“Withholding”–(2004-2005: Apartment fire, “The Gazette,” mental illness, job hunting, the Austin Public Library, inheritance, Catholicism, Socialism, and the “Central Austin World.”

Around 9:30pm on March 31st, 2004, I took a shower. My plans after that were to job hunt online for about an hour, then watch a movie. But I had just dried off and put on socks, underwear, a T-shirt, and my ratty bathrobe when I heard sirens, and they were getting louder and louder.

Now I was fairly used to hearing sirens. There were three hospitals within walking distance of my apartment, and it always seemed one of the elderly residents was having a spell and calling an ambulance. Indeed, that had happened about two nights before.

I tied the belt of my bathroom and went outside to investigate. I saw LOTS of fire trucks pulling up and parking, and firemen running towards me. I walked down to the end of the porch and looked around the corner and saw the roof of the south-eastern wing of the building engulfed in flames. The information didn’t process properly. I assumed someone had burnt their dinner, had a minor kitchen fire, and the fireman would spray it out in a few minutes.

I went back inside, put my dog Fred on a leash, and failing to grab my wallet, keys, or any of my valuables, walked out and stood across the street to see how this played out.

The crowd got larger and more fire trucks and firemen arrived. We found out later that the City had the water pressure turned down in our part of town, so it took about forty-five minutes for the pressure in the hydrants to build up to a level that was high enough to fight what was now a five-alarm fire.

The fire whipped through the open attic and shot out the gable on the north end of the roof—my end. A team of firemen ran into the ground floor, north-south breezeway, then about five to seven minutes later ran back out again. When firemen run away from something you know there’s reason to worry.

I stood there in shock, terrified I’d lose all my belongings, holding Fred’s leash with one hand and running the other through my hair as I muttered,

–Oh my God! Oh my God! This is not happening! This is not happening!

Eventually the residents were all escorted to a nearby parking lot. We were questioned. A few news crews interviewed me and others. A City bus pulled up to take anyone who had no other place to stay to a shelter. I wandered among milling crowds.

I was wavering towards a man who was looking at me, not immediately aware that he was talking. Then I got my sense of hearing back. Then I realized he was not only talking, he was yelling. Then I realized he was yelling my name. Then I realized he was my friend Tim.

He’d seen a live report on the fire on TV and had come to get me and Fred. We walked along the west side of the building. The fire was still going on, but it seemed like it was finally, after several hours, under control. From what I could see my apartment unit was okay. Just as we approached Tim’s car Fred got upset and started jumping and squirming. He’d been fine throughout the whole ordeal, right up to that moment.

We went to Tim’s house in South Austin and dropped off Fred. Then, at around 1am, we went to a 24-hour Wal-Mart so Tim could buy me a pair of pants. I walked in wearing my bathrobe and slippers and no one gave me a second look. Then he drove me to the G&S Lounge and bought me a much-needed drink. Before Fred and I went to sleep on Tim’s couch I sent out a mass emergency e-mail to my friends and a private one to my mother….

The fire stopped two doors from my unit. I didn’t even get smoke or water damage. I was not thinking clearly and was entertaining silly ideas. I was still in deep shock. I thought I would be able to continue living in this apartment while the damaged wings of the building were either repaired or demolished. I thought they’d turn the electricity back on with no problem, not realizing that all the wiring had been fried.

Eventually I realized I was going to have to move. Tim started driving me around to look at neighborhoods and apartments, then started yelling at me when I couldn’t make a decision. Yelling at a person in shock is never a good idea.

I said I hoped to move to a neighborhood as good or better than the one I had been living. Tim responded,

–Jesus Christ, B____! You’ve lived in a neighborhood where the President and First Lady have a vacation house that not even the press knows about? How much better and more upscale of a neighborhood do you think you’re gonna find?

Paddy’s reaction to the fire was very strange. Like my parents, he’s always had a problem with my obsession with books. He told me that when he saw a report of the fire on TV he prayed to God that Fred and I would be saved, but that my library would be consumed by the fire. Then, he figured, I’d get over my obsession with books and stop buying them, knowing there’d be no way to replace the collection that had been lost.

I responded,

–On the other hand, had I lost my library to the fire, that might have made me even more obsessed, and made me try even harder to replace all that was lost. Of course, had I lost everything, there is an excellent chance I’d have committed suicide, since Fred and my books are the only things I really give a good goddamn about in this world.

Paddy was also amused by the interview I gave to a TV reporter at the fire, where I was worried about losing all my life, possessing, and writings. He joked to his co-workers about this, then told me one of them had scoffed,

–So this guy is traumatized because a large fire broke out near him? It didn’t even burn his apartment, just the ones nearby? Why is he over-wrought over that?

