As I kill time, waiting for George the Mechanic to do his thing, I walk through East Austin on a gray, rainy morning. I'm virtually the only pedestrian around; occasionally I'll catch sight of a figure in a doorway, taking a drag from a cigarette, or working an instant win lottery ticket with a coin. I do my best to play the part of someone who "belongs" on this side of town, someone who is walking down a rainy street while the rest of the world carries on at work, at a computer, in front of students, under the hood of a car, or wherever.
Due to a lack of sidewalks, the way is, at times, precarious, but I make it safely to Progress Coffee on San Marcos and 5th Street. It's unashamedly hip and feels like places I've been in other university towns -- Berkeley, Boston, New York -- where scruffy white kids gather to spend their parents' money on coffee and talk about revolution. I'm imagining now and, I'm sure, basing my conclusions on my own experience as a 20-something Hippie-in-Training and Che-Wannabe.
I dither on my iPhone for a bit, writing with my clumsy thumbs, (will texting create a genetic mutation of tiny-thumbed people?) sending what I believe to be clever quips into the cybersphere, then checking every few minutes for affirmation of my wit. I think back to my days in Madrid and realize suddenly that I was quite lonely there. My partnership with S. was in its end stage, so the connection we'd created in college was coming undone. (It was a slow unravelling, with moments of drama scattered through it -- impressive fights that caused onlookers to stop and stare.)
Mostly, though, our breakup felt like a slow distancing, which is what led me to the cafes of that city. I'd drift in and out of places like Cafe Central, a noted jazz venue with tin ceilings, dark wood details, and marble-top tables, and Cafe Bellas Artes, in the lobby of the Fine Arts Institute. I'd go to this last one after stopping at the American Express office where I'd just been wired money by my father.
When I think back on these places, I picture the people there. I made a habit of people-watching -- looking up from the journal in which I was scribbling. The ones who come immediately to mind are the old men dressed traditionally in gray tweed suits, v-neck sweaters, and shirts buttoned to the top with no ties. The "boina" topping the look off, of course. I call these gentlemen the tertulieros, referring to the tertulia, a cultural discussion/debate/roundtable. Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator had only died a little over ten years earlier, so it wasn't unusual to hear the tertulieros start a point with a nostalgic, "Back in the Franco days..."
Others who populated the cafes were young, chain-smoking day-trader types -- handsome, beautiful, well-dressed, a Spanish imitation of Brett Easton Ellis's characters in American Psycho. And of course there were the others like me -- spoiled "exbrats" navel-gazing in leather-bound journal books. On the occasions when our people watching intersected, we'd shyly look away from each other's gazes. This may have happened with a beautiful young woman once or twice, but my situation had pushed me so deep inside myself there was no way I could dig up the necessary self esteem to pursue a chance meeting of the eyes. Instead, I'd return to the page in front of me and begin to look for the next right word yet again....