An Afternoon Drive Through Austin, Texas

I love Austin, it's a beautiful city. It has some disadvantages mind you - it's in Texas, which is a strong mark against it for me. But it really is a great town.

The fascinating thing about Austin, in terms of it being an American city, is an accident of geography. Texas is NOT a state well known for it's urban planning, and most of the major cities I've visited exhibit not so much urban sprawl, as a sort of urban ooze. San Antonio is a perfect example - it's like, at some point someone dropped a bomb in the San Antonio river, only instead of a ring of dust flying out from it, there is a slow moving wave of human habitation. So there is a certain tourist life to the very center of the city, then there is this ring of emptying, or decaying subdivisions, largely built out of ramshackle and chicken wire, to last for a few years before it begins to fall apart. Houses, in San Antonio, are like cars - sure, some people keep them for decades, but oy vey, they put a lot of work into them after the first 3 or 4. Outside the ring of desertion, then, is this ring of trendy neighborhoods, always at the far reaches of the city, always clawing onto barely tamed land - one such neighborhood physically collapsed, last year, when a retaining wall collapsed, and the neighborhood backyards began pouring out like water through a burst dam. These houses, built in shifting backfill walled in by a pile of concrete blocks, were behemoth McMansions, more expensive than two of my house (I'm on the far edges of the ring of the deserted, just behind the blast cloud).

Austin is different. Sometimes, maybe once every 3 months, I have to work in Austin for my present job (the job I am currently thinking of changing, mind you, a fact which may later be cogent to the story).  The office for Pearson in Austin is on the northern edge of the city, by Pflugerville, and I, coming from San Antonio, drive into the southern end of the city. Austin is, as this implies, a city that has ends, instead of a circle. Originally built to be a nice, modest town, as it began to burgeon, it became apparent that it was easier to go North and South than East and West (Hills, mostly the other directions), and so the city has slowly puffed into a long cylinder, like foaming pipe snake. In the center is the university, and the capitol, and at both ends is a burgeoning wall of houses, falling on top of each other, clinging as closely as possible to the one artery of the city: Interstate 35.

This is what makes Austin, when experienced as a driver, fascinating (I imagine those who must drive it regularly use other words) - That there is only one way in, and only one way out. IH-35 is not some beltway, routing around the city to dump you on the other side, it is the aorta of the city, pumping cars straight into the heart. To escape San Antonio if one is on the edge, one may simply circle round the outer-most ring, until they reach the 'Abandon all hope' gates at I 10, I 37, or I 35. To escape Austin? One most follow Dante through the great rings, closer and  closer to the frozen (or in this case, boiling) heart of the inferno, and crawl down the devil's tail, only then to struggle through purgatory before reaching the paradise of a highway with sensible traffic patterns.

Like I said, I work on the Northern edge, just where Beatrice waits for Virgil to pass Dante on (only the road leads on towards Waco, which makes a pretty poor paradise), and I live in San Antonio, which is somethign like Limbo, I suppose, only without the Greek Philosophers, so this journey in and out of the Devil's Maw is a familiar one. It's usually not so bad. I get along with sinners, really. If one leaves at the right time, it can be quite pleasant, to tell the truth (one can overlook the seedy triple X shops that slaver over the highway like hungry gargoyles, after all, with a bit of practice). The drive in, this Monday, was really quite pleasant. There was a moment halfway where I frowned, to realize that my air conditioning was not blowing cold air anymore, but I have a '93 Chevy Corsica, one learns to live in the moment and accept life's blows. So I opened the window, which is kind of nice when you're driving fast.

The journey home, however, was an epic. A tale to tell my grandchildren. If I were a John Steinbeck, it is the sort of story I could use as a metaphor for the very soul of what Texas, no, America, no, not even that, what humanity ITSELF is.

