Saturday, March 27, 2010
Day 99: Cocktails for Two
Austin to Seward Junction. 21.6 miles/1835.5 total
Saturday, March 27, 2010
This morning I leave my car at the parking lot of Target near the intersection of 183 and 360, Capital of Texas Highway, on the north side of Austin. I'll be heading up 183 north by northwest to Seward Junction.
It’s another cloudless day, about 60 now, expected to get into the low 80s. For the first time in months I’m beginning the walk in a short-sleeved shirt.
The competition for the spare change of the people of greater Austin goes on unabated, here where suburban side streets meet the highway access road and people have to wait for lights. Hard luck stories are stationed at almost every intersection, with their cardboard signs and meager possessions. The competition seems to be not just for the money, but also to see who can come with the most interesting, original, or guilt-producing pitch to the motoring public. You already know my opinion about the pitch. I think the simplest of social contracts would be best—“Please give me some money. Thank you.” Or as they used to say in my business, “Thank you in advance for your cooperation.”
Nevertheless these mendicants insist on relating little stories. And who can blame them? They live in a society that seems to demand answers or explanations for everything. Mere begging, without more, reduces you to a peon of such low stature as to be hardly worth bothering with. Like a blind, legless waif in the streets of Mumbai. Look away. It's horrible. Whatever ills in American society have reduced these people to panhandling have also made them want to engage in it as a sort of commercial activity. They insist on trying to sell themselves to us, just like everyone else sells everything else.
I pass one guy with a sign that says, “Need Groceries for 2.” I suppose that’s designed to make him look like a person who wants more than money in his pocket, who has someone else to care for—maybe a child or a poor sick wife. I wonder if many people respond to that kind of thing? I know I don’t. Which isn’t to say that I don’t give money to beggars. I sometimes do, but as I’ve said I prefer the direct approach. Still, the guy might just be telling it like it is, and does need groceries for two. Or cocktails for two.
In some secluded rendezvous
That overlooks the avenue,
With someone sharing a delightful chat
Of this and that
With cocktails for two.
I can see them now, high up on the slope under the overpass, surrounded by plastic empties, gazing into one another's watery eyes. I think Spike Jones would approve of the image.
Another sign says (and here’s a man after my own heart), “Not Homeless, Houseless. Texas Is My Home.” That one uses the local pride factor to tug at the heartstrings. It says, Here’s a local guy who ran into some hard luck, but he’s one of us. And that’s not a bad approach, I’m thinking. Because one of the things people out here on the street corners have to do is to keep from being consigned to a category that makes them part of the Other. They’re trying to get folks to identify with their plight. It’s the old But for the Grace of God pitch. I complimented this guy on his sign, but he looked at me suspiciously, as if I were making fun of him. Here’s one somebody should try some time: a sign that says simply, “I Used To Be Just Like You.”
So I wonder how much these folks clear on a Saturday, after expenses? (Just kidding about the expenses.) I’m tempted to try it for a day, but I wouldn’t want to take away scarce resources from someone who needs them. Besides, there’s the chance I could end up encroaching on someone’s territory or be caught without a union card. Maybe I could find a spot and sit there with a sign that reads, “Hi. I Don’t Need Any Money, But I’d Still Like Some Of Yours.”
The access road up 183 provides a variety of sights—hospitals, drug stores, restaurants, car dealerships, restaurants (Joe's Crab Shack; Chuy's Texmex), and every manner of fast food place. Eat and Go. Grab and Eat. Stop and Stuff. Snatch and Gobble.
I received news this morning of the death of a high school classmate of mine (and of some readers as well)—Norman Sluiter, who died at the age of 64. Norman was what we used to call retarded. Today there are ways of saying that which involve many more syllables. He graduated in the Waterford Kettering High School class of ’67, which means he was about 21 years old at the time. I guess they figured it was time to let Norman go, before he got older than some of the teachers. Anyway, he attended our reunions (although I didn’t see him at the last one). I remember that at the 20th reunion he was voted the person who had changed least from high school. Indeed. The obituary said he was a self-employed maintenance man, though I was under the impression he had worked for some years in the exciting world of fast food. No matter. Norman is up there pushing a broom in the halls of Valhalla now. So I am dedicating today’s walk to Norman Sluiter. And, as they say out east, not for nothing am I doing so, because Norman probably did more walking, up and down the roads of Waterford, than most of us have done. Certainly more than me. As far as I know he never qualified for a driver’s license, so he had to walk all the time. I think he even walked to a few of the reunions.
