An Englishman landing in Austin will suffer the usual disappointments of arrival. The new airport, just out of town to the south-east, lies in the middle of nothing much. It is expensively spacious, marbled, lit. But even its newness is suggestive of somewhere slightly out of the way: the cleanness of manageable traffic. Nor, as he steps outside, will he find much to impress him. The volume of the skies is very great: the horizon is flat and wide. But scale, in itself, isn’t always inspiring, when composed of the usual increments. The Texas landscape, at first glance, will strike him as simply a repetition of the undistinguished: low trees and hills, rusty tracks between them, beginning and ending in nowhere, running parallel to the telephone poles and the highway into town.
Austin, as it approaches, will betray its insignificance by little vanities. The artificial gloss of its skyline, lately enhanced by the Frost Bank Tower – Chrysler-green at the top, its jaw open to the humid skies. It has no rival. Its companions are unremarkable columns of gold and silver plate, which keep out the Texas sun and lower the air-conditioning bills by reflecting the heat onto surrounding buildings. Like most American skylines, Austin’s looks superimposed: it suggests the unreality of early special effects. The real city is humbler, spread out below in green patches glimpsed between the spun sugar fretwork of highways.
The disappointment that follows arrival depends on the nature of the expectation. Someone who comes for the kitsch of the Texas cowboy – hats and boots, wide struts, two-steps, pick-up trucks – will find it, here and there. At barbecue restaurants, built around open fires; at truck dealerships and country music joints, strewn with sawdust; in any high-school cafeteria. There are men who wear their hats unselfconsciously. They are often particularly well dressed, in brand-new blue jeans and gleaming belts and tucked-in shirts. But the hats themselves seem next to useless: they suffer from the inevitable loss in weight of something reduced to the symbolic. They might just as well be found on a music-business hipster in dirty clothes shuffling into a blues bar; or on a businessman from Chicago stepping out of his air-conditioned lobby.
Austin is capable of disappointing an Englishman in other ways besides. American downtowns are famously quiet. Austin’s is an exception, and the music on Sixth Street rolls off the office walls around it. Cars looking for somewhere to park line up at the lights. And in the space of a block or two, you can hear blues, funk, salsa, country and rock ’n’ roll competing for echoes in the street. You can stop between sets, and eat smoked ribs, dim sum, fajitas, curry. But there’s still something vaguely threatening about the empty units overhead, the wide avenues, the stacked façades of taller office blocks rising above and around. One is conscious of moving through an architectural valley – man in the shadow of the man-made. And though it’s the music, and the indie film industry, that draw the English tourist in the first place, these have little to do with the city I loved while I was growing up.
Austin itself has changed since I left. The suburbs have expanded at a desperate pace – billboards advertising ‘ranch-style homes’ appear on every highway out of town. The first lot of buyers quickly form neighbourhood associations to keep the second wave out: they came for space, they bought space, and the selling of space is eating into the fiction of their homestead lives. Out-of-towners continue to move in. Californians and Midwesterners slow the traffic along the Colorado River till you can hardly breathe in the heat and fumes and it might take you all of twenty minutes to drive home. Businesses and business habits have begun to erode the thoughtful sloth on which the locals pride themselves. Slackerdom has developed its own chic. A T-shirt seen across town demands: ‘Keep Austin Weird.’ Other T-shirts protest against the commercialisation of that protest: ‘Make Austin Normal.’ Austin has lost the battle for unself-consciousness. The student high street, known as the Drag, is lined with vintage shops. Opposite the campus, a branch of Urban Outfitters peddles cheap repros.
It’s best to head off into the residential quarters. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is all the green. Neighbourhoods are shuttered by live-oaks; creeks trickle through the folds of the limestone hills. Front and back yards run into each other unchecked. Kerbless streets give way to fenceless lawns, and the weatherboarded houses seem to claim at best a casual tenancy. In the height of summer, the natural rhythms – of crickets scraping, of grackles cawing, of heat expanding in the air – are almost overpowering. Even inside, in the draughts of air-conditioning, it’s impossible to ignore the vibrato bassline of an inhuman flourishing. Decay itself is fecund. Birds, bugs and branches die, and ants, birds and fresh weeds quickly overrun them.
