Encounters with Drifters and Prisoners: Thoughts on Manhood

Late one afternoon I was sitting on the curb of Rio Grande Street, near the University of Texas at Austin, waiting for the Number 12 bus to collect me and convey me home.  It was spring, and the purple Texas mountain laurels planted throughout UT’s grounds perfumed the air.  I had just left a Latin American Lit class and was still drunk on discussions of time, infinity, and identity.  A man sat next to me, not a foot away, and asked me for $5.  He told me he was homeless, had recently endured some kind of surgery on his right knee, and pointed to the scar to prove it.  I gave him the money, though it wasn’t mine to give since my parents, loans, and a small scholarship were paying my way through school.  I couldn’t help myself, though.  I’ve always found it difficult to say no to people. 

Once I had given him the $5, he remained seated beside me on the curb.  Everything about him sagged toward the ground.  His body spread over the pavement, his eyes drooped, the corners of his mouth pointed downward as if they were attached to the ground by strings.  Even his words tumbled downward from his lips when he spoke. 

This man told me about an ex-wife and kids whom he never saw and couldn’t support.  He exhorted me to appreciate the quality education I was receiving and to use it to do good things.  Maybe he was lonely.  Maybe he could tell that I was lonely and he derived purpose and satisfaction from keeping me company.  Maybe a man like him, alone, homeless, in his fifties, with bad knees and a broken body, regains some of his youth when he is in the company of the young, to whom men like him are often invisible.  They amble down alley-ways; they sleep in doorways and beneath bridges.  Some of them while away their days in public libraries. Others lie on the green lawns of university campuses and divert foot traffic by their presence.  Do we see them?  Yes.  Do we talk to them?  Do we know them?  No, and so they are invisible in the way plastic bags and newspapers blowing down the street are invisible.  We know they’re there, yet we know nothing of where they come from or where they’re going, of who set them adrift and who forgot about them.

I’ve had so many encounters like this one.  Once, a man with long red hair and a thick moustache, carrying a guitar and wearing bell-bottom jeans cornered me at the back of the bus (again, the Number 12) and mumbled something about what Austin used to be like in the 80s.  I heard him say something about how back then the police didn’t harass people, and you could sleep where you liked, but in all I understood maybe a quarter of what he said to me over the roar of the bus and the wind howling through the opened windows.  I tried my best to listen, but eventually the man grew angry and told me I hadn’t heard a word he had said and that I must not care. 

On two occasions I talked to just-released prisoners, once while I waited for a Greyhound in Fresno, California, and once on that same Number 12 bus in Austin that so reliably served up interesting conversations.  I remember their joy over finally getting out of prison, their eagerness to get things right this time, to see families in Montana or to pursue a talent for art they had only discovered while they were locked up.  What joy could be more real than that of a man who has served his sentence and has just regained his freedom? 

If they could have seen their own faces, naked with the wonder and hope of children, they may have recoiled from themselves and the unmanliness they beheld.  But they could not see what I saw.  They didn’t know that tears glistened in their eyes.  They didn’t know that they giggled like little boys who had stumbled upon some squirmy creature for the first time and were taken with the novelty of their discovery.  They were lost in themselves, lost in the world that was new to them again, forgetful of the manliness society told them they had to project from a young age.  There’s something wonderful about watching a grown man return to himself, seeing him shake off the costume of masculinity and toughness in which he usually clothes himself, and listening to him as he expresses the complex mixture of hope, confusion, and fear that our culture tells us to suppress.

Father and Baby Son On the Edge (of a Cliff…)

Two Saturdays ago I walked by a man and his baby boy sitting on the edge of a cliff that drops four hundred feet to a lake below.  Here is what happened.  Early that morning I made my way to the Loop 360 bridge that spans Lake Austin, a dammed up section of the Colorado River.  The lake is about as wide as the river that once flowed freely through this part of the green Texas Hill Country.  The 360 bridge explodes from a blasted-out wedge of limestone on the north side of the lake.  It shoots from a vertical wall of white cliffs toward the flat south shore, four hundred feet below and a quarter of a mile across.  The bridge hangs from a series of cables suspended from two steel support arches, both red with rust.  On its north side, before flying over Lake Austin, the bridge cuts a five hundred foot gouge through bleached limestone, so that three hundred foot cliffs line both the north and the southbound sides of the four-lane highway as it approaches the lake and the bridge. 

