A Knickerbocker’s Journey to the Not-So-Wild West
CONTENT WARNING: References to suicide.
As the plane continued to rock, I imagined what it must have been like to have served as a bomber during the Second World War. Imagine: a gathering of gangly, greasy, GIs, some no older than 18 years old, gesticulating wildly over German ground in a glorious game to grind to a halt a gentile-guided genocide.
Any temporary reprieve was shortly ended by further rocking. The endless wails of an infant did not help to temper the general unease in the air. Unlike the adults, the baby was crying due simply to the fact that they are a baby. The adults were crying because they thought this 404,600 pound modern marvel was about to fall out of the sky.
Ignorance is bliss.
Curious as to which part of this nation’s skies was currently tossing me around like a rag doll 6 miles in the air, I looked at the flight tracker — Cleveland. I was going to die in Ohio.
Another drop. The passengers gripped on to their arm rests. Casino continued to play on my screen as my life began to play in my head — Casino was more interesting.
“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
— Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
I was originally intending to watch Casino on the way to Austin but the flight was shorter than the length of the movie. After scrolling through all of the selections, I landed on Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. One of my friends had been suggesting the movie for years, being trapped on a flight gave me the perfect opportunity to knock it out.
The movie, a black comedy, stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as Ray and Ken respectively — two bumbling hitmen who have been sent to Belgium by their boss until the heat cools down from an assassination gone wrong in England. Ray, responsible for a tragic and unnecessary death during the aforementioned assassination, is guilt ridden as a result. Ken, his elder and mentor in the people-killing business, tries to help his friend deal with his struggles, even as fate and their foul-mouthed boss have other plans.
Without spoiling too much, Ray’s guilt quickly evolves into suicidal ideation. Ray’s eventual attempt is interrupted and, in wonderful example of the lovely gallows humor that is emblematic of the Emerald Isle, the remainder of the film is Ray’s desperate fight for self-preservation.
I have been self-destructive in the past. Arguably, I still am, even if certain vices have been curbed (2 years sober in August). Even at my darkest moments, I have never genuinely considered suicide as an option. The call of the void has made itself known on occasion, as it does with us all, but intrusive thoughts have never manifested into fatal actions.
To me, self-destructive behavior served as a reasonable alternative — the “buy now, pay later” of suicide. Compared to the source of Ray’s guilt, my own seem inconsequential. Anytime the topic of my mental health has come up I always feel inclined to diminish my own concerns as insignificant compared to the struggles of others. I know this is wrong but it is hard not to think this way.
I feel depressed because I have trouble maintaining meaningful relationships — others can’t put food on the table, don’t have a roof over their head, or don’t even have any relationships to maintain.
“Who am I to complain?” I thought to myself as the plane continued on its way to the Lone Star State.
I arrived late at night as my flight out of Los Angeles was delayed. I bid my travel companion adieu and shuffled into the nearly empty halls of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. I was flanked by vacant BBQ spots and far-too-bright LED advertisements for Austin’s own Tito’s vodka.
I hired a cab to bring me to my friend’s place on South Congress. He was an immigrant, an Afghani. I resisted the urge to ask him about the current state of his homeland, following its takeover at the hands of the Taliban. Instead, we bonded over the most universal aspects of human suffering — the weather.
He explained the exhausting, erratic nature of Texas weather, something I would shortly come to experience myself. He also complained about the dust that eventually finds itself coated on just about everything. The only equivalent in my life as a Yankee was snow. It only managed to snow once in the city of New York this past winter.
Surely that is not a worrying sign of things to come.
No wonder I’m depressed.
Eventually, we found ourselves in front of the Texas State Capitol Building. I called my friend and said “You don’t live in the Capitol, do you?”
It turned out my driver hadn’t heard the “south” in South Congress.
A few minutes later, I was dropped off and greeted by my friend and their absurdly cute and absurdly small dog who I had met way back when we were both in attendance at FIT, our alma mater. I was so wrapped up in the reunion that I forgot to pay the cabbie, who silently stood behind me, patiently waiting.
The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast at Joann’s Fine Foods, directly across from my friend’s lovely apartment. As a New Yorker, it is shocking to see someone living in relatively affordable luxury. In the city, a shoebox goes for about $1,000 a month.
She has done well for herself, something I love seeing for all of my friends. Her company thought highly enough of her that they sent her back to her hometown to run things there, depriving the city, and myself, of her presence.
I suppose it was selfish of me to assume all of my friends and family would stay in the city. I put off meeting up and nights out with the mindset that there was always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Now, it costs a pretty penny and a flight just to see those I used to see daily.
