The Last City I Loved: Austin


My first full-time job out of college was at a vanity publishing press in one of a thousand soulless office parks in northern Austin, Texas, the city to which my boyfriend and I had just moved from the San Francisco Bay Area. My cubicle was in a part of the building with no windows—I occasionally went forty-eight hours at a time without seeing sunlight—and the company’s no-breaks policy meant I sat in an office chair until my chronic back pain became unbearable. (I had muscle relaxants injected directly into the flesh under my shoulder blades. They helped for a few weeks, and then they stopped helping.) The pay was bad, the work thankless, and the company so ineptly managed that it would end up going out of business about a year after I started. At the end of every day, I drove home to my boyfriend through parodically bad traffic and cried in frustration and physical agony.

As I stop-started to and from work, an hour-long commute each way, I’d listen to Sonic Youth. “Do you remember the time,” Thurston Moore would sing, “when you were new in town?” Though I didn’t, like the girl in the song, smash my head in the mirror, baby, and kiss the frozen ground, that line was still about me. I was new in town and, for the first time, old enough that that didn’t mean sitting alone in the school cafeteria but rather the anarchic passion of shattered glass and skull. I was new to Austin and to adulthood, and if adulthood meant dressing up in pencil skirts and suffering, well, I’d pretend that was as glamorous as it looked in old movies. I didn’t care. I loved it. I’d kiss it like the girl in the song kissed ice and dirt.


Part of the reason the traffic during my commute was so ridiculous is that Austin is one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country. Its population grew by 37.3% between 2000 and 2010, in no small part because of people like me coming from California: white-collar, reverse-direction Joads, looking for jobs. Austin wasn’t built big. When my grandparents lived there in the ’50s, the population was only about 130,000—today it’s over 1.5 million. There’s simply not enough room on the roads for all the new drivers. The city has tried to expand the freeways, throwing up fly-overs and overpasses all over town, but their efforts provide only scant relief (and in the short term, the construction backs up traffic even more). i35

People who’ve lived in Austin for years talk about this Golden State influx with hostility. Any disappointing change to local culture or landscape can be blamed on us. We’re raising rent. We’re gentrifying the east side of the city. We’re inducing developers to sweep away landmarks and replace them with condos. And, well, all of that is true (though the newcomers from Houston and Dallas aren’t exactly blameless either).

The funny thing is that these anti-Californians are all bluster. Talk to them for a few minutes and they melt into inclusive friendliness. They’re always talking about an abstract plague of outsiders—not you. With you, they’re affectionate and welcoming, inviting you to the Alamo Drafthouse with them on Friday night, ’cause they’re showing this weird Japanese horror movie from the ’70s and did you know you can order booze right there from your seat in the theater? They let you feel you fit in just as well as they do, even if you don’t and never will properly appreciate barbecue. In fact, they’ll let you complain about Californian transplants, too, even though you are one. You’re an Austinite too now, and as such, you get to resent more recent invaders.

This Southern hospitality existed despite my initially condescending attitudes about the South, my stupid stereotypes about the way people there acted and talked. It was there before I figured out that “y’all” is superior to “you guys” (it’s legitimately gender-neutral) and “might could/should/would” is more nuanced and satisfying than “might be able to.” In other words, Austin took me in even though I was a bratty little kid.


So after a while, I was an Austinite—but I could never be a Texan. Even a former coworker who moved to Texas at age one was, according to our supervisor, not a true Texan. You have to be Lone Star State–born and Lone Star State–raised.

A true Texan understands heat in a way that I didn’t, not at first. It can get pretty hot in the Bay Area, but it always cools down at night. Not so in Austin. You can go out at midnight in the skimpiest dress you own and the sweat will still stream off you. Your back porch will still feel like a volcano.

In 2011, we had a record-breaking drought and a record-pulverizing 85 days of triple-digit heat. That’s the entire summer, all of it, at 100 degrees or higher. The armpits of every blouse and T-shirt in the city dampened permanently. We burned our hands on gearshifts and gas-pump handles, sought refuge in air-conditioned buildings. We used the drive-through window at every business, including liquor stores, unwilling to make the firewalk from parking lot to front door.

Starting in early September, the worst wildfire in Texas history went on a two-month rampage, laying millions and millions of dollars’ worth of waste to nearby Bastrop Country. Texas’s governor, Rick Perry, had previously amputated about a third of the Texas Forest Service’s budget in the name of fiscal conservatism, which made it even harder than it should have been to muster up the equipment and personnel to quell the inferno. (Don’t worry—Perry had also called on the state to pray for rain, so who even needs firefighters?)

That fire, I can tell you in hindsight, epitomized the way Texas works. The politicians are right-wing to the point of satire, but regular folks aren’t necessarily the same way. Some of them vote Republican, but a lot don’t, and they’re all people who survive heat and drought and fire and still manage to raise kids and fry tortillas and sing along to George Strait. They’re the kind of people you want to be when you grow up.

