Austin is my kind of city.
I meet a lot of people when I travel, despite my obvious weirdness. (I thought that weirdness would be less obvious once I lost the dreadlocks, but apparently not. I guess I still have tattoos. And no shoes on, most of the time). People like me largely because, like any researcher, I am a perambulating scrapbook (credit goes to Daniel de Leon for that phrase). Since I collect people’s life stories, I just skip the small talk and ask oral history type questions. I’m not interesting, but interested. Once people realise that, they forget that I’m a strange anarchist hippie type. Still, in most places I do have to reach past that initial judge-on-appearances reaction.
Not in Austin. It was like being on the streets of Fitzroy, in the sense that I was completely unremarkable, fishnets, bare feet and all. A lovely young woman with spiky hair and tattoos walked into the restaurant ahead of me, and I thought to myself; “oh good! A place where my own strangeness is lost in the general mass of like-minded weirdos!” And so it was.
I realise there’s a dearth of museum and art gallery visits, sightseeing type stuff and bucket list experiences in this travel journal. Part of that is because I was not on holiday, I was on “study leave.” Really, six hours a day scrolling through microfilm is not an experience worth describing, since even mad researchers like myself find it exhausting and tedious. The content is enormous fun, but the format is not. However, I was only working while in Detroit. In Texas and Oklahoma I was on holiday, which does not mean I saw more tourist traps. I just spent more time meeting people.
I don’t know if this makes my stories here more or less interesting, but what I like about travelling is immersing myself in the local culture and meeting as many people as possible.
So there were things I loved about the city itself. The food trucks on the street corners. The food puns all over the place. The Mexican influenced street art. The gorgeous lush “green belt” along the river at the centre of town, complete with parks where dogs could socialise. I’m not a great photographer, but the pictures are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/110869244@N07/sets/72157638625904854/
The food was glorious. (Eggs, beans and tortillas for breakfast is a great idea). I had traditional Texas BBQ, posh Mexican food, Italian street food, and all of it was beautifully done. But what I really liked was the calibre of people I met.
David has a lot of friends in Austin. (If for some reason you’re reading this blog and you don’t know me, that is David Rovics, singer-songwriter extraordinaire. Look him up. No point in reading my writing if you don’t know who he is.) He told me stories of past travels, protests and incidents as we drove into town to meet two of the coolest women ever at a Middle Eastern restaurant, just before the gig.
The Austin gig, held in a book co-operative that I just wanted to pick up and take home entire (like I need more books!), was the best one so far on that journey. (David was on tour. I was on a road trip) The largest audience and probably the most responsive, laughing at the leftie jokes and joining in the chorus of “Iceland” with gusto. David’s friends were in the audience, and he singled some of them out for embarrassment purposes with his stories. Then we all got together and went to the pub, and they did that thing that old friends do… reminisce.
My oral history senses were highly charged. All of these remarkable people had participated actively in most of the social movements, mass protests and significant causes of the past few decades. They spoke in that activist shorthand, referring to protests by the name of the city and joking about escapes from the riots and police. I itched to turn on the voice recorder. I didn’t, of course. The same itch occurred again when I spent a morning with one of those aforementioned cool women, cooking food for victims of the South Austin flood and listening to a remarkable and perceptive eyewitness account of American history from someone at the forefront of the radical movement in the United States. David described her to me on the drive in as “the best organiser in the world”- high praise from someone who probably knows all of them. Another perambulating scrapbook, like any activist, she showed me the boxes of archives just waiting for me to rummage through. Radical researcher heaven.
An old friend of mine was at that gig. I spent a few days being shown around “her” Austin, which was fun as she is lyrical about the place but can’t help being caustically perceptive of people. She took me to the places she loved, introduced me to traditional Texas barbecue, and made all sorts of plans for the next time I visited.
And there will be a next time. Next time I will be taking a recorder and release forms. Or maybe- and you know who you are- a film maker. And I’ll have a bucket list, designed and prepared for me by a friend and Austin adherent. “Keep Austin Weird” is the current slogan for the locals, partly as a resistance to the flood of California yuppies moving in and buying condos. (A slogan invented, my friend proudly informed me, by her English teacher). And I am committed. Naturally. If the place stops being weird, it’s not my kind of city any more.
Austin is my kind of city.