Things I Learned in Texas, Part 2

Sometimes, you just don’t see it coming.

Last Friday, I felt a bit off; I figured it for a backlash cold from Thanksgiving week. Saturday afternoon, while volunteering at Hugo House’s Write-O-Rama, I began my descent into chills and body aches.

That evening, I got sick. Really sick. Really, really sick.

Seemingly, I miscalculated a cold when it was actually the flu. Days later, still exhausted with coughs and fever, the final chin music was that I didn’t have a strain of superflu but severe pneumonia. That wheezy, trapped-under-glass feeling wasn’t my asthma flaring up, it was my blood oxygen level dipping dangerously low.

While it returns to normal, only short, small things are possible: sentences and ideas rather than an essay, for instance. Since I’m determined to write one more post about Austin, I’ve decided to take a cue from recovery to do it. Somehow, I think the Texans would approve.

Pride and patriotism. Bad Dubya re-election slogan? Maybe. I was entertained by how excited Texans are about their state. I don’t note it lightly or disparagingly: I found every exuberant yee-hah! (of which there were many) to be delightful and genuine, whether it was for a musical act, the Longhorns/Aggies game, tasty barbeque, or simply being from Austin. Dammit, Texans are happy to be alive in the Lone Star.

Homemade salsa and chips. Yeah, there are a few great barbecue joints outside town, but where else can one go from restaurant to restaurant throughout the land for warm, salty, home-made tortilla chips? In Austin, you get them on the table at every meal. Even breakfast. I may be Italian, but salsa is my favorite condiment, especially when seasoned with fresh cilantro and peppers. It holds tight to the chip with dense, pureed smokiness. Yum.

Naturalization. Like Slaid Cleaves, residents born out of state proudly call themselves “naturalized” Texans. These folks always have a ballad-like story of their origins and mistakes made when they first arrived. It recalls Lyle Lovett’s “You’re Not From Texas” where he advises one such man to buy his pants just a little bit longer — but assures him that Texas wants him anyway.

It’s a curious thing to observe, but when you’re down there, Texas does indeed feel like its own nation. Talk about having oxygen in one’s blood. Now, if it weren’t for all the conservatives…

Churches. Which leads to organized religion. I must have seen them elsewhere, perhaps in my driver’s ed booklet, but I smirked when I saw the first yellow caution sign that read, “Church.” Then I saw another. And another. Then I remembered, Oh, yeah – I’m in the South.

There’s lots of church traffic in Austin on Sundays. Quite different from Seattle, where the most stop-and-go you’ll see on the Sabbath is from the latest marathon/fun-run/5k/parade/charity walk, the semi-annual Nordstrom sale, or the crowd of 30,000 who have recently discovered that soccer is a sport.

The accent. That Texas accent is honey. It’s gold. It’s warmth. British accents once held my heart, but they often conceal a sharp alacrity that feels unabashedly mean. The Texas accent makes everything sweet –from profanity to sexism– so much so that it took a full hour for me to feel disgust when a friend’s boss flirtatiously offered, “For you, Gabbi, I’d throw Anne’s bike out the window,” in reference to his out-of-town girlfriend.

Indeed.

The sympathetic accent. Did I mention that it only takes about a day to develop a sympathetic Texas accent? Slaid Cleaves’ accent is so thick, you’d never guess he was from New England. I found myself doing it first through short phrases; by the time I flew out of Dallas, it was whole sentences punctuated with y’all, sir and ma’am. When I mentioned it in passing, a woman laughed and put her hand on mine reassuringly, “Honey, that happens to everyone around here!”

Nature in the City. Barton Springs, Deep Eddy, Mount Bonnell, Lake Austin, Treaty Oak. We have it good in Seattle, but Austin is our verdant Southern sister with the kind of quality nature in the city that makes me think –if only for a minute– that I might actually be able to live in Texas if I lived there. Strolling through an arboretum bespeckled with avian wildlife, we paused on a walk to photograph peacocks, though admittedly, they were unimpressed. The rest of the city is populated by the squawks and jabbering of a million birds; Marlon Perkins would be in heaven there.

Beauty pills and lots of sugar. The dulcet turns of phrase in a Texan’s life are many and diverse. When we arrived at Aunt Stephani’s house for Thanksgiving, her husband, Bobby, told us that she was, “Taking her beauty pill,” a sweet way of saying that she was finishing her makeup.

While I was in the Lone Star, I was called or heard others called baby, sugar, darlin’, sweetie, honey, sweetie-pie, and baby-doll by both men and women without a shred of disrespect. Somehow –it’s that accent again– it’s downright addictive; it makes everyone want to give and receive. (Hell, I’m still calling people, darlin’.)

I’m guessing that it may make a person sick after a while, like sugar frosting, but it sure does taste good going down.

Country Music Stars. Last, but certainly not least, there is a dizzying amount of live music at a host of intimate venues that make braving concerts seem attractive again. The Horseshoe, the Broken Spoke, Saxon Pub, Cactus Cafe… patriotic Texans gather every night under the neon to hoot and holler mere steps away from talented musicians like our friend, Slaid Cleaves, as they are served $1 pony-necks and cans of Lone Star. Not too shabby… and not Key Arena or the Showbox.