I’ve crossed this bridge hundreds of times in my life.  I always assumed that the cliffs to either side of it were off limits.  But on this day, two weeks ago, I hiked up to the ledge above the southbound side of the highway and found neither signs nor fences barring my way.  Below, cars shot down the bridge, over the lake, and continued south where the hills swallowed them up.  I stumbled upon a black and grey tent set fifteen feet back from the cliff’s edge.  Gusts of wind pounded the cliff and shook a lone sinewy cedar tree that clung to cracks in the limestone cliff face.  Its branches creaked in the wind.  Twigs snapped, flew at me, and bounced off of the tent.  The tent flattened, then sprang upright at regular intervals.  

Loop 360 Bridge

I guessed that a climber or backpacker slept inside, but within moments of my arrival a dark-skinned, muscular man in his thirties emerged, wearing only blue jeans.  In his right hand he held a baby carrier, and in the baby carrier slept a baby boy of ten months.  In his left hand the man carried a lawn chair and a blocky 70s era radio.  He walked to the edge of the cliff, set the radio below the cedar tree, unfolded the lawn chair with one hand, and placed the baby carrier to the right of the chair.  He fell into the chair and turned the radio to a contemporary pop music station.  Man, baby, and radio all sat within two feet of the cliff’s edge. 

The man leaned back and turned his head from left to right, taking in the panorama laid out before him.  To the east, far downriver, downtown Austin rose grey from the plains that flow out of the Texas Hill Country.  Below, the 360 Bridge flew over Lake Austin and poured traffic in a straight line south to the edge of the horizon.  To the west, the lake curved southward around a bend at the base of the limestone cliffs that rise from its banks.  Beyond and above the cliffs, hills grown thick with cedars and oak trees rose and fell in swells of light and dark greens.  Houses bobbed on the crests of some swells and larger buildings plied through the troughs in between them.

Father and Son on the Edge

The lake, the hills, and the clouds gliding overhead all took on liquid qualities.  Cars flowed along Loop 360 toward a dot that vanished on the horizon.  Music oozed like liquid sound from the old blocky radio, and the tent and the trees swayed like seaweed in time with the currents of the humming wind. 

It occurred to me that every hour some five thousand cars passed below this strange man, seated on a cliff ledge beside his baby boy, fighting the gusting wind that threatened to whisk his son and his tent away.  Every hour five thousand drivers passed below him, and not one of them knew of his existence.  Not one knew that he had camped here the night before with his son; that he had slept above the intersection of two rivers, one of water, the other of flesh, metal, and asphalt.  Not one knew that father and son had watched the sun set over the western hills that tumbled into the distance like the lingering ripples of some divine thought propagating itself through the tissue of the earth.

Gotta Keep Moving; The Puzzle I Am to Myself

The 747’s engines roar to life. I raise the window shade and peer out at the flatness of DFW International Airport. The plane throttles forward and lifts from the runway. I leave the ground. I leave home, museum of my childhood, repository of first memories, first loves, first losses, the place where tiny fragments of me dangle from tree limbs I once climbed as a boy or rest alongside beloved scaly pets I buried in the yard.

Sometimes I feel like I’m smeared across time and space, scattered among people I’ve known well or barely spoken to. I forget myself sometimes, then a person or an object from the past jogs my memory. They tell me who I was with a knowing look or a trivial comment: “Gotta keep moving,” says Jon from elementary school, referring to one afternoon seventeen years ago when we played H-O-R-S-E together in my driveway. He had to sink a fade-away jump shot or else incur an ‘R’. “Gotta keep moving,” I said to Jon that day as he turned toward the basket and sent the ball gliding through the hoop.

Now, with that one statement, Jon hands me a piece of the puzzle I am to myself, and I remember. I remember that we were once twelve, he and I, and I feel the zest and confusion of that age. I’m twelve again. I’m twelve and I’m twenty-nine and many ages besides. And for a moment, that somehow makes sense.

“Gotta keep moving.”

I think I was somewhat younger than twelve in this picture, but only somewhat.

*I’m stealing away to Puerto Rico Thursday.  I hope to come back with something mildly interesting to share. 🙂  It would be hard to top the random experiences I had in Costa Rica last March with a group of  Harvard MBAs I became attached to. 

Water and Air: A Day Swimming in Barton Springs

Last Saturday I drove three and a half hours from Dallas to Austin with the express purpose of swimming in the cool waters of Barton Springs.  I swam for about an hour in the morning, then lay in the shade of sprawling oak trees on the hillside above the pool.  The smell of cedar, the splashing of swimmers, the regular rattle of the diving board as one kid after another leapt skyward and belly flopped into the turquoise water—all of it, every sound, every sensation massaged my troubled mind and smoothed out the kinks left there by working and living.