In late October, after six deaths, sixty-two injuries, and devastating losses of crops and property, the fire was fully extinguished. And the fall weather was beautiful.


When I went to my very first job interview in Austin, in mid-July, a week or so after I’d moved in, I stepped outside expecting a morning chill, a modest breeze like we had back home. Nope. Walking to my car in my newly purchased, three-sizes-too-big interview clothes (the moving van had not yet delivered my real clothes), I was overwhelmed by the heat. The straps on the back of my shoes slid down under my heels in rivulets of perspiration so that, by the time I arrived at the interview site, I had to sort of shuffle forward into the building, my oversized slacks threatening to trip me with each unsure step.

After the plump, gray-haired women conducting the interview had made sure I had the sort of flawless GPA from a prestigious university that qualified me to do data entry (this was 2009), they explained that they monitored employee computer use vigilantly and doing anything other than work was a major offense. “We’ve had to fire some of the girls after we caught them doing that e-banking,” they said.

“I’m sure you have!” I replied conspiratorially, mentally painting a big black X through my application.

They ended up offering me the job, but I turned them down. I may have looked like a little girl playing dress-up in her mommy’s office clothes, but I was thousands of miles from all my family and friends, and I was building a life with my boyfriend, and I was determined to be an adult. If I wanted to check my e-mail at work, I was going to check my damn e-mail without getting reprimanded like a twelve-year-old boy using library computers for porn.

This strikes me now as plucky but dreadfully naïve—but perhaps there are worse standpoints from which to enter adulthood.


DSCN3591Austin is home to aging hippies, men in unironic cowboy hats, immigrants both legal and illegal, college students, soccer moms, software programmers, and every possible combination of the above. Though it’s known as “a blue dot in a sea of red” and “The People’s Republic of Austin,” there are definitely a few Republicans about town—and more than a few libertarians. Ron Paul bumper stickers abound. (And, of course, there are the folks who have swan-dived off the conventional political spectrum and into a swamp of conspiracy theories; Alex Jones broadcasts from Austin.)

Austin is also famously full of what are generally called “hipsters” (which, perhaps mainly because the average American would label me a hipster, I think is a meaningless term signifying any young person whose tastes are different from the speaker’s). Here are some things that hipsters do in Austin: eat banh mi and vegan cupcakes from food trucks; drink PBR and Lone Star; sleep with members of the opposite gender, same gender, and no gender; fight for reproductive rights. They go bowling and rent karaoke rooms. The guys wear jorts and carefully styled mustaches, while the ladies wear jeggings and bangs. They attend the Fun Fun Fun Fest and Austin City Limits music festivals, but can’t afford South by Southwest anymore, and they begrudge the tourists with VIP-pass wristbands who shut the town down every March. Everyone has at least one tattoo, and everyone plays in a band.

A few of those bands make it big nationwide, either in the indie scene (Spoon, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Butthole Surfers) or the folk/country scene (Lucinda Williams, Patti Griffin). And there are, of course, the old-school legends: Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and psychedelic rock pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators. Robert Plant lives in Austin half the time, I’d guess somewhere on the south side, where he’d blend in with the other longhaired old white dudes who’ve played a lot of guitar and done a lot of drugs.

But most Austin bands—I mean real bands, not the Xerox-of-a-Xerox white-boy-blues numbers shattering eardrums up and down 6th Street every Friday night—never blow up. And that’s mostly okay with them. Sure, they’d like to sell a million records and tour the world, but really they just want to make the best music they can make and hear their friends play the best music they can make.

My musical gifts are mediocre at best, but my classically trained boyfriend, son of two professional musicians, was in one of those local bands. It was a sort of electro-rock deal called Paperthreat, and I know when I say the words “my boyfriend’s band,” people can’t help but roll their eyes, but they were really charming and interesting, and the other bands in their corner of the scene—Bitter Birds, Chili Palmero, Bloody Knives—were all charming and interesting, too, and you’d like them all, I promise.

When you are twenty-three, nothing makes you feel cooler than familiarity with a world-famous local music scene. When you are twenty-three, nothing makes you feel more real than watching a bar full of people dance to a song written about you.


Eventually, I quit the hell job with the Sisyphean commute and started my job search anew.

At one interview, the business’s owner, a man in his forties, told me if I got the job, I’d be his “office wife,” meaning I’d free up his time by doing all the drudgework. I don’t object to doing drudgework—I just didn’t feel that great about his definition of “wife,” especially since he had a real one outside the office. He’d had to fire his previous office wife, another twentysomething woman, because she was incompetent, but it was a very difficult choice. He loved her as a person, you see, just not as an employee. In fact, he’d gone around to her house the day before to have some beers. (Again—how did his real wife feel about this?) Oh, and I wouldn’t be allowed to text at work because that drove him crazy, but a few drinks on the job was fine.

