Downtown Austin skyline

Austin: The Could Have Been King

Friday 9 a.m.

The last week has been terrible. Hurricane Harvey has poured an ocean onto Houston, and working at a grocery store during a hurricane is an awful experience. Before the storm, everyone rushed to buy supplies, creating sprawling lines around the store. During the hurricane, the skies were dark and poured rain constantly for days. I sat in my apartment nervously hoping my car did not flood. When the storm finally passed, the sight and feel of the sunshine was a religious experience. But then it was back to work as customers bought what was left on the near-empty shelves.

And I was not even supposed to be there that week. I had taken some time off, planning on a relaxing staycation. I was going to read, program, write, and cook without a worry in the world. Then the heavens laughed and called me back to work.

However as the chaos from Harvey died down, I took off Friday through Sunday. However, my parents had driven my sister back to the University of Texas earlier in the week then came back to Houston. Since my sister didn’t have her car with her, they asked me to drive up to Austin. My mom would come up on Sunday with my sister’s car, and I would drive my mom back.

I jumped at the opportunity. Any reason to visit my favorite city was good enough for me.

Friday 10:30 a.m.

I miss Austin. I went to college at UT for five years and fell in love with the city. Growing up in the Houston suburbs, every thing felt bland and cookie-cutter: the same fast-casual restaurants, the same strip mall stores, the same two-story houses. Austin felt like it had some unique character.

I play the album I and Love and You by the Avett Brothers. I remember seeing them at ACL 2009. Though I had never heard them before, the Avett Brothers ended up being my favorite performance of the weekend. I also remember the rain that weekend turning Zilker Park into a giant mud pit. At the time, the experience was miserable, slipping and sliding from one stage to another, but eight years later, a smile creeps across my face.

My Ford Fiesta cuts through Brenham, TX, and I feel my stomach rumbling. As “January Wedding” plays on the hatchback’s speakers, my thoughts turn from concerts to food.

Friday noon

I pull off 183 onto I-35 South. The bridge connecting the two freeways climbs high into the sky. As I take the sharp corner, the skyline of downtown Austin appears. Although the Austonian is now the tallest building, the Frost Bank Tower still dominates the view. Austin’s skyline is just a collection of buildings, no different than any other city’s, but to me it is a majestic site.

Near campus and downtown, I-35 splits in half. Two lanes are elevated, while the other two remain at ground-level. My memory of which exits are where is a little hazy, but I get off at Airport Boulevard without having made a mistake. My first stop is In-N-Out. The fast food joint may be a California, not Texas, staple, but I have been wanting to try their burgers for years.

The menu is spartan, so I quickly decide on a double-double with fries and a pink lemonade. Wanting to pretend I am a food critic sampling a large swathe of the menu, I also order a vanilla shake1)The real reason I get a shake is because I am a fatty.. The pink lemonade is too sweet; no restaurant can match Chick-fil-A’s lemonade. The shake and fries are good but ultimately forgettable.

The burger, however, is something else. I have had better burgers in my life. A family friend makes an incredible teriyaki burger that I frequently get dirty cravings for late at night. But In-N-Out is the “burgeriest” burger out there. The double-double is the Platonic ideal of what a burger should be as if it was ripped out of every burger ad you have ever seen. There is nothing unique about the burger, but it is perfect and classic in every way. With its juicy beef patties and plump tomatoes and tangy spread, the double-double is the “girl next door” of American cuisine2)Food writing is very erotic. Writing essays about food has prepared me for a potential career in bad fan-fiction erotica. (“Yes! Megatron, yes,” screamed Starscream to the stars.) .

Friday 1:30 p.m.

With my stomach full, I drive through Hyde Park, the neighborhood north of campus. The houses are either tiny or have been renovated into duplexes. Most of the lawns are overgrown and messy, telltale signs students live there. But on almost every street, there is at least one well-kept house, owned by someone over the age of 25. In my fourth year of college, I lived in an apartment at the edge of Hyde Park, and I always wanted to own one of those quaint houses one day.

After cutting through the neighborhood, I take a right and drive up Guadalupe Street. This far from campus, the street is no longer called “The Drag”, and it eventually merges with North Lamar Boulevard. Just north of their merging point is Austin Books & Comics, the greatest comic book store in Texas.

I peruse the collectible back issues, marveling at some of their high price tags. Would it be a good idea to put my retirement investments into comic books instead of a 401(k)? I walk around the store twice, searching for a graphic novel to buy. Everything in the store could be bought off Amazon for less, but I love the experience of shopping here and want to give my money to a local business.

