Moving. That’s what I do on a bicycle most days. That’s in addition to a practice of yoga which I’ve done for over five years every day. For the last 20 months, I’ve also taken a daily walk. In the last half a year, I’ve had to do the other kind of moving, into a new place to live, several times, mostly not by choice. This weekend was one of those times, and now I find myself back in a place I used to be, albeit temporarily. The occasion of living in a different environment affords the opportunity to look at things with fresh eyes. While perambulating is often a chore through which I trudge, looking forward to what comes next, tonight’s walk was revelatory. So here is what I noticed on my walk in East Austin.
New Vs. Old (New is Kicking Old’s Ass)
Gentrification is a word that gets used a lot here in Austin, Texas, and especially this side of Interstate Highway 35. The East Side,.as it’s also known, was traditionally and historically settled by African-Americans. That was largely through a policy of red-lining — banks and other institutions drawing maps in ways that prevented people of color from moving to the wealthier “white part of town.” The blog Decipher City has a different word for the economic forces that drive out long-term residents : Displacement.
Whatever you call it when people can’t afford to live where they are, it sucks. Because if one thing is noticeable walking around here, it is the ugly new houses and commercial buildings next to older ones with more character. I can understand Californians coming in with their West Coast money and buying a house for half the cost, and wanting it to be nice and new. I don’t get why they have to be so damn ugly and out of character with the rest of the neighborhood. The moneyed real estate and other interests — to the tune of millions of dollars — that is behind all this new development are seemingly too powerful to stop. Which also sucks.
Finding the Beauty Anyway
But I digress. It is still a neighborhood. There is wildness here. Untamed growth of sunflowers, bushes, grass and trees next to manicured lawns. A ramshackle abandoned house sits next to a brand-spanking new monstrosity. There’s a pocket park, a cemetery, the highway, unpaved alleys. Gardens, No Trespassing Signs, trash in the street. Some art, a garden, those beautiful orange and yellow flowers on bushes that seem to thrive the hotter it gets. Mexican something-or-others, I think they’re called, but I don’t remember.
One thing I like here is the cemetery, if one can appreciate it for its solitude, solemnity, and history. I’ve walked through it before, and it’s full of old oak trees and something you may not think about: wildlife. There are squirrels, plenty of birds, bugs, and who knows what else. And the ability to walk around, looking at the names, gravel crunching under your feet… Is felt somehow more ok with the eventual inevitability of your own demise. I can understand people who want to be buried, left to rest in peace. As I think these thoughts, the wind blows, a welcome way to remove some of the sweat.
People I Meet on the Street
The background soundtrack of my walk is some very lush and elegiac classical music which is playing on the radio in my headphones. Walking the wide avenues, I feel almost mesmerized by seeing these streets as if for the first time. I realize I’m in a peaceful, possibly even semi-spiritual state. It’s probably induced by the oppressive 100+ degree heat, hunger, fatigue, and dehydration. There’s a man washing his car with music on. I guess Cuban but he says it’s Colombian. His dog barks through a window. We talk about it a while.
I see a woman who is walking her dog and as Watson, a small collie mix. I know because I ask, and it turns out she’s trying to socialize him to not growl at men. He looks scared but I don’t have health insurance and don’t want to get bitten. I sit down on the curb as she tells me he probably had an abusive prior owner. We have a chat, I mostly ignore the dog, taking the approach from my brothers. He trained two dogs, one to do search and rescue and even went to Hurricane Katrina. Watson’s not growling as usual, which is a good sign she says. But he doesn’t approach to meet me, either. He has what my sibling says is a “greeting disorder.” He startles as I get up; he’s not ready and senses my fear, too. Next time maybe he’ll be a little more at ease.
Aimlessly, I turn the corners, looking at everything. There’s a man emptying the trash at a business. People whiz by on mktemtrrbicycles. Others are walking. A man is sitting on a table, listening to rhythm and blues. He looks sad and doesn’t return my hello. He’s black, and I reflect on it just being 50 years since Woodstock with artists like Jimi Hendrix making a mark that still.lasts to this day. I think about slavery and how the music of African-Americans formed the basis of gospel, jazz, and modern rock and roll, not to mention rap and other genres, too. It is one thing that can and does bring us together.
There’s another man who passes me by. He is also black, thin and using a cane to make it. He gives a little smile so I ask him about an abandoned building. We chat and he tells me he survived Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He’s suing the government or maybe a former employer for that. We talk about his Avengers t-shirt, but he hasn’t seen the movie yet. Just parts of a bootleg outside of a bar. He asks me for a dollar, and I can’t think of a good reason not to give him one, so I do. He’s on his way before I think to ask for a photograph; the moment has passed. He said his name is D’Angelo. Of the angels. I’m agnostic athiest, but I wonder. What do I know? That’s the point. Who dies, really? Live until you sir and then worry about such things, this Dude says.
Arriving at my abode, I am thankful for the air conditioning. The cold water. The bed. Things the homeless don’t have. Maybe displaced is better word. They are people, surviving nearby, moving amongst us, hidden in plain sight if we care and dare to look.
Speaking of Elvis’s 50 years anniversary, a lyric from Paul Simon’s album Gracleand come to mind: “Empty as a pocket with nothing to lose.” And I realize I’ve got it good, despite all my challenges. That will change in a month when I have to move on again. To where, I know not.
Another day is dawning. I’ll fix my flat and spare tire, and start all over again. But tonight I feel at ease. With friends, in a house that is homey. Almost as if I belong somewhere, if but for a moment. Like maybe I “don’t have to live like a refugee.” (Tom Petty). I’m a wandering Jew with no travel budget. So I go around Austin. I just keep moving.
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