Perhaps the hardest thing about growing up is realizing that everyone is on their own path. Some intersect with yours, either for a short or long period of time, but each one eventually goes their own separate way. Some interconnect till the very end. Some that should never even cross paths end up wrapping around each other every which way.
And then there’s mine, straight out of an M.C. Escher sketch.
“I keep hearin’ you’re concerned about my happiness,
But all that thought you’re givin’ me is conscience I guess,
If I were walkin’ in your shoes, I wouldn’t worry none,
While you and your friends are worried about me, I’m havin’ lots of fun,
“Countin’ flowers on the wall,
That don’t bother me at all,
Playin’ solitaire ’til dawn with a deck of 51,
Smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo,
Now don’t tell me, I’ve nothin’ to do…”
— “Flowers on the Wall”, The Statler Brothers
The accent of the waitress felt like a splash of cold water against my scruffy face. Her laugh as I thanked her for drawing the blinds and shielding my frail Irish skin from the unforgiving southern sun woke me up and rekindled that joyous feeling that accompanies my favorite role — that of the helpless flirt.
My friend, all-too-familiar with this particular persona, reminded me to stay hydrated and to finish my breakfast. We met in a class at FIT during both of our first years there. I became fast friends with this hilarious and chaotic individual as we bonded over the weird nature of a fellow classmate (and borderline stalker).
A couple years later and we were living together in Ridgewood, Queens, albeit for a short time. I ended up moving to Bushwick for just under a year with another friend. Following that fateful March of 2020, I found myself leaving the city for the first time since I moved there in 2017 and moving back home for over a year.
In that time, many of the friendships forged during my illustrious collegiate career more or less disappeared. I will freely admit that I am not the best at maintaining friendships if proximity cannot assist. Friends that I considered brothers back in High School haven’t heard a peep from me in years — there’s simply too much going on for me to keep my head above water, let alone maintain so many connections.
ADHD is a curse.
This is supposed to be about Texas.
“The nights are cool and I’m a fool,
Each star’s a pool of water, cool water,
And with the dawn I’ll wake and yawn,
And carry on to water,
Cool, clear water…”
— “Cool Water”, Bob Nolan
It was hot. Unbearably hot. We found ourselves shuffling to her truck like hopeless desert wanderers to an oasis. This was in April.
The day was mainly spent hunting for a cowboy hat and boots to wet the whistle of a Northerner far out of his element. I had known that Austin was famed for its art scene and culture, a culture that would appear antithetical to what non-Texans think of when they picture “Texas”. The attire of most was more reminiscent of the residents of Williamsburg, Brooklyn than John Wayne, Marty Robbins, or Yosemite Sam.
Did this stop me from wanting to dress as the latter? You bet your ass it didn’t.
The folks at Allens Boots assisted in the realm of Western footwear, while an old favorite, Goorin Bros., provided the hat. Walking in downtown Austin in this get-up, while unabashedly adopting a more braggadocios walk, was exactly the kind of devil-may-care stupidity I love on any vacation.
Honestly, I think I pull off the look quite well. For a Yankee, at least.
The downtown area of Austin and South Congress are a great time. We ended up grabbing BBQ at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, fulfilling my main Texas wish, after a visit to the aforementioned State Capitol Building.
The park surrounding the Capitol is called “The Confederate Memorial Lawn”. Showcased triumphantly on the southern path leading up to the Capitol is a monument to the Confederate soldiers who died in the War Between the States. Standing atop said monument is Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America.
It was not shocking, per se, to see this idolization of a man and a movement so fervently dedicated to the preservation of slavery in this country. It was however horrifying all the same. When I was younger and visiting Charleston, South Carolina with family, I realized even back then that our accents invited glares from the diligent denizens of Dixie.
It feels like an entirely different world, that is the land south of the Mason-Dixon. This feeling has been further exacerbated in recent years by the ugly reactionary elements that have defined American politics and have once again found fertile soil in the South.
The city of Austin appeared to stand firm against that particular brand of southern culture, but the monument reminded me that it is always under the surface in this country — even up North.
I refused to let my vacation be interrupted by thoughts of a possible second Civil War, instead opting to bury my worries in a healthy slosh of barbecue sauce and fantasies of cattle driving on the prairie.
“Up at dawn to greet the sun,
I’ve forgotten what a care or worry means,
Head for home when day is done,
With my pocket money jinglin’ in my jeans,
“I´ve got a hundred and sixty acres full of sunshine,
Got a hundred and sixty million stars above,
Got an old paint hoss, I’m the guy who’s boss,
On the hundred and sixty acres that I love…”
— “160 Acres”, Marty Robbins
She brought me to The Driskill, Austin’s oldest operating hotel. Built in 1886 by a cattle baron and infamous as a site of paranormal activities (i.e., bullshit on both counts), the hotel was exactly the type of spot I like to visit when I’m outside of the city — something that reminds me of the city.
