“When I want to get in touch with my roots, I go to San Antonio. When I miss San Francisco, I go to Austin.” – Margarita A.
Margarita served me a much-appreciated celery-carrot-mango-banana juice at 6:45am this morning, moving to the salsa soundtrack in her San Antonio Airport beverage bar. She drove 45 minutes to work today, as she does most days, so that she can live halfway between these two cities and their respective realities, on a lake where she and her husband fish for bass and spend time with their 84-year old neighbor who originally owned their property.
Her statement did a pretty darn good job of summing up my long birthday weekend of central Texas exploration: a splendid smorgasbord of Mexican culture, counter-culture, and that down-home Texas vibe everyone talks about.
The first place I landed upon driving into downtown San Antonio was Market Square, simply because it was the easiest place to park. I wasn’t prepared to walk straight into a Mexican souvenir market, but there I was, looking at Talavera-ware sinks with calla lillies, Oaxacan alebrije knock-offs, cheap vanilla extract and a lot of t-shirts with gun graphics saying “Texas 911.” Oh yeah, I’m 60 miles from the Mexican border, and a half-mile from the Alamo…
As a long-time Spurs fan, one of my main objectives in coming to San Antonio was to see Tim and Tony in their native habitat, the AT&T Center. The boys performed predictably well (against the Lakers sans Kobe, they weren’t exactly put to the test); it was the stadium cultural experience that I didn’t expect. It seemed like everyone had arrived an hour early to walk the outer ring of the arena while satisfying their Tex-Mex sports-food craving and catching a buzz off the passion these folks have for their team. One of the reasons I love the Spurs is because of their melting-pot composition – two French guys, an Argentinian, a Cruzan, a Brazilian, an Australian and an assortment of black and white American guys. The crowd at the AT&T Center was just as diverse, all dressed in silver and black,and all fired up. The franchise talks a lot about “The Spurs Family,” and after having been the only non-season ticket holder in my upper balcony section, I get it. Everyone in 222 knew each other, and they introduced themselves to me – as an out-of-town Spurs fan I got instant cred. Big city and small town rolled into one.
Meanwhile, in Austin a day-and-a-half later, I was served farm-raised eggs in a bike-shop-turned-café by a transgender waitperson. Plenty of skinny jeans in there – but also a couple of retired ladies chatting, an older musician working on a song, and a handful of guys with dreads eating salads. Walking around South Austin, I couldn’t help but wonder if Austin now is what Berkeley was in the late 60’s some kind of Ground Zero for evolving culture in our country today. case in point: the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, a legal graffiti art mecca, where anyone can apply to spray paint a creation onto the crumbling walls, knowing full well that it will be painted over by someone else within a week.
Pretty darn cutting-edge.
The tech revolution has a strong foothold here, as evidenced by all the billboards advertising the launch of Google Fiber in Austin, and the fact that the local free paper has two columns of want ads in the back – one for barristas and one for programmers.
And, at the same time, there’s a palpable rootsy undercurrent. Texas flags and outlines of the state’s distinctive borders abound, as do memorabilia shops with Johnny Cash posters and old horseshoes. Amongst the myriad food truck courts, there are as many BBQ joints as there are juice stands, and you can get a Thai taco (whatever that is!) as easily as a carne de res classic.
I was a bit overwhelmed by the crowds on South Congress on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and by the sheer density of people running along the river trail. I had to look up to see skyscrapers and be reminded that Austin is very much a city, a state capitol home to 800,000 people and the corporate headquarters of Dell computers and 200+ other companies.
But, then again, that night I saw music at a bar called The Saxon Pub, where I managed to stumble into a regular Sunday evening church service for the roots-rock community, offered up by The Resentments. I’d been encouraged to come to this gig by the guitar player; he and the drummer had been accompanying the musician-owner of the tiny Hilltop Cafe north of Fredericksburg, TX where I’d eaten dinner the night before. It turns out he’s one of those notorious Austin musicians – you know, the ones who have played with everyone in every bar for years. Judging from his expressions as he bent his notes, he’s clearly in an intense, long-term relationship with his instrument – to our benefit.
While I was waiting in line for the bathroom at the set break the drummer came up to me and said, “Hey, you were at The Hilltop last night! Welcome to Austin.” Yes, also very much a small town.
Last night I took a long stroll along San Antonio’s Riverwalk – a place seemingly created to help define the act of strolling. It’s got its obvious touristy sections, with lots of groups of men wearing convention badges drinking margaritas in overpriced, underwhelming Mexican restaurants along the banks.
But it’s also got some neat hidden turns, where mosaic murals embedded in the walls beg you stop walking and look. A passage under a bridge was decorated with LED-lit dangling glass pieces that shimmered as you moved and created jittery reflections on the river water.
I stopped there to compliment a homeless guy on his bicycle (it had some super cool moto-style handlebars) and he excitedly showed me the electrical wire blue lights he’d wrapped around the frame to “trick it out.” Because I slowed down I saw just behind him that someone had painted a few tiny bodies onto the wood planks holding up the embankment, and that the bridge over me had metal hands welded onto it. Public art, everywhere. (A little too late I discovered that the city even has multiple pages of its arts website dedicated to the myriad public displays.)
My favorite might have been one that Margarita from the juice bar would certainly have embraced. It was a series of statues in the shape of anthropomorphized hands making peace symbols.
They were painted by up-and-coming artists from San Antonio’s sister city of Monterrey, Mexico – in patterns ranging from ancient Aztec graphics to psychedelic cloud patterns. In some ways familiar and welcoming – in others, totally edgy.
A little bit traditional, a little bit hippie, and a lot bit creative.
Maybe that will be the theme for my year.