The Daughter Unit and I did a moderately-lengthy road trip this past week. Probably the last until she is delivered by C-section of the Grandson Unit, which momentous event is likely to be scheduled for the last week of this month or the first in June – after the neighborhood baby shower, and before the Memorial Day weekend of the Texas Book Festival in Seguin, at which I have a table. (The festival was cancelled last year, all of us who had bought a place at it were carried over to this year, when hopefully, all festival events will return to something resembling pre-Commie Crud normality.)
We drove the trusty Montero Sport to suburban Austin, to the Daiso store; Daiso might be described as the Japanese version of the Dollar Tree, Family Dollar or 99 Cent Store; all kinds of relatively inexpensive Japanese tchotchkes for hobby, household, and kitchen. We both have rather a soft spot for Japanese items of this kind, since both of us served military tours at US bases in Japan. There are no Daiso stores anywhere closer than Austin, although there are a number of them in Los Angeles. So – Austin it was, and after Daiso, to Pflugerville for the Aldi grocery store. We both rather like Aldi, home of the quarter-to-get-a-grocery-cart and pack-your-own-bags. They offer a reasonable selection of quality goods at very reasonable prices. It’s just that there is no Aldi closer to San Antonio than Pflugerville, and another in Victoria; a mite too far to go, unless we were in the area for another purpose.
Austin is usually described as a little puddle of blue in an otherwise red state. We’ve done a couple of Texas Book Festivals there, toured the Capitol and all. Sometime in the last decade or so, I did a talk at the old German Free School about the Adelsverein Trilogy, and the Daughter Unit went to the Pecan Festival. We all met up with Jonathon and other Texas Chicagoboyz a couple of years ago for a wonderful afternoon of conversation and laughter, only a little bit mauled by a massive storm event on the way back to San Antonio. On all these scattered occasions we had a nice time, although the traffic through downtown on the IH-35 is always murder, even on weekends. (I don’t know why this should be so, but it always is – the genius of the place, I reckon.) Austin used to be funky, fun, quirky, a little full of itself sometimes as being the capitol city of Texas. The sunset-pink marble Capitol Building, and the landscaped grounds were a treat, especially the inadvertent phallic image in the terrazzo floor of the second-floor stair landing. The various street festivals and the general music scene were events to be relished.
Only not anymore, this time, we skated through on the IH-35 until the turn-off for the secondary highway which led out to the west. The Daughter Unit was driving, which left me free to look at the wall-to-wall graffiti disfiguring just about everything vertical downtown. It was everywhere, smearing across walls and highway infrastructure, on the boarded-up walls of a restaurant close to the highway. Everything along that stretch looked seedy, junky … hostile to casual and innocent tourists like us, even if there were tall glass-fronted apartment towers everywhere; a sort of Eloi and Morlock world, or as the Daughter Unit commented – a more vivid distinction between the well-to-do class and the underclass than can hardly be imagined. The Daughter Unit claims that she felt something malign in the atmosphere. We went past a particularly awful intersection full of messy homeless camps on the green grass verge which looked like a bunch of trash trucks had just dumped a load there, swooped into Daiso and escaped. We had our own local problem with a homeless encampment last year – but nothing on the scale of Austin. There was another homeless camp under the IH-35, and a barefoot shirtless guy crossing the access road towards it as we drove north-east to Pflugerville. Nothing would have tempted us to stop in downtown Austin; two women by themselves, one of them pregnant and the other over 60? Not for worlds.
Pflugerville is considered a suburb of Austin … but the atmosphere there couldn’t be any more different. A pleasant, hardly topdrawer suburb, neat and surrounded by green fields and woods: new construction, a sprawling waterpark … and not a scrap of graffiti to be seen on anything, and certainly no homeless camps, or panhandlers haunting the intersections. The contrast couldn’t be more jarring. As of last weekend, voters in Austin opted to support a ban on the homeless setting up camps in public spaces, like parks and highway verges. I can hardly blame responsible residents for this, as much sympathy as I have otherwise for those genuinely out of work and resources. Permitting the insane and/or substance-addled every possible license and allowance to camp, crap and drug themselves into insensibility on the downtown streets is a sure and certain means of driving otherwise sensible, conscientious residents out of that city entirely. I just hope it’s not too late for Austin – I’d really like to go back, sometime. But not soon.