I travel to Austin for work.* I travel there quite a bit and sometimes for rather long periods of time. Last May, for instance, I drove to Austin on a Sunday night, my car’s engine heaving like an 18th century settler with the whooping cough, and didn’t return until the next Sunday, my car’s engine purring like an 18th century house cat. In this period of time, I took my car, obviously, to a mechanic, who was actually a junkyard operator on the side of the road who was VERY helpful; visited the gorgeous Mount Bonnell; drank heavily on Sixth Street twice (Dirty Sixth, of course); ran on the path bordering the Colorado River; knocked down a few construction signs on a Friday night walk back to the hotel; witnessed a friend order two large pizzas at 2:15 a.m. only to leave the restaurant and eat none of the paid-for pizzas; and visited the state capitol. I also worked for six consecutive days.
*I’m actually here right now!
So as you might guess, I have become closely acquainted with the city. I’ve lived here the way a resident might. I know the best mechanic, the best coffee shops, the places to eat and even a few hidden gems I’ve discovered on my own, without any assistance from Yelp, so take that. I’ve even given “tourists” directions. I love it.
Austin, as the world knows, is an eccentric place. T-shirts bearing the phrase “Keep Austin Weird” are ubiquitous in Texas and a warm reminder that Austin really is different. It is like Portland, a city I only know through the TV show “Portlandia.” Beards and male ponytails grow like weeds, hipsters in V-necks read the print version of “The Onion” in coffee shops, businessmen ride bikes to work in suits, Zilker Park teems with people during the weekday working hours, and I can only assume there is a feminist bookstore tucked away in some corner of the city.
When I was here two weeks ago, again for work, my friend Blake, a fellow reporter, and I went to eat some lunch at Torchy’s Tacos, and we witnessed a man playing in the front yard of his dilapidated-but-charming-because-it’s-Austin house. He had a heavy beard, was wearing a plain tank top, and kicked a kickball back and forth with his two children, who were of another race. The sun shone.
“Straight out of Portlandia,” Blake said.
I got to wondering – what is life like in Portlandia, or Portlaustina in this case? I thought about that again this morning. My favorite place in Austin is a hole-in-the-wall smoothie shop called Juiceland. It used to be called “Your Daily Juice.”* A collage of posters covers its walls, varying greatly in content without ever fitting strangely, transitioning from an MF Doom album cover on one end to a “repeal the Patriot Act” sign on the other with everything else in between.
*A name that inspired me to come up with the best name ever for a band… “Your Daily Ninja.” GENIUS! I know.
Behind the counter, four earthy-looking types (the place sells wheat grass drinks) blended any kind of natural/vegan concoction you could imagine and worked the cash register. An attractive woman was there to take my order, a berry smoothie with chocolate chips called “The Love Below.” She scanned my credit card and asked about the cool design adorned on the front.
“Is that Route 1?” she asked.
It is. I asked her if she’d been. She had. She remarked how beautiful it was, and I agreed. I sat down, half-watching her and a guy with a shaved head in the back, who was making my smoothie. He was probably in his 30s, maybe a little older than the woman. And I wondered. How long have they worked here? Are they musicians in their spare time (that would be very Austin)? Do they have a college degree? Do they want another job? Maybe they have one. How long will they be here, doing this?
I didn’t know the answers to those questions, and I wasn’t about to ask them. In other cities I’ve lived, i.e. Dallas, Kansas City, Philadelphia, such jobs are not occupations. They are usually a means to end. But Austin? It doesn’t feel that way, which isn’t necessarily what I would want from life, but refreshes me every time I come down here.
“Mark, your ‘Love Below’ is ready,” the guy announced, reminding me to enjoy my day.
Living in Austin, working at Juiceland, it sure seemed like he was having a great freaking time.