A recent trip found me walking down 6th Street on a Monday night. There were maybe 10 people in as many blocks. Walking past Coyote Ugly, I noticed one woman standing on the bar. Not dancing; the view inside was nothing like the movie. She just stood there on the bar, looking around as though she couldn’t quite figure out where she was. Sure, she had on tight jeans and an even tighter shirt. But there was no wild abandon, no gyrations, no interest, in her at all. If the expression on her face was any indication, her boots were too tight as well. There wasn’t a single customer in the place. So there she stood on the bar like she was waiting for Saturday night to roll around.
The rest of the street was the same. Everyone on the street had that tired, touristy look that said, how much did we pay for this? The only lively ones were the panhandlers, most of whom looked like they were students at UT who’d discovered that being in the top 10 percent didn’t actually pay the tuition.
The tourists (eight now; two had gone back to their hotel) looked like they were wondering what all the hype was, even as they bought “Keep Austin Weird” tee-shirts. You know the ones: fake tie-dye with white lettering, almost exactly like the ones from Joe’s Crab Shack that say “Peace, Love, Crabs.” (I filled out one of their comment cards and suggested “Got Crabs?” but they didn’t go for that.)
In a way the tee-shirt didn’t intend, it was weird. Maybe 6th Street was beyond wild on a Saturday night. On Monday? The only conclusion I could come to was that Austin was just trying too hard. The tee-shirts themselves show how hard they’re trying. “Keep Austin Weird” can be translated as “Look at us! We’re NY City with a Cowboy hat.” Really want weird? Go stand in Times Square at 3:00 a.m., even on Monday. The other claim they like to sling around, “Live Music Capital of the World,” can be translated as “We’re Nashville without the sequins.” Or, “Austin: where everyone goes when they can’t get a recording contract.”
Sour grapes on my part? Perhaps. After all, what does the Valley have? Austin has 6th Street; San Antonio has the River Walk; Ft. Worth has the Stock Yards; Houston has the Space Center; Dallas has . . . oh, yeah, Dallas doesn’t have the Cowboys any more.
The River Walk, the Stock Yards, and yes, 6th Street are the icon, the symbol, that defines those cities for the rest of us. They tell us who they are.
As far as the Valley goes, the rest of the state isn’t really sure where we are, let alone who we are — unless of course they own an RV and belong to AARP.
Here’s a for-instance: when I told my students at UT Arlington I was going to teach at the University of Texas Pan American, they looked at me blankly. When I added, “In Edinburg,” blank turned to, well if it’s possible, more blank.
“It’s about an hour from South Padre Island.”
“Oh.” Understanding was now clearly written across those faces. They nodded their heads sagely, as though to say not only do we know where you’re going, but we know why you’re going there.
Given that those students, and everyone else in the country, knows SPI mostly from those two weeks in March when the girls, and everyone else on that side of the causeway, go wild, I’m not sure if we want to use SPI to define who we are. Sure, send us your money, but don’t define us as the place where college girls trade Internet fame for a tee-shirt that they’ll hide from their mom for the rest of their lives.
I like the image of SPI the rest of the year, when the Island isn’t trying so hard to be the Spring Break place. Then, SPI is about families having barbeques at the beach or couples watching the sunset on the bay side while sipping pina coladas? That, I could take as our icon. If the Spring Break image didn’t get in the way.