Borderline Crazy

Commentary: In Exile

I remember watching that Richard Linklater movie, Slacker, in 1991 and thinking to myself, ”These people are pathetic.” I was 13 and had no concept of irony whatsoever. My world consisted of playing a tennis-ball game called ”pickle” with the other kids on my street, I ate a McDonald’s apple pie every day and hung magazine ads on the walls of my room. I had fun. Why were these losers wandering around a place called Austin, Texas, and droning on about trivial minutia like aerobics, anarchy and pap smears? What did anarchy mean, anyway? What was a pap smear?

”It’s a medical procedure for ladies,” my mom told me when she picked me up at the theater at the mall, strategically defusing my interest by making it sound as unspeakably boring as possible.

Last weekend, 15 years after watching the movie about it, I went to Austin, Texas. It was my first time ever traveling to that state. Carl’s cousin was getting married and we were there to attend the wedding. She’s a fashion designer who just moved from Austin to New York. Some of her family is really conservative and really, really Christian, so the fact that she married a Jew, and that the wedding was Jewish, and that she herself became a Jew was mildly scandalous. But the ceremony went off without a hitch. The rabbi was funny and the reception on the bank of the Colorado River couldn’t have been more beautiful. I got drunk on Jack Daniels and made Carl slow dance with me in front of his Republican relatives. Across the water, a cluster of radio antennae pulsed little red heartbeats way up in the sky.

While in Austin, we also visited Barton Springs, which is this natural aquifer that runs under the city. In the 1930s, the city built a huge stone swimming pool to bring the water to the surface, the temperature of which holds steady at around 65 degrees. You can swim in the non-chlorinated water for hours and not feel like you’ve been in too long. Along its side, there are knolls of grass where you can spread out a beach towel and spend pretty much all day, which we did. There were high school couples there, and gay men with silly tribal tattoos, and people with dogs. The weather was fabulous.

We spent three days in Austin altogether, which is nearly enough time to see the entire city. I was amazed at how small it is, and how small-town in its mentality — we virtually made real friends in just 72 hours. There’s a whole string of gay bars, most of them very mixed — old and young, male and female. One is a cowboy bar called Rainbow Cattle Company, in which same-sex couples in flannel shirts two-stepped and line-danced. Carl was somewhat astonished by this, but I’d seen it before, at Remington’s in D.C.

In a way, Rainbow Cattle Company sums up all the sincerity of the city at large. Sincerity doesn’t exactly seem like a hot commodity in New York, but in Austin it feels quite hip. In New York, those who practice sincerity open themselves to exploitation, or so the thinking goes. A detached sense of irony — of what-the-fuckness — helps New Yorkers feel they’re somehow better defended. Being in a place of sincerity and unguarded friendliness for three days was absurdly refreshing. I know someone in Austin will read this online and think I’m being patronizing, but really, I’m not. I’m being sincere, actually. It must take a few days for the habit wear off.

I grew up in a small rural town in Massachusetts, and though I love living in New York, I think sometimes I underestimate how much that little New England burg has remained an aspect of my psychology. A great deal of the stress in my life could probably be attributed to resisting something that I am (or convincing myself that I’m something I’m not) just because it doesn’t fit with the view of myself I’ve created.

On the plane ride home, in the thick of vacation afterglow, I broached to Carl the idea of moving to Austin. He’s lived in New York for something like 14 years, and I think he can’t imagine leaving. I can’t really imagine it either, but I thought maybe just for the winter. The idea of a rented house with a yard and a driveway is endlessly intoxicating. The idea of warm sun and sincere people sounds nice.

But, of course, my first afternoon back in New York, I took the dog to the dogrun in Tompkins Square Park, just half a block from our apartment. She had a ball, as she always does no matter what she’s doing. The air was calm and a perfect 70 degrees. Across the park, a group of about 20 kids swatted bongo drums and overturned plastic buckets with their hands, sending up a remarkable beat. To the east of them, parked on the path that winds through the grass, an ambulance’s red and orange lights strobed in what seemed like perfect syncopation with the drumbeat, and briefly, it was as if every element and every person was in sync. Then, out of the blue, someone launched a single firework from the center of the park straight into the sky, and when it exploded in the twilight, everyone paused and looked up, and the whole neighborhood seemed to hold its breath together. The drummers stopped drumming. Even the dogs halted their game to turn their heads toward the noise. It was surreal. And then, just as quickly, everything resumed, and the groovy nature of it all seemed almost heartbreakingly sincere.

Will Doig can be reached at wdoig@metroweekly.com.

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