing at me. Whereas here, my kid has been dyeing his hair all colors and patterns (checkered, leopard spot, bright green) since second grade and people don't threaten to beat the shit out of him they pet him.
I love that we are accepted here, where you can be the biggest, screamingest liberal you want to be, safe in the knowledge that before the day is through, you're bound to run into at least one person who makes you seem like your feet are firmly planted in the middle of the road.