How to Say Goodbye to a City
There’s a moment in Henderson the Rain King where Eugene is looking out an airplane window. Suppose you were there then, seeing him for the first time. Sitting quietly. A distance to his eyes. You would know nothing of his marriages, or of his curiously recent desire to learn how to play the violin, or of his opulence, or the role pride played in the creation of his pig farm, or of his inner voice yelling I want, I want, I want, again and again, louder and louder, ceaselessly.
You might have assumed—rather naturally—that the thoughtful man nearby was searching or adventurous, perhaps purposefully headed somewhere for a specific reason. That there was a degree of order to his life. And all of that is entirely forgivable, because if you met him then, you would have missed one of literature’s most telling introductions, one where you meet a character and his troubles at the same instant: What made me take this trip to Africa? There is no easy explanation. Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated.
Oh, the downwardly-shaped spiral of a messy life plummeting towards further blindness and blackness. And then there’s the scattered chaos that fills his life — that’s probably too passive, the scattered chaos that he fills his life with. How internally it all can be kept. How immediately unobservable. Just a man going somewhere on a plane looking out a window.
Yes, if seeing him then was your first encounter, you’d have an entirely different handshake. But that’s not when you meet, it happened chapters earlier, and because of that you are all right with his uncertainty. It resonates for some reason. And you know that amidst all the comedy and tragedy, underneath the absurdity, Eugene Henderson is really nothing more than a man on a quest. A more modern Don Quixote. The timeless figure that grapples with mortality, worry, and regret, and is wanting something more.
Many pleasantries make good writing even better, and when Saul Bellow buries lovely remarks about little moments among the clutter of Eugene’s life, they provide some of the book’s most beautiful pauses. As in, his reaction to what he sees from the sky: We are the first generation to see clouds from both sides. What a privilege! First people dreamed upward. Now they dream both upward and downward. Sentences like those are nice breaths to take, adding helpful dashes of texture to a rather complicated person.
It’s difficult to know exactly why Joni Mitchell put her book down after she read those words. Maybe it was her perspective: it’s certainly easier to relate to thoughts on an airplane when you happen to be sitting on one yourself. Perhaps it was her youth: she was 23 in 1967, and there’s no telling if she’d ever even considered the idea of multi-sided clouds and dreams before — it could have just been that jaw-dropping of an idea to her. It’s also conceivable she had that airborne affliction travelers often get, finding herself just a little bit more peaceful and ponderous by the simple virtue of being in the sky, her thoughts playing untidily against the thrumming engines. She may have even grabbed a pen, as I would have, and made some identifying mark on the page — this, she might have noted, is exactly it. Maybe a few underlines as well. An asterisk or two in the margins to draw her eyes back more easily when she’d be flipping through later.
There is great romance in refiguring history, even its less remarkable moments. And even though her thoughts that day are interesting to consider, I do know that when she stopped reading, she started writing. Because:
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow it’s cloud illusions I recall. I really don’t know clouds at all.
That’s the end of the first part of Both Sides Now, and it not too difficult to see how it intertwines with the novel she carried with her on the plane. It’s quite a lovely example of borrowed ideas, of creativity breeding creativity, of adding my thoughts to yours to form something new. Similar, yes, just a degree or two slightly to the left. An answer to Marilynne Robinson’s lovely question, What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?
It took a few years for her to pair these lines with music. But when she did, they came out light and upbeat, her young voice and rigid guitar timing almost too rhythmically. It’s a perfect song to snap your fingers to — the well paced, evenly kept, toe-tapping kind of sound that made Ringo Starr such a perfect drummer to the three musicians around him. The lyrics are well built, though they look better on paper than how they’re sung, their somberness mismatched with the optimism she sings into them. So mismatched, I think, that it’s quite hard to believe her when she finishes with the rather heavy, I really don’t know life at all. I don’t think she’s lying, she just wants to make you think she knows the true weight of her words more than she actually does.
