I’d arrived safe and sound in Austin, eager to explore the downtown I’d heard so much about. Food trucks, dive bars, and a bustling street life was said to come out of 6th st. late at night. My evening exploring the wonders of the scene went well, I drank, I ate, I got to explore, and I had a good time. However, when it was time to wrap up I had the hardest time finding a cab amongst the drunken crowds of local college kids out for the summer.
Figuring the nearby Hilton would be a good place to find a few vehicles, I set out for the hotel only to find its lobby was as crowded as the street. If I was going to find a ride anytime soon, I’d have to partner up with a few folk and split the ride. Unfortunately, the only two going my way were an incredibly plump man who smelled like rotting cat food and a shirtless man in hospital pants who had a scar running up his belly and a bandage covering a recent stab wound.
I don’t know what the fat guy was doing downtown, and I got the sense that the stab victim had escaped from the hospital only a few short hours ago. Naturally I got in the cab with them and headed to the address I’d stored in my phone, hoping to make my way back to the safety of Jay’s home.
The ride was uneventful – save for the terrible smell – and I was dropped off. It wasn’t until the driver had sped away that I realized I was nowhere near Jay’s place and instead was dropped next to the Twisted Pixel office without a proper idea of where I should go from there. With my phone not working terribly well and not wanting to wake my kind hosts at three in the morning, I decided to try and find my way on foot using what little I knew of the local geography.
I remembered a golf course near his place and so, when I came across a Jack in the Box restaurant and saw a man in a security guard’s outfit ordering at the window, I saddled up and asked him for directions. It was only then that I realized, despite the outfit, this guy was definitely not a professional. Unbuttoned and covered in what I can only guess is a mix of Dr. Pepper and queso stains, he rambled at me in rapid half-Spanish that I could barely understand.
When I looked at him quizzically, he called the waitress – his girlfriend apparently – out of the locked shop to refill his drink and lend me a hand. She seemed nice and gave me vague directions to a golf course not far from there. After that, I set out into the dark to find my way, hoping I could find some wifi somewhere to get myself a better map and locate my bed.
By the time I got to the golf course it was the black of night and I knew I was nowhere near where I needed to be. My urge to call Jay and ask for directions was rising, but I really try not to be a burden on my hosts. Luckily one of the nearby homes had an unlocked connection and I stole some internet, finding an email from Jay with a map to his house. Google told me it would be a 2.5 hour walk, but I’d done worse before and the Austin night was surprisingly comfortable.
So, I set out on foot with little other option as there were no cabs or transit running in the area. With no streetlights to make my path visible I stuck to a straight line and started hitch hiking to try and find someone who’d at least be willing to give me a lift to the highway down the road where I was sure I could find a taxi.
I must have walked for another hour at least before a car stopped for me, driven to my surprise by the rambling security guard and the waitress I’d met earlier. Elated to see a familiar face, I hopped in when they offered me a ride and we sped off towards where I wanted to go.
It wasn’t until I was in the car that they revealed to me they’d need to make a stop before they let me out. Apparently the waitress was also a hooker and the security guard was her john. We needed to make a stop at a drug dealer’s house so they could pick up some Vicodin for the woman so she could get nice and relaxed for the plowing the security guard intended to give her.
At this point I thought about diving out of the car, but considering it was a two-door I thought it best to just let it ride rather than disrupt the proceedings trying to convince them to let me out. There was no telling exactly what sort of people they were and how they’d take the offense of my escape, and judging by the exact situation I thought it best not to test their character.
We pulled into a little roundabout where the drug dealer lived and the prostitute started calling him to come out to the car and deliver. As it would turn out, he was asleep or not home as he didn’t answer, which upset her greatly. Even more upset was the john who realized that he wouldn’t be getting laid considering he couldn’t provide the lubricant. They started arguing intensely and I just sat in the back seat praying it would blow over and I could make it back to my bed without incident.
When she demanded to be dropped home before I made my departure, I knew we were facing trouble but I’d bought the ticket and had to take the ride. The two bickered and got even more heated the closer we got to her place in a slummier part of town and I could smell things would not end well by their tone.
The car stopped outside a row of houses with decrepit cars littering the street and the two let their frustrations fly. Just a few more minutes and it’d end though, she’d be out of the vehicle, he’d have an opportunity to cool down and I’d have my ride home. Then things took a stark turn for the worse.
She stepped out of the vehicle and as I was climbing out of the passenger side, he pulled out the .45 he’d been carrying and started brandishing at her, yelling for her to “do her fucking job” and get back in the vehicle. With the gun inches from my face and her quickly running into the house, I knew I had to flee before things got bloody.
