Probably every city is a whole civilization with its own stories, characters, birds, language. Some more than others. I always knew I’d like Austin, Texas. After all, it’s where Ann Richards, Willie Nelson, Jim Hightower, Barbara Jordan and the silver-and-acid-tongued Molly Ivins, hung out. It’s Austin City Limits and 1.9 million Mexican tree-tailed bats flying out from under the Ann Richards Bridge on summer nights.
I remember many years ago, waiting for someone in Austin—I can’t remember who—listening to the rusty trills of grackles, walking under canopies of oak trees, and thinking, as anyone who’s from Austin will tell you, that it’s not like the rest of Texas. There are over 200 musical venues. You can stroll down a street by the open doors of bars and clubs, and hear blues, jazz, country, rock and TexMex, as well as music made up of all of them. And I’ve never seen a city with so much to eat and drink per capita. Most of it wonderful!
“Keep Austin weird” says the city’s motto. Oh, I hope so!
And yet it is the capitol of the state of Texas; Lyndon Johnson consorted with the state’s most corrupt wheelers and dealers in the spectacularly beautiful 19th century Driskill Hotel on Sixth Street. George W. Bush waited for the national vote tally in the same hotel. Lucy Baines has a lake named after her. Someone had left yellow tulips on John Conolly’s grave. Rick Perry lives in Austin. Yikes. Molly Ivins warned us about him years ago:
Bush was replaced by his exceedingly Lite Guv Rick Perry, who has really good hair. Governor Goodhair, or the Ken Doll (see, all Texans use nicknames—it’s not that odd), is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But the chair of a major House committee says, “Goodhair is much more engaged as governor than Bush was.” As the refrain of the country song goes, “O Please, Dear God, Not Another One.” (from “Shrub Flubs His Dub”—The Nation, June 18, 2001)
The state’s elegant capitol building is sheathed in Texas Sunset Red granite; its foundation is Texas limestone. The floors are tiled in circles, triangles, stars, stripes, more. The building is trimmed in dark oak and has 400 rooms, 900 windows and a rotunda that, at the peak of its 266 foot floor-to-ceiling height, features a lone shining star. Remember that. Lone. There’s only one. Oil paintings of the Texas Republic’s presidents and state’s governors circle up the sides, the oldest halfway to the top, and George W. Bush and Rick Perry at the base. At the center of the rotunda is a mosaic that bears some thought: circling the center are the great seals of the six countries that have governed the state—Spain, France, Mexico, the Texas Republic, the Confederacy, and the United States of America.
So that, I said out loud, is why Rick Perry could talk so blithely about secession. He’s walked across that design hundreds of times. He may not know enough to be a president, but he knows that this state has been many states and once–its own country.
In a cemetery where Texas’ most illustrious and no longer living citizens lie in state, stands a statue of Joanna Troutman. How, I wondered, could someone who was given such an important looking monument be someone I’d never heard of. Turns out she’s the Betsy Ross who stitched up the Lone Star flag. Note. There were never six stars. Just the one. Texans apparently have always thought they lived at the center of the universe, and I suspect that people from Austin feel that way about their city, whether or not they imagine it a real part of Texas.
One of my favorite stories of heroes in Austin is about someone who saved Austin, not Texas.
The town’s own sense of self-importance goes way back. On Commerce Street there’s a seven foot tall statue of a big bulky woman firing a cannon “Her face is so angry,” my niece said about her. “I don’t know why, but she’s really enraged about something.”
And indeed, she was. Angelina Eberly, says the monument’s plaque, was the woman who fired a cannon, on the exact same spot where the statue stands. In 1842, Sam Houston sent a gang to collect the new republic’s archival records and bring them back to the city of Houston where he hoped to establish the capital. He thought Austin was too small and too sleepy to have that distinction. It was still dark when they collected the archives and rumbled towards the city limits. But innkeeper Angelina Eberly rose early and came upon Sam’s raiding party. She fired the cannon, ripping a hole through the General Land Office and rousing a posse to chase the bad guys out. Tough lady. Tough town.