And so the song ends and you do that collective shrug and sigh with everything above your shoulders because what you heard was just fine. Decent, but incomplete. Sort of there, but not quite. Yes, but no. You want to tell her to loosen up a bit. Maybe relax. Don’t file the edges too much, get a bit more raw — but naturally, let truth find its way into the song, some of the things you want to mean will only come with time, don’t feel like you do have to know life at all. You’re young, you might say. Enjoy it, be patient, risk, fall, gather yourself, smile, persist. Don’t force. Be.
I drove into Austin when I was 21. I left Washington, DC a few days earlier with a rental car full of my life. My younger sister, Ellie, was in the front seat. We first went down the coast to Wilmington, North Carolina, where she was in college, and after I dropped her off, I drove to Nashville, where I had just graduated from college. I vaguely remember an awkward effort to re-sweep my ex-girlfriend off her I’m-actually-dating-someone-else-now-but-really-great-to-see-you feet. After it backfired, and after she graciously let me stay on her couch despite attempts I thought were romantic and she probably thought pathetic, I said something of a final goodbye the next morning, added a bit of rejection to everything else I had brought with me, and continued on.
When Ellie left, I filled the front seat with CDs. I don’t remember many, but I do remember the darkness of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and I definitely remember Abbey Road and my love for its inseparable Golden Slumbers, Carry that Weight, and The End trio on the backside. And when the evening wore on and I was closing in on Austin and my first Texas night called for some blues, the only thing I remember is what I played. The other details are blurry, but that is vivid.
Looking back, I’d like to think this hazy gathering of moments was where I felt the first thread of connection to Austin. If I could re-sew them how I want, I’d place myself somewhere on the outskirts of town at 70 miles an hour, warm and heavy air first hitting the part of my elbow resting outside the window before filling the car with that nighttime heat I’ve felt a million times since. Somewhere closer to sunrise than midnight, the city quiet and the skyline more empty than it is now. Bleary eyes. Things glimmering ahead.
And it slowly eases through the speakers. Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, recorded a few months before I was born, the first words on the double-album: We are very proud tonight. To introduce. A fantastic guitar player. From Austin. Texas. So let’s welcome…Stevie Ray Vaughan!
There’s some crowd noise behind the French-accented man doing the introducing, and then a few moments for everyone to get on stage before the next thing you hear: the first notes of Hide Away, the old electric blues staple first recorded by Freddie King — one of Stevie’s friends and greatest influences — an old Texas blues guitarist himself. That night in Switzerland, beginning with that song, is a great thing to point to in his career and say, there, that’s when he made it. He came back to headline the festival in 1985, and the world forever knew two things: here was a white man who could absolutely play the guitar and sing some blues, and, Austin was his home.
So, yes. That’s what I’d like to think. That somehow we shared a moment, an introduction: the night I first met his city, I was listening to the blues Stevie Ray Vaughan played the night he first met the world.
It’s been ten years, and after hundreds of nights and mornings that have called for more of those blues, I’m leaving the same way I arrived. And though I want to talk about the time between then and now, I don’t want this to be a piece overwhelmed by personal memory or nostalgia. These two, like most every emotion, seem to be a by-product of the passage of time. Accumulate enough existence, and you’re bound to accumulate the sentiments that go along with it. Put anyone in a place for ten years and what would you guess they’d encounter? Love and heartache? Newness and change? Fondness and regret? Yes, and probably more. That’s not to trivialize anything, it’s more to recognize that if this essay were to become a catalogue of recollections, it may never end. And that my life, like Eugene Henderson’s, may have its own personal touch, but is still broadly relatable to yours.
That said, let me offer a little bit about what Austin has been for me.
I’ve had an odd assortment of jobs. I hustled gear on and off stage during South by Southwest with my brother, and we quickly learned enough lingo to be meaninglessly conversational with tour managers. There was one high-strung man in particular who we tried to confuse by suggesting that we should re-wire all the sound equipment to a generator. The look on his face made it clear he was not sure how to respond to something so fundamentally stupid. It wasn’t the first time Edward and I approached a conversation with the goal of building enough credibility to then be able to undercut it with insane questions. I forget, for example, which one of us later asked that same tour manager if we could buy one of the lead guitarist’s instruments for “fifty or sixty bucks.”
One quick thing: some of the best times in Austin were with Edward, and not having him here makes it easier to leave. The beers we drank, the rides we went on, the races we did, the chats, the video games—I have no better friend on this earth.
I drove a UPS truck at Christmas-time and made as much money selling my uniform to a male stripper as I did from the job itself. Things were initially complicated when I failed the driving test after stalling the truck in the middle of a highway intersection and blaming the “gearing.” But I gathered myself nicely, came back the next day, nailed it, and a few short weeks later, was never called back.
I house-sat for one of my clients, and while she was gone, her pitbull nearly killed her boxer (and partially detached his ear from his head), and I was never able to figure out which one of the two succeeded in killing a few of her chickens. I’ve never had to make a phone call like that before: “Hi, yeah, the trip’s going well? Good. A quick update on animal situation…”
I spent three weeks on the road managing the logistics of a team of Japanese executives from Toshiba. A week in Philadelphia, another in Houston, and finishing in Los Angeles. I’ll never forget the Best Western we stayed in posting a sign on its street-front billboard welcoming the “2006 Toshiba road-tour” or something similar. The language barrier was immense, and communication was next to impossible. It was during that stretch where I remember discovering my hatred of shaving, my love of ramen, and my tolerance of Orhan Pamuk.
I was a personal trainer in a couple of gyms, and began my career in the fitness industry behind the desk at Gold’s Gym after I was never called back by the downtown Hilton. I can’t even be a room attendant? I asked the last time I had someone on the phone. She said she’d see, and call you back. She may have seen, but she lied about the second part.
In one gym, a client had an early morning heart attack mid-way through our workout (it turns out, a daily 12-pack of Mountain Dew is not the most healthy). In another gym, I had a delightful client who resorted to cosmetic surgery if she didn’t see results within a week or so. She decided to put an end to our relationship when she had something done to her calves, gained weight because she couldn’t exercise for a couple of weeks, and claimed I wasn’t delivering the results she wanted. I sometimes wonder how much more distorted a human being’s logic can be.
I helped out at a summer camp once, and hated most every minute of it. The kids never wanted to go outside, spent most of their time on better phones than I had, and were only supposed to swim in the lake with life jackets on. So they didn’t swim, they stayed in the shade irritating me until I made the decision to let them in the water without life jackets. At that point, I didn’t care what happened. They all lived, but I was not asked to help at the next summer session.
I spent a few years in the Capitol and another couple working on campaigns. In one of the more memorable moments, a terrifically awful ex-member of the Texas House of Representatives attacked the candidate I was working for on Election Day in front of a church. I responded by throwing him to the ground, punching him, then throwing him into a hedge. He tried to get up a few times, but I kept him firmly on his back in the hedge until someone flashed a police badge in my face and told me I would be “going to jail” if I “kept it up.”
I drove for Uber, where over the course of a few hundred trips, I told a prostitute that she wasn’t “too slutty for the Omni hotel” (she asked), carried a few hundred pounds of watermelon up three flights of stairs for a girl who then tried to rope me into her pyramid scheme, told a bachelorette that she wasn’t “too slutty for a cocktail bar” (she also asked), waited outside a mall while one of my passengers got a spray-tan, listened to a Jane Austen audio book with a woman on the way to the airport (Persuasion, her best), witnessed a relationship crumble in the backseat, saw another one seemingly takeoff in the backseat, was fed leftover lasagna and chocolates on consecutive rides, questioned a girl who was convinced she had been to North Korea, said, “Oh, ok” to a man who told me he was saddened I was straight when I dropped him off at the airport, soothed a panicky girl on her way to take the MCAT, and maybe most interestingly, found myself a bit speechless when a man climbed in the front seat and said, “So, is the hand-job included with the fare?”
I went to law school, passed the Texas Bar, and practiced law for a couple of years. Never regretting a single moment since I stopped. Really, never a single moment. I’m not condemning attorneys here, I just decided rather quickly that I wanted to allocate my time to doing other things.
There’s probably more, but let me also mention the cars that have entered and exited my life. My first was a white van with two seats and no windows that I left by the side of the interstate after the engine just gave up. I was going to teach a spin class and only wearing bike shorts when I had to jump out and push it down an exit ramp and across a few lanes of traffic to its final resting place. In my time as its owner, someone stole the single speaker and tape-deck that gave me the only relief I ever had from its excessively loud engine, and someone else decided the back panel was an ideal place for some rather permanent graffiti. I was swimming with a team at a country club a few mornings a week, and they swore they could here me rumbling in from miles away.
My favorite story, though, was how frequently I was pulled over. At least a half dozen times, and once because four conditions were present: (1) I was driving, (2) in a neighborhood, (3) late at night, and (4) there had been a burglary in the area. On that particular instance, my brother was actually behind the wheel (without a license), so when he stopped, I jumped out and told the police officer what was happening.
“My brother is driving, sir, and he lives in Singapore — he doesn’t have a license.”
“Oh, ok. Please get back in the van”
He then cautiously approached the Edward’s door and made the roll-down-your-window motion.
“Do you speak English?” he asked, slowly.
“Ummm, yes,” I remember Edward saying, shifting his gaze to me as if I’d said something strange to the policeman.
And then the police officer looked across at me like I had lied to him. “I thought you said he was from Singapore,” he said.
“I did,” I said back.
The conversation may have then fallen into a discussion about English being spoken in other places that aren’t America, but maybe not. The only thing I remember is leaving without a ticket, and wondering how the hell it happened.
The van was a delight.
I also drove a two-door green Mazda that I picked up from the side of the interstate. One of my first tasks was to try and bribe my way into having it pass an inspection. Other than a fickle radiator (I had about 30 minutes of drive-time before it would overheat), it had a malfunctioning emergency brake and released an unhealthy amount of exhaust. So I budgeted $100, which I considered generous, and when the gentleman at the service center said he’d need more to make it street legal, I tried tossing in my iPod. It still failed the inspection despite his best efforts, he unsuccessfully tried to keep the iPod, and I was later penalized rather heftily when I was caught driving without an inspection sticker. Coincidentally, I was wearing bike shorts that day as well.
It eventually stopped working, and when it did, I put a Papa John’s delivery sign on top of it and left it in front of my house. My logic was simple: nobody will tow a pizza delivery man. For a while I was right, and then they put one of those orange stickers on the window threatening to impound it. I didn’t fall for it and decided to call their bluff, so one day, the car — with all of its missing power steering, broken windows, and emission problems — was gone. For good.
That was followed by a massive Dodge pickup truck that had two doors, a cattle guard, and a gun rack. It sounded like a school bus and maneuvered only slightly worse. My brother drove it for a while as well, and I remember nearly going deaf when we once took it all the way to Panama City Beach, Florida.
Then, when I moved into a quiet residential neighborhood, I had a Mercedes. My parents left the country for Singapore around the same time and both of their cars came to Austin. So my new landlords saw me move into their backhouse with one car, add two fairly quickly, then sell all three within a week. I remember one of them asking me one afternoon about my “car situation” as they saw me get off the local bus (since I no longer had any cars). It was not the best first impression to make, and we were never the best match. Their dogs hated me (and, frankly, I hated them), they had a trampoline in the front yard that I couldn’t use, and occasionally they would send me their sensitive tax information via email, clearly meant for another Joe.
It’s worth mentioning that I lived in 12 places in 10 years, which is remarkable because I lived in 5 of those places for at least a year. The only possession I consistently accumulated were books. Clothes have come and gone, so has everything else. But my books are sacred to me, and one day I’ll find a place for them all to rest next to each other, probably in a different order than last time, getting to know one another the way friends should.
I also raced about 100 triathlons, and a quarter of them were half or full Ironman distance. I’ve ridden thousands of miles on roads around the city. Up and down hills, under the intense heat of a Texas summer, with other people and by myself. My favorite races were with my Dad and brother, when I had the two best men I know to my right and left. The hugs before and the beers after were always worth every ounce of hurt.
I raced two marathons as well — one at the beginning of a relationship, the other at the end of it, and you could tell by looking at my times. The first was happy, fearless, and fast; the other difficult and slow.
The relationships I had were quite defining, giving me moments of joy and sadness I had never before known. More than anything, they taught me how to get up. To persistently re-enter a world that banged me around a bit. To know what confidence is, and what it feels like to have none at all. To make mistakes with someone you love. What miserably hollow depths you can drop to if you relinquish control of your life to someone who is happy to play with your heart. They taught me how to love, and how to love without expectation. To do what you believe to be right regardless of what you get back. To know that you’re never entitled to anything back, but that it shouldn’t stop you from loving anyway. I’ve written about these lessons to worrying levels before, and I’m happy that they now sit rather peacefully inside. Things to reflect on—no longer anything that consume me—all of which I will carry forward wherever I go. Knowing what I am worth, knowing what I will never tolerate, knowing I’d rather die than settle.
Another theme of Austin became my continual departure from it. The number of times I left are almost uncountable — Australia, Asia, Central America, and all across the United States. I took a roadtrip to Colorado once, where I helped a friend run 100 miles near Leadville. I took another one through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, where I fell in love with sleeping outside and met a man whose story stays with me to this very day.
And maybe best of all, I drove with my parents last Christmas. We went through West Texas to New Mexico, with nights and meals and chats in Marfa and Santa Fe, one of my life’s best dinners in Taos, and the only time I will be able to truthfully write: we spent Christmas Eve in Las Cruces and Christmas Day on an Indian Reservation in Ruidoso — I played blackjack that night after we drank champagne by the fire, and sometime before dinner Dad said something that made a stranger cry. Mom would be knitting little woolen animals for her grandchildren in the front seat while I drove, Dad would handle a lot of the music (I remember happy amounts of Neil Diamond) from the back, and when we stopped, I would occasionally ask one of them to take a photo of me standing on top of something—a large statute of a roadrunner, for example. Welcome to my family.
I could continue: about the amazing year I lived with my younger sister, Ellie; about the couple of games Edward and I played with the men’s baseball league—I remember him doubling off the wall and me sliding head-first into home and cutting my knee a week before an Ironman (I was safe); the time I came home to an eviction notice after my Craigslist roommate had done something shady when he was out of the country; the hours of yoga with my sweet mother. There is so much else, but I’m happy leaving it here.
I hope this feels incomplete because I’m not wanting or trying for it to be comprehensive. I want to offer some of the many pieces, the un-knit fragments, that collectively leap up and swirl around when someone asks, what’s it like leaving?
Because we’re always leaving. A conversation finishes, a day closes, a medal is hung around your neck after a race, the book has a final chapter, your twenties become your thirties — when seconds tick, things disappear. Forever. Some of them fade happily and anonymously, other pass more momentously, but life exists by putting parameters around events. This isn’t to diminish the power of endings — not at all, I struggle with them often — but to make the rather obvious point that there’s a perpetuity to good-byes and many of them are quite difficult, while others happen silently. For me, leaving Austin is a louder one.
