Friday, October 19, 2012

Texas Road Trip, Day 5: Austin

It was amazingly cool this morning when I left the hotel -- 58 degrees. It felt so wonderful it lifted my spirits.

For better or worse, I had several hours free to drive around Austin, which I resisted doing on Monday. I knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find any of my old haunts 35 years later. Back then, Austin was expanding and growing and developing mainly on the outskirts, and we youngsters felt smug in the knowledge that we knew the true heart of funky Austin and it would never change because the squares were only interested in the suburbs. But at some point the squares caught on, and now... well, the epitome of the visit happened when I tried to park my car in the formerly funky neighborhood west of the university. Seeing that street parking was only for residents, I attempted to park in the garage of a large condo building. I drove in, and the door closed behind me. Then I realized it wasn't a public parking garage, it was for residents only. I turned around and approached the gate, supposing the electric eye would sense my car and open the gate. But it didn't. The gate would open only when one of the residents opened it, apparently. I had to wait until someone who lived there drove through it. It didn't take very long, but long enough for me to ponder the irony.

One thing that remained was the University Lutheran Center and its small parking lot. (In this picture I am 21 years old and standing in front of the building.) I parked, went inside and told the staff I was an alumnus and just poking my head in. As fate would have it, the pastor was my age and actually remembered my name from the 1970s, when he was also a student. Perhaps he was the only person in Austin who might have recognized my name.

With their permission I left my car in the lot for half an hour and walked over to the giant dorm, Jester Center (photo), where I lived as a freshman. Passing through the lobby like a ghost -- certainly nearly invisible to the crowds of youngsters -- I walked up to the mailboxes and touched my old mailbox. Then I walked back to my car.

A little more driving around, growing sadder by the minute. It wasn't just that things had changed; they had changed so much that I kept getting lost, getting on the wrong street, and so on. I had to look at the map, when 35 years ago I knew the town intimately. As in many cities, the area of post-industrial wreckage near the railroad had been transformed into a district of condos and offices. Only two ratty old buildings remained, and one had been self-consciously transformed into a "funky" bar: Flickr photo by Phil Ostroff. This epitomizes today's Austin: A self-conscious trying-too-hard attempt to have something that's not corporate. Of course I'm judging only by the exterior. If you look closely at that picture you'll see a condo building looming just behind it.

OK, off to the airport. Bye Texas.

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