This past month I spent ten days in Austin, checking out my son Vince’s cute new house and celebrating his 31st birthday with a pool party and a really great dinner at Uchiko. Vince was born in Austin — at home, in our bed, with a midwife, which I can never stop bragging about — and now he has returned, taking his longtime girlfriend Shannon and her dog Cole with him.
While I was there, I got a haircut (I have excellent hairdressing connections in Austin), ate a somewhat embarrassing amount of Mexican food, of course drank hardly a sip of alcohol, and found a stunningly good vegan tuna salad at a little place on South Congress called the Tiny Grocer. At the always exquisite restaurant, Fonda San Miguel, established in 1975, I had flashbacks of happy hours forty-five years past. We would order half-price frozen margaritas and sit in that beautiful plant-filled anteroom eating free chips and salsa as long as humanly possible. Margaritas, chips, and and salsa are what got me to move to Texas in the first place. That is not an exaggeration.
I took a long, hot walk through Dick Nichols Park with Vince and our two dogs, amazed to discover a butterfly garden in its inner heart. I visited the Austin Public Library, which is just as breathtaking as the Austin Proper luxury hotel across the street. One is free and one costs at least four hundred dollars a night. I love that.
I borrowed Vince’s car and went down to San Antonio to see Naomi Shihab Nye. Naomi and I are working on a book together, collecting and editing the writings of Ann Alejandro, a late friend whom we have dubbed “the greatest Texas writer no one ever heard of.” Ann’s writings consist of minimum 10-page, single-spaced letters and emails, none of it ever published, and we are ferreting out the nuggets of greatness and arranging them to best advantage. We tried to do this years back while she was alive but she immediately disagreed with us about some minor detail concerning what might someday be on the cover. At this point, it was unanimously decided to postpone the project until after Ann’s death, which came last year, at 64, untimely but not totally unexpected because she had many awful health conditions. More about this another time.
I had so much fun in Austin that I wonder if maybe I won’t move back myself at some point. Everyone says the good times in Austin are over, and while they have been saying that continually since the 1970s, at this point, it really might be true. The traffic. The prices. The relentless branding. On the other hand, I like the idea — maybe it means soon people will stop moving there and driving up the housing prices. Though this article in the New York Times isn’t helping matters.
My decades in Austin began in the summer of 1976. I went down with my sister and my friend Sandye, and we met some boys named Steve and Mark, and the five of us lived in a house in the Clarksville neighborhood, on the corner of 13th and West Lynn. I think we paid about $35 each. If that house still existed it would be worth a couple million.
Over the years I lived there, I wrote several pieces about summer in Austin. Something about 105 degrees was reliably inspiring to me. This was the first of them. I think it was published in the Austin Chronicle in 1988 or so, and it’s in my first essay collection, Telling.
Secrets of the Natives
My friend Sandye would say that in the South at least, summer fun is an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp. But Sandye is the type of person who thinks air conditioning is a moral issue. When she rented a house with a window unit, she pushed it out into the yard and left it to rust. Then she lay on the couch all summer with the heat on top of her like a sweaty lover. In September she rolled him off and got in the car.
Is fun all you care about? a serious-minded boyfriend once asked. Yes! I said, opening a bottle of champagne. This guy had to think meaningful thoughts and engage in productive activities all day long. He wanted to sleep at night and go to work in the morning. Back then, this attitude drove me mad. I left him and the action-crazed northern city he lived in, and headed for the latitudes of lassitude that were my soul’s hometown.
To me, the southern summer has a spacey off-season quality, as in a resort town that reserves certain pleasures for year-round residents. Such as idling at a four-way stop sign sipping a Thirstbuster, twisting the dial on the radio until you find the perfect song. Escaping the infinite afternoon in the velvet icebox of an empty cinema, seeing something which floats across your eyes without disturbing your brain. That dizzy moment at the end when you exit through the fire door and the heat actually feels good on your chilled skin.
How the mercury rises slowly, how the morning clouds burn off, and suddenly the sky is blue on blue. All day it goes on like that, hotter and hotter, bluer and bluer, until armpits are sticky, tempers are short, and fortunately the cocktail hour is at hand. There are few things wrong with summer a few ice cold beers can’t cure. To say nothing of a frozen margarita. Indolence, indulgence, intoxication: this is the general progression. Having abandoned the self-improvement program so resolutely adopted at New Year’s, having quarreled with the gentle lover of spring, a drunken interlude with a stranger is to be expected.
At home, however, our private parts are unenergetic. We take cold showers, then sit in front of the fan. Clothes hang limp in the closet, exercise bikes rust from disuse; only the plastic ice trays flex like Hungarian gymnasts, ice cubes flying twelve at a time into oversized cups. In a burst of iced-tea-related energy, we dash off an S.O.S. to the advice columnist of the local paper. The bugs again, of course, what else is there? Per her suggestion, we sprinkle garlic and brewer’s yeast and borax and sugar and Sevin-dust all over the house and garden, and our dog develops a persistent little cough.
