Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Keeping Austin Weird

These days, the words American pastoral prompt us to think of the Philip Roth novel set in Newark, New Jersey. The words and the book came to me as we closed in on Liberty International, sliding past parking lots of gleaming cars and gas storage tanks, with Manhattan hazing in the middle distance and of course, the Statue of Liberty closer by. Nowadays, the spike in the belly, the Empire State Building, is the only obvious Manhattan landmark to partially attuned eyes. It gives New York a 1930s feel, pushing America back in time, while the steel and glass palaces of Qatar, Dubai and Shanghai stretch still higher.

And then Manhattan slumped from view as we hit the tarmac and were enveloped within the horizon line of New Jersey sprawl, beyond the airport perimeter. I felt the sorrow of knowing that dear friends were close by yet out of reach. Brooklyn seems to be a eudaimonic place. Close enough to Manhattan to be revitalised at will by the currents and energies passing through, far enough from the canyons of Capital to see sky, to dream and to be amongst good people from a thousand places.

In the arrivals hall, as we queue to show our passports, a flat screen TV emanates a Larry King type show. Something in the plasticity of the blather makes me suspect it is Fox News. The anchor is interviewing a crime expert who talks about Mexican gang activity in the US. I don’t catch where exactly they are referring. The interviewee recounts his experiences being followed by gangs and their brazen presence on the streets. The discussion meanders on in tones of alarm and panic. My ears tire of the discussion and I tune out. As we inch forward, I note two men in identical light brown gowns and matching turbans waiting ahead in the queue. The turbans are a distinctive shape: lifting high above the head like Greek orthodox priests, but still Sikh. It seems entirely appropriate that they are here in this moment, entering America, adding to its mix, part of the multikulti flow of things. The sartorial shock effect will diminish as they head towards the big city and are woven within a broader and deeper fabric. They are the only human interest in a numbing sea of jeans and t-shirts and bored Border Control personnel. As soon as my eyes and all fingers and both thumbs are scanned, I’m through.

The departure gate for Austin is next to a flight to Boston. I hear the staff at the desk exchange irritated words that the rhyming places have been scheduled next to each other. Perhaps in the past passengers have become confused about where they really want to go. But, I wonder, what sort of person who knows how to board a plane could confuse the two? Or, perhaps, the choice between Austin and Boston is smaller than we might think.

Nearby the desk, a pigeon has found its way inside the terminal. People turn and stare, in collective apprehension of a sudden fury of wings. Hitchcock flutters through a flock of minds. The bird has nowhere to fly. There are no open windows in sight: Liberty International is a hermetically sealed transition capsule. How did it get here? The bird sits staunch with fear next to the conveyor belt, folding its wildness within itself. Blue-grey wings and a tiny beating heart against the robotically revolving rubber.

For most of the flight, the woman sitting next to me reads a book of poetry. I fancy she is a literature professor at the University of Texas. Around us, a group on their way back from Italy, with t-shirts and snatches of stories. Among them, there is a sense of opened horizons; the excitement of having-been blending with the imminence of home.

Bergstrom takes a few minutes to negotiate, my friend A waiting with a grin and open arms at the bottom of the escalator. We are soon on our way in, the iconic scapes of America around us – Interstate signs, huge cars, bumper stickers and retail sheds, the anonymous comforts of movement and materialism. The scene in Paris, Texas where Hunter and his father sit in the back of the pick-up truck with spirals of overpasses in the background is so imprinted in my mind that I cannot see them without being reminded of it. Austin, Texas. The minor thrill of travel: the recalibration of images and situations of existence.

Despite being the State capital of Texas hold ‘em and hang ‘em high, the liberal delights of Austin are plentiful. We spend the next few days sampling them. The informal motto of the city is “Keep Austin Weird”. Whereas elsewhere in the state, you might see Icthyus stickers attesting to the mighty word of Jesus, in Austin, the fish is more likely to have a cheeky “Darwin” in the middle. My entre into Austin weirdness begins almost immediately; that evening, A takes me to Casa de Luz. The house of light is set in a sylvan compound, with a yoga/meditation space and a vegan, organic, gluten-free and macrobiotic restaurant at the back. I’m not sure I’ve been in a space with so many virtuous adjectives conjoined at once. The set menu each day offers all you can eat for fifteen dollars. It seems somehow inappropriate to pig, especially when cold twig tea is on offer as refreshment and the other guests shine with a beatific glow. A few days later, I am taken to the Alamo, the cinema, not the site of the historical mission near San Antonio. It would perhaps be the planetary film-lover’s Mecca, had Mohammed access to celluloid. In front of each row of seats there is a ledge and a space behind it. One leaves ones food and drinks order on slips of paper and which get delivered during the film. Of course, I was served vegan fare – a huge platter of hummus and nachos. After two bottles of local lager, Knight and Day seemed like a work of comic genius. Oh the existential joys of America. I imagined a proximate sentiment across time and space: the Tuscan farmer sampling his first hypocaust in Imperial Rome.

