It was morning in Austin. Rachel and I had just finished eating breakfast at a place called Biscuits and Groovy – I ate a Philly Nelson, a philly cheesesteak on three buttermilk biscuits, topped with bacon, sausage, onions and chives. It was tasty, but it made the walk back to Rachel’s – rising, falling, curving streets through morning steamy heat – something of an arduous task. But I was having a good time, it was good to see Rachel, and we were strolling along – her little dog, Benny, nosed around trees and bushes at the end of his leash – gabbing about life when we both looked down and saw a newborn baby squirrel, lying still in the middle of the road.
The poor hairless little thing brought an immediate halt to our conversation. We knelt down, stared – silently – at the creature to see if it was alive. Just when I thought it was dead, it contorted in one drastic motion, issuing a silent gasp that brought out an audible Oh no! from both Rachel and I – its spastic jerk resonated in our bodies, like we were connected to the dying creature. It bled from the mouth, which was fixed in a permanent cringe. It’s eyes were still sealed. After it jerked, the creature lay still.
I looked up. The trees above the middle of the road were around 30 feet high. I didn’t think there was any way a full-grown squirrel could survive that high a fall, much less a minutes old infant. About five feet away was what looked to be the splattering of afterbirth. Barely born, already dying. Rachel picked up the squirrel and put it under a bush in someone’s yard. She lay it on a leaf, poured some water on the leaf to keep the creature cool, then lay another leaf over it to keep it out of the sun until it died. We thought about taking it back to Rachel’s – try to save it somehow – but we just couldn’t see Somehow. We left the creature and resumed walking down the middle of the street.
“At that size,” said Rachel, “it’s easy to see we’re made of the same stuff. A human, a dog, a cat, a squirrel. It’s just all many tiny changes that make us different.”
I agreed. Just about anything can be a helpless, hairless dying thing.
I was lucky one, it’d been many years since my helpless hairless baby days. In fact, it was the morning of my 38 birthday. I was generally happy to be alive and well, it was a good morning and Rachel was a good friend. But the image of the dying baby squirrel stuck with me all the way back to Rachel’s. When we finally made it to her place, it went away, but the realization that I’d eaten a Philly Nelson at 9am swooped in to take its place and I had to lay down and ponder over why I would do such a thing. Rachel had a film shoot to go to. Something about fighting in an elephant suit. My pondering led to dozing, then all went black…
Later in the afternoon, I took another walk – south, through Rachel’s neighborhood and onto the University of Texas campus, then straight to the state capitol building. I use the term “straight” loosely, for I had to maintain my course by hopping from one curving street to the next. But that’s what’s great about Austin. It’s unformed in just about every way. Sure it’s the capitol of Texas and there’s plenty of squares in suits with broad shoulders and perfect hair, but it’s a hippy town through and through. Set in the middle of a state that vehemently defends its identity and borders, Austin is a fountain that brings forth a kind of whacky cosmic mojo straight from the earth below, through you and to the stars above. In some places it’s easier to feel the energy that runs through all things. Maybe it’s just the hills that make it hard to entrench 90 degree angled thinking and streets. Whatever it is, Austin’s one chill electric green and maroon and blue lava lamp, bubbling away in the middle of a showroom full of 60 watt reading lamps. A Cosmic Fillin’ Station in the Universe.
Squirrels where everywhere. Squirrels in the trees, in the streets. Squirrels chewing on nuts, scurrying across sidewalks, haunched on park benches. I was Squirrel Moses leading the Chosen Squirrels straight to the Ten Commandments that stand just in front of the giant granite Ararat that is Texas‘ state capitol building, which was within sight. Pharaoh was nowhere to be seen, not even a sniper in the University of Texas‘ clock tower as we walked passed. The squirrels squeaked and danced all around their flawed leader as we moved through the campus. The spring semester had ended the week before, but a few student and teacher types still hung around. It was a groovy campus – architecture from several different eras and plenty of greens in between. Statues were everywhere too. Under an old live oak tree stood a bronze Barbara Jordan – holding her glasses to emphasized a point she was making…with tired eyes from the wisdom of knowing those you speak to have to be willing to listen.
Further into the land of statues, more young students buzzed about. I started thinking of my birthday again – started thinking when, exactly, did I go from the youngest guy in my crowd to the oldest? That probably happened sometime before I quit drinking, because after I quit I pretty much stopped hanging out with crowds. Let’s face it, I stopped hanging out in crowds long before I stopped drinking. So when, exactly…? I crawled out of that rabbit hole and focused on my surroundings. There was a statue of Jefferson Davis, and just down the way one of Robert E. Lee – both stood eternally on the wrong side of history, wrong side of humanity, the wrong side of Barbara Jordan. The two Confederates were engaged in an duet, forever singing: It all seemed so right at the time.