We grabbed a drink at the bar that she used to visit with her childhood friends. I was glad to know that underage drinking is a hobby that transcends state lines. I had a virgin mojito and wished it was an experienced mojito.
We walked around the expansive halls, enjoyed the view from a balcony, tried to break into their grand dining hall, and utilized their incredibly classy washrooms. We were intruders, the real spirits haunting the hotel. The Texas flag was draped against a wall in an attempt to hide ongoing work on the grand staircase. I asked for a picture. I’m realizing now that we didn’t manage to grab a photograph together. Considering how bad my memory is in general, mistakes like this keep me up at night.
“When I die, take my saddle from the wall,
Place it on my pony, lead him out of his stall,
Tie my bones to his back, turn our faces to the West,
And we’ll ride the prairie that we love the best,
Ride around little dogies, ride around them slow,
For the fiery and snuffy are rarin’ to go…”
— “I Ride an Old Paint”, Traditional
We capped off the night at Cidercade, an arcade and cider bar combo nestled against the southern bank of the Colorado. With unlimited play following a $10 admission fee, I was immediately sold. Add in unlimited refills of soda for this Sober Sally and I was in heaven.
Moseying up to the doorman in my cowboy regalia (now capped off with my Levi’s jacket), I handed him my driver’s license.
“New York, huh?”
“So, you went with the full get-up, huh?” he asked, referring to my cowboy cosplay.
I had been called out — my accent arriving simultaneously at full-force did not help the situation.
Regardless, I refused to be embarrassed for fully embracing this particular childhood fantasy. Past a certain hour, the arcade caters only to adults. Being 26 years old, I was humbled to remember that his means 18+. The other patrons made me feel like ancient in comparison — I felt like my friend and I were geezers trying to relive old times.
She explained to me that raccoons often pester people on the outdoor patio area that sits against the Colorado. Even as a suburban kid from Long Island, I was very familiar with the aggressive nature of these particular varmits and kept a faithful sentry of the bushes when we found ourselves sitting out there.
At some point, a police officer entered the patio area and searched in the bushes with his flashlight. Initially assuming he was there to handle the raccoons, my heart sank into my chest when I realized the much likelier reason for his appearance. It has been impossible to ignore the situation at the border as the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were arriving in New York by the busload daily, courtesy of Texas’ Governor Abbott. We never received confirmation that this is what was occurring, and the fact that Austin is about 220 miles away from the Mexican border does call that particular thought into question. I hoped the search would remain fruitless all the same.
After all, Texas was at one point home to the Tawakoni, Taovayas, Kichai, and Yscanis. Then, it belonged to the Spanish crown. Then, it belonged to the French crown. Then, it belonged to Mexico. Then, it belonged to the Republic of Texas. Then, it belonged to the United States of America. Then, it belonged to the Confederate States of America. Then, once again, it belonged to the United States of America.
Who’s to say who can be a Texan, let alone an American, when the meaning of both terms have changed so many damn times?
(Fun fact: those are the “six flags” that gave the Texas amusement park its name.)
There I go again, failing to enjoy my vacation and live in the moment.
I ended up playing just about every arcade game the location offered with my friend and we called it a night shortly before closing time. So ended my one and only full day to spend in Texas.
The next day, we decided the weather was opportune to enjoy some nature. She brought me to Barton Springs Pool, an outdoor swimming pool carved out of an existing spring. The water was considered sacred by the former inhabitants of Austin, the Tonkawa. They used the springs for their purification rites, something I assume was similar to the Christian baptism. Now, folks wallow in the year-round 68 degree water and enjoy a reprieve from the burdens of our modern world.
In effect, nothing has changed.
The three of us, myself, my friend, and her dog, found a cozy spot near the embankment to relax before I left for the airport. Sans a small scrap between my friend’s miniature dog and a much larger hound, it was a lovely way to spend the afternoon.
I took note of the crystal clear spring water and the minuscule fish that hovered near the shore. This sort of nature, even if also partially artificial, is rare to come by in the city. I still can’t picture myself living anywhere else at the moment but it is nice to get away from it every once in a while. Yet, even though I had only been away for a week, I was beginning to miss the city.
I watched the families enjoy their afternoon revelry, observed the clouds glide over the Texan sky. I breathed, if only for a moment. Genuine relaxation — a rarity for most vacations.