I dashed out of the vehicle and headed through a clearing between her house and the next, across a field and into what I could only assume was the most ghetto part of Austin. I reached in my pocket to find the little knife I’d been carrying with me through the trip, but it had fallen out sometime during my escape.
Defenseless, I walked for the next half-hour as the sun rose and found a gas station feeding morning commuters and their cars. The woman at the counter happily called me a cab and within another 45 minutes I was safe in bed going over everything that had just happened.
Everyone in Austin has spoken so highly of its low crime rates and its creative, laid back culture, but I’d managed to find myself in a nightmare situation most locals couldn’t imagine. I’ve gone over the events a million times in my head, and as happy as I am that I made it away from the scene without incident, I can’t help but wonder how I attract these situations. Should I have just called Jay and gotten the proper address when I found out I was lost? Should I have declined their invitation to drive me? Should I have booked when I found out exactly who they were? Probably, but it’s all hindsight and there’s no fixing that. Let’s just leave it as a lesson learned about hitch hiking late at night in foreign cities and try to do better next time.
My ride from Tucson to Austin was long and pretty much uneventful. There were a few cool characters on the bus, but nothing like The People of Bus 6045. Here we had a father of three adorable children trying to make their way to his sister’s place after falling on hard times, a real tough military girl who was heading back home to her mother’s place after finding out she was pregnant, and a pair of very sweet, very southern, devout Christian women who rode up front and thought I’d been in the military (a common mistake from the scarves I wear).
Our bus took us out of Tucson and through El Paso where we were stopped a few times by border patrol. They’d send drug dogs through the cargo hold sniffing for pot and found some in one of the Californian boys’ bags. Lucky for him they just confiscated it and sent him on his way, but who knows what they would have done if he wasn’t a citizen. There’s not a lot of leeway given to foreigners and I even get hassled from time to time. If he’d been a Mexican I’m sure he’d have been carted off. Better to play it safe when travelling along the south.
We found a couple of mutts at a gas station and the kids fell in love with them, wanted to take them on the bus. Heck, we all fell in love with them and I think the dogs had figured their racket out pretty well by now as it wasn’t long before all the busfolk started buying snacks to feed them. If the owners of the stop had any business sense, they’d sell dog food right up front for people to buy and feed their mascots.
In the midst of all the good-feel the puppies brought about, one of the larger (and definitely drunker) riders managed to completely collapse the bench that sat in front of the store. The guy was a complete wreck, but we all got a laugh at his expense. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but the owners of the establishment were none to pleased when we decided it would be best if we corralled the drunk onto the bus and made our way out of there.
I pulled into Austin midday Saturday and had an interesting conversation with a guy named Dustin outside the Greyhound station. He was a member of the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels and told me all sorts of stories about the gang and the legendary bikers Thompson and the like wrote about back in the late 60′s. He’d come to town to clean up after hitting drugs hard and for all the tough guy tattoos that adorned his body, he was a real likable and personable fellow.
That’s something I’ve found with the few biker folk I’ve met, despite their reputation for being complete badasses, they’ve got some polite sensibilities about them. Holding doors for old people, curbing their cussing around women, and generally being respectful to law enforcement that don’t hassle them. It was this attitude that stood in stark difference to the local gang members I saw getting kicked out of the station, throwing swings at the security guards and threatening to come back with weapons and finish them off. In a way the contrast made me look at the Hell’s Angels as a group of respectable outlaws with a moral code that at least somewhat aligned with the rest of society.
Jay Stuckwisch who handles all the marketing and PR for Twisted Pixel picked me up in his crazy-cool Wrangler shortly after and I was whisked away to his lovely home to settle in and meet his lovely wife. It was so nice having a ride and a bed, not to mention food to eat that I don’t think I could possibly thank them enough. They really have made my stay in Austin a far more comfortable experience.
It was some point during that night though where I thought for a moment about the nature of the professional relationship we had, me being a journalist and all. Was it alright for me to be accepting his hospitality? Could my vision of his studio be compromised by his generosity? These are things I’ve had to think about before as I’ve become friends with people who handle marketing for studios, but I’d never been faced with it in such an obviously personally beneficial situation. Without him, I probably wouldn’t survive Austin.
It’s funny because I’ve always thought of Jay as a friend first, someone I’m happy to see at conventions, catch a few drinks with, and a marketing man second. Sure, we’ve dealt with each other professionally as I’ve booked interviews, scheduled demos, and reviewed their games, but it’s never been the focus of our relationship. All of the business stuff came secondary in my mind to seeing a really cool guy who happened to work in the same industry as me.
