Today on Alphabet City: While on book tour, Jon Paul participates in final fatherly ritual, and worries about Austin’s weirdness.
“Keep Austin Weird”—the city’s semi-unofficial slogan—has always made me a touch nervous visiting my old stomping grounds. Is the Weird-o motto a warning that the town’s offbeat charm is being ruined by an influx of immigrants craving Austin’s oddball charm and livable conditions? Or like “Buckle Up” or “Don’t Litter” is the slogan more of a command—a reminder perhaps—that as a returning (T)ex-pat I have a quirky responsibility to my former home?
When I was in Austin last June writing a story for Bon Appétit magazine about the city’s farm-to-table restaurants, I half-worried that the town was becoming a little too trendy for its own britches. Old neighborhoods seemed to be bursting at the seams with renovated houses that looked spectacular—with price tags to match. Could the owners of these showcases possibly be the type of citizens to appreciate—and honor—Austin’s unique sensibility?
A year later as luck would have it, the Alphabet City Book Tour stop in Austin these past few days gave me the opportunity to knock on a couple of those doors, step inside, and find out. I also had some time to renew my weirdness credentials.
First up, my sister Paige—ably assisted by 12 year-old niece Hannah—invited me to peek inside the pioneer of Austin’s original earthy-crunchy healthy eating movement—Whole Foods Market. This hometown hero’s headquarters is perched above their flagship store on Lamar, and my sister had invited her colleagues to come meet me in a conference room for some afternoon treats of cookies and book readings. Now usually, I take the stage at an evening gathering where folks have been drinking some wine and spirits to loosen up their laughter (and wallets). I wondered how a Friday afternoon gig was going to go down with a crowd of health gurus. But everyone from the company’s Global Cheese Buyer to the communications intern chuckled at my punch lines and lined up for a signed copy of Alphabet City.
Afterwards, my sister pressed me into accompanying her and Hannah for some back-to-school shopping. Those hyphenated words conjure up images of a sweaty August trip to Dillard’s to choose just the right color of new Polo shirt. So when we pulled up in front of Whole Earth Provisions, another Austin earthy-outdoorsy institution, I was perplexed.
“This is where we get Hannah’s sandals,” my sister Paige advised.
“Really? I hope they have cute ones,” I worried. I glanced down at my own Fendi sandals with the fancy Grecian crisscross straps that I could barely keep on and hurt my feet, but looked great.
“They have cute and comfortable ones,” Hannah piped up.
I rolled my eyes.
Inside, as Hannah tried on some different pairs, I wandered the aisles looking for a new reusable water bottle, considered purchasing Chef a hammock, and finally ended up in the flip-flop display. Hundreds of Reef brand sandals called out to me with the same tag reading “Ridiculously Comfortable.” I gave into the advertising, located a not too dowdy pair and slipped them on.
“My God! They are so comfortable!” I shouted.
“Told you so!” Hannah screamed from two aisles over.
“No, I mean these are maybe the most comfortable sandals, or shoes, I’ve ever put on. How could I have missed these?”
My sister just laughed at me as we headed to the car, and I thought maybe a little earthy-crunchy comfort isn’t a bad thing to add to my New York wardrobe.
I felt like a rebel wearing those sandals on my two-hour drive to Winedale, Texas—both my mother and Chef insist I wear lace-ups for safety while operating a motor vehicle. But in 100+ degree heat, I needed to be free to enjoy the 40th Anniversary of the University of Texas’ Shakespeare program in the countryside. My dear friend Valerie had participated in the program while were in college, and it was just like those bygone days. Out in the country, inside a barn, and under some trees, students from all disciplines—not just drama studies—spend intensive weeks examining the Bard’s texts and performing their insights. Alumni had been invited back for this special weekend, and I howled with delight at Valerie and her friend Kristin’s interpretation of the all-French scene in Henry V of teaching the young princess English. All French in iambic pentameter when neither one speaks French?! The crowd was in stitches, including Terry Galloway, author, performer and Fishin’ Gal Gus in my film GayTV: The Movie. If you haven’t read Terry’s captivating memoir Mean Little Deaf Queer then please, please, please put it on your list immediately.
Back in Austin, I flipped off the Reefs and slipped on my Fendi’s for a Sunday afternoon book party. Boy, am I glad I did. Another dear friend of mine Philippa was hosting a get together for me in her gorgeous home. Philippa and her parents adopted me in high school—one of the core groups of families who made sure I was getting by with a warm meal and a little love. Philippa went on to become a medical anthropologist—and she demonstrated her talents first hand by unearthing a treasure trove of notes that I had written her while at our fancy private high school Greenhill. She used those letters to introduce/embarrass me to her fabulous and enthusiastic group of friends. Once the shock of old high school intrigues wore off, I smiled at the thought that this was the kind of introduction I’d only get in Austin. And warmed by appreciation that Philippa and her delicious husband had opened their lovely home to an old friend.
The following Monday night’s event was historic in many ways. Valerie co-hosted the party with her friend Tammy, one of those Southern women who are just a force of nature. Over the past year, Tammy and her husband have been whipping their Austin home into shape—restoring it to its late 1800s splendor—including meticulously recreated, time appropriate wall paper. The previous owner, a UT professor, used to hold literary salons in the living room, and so I was honored to be the first author at the home’s “coming out” party. The gathering included a who’s who of women in media in Austin, as well as my spirited Uncle Cleigh—a Truman Capote ringer if ever there was one—who had been a guest at the original literary salons at the house in the 1940s.
Given the history of the evening, I decided to add something special to my selected readings. By this point on the tour, I’ve pretty much got my shtick down—start with an excerpt about “summering,” followed by my first encounter with Tyra, ending with my Mom’s visit or a peek inside Condé Nast. But something happened earlier that day that had me going in a different direction. My sister Paige had asked me while I was in town to be part of spreading some of my father’s ashes. Despite some rules and regulations that discourage the practice, we decided that somewhere around the UT Law School, his alma mater, under a tree would be the right spot. Although I still have conflicted feelings about my Dad, I agreed, hoping it would continue to help the healing and closure process. Under a gnarly tree in 100+ degree heat, we found just the right spot and I whipped out a Flip Cam to record the moment. My sister asked me on camera, “What do you think our father would say about us flouting the law like this?”
“I think he’d be pretty proud of us,” I replied.
As she spread the ashes in a nearby flowerbed, I broke into an old tune we used to sing on car trips So Long It’s Been Good to Know You. And then my cell phone’s screaming ring tone interrupted the tableau. The tune? Mary Tyler Moore’s theme Love Is All Around…You’re Gonna Make It After All.
With all that swirling in my head at the book party, I decided for the first time to read from the chapter that covers some of my difficulty with my father. I’ve never been able to read it aloud to an audience, as it’s too emotional for me. But that night, in the historic home and setting that Valerie and Tammy had created, I felt loved and understood and appreciated. When I told the group about my earlier adventures of spreading Dad’s ashes, I felt, well, a little weird. Not in the awkward sense. More like kooky, crazy adventure, offbeat silly weird. The kind that helps to Keep Austin Weird.
The next day at the airport, I still had on my Reef flip-flops—too comfortable to take off. A little bit of Austin on my feet to help me shuffle back into my NYC life. If Paige, and Philippa, and Valerie, and Tammy are all custodians of Austin’s Weird flame, then I can rest easy. These citizens carry the unique charm and character of the city—and I know they’ll always make a place for me.