Let me begin with the worst part of being in Austin. Everyone I talk to, whether a clerk, bike mechanic, bartender or barber, says the same thing: “Oh, man, you should have been here last week for SXSW.” I want to respond by “dropping trou” and showing the calluses on my derriere with the explanation that I could not have pedaled much faster. But even this can’t diminish my enthusiasm for Austin. This place is great.
I woke up this morning and rode down to 4th and Nueces to Mello Johnny’s. Before entering, I genuflected and said a silent prayer for an 8th win in July. Jason, the mechanic on duty, told me they were booked with service orders for the week, but after I explained my ride, he said he thought he could get my work done in the next couple of days. Aside from the Lance connection, this is a great bike shop. It has lockers and showers for commuters, a broad array of products, and an excellent coffee shop, all on the premises.
From there, I walked to SoCo (South of Congress) passing the decommissioned Seaholm power plant. Built immediately after WWII, this facility provided power for all of Austin’s electrical needs. Although it is no longer active, I was struck by the architecture and the graphics of the signage with “Austin Power” and a thunderbolt in an Art Deco font. Hopefully, it will be a building that the city chooses to renovate and preserve.
SoCo is just “cool”. There is no other way to put it. Interesting and eclectic shops ( Uncommon Objects stands out) and tempting food are everywhere. Special to Austin are restored Airstream trailers that are used to serve food – BBQ, Mexican, Indian and even cupcakes. The quality of what I tasted was outstanding and I never tire of looking at Airstreams – an iconic bit of Americana.
When I travel, I’ve learned that a good way to get an inside view on what’s happening is to visit a barbershop. In SoCo, I found Avenue Barbers (since 1933). The décor feels as if you stepped into the 1940s or 50s and the barbers, dressed in white coats, provide an “old school” cut complete with straight edge, hot foam and powdered brushes. What’s striking, however, is that they are not septuagenarians, but tattooed 20-30 year olds who aim to provide barbering services as have been done in this shop for the last 70 years.
I walked past the Austin Hotel, a family-lodging establishment and long time Austin institution. Is it just me, or does anyone else think their sign is highly suggestive? There are many signs around the city proclaiming “Keep Austin Weird”. You get a sense for the place also from establishments like the Magnolia Café with it’s billboard that says: “Sorry, we’re open” or Little Woodrow’s bar that advertises: “Come early, stay late and remember nothing.” It’s clear that this is a city that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
It’s also a place in which all forms of art are integrated into the community. Around every corner you see a mural or sculpture; buildings are restored to carry forward interesting architecture from decades past; music is everywhere and there is an amazing diversity of food on every block. Portland, Santa Fe and San Francisco are other places that imbue this fusion of aesthetic and community. The question is – why doesn’t every city?
Austin also has an excellent independent bookshop: Book People. Wherever I journey, I seek out the local bookstores. You can divine much about a community by what it reads. Book People is a good example. Their selection covers books I haven’t seen elsewhere, with extensive collections by Texas authors and on local history. I walked away with a stack of books knowing that only a few would fit in my panniers.
The highlight for me today (other than a tasty BBQ dinner at Stubbs) occurred at dusk. I walked to the southern edge of the Congress Avenue Bridge with a few dozen other people and waited for the sun to set. At around 7:30pm a stream of Mexican free-tail bats flew out from under the bridge looking like a dark shoelace winding across the twilight sky. There were tens of thousands this evening, but later in the summer the population grows to more than one million. A bit of trivia: these bats consume between 10,000 and 30,000 lbs of insects each evening from the Austin skies.
On my return to the hotel, Eva Longoria called and asked if I wanted to go out to hear a band at Antoine’s. I told her we’d need to wait for another night. I’ve done enough for today.