Another point in the cartography of delights A shows me during those first few days is Wholefoods. Austin is where it all began of course, in the 1980s. I noted an ugliness filter in invisible place at the door alongside the shoplifting detectors. Alongside immaculate fruit and vegetables, everyone shopping in the store seems to radiate health and vitality. There seemed to be various social networks at play inside the space: I noted lesbians gathering by the dessert counter. They too were immaculate.

At various intersections across the city, I spot men carrying placards made out of cardboard. For some reason, I assumed they were Vietnam veterans. I couldn’t have been more wrong. One day, between places in A’s 4Runner, we come to a halt at traffic lights. A man walks towards us and comes close enough that I can read the scrawl on the front: "Not hungry, just sober". He catches us looking and moves closer. We wind down and listen. "I just need a dollar for a pint mate. I got two kids in college and my wife is over there. I'm Irish-American." It’s nearly 100 degrees outside, but that's no excuse for being loco.

A is keen to show me further forms the good life in Austin might take as my stay continues. We go kayaking on the Colorado River from Zilker Park (called Ladybird Lake in downtown Austin), drifting east with the tide, past the tall glitz of the city centre until the city starts to shrink back to green. Suddenly, it feels like we are on a tributary of the Mississippi, with herons taking flight, turtles plopping into the water and thick vegetation swarming at the banks. Then, an airplane glides across the sky, lowering into Bergstrom. Nearing A’s home, the current increases and we drift along effortlessly. We stop at a small island and swim. The water is cool and clean. Another day, we drive to Kreuse Springs, an hour or so from Austin. Here, there are emerald pools and waterfalls to loll in, and, best of all, two-metre huge wind chimes casting pentatonic vibrations through the trees, as we lie on hammocks below. An unforgettable joy.

And yet. Austin is a bubble of sorts; a university town and hangout for old hippies surrounded by hard boot Texas. The Lone Star State, the rest of America and beyond, intrude in various ways. We spend a blissful day at Barton Springs, a valley of spring-fed pools and rocks curling close to the centre of the city. From rocks several metres in the air, two Texican lads make bold leaps into the water. Their accents are heavy drawled, their words one rung above the monosyllabic. Although they bask in the sunshine of the moment, I sense violence, under the surface. There is something gangster about their group on the bank. Fox News echoes at the back of my head, in the place where stereotype and body image converge into a politics of fear. I wonder where prejudice ends and reality begins. The next day, we go swimming on Lake Travis (the Colorado River changes its name more than once around Austin). We leave our towels and valuables and swim across the water. As we reach the other bank, we see a family arrive and settle down near our towels. The man walks slowly past our stuff, lingering a while. When we return, I notice my ring has disappeared. By this time, he has started to fish, staring fixedly at his float bobbing in the water. He looks like a Mexican gangbanger. His face is covered in tattoos, with a ferocious looking knife designed across his back. I ask him how the fishing is going and then make a retreat.

Later that day, we go for beers at the Lone Star Bar in nearby Jonestown. We shoot pool and are served beers by a curvaceous waitress who tells me she grew up on a Navajo reservation. Real-life hicks with ruddy faces ring the table outside. The shortest among them tells us he has Irish ancestry and a few years ago would have punched us immediately. We are less than an hour from Austin, and yet neck-deep in Hill Country living. These people are poor drunks, jibing their days away, seemingly unaware of the ways of the world beyond their ken. A woman among them tells me she lost 400 dollars trying to buy a dog from Nigeria. It is impossible to suppress a laughter response.

And as the days pass, and one scene of camaraderie segues into another (A is a charmer), a thought takes shape at the rim of my experience. As elsewhere in America (and many times when outside London), my racial antennae have lifted and are taking readings. In the midst of the well-tended weirdness of Austin, something almost Bostonian appears to be at work. I recall my various times in the Massachusetts state capital: the parks and the order of the city centre, the New England sheen, and then the off-grid deprivation after long walks along the bleak MLK Boulevard to Roxbury. I think of the invisibility of sorrow and of histories that will not resolve themselves, and above all, of parallel lives within the same sphere of existence. A shadow starts to cast itself down upon the cloudless sky. The Boston in Austin. Beautiful bars and restaurants, and white people. Locally-brewed IPA beer, organic nachos and a subtle, unstated, exclusionary principle.

I raise my anxiety tentatively to A. He dismisses the feeling, and begins to count the black friends in his circle. Others mention that the black population of the city is comparatively low, compared to the Mexican immigrant population. The African Americans seem to be confined to a sector of East Austin. The following evening, A invites one of his black friends for drinks. I hadn’t wanted to bring the issue up (wary of the unconscious association of race with blackness), however, by the time I return from the bar with my round, the conversation had started. A’s friend is an ex-professional footballer from south-east London who is now an academic at UT. He has dreadlocks and an easygoing understated charm. In response to the race in Austin query, he tells a story about a recent visit to a boutique in an upscale part of town. The day after his visit there, friends of his called to say that he had been seen there, wondering why he was there. After the story, no further explanation was needed, or so I had thought.