After I’d stayed a week with Tim, my friends James and Nyssa, offered us more long-term accommodations in their North Austin condo. Fred and I slept in the second floor Library, Fred on the fold-out couch, me on the floor in front of the couch, to make sure he didn’t roll off.  Every day I carried Fred down the treacherous stairs down into the living room, and every night carried him back up again.

In the evenings I wandered around James’s semi-scary neighborhood, sampling food at the various ethnic restaurants, and looking at all the cheap, tacky crap for sale in the shops.

I spent my days down at my old apartment, packing up my belongings, and patting myself on the back that I’d listened to my intuition and already boxed up so much stuff the month before. It took me a long time to pack, because I didn’t have any electric lights, and my tiny windows were blocked by a big truck that was parked outside—either part of the demolition crew that had been sent in to remove burnt materials or  the construction crew that was trying and failing to dry out water-logged sheet-rock walls. I was the last resident to get his stuff moved out.

Though a chain-link fence had been put up around the site, someone had gotten in one night and stolen my bike, which I had locked up on the porch railing. This was the only thing I lost in the fire. The thief not only took the bike, but the railing it was locked to as well.

I used about a half-dozen apartment locaters, trying to find the right place. Nothing was right. I’d look at shit-holes or places that were out of my range. Mostly shit-holes. I couldn’t find a decent apartment in my price range that would accept a dog as large as a Basset Hound. I was having trouble making simple decisions.

The locaters said that the rumor in the local real estate community was that my apartment fire was an arson job. Officially the cause of the fire was an overloaded power strip, but my apartment’s property company, the appropriately-named Mayday Leasing, had a bad habit of building up huge debts around town and not paying its bills. My building was very poorly maintained, and thanks to the chaotic wiring, and the penchant of the maintenance crew to “repair” things with duct tape, I was sure the building would one day burn down. I had just hoped it wouldn’t happen on my watch.

To my amazement, the management company mailed me my security deposit within a few weeks. I was sure I’d never see that again. I would bet they were trying to make sure the former residents didn’t make any trouble.

I found an apartment in the hip neighborhood of North Loop, but as I walked around it, I became overwhelmed with a sense of sadness and dread. I had this strange desire—I would finish packing, move all my stuff out of the apartment, and then kill myself. I told this to my doctor and naturally he was alarmed. He put another depression medication on top of the one I was already taking. He said I was probably suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but from what I read I probably had something a little less intense than that.

I signed the lease on my new apartment and one night James’s wife Nyssa helped me move some stuff in. She started noticing all sorts of problems that I’d not seen in my whirlwind tour of the property. Doors, hinges, locks, light switches, and other things were all broken.

I looked out the front door. I had toured the apartment at mid-day when all the residents were at work. Now I saw the residents for the first time and realized they were all rowdy blue collar workers. I knew I had to get out. I packed my stuff back into Nyssa’s car.

The next day I went to the apartment office, and true to the nature of all apartment personnel, the leasing agent’s fake smile and pleasant demeanor turned nasty when I announced I wanted to cancel my lease. She claimed they’d repair all the things I said were broken, but I know how lackadaisical apartment management companies are about those things. Finally though, I did get out of the contract and get my money back.

It took me several more weeks to find a satisfactory place, way, way up in Northwest Austin, and sign a lease. I was still staying at James and Nyssa’s place, though they had gone off to Venice for a month-long vacation with her parents….

*******

The Gazette newspaper–2004-2005–1 year or less–Part-Time unpaid Contributing Editor.

My friend Max got a job as Music Editor of an alternative weekly based out of Conroe, a paper called “The Gazette.” His work became so popular that soon the Publisher had him working in other departments, on straight news and features, and even in unsigned op-eds. When he’d get swamped I’d write op-eds for him. I can’t remember if I was getting paid or not, and since I was living off of that inheritance at the time, it didn’t really matter to me—I just wanted an audience.

Max and I didn’t always work well. He made some terrible changes to my Hunter S. Thompson obit that were so lame and awkward they made my teeth hurt. And since Max is a rabid anti-Catholic he was furious with me when I submitted an editorial speaking well of Pope John Paul II on the occasion of his death.

I did, however, write an op-ed that exposed the dangerous and criminal practices of the Scientology cult. (I hate Scientology the way Max hates Catholicism.) This generated a huge amount of mail from readers all over the country, mostly in favor of what I’d written, though one or two Scientologists emerged from the woodwork, as they always do, to defend the silly and devious bullshit of their “church.”

I did these op-eds on and off for close to a year, until the work just dried up.

