Gone to Texas: Day Three

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The view from outside my room.The view from outside my room.

The view from outside my room.

A few days ahead of leaving for San Antonio, Amelia and I discussed what to do on our last day in Texas. She noted that she’d always wanted to visit Austin. I, too, had always wanted to see city that demanded things stay weird. Sure, it’s a hipster landmark, but it’s a hipster landmark in the middle of cowboy country. It had to be worth checking out, right?

Before parting ways the previous evening, Amelia and I settled on leaving around 9:30 the next morning. It was late enough to sleep in and not be in a hurry, but early enough to still have lots of time in the city. I did as much packing as I could the night before, leaving out only my suit and a change of clothes for the next day. The next morning, after all my usual morning rituals (shower, shave, blood rites), I finished packing and started looking up a good place to eat when we arrived.

Once she was ready to go, Amelia swung by my room to see what I had found. She approved of my dining selection, so she called down to the front desk to check out of our rooms. We were surprised to discover that a resort fee of $20 per day would be added to our bills, and I immediately felt bad. I had expected that our vacation package would not include any additional costs. The idea that Amelia would be charged more after we’d already agreed on a budget for the trip bothered me. After a quick discussion, we decided to eat the cost and get going. If the charges could be fought, we would do it later.

The route from the hotel to our destination in Austin was about ninety miles, and would take nearly two hours. Amelia again took on navigator duties, though the long stretches of highway gave her the freedom to make a few phone calls as we traveled. Along the way, we listened to some of my friend Dmitry’s music, as well as The Decemberist’s Picaresque and Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous. We shared tales of family dysfunction and talked about Gir’s wedding.

Amelia and I were concerned that traffic would be unbearable. Our trip coincided with Austin City Limits, a major music festival that draws a crowd from across the country. Fortunately, this was not the case. With the exception of a few groups of people loitering on side streets and taking photos in the middle of the road, traffic was light and moved at a steady pace. The best thing you can say about a long drive is that it went by quickly, and this one felt like it was over too soon.

Our first stop in Austin was the Bouldin Creek Cafe. It was well-rated on Yelp, and upon arrival we discovered that it was deeply loved by locals. The place was packed, with people pouring out of the front door and gathering by the entrance. Amelia went inside to reserve a table for us while I looked for a parking space. Despite appearing to be quite busy, the wait for a table was only twenty minutes. We requested a table on their patio, then took our pager and joined the crowd outside.

Our good luck continued. There were two open seats in the waiting area, so Amelia and I sat down and used my phone to look for things to do in the city. We reached out to some friends and in the end decided to go for a walk down 6th street. Just as we finalized our plan, the pager buzzed and we were brought through the busy cafe and into the patio seating area.

Two things caught my eye as we were seated:

1. Yes, there were a lot of typical-looking hipsters here.

2. Everyone brings their dogs!

I have always had mixed feelings about people bringing their pets with them to stores and restaurants. I completely understand wanting to bring a pet along with you everywhere you go. Taking a dog for a long walk is lots of fun, assuming the canine is up for it. However, that doesn’t change the fact that dogs are still animals, and are prone to behavior some might find unacceptable. Everyone thinks their pets are perfect angels, no matter what the reality of the situation is. Thankfully, all the dogs there were well-behaved. The hipsters, dressed in skinny jeans and adorned with whimsically-groomed mustaches, were also well-behaved.

When our waitress came to take our orders, Amelia requested a Garden Breakfast with steamed spinach and a mocha. I got a Veggie Royale with a chai latte. While we waited for our food, we talked more about Gir’s wedding, as well as our experiences with Gir when we were younger. Amelia had been friends with Gir since they were in junior high, while I had worked with her at an animal hospital while we were in high school. We also planned a trip to a nearby bakery to get a cupcake or two for later.

The food came quickly, and it was great. The chai latte was more bitter than I would have liked, but still good. The Veggie Royale was also wonderful. It came garnished with three tiny pickles, as well as a side of potato chips that Amelia and I shared.

One thing I’ve found myself enjoying while on vacation this year is eating outside. Chicago’s temperamental weather makes outdoor seating a gamble even in the summer, but it is something I think I should do more of. I can’t think of many places near my home that have outdoor seating, but I’ll have to start keeping an eye out.

After we finished eating, Amelia and I walked across the street to Sugar Mama’s to get something sweet for later. The customer in front of us was filling a huge order. At the request of the woman at the counter, I opened the door as the confectionery connoisseur left with what seemed like enough sugary baked goods to open a store of her own. There were about a dozen different kinds of cupcakes on display. In the end, we decided to share a vegan snickerdoodle. The cashier placed our tiny cupcake in a cardboard box and we headed back to the car with the treat in tow.

As the Bouldin Creek Cafe was on First Street, the drive to Sixth Street was not long. On the way to our destination, Amelia noticed Mexic-Arte, a museum focused on Mexican, Latino, and Latin American art. She suggested we make that one of our stops. Shortly thereafter, we found a nearby parking garage. To my chagrin, it only accepted cash. Amelia had just bought brunch(we took turns paying for meals), so I begrudgingly asked if she has ten dollars on her to cover the cost to park there. She did. After finding a spot in the garage, we started our walk through Austin.

