The Texas Chili Parlor, midway between downtown Austin and the University of Texas campus, hasn’t changed much in 35 years. The chili’s still spicy, the beer cold, the ambiance weatherbeaten.
Once in the 1970s, my husband and I were sitting at the bar, drinking. A guy next to me was drunk and noisy. He talked, he yelled, he snorted. Someone behind the counter suggested he shut up. He didn’t.
A few loud minutes later, a blond-haired dishwasher in a white apron came out from behind the bar and walked up to the drunk. Without much ado, he smashed him in the face.
The drunk bled all over a bunch of paper napkins, saying over and over, “Hey, man, why’d you do that?” The dishwasher dusted off his hands and marched back behind the bar. “I told him to shut up,” he explained to no one in particular.
Well, so Austin has changed some since then. You no longer hear stories about the lieutenant governor getting all liquored up and unloading his gun when he felt like it. We have cappuccino now and high-rise condos and a veneer of civilization. My husband and I, who have changed as much as the city, no longer spend as much time as we used to in bars and I haven’t seen anybody punched out in decades. We all grow up.
It’s funny when you live in a place so long, though, that you see ghosts everywhere — both human and architectural. Leaving the chili parlor last night, my husband and I reminisced about the area. A few doors down used to be one of our favorite haunts, the Capitol Oyster Bar, where we’d feast on fresh oysters late at night after we’d finished studying. The oyster bar burned down several years ago, and now, some kind of osteopathic association is there — an ignominious ending for a bivalve joint, if you ask me.
Across the street, another bar with a Moroccan theme and peacock wicker chairs has given way to a towering office building — and I’m sure nobody but us misses it. We cross the street and jump into my husband’s Prius, which has replaced the battered old Volkswagen bug we used to drive.
Vanished places, vanished people, vanished times — they were everywhere we looked. I could have gotten all whiny and overly sentimental about it, but I hadn’t had that much to drink.
We hopped into the hybrid — more slowly than we used to — and I thought of the time I saw the country-and-Western singer Jerry Jeff Walker at a video store a few years ago. He was grizzled and he lurched when we walked and, after he left, a couple of the young clerks in the store chattered excitedly about how bad, how truly awful he looked.
Oh, good grief, I thought, as I paid for my videos, they’re so damned young and naive. Who cares what Jerry Jeff looks like? Don’t they realize it’s a fucking miracle that he — and the rest of us and the chili parlor — are still alive and semi-kicking?
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)