One of Max’s music columns single-handedly resurrected the career of A Texas-based one-hit wonder, but Max was also interested in promoting new bands. When he heard a quartet called “The Nanner Splits,” he began seeing dollar signs, and soon became their manager. He tried to whip me into the same frenzy of enthusiasm he had, and not knowing any better, I agreed to tag along for the ride.

Max and the band wanted to do an Austin gig, so I was recruited to help make that happen. I spoke to my friend, music enthusiast Riley Newton, who gave me some advice—chiefly on which clubs the local music snobs respected, and which ones they did not. Max, who thinks all my friends are idiots, ignored this advice. He did, however, agree to shell out some money for a flyer distribution service, which posted band concert flyers in all the key places where music fans gather.

Unfortunately, and contrary to my advice and Riley’s, Max booked the band into an obscure club, way off the beaten trail, which no one ever patronized. The gig was scheduled at 10pm on a Sunday night—a night no one in Austin goes clubbing—and the night before the start of Spring finals at all the local universities. Apart from me, Riley, and the band members’ girlfriends, no one showed up.

Max was mad at me. When I denied responsibility for the fiasco he said I was being unprofessional. The band was mad at me, because they felt they had wasted $100 or so of their money on the flyer service. On the upside, I made $25 for my trouble—the first time I’d ever made any money off of one of Max’s projects.

Max and the band soon parted company and Max drifted back into the radio business.

*******

Austin Public Library–2004-2005–5 months–Part-Time Administrative Assistant/Circulation Clerk.

I moved into my new apartment in Northwest Austin in May 2004. After I got my bearing I realized I was in a pretty good neighborhood, despite the fact I was such a long way from Central Austin. (An hour by City bus.) I had a Barnes and Noble and an art house cinema within walking distance, two supermarkets close by, a vet and pet store across the street, and all sorts of other shopping and entertainment offerings. I was equidistant from a Saks Fifth Avenue and a wilderness park….

For several months my life consisted of little apart from pointless job hunting and trips to the doctor. My doctor had piled medication upon medication on me and nothing was helping. Then he announced he wanted me to get an MRI, just to make sure I didn’t have a brain tumor. He hastened to add he didn’t think I had a brain tumor, but he wanted to rule it out, because something wasn’t right with my brain….

As the time for the test got closer, the more worried I got. What if I did indeed have a brain tumor? I didn’t want to die when I’d accomplished nothing with my life.

The MRI was scarier and more unpleasant than I thought it would be, because they stuck needles into my arms and I felt like I was suffocating in that confined space. $3,000 later I discovered I merely had chronic sinusitis. My doctor concluded that the explanation for my current problems was that I was probably over-medicated. I concluded I needed a new doctor.

I found a doctor closer to my new apartment. She said she could treat my medical conditions, but she didn’t feel qualified to handle my psychological problems, so she referred me to a Pakistani psychiatrist  with an office way the hell up in far Northwest Austin. He tried all sorts of meds on me.

For the record, between 2003 and 2009, I was prescribed the following medications (and possibly a few others):

Zoloft
Wellbutrin
Effexor
Lorazepam
Trileptol
Clonapam
Tegretol
Paxil
Lexapro
Lamictal
Luvoxamine
Cymbalta
Hydroxyzine Pamoate
Busipirone

None of them worked, or if they did, they gave me terrible side-effects, far worse than the symptoms they were supposed to treat.

One medication made me constantly angry, raging and shouting at the slightest provocation….

Another medication gave me the shakes so badly that I needed both hands to unlock my front door—the right to hold the key, and the left to steady the right well enough to get the key into the lock.

One medication zonked me out so badly that when I’d go to my shrink’s office for an appointment, I’d sign in at the front desk, sit down, and fall asleep before they called me. Then once I was in the doctor’s private office and he’d ask me a question, I’d start to answer, get about halfway through my sentence, then forget what I’d already said and what I was planning to say, as well as the question I’d been asked.

Worst of all was the Wellbutrin. It made me constantly hot. My doctors used the term “hot flashes,” like what menopausal women get, but that wasn’t accurate, because “flashes” implies something that comes and goes. This shit was constant. I cranked up the air conditioning and took four showers a day, and still couldn’t cool off. I was sweating, exuding grease and oil from my skin. It was terrible….

During all this I was also expected to look for work.

I applied for a job at a LifeWay Christian bookstore, only to find this hilarious morals clause on the application:

Conduct which brings embarrassment to LifeWay or impedes its credibility with constituents is unacceptable. Conduct or other actions inconsistent with that normally expected of Southern Baptist denominational employees and other Christians are unacceptable. Similarly, conduct or other actions perceived as inconsistent are unacceptable. Examples of such conduct are involvement with alcohol, illegal drugs, pre-marital or extra-marital sex, cohabitation apart from the marriage relationship, homosexuality, and outside interests and pursuits which would normally be considered incompatible with LifeWay’s mission.

