Boston To Austin (Part 1)

I dislike flying. I’ve said that before, haven’t I? But it’s one of those things one cannot overemphasize. I was filled with anticipation about this trip in particular since I’d never been to Austin but I once lived with someone—Debra, her name was—who’d attended The University of Texas (or UT, if you’re in the know) and worked at Chuy’s (Chewies) and would go on and on endlessly about what a blast the town was. Of course, she hadn’t been out of college long when we lived in that tiny house at the end of the block near where we both worked at Channel 17 so all those alcohol-fueled days and nights were still fresh in her mind. And lately, MTV was adding a dash of its own gloss broadcasting “Austin Stories” every Wednesday at 10:30, 9:30 Central. But all that was actually the parsley on the plate. I was excited about seeing Derek and Drue again, and meeting a new contingent of Digerati in the warm, Texas breezes that would caress my every Margarita.

As luck would have it, I was wedged—and that is not an inaccurate term—between an older gentleman on my right who thought that the contingent of, I guess, Spring Breakers headed south with us were little more than “jujubes” (which I took to be a term of defamation, but perhaps the man’s scowl and narrowed gaze were merely for my benefit) and the snoring, rotund man to my left. I was in the center with my fresh copy of Douglas Coupland’s “Girlfriend In A Coma”, my elbows pinned to my sides, the air overhead drying out my contacts. The man so upset with those college kids behind us couldn’t read his Tom Clancy without mumbling the words, a habit only slightly more annoying that flicking boogers at me. But how to politely say, “your constant lip-smacking and atonal mumbling is about to make me rip this seatback tray off and beat you to death”?

From Boston to DFW takes four hours, then you have to try to squeeze yourself onto one of the stupid trams in Dallas to go from one end of the U-shaped American terminal to the other. I got my first workout in a long time trying to balance on one foot while holding my carry-on slightly above the knees of those seated in the tiny shuttle so as not to impinge on their personal space. You know, people are just dumb, sometimes. And I include myself in that number. I had to get, literally, from one end of the terminal to the other, so I figured the tram was the best way. Even the monitors that confronted me upon exiting the plane told me to take the tram. So I did!

Of course, those same monitors were telling everyone else to do the same, and try as we might, we just couldn’t seem to cram everyone who wanted onto the tram, onto the tram. The fact that there was no more room did not stop these stupid cretins from standing in the doorway, though. They would get these completely disaffected looks on their faces, like manikins, and stand there as the automated voice kept saying “please stand clear of the doors” over and over as if it was talking for its own benefit. They would stare into space as the rubber-edged tram doors hit them repeatedly. What they were expecting those of us crammed inside (standing on one leg, did I mention?) to do besides stare back at them as our planes were taxiing away I just don’t know.

By the time the tram stopped working somewhere out in the parking lot between terminals, all the blood had vacated my arms, the one trying to hold onto a metal bar that this other man kept wanting all for himself (I swear the shithead said, “Oh! Sorry,” about nine time when he’d lean into my knuckles with the full force of his body and not even notice he was crushing my hand until I flicked blood on his cheek) and the other one bent at 45° levitating my carry-on above the knees of the woman glaring forward to avoid eye contact of any sort (making me want to “accidentally” swing my bag at her face). I would feel those 20 minutes of torture—although I told myself it was a workout, since “torture” and “workout” usually amount to the same thing—in my arms for the next three days. I decided I hated Dallas-Ft. Worth.

But I did make my connection.

Ever been one of those people who get on the plane just before they shut the door? And everyone else is seated? And you have to search for an overhead to store your coat which you needed in Boston where it was 30° but not in Texas where it is 60°? And you have to open each and every one of those overheads as the audience watches you until you’re fed up and just stuff it in the next one whether it fits or not? And then your seat is next to the window and you have to make the people all settled into their seats get up so you can crawl in there?

Oooh, what a feeling of power!

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Austin airport was jam-packed with people. Outside, the sky was sweating. It wasn’t raining, really. You couldn’t feel drops hitting you, but everything was wet and if you stood in one place long enough, so were you. I called up my hotel before getting to the luggage carousel and they said a shuttle would be there in 20 minutes. Kids, when you’re standing under the sweating skies of Austin and the world is there with you, 20 minutes is a long time. But I am, if nothing else, a patient man. So I stood under the little awning and watched the unending lines of traffic crawl past the terminal as I waited for the van to come. When, at last, it did, I was the only one on it.

Going from the airport to the Omni Downtown, one sees several different views of the city. Passing the university, the driver pointed out the still-in-construction stadium. He didn’t really need to do that, since it’s so fucking big. “It’ll be the biggest one in the world… or something like that. Biggest college one, maybe.” At the moment it looked like a giant inverted turtle whose guts were being extracted by cranes (the birds, and the heavy equipment). On the other side of the street, March Madness was going to be happening that very evening as the UT basketball team took on, uh, some other college for, um, something or other. “Do you follow basketball?” asked the driver. “Not if I can help it,” answered I. “Same here,” he replied, surprising me. I usually figure I’m the only guy in the U.S. who could give a shit about sports.