At the end of it all, if I did catch pneumonia from Slaid, as I suspect I may have during our brief introduction, then I’ve learned an important lesson: mixing it up with celebrities may be fun while it lasts, but there’s typically a communicable disease involved and the cure is often just as painful.

Things I Learned in Texas, Part 1

While waiting for my connecting flight –otherwise known as Travel Limbo– at LAX on Wednesday, I got to thinking that the word for Seattle isn’t so much polite as it is tight. A Norwegian social shield permeates our town, which we transplants inevitably adopt and perpetuate even in the face of complaining about it.

Inside that forcefield is a solitary space that feels comfortable and contemplative even if laced with a wisp of loneliness. Mine typically dissolves as my toes breach the jetway of the next city and stays behind, waiting to rejoin me upon my return.

The friends I was headed towards in Austin would surely bring up Seattle Freeze as something they didn’t miss, in addition to the gray, the dark, and the rain. Frankly, I felt done with it myself, having just triumphed from a cold the day before, due in part to the solitary winter blues.

Upon peeling off a layer of clothing in the refreshing balm of the Texas evening, I forgot all thoughts of chilly weather and illness until we sat in the darkening glow of the Saxon Pub, listening to singer Slaid Cleaves tell us that he was fighting a cold, but would do his best.

His warmth was all southern, though he hailed from Maine. He described how, upon moving to Austin, a local family took him under their wings teaching him how to cook brisket and make pico de gallo. Back then, he afraid to walk into the Horseshoe Lounge. It took him years to slowly establish his legacy, playing at the Saxon Pub, Cactus Cafe, and eventually the Horseshoe; upon meeting him today, no one would think his origins were anything but Texan.

While his roots are cloaked by rugged good looks that hint at manual labor and late night carousing, which could look like Maine under a different light, Slaid appears like nothing but a down-home country gentleman: the kind who stands up to bullies and spins women around the dance floor, each with equal grace.

A fellow self-made individual, Slaid’s progression intrigued me; like Civita for me, Austin was his second birth place — the city where he united with and revealed his true self. In Austin, he has things to say, and because of that, he says it well.

That wink-and-a-smile charm held us captive, along with his raspy lines. As he paused for water, we studied the gray that crept out at his temples and the edges of his goatee. An hour into his set, he launched into, “Breakfast in Hell,” a lengthy ballad based on a Canadian folk tale, quaffing sips of whiskey that someone bought to aid the cough in his throat.

I grinned as he knocked back the rest of the shot before taking more requests, an exhausted quarter horse who still had a few leagues left to run. That, and where else can you find musicians who openly drink liquor on stage except in the South? I began to feel Austin in a way that I hadn’t before.

Slaid ran his hand through his messy, curly hair, damp with sweat from hot stage lights in a wood-paneled bar where everyone knew the lyrics of his songs. The audience was neither young nor middle-aged but both. They didn’t wait to be asked to clap or sing along; they hooted and hollered and let fly deep-bellied cries of, “Yee-haw!” when inspired.

Waitresses –middle-aged women in stonewashed denim and T-shirts who looked like someone’s mom rather than 22-year-old giraffes in hot pants– glided into the crowd balancing trays loaded with pony-neck beers and shots of tequila, gently but firmly navigating with directives like, “Baby doll, can I slide right by ya?” and “On your left, darlin’.”

In Slaid’s music we found a tapestry of Austin experiences: diving into Barton Springs on New Year’s Day, listening to a pawn shop radio and skipping stones in the summer heat, driving down dusty roads and green valleys in a lumbering Chevrolet, and sitting at a bar with a man named Willie from whom he lifted the line, “If it weren’t for horses and divorces I’d be a lot better off today.”

I could hear decades of screen doors shutting and beer bottles opening, of kissing pretty girls with long hair, of fist fights and dramatic gestures as he stood on the edge of lost love. There were bonfires and barbeques, bottles of whiskey and cans of Lone Star, football games and road trips, late nights at smoky bars back when they were allowed to be smoky.

Austin had changed him, permeated Slaid through and through — it was in his warbling twang, his swaying step, his well-worn corduroy blazer and jeans. Austin wasn’t who he started out as, but Austin is who he is — it’s his state of mind.

Afterwards, when I asked him autograph a CD, Jess told Slaid that I was visiting from Seattle. He let us gush about the show as he asked for my name, remarking that the Triple Door stopped returning his phone calls, but that he still played at the Tractor Tavern from time to time.

Oh Seattle, I thought, shaking my head. We won’t come out and say that we don’t like you; we’ll just ignore you until you go away puzzled.

Yes, there is that side of Seattle, and perhaps me, too — after all, like attracts like. But there’s much more to the Emerald City, a diverse palette of experiences that I considered as I sat 1,800 miles away drinking a Fireman’s Ale and tapping my toe to the Texan twang of a man from Maine.

In Seattle, we have a bit of it all: surf and turf, Austin and New York, Italy and Asia, Right and Left, hipster and gangster, technology and tree huggers. Somewhere between the Tractor and the Triple Door there is niche for everyone — it’s just a matter of determining who you want to be on any given night, deciding on your Seattle state of mind.

That’s when, for the first time in a long time, I wondered if Seattle wasn’t so much tight as it was open. That goes for me, too.