Barton Springs Pool--68 degrees year round

For two hours I lay on that hillside.  I slept.  I woke.  I listened to grackles posing their long drawn-out question, “Huuuuuuuuh?  Huuuuuuuuuh?  Huuuuuuuuuh?” with the persistence of small children.  I laughed at squirrels scampering up and down tree trunks in a game of hide-and-go-seek that to them may not have been a game.  When I grew hungry I walked a half mile to the Green Mesquite and gorged myself on beef brisket, turkey, chicken, rice and pinto beans, all drenched in barbecue sauce.  For dessert, I savored peach cobbler in the smallest bites possible.

Barton Springs Pool

After strolling around the hundreds of acres of parkland that surround the springs, I returned to the pool around 7pm and swam in the soft glow of dusk.  The pool gradually emptied of people.  At 8pm the life guards blew their whistles to announce that they were retiring and that those of us still in the water were on our own.  I floated in deepening darkness.  I heard other swimmers splashing and laughing occasionally, but for long stretches I felt I had the spring and the trees, and even the glowing sky, all to myself; that I existed in a world half water, half air, where all I knew was the sound of the wind jostling the now-invisible trees hanging over me and the leaves answering the wind with a million tiny claps that sounded like rain droplets tapping the ground, where I could hear gentle waves lapping against the concrete edge of the pool, producing a sound like that of a dripping faucet, with the drops alternating from high pitch to low pitch: drip, drop, drip, drop.

I straddled these two worlds, above and below the water.  I was immersed in them both, one cold, one warm, and I felt them both at the same time.  At once I felt warm and cozy yet cool and refreshed.  And for an entire day I thought about nothing but green St. Augustine grass, oak trees, turquoise springs, children flying kites, beef brisket and peach cobbler, the breeze running its fingers through my hair, and the sun warming my skin.  No stress.  No worries.  I thought about saying goodbye to it all, maybe for the last time. I returned to Dallas the next day.

The busy diving board. Unfortunately, the poor guy did not complete his back flip and smacked the water back first.

Squirrel territory.

Austin, Texas: Live Music Capital of the World?

Downtown Austin from Auditorium Shores

Austin sits at the center of Travis County like a radiant sun that illuminates all around it.  It tugs people into its orbit and, as massive stellar objects are wont to do, the city alters the fabric of reality and bends perceptions.  Are you sad?  Go to Austin, dance in a club or sway to the beat of an outdoor concert and you’ll find happiness again.  Are you angry?  Go to Austin, swim in its soothing springs and you’ll emerge cleansed and eager to forgive whoever wronged you.  Are you lost?  Austin will help you find yourself.  Do you want to get lost?  Austin can help with that, too. 

Music courses through Austin’s streets, reverberates off of its sky scrapers, and saturates most anything that passes through the “Live Music Capital of the World”.  On a loud Friday night even the Austin hills seem to resonate with the music that wafts in the air from Sixth Street, the pulsating heart of the music scene.  I used to read Austin’s boast that it was the “Live Music Capital of the World” as a joke that everyone was in on.  We natives repeated it with an implicit wink and a knowing smile.  To be sure, Austin has long been an incubator of musical talent, and for decades musicians and their fans have flocked to the city for its unique scene.  But capital?  Of the world?  That struck me as hyperbole. 

How things have changed.  Now Austin hosts two of the biggest, coolest, and most tweeted music festivals in the U.S..  More than 70,000 people attend the Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival on each of three days in mid-September.  200,000 people from all over the world flood Austin each Spring for South by Southwest (SXSW) to witness an entire city transform itself into one gigantic concert venue, where bands are as likely to perform in grocery stores as on big stages to big crowds.  The SXSW music festival grew to be so large that it spawned an accompanying film festival and, later, an interactive festival featuring social networking technology.  According to TIME Magazine, the film festival threatens to eclipse Sundance, long the hotspot of the indie film scene.  The Interactive Festival is one of the few of its kind.  The story goes that Twitter went mainstream when attendees at SXSW tweeted en masse about what was happening there.   