A cute woman stands at the bookshelf next to me. She looks to be around 30 with tanned skin and brunette hair that was probably dyed blonde recently. The hoop ring around her nostril says she has a wild side. Not wanting to look like a dork reading a comic with Wolverine on the cover, I reach out and grab something that looks cool and indie with a little girl jumping into combat. Inside, the pages are different than any other comic book I have ever seen.The black-and-white drawings look simple and easily brushed onto the page with ink, yet the art showcases an incredible, incomparable talent. I have to own this book, so I go up to the counter and purchase I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura. I don’t talk to the woman because I am a coward, but I do steal one last, longing glance at her as I leave the store.

Friday 3 p.m.

My next stop is BookPeople. Continuing the hyperbole, this is the greatest regular bookstore in Texas. Recently I have been gorging myself on fiction, so I stick to the nonfiction section of the two-story building. In the food essays section, my eyes catch on Eating Korea: Reports on a Culinary Renaissance by Graham Holliday. Since I have no Korean barbecue restaurants near my apartment, I decide to leave the book on the shelf. Otherwise, I will inevitably be enraged at the lack of foreign culinary experiences available in Tomball, TX.

A group of trendy hipsters is standing next to me. One of them is talking about his love of old Food Network shows like $40 a Day and Boy Meets Grill. He seems to be their group leader and is wearing flannel over a crappy t-shirt, thick-rimmed glasses, and a trucker hat. Based on their conversations, I think they actually work for BuzzFeed. I want to ask them what “articles” they have “written”. I hate them all so goddamn much. Are my conversations with friends this inane? No, of course not. I’m a special, unique snowflake, and everything I say or write is enthralling.

After a few more minutes of looking through the aisles of books, I decide to save my wallet and pass on buying anything. Walking out of a store without purchasing anything feels awkward. You are afraid the employees will think you are stealing, but the reality is you are just cheap.

Friday 4 p.m.

Austin traffic is the worst. Everyone says this about their city, but Austin is the most poorly designed city in the United States. Most places have at least one major loop around their city and a series of major roads that form spokes around that loop. Austin, on the other hand, only has 1) two highways going north-south (I-35 and MoPac), 2) one highway connecting those two (183), and 3) a “loop” that only goes halfway around the west side (360). You will be spending a lot of time stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Austin. Even though rush hour is not even here yet, I crawl over to Far West to get to my sister’s apartment.

She has been living in the dorms for the last two years, so this is my first visit to an actual apartment of hers. The complex is quiet, very different than my first apartment in West Campus. This far from the school is where good students and even some families choose to live. For some stupid reason, there are two versions of every building (e.g. two buildings marked as Building A, two buildings marked as Building B), so it takes me around ten minutes to find my sister’s place.

When I get inside, we chat for a little bit, but even though I have not seen her in a few weeks, the conversation soon goes quiet. There is only so much left to say to someone you have known for twenty years.

Her furnishings are new-apartment-chic: a mixture of cheap Ikea stuff and family hand-me-downs. It is comforting to still see my parents’ old couch and dining room chairs being put to use. I feel a strange sensation of disbelief. Someone I remember not being able to talk or write her own name now has her own living space. You forget other people get older too.

I grab my new copy of I Kill Giants and walk outside to the little patio area next to the building. I climb into the hammock ungracefully as only a fat man can. The Austin sun is beating down on me, but every so often a cloud drifts by to offer some protection. My pasty white skin becomes damp with sweat and turns red, but I refuse to head back inside. I am enamored with the tale of Barbara Thorson. I finish the book in one sitting, thinking the work was brilliant but having a slight regret of dropping $20 on two hours worth of entertainment.

Friday 7 p.m.

We go to the Indian restaurant right down the road. Technically, the food is Indian-Nepalese fusion3)You should not be able to use the word “fusion” if the countries are right next to each. Vietnamese-Mexican sounds like a legitimate fusion of cuisines, while Chilean-Argentinian seems like geographical laziness., but as a white guy, I have no idea what makes this different than regular Indian food. My sister pronounces “Nepalese” as nee-pal-ees with a stress on the second syllable. I am a little ashamed I am related to this person. My sister is very lucky to have such a knowledgeable and worldly person as her brother.

When I ask for a beer, the restaurant turns out to be BYOB. I contemplate walking over to the convenience store next door in the middle of the meal to buy a 40 of Olde English, but I figure that would make me look like I have an alcohol problem.

The lamb rogan josh is tender and flavorful. I know the next time I see a cute picture of a lamb I will feel guilty about ordering this dish, but lamb is too tasty to resist. The garlic naan is fluffy and soaks up the curry well, but I am always disappointed when a place does not have peshwari naan. I am never satisfied unless things go perfectly.

Saturday 8:30 a.m.

I wake up in the morning, stiff from a night’s sleep on the couch but otherwise refreshed. I eat a bowl of stale Honey Nut Cheerios and sneak out the door alone.

Due to the hurricane, the entire state of Texas is low on gas. I drive past three gas stations that are out of fuel. I give up and head over to HEB, needing to buy an energy drink to sate my caffeine addiction.

