The night comes in weird forms. Through life and the power of a few shots of brown liquor with friends, we wind up sitting at tables we never expected. When one chooses to act recklessly as I’m known to do with plenty of hoists to the sky, celebrating beating the devil once again for all our mortal sins, the taste of cheap bottled beer acts as a salve; that we’re allowed to act a fool for one more occasion. But when the celebration of iniquity ends, there’s always the hunger for flesh or nourishment. The hunger pang led me to the rickety wooden picnic table on Red River Street, across from the service industry dives, waiting on my chicken shawarma over rice from the halal truck. I was minding my own business till I wasn’t.
Those late-night moments of seeing the world through a dirty glass haze can wreak havoc or reap the rewards, and tonight, I befriended two Iraqis relocated here after their service to Americans in the quagmire of rich men’s war. As my food arrived and we talked shop, one of my new friends was an Uber driver from New York who’d been here for a little while. He didn’t like how Austin moved, “I’m going back to New York. It’s too slow here. There, everything moves twenty-four hours a day. I came there first after Iraq. My mind was blown. Here, too slow. After two, there’s no money.” As I dug into my fare, he pointed at my chicken and turmeric rice slathered in white sauce. “That food, that’s white people food. We would never eat that. He makes all these gyros, shawarma for white people. He is from my country, too. People who know our food come to him and he makes us what we used to eat back home.” And within a moment, the cook handed him a plastic container filled with charred brown and black bits over rice. “Would you like to try real Iraqi food?” Of course, I did.
When someone from a different culture offers their cuisine to you, it’s an extension of hospitality. To say no would be rude. We have enough Ugly Americans. After being handed a piece of pita, I drug the bread through the murk that my drunk eyes quite couldn’t make out. And after popping it into my mouth, the men each smiled, satisfied I didn’t wretch. “You like it?” It was a little out of my comfort zone because I’ve had enough offal to know I don’t like it. I know the texture of organ meat; its grainy bite and haymaker of concentrated flavor. “It’s the liver and kidneys of the lamb.” I cheered my bottle of water, swallowed, and went in for seconds to ensure I wasn’t a fan but also to cement our new kinship. They were pleased.
This is my life in Austin, Texas, a series of adventures that, unlike New Orleans, aren’t littered with chaos but more like a wicked, twisted road of small adventures on strange islands of experience. There’s a difference between a circus and a carnival.
More than once, I’ve ridden on the back of my friend Justin’s scooter, drunk and shirtless, holding on for dear life as we buzz down 7th Street from Sidebar over to somewhere like White Horse, two tattooed fat guys holding onto one another in the Texas night. I often think about what my existence has become since moving here and how I was lucky to do so thanks to my ex-wife because, without her, I’d have left New Orleans but wound up somewhere else, where I couldn’t say. I barely have a plan, so it could have been San Francisco or Sochi, Russia.
My first time in town, I hated Austin. An ex-girlfriend bought me tickets to see Glassjaw play in San Antonio, and because her best friend had left New Orleans to get a sense of normalcy, she returned to her hometown of Round Rock, which sits just above Austin.
The plan was to come to explore the city for a few days, but instead, my ex and her friend split to have fun and left me with Justin. The two of them were coworkers at a bar called The Dizzy Rooster. “You’ll love Justin, you two like all that screaming music. He’s got tattoos just like you. You’ll be best friends.” Meeting my new babysitter, we cut up about punk rock, metal, and hardcore music. I sat with his local mob, and after a while, I got the itch to explore the town. If this place was so cool, why did 6th Street suck? He told me to walk down to Congress and hang a left to check that out.
Walking past the glut of mediocre restaurants and half-empty bars, I wasn’t impressed. As my ex and her friend cruised around the city, I was alone and annoyed. This place was the much talked about home of Stevie Ray Vaugh? This shitty ass city was where The Big Boys were from, that The Misfits played on 6th Street? Finally, after they’d picked me up, I got hip that the East side had all the cool punk rock dives I was looking for, and that Red River was the Street I should have been drinking on. The next afternoon when again, I was deposited in Justin’s care at the bar, I asked, “Why didn’t you tell me about the east side? That those were the cool bars?!” Justin didn’t flinch. He poured me a Jameson and opened a Lone Star, handing me the cap to decode the puzzle, “I had to make sure you were cool. I didn’t need you going in there and fucking up my shit.” And over fifteen years later, and ironically moving here for different reasons, we are, in fact, still tight like brothers.
I’ve had my fair share of gross nights, seeing the worst of the city and watching old places. I loved turning into havens for broaches that suck while their girlfriends snap TikToks. The strippers, hustlers, and freaks are still in Austin; they might be wearing decent shoes and sunglasses to hide judgment.I often can’t remember the streets, but I remember the restaurants. I remember bars before digital jukeboxes came in fucked things up. I’ve experienced late-night confessions, and daytime begs for forgiveness.
There is magic about standing in Mohawk, our beloved music venue having a packed show, looking down at the band and the crowd losing their minds while you run into everyone in town on a steamy Texas night. I’ve watched my friend Sam cook hot dogs on a tiny grill, dressed only in his underwear and an apron as a protectant not to burn his dick off. Why? Just because it was something to do to hang out at the bar and support a friend pouring drinks in a slow economy. But let’s be real, my man knows how to handle a weiner.
