Destination: Dallas, TX to Austin, TX
Date: 7.18.97 (Friday)
Mileage: 21,142 to 21,342 (200 miles)
Bar(s): Iron Cactus, Treasure Island, Shakespeare's, Pete's Piano Bar & Bob Popular
Imbibed: 5 vodka/cranberries
IT WAS 13 YEARS AGO TODAY WHEN I FIRST SET FOOT IN Austin. A town I knew next to nothing about until I got clued in by my new friends in Dallas, who gave me the lowdown the previous evening on Day 10 in Big D. They gave the place the kind of rave reviews that can be tough to live up to. Tom told me I had to check out Hippie Hollow. Mary recommended Barton Springs. Her roommate Susie — all 3 of them for that matter — insisted I HAD to check out 6th Street.
"If you're writing about barhopping in America, you've GOTTA spend a night on 6th Street," I still remember Tom telling me. "There's more bars on 6th Street than anywhere in the country."
Tom and the girls kept telling me how much fun I was gonna have on 6th Street. Especially on a Friday night. "There is nowhere in the country like 6th Street during the weekend," Tom had insisted.
So expectations were running high when I rolled into Austin 13 years ago today.
You want irony? Here's some irony: Of the 5 bars that I had a drink at 13 years ago, all but one of them is still open and thriving. Can you guess which one tanked? That's right. Bob Popular wasn't so popular.
Nor was this Bob. By the time the bars shut down at 2 a.m., I'd barely spoken to anyone at the 5 bars I went to. Instead of initiating conversation, I wrote notes in my journal and observed the raucous hordes, almost none of whom seemed interested in initiating conversation with the strange guy in the Aussie outback hat writing in his journal. I barely got eye contact at Bob Popular, for crying out loud. Then again, the place was almost empty.
Here's a little more irony for you: 13 years after showing up on 6th Street as an Austin newcomer, I'm now an Austin resident. Doing laps at 3 a.m. down 6th Street on Saturday nights as I drive my cab and have funny, interesting conversations with all the drunks leaving the same bars I was ignored at 13 years ago. In fact, just last night I had a conversation with one of them about how the name BOB has become POPULAR the last couple years. I kid you not.
One final chunk of irony: Yesterday I also picked up a carload of UT students at 24th and Pearl. During the 10-minute drive downtown I told them the following story about what happened AFTER the bars closed during my first night ever in Austin.
So the bars are closed. I've barely spoken to anybody all night. The streets are full of happy drunks. And I'm on my mountain bike when I ride up to a couple girls and ask them where the closest cheap motel is. Within 5 minutes, the shorter girl with chopped chestnut hair is offering to let me crash on her couch.
"My friend and I are going to a party right now though," she tells me. "But here's my key. You can take a shower and sleep on my couch. We'll be home after the party."
That's right. A complete stranger — a female complete stranger, no less — offered me the key to her apartment within 5 minutes of meeting me on 6th Street at 2 in the morning. And there didn't seem to be any sexual underpinnings to the offer either. The whole thing felt strangely chaste and shockingly magnanimous.
So I ride my bike back to her apartment — which may or may not have been on Duval, one block over from my new Austin home — and take a shower. I resist, as always, the impulse to snoop around. I do, however, notice a big, fat boa guarding the snake terrarium in her bedroom.
But my focus is on the pet rat in the cage near my bed — i.e., the couch — in the living room. The rat is running on the metal wheel. Running and running, sprinting for its life as if it knows there's a hungry snake in the next room.
I spend minutes just staring at that rat and the spinning wheel. I think about all my friends back home at their office jobs. And I think how damn lucky I am to have a job that doesn't feel like that rat running for its life in that cage.
About an hour later the girl and her friend come home from their after-party. They find me in the fetal position on the couch, hoping my new friend supplies me with a blanket and pillow. She hooks me up and I bed down for the night as the girl tells me she's gonna walk her friend to her car.
When my generous host comes back a few minutes later, she walks in the door and I immediately realize that she is completely topless. She innocently tells me that she had borrowed her friend's shirt tonight and she just wanted to return it.
Of course, instantly I'm thinking — "Am I about to get lucky here?"
Uhh...no. The Bob Unpopular theme continues. Topless Girl tells me she has a boyfriend. She's also stripper — when she's not studying forensic medicine at UT. Topless Girl stands in the middle of the living room talking to me as if she's wearing a turtleneck in Aspen. And I'm doing my best not to stare at what are a very, very fine set of boobs.
What I failed to tell that taxi full of UT students last night — I dropped them off at 7th and Trinity just after the bare boobs confession and a "...and THAT was my introduction to Keep Austin Weird" send-off — was that within a few minutes Topless Girl had gone into her bedroom and put on a T-shirt. She said she was calling her boyfriend. I took that to be my cue to hit the hay.
From her bedroom stereo I could hear the muffled brilliance of Jeff Buckley's Grace — one of my all-time favorite albums — as I attempted to doze off out in the living room.
Before too long, Topless Girl came out of her room and went into the kitchen for some water. The light was still on so I hadn't come close to falling asleep yet.
"Can you believe that about Jeff Buckley?" I spoke up from the couch. "Doesn't that suck?"
"What are you talking about?" Topless Girl asked as she poured herself some water.
"You haven't heard what happened?" I asked her. "It was a month and a half ago."
"What? What was a month and a half ago?"
"Jeff Buckley is dead."
Topless Girl gasped as she clutched her chest and put a hand over her mouth. Her eyes were wide and wounded.
"He drowned," I told her as gently and respectfully as I could, while wondering how the hell she couldn't have heard about this. "Walked into the Mississippi River and never came out."
Topless Girl's face slowly deflated with grief.
"He was in Memphis to record his follow-up to Grace and he walked into the river with all his clothes on while Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' was blasting from his boombox on the shore."
By now Topless Girl was clearly crestfallen.
"I just found my copy of Grace TODAY," she said, her eyes already wet with tears. "It had been lost for months. This is the first time I've played this CD since I found it."
And with that, Topless Girl shuffled off into her bedroom and cried herself to sleep as Jeff Buckley wafted hauntingly from the next room.
was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you..."
Meanwhile I tossed and turned next to the rat in the cage, wide-eyed and restless on the couch. Feeling like a schmuck. My relationship with Jeff Buckley's music forever changed.
I'm pretty sure I didn't sleep a wink that night.