We woke up late, got showers, and headed out in search of a bookstore and then breakfast. The bookstore was to figure out where to eat breakfast, because neither of us had an Austin city guide of any kind. We found a great bookstore near the UT campus and an even better breakfast at a place called Trudy’s. The people watching was pretty interesting too. There’s a definite Texas type, even in an otherwise oddball town like Austin. Every man’s hair is neat – I suspect hairspray is involved – and every woman is blond and essentially beautiful in a very different way than blonds are usually beautiful. Striking, yes, but almost alien in some important but indescribable way. There were many couples with matching polo shirts. It was just an odd scene.
We found a more suitable hotel after breakfast – the Radisson at the corner of Congress and Caesar Chavez – dropped our stuff off, and went walking around. Sixth Street is the main drag of bars and music clubs and we figured we’d spend the day and evening hanging around there. As luck would have it, the biannual Old Pecan Street Festival was happening that weekend, so there was a lot to see. The live music that usually comes out of every storefront on Sixth had moved out onto the sidewalks, and the street was filled with arts and crafts booths.
After checking out the artists’ wares, we stopped into Joe’s Generic Bar for a few beers and some music. As it was still only early afternoon the acts weren’t exactly headliners, but the guy playing when we came in – a Stevie Ray Vaughan wannabe – was a lot better than the best you ever see in places like Columbus. I’m a big Lucinda Williams and Hayes Carll fan, and I’ve read just how tough a go they had in Austin. I can’t imagine how tough it is for the guys we were watching to make a go of it.
We drank a few Shiner Bocks and enjoyed the music. It was a dive, but I liked it. I was surprised, then, to read a couple of years later that the guy who owned the place – Joe Bates – had closed up shop in September 2004, citing his disgust with Sixth Street (he called it “sick street”). According to the article I read, when he first started Joe’s “things were great for an entrepreneur. But when the street got really popular, the city stepped in and ruined the party.” The rent had quadrupled and the city was cracking down on open container laws, which really killed the bar-to-bar business. Joe had had it, and was going to move to a better, less commercialized location in Austin. He never got the chance, though, because less than a month after he closed the bar, he was found murdered in his home. Joe’s Generic is now a tattoo parlor. From what I can find online, many in Austin believe that live blues hasn’t been the same since.
I left the bar before Ethan was ready to go. It was hot that day – high 90s, and the beer and lack of air conditioning was kind of getting to me – so I went back to the room to shower (again) and cool down. Ethan came back about an hour later and told me that he had chatted with the fake Stevie Ray after his set. I probably should have just sucked it up and stayed because I imagine that would have been an interesting conversation. Still, Ethan and I ended up having an interesting conversation of our own about human nature, the war, and a hundred other things while we killed time before dinner.
Ethan and I had pretty different upbringings. He didn’t watch TV growing up and isn’t the more or less cliche pop-culture-fueled product of the 70s and 80s that I am. He read far more books and had parents that were simply more serious about things like religion and work ethic and all of that than I did. This made for some pretty radical differences between the two of us back when we first met in college – I was something of a naive, knee jerk liberal because that’s pretty much all I knew; Ethan, while not fitting the conservative stereotype as such, was definitely way to the right of where I was. Over the years there has been something of a role reversal. Nothing radical to be sure, but I am fairly certain that he is now to the left of where I am politically (not that I’m too far right). Maybe it’s because he’s been in the Bay Area for most of the past 15 years and I’ve been to law school and the Midwest. Those kinds of things matter.
More pronounced than the political shift is the cultural one. There was a time when I would sit and educate Ethan about popular music, movies, and whatever cultural ephemera seemed to matter to me at the time. These days, mostly because I’ve had kids, I have no clue what’s going on in music anymore, I don’t see many movies, and basically lead a pretty insulated life, culturally speaking. As I’m writing this I’m listening to the Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed. That’s partially because it’s a kickass album, but partially because I haven’t bought a new CD in about four years. In contrast, Ethan will email me several times a year now to tell me about a concert or a play or a movie he just saw that I have simply never heard of.
There’s no real point to this digression except that, as I sit here now and think about it, I’m pretty sure that conversation we had in the hotel room in Austin was the last one before our cultural and political vectors crossed and headed off in different directions. Not that it matters all that much. I’m pretty sure that Ethan and I would remain friends and confidantes regardless of where things stood culturally and politically, and I really can’t say that about anyone else in my life.
Dinner that night was at the Bitter End Bistro and Brewery. It was quite the place at the time, but I read now that it has closed its doors to make way for a hotel. And so it goes. Dinner was great, though. The wine was better. Ethan – who knows wine better than you know your first born – ordered three bottles, and each time our waitress – Martha – came back to tell him, sorry, they were all out of it. As a peace offering, Martha gave us a bottle of 1996 Opus One at the price of whatever the last wine it was we tried to order but couldn’t have. I think it ended up being a $100 discount on the Opus One, which these days sells for something like $350-$450.
The wine was wonderful and so was the dinner. Martha was great too, and all of the good juju of the evening inspired Ethan and I to flirt with her a bit. I quickly came clean as a married father-to-be, however, and asked Martha if she had any suggestions for baby names. She suggested Tyler. Alas, even if I was interested, there was no future for a person like Martha and me. She came through much stronger, however, when we asked where we should go after dinner. She suggested the Elephant Room across Congress Avenue, and it was a dynamite suggestion. Dark, unpretentious, and cozy (it’s in a basement), we sat in the Elephant Room and listened to some fabulous jazz for a couple of hours and, of course, engaged in some deep conversation. The topic: my concern that Ethan will never find contentment and Ethan’s concern that I will never find excitement or true satisfaction in life. It was a conversation fueled by just as much mutual envy as it was genuine concern. It’s also a conversation we’ve had pretty frequently since 1991 and will probably have it until we die.
And with that, the real business of the road trip ended.
The next morning meant an early wake up call and a 200 mile drive to Dallas where I dropped Ethan off at the airport for his flight back home to San Francisco. I had a thousand more miles ahead of me, but I knew they’d be quick ones. I had seen enough for one trip and wanted to be home. I also knew that I’d be back on the road one day, and still know five years later that I certainly will be. I let East Texas, Arkansas, and Western Tennessee buzz by with nothing much more than a glance as I kept the music cranked and the pedal to the metal.
I made it all the way to Nashville that night. I might have gone even further if it weren’t for terrible storms in Tennessee. They were part of an unusual outbreak of tornadoes that hit the south that week, killing at least 39 people in Tennessee, Missouri, and Kansas. I had trailed the storms for a hundred miles or so, but had no idea how severe they were until I stopped in Jackson, Tennessee for gas and found a devastated town with no power. The tornado had hit less than two hours before I got there. I’d read later that eleven people died and hundreds of homes were damaged. As I looped back to the freeway I drove past dazed people, not yet aware that, in all likelihood, someone they knew had just died.
I made it home just after noon the following day. Carleen was still at work. I didn’t unpack the car for a while. Instead I came inside and sat down in the silence of my living room. I thought a bit about the job I would be starting in a week. I thought a bit about the baby that would be coming in December. But mostly, I thought about the road and how good it had been to me for the past month.