A good journalist is able to keep objective no matter what situation they’re in and I like to think I’m able to do that. Does friendship make it more difficult to put down the games he pushes if they deserve it? Certainly it does, but you have to do it. That’s part of the business and a real friend respects that objectivity and recognizes that I’m just doing my job. It’s a fine line to walk for certain and many members of the press may whole-heartedly disagree with me, but I firmly believe you can keep the relationships separate if you’re professional enough.
After lunch with Vince Desi, I was left in downtown Tucson with plenty of time to spare. My Greyhound out of the city and into El Paso would be leaving later that evening and I had plenty of writing to catch up on. My intent was to find a quiet little bar – preferably with a power outlet and free wifi – so I could hammer out a few of my articles and relax a little after so much insanity trying to get out of California. With a few recommendations from random folk around town, I headed to 4th street where I found quite a few little places that could serve my needs.
The first to catch my eye was a little dive called Bison Witches, which had everything I needed and friendly staff that didn’t mind I was taking up an extra seat at the bar with my massive backpack. Generous with the pours and willing to let me stay for a while, I unfurled my laptop and got to typing.
Carrying a pack around with you earns you a different sort of attention than you’re used to. The well-to-do folks of the world tend to cross the road when you approach for fear of being asked for change, while other more down-to-earth individuals are curious about your story and want to help in any way they can. One of the bartenders, Jacob, took an interest in me and excitedly offered to show me about the town when he got off his shift. With not much else to do and no hope of getting any work done – the bar was pretty talkative – I agreed and we set out shortly after he wrapped up.
Within minutes of leaving the bar he called a gang of his friends, real cool folk, who escorted me about town and taught me their secret high-five formation. Bartenders tend to know other bartenders’ bars, and so we wound up at a place a friend of his managed. There I was plied with some delightfully pungent jalapeno-infused vodka while Jacob snickered at my souring face. It usually takes quite a bit to get me toasted, but the combination of the pure alcohol and gutrotting jalapenos had me feeling a little woozy.
We walked about a little more, the gang pointing out Tucson hot spots, popped into a small bar with people dancing to Spanish guitars, and headed back down the street to the Bison Witches for a closer so I could catch my bus. Everything was going smooth and steady until the night ticked down to the closing hours and a commotion was heard outside around the corner.
Jacob (who was now dressed in short-shorts and a jersey after trying to cheer his friend up with a gag) and I headed out to see what was going on and found a gang of 6 or 7 guys kicking the shit out of a fat, balding, beady-eyed fellow with a torn shirt and no shoes. They were calling him a snitch or something and going to town on him, the creepy looking dude didn’t have much of a chance.
As much as watching the scene fascinated me, I really didn’t want to write about someone being brutalized, or worse killed, the next day. Jacob gave a knowing nod and before long we were in the fray trying to pull off at least a few of the aggressors. Considering my position as a foreigner and my predisposition to not dying, this was probably a boneheaded move, but it was too late to consider anything else now as we were already in the midst of it.
We managed to buy the dude enough time to get away, though he felt the need to taunt the gang as he fled (some people, right?!). I got clocked in the face a few times for my efforts, but once the dude was gone the fight broke up and the brawlers decided not to bother with Jacob or I.
After the tussle, we went to a nearby alley to regroup, calm down and gather ourselves for a moment. That’s when I looked at my watch and realized the whole event had made me miss my bus; no good deed unpunished, I guess. Realizing I wouldn’t make it to the station anywhere near my ideal departure time we sat around for a few more drinks before I grabbed my pack out of the back, said my goodbyes and headed out to find my way to the station hoping to catch a super-late night bus out of Arizona.
It took me a few hours to walk to the station without a map, but I found it and exhausted myself in the process. With no water, the strain of the fight, the alcohol dehydrating me, and my pack not helping any, I reached the station completely fatigued and wanted to go back in time and stab my earlier self for letting me get in this state.
The doors were locked and there were no busses in sight. Not a soul was around and too beat too find a motel or somewhere safe to sleep, I plopped down on the ramp leading up to the station, pulled out my pocket knife and slept until dawn.
It wasn’t my first time sleeping on concrete, but that didn’t make it any more pleasant. Morning came and I was chilled to the bone with a sickening cold that left me shaking, even when I managed to get a coffee and some warm food as the station opened. A bus to El Paso arrived a few hours later and I boarded, happy to make it out of Tucson alive.