Sunday, June 28, 2009

I Heard It in Austin on the Weird Radio

I'd been warned. But I arrived in metro Austin late in the afternoon of June 10 anyway, making use of the main highway through town, I-35. My memories of driving into and through Austin on that road had been created in a different age, in terms of traffic. I remember buzzing right through in the '70s and '80s.

Austin has grown since then. Somewhere around Round Rock, north of Austin, traffic on I-35 glued up without an immediate visible cause -- not because of construction, or an accident, or anything I could see besides traffic volume. From there on, movement inched along. I-35 has upper and lower decks as it passes through Austin, and I could see that both decks in both directions were equally jammed.

I've experienced traffic jams in my time. I've driven in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, Houston, Atlanta and a lot of other places with snarled roads. I've seen traffic slowed or stopped by wicked pile-ups (with ambulances rushing by on the shoulder), or by jackknifed trucks, or by orange cones that suddenly funnel three lanes into one, or by windy thunder- or ice storms. Rush-hour Austin in the summer of 2009 topped them all for sheer, dogged refusal to move for long stretches.

Eventually, I'd had enough, and slowly made my way to an exit, some miles north of where I had planned. I knew enough about Austin streets to navigate to my destination south of Town Lake (since last year, called Lady Bird Lake) and west of Congress Ave. But the access roads to I-35 were also jammed. So much so that it took many blocks to change lanes just to get off the access road onto a city street.

As luck would have it, I turned onto 6th Street. Well known even 20 or 30 years ago as an entertainment district, I got the sense as I drove through that there's a lot more of it now than there used to be. Fortunately, since it was late afternoon, the street wasn't as jammed with pedestrians as it probably would have been after dark, but some people were still out and about, no doubt gearing up to visit the likes of Esther's Follies, the Dirty Dog Bar, Custom Tattoos from the Soul, Peckerheads, Mooseknuckle Pub, the Thirsty Nickel, the Black Cat Tattoo Parlor and Midnight Cowboy, among many others. Not really my kind of street, but it sure was fun to drive down.

I turned southbound onto Congress, also a major thoroughfare, and followed it a few miles. The further I went, the odder things felt. I'd been to Austin many times, even lived here for much of a summer, but I had the strange sensation that I'd absolutely never been there before. But 15 or so years is a long time to be away from a place like Austin. Much of its growth seemed to be on Congress south of Town Lake (called South Congress, or the too-cute "SoCo"), where I recall there being not so much, once upon a time. Whole new business districts seem to have sprouted ex nihilo, as far as my memory registered, with more emphasis on workaday and boutique shopping -- a lot of them with the look of independent retailers -- than entertainment, but with some of that in the mix as well.

All the while, beginning back on I-35, through the traffic jam, then the pre-party vibe of 6th Street, and then the strange unfamiliarity of Congress Ave., I was listening to weird radio. There isn't much weird radio in our time, maybe there never was. Even Austin's list of stations has homogenization between the lines, with certain exceptions, such as KOOP (91.7), "Community Radio for Austin" or the UT stations, KUT (90.5) and KVRX (also 91.7), though often enough university or public radio stations follow their own predictable formats.

What was I hearing as an unfamiliar Austin rolled by? I didn't make any notes (I was driving), I don't remember the station number, and there was no station identification to tell me the call letters. The show did remind me of Ken Nordine's Word Jazz, Firesign Theatre and The Bald Soprano, all at once. One segment was a bogus radio advice show, "Ask Dr. Beanbag," with both the questions and answers becoming increasingly demented, with odd sound effects thrown in. Then the show -- show isn't the word, the voices coming through my dashboard -- started a discussion on robots. An increasingly demented discussion on robots. With odd sound effects thrown in.

It doesn't happen very often, but that moment of weird radio became the soundtrack for the terrain going by. It fit. Keep Austin Weird, after all, though living so far from Austin, I can't say how much that slogan really means. The drive, which could have merely been about fighting traffic, felt a little weird, and was a better drive for it.

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