The Omni is a fake hotel. That is, from the outside it’s a giant cube, like a Borg ship sitting on 8th Street, so you think it must house hundreds of rooms where you go plug yourself in and upload sleep. Then you go inside and realize that two entire sides are just big glass walls. The hotel is nestled on one side of the cube, and an office building is on an adjacent wall. The entire middle is just this big empty space, filled with elevator music and air conditioned air. It’s the sort of place where people are paid to stand around until you near a door, then they will open another door entirely and call you over to it. Which was annoying, but who am I to deny a door-opener his work?

I got up to my room, 913 (good omen or bad?) and decided to take a shower. The sweating sky had made me feel all damp and “not so fresh”, and a nice hot shower after a day of travel is always so refreshing! I also think of that scene in “Die Hard” where the guy tells Bruce Willis to take off his shoes and squeeze the carpet between his toes, and we all know how that ended up.

Derek and I had been trading emails leading up to meeting in Austin—the sort of thing that used to take phone calls but that’s so 1995—and he would be calling me to try to link up that evening. It occurred to me that I didn’t know when he would be getting in, so when the phone did ring at about 5, I expected to hear Mr. Powazek’s giddy tone at the other end.

Instead, it was The Carl (who will tell me later that he really hates being called “The Carl”). So The Carl wondered what I was up to, did I know where anyone else was staying, or who else was in town, and what anyone was doing that night. My answers were, in order, nothing, no, no and no. I can hardly keep track of my own goings-on, frankly. And I’m all the way over in Boston where no one lives. How the hell did I know where anyone was—or for that matter, who anyone was? He mentioned that there was an Opening Night party somewhere or other, but we had to have our conference badges to attend. And to get those, we had to get to the Austin Conference Center. That became my job, find out where the Center was and how late it would be open. Carl, who was staying on a couch, would come to my hotel so we could figure out what to do from there.

Meanwhile Derek hadn’t called and, me being me, I had left the paper on which I had written down the name of the B&B where he and Drue would be staying on my desk near my computer. In Boston. And I thought about calling Alex to see if she could tell me what that was, but I also knew Derek would be calling me and I hoped he wasn’t as absent-minded as I was and he’d remembered his piece of paper with my hotel’s name on it. Anyway, long story short, Carl showed up about 20 minutes later and we were off on our adventure through Austin’s deserted streets to find the Convention Center.

Mathyoooooooo!

Carl, I must say, really can press the flesh. Me, I can’t do small talk—neither the application language nor the activity. I can’t walk up to people I’ve never met and introduce myself and be all glib and knowledgeable and shit. Unless I’m drunk, in which case I usually insult everyone around me but in such an amusing manner that people view me as a sort of walking entertainment. “That Lance, you never know what he’s going to say next!” Plus, the Opening Night party was coinciding with a keynote speech by Howard Rheingold and I’m just burned out on talks about “the Internet community” and “making the world a better place” in an environment where all people really want is a secure credit transaction with LLBean.com

We roamed the downtown streets, finding the Convention Center easily enough (“Hey, Carl? What’s that huge gray building over there?”) and started walking toward where the partay was until we decided we had no clue where the hell we were and hailed a cab.

I should back up a moment and also mention that the only semi-brush with celebrity occurred when Carl and I were walking back from the Convention Center and happened upon a movie producer with a British accent standing on a street corner looking perplexed. I’d love to tell you his name, but I forget. His movie was called “New Gods” or “Rough Gods” or “Gods of Guitar” or something. It’s probably important, because I only forget the important parts of life never the trivial, meaningless ones. Anyway, Carl being Carl he said hello (Lance being Lance he hung back and pretended to be part of the sidewalk) and we found out that the guy was looking for some party of his own and all he had to so was “aim for the Capital”. Which was damn lucky because it’s a really big building on top of a hill that’s all lit up. There appears to be a man holding a corndog on top if its dome, but I could have that part wrong. It was raining, after all

So we start walking up the street, still mostly lost but now a trio, and see these searchlights waving to and fro as if signaling us—which is the point, I know, but when you’re looking for something in a strange city and you’re wandering around the downtown streets in the rain, a beacon is a beacon. So we walked toward the light (Go into the light! Go into the light!) and lo and behold we had accidentally stumbled upon the world premiere of that movie of cute young actors playing cute young hoodlums, “The Newton Boys”, starring Austin’s own Matthew McCaughnehey. They had the street blocked off so that the crush of fans could be cordoned off from touching anyone. Girls kept screaming “Mathyoooooo! Mathyooooo!” over and over and over, the police wandered around looking bored, there appeared to be some news people interviewing each other and they had some old, hoodlummy cars parked near the theatre for effect.

You know, World Premieres are boring. I mean, this is the first one I’d seen and maybe if I cared about the movie in the least I might have been excited about standing in the rain surrounded by these girls screaming like that, the bright lights of the camera crews, the searchlights arcing up through the foggy showers. But I felt exactly like I wanted to go over there and mistake Mathyooooooo for a counter person and ask him for a large popcorn and some jujubees. Just no reaction at all. Maybe I’m finally so jaded that I don’t care about anything.

