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Back to Austin



In 1979 I was living on the streets of Austin, Texas.

I had my black n' whites -- the black slacks and white shirt I needed to get a restaurant job -- stored in a locker in the Trailways station on Congress Street. I could keep my uniform clean that way, change and brush my teeth at the bus station. I was living on day old donuts. Most nights I'd sleep under a freeway overpass or just walk all night. Every few days I'd use some of my dwindling pile of cash to check into the Motel 6, take a shower, watch some TV, sleep. During the days I'd pass myself off as a student, go upstairs to the music collection room at the University of Texas undergrad library, have them put on some Beethoven, some Bach, maybe a Russian, and sleep in the carrel with the headphones on.

I had a job bussing tables at a restaurant called the Quorum which was a hangout for Texas pols and lobbysists. I would walk all night, sleep a couple of hours to Mozart, work like a dog bussing tables, repeat, repeat.

I'd burned my bridges with my crazy family. (Not cute, Fannie Flagg crazy, Jonathon Franzen crazy.) I had done a number of self-destructive things, including but by no means limited to, dropping out of high school. I knew I had driven the rusty Dodge Dart of my life into a blind alley. I'm stupid, but I'm not un-intelligent: I knew things had gone wrong for me.

After a while I moved up from busboy to waiter. I had to borrow the money for a seedy tux and a frilly shirt from the owner of the restaurant. I managed to rent an apartment on Pearl Street, just two blocks from the fabled Les Amis, just off-campus.

It was a hideously awful apartment with more cockroaches than it is possible for a sane mind to contemplate. Heat and cockroaches are Austin for me.

One evening, coming back from seeing a woman (whose name I forget, sorry miss,) I spotted the girl in the apartment next to mine through the window. I immediately concocted an excuse to go over and knock on her door. This is very unlike me. In those days my usual approach to women was, shall we say, retarded. A few minutes later K. and I were having beer at Les Amis. Twenty-four hours later we were living together. And twenty-seven years later we're still together.

Yesterday was the first time we've been back to Austin since those days. The roach-infested apartments on Pearl Street have been torn down. Les Amis is gone. The Quorum is gone. The Drag is just as squalid as it ever was, although now there's a huge Scientology "church" where once there were head shops. So much for progress.

I don't remember which overpass I used to sleep under, but as we zipped along the freeway in our rented Town Car I happened to see two cop cars under an overpass. They were running a check on a dirty, bedraggled looking young bum with bushy blond hair who'd probably been found sleeping there. Could have been me, although no matter how desperate I was I was always clean and presentable. Still, give him a shower and a work ethic and it could have been me twenty-seven years ago.

I found myself wishing I could send a message back across time to that earlier me. Something along the lines of "Don't worry, man, in a quarter century you'll be back here with wife, kids and platinum cards." That's idiotic, of course: reassurance might have killed me. If I hadn't been scared and lonely I wouldn't have knocked on that girl's door. And then I might have been scared and lonely forever.

I arrived in Austin as desperate as I've ever been. There were a couple of other desperate times still to come, but K. was always there, and that made all the difference.

I don't spend a lot of time regretting things I've done, or wishing I'd done things differently. I think life is far too complex for that. Life is a house of cards, you can't say "If only I'd moved this card . . . or that . . . " And in any case it turned out I not only got what I wanted, I got what I was too stupid to know I needed.

I don't sweat the moves along the way of my odd little life, with one single exception: what if I hadn't knocked on that girl's door? I thought coming back to Austin would be a sort of "Ah hah!" victory lap: from sleeping under the overpass to five star hotels, from busboy to author, from utterly alone to daddyhood.

Instead all I see is that moment, played over again in my head: I see her, I get up my nerve, I invent an excuse, I knock . . .

I always say that you live your life within an overlapping set of circles formed by genetics, environment, free will and random chance. I get that, intellectually. But still, you don't want to think too much about the random chance part. It'll give you the shakes.

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“Back to Austin”

  1. Blogger Cantankerous Bitch Says:

    So, what was the excuse?

  2. Blogger M. Takhallus. Says:

    Hi, can I borrow a can opener?

    Brilliant, huh?

  3. Blogger Howlin' Hobbit Says:

    Actually, it was pretty damn brilliant.

    Got you hooked up with your soulmate, din't it?

    That was a terrific post, thanks!

  4. Blogger reader_iam Says:

    Damnit, Tak!--this one made me cry.

  5. Blogger Cantankerous Bitch Says:

    Ah... the ol' Small Appliance Seduction...
    Very crafty, indeed. :)~

  6. Blogger amba Says:

    Call it a non-near-miss -- getting up the nerve to approach a near miss? Groan

    Some people, like you (and my dad), see these as incredible trapeze moments of chance -- when your wrists lock in passing in midair but could so easily have slipped, or just passed.

    Others see them as the moments we are guided and protected by some larger power, whether you call it your classicaldaimon or something even bigger.

    In another post a little like this one, you once said that the stupidest thing you'd ever done led, within a matter of weeks, to meeting K. I still wonder what the stupidest thing was. Maybe you don't know now which one you were referring to, like you don't know which underpass you slept under.

    Thank you for this. You should write a memoir someday. Fate for skeptics.

  7. Anonymous sail on Says:

    I wasn't a barfly, just a divorced hard-working woman with a 7-year-old daughter who happened to be out at a friend's house one night when I finished a big freelance project (one of 2 or 3 occasional jobs I did in addition to my fulltime menial wage day job in Florida "where wages suck because, honey, ya gotta pay for the sunshine"). I decided to go to the bar/lounge a mile from home just to have a drink and watch the spring break kids get their freak on. I thought he was a college kid - skinny, tan, shoulder-length hair. He struck up a chat with me(because, I later learned, the buxom girls all gave him the cold shoulder), we danced for hours (he hates to dance) and talked freely. It didn't matter the impresison - we were both involved with others. "I have a duaghter," I told him - usually the cue for the guy to look at his watch and bugger off. "How about I take you and your daughter ou7t sailing?" he replied.

    That was 20 years ago. I moved to Canada to marry him, we raised my daughter and sailed to the tropics for 2 years - now working on the next great escape from what people call reality. God bless serendipity or fate or whatever cosmic force intervened to all our benefits!

    sail on

  8. Blogger amba Says:

    That's my sister, by the way, M.

    Their second or third date, he sailed up to my parents' house on the beach in Florida, anchored and came ashore. J and I were there and it turned out he serviced firefighters' airplanes up in the exact same part of Ontario where J. had worked as a refugee contract laborer on a logging railroad around 1949. At some point he went into the kitchen and said to our mother, "I'm going to marry your daughter."

  9. Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges Says:

    Amazing story. I've been close to the street but never had to live on it.

    Still, I had my special, random chance ... and I took it, too.

    We're still together fourteen years later.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

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