Amelia wanted to pick up gifts for some of her family members, so our first stop was in a souvenir shop. The store featured many Austin-themed tchotchkes, from ceramic coasters with popular graffiti to a multitude of music-based gifts. Nothing particularly called out to her, so she opted not to buy anything and we continued on our way.

It’s probably safe to say that Austin is probably a more interesting place at night. We passed by a number of bars and eateries, but not a lot of places that would be good for a quick visit. Amelia spied the Museum of the Weird across the street from us at one point, and we decided we’d check it out on our way back up the street. It didn’t take long; in just a block or two we found the shopping district came to an end. 

Whereas Los Angeles is a city sprawled across a huge area and Chicago is almost claustrophobic, Austin feels quaint. Sure, it’s a major city, but it has less than one-third the population of the cities I can compare it to. The walk down Sixth Street felt more like a small town’s approximation of a big city than an actual metropolis. That’s not a dig on Austin, by the way. I went into the city without any real expectations. I was a little underwhelmed, perhaps, but not let down. It definitely had a flavor all its own. Los Angeles is a city full of people chasing after impossible dreams. Chicago is fast-paced and utilitarian. Austin is laid back. I can see the allure.

Minutes later we were walking into the Lucky Lizard Gift Shop, which acts as an entry point for the Museum of the Weird. We got tickets to their complete package: the museum, a live performance, and a showing of the Minnesota Iceman.

I would describe the Museum of the Weird as unfocused and more a collection than a museum. Perhaps because of my interest in the paranormal and unexplained as a child, or perhaps because I have always known interesting people, I was already aware of many subjects the museum put on display. For me, it was a kitschy walk down a cramped corridor. I knew right off the bat that many of the things being presented were old hoaxes, though seeing them in person was certainly interesting.

At the end of the twisting museum path, we were asked to wait for the next live show to begin. Amelia and I were both anxious to get to a bathroom at this point, but like many establishments in major cities, the museum did not have any. We waited for the next performance with a trio of energetic youths. It was at this point that things got a little uncomfortable.

We were greeted by an honest-to-goodness human oddity. Born with phocomelia, both of his arms were extremely short. He led us up a three-story staircase that wound around the inner walls of a tiny courtyard. On the second floor landing, he directed our attention to a barred door. He claimed it was the back entrance to the former home of Johnny Depp. Neither Amelia or I were impressed, though our tour guide was quite the showman. “I’m not supposed to allow this,” he said, “but if you want to reach through the bars and touch it, go ahead.” The young trio in front of us took him up on the offer, seemingly feigning excitement.

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Few encounter The Creature and survive.Few encounter The Creature and survive.

Few encounter The Creature and survive.

At the top of the staircase was a large terrarium, where a giant lizard rested under a heat lamp. Our guide brought us past the glass enclosure and into a small theatre. In one of the corners opposite the stage was a diorama featuring King Kong. While the youthful trio took turns pretending to be held in Kong’s plaster grasp, I noticed a statue of The Creature from the Black Lagoon across from it. I struck a pose and Amelia snapped a shot of me being menaced by the beast.

After fighting free of The Creature, our host performed a few feats. First, he displayed remarkable prowess by extinguishing a candle with a whip. He talked a little bit about life as a human oddity, and how he takes some measure of pride in being different. It was still a little awkward seeing what was essentially a freak show, but our presenter seemed to own it.

He continued by telling the story of how he discovered electricity seemingly had little effect on him. He demonstrated this by holding a live wire in one hand, while an assistant chosen from the audience — one of the impetuous trio that came to the show with us — held a light bulb over his skin. When it made contact, it lit up entirely; as it moved away, it grew dim and flickered. Still holding the electrified cable, he invited the audience to touch him. We each received a tiny shock as the energy arced between his skin and our fingertips.

The performance ended with the performer placing the exposed end of wire in his mouth. His eyes rolled back into his head as his body convulsed. It seemed to go on forever, but he quickly pulled the cable out of his mouth and cut off the power. With his performance coming to a close, he made an entreaty for donations, claiming that he wasn’t paid for his work due to insurance restrictions. He made it known that our charity would help stave off his depression, and offered photographs for donations of ten dollars or more. I didn’t have much cash on me, but I dropped what little I had into his tip jar. Amelia gave him some money as well. The trio purchased a photo from him.

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I guess Uncle Fester isn't as unique as he thinks.I guess Uncle Fester isn't as unique as he thinks.

I guess Uncle Fester isn’t as unique as he thinks.

To be honest, the whole thing bothered me. I pondered the ethics of the situation. Was he really okay with being put on display as a human oddity? Could the museum really get away with not paying him? I wondered if his performance was more parlor trick than a so-called immunity to electricity. Of course, I also wondered if I was simply too cynical to just enjoy a good mystery.

(While writing this piece, I did a little research on the electricity phenomena, but could find no real information on it beyond a couple other performers who claim the same ability.)

