In the middle of the world’s highway

A brief excerpt from my current project – an autobio/travelogue piece about a day, a night, and another day – put here with a view toward this site not lying fallow for too long. There’s more non-memoiristic critical musings galore sometime soon, should you be one of, oh, three people who long to hear my thoughts on That Comic About The Guy or “That Song I Really Like” (both actual projects).

On the way off (waaay off) chance that there is something like a clamor for more of this piece (ha) – or I simply become bored enough that I convince myself that the world needs a glimpse of me conferrin’ with the flowers and consultin’ with the rain – I may put the rest up.


The moment I exited the bus station, it began to rain.

A few days later, when there’s enough distance for these events to recede into narrative, a closed system with something like internal consistency and a happy ending, I play with the idea that this drizzle is just my anxiety made manifest. Befitting that anxiety, it was only a small rain, my anxiety being surprisingly low considering the fact that I was (sort of) throwing myself to the elements: I’d ventured to Austin via bus, no car, no phone, and, hey, no umbrella. My contacts in the city at this point in time had either moved or fallen away over the previous year or so, so there was no one to rely on for company or, more importantly, a couch on which to crash. The only set points on the itinerary I set were to arrive and to depart sometime on the next day – everything else was a series of question marks, to be made up as I went along.

This foolhardiness may be thrown into relief by the past month, a lost month effectively. I had spent two weeks of it as ill as I’ve ever been in my life – for much of that time my existence was reduced to the ten feet between my bed and the bathroom, my time taken up largely by chronic diarrhea punctuated, for the sake of novelty, by occasional bouts of vomiting. Otherwise I just lay in that bed as an inert lump, feverish and weak, killing the hours with the only thought that arose without effort: a desire for sleep. I never bothered to learn what virus struck me down, nor whether it was a “virus” – like a hardliner in a fifties b-movie, the mere fact of an alien presence, something to be rid of, was all that concerned me. I think I left that bed ten pounds lighter, let’s say, and just in time to slog through finals. Cadging notes from passing acquaintances, I rigged up a vague idea of the classes I’d missed, something to scour that I hoped resembled Topics Discussed; I could only aspire to mediocrity. And so, having weathered these plagues, I awake one sunny Saturday morning with a single thought: Out. Austin, a seventeen dollar bus ride away, is a logical choice.

With a view toward all this, the tiny tempest which greeted me may have been an acknowledgment, a welcome back to the world. Every story needs a deus ex machina – this one just happens to come at the beginning; if I had the sense of this moment as a moment rather than just another moment, I’d have stuck my tongue out and I’d be able to describe here what a punchline tastes like. But playing spectator felt pretty redundant at that moment, seeing as I’d just spent three hours on a bus doing just that, staring at the passing landscape and wondering what I was doing, at what I had done without hesitation.

It was about two o’clock, “about” because I’d also neglected to bring a watch – I’d conspired against myself effectively. If freedom was foremost in my mind in the morning, a notion I clung tighter and tighter to with each passing mile away from San Antonio and up I-35, I then hit upon what some watching my actions might have surmised the moment I purchased my ticket: I’ve come to test myself, to see if I can extend that shitty month by two days. Whatever reason I was really there, grimacing at the rain, it wasn’t “escape”; losing yourself in these circumstances isn’t an option. I’m obliged to be present for every moment, to see that my feet keep moving forward, to earn the copious perspiration which will accumulate on my skin in May in South Texas, when summer has already staked a claim. After you’ve shitted liquid into the toilet forty times a day for four days in a row, regularly found yourself incapacitated by the effort of speaking, and undergone a week of waking up to hallucinations at 3 AM, you may need to assume some power, to endure in another, more controlled, set of circumstances.

But this may be overstating things. Austin is only a minor obstacle course, its “weird”-ness entirely appropriate for a bumper sticker, fit for the like-minded and left-leaning mass rather than the individual and eccentric. It won’t be difficult to manage a lifeline should the unassuming urban elements therein prove too much – a friend or a relative, their voice exasperated in response to me explaining my stupid-ass predicament over the phone, which may either be a pay phone or one I managed to borrow from some hapless passer-by. “There’s always a way,” as my hero Superman likes to say. I won’t find my preferred last-two-acts-of-After-Hours experience here, much less the maximum security prison New York of 1997 I navigate in my dreams. Passing through it for the sake of a night out has the feel of a board game, an environment where it’s hard to get lost, a course you can follow with every location reliable and lively; if San Antonio comes and (more often) goes, its tiny corners of excitement fading as quickly as they flare up, Austin – or, at least, the Austin you encounter in passing – is a hub or incident and event, a place you can wander through and find yourself entangled in some larger scheme.