Standing by the kosher meat section, I see a twentysomething with dark, wavy hair and soft, intelligent eyes, the Woman I Used to Know.

My stomach drops, and I look away, hoping to avoid any eye contact. Though she used to be my best friend, she and I haven’t spoken in seven years. The last time we talked, during the middle of my unsuccessful college years, she told me I was lazy, wasting my parents’ money, and needed to take myself seriously. Worst of all, she was right and was wise to cut me out of her life. Screw-ups tend to ruin everything and everyone around them.

We will never be friends again, and that is my fault. But I had hoped I would one day see her again when I was successful and absolved of my sins. Right now I feel like the same slacker I have always been. The air from the meat market coolers mixes with my fear and gives me goosebumps. I don’t want to talk to her. I can’t talk to her.

With a second glance, I realize the woman next to me is not the Woman I Used to Know, just somebody who looks like her. I breathe a sigh of relief and proceed to the checkout.

Saturday 10:30 a.m.

My sister and I are waiting in line at la Barbecue, just east of downtown Austin. When we get there, the line is out the door, meaning we have to contend with the summer heat. The line moves slowly, and the smell of meat and smoke is driving me crazy.

When we get inside, a TV is playing UT football’s season opener. The Longhorns are playing Maryland, one of the perennial bottom-feeders of the Big 10. A team with Texas’s talent should be easily running away to victory, so naturally, the Longhorns are playing terrible football and getting humiliatingly destroyed. This is Tom Herman’s first game as the program’s coach, and he seems determined to continue the losing traditions of the Charlie Strong and late Mack Brown eras. UT has not been good since my sophomore year of university, which was coincidentally when I really started to fail at college. Somehow my low GPA must ahve been responsible for Garrett Gilbert’s failures at quarterback.

I am only able to ignore the crushing defeat UT is experiencing once we reach the end of the line. After waiting in line for an hour and a half, I order way too much food for two people to eat: pork ribs, brisket, and an enormous beef rib4)We also get a tiny container of coleslaw to be healthy and have a balanced meal.. All the meat is incredible, but the beef rib may be my favorite barbecue item ever. Ripping of pieces of that fatty rib is an incredibly gluttonous experience. I put a dollop of barbecue sauce on a slice of brisket to try out the two bottles on the table, but both sauces completely forgettable and a little too sweet. I feel like a chump; Texas barbecue does not need any sauce. Halfway through the meal, our stomachs are bursting, but we push through and finish everything on the tray because momma didn’t raise no bitch.

Saturday 3 p.m.

We watch Dunkirk at the Alamo Drafthouse on West Anderson. Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors, but somehow I missed seeing Dunkirk in its opening weeks. The movie is good in that darkly dramatic Nolan way, although it does not reach the same heights as The PrestigeThe Dark Knight, or Interstellar.

However, I did not come here for the movie but rather the theater. In Houston, the only nearby Alamo Drafthouse closed down recently, and I have missed going to my favorite movie theater. Unlike any other chain, the pre-trailer ads for special screenings always make me feel like the Drafthouse has a real appreciation for cinema. I order a hard cider and some fresh chocolate chip cookies. Looking over the menu, I consider ordering a pizza, but I know that I would regret the choice. The food at Alamo Drafthouse has gotten progressively worse over the years. Even though it is still the best theater, I wish I could go back a few years, catch a movie at the Drafthouse on Sixth Street, and order some damn good food. I try to hide the thought and pay attention to the movie. Only the things you love can disappoint you.

Saturday 6 p.m.

One place that is just as good as when I first went there is Madam Mam’s. The one on the north side has always been far nicer than the one next to campus, but the latter was the first restaurant I ate at when I came to Austin as a freshman. It was the last meal I had with my parents before I became a college student off on my own. Most people at Madam Mam’s get the pad thai, but their panang curry is the best outside of Bangkok.

My sister mentions that the location near campus has had to relocate off Guadalupe Street. I feel a twinge of sadness. She mentions that Mellow Mushroom is also gone from the Drag. I want to cry.

Sunday 10 a.m.

The plan is for my last meal in Austin to be gingerbread pancakes from Kerbey Lane Cafe, but about twenty people are standing outside, waiting for a table. Not wanting to wait, my sister and I head to Tacodeli. Alongside Torchy’s, they have the best white guy tacos5)Authentic tacos are purchased at a sketchy looking food truck from someone that does not speak English. They are served on corn tortillas, dressed simply with cilantro, onion, lime, and maybe queso fresco. The best meat options are al pastor and barbacoa. On the other hand, white guy tacos are served by a hipster and are a smorgasbord of unlikely ingredients placed on a flour tortilla. They are both legitimate, equally valid forms of tacos.. I screw up and order a plain migas taco. My sister orders a migas taco with avocado on top, outclassing my own choice. This may be the worst mistake I have ever made.