Standing front and center of the mall of statues was a giant shiny George Washington. He stood straight, facing the Texas capitol, just a few blocks away. Really, spoketh the statue of George Washington, your state capitol just had to be taller than our Nation’s capitol? George crunched his face and shook his head. Then his eyes widened, he took a deep breath, and quoted Jack Kerouac, Texas is undeniable…we were already almost out of America and yet definitely in it and in the middle of where it’s maddest. George spoke no more so the squirrels and I split.
We came upon a foursome of co-eds – two guys, two girls – who were walking toward a movie theatre between the capitol and the campus, where a huge sign hung, advertising the new Star Trek movie.
“I mean,” said the taller guy, with glasses and curly hair, “it’s obvious that the USS Enterprise was constructed outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. There’s no way it was built in our gravity.”
“Well, yeah,” responded the smaller guy with glasses and curly hair.
The two girls were too cute to be around such boys, but the semester had ended, so why not, right? They were a few steps behind the boys when the girls saw one of my squirrels. After a few coos and giggles, one of the girls tossed a peanut M&M to it and when it turned its nose and ran away the girl screamed, “I hope you f%$king die, squirrel!” If I had a walking staff I would’ve turned it into a serpent and thrown it on her. But I had to get the squirrels to Canaan’s land.
By the time we made it to the capitol building, the giant thing seemed merely a novelty. There were some cool statues and some yellow roses grew out front, but it was far from a Promised land after a long sweaty walk. So I parted ways with the squirrels and headed north, not to Heaven but up Guadalupe Street to check out all the hot girls with short black bangs and tattoos in the vintage clothing stores.
Later that night, Rachel and I went to see a play in a bar on the east side. A few of her friends were in the production. The action took place along the bar, and the audience sat in a line against the wall. Sometimes the action spilled over into the crowd but nobody seemed to mind. The actors were loud and spoke to the audience at times. They drank on stage, spat onstage, and all but one character died. I loved it. Despite its dark tones, it was a celebration of community – we’re here we live. I forgot about that – in Texas, one doesn’t have to take themselves too seriously. In fact, you better not or no one will take you at all and Texas is a really big place to wander through alone.
Throughout the night, Rachel introduced me as her friend “who’s an actor, singer-songwriter playwright and regular writer who used to live in New York and is going out to LA but may move here when he’s through out there” to all her other friend’s. I smiled and shook their hands. Her friends would switch their beer or whiskey to their other hand and shake.
It turned out an actor in the play – Mike, who wrote and performed the songs in the play – was celebrating his birthday too. After shaking hands, we small talked about how cool it was to be born on the same day, then he turned to the bar and ordered another drink. I looked around. I was 38 and in a bar I would love to drink in – if I still drank. I didn’t want to drink, but wanting to or not wanting to never mattered when I did. Mike tapped his hands on the bar. The bartender handed Mike a shot. Mike threw back the shot – something clear. Rachel was facing away from me, talking to a friend. Mike put the glass on the bar, waved at the bartender – another round. Something in his wave – the loose relaxed action – made drinking a good idea again, and in a quarter-second I wanted to drink as much as I could as fast as I could until I developed my own language which Rachel nor everybody else couldn’t interpret. Then I would drink alone until I got kicked out of the bar, then go to another bar and drink until I got kicked out. I would follow this pattern a few more times then drink myself all the way to that dark soundproof shadow between the last bar and Rachel’s front door. There, I would chatter my teeth until dawn then roam about with two different sized eyeballs in the hot morning peering into the gutters of every damned curvy street for my lost debit card as I drip out booze flavored sweat laced with self-loathing and self-pity but if I can just find that debit card I will be normal like you and last night’s trip to Hell’s outer brothels would be downgraded to just one crazy night that folks like you and me have every now and then, right? Please tell me I’m right…because if I see another helpless, dying baby squirrel in the middle of the street before I find my debit card I will beg God to to turn me into a pillar of salt and be done with it. But Mike wandered off into the night and the spell wore off.
Besides, Rachel wasn’t drinking and it would be rude to put a friend through all that. She was tired and ready to go home – she’d wrestled all day in the heat wearing an elephant costume for Christ’s sake. We went home and watched TV until midnight passed and I began my march toward 39. But for a minute there, my inclinations toward self-destruction seemed so attractive. But I can’t blame Austin for that. That happens anywhere I go.