[Thirty-Four days to Lift Off]
One compensation for the absolutely miserable summers in Austin is March and April. It’s March, spring break from the college, and I am drinking beer with my friend Dreux Carpenter and my oldest son, William. The day is bright and alive, trees beginning to bloom in electric pinks and whites or budding in what I think is the most sweetly innocent shade of yellow green. I see it every year, of course, and I have yet to be unmoved. It’s spring. We are sitting in one of those dreamscapes created by urban planners, this one called “The Triangle,” because it was built upon a parcel of land once owned by the state but unloaded during one of our periodic busts.
The parcel is in the shape of, yes, a triangle, the south side is bordered by 45th Street and the east and west sides marked by Guadalupe Street and Lamar Boulevard. Over what would be several blocks, Lamar Boulevard veers east and eventually merges with Guadalupe. While I am not always a fan of new urbanism, I have to admit I like this place. The apartments, lofts and town homes are fronted by three or four stories of a dignified red brick. The internal streets are narrow and run slightly skewed, off the grid, so to speak. The shops combine a nice mixture of ethnic and semi-gourmet fast foods with a small grocery, liquor store, yoga and palates studios. It’s like living in the heart of a really cool town without any poor people making you feel guilty. I could imagine myself living there, even though I could never afford it. So, I guess, it is a place to dream.
And drink. The triangle is the location of Austin’s franchise of The Flying Saucer, a small chain of bars expanding across the states featuring the inspired creations of America micro breweries. Dreux and William and I meet there every couple of months for an evening philosophical discussion and silly guy humor. While Colleen will disagree, I would assert that we recognize our limits, both in humor and in beverage. Only once have we reached The Flying Saucer’s limit of six drinks in six hours. That was a memorable night, what we can remember of it. This week we met and I quickly imposed for the topic of conversation my current obsession—this Preface to this book, if it becomes a book. But before I can get us going, the waitress shows up and takes our orders. I start off local with Adelbert’s Rambler, Dreux’s always good with something dark from North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg, California, and William orders a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, from Milton, Delaware.
As the beers are served, I go through my discussion of tourists, and migrants, and nomads, and self-confidently identify Colleen and myself as nomads, which raises the eyebrows of my son who knows that I have lived in the same town more or less for forty-two years.
“Really, deep down inside, I really am.”
“Right, dad. Keep telling yourself that.”
“But what I am really worried about is authenticity and simulacra.”
Dreux is quick to the draw, “Simulacra? Nutrients low?
“Yes, dad’s not feeling like himself. No wait. He does feel like himself, but he knows he’s not himself, so he doesn’t know how to feel about himself or about the person who is not himself but is pretending to be himself.”
“What?” says Dreux.
“Cheers,” William raises his class. “I grew up with this.”
“Simulacra. It’s a concept explored by Baudrillard. I’m not going to explain it right, but it’s basically the idea that reality has been replaced by fakes of reality. Think of Main Street in Disney World.”
“Things are frozen in time.”
“Something like that,” William agrees with Dreux.
“Is that when you freeze something outside the lines?”
So it’s started already, our usual punning and random associations. I better get to my point quickly. I am not going to have much time the way they are going. “So my problem is that I have become unsure about how much of America remains untouched by Disneyfication. For instance, I used to go to Fredericksburg, Texas, thirty, forty years ago. It was a little, sleepy, Texas town with remnants of German culture still evident in bakery or two and a few accents. Now, it’s a tourist destination with brew pubs and candle shops and Best Western Motels. It’s not Fredericksburg. It’s an enactment of what tourists want a Texas German town to be. People from the north move there to open shops to sell bric-a-brac to souvenir hunters.”
William, who graduated with a degree in anthropology, picks up my reference to bric-a-brac and defends these little bits of junk as carrying a great deal of cultural meaning. He begins a discussion outlining the differences between the German word kitsch and the French phrase as shorted by the Victorians to bric-a-brac. Which then leads to knick knack.
“Anybody know what ‘Paddy whack’ is?”
“I don’t know but this old man will need another beer soon.” Luckily the waitress, with her “Beer Goddess” t-shirt, wanders by. “Another?” This time Dreux orders Left Hand Milk Stout from Longmont, Colorado. William asks for a Lagunitas IPA from Petaluma, California. Still staying local, I order Jester King Commercial Suicide.
Dreux is being patient and asks me to explain one more time. “So let me get this straight. You are going to drive all across America and you are afraid you are going to find an America that is not America?”
Do I say “yes” to that? “How do you find the heart of America?” I regret it as soon as I say it.
“The Horror, the Horror.” This time it’s William.
“Get over it, dude. You are going to find what you find. You might not approve of it. It might not be to your tastes. But whether it’s been ‘Disneyfied’ or not . . .” Dreux indeed jabs home his sarcasm by lifting up both hands in air quotes. “ . . . doesn’t really change the fact that it ‘is’ what it ‘is.’” And he did it again with a great big smile.
I look at William for help.
“You are on your own, Dad. I agree. You’re smart enough to know what you’re looking at. Anyway, you can’t go back in time. You can’t go to 1930’s Fredericksburg or to Philadelphia in 1776 or to Gettysburg in 1863. You’re going to have a great trip, but you are going to see present day America. It might not be what you want, but it’s what you’ll get.”
“You are referencing The Rolling Stones to me?” I look at William.
“It’s a confusing world, Dad.”
Pretty soon the waitress returns and William orders a Wild Hare from Shiner, Texas. Druex returns to California for North Coast’s Old Rasputin. And I leave Texas for New York and an old standby, Ommegang’s Three Philosophers.
When the beers arrive, William raises his class, “Here’s to Late Capitalism.”
“I’m ready to eat,” Dreux says. “This is the place with the pork belly sandwich, right?”
Soundtrack: ZZ Top. "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers."