Thursday, April 07, 2005

Street scenery

I was going to take a day off from blogging, and this evening I was returning a rental film to Vulcan Video, whose name plays to the nostalgia of old-timers who remember the Vulcan Gas Company, the first stirring of the hippie Prague Spring in Austin (maybe that trope was a too much of a stretch, no tanks rolled in, after all, and indeed Austin music and the Austin scene in general never got exactly squashed).

The current Vulcan rents arthouse and indie films. It is right off South Congress Avenue, which only 5 or 6 years ago was still a low rent strip of decaying brick storefronts and pre-interstate highway motels with the original neon tubing still working sometimes, and making a buzzing noise, renting rooms by the week for pensioners and by the night for the prostitutes who worked the S. Congress sidewalk under the old streetlights. Occasionally the police would round everyone up, especially during the sessions of the legislature, because any haul of customers would include some unlucky state legislators from Conroe or Eagle Lake, which would be gleefully reported in the otherwise staid and bought-off Austin American-Statesman.

But that show has moved to other parts of town.

As I neared my destination I found myself in the middle of a traffic jam of people looking for a place to park for First Thursday, an event that has a little of the feel of the old Austin, and a little of the feel of an Austin too expensive for me to live here anymore. First Thursday was supposedly a spontaneous coalescence of street vendors and jugglers and street musicians who decided in a sort of random natural selection process to gather together on the first Thursday of every month in the vacant parking lots and on the sidewalks where the hookers used to work. I am not sure I believe that origin myth.

It has now become a big event, especially since all the junk shops and used clothes stores have been replaced by antique stores and vintage clothing shoppes which sell exactly the same things at much elevated prices. Several excellent restaurants and many bad ones occupy concept-restored buildings, including places you can drink your latte or beer at a sidewalk table. Many thousands of people come out.

I had to park a long way off from the video store, so I walked around in the crowd and it was enjoyable. (Eventually I turned in my DVD.) Quite a show. Jugglers were hurling flaming sticks up into the night, sometimes not dropping them on the way down. There were 8 blocks packed with pedestrians, and every driveway and parking was lot full of street vendor tents selling artisanry like tie-dyed t-shirts (what is it that leads people to tie-dye a t-shirt? What is it that leads people to buy them? Two of life's mysteries.) Plus handcrafted jewelry, tent after tent of it, hopeful tie-dye t-shirted proprietors gazing smiling and perhaps a little stoned at people fingering the merchandise. Occasional other stuff is for sale, like out-of-tune bamboo flutes, handmade soaps, candles, and incense hand-dipped on sticks by cheery bright-eyed dreadlocked 18-year old white-girl neo-hippies. Renaissance Faire, with diesel fumes from the buses.

But mainly people come to listen to the bands and street musicians and shop in the former junk shops. And watch other people. A very tall man goes by with a hand lettered cardboard sign, I didn't catch all of it, but it did have a rhyme saying, in part, "Six foot seven inch Jew, will something something restyle you." I don't know if he was a massage therapist or a hairdresser or a strolling madman, or what. An elderly evangelical Christian was carrying a giant handpainted colorful sign on a stick depicting a smoking and flaming lake of fire, crudely painted on thin plywood with a caption, Broad Is The Way That Leadeth To Destruction. A little at odds with his message, he was blocking an already narrow sidewalk. He could have sold his sign for a lot of money to the people buying folk art in the former junk shops, if he had decided to take the broad way that leadeth to destruction. On one sidewalk was a vendor selling expensive silver hookahs, and offering smokes to passersby. Several people were hooked to one hookah contentedly puffing away--tobacco, probably, since there was a heavy police presence. Crowds were watching the crowds watching the jugglers.

The music was kinda nice. I liked a Zydeco band which had gotten people dancing. They had a little boy about 6 playing a washboard with sticks. I walked past a parking lot where a country band was setting up and the previous band was leaving, one musician sauntering out into the crowd with a french horn on his shoulder. One block had 3 bands, all loud and and trying to be heard, when I walked by the first time--when I walked by on the way back, the middle band had given up and were packing up their stuff. It's kind of Darwinian out there.

It's great for the crowd. Lots of music, pleasing to varied tastes, but it has to be a matter of desperate hope for the musicians, most of whom have an instrument case open on the sidewalk with a few dollar bills inside. One band was very strange, a woman playing an accordion, a man on a sax, and a guitar-player, playing tangos. I gave them a dollar in the open guitar case. I went into an antique shop which had a lot of bronze East-Asian statuary and found an enthusiastic South american band playing cumbias. There was of course a drum circle, also enthusiastic, but unlike the other attractions had more musicians than onlookers. Still, the drummers were having a good time.

I walked back toward my car, past the Zydeco band. Couples my age, and older (and younger), old guys bearded and grizzled, tie-dyed and long skirted women with gray hair, some young professionals, high school kids, and some kid kids, were dancing on the sidewalk. I suddenly missed Kay, because we would have danced too.

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