At the airport on the way home, passing T-shirts that said “Keep Austin Weird,” I asked AK, “Do you think it would be overly controversial to title my blog post ‘Austin: Not That Weird’?”
Don’t get me wrong: Our trip was great, the city was fun, the people were friendly, billboards informed us you could buy a condo for $90,000, and AK’s Austin peeps showed us a good time…but there was also traffic and confusing street signage and long lines everywhere and plenty of Starbuckses and overpriced thrift stores. I couldn’t help but wonder if some of Austin’s stellar reputation came from the rest of the country’s condescendingly low expectations of Texas.
The first night we Tex-Mexed it up at Chuy’s, a local chain with unlimited self-serve chips and salsa that you can eat at a table while you wait for your real table. That alone earns Austin a lot of points in my personal travel book. We met up with Amy, an old friend of AK’s, and her friend Christina, a Wisconsin transplant who’d developed a loud, friendly twang. AK asked about Texas politics and Christina told a joke that involved a California spending a bunch of money to commission a study and a Texas governor taking out his gun and shooting a coyote.
Saturday we hit South Congress, which is kind of the Melrose/Vermont of Austin. There was an antique mall called Uncommon Objects where you could buy cattle bones and nudie photos from the 1890s. There was that store from Whip It and I think a Visa commercial. At St. Vincent de Paul, which has not been in any movies that I know of, I bought three shirts, a funky plastic and metal necklace and some Keds for $22. The shirts were originally from Target and Forever 21, though, so I didn’t exactly feel like I made amazing Austin-specific finds.
In L.A. we have food trucks; in Austin they have food Airstream trailers. It’s much prettier. We ate crepes at one and petted dogs at the dog-rescue trailer next door. The first person I mentioned that sequence of events to questioned what kind of meat, exactly, was in my crepe. But it was tofu—ha!
Another Austin claim to fame is bats: Every sundown during the summer, millions of them swarm up from under the Congress Avenue Bridge. Ever since I read Weetzie Bat, I’ve been a fan of actual bats (even though there weren’t any in that book). I have a soft spot for maligned animals (shout-out to possums, pigeons and rats!), and was super excited, but alas, it wasn’t bat season. They’re apparently all kicking it in Mexico right now.
But I did get to taste a batini, the signature cocktail at the Driskill Hotel, where AK and I lounged the afternoon away.
After an evening of carb-loading and an early bedtime, we woke up at 5 a.m. so AK and Jody could run and I could drive them to their run. It was a much less fun form of solidarity than the carb-loading, especially because I got hopelessly lost on the dark, rainy drive back. A bunch of roads were closed for the race, a whole freeway connector was closed for construction and at one point it seemed clear that I was going to end up driving to San Antonio. There but for the grace of an Exxon employee who gave much clearer directions than your average Austin street sign.
AK and Jody both came across the finish line looking cool and collected, like they’d gone for a light jog. I’d been worried about Jody because he wasn’t feeling well and had had a bunch of cookies for breakfast, which somehow didn’t seem as strategic as spaghetti the night before. But he’s a pro.
The run was packed and AK got tangled with another runner around mile three; the chick was uninjured but also unforgiving, and AK spent a lot of the race feeling guilty and afraid to pass anyone. So her time wasn’t what it could have been, and the annoying thing about race times is that no one is really interested in hearing what yours could have been. Even though her time still rocked (2:17 y’all!), I was frustrated on her behalf. I also have a soft spot for unsung hard workers.
After dropping Christine and Jody off at the airport, we spent our final night in town with AK’s middle school friend Joy and her husband Odie (I’m not sure he spells it like Garfield’s BFF, but I’m going to pretend he does). Odie has worked in restaurants for years, and like many restaurant industry people, he and Joy know how to party, how to eat and drink their way around town. I mean, sometimes I think I literally don’t know how to party.
They took us to this little strip of Rainey Street that had recently been rezoned for restaurants and bars, and it was the first place in Austin where it really hit me that I was somewhere different. All the restaurants and bars were either in old converted cottages or trailers or stylish tin shacks. There were lots of white lights strung up and one giant rattlesnake made out of bicycles that looked ready to slither off to Burning Man.
The whole thing glimmered and made me think of the bayou, even though I’ve never been to the bayou. There was also something a little third-world about it, and I got to thinking about how in a lot of countries there are just certain things no one but the upper upper classes even tries because they’re so prohibitively expensive. I think that opening a restaurant with a foundation and a door in the U.S. is becoming one of them. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as evidenced by Rainey Street.
Since most of our trip so far had consisted of eating and driving (at least for those of us who didn’t run), it was refreshing to spend Monday morning in a park being a passenger. We were among the few riders of the Zilker Park Zephyr who were taller than four feet, but it was a nice way to see a river and ducks and dogs and a street musician named Woody Wood who sidled up to us like he might rob the train.
Our last stop was Mexic-Arte, which had a beautiful exhibit of the bright colored tiles made in San Antonio in the first half of the 20th century (plus a somewhat uninspired installation about the women of Juarez. Is it blasphemous to say I’ve seen better women-of-Juarez art?)
Arriving home, I was catapulted into February. January felt like something of a 2010 hangover, so I was happy to be done with it, but man, February is going to be busy and a little stressful. Austin, even if you’re not so weird, I’m going to miss you.