At another interview, what was advertised as a desk gig at a bank turned out to be a job approaching people in supermarkets, trying to convince them to sign up for checking accounts. The interviewer used what she said was a foolproof system for choosing between prospective employees, which involved asking them questions in order to classify them as one of four colors. I was, if I remember correctly, blue with a little bit of yellow.

It was around that time, the “blue with a little bit of yellow” time, that I realized there was no portal through which people gracefully stepped into a land of adult knowledge. Adults, despite their careers and experience and children, had no idea what was going on any more than I did. They made up nonsense like chromatic personality tests and drinking-but-no-texting rules not because they had some special insight into the way the world worked, but to make themselves feel better about not having that insight.


I find that when people in the rest of the country think of Texas, they often picture a spaghetti-Western set: tumbleweeds, cactuses flexing like strongmen, cattle skulls going white in the sun. That kind of climate does exist in Texas, particularly in West Texas, where the Chihuahuan Desert stretches over from Arizona and New Mexico, and then down into several Mexican states. But Austin is in Hill Country, as verdant a climate as you’re likely to find anywhere in the US.

Hill Country is one of the reasons Texas is Texas—not the Southwest, despite that shared desert, not the South, despite certain shared cultural elements. It’s the pot in which Spanish, German, Anglo, Native American, and Mexican populations melted to produce Tejano culture, with its unique music and its Tex-Mex cuisine. If you’ve ever enjoyed a fajita, you have Tejanos to thank. (Remember that next time you declare Texas should just go ahead and secede.)DSCN3507

In Hill Country, there are armadillos and flying cockroaches, squirrels that leap from oak trees to your roof and hide food throughout your walls. There are grackles, crow-like birds with a squawk so weird my boyfriend’s mom mistook it for one of those sounds they play at crosswalks to signal that the light has changed. And in summer, a horde of field crickets seizes the city, breeding and dying en masse, the smell of their carcasses pervading the air.

It was my Texas coming-of-age rite, the night I sustained my first onslaught of fire-ant bites and then waded through a twitching carpet of crickets in a Whataburger parking lot, crushing them to chitinous jelly under my shoes and flicking their pricking feet from my arms and legs and face.


After a few weeks of hunting, I found an editorial job at the same small company where my boyfriend did tech support. It was fantastic: not only did I get to hang out with my boyfriend all day, but also my coworkers were weird and cool, my boss was a kickass role model, and the office manager quickly became my closest friend in the city. I worked within walking distance of a food-trailer park (très Austin) and my favorite of East 6th Street’s dive bars (Shangri-La and The Violet Crown).

I kept that same job for the rest of my time in Austin. I perfected my copyediting skills, got a raise and a promotion. I supported myself financially without help from my parents, and I went on adventures with my boyfriend. I joined writing groups and trivia teams and figured out my favorite vegetarian restaurants, and one day, driving on a hastily constructed overpass, I looked over at the hideous strip malls lining the freeway and felt a throbbing, painful joy: the feeling of being at home, of involuntarily loving even the unisghtly parts of your city.

And then I got accepted into an MFA program in San Francisco.

My boyfriend was going to move back to California with me, of course, which meant he had to give up his job, his friends, his band.

At the last show they played with my boyfriend in the lineup, all our friends showed up and hugged us and said goodbye.

“Why are you moving?” people kept asking.

“I’m going to grad school,” I said.

“To study what?”

“Creative writing,” I said, rolling my eyes at myself. I always feel pretentious and embarrassed when I talk about this moneyless career I’ve chosen.

But no one, neither friend nor stranger, was anything less than thrilled for me, not even the bandmates I was ripping my boyfriend away from. The lead singer’s new girlfriend, whom I’d only met once before, danced with me while we sipped our drinks. The girlfriend of a guy in another band, whom I’d never met at all, revealed she’d also gone to grad school in a moneyless field. She wished me well, beaming at me as if I were her own child. I’ve never felt so cradled and supported. Austin took me in unconditionally when I fled from California, and then, when it was time, lovingly gave me back up.

Don’t get me wrong—San Francisco is great. I love my new neighborhood and my MFA program. But I was raised in the Bay Area. Living here again means I eat the same brands of food I grew up with and listen to the same radio stations. Sometimes I have to drive past my old high school, visual shorthand for four years of unremitting pain. In a lot of ways, it’s like someone knocked my feet out from under me and I landed in a quicksand pit of childhood. It’s like adulthood and freedom are back there in Austin, fanning themselves in the heat.


Featured image credit.

Second image credit.

Lauren O'Neal is an MFA student at San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in publications like Slate, The New Inquiry, and The Hairpin. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal. More from this author →