A City Exchange
A while back, my dad visited me in Austin. Because of our love for Texas singer/songwriters and Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues,” the Texas Chili Parlor (and a Mad Dog Margarita) was a necessary excursion. We decided to make the three-block trip on foot in the heat of August. Now, Dad has a bad hip and often needs to rest when making his way from place to place. Due to construction in the area, there weren’t too many places for him to do that, so we’d stop to lean against the occasional tree.
Upon one crossing, we came upon a man sitting on a small bench probably waiting on a bus. The encounter that ensued illustrated to me how much being in Austin had changed how I interacted with people and the world. Dad (who’s a pretty big feller) limped up to the man on the bench and asked a question that would have garnered a completely different response had we been back home.
“Can I be your friend?” It grated on me as he asked it. The man had his earbuds in and had to remove one so he could here. Dad repeated, “Can I be your friend?”
The stranger’s eyes narrowed as he said, “What do you mean by that?” I could see the confusion on Dad’s face: Like, why is this guy being so mean to me?
So, I stepped in with, “Sir, he didn’t mean anything by it. His hip just hurts and he’d like to sit next to you if you’d be kind enough to make some space for him.” There were flashes of relief in both their faces, and the man scooted as he put his earbud back in, just a bit so Dad had a little room to rest. They sat in silence as I stood there awkwardly, watching the wheels turning in Dad’s head as he continued to process the exchange.
Those of you familiar with the “weirdness” of Austin or the kind of connotation that phrase might take on in a city probably understand the man’s response a whole lot better than my dad did.
Why Dad Was Confused: How This Woulda Gone Where We’re From
It’s a hot summer day and a large limping man and girl walk toward a bench where a man is sitting, listening to music through his earbuds. As they approach, the man on the bench takes his earbuds out.
“Sure is a hot one today, isn’t it?” he asks emphasizing sure and hot. Though it’s a small town, the man is a stranger (for now). Dad, the large limping man, sidles up to the bench, asking “Can I be your friend?” as he does.
The man on the bench smiles as warm as the air temperature and says, “Why, of course, young man!” scooting over to make sure that Dad has plenty of space. If the space seemed insufficient he might stand but stay to chat. “Looks like you got a bit of a hitch in your giddy-up. My old bones ain’t what they used to be neither.”
Dad would reply something about how getting old isn’t for sissies and they’d continue their conversation to discover that they’re actually related some way or another. Once Dad had enough time to rest, we’d continue on our way saying bye to our newfound relation and relay that we hoped to see him around real soon.
What Went Wrong
The issue here was one associated with place-connected cultural practices and transfer. Dad expected his small-town ways of interacting with folks to be useful everywhere. Honestly, I did too when I moved down here. But when you live in a place, you start to notice and pick up on the dos and don’ts of exchange in that place. I had also attempted to use certain place-connected ways of being and talking and interacting unsuccessfully with colleagues, professors, and folks out-and-about, so I had already had a head start in my learning.
While there were other smaller moments that indicated to me that I was changing – that I somehow existed in-between who I was as a rural person and who I was becoming as an out-migrant – this moment stands out to me. It feels like the first moment where my identity development made it to a level of cognition that I was able to recognize it for what it was.
We did finally make it to the Chili Parlor had some great food and strong Mad Dog Margaritas. Then we fought our way back in the thick of rush hour traffic where we asked no one to be our friends.