Dressing in the morning is a question of economy, of bare minimums – even if, of late, a conscious style has grown out of a practical consideration. What nobody is short of is space, but it takes a visitor time to see how much that plenty counts for. Public and private realms bleed into each other. People take their chairs into the streets. Bars and cafés spread into courtyards and parking lots. There’s a general air of waste, of savouring what is hardly used, time included. It’s a city in which a college education can, without shame, take twenty years. In wide expanses, straight lines are more difficult to keep, directions easily changed. This fosters a certain susceptibility to influence: people are willing to persuade, easily persuadable. There’s no embarrassment about faddishness; in fact, there may be a shortage of embarrassment all round.
This is the face of Austin painted by Richard Linklater, director of chatty warm-weather existentialist movies such as Slacker and Dazed and Confused. A short walk from my old home is a café-bar called the Spider House, a hang-out for students, ex-students and the professionally unemployed. It’s set in a weatherboarded, rambling house with a courtyard divided into several corners and levels, overlooking a little-used street. The furniture is mostly junk: rusted garden chairs, uneven tables, unstuffed sofas, and more self-consciously devised cement benches set with broken tiles, candle-holders fashioned out of milk cartons, that kind of thing. You can get weak Austin beer, or Newcastle Brown Ale, or cappuccinos; nobody will notice if you spend all day there and order nothing. A man in black skinny jeans and tightly-laced high-tops is trying to explain the workings of his favourite hallucinogen. ‘It’s got a neurotransmitter diode,’ he says, ‘which basically means that it shuts itself off when you get too high. There are four plateaus, but it levels off after each one.’ Somebody bumps into a friend from high school. ‘A couple months ago,’ I hear him say, ‘I ran into a Drag-rat just come back from Burlington, Vermont. He thought I’d like the place.’
‘What do you do there?’
‘Nothing. Same thing I do here. Wait tables.’
‘How long will you stay?’
‘I don’t know. Till I come back here. Finish college.’
What matters most about a city, perhaps, is how far it is from everywhere else. Austin seems its own creation. It’s hard even to say why it is where it is. The original settlement was a hamlet called Waterloo on the Colorado River – a wide, unremarkable body of water that has nothing to do with its more famous namesake. Texans picked the place as the state capital precisely because of its insignificance; the other, grander options were causing fights. Insignificance, it turns out, is a quality that offers large freedoms – of thought, as much as anything else. I am sure there are people in Austin who envy Manhattan its cultural centrality: art-collectors, theatre-goers, opera-lovers who take the New York Times (which is printed each day and sold by the local paper). But there is also something enviable about the city’s provincialism. Materials for contemplation, both inward and outward, are available anywhere; and in a place like Austin they tend to be cheaper than usual. Besides, ideas seem larger, more important, in isolation. My father, who teaches at the university, once lent a student his copy of Habermas’s Legitimation Crisis. The student ‘forgot’ to give it back for months, and when he finally returned it, the volume was not only well-thumbed but full of holes. ‘I got so durn mad at him,’ he sheepishly explained, ‘I took the book out and shot it.’
My home-town has begun to earn a reputation as an oasis in the middle of Bushland; and it’s true that Austinites voted overwhelmingly for Kerry. But our English visitor would be forgiven for also seeing in it the worst of American cityscapes. Highways criss-cross it; strip malls run along the road; there are ugly shops and shacks and garish signs. It’s possible, over time, to acquire a taste for these. They are ugly, certainly; but they also reveal the inevitable economies and misjudgments of individualism. A chiropractor in a pink wooden hut; a concrete cube with a muscled arm rising out of it, to advertise the free-weights gym inside; a glass and steel construction, low-roofed, housing a little Italian café. There are no terraces; everyone starts from scratch, a word particularly evocative of the dry country the highways split. There is a beauty in the self-made, in spite of the amateurish workmanship and the mismatched styles.
I always think of Austin as the island of the lotus eaters: the place where it would be too easy to be happy. Isn’t this the song the sirens sing: stop a while, here is where you were young? On the highway out of town our English visitor will wonder what it is he is leaving behind: his destination will probably seem much more concrete. The airport appears on his right, bright, like an architect’s model, with newness, with the idea behind it. And he will puzzle over why they picked this spot. The answer, of course, is obvious: you have to start somewhere, and maybe the particular doesn’t matter so much. The large questions in life can be asked anywhere; it’s just that the answers seem a little more palatable, less pressing, when there is plenty of space around you, and warm weather.