Converge, a legendary hardcore band, played on essentially the sidewalk on Rainey Street in front of the Little Brother bar, where the usual haven for dudes with popped collars was treated to at least five hundred psychos screaming and moshing at one in the afternoon on a Monday in the Texas heat, some still holding cheeseburgers in their fists, mustard, and onions dripping down their tattooed arms. I was there for the last show The Sword ever played, a daytime matinee at White Horse, a punk rock honky tonk where half of the town’s bartenders cheers’d many shots, not knowing that this was the iconic Austin act’s final stand. Neither did most of the band – the singer pulled the plug on social media without warning.
I remember when Chuy’s Tex-Mex had the artery-clogging Elvis fried chicken smothered in spicy ranch and queso. There are walks by the lake and walks on trails alone to flush the demons out of your head because no matter how many people you know, there are moments you always feel alone, even if that feeling is a mirage. After a Saturday night out, Sunday morning, you face the music. After-hours bars aren’t that great. Usually, I’d rather be getting tacos from a food truck way north of Lamar, where I’m the token gringo, which I’m ok with.
Because I chose the life of being a broke writer, I’ve had to walk halfway across town because a ride share was too expensive late at night, past weed-covered graveyards, past frat houses with a slide built into the front as a lightning storm raged above my head. Getting a lift was out of my budget, but a Lime scooter was firmly in it. As I zipped down the side streets, I stopped at a gas station for Doritos, wasted looking at the fourteen different kinds of ramen for college kids; there, I experienced a dork with a mullet and a mustache and half-shirt scream at the guy behind the counter to let him buy some Keystones at 2:30. And yes, he did mention that his dad made enough money, that he could buy this gas station, your life, and your house, and then called his girlfriend a fucking bitch. She still rode home with him.
No place is perfect. I have memories all over Austin. I’ve been able to drop $200 on drinks at rock and roll shows like I was the invisible member of Led Zeppelin, but I also have my debit card declined for having less than $5 in my account. Luis, my friend behind the bar, helped me. I’ve traipsed into sold-out comedy shows, had drinks with gutter punks, and people etched into particular histories. I’ve seen plenty of sad hoists to the sky from those who’ve moved away and blew back into town for a quick hello; the city has a way of reminding you that you may have bitched about it for a minute, the memories we make here are ones we’ll take to the high lite reel. I once took an Uber after my car was totaled by a guy who played the ukulele, trying to sell us bottles of his hot sauce. And even made us listen to the song’s studio recording on Spotify – that’s probably not popping off in Cleveland. The sauce was pretty solid, though.
Yeah, the traffic sucks. The gentrification blows, but the bars I hang in still have happy hour, and there is always a strange new meal to eat as the city’s cultural landscape expands. Look for me on the back of the scooter. I may be hiding a road Lone Star. I’ll toss you one.
I made my career here, my children are born and bred here, and my legacy exists in Austin more than anywhere else, if you want to count it as even that. Chicago is my hometown, New Orleans my college, but Austin is the place where I made my bones. I saw a marriage die here, but I’ve also spun some pretty ladies around on the dance floor to rowdy country music. There is always sour to the sweet. There are painful memories of love lost trapped in the wood of music venues and bars. That no matter how hard I pretend I don’t acknowledge those memories, they come back, even if only briefly. I’ve been here for over a decade; life changes, cities evolve, and gentrification is real. Even when I’m annoyed, this is still a fine place, that we’ve got it lucky here because no matter how good life might be, there are always tsunamis and earthquakes somewhere else.
I’m not saying I won’t enjoy karma at play, watching assholes who stiffed the bartender take a spill on a Lime scooter. I cringe anytime a “lounge” opens up or that was once a solid spot for a burger and beer becomes some fusion bullshit and closes in two years. Sorry, but a lot of times that Macedonian meets Montreal-style bagels concept just doesn’t work. Most of us still enjoy the local sport of convincing people who’ve put in a few years in town that no one else should move to Austin, that we’re full. They used to call this place the “Velvet Rut” as Alejandro Escovedo said, because the beers are cold, the girls are pretty, we’ve got swimming holes, and homeless fuckers that can take a punch. Is Nashville or Seattle that much better? I think places suit the needs you have rather than the life you assume you want.
Believe me, I get it. When I got here, they told me I shoulda seen the 90s and those people were told it was better back in the 70s. That fish story always seems to get bigger with every passing decade.
There are still cheap taco trucks hacking up mounds of a pastor and plenty of little corners to discover, even if you think you know it all – you don’t. Just when you reckon you’ve sucked the marrow out of the bones of Austin, Texas, there’s always something left.
But, seriously, don’t move here. If you have a Motorhead tattoo, that’s an exception. No more tech bros need apply.
Robert Dean is a journalist, raconteur, and enlightened dumbass. His work has been featured in places like Mic, Eater, Fatherly, Yahoo, Austin American-Statesman, Consequence of Sound, Ozy, Chron, USA Today, to name a few. He’s appeared on CNN and NPR. He also serves as features writer for The Cosmic Clash, Culture Clash, and Pepper Magazine. He’s Editor in Chief at Big Laugh Comedy, Texas’ premier comedy production company. He lives in Austin and loves ice cream and koalas.
His new essay collection Existential Thirst Trap is available on Amazon + Barnes and Noble
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