You see, what happened was, I called Amanda, to see how she was towards the end of the day, and she had gone out to visit her family with the boys, during the day, and she said they were staying late - then that they were staying for dinner. Being a practical man (well, not really, but go with me on this one), and knowing that we're trying to build up a nice cushion in case we should have to move, I made a suggestion at this point - why don't I just stay a bit late? There's a lot of work to do in Austin, and I could get a bit of overtime, which never hurts anyone. What this meant was, I left around 4:00. It had been a long day, and I am such a clever fellow, that I thought ahead.

"Hrm..." I said to myself, "I am leaving at four, which is rather close to rush hour, isn't it? And my air conditioning, as I recall, is not working terribly well. And I'm a bit thirsty anyway. You know what? I have earned fruit smoothie. I shall get one, and drink it on the way home, it'll last a good 40 minutes, if I space it out, after all, and by then I should be through the city, and onto the highway, and the hottest part of the trip will be over!"

What a lovely idea! Oh, though, my friends, woe be unto thee, thou arrogant children, woe, if thou wouldst say to thyself, "My God is a patient god, he is a forgiving god. I shall sin a little, I shall sip smoothies, and sing Bob Dylan loudly, and walk very swiftly through hell, and God shall beat me with a few stripes, but he shall say, then, 'come now, thou little one, into my presence'." Oh, ye fools! Ye fair, foolish virgins! Would that I could teach you to keep close to the ways of the Lord, to walk in the paths of avoiding-rush-hour righteousness! Thy god is a just god, but he is a fearful god to those who disregard his warnings!

I learned these things, because I saw a vision, as I pulled my A/C-less '94 Chevy Corsica onto the IH-35 access road. In my vision there were three forms, two were quiet black men, one sweating profusely, the other in a broad straw hat, both in brightly coloured vests like construction workers wear. Were they doing construction? No! No, do you think I would ramble on this long, if that's the only story I could tell you? No, they were nice fellows, doing what is done in Texas intersections everywhere: collecting money for a church ministry. I don't generally give to these ministries. It's nothing personal - I disagree with their underlying reasoning, but we more or less agree in the long term outcomes: drug addicts hsould be helped, the homeless sheltered, the sick taken care of, etc, etc. I don't give, because I never have cash, and because it's difficult to check the veracity of the claims of a man holding a ten gallon jug full of quarters towards your window. It's nothing personal.

"But," sayeth the observant reader, "But, Jason, you said there were three actors in our passion play! Who is this third?"

This third, my friends, is the hero of our drama, a man on a desperate mission to save the world from... something, unclear. I first noticed this man from a distance - he had just arrived I later surmised, but traffic was backed up a bit already, so I was some ways from him. I could only see him gesticulating, leaning in and dancing around wildly while he shouted at the ministry workers. He seemed animated, deeply concerned. HE would shout, and dance, and shake his fists for a few minutes, then stop, turn to the cars, and bow, deeply, profoundly, powerfully, his hands first clutched to his chest, then thrown before him, in a theatrical gesture that suggested either great sorrow, or an operatic tenor accepting the adulations of a standing crowd. One could almost imagine him picking up the scattered roses on the stage of the Access Road Playhouse, and drawing them in to his breast, to call out 'Oh, my adoring ones, you are too kind! I am but a humble musician!'

The other gentleman looked merely confused. Perhaps slightly incredulous. And then the light turned green. The third man turned, and began again to shout, to gesticulate wildly at his two companions, who by this point were sitting on the guardrail, dumbfounded. Only, now, the man in his turning had stuck a foot directly into an active lane of traffic. The cars took a moment to process that. There was a moment of stillness, a dramatic pause. One could imagine the drivers of the Ford Expedition blocked by the man's wayward foot, speaking in hushed whispers,.

"Oh, Carlotta, can he have? He has broken the fourth wall! The arrogance! His performance... it will all be for naught!"

"Marius! How can you speak that way, about the great Pavaligni? He is the greatest tenor in Austin! If he has broken the fourth wall, it's.... there is some genius that we, mere audience members, cannot yet understand! Is it possible, is it CONCEIVABLE, my beloved Marius, that we, we humble drivers of a Ford Expedition, have been invited to participate in the performance? That we, with our humble skills, are asked to play a role?"

