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BDA: Austin (10/4-11/10)

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Lifting Fog is nearing retirement, but standing in the way of digital shuffleboard bliss are 9-10 stray posts I’ve been sitting on for at least a year (if not years plural), including the last batch of “Barfoed Does America” entries. Just HUMOR ME WHYDONTCHA.

I. Prologue

I was maybe 30 miles into Texas, just pass Beaumont, when a cop pulled me over for speeding. “Where you headed so fast?” Officer Packer asked. “California,” I replied, trying my hardest to sound like a Steinbeck character. He looked me over. Peered through the windows of my car. “You off to school?” “School?” “Yeah, school — all your stuff there packed up, dorm room stuff.”

He was right — I DID own a lot of things more appropriate for a college freshman than an adult! And in that moment, halfway across the country with nothing but my license plate tying me to my previous identity (except all the French New Wave DVDs in my car, shirts that said “Haddonfield Swimming & Diving,” and the fact that I was still terribly, terribly me), I thought what the hell — let’s have some fun with this.

“I’m starting up at USC next week. Med School.” I’m pretty sure I capitalized both words as I said them. Packer stepped back. “You studying to be a doctor?” “It’s what my father does. I tried to fight it for a while, but it’s just…in my genes, I guess.” (Right alongside bullshit!) I paused for dramatic effect.

“I want to help people.”

The police officer stood silently for a second, absorbing what I’d just told him. Then he nodded — slow at first, but then faster and decisively. “Okay. I’m gonna let you off with a warning.” Was it — did it–? “You just get to California in one piece, alright?” The sun illuminated his badge, a gold emblem of justice set on glorious fire with rays of goodwill. I thanked him.

“Sure thing. Welcome to the great state of Texas.”

You (I) spend so much of your (my) life hoping it lives up to a movie, and it so rarely happens as to feel borderline impossible. She’s never going to leave her workaholic boyfriend for your sensitive street musician! But then a cop not only welcomes you to Texas, but the GREAT STATE OF…and dammit if you don’t shed the tiniest, manliest of tears. Cue the music!

II. Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean

I’m listening to Explosions in the Sky as I type this, both because the group is from the place we’re talking about and the fact that, for anyone whose entire view of Texas comes from ‘Friday Night Lights,’ they practically epitomize the whole state. Epic, big-sky romance. Heartbreaking loss. A razor’s edge between calm and violence. It’s not a completely accurate picture — some people drive on freeways in Texas, and not against a backdrop of wailing guitars — but there’s also no denying its powerful pull.

Austin takes all that movie-ready romanticism, throws some tattoos and a tweed jacket on it, and calls it “weird.” On 6th Street, cowboy boot stores brush up against used record shops around the corner from the hotel where Lyndon Banes Johnson wooed his wife, Lady Bird (for whom the nearby lake is named). Across the pond, Zilker Park plays host every fall to the Austin City Limits music festival. Rappers perform alongside aging rockers! Then there’s the just-finished SXSW, which manages to ensnare both movie stars and your friends in new media consulting, both of whom will chow down on Stubb’s BBQ. There is SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY in the capital of Texas.

But you know all this. You’ve been there yourself, or your black sheep poet cousin lives there. If you’re reading a blog on the Internet — and if you’ve gone so deep down as to read this one — it’s pretty-well guaranteed that “Austin” isn’t some foreign concept. So rather than my needlessly expounding on the different bikes you’ll see on the UTA campus, it might save us some time for me to just confirm a few Austin Fun Facts:

CONFIRMED: Their coffee shops are as adorned with garden sculptures and weird tchotchkes as you imagine them to be.

Somewhere in the city of Austin exists a bizarre place called The Spider House. It’s big and wide-open, with outdoor trash-picked seating taken up by people who may or may not need a tetanus shot. Surrounding you are massive steel-plated animal sculptures. And the building itself looks like it was bought from the old man in ‘Up’, with interior design by a frustrated Diego Rivera. It is, in short, a perfect coffeehouse. That the baristas offer you cigarettes only lends it more charm.

CONFIRMED: Tech suffuses everything, but only to make life easier for drinking and shit-kicking.

My friend Andy and I were heading out one night, to which I offered to drive. “No, dude,” he replied. “We’ll take a Car-2-Go.” Before you could say “…the shit is that?” he had pulled out his computer and located what I’d learn was the nearest rental car. Then we walked to it, swiped a card to open the doors, and were speeding off to our destination. Just like magic.

Car-2-Go is not altogether different than Zip Car (though I’d say the former has a more flexible and fair payment model), but the ease with which we used it and the fact that everyone seemed to use it says something about Austin’s dedication to technological innovation. And not in dumb Pokemon-for-adults-with-ADD apps like 4square*, but things designed to (literally) get us quicker to the important, real-time social stuff. Plus think of the built-in safety features! There’s no reason to worry about leaving your car someplace after drinking heavily because it’s not really your car to begin with. How you get home is an app I have no doubt leading Austin developers are working on as we speak.

*which I use religiously

CONFIRMED: It is still Texas, just Texas stuffed into a Vermont casing.

You hear all the time the ways in which Austin stands as this liberal oasis in the middle of Texas, an academic sanctuary from executions and “Don’t Mess With Texas!” shot-glasses. It isn’t completely true — you can still find both those things in Austin — but it’s mostly true. Austin embraces quirky free-thinking to a clinical fault.

But at the same time…the general Texas standbys still take root. BBQ is great, and people love eating it. They love eating all kinds of stuff. Everything is bigger, from the sidewalks to the giant high-schoolers running near their giant high school (and making other people feel like malnourished, effete East Coasters). Minus cattle wranglers and scheming railroad management, there’s still a sort of cowboy swagger that informs the attitude of every person in town. Whether they choose to honor this with a cowboy hat or not is their personal choice, but you can feel it either way.

What’s cool is the way this intersection of “Austin” and “Texas” feels less like a cultural grab-bag than its own unique urban flavor. Blah blah New York Los Angeles SURE, we GET IT — but there’s some strange alchemy at work in the heart of the Lone Star state that you don’t find anywhere else. Maybe it’s that, like Chicago, it’s so firmly stuck in the middle of two national poles? Informed by two extremes? Or maybe it’s less easily diagnosed than that, and pointless to try. Lord knows your cousin is right now rolling his eyes like crazy.

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