So when I’m asked about how it feels to go, I find myself trying to sort through a decade’s worth of memories, thinking about the person who arrived so long ago, not knowing then that it would be ten years before he left. And then I wonder about how he has changed, what I wished he would have known the night Stevie Ray Vaughan played to soundtrack to his arrival. What would I say to that younger man?
I would probably tell him to loosen up a bit. Maybe relax. Don’t file the edges too much, get a bit more raw — but naturally, let truth find its way into your life, some of the things you want to mean will only come with time, don’t feel like you do have to know life at all. You’re young, I might have said. Enjoy it, be patient, risk, fall, gather yourself, smile, persist. Don’t force. Be.
One of the most beautiful songs Joni Mitchell recorded was the second version of Both Sides Now, 33 years after she first discovered the words to it on an airplane somewhere on the other side of the clouds. And as much as I’ve considered the best way to say it, I keep coming back to this: there’s no real way to describe just how beautiful it is.
Maybe it’s as perfect as the moment, 55 seconds into Hey Jude, when the bass enters shortly after the drums and well after the piano and guitar and tambourine, creeping downward in a way that gives the song its unforgettable sound. They made that song because they were The Beatles. Because they had been around, they had lived their way into earning the right to play something so long and different. They weren’t their younger selves anymore.
Or maybe it’s like when you look at an older man with his wife, and they’re hobbling a little more now than they probably used to. Slower than they once were, but with different concerns for time now. When you see his wrinkled hand reach for hers, the one that has held and calmed and loved their children, the ones behind so many dinners, that have held knitting needles, that know how to keep orchids alive and buttons sewn on shirts, that have sleepily found his in the middle of the night, that joined behind his back when she hugged him and told him that I love you, darling and then probably kissed him. The hands that have been holding for decades now, in youth and uncertainty, in age. In that shift from invincibility to mortality.
That emotion — the perfect Hey Jude baseline and the growing-old-together love, both a product of the passage of time — is in this song.
When she sings this version, she’s 56 and a little more weathered. The lines she wrote on that plane haven’t changed, but what they mean has. She’s the creaky shortstop whose range is gone and whose bat is slow, the one they clap louder for, the one they want to tip his cap, the one whose time on the field is shorter now. Or the slower moving dog with a little bit of white around the muzzle, the one who likes his spot on the couch by the window in the sun. Or the woman who holds her grandchild with her entire body — slightly bent knees, fully supportive arms, hands that hold and calm, a neck that tilts forward, eyes that glimmer and whisper love. What she’s done a million times before.
They all do things the younger version of them did, but there’s something more profoundly beautiful in the way they do them now. Like the way she sings the same words she had decades before:
I’ve looked at love from both sides now, from give and take, and still somehow it’s love’s illusions that I recall. I really don’t know love at all.
The guitar is gone and so is her youth. It’s strings now, and they come in a few moments before her voice — as impure and raw and honest as you wanted it to be when she first sang it. Slower. Less structured. More pensive. And it’s made more beautiful because of the earlier version you can compare it to. So now you believe her. And a bit later when she says, Something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day, you nod and agree almost instantly. How could you possibly argue?
The way I agree with Borges, when he was old and blind, and asked Paul Theroux to read him some of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry. They had been talking about Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel a moment before, and out of nowhere, Borges said something short and forgettable and mostly irrelevant to people who haven’t been: You should have gone to Austin.
Six words from a man whose writing, like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s blues, and Joni Mitchell’s lyrics, bind me to the city I no longer live in. A city I can now say I used to call home. The city that will forever make me pause and remember. The city which holds for me every word you have read so far in the span of a single snap of the fingers. Snap again and there’s more.
Then, as is inevitable with songs, and as happens with a million things each day, it winds down. The beginning of its goodbye.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose, and still somehow it’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life at all.
Words you didn’t believe when they were first sung, and now you do. In case you don’t, she takes that last line and says it again. And again. The last thing you hear is the first thing you did: the gentle strings, beautiful and haunting, this time on their way out. Their time here complete.