What a relief!

Schmoozefest

Getting back to me, again. So, the cab drops us off and we walk through the doors into this sort of rotunda off the main room where Howard’s speech would begin, which was currently housing the ceremony for the First Annual SXSW Interactive Awards. Unfortunately, the domed ceiling acted as a huge amplifier so that the conversations going on under it were building upon themselves, causing the participants to talk louder to overcome the noise, so that entering that area was a little like walking into a sound storm. The people vying for awards in the next room—separated from the schmoozing/drinking/free food area by a cubie partition probably borrowed from the veal-fattening pens elsewhere in the building—couldn’t hear if they’d won anything. All in all, another perfectly executed Web Awards show in teh grand tradition of such important matters.

So, there was Richard Grimes and Wes Kilgore, joined at the hip as usual. There was Josh Feldman looking bored (a very practiced expression), which meant that partner-in-crime Thor Muller had to be somewhere in the vicinity. Carl was long gone, out looking for people he knew or people who should know him. I got a beer and stood off to the side, waiting for the buzz to hit. My little conference badge dangled mid-abdomen, I cruised the food table—lots of cheese—I looked up at the roof, I looked down at the floor. I was having oodles of fun. Then Carl reappeared and I was introduced to Molly Steenson, the grrl in charge of Maxi and Estronet, two of the better sites out here swimming against the commercial stream and trying to make a go of things in an increasingly hostile environment.

Content, see, content is dead. Sites left and right that had been trying to make a go of creating original material and making money doing it are finding their sponsorship plugs pulled. Nobody really cared, it turned out, except those poor schmoes manning the oars. More and more, it was looking like the only sites that could survive the axe were sites that never made a dime anyway because there’d never been an axe to fall. Carl was preaching the content4commerce model, tying in your story with a link to buy some product you mentioned from another site and getting a nickel back from the referral. Like if I mentioned I was listening to the new Eric Matthews CD with a CDNOW link for you to buy it and I get a penny. Meanwhile sites like this one that exist only because someone is willing to pay $20 a month to house them on a server somewhere for you to come visit free of charge with no expectations that you’ll click an ad banner lost faith—if they ever had any—that they’d graduate to money-making venture after all.

Molly is one of the handful of people who still believe. Believe in the Web, believe in making something worthwhile for the sake of making it. Believe that this was the venue for “the rest of us”, the place where you didn’t have to rent studio time, you didn’t have to get gallery space, you didn’t have to find an agent to get your manuscript into the publishing houses. All you needed, literally, was that $20 a month.

Oh, um, and a computer. Not such a small fee of entry, but still cheaper than anything else out there.

Molly is a bubbly-serious woman. Auburn hair was sliding sideways off her head and her eyes were framed with seriously cool glasses. By the time I met her, the buzz was “let’s ditch this glad-handing snoozefest and find somewhere hopping.” This is the way all us In People speak, by the way. Which is why most people run screaming in the opposite direction when we appear. So there was the common “have your people call my people” event, meaning I went to talk to people I was familiar with and Carl spoke to people he was familiar with who spoke to other people they were familiar with until a consensus could be reached about a common destination.

Movie People Are More Fun

Somebody kept saying there was another party—a film party—happening downtown on Congress Street. Since we weren’t independent film people and could never be mistaken for independent film people (which I didn’t know at the time but would find out very quickly) but had by this time imbibed enough beer and/or Margaritas that we thought we were passably independent-filmy looking and decided to pile into Wes and Richard’s car to try to find this party.

So, Molly, Carl, Wes, Richard, some guy from Digital Talent Agency, I think (whose name is no doubt also important, but I’ve already covered that facet of my memory—or have I?) and I piled into the green Pontiac and headed the wrong way down a one way street. This ability of Richard Grimes to totally fuck up all automotive endeavors would become a common thread throughout the festival. Luckily for me, this would be my only foray with him as driver. After backing up the street into a side street and figuring out which way all the traffic—which had previously been headed directly for our headlights—wanted to go, we forged ahead even though none of us knew where we were going. The plan was to take Molly to her motel to contact a local friend, Buzz, who’d meet us at the party and I could use her phone to call my hotel to see if there was any message from Derek. It became increasingly obvious that none of us should have been anywhere near a car because all the life-threatening hyjinx seemed highly amusing to us in our states of mind.

Yes, I am an adult. Or so I keep telling myself.

At some point, after circling the Capital and the statue of Corn Dog man a couple of times, we found ourselves near where the party was reported to have been. Rather than continue to attempt to find Molly’s (and Richard’s) motel, we parked, sort of (it involved more backwards driving and backwards turning) and made it alive—and without killing anyone else—to the party.

This seems like a good place to pause. So I leave us departing the Pontiac headed for a party of independent film makers where we would dazzle them with bullshit and pretend to be important. Thankfully, I was already drunk…

March 30, 1998

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