"It is... it is inconceivable! Carlotta, I... oh Carlotta, you know the dreams of my youth, in the mountains of San Marino, when I believed one day, that I would be a professional Car Horn Symphony performer, but... oh, Carlotta, God cannot be so kind..."

"Marius... when fate calls... you do not lay off of the horn. This, my beloved, this is your moment!"

And with the care and emotion of a raw performer, the horns began, first simply as a gentle hooting, like the twittering of some great, half-ton mechanical bird, but soon rising, rising in a Wagnerian wave. The man leaned back, and laughed, and shouted louder now, his foot staying immobile. Very slowly, cars tried to edge past him. He stepped back into the shoulder, and a few cars past, and the light turned. He turned, with the profoundness of his sorrow in his eyes, and bowed, bowed, bowed again. The ministry collectors now stood, to try to play there part, walking from stopped window to stopped window, the man followed, calling out his hollow chorus in their wake, leaning in to the windows with them, raising his fists like a great, piping Mephistopheles. Laying a foot into the street, again. And the light turned. The chorus repeated, over, and over, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, but each time calling him back, calling 'Encore!'. Encore! cried the car horns, 'Encore! Cried people shouting at him out their windows (Well, they didn't say encore PER SE, but I think it was the gist of what they meant.

I finally drew close enough to hear the lyrics - as with most operas, they were in a lanaguage I could not understand, a language which involved long strings of invective, particularly the invective beginning with an f, frequently paired with a reference to matriarchy, often in close proximity to that racial epithet one hears in Huckleberry Finn, but seldom 'in the wild' anymore. IT was difficult to follow the plot, but it had something to do with him informing the two ministry collectors/Greek chorus members that noone was going to give them any **** money because they were too ******* smart to give any ******* money to ******* who ****** around on ******* street corners. The irony of this statement - he carried a sign which simply read '25 sents' - I am sure struck him sometime in Act three. The two ministry fellows leaned in exhaustedly at my window, at one point even, and mumbled a broken, tired chorus, about how they were just trying to help jesus, and could I give something, even a few pennies. Their companion leaned of course, to tell them I wouldn't ******* give them a ******* penny, which made me feel terribly lame to tell them I actually didn't have any cash. The man cackled a wild cackling that reverberated around the windows of my '94 Chevy Corsica, and informed them I probably had a ******* hundred dollar bill, but I wouldn't give it to no ******* ****** because I knew ******* didn't need to something, something something shouted loud enough it was difficult to decipher, which made me burn with an unaccountable shame. I offered them my smoothie, but they just went on glassy-eyed, almost weeping out their 'god bless, man', as they passed on. The next man gave them a twenty. IT struck me that while it was probably terribly disheartening, having a mad man was actually quite possibly good for the collections business. I finally passed onto the highway. It had been 30 minutes.

The road moved - slow but moved - for a bit, but as I approached the split, where the road goes into two different levels in the College district, it began to sputter into a slow crawl. I looked down worriedly - my smoothie by now had gotten a bit lower than I expected. And as I rose over the hill, I saw that the crawl lasted farther than i could see.

Oh, my friends! If you have been in this place, where you feel the force of god's sandal on your neck, do you do the same as me? Do you look wildly around, desperate to see why? Why, god, why are the cars sitting still? Is there a tipped tanker truck? A sinkhole in the middle of the highway? Did the Tenor of Access Road theatre take helicopter downtown for a late afternoon showing? Is there flashing lights? The green cartoon glow of a radioactive waste spill? There must be a reason!

It was when I got into the heart of CollegeTown, then, that I saw them, protesters on the bridge that passed over the highway, holding great vinyl signs, reading 'Legalize Pot', and 'Tax Pot, stop the Drug War'.

