My father and his family spent several years in Austin, Texas while he was growing up. I believe, but do not know, that his own father, my grandfather, was at the time earning his PhD in something or other at UT. (My father never much talked about his father when I was growing up — likely because he became a nasty, polio-induced, wheelchair-ridden drunk, even if his students at Salem State College wrote fawningly of his teaching abilities later, in ways that would make my father misty-eyed when he recounted the letters to us.) Landing in Austin, then, at the end of SXSW, was a bit of a homecoming, just as it was last year when I landed there for the first time. Despite the old and young hippies lounging at the airport, draped across 60L backpacks and waiting for their flights after the festival, I feel as though Texas is somehow in my blood, even if Austin is likely not at all like it was when my father lived there. I exited the plane, packed my pea coat in my roller bag, rolled up my sleeves, put on my sunglasses, and went outside for a cigarette in the wind and sun. I dodged hippies and went for a drink in the airport bar to decompress. I admired a young 20-something blonde in the shortest and tightest black dress I’ve ever seen. Then I left and got into a cab.
I arrived at the taco shack/bar where Kim and Dan were waiting. Kim was at the bar. We hugged. I bought a margarita on her tab and went out to the back patio to say hello to Dan and sit in the sun. I put on sunblock. We talked about their drive down from Tulsa, the famous Italian place in the middle of nowhere with the best mozzarella they’d had since New York. They made fun of me for having a drink at the airport bar before coming to visit them at Rio Rita, and I let them. Maura came. 4:00 PM arrived. Our rental house was now open for business.
We packed our shit in Kim’s BMW and drove.
Wilson and No Outlet. At the end of a cul de sac, our place didn’t have proper signage, but I guess that’s what Google Maps is for. We arrived to a gravel driveway, a hammock in the frontyard, a truly epic tree spidering out over the entire property. A firepit. Lounge chairs. A mid-century one-story with an open floor plan and a retro 1950’s refrigerator in the kitchen. Shitty water pressure in the kitchen sink. Labels on every cabinet — “Plates,” “Glasses,” “Picnic Supplies,” “Spices.” The spices were simply salt and pepper, maybe some paprika, but the rental was the kind of place where you inherited whatever the previous occupants had left behind, and since the previous occupants were SXSW’ers, there was plenty of beer in the fridge. We chose our rooms. Maura got the master bedroom with the private bathroom, since she was the only woman staying with us. Jason, Dan, and I didn’t give a fuck, so I took the room in the back, since it was close to the backdoor, I wake up early, and I like to smoke a cigarette first thing.
We ordered $247 worth of fried chicken and sides from Lucy’s and held a party for all of our favorite librarians. This was ER&L, and since we all stay in hotels so much, we figured we’d change it up a bit. There was a fire pit. There were all the hot shit librarians in the academic world there. There was leftover whiskey and dozens and dozens and dozens of Lone Stars and Shiner Bocks, platters of fried chicken gizzards and livers, collared greens, potato salad, mac ‘n cheese, salad, ribs. The whole night, our librarian contingent worried that they’d smell like a campfire the next day.
“Just send your clothes down to the lobby of your hotel and have them wash them for you,” we said. We had a washer and dryer in the house.
Which they probably did, but Emily texted me the next day to report that her glasses still smelled like campfire.
ER&L, for a publisher (especially one based in NY), is the ultimate conference, even if it rings a bit false at times. On the one hand, all of the important people in academic libraries are there; on the other, like any conference, it can read like just so many TED talks, which is why I didn’t even bother to register. Most importantly, though, is that you get to escape from NY and go to Austin in the middle of the worst winter ever. My goal: meet some customers in the courtyard of the conference center, listen to them, take some notes, try and figure out what’s going on, and go from there. I’m in sales. I pitched precisely one school. The rest of them? Fuck it. I was telling a friend of mine earlier that there are two kinds of effective salespeople.
- Those with common sense, empathy, and street smarts; AND
- Those who are borderline sociopaths
I’m of the former camp.
Librarians don’t like being “sold to,” and they don’t like pushy people, and they really just want to talk to you about what’s going on, and ultimately I consider myself a good listener. And since I don’t give a fuck about my company or my job anymore, since my boss is very much of the latter camp and virtually impossible to work for (I’ll be gone by December), I’m basically just there to hang out and meet people.
There’s that Radiohead documentary: Meeting People is Easy. Which is supposed to be a joke, or a Deeply Critical Statement About The Disassociation Inherent In Modern Capitalist Society, but really it is. Just say, Hi, I wanna meet you. Don’t be a dick, and learn how to take no for an answer and move on.
I had three meetings the first day of the conference. No idea what we talked about. I didn’t try to negotiate or sell anything at all. I’ve made some of my best sales that way. I once spent two hours talking with a librarian about how shitty it was that the school she worked for was investing in a new stadium of some sort instead of fixing the shoddy construction at the main library. That’s it. Two months later, she called me up and spent an ungodly amount of money with me.
The lesson, contra Glengarry Glen Ross: Fuck ABC. Fuck “Always Be Closing.” The lesson is, “Don’t be a dick, understand that your clients are people. Fuck the sale. It will come if it needs to.”
I should write a self-help book.
Sian and I met up Monday afternoon and my heart ached and I let her talk about her work and her things while mostly keeping quiet, because that’s simply always the way our relationship has worked. Partially because we’ve always been so on-again, off-again, only to be interrupted by a long stretch of off-again while we both fell in love with other people. I remember her once saying, last January as we sat in my living room, that she didn’t know if I could ever be silly with her, and I just didn’t know how to respond. I haven’t since. Because of course like any human being, I’m a fucking goofball once you get to know me. And perhaps this barb has been one I’ve never been willing to pull, like one of those fish you throw back because the hook is too deep and you’re tired of trying to pull it out.
We went on a bike ride on the ridiculous cruisers at my rental, and when we got back and she laid in the hammock and called a taxi to go back to the conference center, I couldn’t tell if it was an invitation for me to join or if she was just enjoying lovely, lovely Austin. And so I stood around somewhat awkwardly and when the taxi came I went with her to the conference, and I couldn’t tell if we were flirting or not, but because she has a boyfriend and I’m one of those assholes who doesn’t fuck with another dude’s relationships, I said, “See ya later,” and then didn’t see her at all again. She didn’t ask about Francesca and I didn’t ask about Bill. We kept it chaste and platonic. And that was probably the right move. Or maybe it wasn’t.
Emily and I spent Tuesday afternoon eating pizza and taking silly pictures. I commandeered the Scientology booth near UT for a photo-op, and Emily told me some crazy stories about a person we both know and I said, “Run like hell.” But I’m worried about her. I really am. Because no matter how much I care for her, I think the person we both know is a sociopath, and though I’ve never dealt with that in a personal relationship, I think I can recognize the behavior when I see it.
I told her to come by the house later on to watch True Detective and eat leftover Lucy’s. I think she went out and partied instead. I hope she’s all right, even though I know that she’s much, much stronger than I am.