No, not really. Because after breakfast, I start to think about my actual worst mistake ever: failing out of college. On the drive back to my sister’s apartment, I contemplate trying to make up some excuse to visit campus. I want to see the Tower again, visit the student union, and even walk through the rows of books inside the main library, a place that seems kind of pointless in a world with internet databases. Picking at old wounds is hard to resist.

But all it does is cause pain. I can visit campus, but I can never go back to UT as a student. Even if they would let me back in, I have no way to pay for it. And then I would still have to deal with my lazy self. Failing out of college was not actually my worst mistake ever. That implies it was a single mistake when really it was a collection of thousands of tiny mistakes. Every time I doubted myself and every moment I slacked off all combined to make a colossal, ultimate failure. If I went back, I would probably make those same mistakes again.

Plus, what I really want is not just to go back to UT; I want to go back as an 18 year old with my whole life and limitless possibilities ahead of me, before all my potential rotted away. Time machines don’t exist.

Changing my mind about visiting UT, I decide to stay as far away from campus and the past as possible. We ride in silence until I crack a joke. Then I silently think about Lot’s wife and how you should never look back.

Sunday noon

My mom shows up at my sister’s apartment and asks how our weekend was. “Good,” I reply simply. After a brief rest, she is ready to get back on the road, so we leave from my sister’s quickly. I say goodbye to my sister, unsure when I will see her again.

Driving away, Austin soon disappears behind us. I am sad to leave, but I do not really miss the city. The ATX has not been my home for years. Missing it would be no more painful than missing any other vacation destination. But then a weird meta-melancholy rolls over me; I am sad that I am not too sad about leaving.

My mom is hungry, so we decide to stop in Giddings. After a weekend of unique, local restaurants, driving past chain restaurant after chain restaurant has never been so depressing. Whataburger ends up being the best choice, but I have never felt so unexcited about a honey bbq chicken strip sandwich in my life.

On the road again, we listen to the Revisionist History podcast by Malcolm Gladwell. Although she has never heard of Gladwell, my mom ends up liking the show. Even though you spend so much time around your parents, finding common ground is rare, so when you the connection feels so valuable.

Halfway through our second episode, I stop paying attention to Gladwell’s soothing voice and drift off thinking about Logan. Then I think about intellectual property negotiations and how weird it is that Marvel and Fox share the movie rights to Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Then I think about Elizabeth Olsen in Avengers 2. Then I think about her in Liberal Arts by Josh Radnor. Then I wonder what Josh Radnor is doing nowadays. Then I think about How I Met Your Mother and a quote from an episode:

Unfinished. Gaudí, to his credit, never gave up on his dream. But that’s not usually how it goes. Usually it isn’t a speeding bus that keeps the brown, pointy, weird church from getting built. Most of the time it’s just too difficult, too expensive, too scary. It’s only once you’ve stopped that you realize how hard it is to start again, so you force yourself not to want it. But it’s always there. And until you finish it, it will always be…”

And I realize I want to go back home. Not to Houston, but to the Austin. Not on a weekend trip, but to live there once again. I want to finish my degree, even if it can’t be at UT. I want to live up to everything that I once could have been.

For the longest time, I was content with being miserable. Every job interview I screwed up, every girl I struck out with, every night I lay awake obsessing over all the lost opportunities, those were fair payments for my sins. It was just that I suffer.

But I am through with being the Could Have Been King. By now, the slate has been wiped clean, and I get to pursue my dreams again. The last decade may have been wasted, but anything I want can still be achieved as if I was once again a freshman student starting out on his own. You can catch up with yourself if you run.

The part of me that is the screw-up college dropout is still a part of my mind. But it is not the part that is going to win. When the podcast ends, I switch over to Spotify and listen to a playlist of 90s hits. Somewhere along 290, “One Headlight” by the Wallflowers plays, and I hear my favorite line of the song: “I ain’t changed, but I know I ain’t the same.”

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The real reason I get a shake is because I am a fatty.
2. Food writing is very erotic. Writing essays about food has prepared me for a potential career in bad fan-fiction erotica. (“Yes! Megatron, yes,” screamed Starscream to the stars.)
3. You should not be able to use the word “fusion” if the countries are right next to each. Vietnamese-Mexican sounds like a legitimate fusion of cuisines, while Chilean-Argentinian seems like geographical laziness.
4. We also get a tiny container of coleslaw to be healthy and have a balanced meal.
5. Authentic tacos are purchased at a sketchy looking food truck from someone that does not speak English. They are served on corn tortillas, dressed simply with cilantro, onion, lime, and maybe queso fresco. The best meat options are al pastor and barbacoa. On the other hand, white guy tacos are served by a hipster and are a smorgasbord of unlikely ingredients placed on a flour tortilla. They are both legitimate, equally valid forms of tacos.

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