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.

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