We don’t bake, or broil, or use flashbulbs. At parties, we serve favorite foods from the hottest places on earth: gazpacho, tabouli, ceviche, Long Island iced tea. We buy peaches from the peach truck and watermelon from the watermelon truck and eat corn that was picked today, just before dawn. These tomatoes have never had any rain on them, the old farmer said, as if they were precious virgins. And we have been loving those tomatoes all week long.
We make plans for future summers in a bungalow on Nantucket, wearing sailor suits in France, eating blackberries on an island in the Northwest. In the meantime, we cultivate friends with pools and boats. We love our friends, and we spend a good deal of time with them. We call them on the phone and speak to them hopefully, our cheeks slightly damp against the receiver.
We spread our towels on cement at the city pool, reading book reviews instead of books. Then the newsprint heats up, and the ink comes off on our hands. Everything is yellow, a little girl in the shallow end is shouting. My house is yellow that umbrella is yellow the water is yellow you’re yellow I’m yellow the sky is yellow. No one corrects her. Obviously she is right.
So glad you got to spend time there. I can’t believe Vince is 31! And the piece from the Chronicle is, to me, a certified Marion Winik Greatest Hit. I can hear you reading it on NPR, the intonation, the pregnant pauses. So many great lines. Thanks.
Mark, I now remember that this was the piece that got me on All Things Considered! The very first one. I tried to find it in the NPR archive but only goes back to 1996 and this was 1991. There was a heat wave in DC the day John Burnett played the recording he’d made of me reading it, and poof… it worked.
Agreed! I loved all of it!
As always, Marion’s writing generates memories of places I’ve never been. It’s just so relatable that I feel like I was there.
Shall I be the one to point out that Cold Play stole your line? A very catchy tune, yes, but Marion Winik was the first to tell us it was all yellow.
Did you forget we live here and love you!
Aw, honey, no. I’ll be down again in September to go to Vince’s show at the Far Out Lounge. (mendadam.com) It’s a very short trip but I will doubtless be making more of them. xo
Was it all yellow from the pollen? And what about me, Jane’s nanny & your TX friend in PA? Give me a little advance notice and I can meet up w/ you in Austin. Would love to hear Vince ????
I think it was all yellow from the sun. Vince just played Houston! You can see his tour dates at mendadam.com. Love to you, Kay.
I thought you got a new haircut! You actually make me want to go to Austin. Wonderful piece, as always.
Love all your work. Wish I’d gotten to know you when you were still living here in Austin. It would be great to meet you in person when you’re next in town.
Come to Vince’s show on September 10th at the Far Out Lounge! Tickets at mendadam.com…
Greatly enjoyed your return to Texas Marion. You are my kind of girl. Call me when your coming to New York for some dinner served along with lively and perhaps occasionally sad talk.
I just received a note from Harvey Blume in which he rues the passage of time in a way that I find particularly poignant. Do you know his work? If no, check out his blog, Blume’s blog in which he has interviewed most every significant writer of the second half of the 20th century. It’s a treasure. And now Harvey and his blog are virtually forgotten. By the way, he’s interviewed me twice, the last time beginning last January and finishing, believe it or not, several weeks ago. That’s Harvey.
Thank you for perfectly capturing my hometown and the place that I love. To the people that don’t live here… please don’t move here. 😀
I’ve been here 44 years. Alas, it is not what it once was, after the last three governors and their eight terms that include Dubya, Rick Perry, and now the Dreaded Abbott. Our loss of power and water (in February’s freeze) and drinkable water (the year before during a flood) are all warning shots. More shots to be fired, now that handguns require no licenses at all. No local ordinance goes un-reversed if it tweaks the state government’s sensitivities. Let’s not talk pandemic safety. I could go on and bring down the vibe here. Maybe I’ll just say I’m a 60-plus liberal who thought of Austin as heaven in 1980. It’s amazing what family will do to make you stay. If this place has any chance, it will need devoted progressives to move here and hold their noses while they change things. Your return would be a sign of hope!
Would have loved to see you and Vince. Hope you will email me when you are coming back to my favorite city. Just don’t tell anyone else the move here. Marion Coffee
So sorry that it took a long time to read this work. My life is always filled with one exceptional challenge after another. And God’s good graces always intercepts and supports. With that being said, I so thoroughly enjoyed this piece. It was evocative in the right places , funny, extremely well-written (you are such a great storyteller), and so image- laden!…one of my most favorite components that a writer brings to their work. I was on that island eating blackberries in the Northwest, and wearing sailor suits in France. I could taste the sweetness of the ripe peaches and watermelon from the truck. It reminded me of when my father would travel with his flatbed attached to his beloved Ford pickup, sometimes alone, sometimes with my two eldest brothers, traveling from Connecticut to South Carolina. He was building his and my mother’s dreamhouse, their retirement home. He would always bring back the sweetest watermelons and peaches that anyone could ever bite into. Thank you for allowing me to take that short but most memorable journey.
Love and blessings,
Thanks for the photos. Your dog is beautiful; and, you’re not so bad yourself.
Always good to find you here.
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