Friday, April 01, 2005

What It Was Like, Part 1

"So...what was it like?" It's what everyone wants to know when you go on vacation, after all. So, not to promise there'll be a Part 2 to this, but here are some impressions, sort of free-association-like.

There was extra security at the airport, and the airport folks felt perfectly fine about letting us know that it was because we were flying to America that they had to ask all these questions. It seemed to vex them no little amount. Once in the air, though, there was a definite damper on the mood. Maybe I just drew a cranky flight crew, but levity of any sort was discouraged with icy looks, and there's a new protocol for using the bathrooms they didn't explain to us, so I almost caused an alarm in the middle of the flight when I tried to get to the john forward of where I was sitting instead of going to the back. The tension certainly does accrete during a ten-hour flight, so I was jumpy when I got off.

Of course, for the 20-minute flight from Houston to Austin, we had to change buildings, so after dropping off my luggage and hiking to the building where the new gate was, there was additional security to go through, and here they made us take our shoes off. This remains the stupidest part of airport security, in my opinion. Have they ever found anything in shoes? Further, this was supposedly implemented after that British half-wit tried to light alleged bombs in his sneakers, and yet according to the signs I saw on my way out of the country, it's only starting on April 15 that people will not be allowed to carry cigarette lighters on their persons or in their carry-ons. But making people take their shoes off is a major inconvenience, and focuses one's attention on the fear that's so important to this administration's retaining control. One friend noted that the practice was discontinued in the Austin airport for a while, but reinstituted just before the election. Aha.

The next major problem came at the hotel. Although my hosts had arranged to pay for it, the hotel required $50 or a credit card for "incidentals" like phone calls. Due to my financial catastrophe, I've lost my last credit card and it's very unlikely I'll ever have another. In Europe, this isn't such a big deal, but in America it means you're either a nobody or some species of criminal. Since it was Saturday night, and late, I didn't have access to my bank, so I asked if I could perhaps have my phone turned on until I could get some American cash. The answer was no. "It's our percedure," the robot-like girl at the desk said. And there was no way of talking her out of it. She, however, was a trainee, so I figured the day shift would be better. And it was. The woman turned me right on, and I went about my business all day, doing the usual things to get set up for a week's stay in a hotel: buying coffee and breakfast stuff, and, of course, getting set up to see some friends for dinner. Getting back to the hotel late, I found a message from Ms. Percedure telling me that the three calls I'd made amounted to $1.50, and that my phone had been cut off until I could pay it. Having checked my e-mail, I discovered that of the nearly $3000 I was owed, not a cent had made it in yet, so I was stuck with about twenty bucks in cash. I wasn't about to give in on this one. Neither, unfortunately, was she. It took two days and a visit from someone who had much, much better things to do than deal with this before it was made clear to the hotel that I was not a sleazy criminal, that I would, in fact, pay my incidentals bill (which came to something like $6.00 on the day I checked out), and that if I skipped, he would pay.

This sort of surly, no-exceptions, humorless vibe, I found, was all over the place. Do what you're told, the feeling was, or we'll fight. Weirdly, nobody seems to mind.

The other motif of the trip was overconsumption and overproduction. This was evident on my first full day, when I went to pick up my rental car. I managed to get a PT Cruiser (the most-stolen car in Holland, I later learned), which looks cool but is actually an adolescent SUV, especially as regards gas mileage. Man, what a hog! But I wasn't aware of that as I stood by it waiting for the guy to fill out the paperwork, and stared at the vehicle which was filling -- and I mean filling -- the rental agency's carwash. It was called an Armada. Later in the trip, I got to see numerous idiots driving Hummers bedizened with enough chrome to make oncoming drivers require sunglasses. Gas is over two dollars a gallon; what are these people thinking?

Probably the same thing I noticed when I drove through my old neighborhood and saw where old houses had been demolished to make room for structures that filled every square inch of space on the lot they were built on. No yards for the kids to play in, but then, people who live in houses like that don't let their kids play outdoors unless it's an organized sports activity for which they'll get extra credit and thereby make it easier for them to get into college. The houses seemed to be constructed from some sort of plastic material, but I didn't bother to touch them for fear of setting off an alarm.

I got to eat out a lot, in part thanks to friends who bought me meals as I continued to wait -- and wait -- for my checks to come. As I often do when I'm worried about money, I ate too much. Even so, it was hard to finish the portions in most restaurants, and I'd get that unpleasant sweaty feeling of being over-full before the plate was cleaned. That said, I noticed fewer morbidly obese people than I have on previous trips. Either people are getting back into shape, or they've died off. But trips to the supermarkets confirmed that the cheaper the food, the larger the container you can buy it in. I saw sacks of potato chips that'd take two people to lift.

Of course, I spent my whole time in Austin (with the exception of one trip to San Marcos to see a panel on Grover Lewis and to celebrate his widow's donating his archives to Texas State, as well as the publication of Splendor in the Short Grass, the new collection of his writing), and thus I think I avoided a lot of the worst culture-shocking I might have encountered had I ventured too far past its city limits. Not that I think I could live in Austin again, but the worst of the right-wing theocratical mind-set is pretty alien to the place still. I'm not convinced it is up in, say, Dallas. But then, why would anyone go there?

As to overproduction, it was very evident at SXSW, as it has been for some time. There's simply too much music out there, and, for me, at least, sifting through it has ceased to be any fun at all. The sheer noise when one walks down 6th St. during SXSW -- music pounding out of just about every structure on the street at maximum level -- is extremely disheartening. Not to mention that with something like 1400 performers on deck, it's impossible to figure out if any of it's worth listening to. I found some (Susan Cowsill, Jason Moran, a strange band from Cincinnati called the Heartless Bastards who may have to change their name if James McMurtry's long-standing band hears of their existence), but in the end, the amount of game I caught wasn't worth the irritation of the hunt.

Or maybe I was just worn down from arguing with hotel robots and compulsively checking my bank balance (one of the checks -- the really big one -- hasn't shown up yet, four weeks later) and waiting for the folks I was supposed to meet in Louisiana to get in touch (they never did, so yet another year has gone by without my getting over there, dammit -- not that I'd have had the money to do it this year anyway), and wondering at the new Whole Foods Market in Austin, the most over-the-top food store I have ever seen, with its $18 pasta bar and huge underground parking garage and incomprehensible layout, a far cry from the homey, friendly place just down Lamar where that gigantic chain started out, a place so friendly that when it was flooded in 1983 (I think it was), people volunteered their time to help them dig out. Nowadays, if that happened in this place, I imagine the response would be quite different.

I dunno, there must be some good things about this trip to remember, but they're just not coming at the moment. I'm sure I'll have more to add, but I'm also aware that the snow has gone from Berlin and I have something I've been wanting to write for some time that's dependent on my taking photos of the bare ground, more evidence, if you need any, that Berlin bites.

Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Nancy White said...

Hey Ed, I know one of my highlights of my trip to Austin was getting to meet you F2F!