Stevie Ray Vaughn Statue

Yes, music has long been in Austin’s blood, but when I was growing up here, in the 80s and 90s, you could wander most parts of downtown outside of Sixth Street and miss that fact.  Austin’s music scene contributed to its eclecticism and confirmed it as a bizarre kind of place where dreamers fought against the odds and strived to live off of their art, playing in whatever venues would book them, and in some cases living on the streets with little more than their guitar cases to accompany them.  Now, wandering the streets of downtown on a Friday night, everywhere I go I hear at least the faintest echo of a song.  A country performance at Threadgills, south of downtown on Riverside Drive, floats over to me more than a mile away, on the far western end of Auditorium shores.  Loose melodies and muted drum beats rise from the city.  A drawn out guitar chord resonates in the wind.  For a moment I imagine the city itself is the instrument and that 800,000 people strum one of its 800,000 strings. 

Austin’s rise in the national consciousness thrills me.  I’m glad to see it grow and thrive.  Better than to shrink and stagnate.  Austin has changed, but at the center of the new people and buildings, subdivisions, restaurants, and festivals that accrue to the city, Austin retains its core identity.  At the center of the bigger and richer Austin lies the city’s soul, a seed crystal that alters everything it touches.  Everything new conforms in its own way to the best of what is old.  True, more people share in certain finite resources, and if you told me that on some busy days there is more skin than water in Barton Springs Pool, I might believe you. 

Barton Springs Pool

Nevertheless new blood injects vitality into this complex ecosystem, and public spaces set aside when the city was 1/10th its current size accommodate a metropolitan population of nearly 2 million with admirable ease.  By all means, come to Austin.  Austin will welcome you with open arms.  Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, Austin wants to get to know you.  Are you a hippie?  A suburbanite?  A hip professional?  Austin has a place for you, yet wherever you end up, you won’t be far from people who are entirely unlike you, and unlike in most cities I’ve come to know, you’ll be glad of that fact.  That is the essence of Austin: contradictions coexist side by side in harmony. 

 

I’ll post another essay or two about Austin soon.  I’d like to focus more on the recreational side of the town: its springs, its green belt, its parks and cliffs.  To be continued…

Concrete Entanglement in the Lone Star State

You can read the identity of a place in its transit system. How people get around a city says everything about who they are, the nature of their relationships, their shopping habits, how they have fun, even where most of them come from and where they’re going. If someone asked me to choose one feature of Texas that is emblematic of its identity, I would point not to its capitol building, whose dome looms larger than that of the U.S. capitol, nor to cowboy hats or oil rigs or the ubiquitous longhorn. No, I would point to its highways that unravel outward from every urban center and ribbon the state from east to west and north to south. I would rattle off the major interchanges, the nodes of this sprawling vehicle transmission system: the “High Five” in Dallas, the I-35/290 interchange in South Austin, the Beltway 8 Interchange in Houston. These knots of crisscrossing freeways rise from the Texas landscape as cathedrals might in many of the world’s great cities. And although they may be primarily utilitarian, they are also a profession of faith in and allegiance to a way of life, to a culture of cars and commerce and absolute freedom of movement.

A degree of artistry suffuses these monuments to life by car, most visibly in the symbol of Texas chiseled repeatedly in the massive concrete supports that hold flyovers aloft. Whereas elsewhere one might best appreciate the scope of a metropolis from a hill or from across a majestic river or lake, here, in the Lone Star State, a similar view may as likely be had from an overpass climbing and curving several hundred feet into the clear Texas sky.

These interlacing symbols of the Texas state of mind are by no means static. They evolve over time, and new ones grow annually out of the earth, as if vast tectonic forces continually heaved them skyward like mountains rising from the plains. The beginnings of an interchange are messy. Sounds of jackhammers and earth movers fracture the air. Colossal concrete pillars litter the terrain and dust wafts in the wind. A cacophony of horns honking and brakes squealing forms part of this chaotic birthing process, until finally a finished work emerges and the vitality of a populace flows through and brings the steel and concrete giant to life.

To some the highways of Texas may be a blight on the landscape, walls of traffic and noise that segregate one part of a city from another. They foster anonymity, lack of cohesion and a feeling of perennial displacement among the population. The impersonality of urban sprawl prevented me from ever feeling kinship with the DFW metroplex. I was always a stranger here, and the city, a clumsy behemoth only dimly self-aware, never cared that I existed. Yet since I was a little boy growing up in Austin I’ve seen our sprawling highway infrastructure as representing possibility, vitality and the irrational exuberance of a state on the move. Driving I-75 through Dallas or I-35 out of Austin I felt as if I was joining a society of nomads thronging along an asphalt ribbon of nowhere, bounded by somewhere, leading anywhere, so that the highway was an interstice between states of permanence. As a tree-hugging conservationist I’ll always argue for more trains, subways and denser urban spaces, yet the cloverleaf interchange will forever remain an entrancing symbol of the frenetic energy of my home state.