Now, my friends, I cannot fault these gentlemen. I cannot entirely embrace their cause - I am that rare breed known as the libertine Mormon, so on the one hand, I have a great understanding for those who, like me, have their vices, and wish to be left alone with them, but on the other, I have bben raised to fear anything that I wouldn't see Brigham Young advertising for as a terrifying demon, a harbinger of the end, the first step into a downward spiral that will leave the imbiber scrabbling through dumpsters desperate to find some scrap they can busk a sale for on the street, to scrape together just enough to have one more rendezvous with demon dope, when at the bottom they find a half worm-eaten Gideon's Bible, which they somehow end up reading, only to pray fervently and beg god to forgive them for not listening to their parents. These fellows didn't look as if they'd gone quite so far down the road of sin, they were dancing a bit, and one had a rather ridiculous, and borderline offensive set of fake dreadlocks sewn into a stocking cap, but I felt that the misery of wearing a stocking cap in the 98 degree heat was punishment enough for what was probably a youthful indiscretion.

What truly perturbed me was that people were slowing to 5 or 10 miles per hour under the bridge, to honk wildly, and lean out their windows, hooting incomprehensible calls of support.

'Honk if you agree' said the sign. "It's a straw poll, my friends", I called out to these drivers, "They, I am sure have a tallier on the bridge, you need only toot gently and be on your way. Why! Why, my friends! Can you not see? Look! My smoothie is almost gone! Please, please move along!"

IT wasn't every car - it does not take every car, just enough of them. The traffic would jerk on a few cars, then a slow wave of brake lights would flutter down the highway, as a girl leaned out the window to squeeze her breasts together with her handsand call out her agreement, the gesture I can only assume suggesting that her breasts also supported the legalization of marijuana. I crawled along moaning softly, Bob Dylan now shut off as it no longer sufficiently reflected my mood. My windows were down, of course, to try to let the breeze in. I sat parked on IH 35, next to a 80's model Ford Pickup, driven by a very angry looking elderly gentleman in a white cowboy hat, the image of his head framed by stickers that expressed his righteous outrage at the actions of the Obama administration, and his unguarded support for government action in formalizing English as the official language of the United States, while diplomatically suggesting that those who were not familiar with English's intricacies perhaps ought to instruct themselves in said intricacies, so they could join the national discourse. Well, perhaps not diplomatically.

He too had his window down, and his radio moaned out an incomprehnsibly warbly lyric over the artistic styling of a steel guitar. This was the soundtrack to my incomprehension. We finally reached the overpass - I did not honk, my companion in the pickup did not honk either, but did spit through his window, which perhaps expressed his impressions of the Marijuana Legalization Movement. We moved then at a more acceptable pace. For a bout a mile.

Oh, my friends! Now the true torture, NOW the devil's tail. All that I had was taken from me, I drew deep sucks through the straw of my smoothie - it was empty, but the air was still cooler in it, with a vague taste of fruit. When this began to fail, I came to a realization - that smoothies taste nice, they cool one off, but they do not hydrate you. IT could beargued, in fact, that they do the opposite.

Oh! I cried to myself. Oh, why did I drink a smoothie! Why, why was I seduced by it's wiles, by the plumpness of it's iciness, and the firm, healthy curve of it's pomegranete juice and mashed bananas! Did I not know, that all sins, all self indulgence leads inevitably to sorrow? The forces of heaven bore down on me now, in a heavy parched torpor. Amanda called, I whimpered something weakly back. I don't remember clearly even what I said. I dropped the phone, and it fell in a hot shaft of sunlight, so I fumbled weakly to move it so it wouldn't overheat. I took off my suspenders. My tie. My shirt. I considered taking off my pants - I did undo them.

It was not, however, any of these actions which lead me to rear-ending the nervous, kindly city employee in her late-model Mercedes.

My friends, you must understand, I was in the boiler of hell. 98 degrees, you may say, I have been in that! But, I was in a deep canyone of cement and blacktop, still with my companion's Ford, but now alternating also between a semi truck carrying Subaru parts and one carrying Tyson chicken and pork products, each throwing of a wall of  engine heat and exhaust fumes. In Texas, on a 98 degree day, a parking lot will get up to 105 or 106. And I, I was leaning my head out the window, because in comparison to the inside of my '94 Chevy Corsica, the impromptu parking lot - only one with great walls of glittering concrete - felt cool and refreshing - except for the smell of course. The whining sonorousness of the Ford trucks country music began to trace secret messages into my brain wrinkles 'My lover left me in Little Rock, Murder the president, Join PETA, I gotta keep on drivin' this 18 wheeler, till the sun rises over Atlanta.'