A couple of evenings later, A and I walk along 6th street, where out-of-towners and students go to drink and run amok. Partying on 6th street is a circumscribed experience: bouncers and police are highly visible, with muscles behind uniforms coiled for righteous action. A little online research reveals that there is a subtle code that the doormen on 6th street are asked to adopt, to ensure that the joints do not get too dark. A points out mixed groupings, but still my raciometer clicks at speed. Visual contiguity does not imply social continuity. I sense that his earnest desire to see good in the world threatens to add dust to the bottom of the carpet. Along the street, we bump into two young women, one black and one white. The African-American tells us she is from the valley in California and that she finds Austin quite strange. She mentions that in her vicinity there is a wifi hotspot called “ihateniggas”. We carry on in silence: the awkwardness of racial uncertainty between white friends.

And then, at the end of the evening, after margueritas at the grand old Driskill Hotel, tiredness creeps up on us and we decide to head home. We get to the crossroads at the end of 6th street, leaving the alcoholic thrum behind. Cars speed past, but none yellow. A woman stands on the corner, neck cradling her phone, looking out for her pick-up. I wondered how long our wait would be. I step out into the road to look further.

“Hey, you guys want a lift?” A dark blue-pick up truck screeches to a halt close by.

“I can give you a lift home guys. Where ya going?”

We look at each other and share the same conflicting thought. Getting home sooner rather than later would be welcome, but what kind of person would offer a lift for nothing and why? A approaches the window.

“I just wanna give you guys a lift home. Where you going? Are you going to step in?”

A pulls away, a look of uncertainty straining his face, offering me forwards for a verdict. I place my head inside the cab.

“Are you guys coming? I can give you a lift home dudes..”

His right hand grips the gear control and seems to be matched by an unlocated appeal in his voice. What could he do? He could have a gun. He could force whatever he wants to happen on us.

“Nah, its ok thanks.”

He accelerates away, leaving us to wonder who would fall for his offer, and what might happen. It might have been a scene from American Pastoral.

Austin is a fine city, surrounded by water and glades and hill country and the good life. And yet, the dirty secret of race and the harshness of America exposes itself, as it must, pushing against any pristine joy. The shadows upon Austin speak of America’s history (and future) on the one hand. On the other, Austin is just like any other space of freedom in the world: exclusionary principles are always at work, where humans build places to live.


Patrick Cook 5:36 am  

Austin, although liberal, is still a marginally Southern city. San Antonio, 80 miles to the southwest, has a very different history as far as ethnic relations are concerned. In San Antonio, a black face really is quite rare, and the predominate ethnic divide is between Hispanics (the majority) and non-Hispanic whites. Anglo culture is definitely the elite culture, but the old Anglo elites have, over the course of the past 100 years, become increasingly open to people of Hispanic background, provided they adopt the cultural norms of the Anglo elite. 40 years ago, one might here talk of 'good, high class, Americanized Mexicans'. The cultural chauvinism is now generally subtler, but something of that attitude remains.

Anonymous,  3:33 pm  

Thank you.

Anonymous,  6:28 pm  

My response to your article is "So what?".

As a African female, I find it amusing that white liberals, of which you obviously are one, like to think that they are taking up the struggles of the so called 'black oppressed'. I bet you'll find that Nigerians do not obsess about race half as much as you seem to.Why do you obsess about it quite so much? Newsflash, black people don't need 'saving' anymore. They can do it themselves. So what if there aren't lots of black people living in Austin? And we are to infer what? People live where they want to live. There are plenty of examples of black people, Africans or otherwise, who are professional, articulate, educated and probably far better in life than you are and I somehow think that they don't spend their life worrying about inequalities....they just get on with it. Maybe you can learn something from that and start living in the 21st Century.

Jeremy 10:35 pm  

@ last anonymous. Many thanks for identifying yourself as an "African female". You unfortunately fall into the stereotype of the African who refuses to acknowledge the reality of racism/white supremacy in the States. You are simply continuing a long tradition of driving a needless wedge between African experience in the US and much longer-term African-American realities, which is summarised in the disparaging 'akata' label Nigerians often use for African-Americans. So much for racial solidarity.

I do not cast myself as some kind of white hero. I simply went to Austin, and picked up on a dissonant undercurrent to the celebration of the city as a space of difference, and tried to write about it.

That said, assuming you are Nigerian, you only need to look closely in your own backyard to see similar levels of social divide in Nigeria that do their best to ruin lives and opportunities. The Osu 'tradition' in Igboland is the most obvious one to raise. No amount of being a 'proud African female' strutting your stuff on the world stage can take away from the ongoing damage this pernicious tradition of creating outcasts within does.

Its easy for Nigerians to snob African-Americans for being victims of their own drama; its not so easy when the various forms of master-slave formations that continue in Nigeria are brought out into the open...

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