My friend generously donated a vacuum sealed bag to assist in my effort to make room for my hat in my luggage. We said our farewells as my Uber arrived to bring me to the airport. I had been chatty with all of the drivers so far on my trip and was tired at this point so I considered sparing him. Yet, as it often goes, I couldn’t help myself.
Somehow, we ended up talking shit about the British Royal Family. It was the best cab ride of my entire life.
I gave a parting wave to my driver and made my way to my gate. Panic set in when I realized that I would need to get out of my boots when I made it to security — something that, for me, took a tremendous amount of effort.
After nearly yanking my feet off, I plopped myself down at the gate and prayed that the next hour would pass quickly. Delay. Delay.
We boarded about an hour after our expected departure time. I settled into my seat and pushed my bag further to my left in order to make room for the woman who sat down next to me. I always prefer the window seat, my fear of heights does not translate to flights.
That might change following this particular flight.
After the initial drop, the one that caused my neighbor to let out a scream straight out of an 80s slasher film, I began to really think about what it meant to die. Being free of the bonds of religious obligations, I acknowledged that there was nothing waiting on the other end if the plane did in fact crash. I would never get to say goodbye to my family, my friends, my boss, my landlord, my student loan debt collector.
Any apprehensions regarding life I had been harboring before and during the vacation suddenly seemed inconsequential. My mind returned to In Bruges, specifically Ray’s monologue following his near-death experience that ends the movie:
“There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I’d go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison… death… didn’t matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in fuckin’ Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges. And I really really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really really hoped I wouldn’t die.
Sometimes it takes a reminder of one’s own mortality to inspire a desire to preserve it.
A slave used to accompany victorious generals of Rome on their triumphal chariot ride through the capital. Holding the ivy crown above their head, they would whisper this: memonto mori.
“Remember, you will die.”
The wind was whispering this to me that night, through the thick glass that shielded myself and my fellow terrified passengers from the lower atmosphere of our lovely little planet.
Even after the worst of the turbulence had passed, we ended up circling New York for almost an hour due to low visibility, a result of a thick foggy shroud that blanketed the city. I realized this would be my version of Purgatory, the eternal waiting room for failing to please the deity I don’t even believe in.
Stuck in a flying tin can, hundreds of miles above home. So far up that I could see where I used to live, yet close enough that I could spot where I currently reside. So close, yet so far.
Waiting. The transition state that allows fears to manifest and run rampant. The dread that builds when those three dots appear on your phone screen as you wait for their reply. The endless wait to hear back from a job as you pray for that sweet, capitalistic deliverance from abject poverty into moderate poverty. The eternal shift spent fretting about the surprise one-one-one meeting called by your boss. The daily struggle to get where you want to be, not where you are.
The desire to fucking land. That is purgatory.
Casino had ended. I watched helplessly as the virtual depiction of our plane on the screen in front of me danced around New York like a Russian prima donna.
And I really really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really really hoped I wouldn’t die.
When the plane finally landed, there was no fanfare. We all silently grabbed our bags and shuffled off, no one acknowledging what had happened. I knew these were New Yorkers — a brush with death was only a minor annoyance, a momentary interruption to our commute.
As I wheeled my bag down the never-ending halls of John F. Kennedy International Airport, I felt a palpable sense of relief wash over me. I was home, I was on the ground, I was home.
Near the exit, I watched a large crowd of people stare at the arrival and departures board for the international flights that would reunite their families in the very early New York morning. Their children ran around while the parents sat in holy silence, dreading any delay and cheering any arrival. I texted my mom that my fear was unwarranted, I had landed safely.
On the cab ride back to the city, I tried to rest my eyes. I was silent for the first time in a cab since I left for the airport a week ago. When we made it close to my apartment, I apologized for my lack of conversation, explaining that I was exhausted from traveling.
“Where did you go?” asked the cabbie.
“Los Angeles, then Texas.”
“I spent some time in both. San Francisco as well.”
“Haven’t been there yet. Maybe next time. Just cost too damn much, you know?”
“Oh yeah, it’s crazy.”
“I never had that kind of money. Only was able to get out there now and it still cost a pretty penny. Can’t imagine traveling all the time. Exhausting too.”
And I shuffled up the stairs to my front door. And I shuffled up the stairs to my room. And I went to bed.
And I woke up the next morning and went to work.
And I woke up the next morning and went to work.
And I’m really really glad I didn’t die.
“It takes a worried man,
To sing a worried song,
I’m worried now,
but I won’t be worried long…”
— “Worried Man Blues”, Traditional