I was ready to leave at that point, but we stuck around to see the Minnesota Iceman. Another member of the museum staff led us behind a locked door on the ground floor of the courtyard, into a dark room with a large chest freezer. The door had been replaced with a pane of glass, the perimeter of which was lined with LED strips to illuminate the subject: what could have been a person encased in ice. It was hard to make out any sort of detail through the frost and bubbles that had formed over what could have been millennia. The museum attendant explained the story behind their acquisition of the oddity, and pointed out a few features in the barely-visible corpse that he felt identified it as human. Our tour group inspected the display for several minutes before finally leaving the museum.

I don’t know what I expected from The Museum of the Weird. Perhaps the Internet has numbed me to the concept of weird. The macabre and the disturbing have found new homes in the dark corners of the world wide web, and human oddity shows seem less exciting and more exploitative in a world that seems to have, if not more empathy, then at least more awareness than generations past.

In spite of this, I was still enjoying my time in Austin. I had wonderful company, and exploring a new place is always exciting. At this point, though, both Amelia and I were anxious to find restrooms. We started toward Mexic-Arte, hoping to find an available lavatory on the way. Every establishment declared that their facilities were for customers only. In the end, we simply walked into a Starbucks and waited in the long queue for their bathrooms.

Our next stop was the aforementioned Mexic-Arte. Fortunately for us, the museum was free to visit on Sundays. After browsing the gift shop, Amelia and I each took our own paths through the art on display. As it was mid-October, one of the major themes of the current collection was Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). There was a fantastic variety of art on display. I saw pieces inspired by tradition, as well as works that fit in line with more modern aesthetics. Photography was (understandably) not allowed, but I highly suggest checking it out if you are in or near Austin. As I walked through the gallery, artists were on site, creating new works. I figured it would be impolite to intrude on their process, and kept to the artwork already on display.

Amelia and I eventually crossed paths toward the far end of the museum, and when we were both ready we headed back to the gift shop. She purchased several items, and I picked up a cork-and-rubber covered notebook as a memento.

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Sugar Mama's Vegan Snickerdoodle Cupcake. Well, some of it.Sugar Mama's Vegan Snickerdoodle Cupcake. Well, some of it.

Sugar Mama’s Vegan Snickerdoodle Cupcake. Well, some of it.

Because Amelia still had more coursework to do for her calculus class, the last item on our Austin itinerary was a return trip to Starbucks. We made a quick stop at our car to pick up the snickerdoodle cupcake we’d purchased earlier, then headed back to the Starbucks we’d visited before checking out Mexic-Arte. We sipped on iced chai lattes and shared Sugar Mama’s delectable pastry before Amelia got to studying. While she bettered herself through further education, I started work on my travelogue for day one and attempted to clean up some of the photos I’d taken the day before.

An hour and a half later, we were back on the road. We listened to some Garfunkel and Oates and started back toward San Antonio International Airport. Along the way, Amelia finally found some music from my collection that she liked, so before filling up the tank on our rental car we listened to part of Gwen Stefani’s first solo album. After a speedy check-out of our Altima, we just barely caught a shuttle back to the airport proper.

Without a TSA connection in Texas, we were forced to walk through security like (ugh) ordinary people. The line was not unbearable, though, and we still made it through security with plenty of time to spare. We each took a turn watching our bags while the other went for a walk around the airport. When the time came to board, Amelia shared some keen observations as we stood in line.

Unlike our inbound flight, our trip back to O’Hare would require two flights. We decided to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on the trip back, and we caught the first hour on our flight from San Antonio to Houston. As a dreaming Joel struggled to keep his memories of Clementine, the first leg of our trip home came to a close. Our connecting flight was leaving in short order, but we were both hungry so we stopped to get bagels. It took an unfathomable ten minutes to get two toasted, buttered bagels, but once we had them we sped from one end of our terminal to the other. Amelia “accidentally” knocked me off balance as we stepped onto a moving walkway, then immediately apologized in an attempt to cover her random act of aggression. After spending three days with her, I knew the truth: she wanted blood.

We arrived at the gate of our connecting flight just as our group was boarding. We found our seats and began devouring our bagels. I found myself sated after eating only half of mine. My lack of an appetite prompted concern from Amelia, which I appreciated. Sadly, our rush to the plane was unwarranted; the flight was stalled on the tarmac for nearly an hour. We finished watching Eternal Sunshine and discussed its ending, both of us finding it hopeful.

We each did our own things for the remainder of the flight. When we arrived at O’Hare, a mutual friend picked us both up. After dropping off Amelia at her home, he and I discussed the events of the weekend. I finally made it back to my apartment at one AM and immediately fell asleep.

Weekends like this one come along rarely; friends like Gir even less so. I was grateful to be a part this major milestone in her life, and of course wish her nothing but the best. It was inspiring to see how she surrounds herself with engaging, interesting people.

Just as exciting, though, was the opportunity to get to know Amelia. She was a wonderful traveling companion, and her genuine kindness was refreshing. She could have easily kept to herself the entire trip, and she instead chose to share her time with me. Thanks to her, a fantastic wedding was bracketed by an unforgettable weekend.

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