But even this, even this did not cause me to rearend the Mercedes. No, I rearended the Mercedes because, I swear, I reached up to wipe my eyes, which were burning with the salt of my own sweat.

It wasn't MUCH of an accident - I mean, for God's sake, I hadn't travelled faster than 5 mph in more than hour. But we pulled into the shoulder, I stumbled towards her car with her insurance information, apologized quietly. Attempted not to vomit, from dehydration, because I didn't think that would make a good impression. Pulled back into the jealous bumper-to-bumper traffic of IH 35.

The traffic did not clear until about 30 miles out of Austin. This is the sign, this is a sure sign of the apocalypse. When I WANT a bottle of Gatorade, then the next thing you'll see is the Pale White Horse, whose name is Death. It  is a sign of the beginning of the battle in the valley of Har Meggido, when the Mountain shall be split, nad the temple restored to it's former glory. On this day, when the traffic finally allowed me, I bought a bottle of gatorade and drank it in 30 seconds. I then drove home.


Amanda said...

Where your wife was waiting and very happy that your 3.5-hour trip home from Austin, more than double a normal trip, didn't kill you.

Jason Gignac said...

You know... actually at this point it is POSSIBLE that with insurance I am worth more to you dead than alive... I'm just sayin'...

Amanda said...

Pshaw! Never underestimate the instability of my sanity. Being a single parent might just have me joining you quicker than you expect!

Emily said...

Is this the wrong time to mention that I live in a place where we are still complaining that the summer hasn't been hot enough?

That totally sucks! But at least you made a funny blog post out of it. :-)

Trapunto said...

This was excruciating--I take it that's the look you were going for?

I did not miss the bitter irony of the title.

I often wonder if I will live to see the end of car culture. (I really hope so.) I also wonder if I will live to see marijuana legalized. (This actually seems likelier.)

The stocking cap in the heat made me think of those "this is your brain on drugs" ads.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Emily - *laughs* If the apples still ripen, no summer is too cool. There is no such thing. :D

Ms Trapunto - It wasn't my best day ever, but it was mostly just physically annoying, which after all is the quickest to pass, and the funnest to tell stories about. Not that I'm volunteering to have it happen again...

Debi said...

I knew there was a reason I hated driving with such a passion! I am exhausted and shaking just from reading this. (Even though I did laugh several times, and smiled widely finding out that you listen to Bob Dylan--something many seem to think I need put out of my misery for doing.) But honestly, Jason, I am glad you made it home safe and sound eventually. *hugs*

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Debi - I COMPLETELY agree in terms of driving! COMPLETELY! It doesn't help that I'm also an awful driver, I've always hated it, I didn't even try for my license until my 20's, when I knew I'd need to drive Amanda to the hospital to have Morrigan! That's one of the nice things about potentially moving - hopefully we'll be able to use public transit :D.

Glad you like Bob Dylan! I'm more a Joan Baez fan, but I love some of Mr. Dylan's earlier stuff - I was belting out 'House of the Rising Sun' specifically that day, a song which he definitely does the best version of :). We'll have to have a Dylan singalong someday :D

Karenlibrarian said...

I also made the jaunt from Austin to San Antonio recently -- I thought if I left Round Rock at 4 p.m., I would miss the traffic. Hahahahaha!!!! Not too bad until we hit 35th street, then all was lost. We pulled off and went to Book People and Katz's Deli instead. But your story is much funnier. And far more nightmarish.

sprale said...

I've found a parallel in Canada this summer; Vancouver. It's everything that makes me love Austin, and then some. If it weren't for the winter cold, I'd live there. Maybe I could just go there for summers...

Jason Gignac said...

Mr. Spradlin - ARe you kidding me? I'd DIE to live up where there's a winter again! :D I know that's an unpopular sentiment, especially, in TX...