Friday, January 16, 2009

Austin Stories, No. 1

More wayward musing in another wayward series

I arrived in Austin in July, 1990, settled down in "the hut" and began to gear up for graduate school by drinking lots of margaritas (almost an exotic drink, yet so plentiful in Austin!) and checking out the cool, local music scene. Not long after, August 27, to be exact, the helicopter flying Stevie Ray Vaughn from a Wisconsin gig crashed and he and the other passengers and crew were lost. News of his death led the morning radio shows and one (or maybe several) local stations set about planning a gathering to play the man's music and let people congregate to comfort each other and remember.

I hadn't really listened to any SRV, though in hindsight (hindhearing?) I must have listened tons of his stuff on the radio as I puttered about town that summer in my jeep. Anyway, I was hardly an aficionado, and it was my interest in hearing lots of his music and learning a bit more about it that got me thinking I should attend the evening's memorial. Plus it was clear that his death had a profound effect on the town, which further compelled me to drive down to Zilker Park and sit among the masses as they listened to the man's music and commiserated. It was like immersing yourself in Austin's life-force.

There's a certain sense to the loneliness you feel when you travel to a new place. It's almost dream-like, as if you're suspended from real life, your senses heightened to the minutiae of your new setting, which soon wears off as you get more familiar with your surroundings and the people in them; yet simultaneously it can all drift away in an instant and you seem to appear in places you've never seen, unaware of how you got there, what landmarks you passed, the people you might have seen or to whom you've spoken. I don't recall driving downtown that late afternoon, where I parked or whether there were others making the same journey towards the music playing far away across the huge open space. I felt utterly alone. Not sad, just alone.

What I do recall is that I walked about halfway down a long field and sat on the grass for a while, taking in the music and watching people move together and apart, forming and breaking small groups, always flowing towards the source of the music at the far end of the field. The sun was going down behind me and these little groups were like glowing bits of driftwood, easing past me. Mostly there was laughing; some engaged in quiet, insistent conversations, the edge of melancholy tempered by camaraderie and the meeting of friends in the heart of Austin.

I sat with my arms around my knees, staring out at the passing figures slipping by, when a hand touched my shoulder and this angelic girl looked down at me and asked, concerned, "Are you okay?" That took me by surprise: I was not sad, I hadn't just lost some vital part of me; new and disconnected to the city and its people, I had just drifted in my mind, taking in the sound and sights. I garbled a quiet, "Yes," and she smiled and floated on. I thought, how sweet everyone is, here in this new town. I liked it here before; I like it even more now.

After a while, no longer in my reverie, I got up and slowly moved against the tide of people, who, though tinged with sadness, exuded such positive energy and hopefulness. The music clearly lived (and lives on) in everyone who's heard it. That's a pretty sturdy life raft to cling to when things get dark.

The sun gone, I climbed back into the jeep and headed home.

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