Slacker leaps to mind for a few reasons as I write this, partly because it’s a movie dedicated to Austin as an environment – not many movies give you that sense of covering ground, large swaths of continuous movement over a given area, unless you’re wandering hallowed ground in Russia, ala the Zone in Stalker or the Hermitage in Russian Ark; our movements intersect a few times, most obviously at our beginnings, our adventures starting at the same bus station. Another Richard – Linklater, the director – stars in the film’s first sustained scene; he takes a taxi from the depot to a friend’s house and considers aloud to the indifferent cabbie how every alternate method of departure and path he may have taken just now, including hoofing it and taking a regular bus, creates its own possible universe, possibility breeding possibility, most in fact preferable because he’s low on funds and taxis are a luxury. Me, I’m equally broke but thoroughly secure in my place in my universe, having had the common sense to print out a Cap Metro map (public transportation, natch) before I left: I know how I’ll get there, though “there” is always changing. What makes the movie really mesh with my own wacky sojourn as a bum for a day is the movie’s form, insofar as the typical random Austin scene you encounter – or, at least, any random scene you encounter should you follow the chains of connection designated as “youth culture” – tends to feel like a “scene”, everyone you see starring in their own little movie, their every action you glimpse none too far from its intended purpose; you can include (off the top of my head) Brandon Graham’s King City and Tati’s Playtime in that list as well, very different works which play with democratized space, their narratives exhaling every now and then to allow certain moments to serve as series of moments. And maybe that’s why I tend to write about Austin – every time I enter I suspect I’m wandering into story space, as evidenced by that the right-on-cue rain, reflective of something or nothing.

A further compare and contrast with Slacker is probably irrelevant, a tale of two Austins, and not this Austin and the Austin of 1990 but Linklater’s little dream of Austin 1990, a reflection of a brief mood preserved on a Criterion two-dvd set, and the Austin which lay before me, a place rife less with “characters” than self-consciousness. There’s less a sense of the people you encounter creating themselves than aspiring to a set niche, a spot allotted everyone, whatever your subculture or lifestyle (except maybe the mole men), a state probably right in step with the early twenty-first century when most subcultures aren’t as sub- as they once were, the market none too keen on neglecting any consumer base. (Except those mole men – they can go fuck themselves.)

Anyway, there are no schedules attached to my Cap Metro map, just a handy-dandy series of numbers repeating across an image of the city – Austin, as ever, looks like a pork chop. After orienting myself so that my eyes resist the urge to slide off the page, I wander in the rain a few blocks in the general direction of a spot where five or six of the numbers meet up. I find the bus stop soon enough, benches and a canopy all occupied by families and groups of teenagers, a cross-section of the weekend patrons  of your average mall, your average mall a glass monolith in the background about three hundred feet away.

I debated whether to run in quick to use the restroom, restrooms being an important part of any prolonged passage through an unknown environment, to be used at every opportunity regardless of need – and all the better if, like mine, your bladder is tiny and inexhaustible. Every area is a façade for a restroom – regardless of whatever identity a place may assume, there must be a space which tethers it to necessity, acknowledges humanity at its most absolute. As such, you can leave whatever plot you’re immersed in at the restroom door; from thereon, everything is defined as utilitarian, starting with you, now reduced to the status of the faceless icon often there to greet you as you enter, your actions a functional series of steps to be executed. It’s a biological rite which frees up your higher functions nicely, all the better to plan the next move on your mental map (or my literal map). (It’s a wonder I didn’t return home to collapse on my bed from another unknown illness contracted from the many I visited – hell, maybe the same illness, come back in defiance of my immune system to finish me off.)

As I made a few tentative steps toward the mall parking lot, ready to inaugurate this trip with an affirmative stated on behalf of the human race, my bus arrived. The sun took care to arrive with it, popping up seemingly within seconds of me entering inside; we keep missing each other, like characters in a drawing room comedy…






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