Saturday, May 1, 2021

Texas note: Goodbye Austin

    This is Caren Jeskey's last post as EGD's Austin Bureau Chief. Next week she begins her new role as ... well, she was going to be Albany Park Bureau Chief. But I understand that is up in the air. Perhaps "Former Austin Bureau Chief" until things get settled. If you've got a gorgeous little coachhouse available, not too pricey with lots of natural light and an authentic vibe, and love the thought of Caren patrolling the neighborhood, observing the scene minutely and dispensing acts of kindness and sage counsel as circumstances dictate, well, now is the time to step forward.

    Shoeless zombies and wild-eyed dirty young women roam Austin’s downtown streets. A slim and handsome dealer wearing expensive high tops with fresh corn rows in his hair rides an electric scooter purposefully in the direction of a bedraggled young man whose shorts are falling off of him. He is skin and bones. His thick black hair is an unruly mess and his shoes are tattered and worn, with no laces. The dealer speaks harshly to him and the addicted person pleads for more time to pay, and for more dope. Scooter rides away angrily, for now, but he will be back.
     I called my friend who is a street outreach worker and she informed me that there are some very bad drugs out there on the streets right now. Tent encampments surround the edges of town and have taken over every grassy area, and even slabs of hard concrete near major roads and expressways. Those of us who love to hike, bike and run upon the countless greenbelts that weave throughout Austin have grown accustomed to seeing blue tarps, tents, mini grills, and bony tattooed men and women scrounging for cigarettes, sharing a laugh, or sleeping in every nook and cranny between the trees.
     There are fewer tourists and business people around to give out a dollar or a hamburger. 

The down and out are now all but invisible and, like other superpowers, this invisibility tends to protect others while not really benefiting themselves. As I drove down a road just west of the Texas State Capitol on my way to the post office the other day, I was horrified to have to stop at a red light. To my right was a man who may have been dead laying on a piece of cardboard, another man sitting slumped over on a milk crate injecting something into his arm. I didn’t stare but I glanced over as I pulled away and was relieved to see that the man laying down rolled over to reach for his turn with the needle.
     This is just a normal sight in Austin. Before COVID there were areas that were known to be designed spots for people to huddle and use drugs—openly smoking, shooting up, drinking and sleeping a mere few blocks from the capitol. The only silver lining was the presence of HOST (the Homeless Outreach Street Team) and other groups that helped as much as they could. These days the numbers of encampments and sickeningly open destitute and desperate human existence has taken over. It’s “being addressed” but from the outside looks unsolvable.
     I used to stop, open my trunk, and (safely, in the light of day, masked) pass out gloves, food, blankets, back packs, masks and the like. Looks like I’ve lost some of my helping spirit, and some of my energy, these past few months.
     I like to take hilly back street on the outskirts of downtown. Austin is so small, outskirts in her case means a few blocks away from the city center. There are wood framed homes with wrap around porches in the shadows of office buildings. They won’t be there for long so it’s nice to take them in before they become the dust of development. A sad looking German shepherd with a pink collar slowly passed in front of my car. I reflexively pulled over and called “good dog!” She eyed me, turned around, and skulked away backwards towards a rambling old fashioned house with a white picket fence wrapped around it. She tried to lap up a trickle of water coming from a green hose on the side of the house.
     As I got out of my car, I heard a man’s voice calling out to me. Across the street on top of a little hill there he was. Young and bearded, wearing a fashionable crinkled button down shirt, dress pants and loafers. “I’ve been following her for a while, trying to get her to come to me. Animal rescue facilities are closed. I called 911 but I am not sure if they will come to help.”
     I sat on the curb and ignored the pup. She came a little closer and lay down. She looked tired. Her eyes were drooping but she refused to lower her head. Ears triangles of alertness. Business casual came and sat down too. Don’t worry, at least 10 feet away. We decided he’d walk a couple blocks to his office and bring back some Slim Jims. Maybe we could coax her into my car and read her collar?
     He got up to leave and she immediately jumped up and followed him. “Wait!” I said. “She’s following you.” He sat back down and she relaxed, laying back down closer to him. We decided I’d drive to the gas station nearby to get something to lure our dog friend closer to safety.
     As I got up, the pretty German shepherd got up too, and started walking towards the picket fenced house. A middle aged woman with long gray hair appeared out of the back door. “Hello! She’s mine. She's patrolling.” Business casual and I were surprised. “She’s yours?” he asked. “Yes. She’s fine. Just keeping an eye on things.” Biz caj and I shared a glance, both thinking “how irresponsible can a dog mama be?”
     Now that she had an audience, she lunched into a story. “There is a homeless man living here but I can’t get him out. The police seem to think he has a right to stay. We’ve never even had a relationship. He threw a microwave out of the window!” Biz caj and I scanned the house. It was a huge two story wood framed home on a big plot of land, right downtown. Must be worth millions. We could see piles of things stacked up in a huge bay window, and as we looked closer we could see hoarders clutter inside and out. White paint was peeling and the house needed a lot of work.
     I wondered what I had gotten myself into. 
      “That sounds rough,” I said, “are you safe?” 
      “No. But there’s nothing I can do. This is an estate and none of us who own it can agree on what to do with it. He comes around a lot less now. I think he only comes to sleep.” 
     “Is there anything we can do to help?” I asked. 
      “No,” long gray said. I was still concerned, but relieved, and started backing away slowly towards my car. “I am so sorry this is happening to you and I wish there was more I could do. Good luck!”
     I said goodbye to my new acquaintances and got into my car, ready to get back to taking care of my own life. I saw b.c. do the same—back away and finally turn to walk back to his office. Things are often not as they appear.

1 comment:

  1. Got a little behind in my reading. Just saw this today. Interesting last view of Austin before heading north. Sad story but one that can be found in every city in America, large or small.
    Reminded me of Michael Harrington's The Other America that I read as a freshman in the late 60's.
    Poverty is seldom too far away but often out of sight.
    My wife and I are coming to Chicago to spend a week with our son on Saturday and I always have to deal with such mixed emotions. So happy to see our son and partake in some of what the great city has to offer but never being too far from those who struggle. It can't, and shouldn't be avoided.


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