Is life actually any different between one city and another? Do we merely imagine the differences to make our lives seem richer based on the uniqueness of locale?
When I lived in Los Angeles, I had a two-bedroom apartment. I drove three miles up a highway through shitty traffic to get to school. The grocery store was a Ralphs a couple blocks away.
I live in Austin. I have a two-bedroom apartment. I drive three miles up a highway through shitty traffic to get to school. The grocery store is an HEB a couple blocks away.
My life consists of school, sleep, food, and internet. It’s been that way for the last fourteen years. In the Bay Area. In Los Angeles. In Austin.
“What’s good about Los Angeles?”
“It’s got the beach.” I went to the beach about three times in six years. “It’s got skiing nearby.” I went to Bear Mountain once. “It’s got diverse food options.” Two Ethiopian joints to choose from instead of one.
“What’s good about Austin?”
“Music festivals.” I’ve never been to one. “Downtown nightlife.” Quickly outgrown. “Hill country.” I drive through it on my way elsewhere.
My annual highlight reel is filled with experiences that hardly describe my daily reality, which is of a different sort. Every day, I’m stuck on I-35 through Downtown Austin, passing by skid row, condemned houses decaying on hillsides, graffiti, being surrounded by cars and trucks, pissed off, anxious, restless, litter everywhere, scattered about the freewayscape. I did it today. I’ll do it again tomorrow. This is my life.
Austinites like to joke about how they don’t live in Texas. They live in Austin. Living in Austin is fine, but every so often I have to remind myself that I live in Texas. Austin is a city. It’s a t-shirt, “Keep Austin Weird.” It’s a selling point. A commute. Texas is a spirit. It’s an ethos. An open road.
When I first moved to Texas, I came by car. My father, a country music aficionado, made a mix CD of Texas country music with instructions: “Start CD at border.” I first crossed the border at Texico, NM. It was a dump. I threw on the CD. The first song was “What I Like About Texas” by Gary P. Nunn.
“You ask me what I like about Texas.
I tell you it’s the wide open spaces.
It’s everything between the Sabine and the Rio Grande.
It’s the Llano Estacado.
It’s the Brazos and the Colorado.
It’s the spirit of the people who share this Land.”
I listened to this while driving through the vast Llano Estacado, looking across the vast open landscape to the horizon. I was happy.
Driving down I-35 through the slummy side of Austin, I threw on this song to remind me that my present location, Texas, goes beyond Austin. It extends to the Rio Grande and to the Llano Estacado. It encompasses the whole breadth of romanticized desert, coast, plains, forests that make up what we know as the State of Texas. Sometimes I forget that.
In my more jaded and disillusioned moments, when I stand on my front lawn, surrounded by litter and dog shit, I have to remember that my little plot of dirt connects to another plot of dirt, and that plot of dirt connects to yet another, and eventually the ground on which my feet rest makes its way to the banks of the Rio Grande, to the cliffs of Big Bend, to the brilliant starry sky and the sound of coyotes yelping at the moon. Outside of my little town, there exists a beautiful world, and I am a part of that.
Texas culture, for all its grating arrogance and over-the-top pride, is pretty good at reminding people that we, today, are connected to a land and a history, and this awareness, even if I only make it to Big Bend once in my life, provides a richness of life and an appreciation for my location. But memory and delusion can only go so far, lest we drown ourselves in an endless existence of concrete banalities.