I leave Austin and enter Cedar Park, a contiguous suburb whose population was estimated in 2009 at over 62,000. Here Highway 183 is just like 28th Street in Grand Rapids, or maybe Telegraph over in the Detroit area. Just a string of businesses and parking lots and tons of traffic.
I would have guessed that Cedar Park was a new town, but not so. It was begun in the mid-1800s, when it was known as Running Brushy. The Clucks, Harriet and George, sort of got it going when they settled here in 1873. Then the railroad came through and connected it with Austin to the south and Burnet and Lampasas to the north. At that time it was called Bruggerhoff, after a railroad guy, but people didn’t like that name. It was too hard to spell and pronounce (two reasons why no one will ever name a town after me, even if I do work for the railroad). So in 1887 Emmett Cluck, son of George and Harriet and the principal landowner in the town, changed its name again, to Cedar Park. People used to take the train up here from Austin a hundred years ago and stroll around.
Right next to the big snazzy “W” of the Whataburger is the smaller, more rounded “W” of a place called Wienerschnitzel, which purports to be the largest hot dog chain restaurant in the world. In der Welt, don’t you know. Evidently these people don’t know or care that Wiener schnitzel isn’t a hot dog, or any other kind of sausage, but a breaded veal cutlet. Nor did they know or care, when they started out calling themselves Der Wienerschnitzel, that the correct article isn’t der but das. Who knew that naming a restaurant could involve so much knowledge?
I see a young guy holding up a sign for some business at a street corner and I stop to ask him if he’d mind telling me how much he gets paid to stand there with the sign. We get to talking and it turns out he’s from Ypsilanti, Michigan, recently out of the army, settled in Austin. Small world. Oh, by the way, he gets fifteen dollars an hour, a bit more than I expected.
There’s an old cemetery in front of the New Hope First Baptist Church at the corner of New Hope and Highway 183. Right over the fence lie members of the Trammel family, and also some descendants of the founding family, the Clucks—Aaron and Frances. Actually, Frances isn’t in there yet, and she’s 100 years old as of last September. Hanging back.
The sign says I’m leaving Cedar Park, and immediately I enter Leander, population 22,379. Another railroad town, named for Leander “Catfish” Brown, a railroad official. And get this: they found a female human skeleton dating back 10,000 or more years here, and called it the Leanderthal Lady.
Two or three miles north of Leander I’m pretty much out in the country again. It’s not the absolute desolate country, punctuated as it is with water towers and power lines. But it’s hilly. They say this is the beginning of the Texas Hill Country, although I think I’ll be skirting it to the north. These hills are green and tree-covered, and limestone rock sticks up from the soil in outcroppings and loose stones everywhere. The trees are mostly cedar and oak, both somewhat scrubby, rarely seeming to reach much over thirty feet.
I cross the South San Gabriel River, and when I reach the entrance to a new housing development called Summerlyn I have about two and a half miles to go. Soon I see a sign for Seward Junction, but this is really not much more than the crossroads of Highway 183 and Texas Route 29. Seward Junction appears to be part of a community called Liberty Hill, centered a few miles to the west on 29. Liberty Hill is a city of a bit over 1,400, first settled in the 1850s by people from the Carolinas and Tennessee who came for the land that was offered.
With less than a mile to go, feeling the fatigue of the day, I stop to perch on a galvanized guard rail, my favorite place to sit. I sit on the rail and tuck my legs up and rest my heels on the lower lip of the rail. I look around me over the countryside at some of my favorite sights—a Valero station and a Shell station, each with its convenience store. I’m well-stocked at the moment, but it’s good to know that they’re there if I need them, with coffee, soft drinks, and those two-for-a-dollar peanuts. Or even a Blue Bell ice cream bar.
I get up and walk, and not far past Seward Junction I spy the big white rear end of the motor home, with its Continental kit over the bumper. When I registered the motor home back in the fall of 2008 the letters on the license plate they gave me were BWA, so I immediately thought of a mnemonic to make sure I remembered them, and it was Big White Ass, which seemed appropriate, since the back end of the vehicle is white and big. So there it sits.