Consistent with this purpose, LifeWay’s policy is to ensure all applicant and employee behavior meets LifeWay’s standards of acceptable conduct. As a part of this policy, an individual’s current and past conduct is reviewed. Therefore, please respond accordingly to the inquiry below. A yes answer does not automatically disqualify you from further consideration for employment, as each individual’s circumstances are reviewed.

Do you currently have, or have you had, any lifestyle, conduct, or activity which would project an image which could embarrass LifeWay or impede its creditability with its constituents as referred to above? Yes No

If yes, please explain:

Ye gods! No sex? No drugs? No booze? No shacking up? No buggery? I’m not sure I know anyone in my circle of friends who could meet those strict requirements. And furthermore, I’m not sure I would want to know anyone who could meet them.

Pier One Imports had a strange policy—you had to fill out the application in the store. You couldn’t take it home with you. I didn’t know what purpose this served, what important industrial secrets the management thought we applicants would be stealing.

When I couldn’t find anything within two miles of my apartment, I started looking further out. I hit the malls. I’d go in, ask to speak to the manager, and while I waited, the employees, none of whom were probably old enough to be served a drink in a bar, would sneer at me, wondering who this fat, pathetic old man was, looking for a minimum-wage mall job.

At Abercrombie and Fitch, I saw half-naked employees—every one of them looking like a model—rushing back and forth as if in a state of constant emergency. The manager would finally emerge, and I would beg:

–IS THERE ANY WAY YOU CAN TURN DOWN THAT MUSIC A LITTLE BIT? I CAN’T HEAR A WORD YOU’RE SAYING, AND I THINK MY EAR DRUMS ARE BLEEDING!  

I’d come home from a day of job hunting in that awful Texas heat, dehydrated and exhausted, the circulation cut off from my arms and hands, unable to hold a pen steady enough to fill out my stacks of applications. I’d write the same information over and over again—name, address, education—(Why the fuck did they think they needed the street address of my old elementary school?)–detailed info on my jobs for the last decade, explain any gaps in employment, arrests, military service, job skills, interests, references, signature, date, name, address, education, detailed info on my jobs for the last decade, explain any gaps in employment, arrests, military service, job skills, interests, references, signature, date, name, address, education, detailed info on my jobs for the last decade, explain any gaps in employment, arrests, military service, job skills, interests, references, signature, date, name, address, education, detailed info on my jobs for the last decade, explain any gaps in employment, arrests, military service, job skills, interests, references, signature, date…before rolling them all up in a nice cone shape and tossing them in the garbage.

At that time Carter Newton was working for a small publishing company called Sprouting Bud Books and he told me they had an opening for an editing position. The catch, he said, was the winning candidate would need to know the “Chicago Manual of Style” “backwards and forwards.” I’d never used the Chicago Manual before. At uRb-N-gUyDz we used the Associated Press style guide.

I went to Barnes and Noble to take a look at the Chicago Manual and found it was over 1,000 pages long and cost something like $65.00. I couldn’t afford that, and my mother and I agreed it would be pointless for her to give me the money for it, since I couldn’t learn a book that long in a short time, and there was no guarantee I’d get the job anyway. But I talked to Carter about four times before my interview, and every time he brought up the Chicago Manual. I don’t like repetition or people reminding me about things over and over, and I got annoyed. I told him there wasn’t anything I could do about learning the manual in less than a week.

The day for the interview arrived. I caught a bus in Northwest Austin a little before 10am, thinking I’d have ample time to get down to the Sprouting Bud office in Southwest Austin in time for my 2pm appointment. I was wrong. It took me three buses to get down south, and then I had to walk about two goddamn miles alongside a highway to get to the office. I was thirty minutes late, and arrived sweating, panting, and windblown.

As it turned out the job was only half editorial. They said I seemed well-qualified for that. But the other duties involved marketing, and I had absolutely no experience in that field.

I interviewed for an Administrative Assistant position at UT’s glorious Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. I made an excellent impression, and was genuinely interested I working there, but was turned down for the job because I lacked certain office software skills and was a slow typist. Still, they were kind enough after the interview to take me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Book and Art Conservator’s lab. It was fascinating. The last person to get such a tour was fellow SHSU alumni Dan Rather.

I applied for a job with a state bureau that did writing and editing work for the Legislature. I submitted my application, took a bunch of tests, and had two interviews, before everyone I’d dealt with led me into the Big Boss’s office. But during all that run-around I found out some very important things about the job: 1) I might have to work seven days a week, especially while the Legislature was in session. 2) I would not know when I walked in the office at the beginning of the day when I’d get to leave again. I might get to leave at 5pm, or I might have to stay until 8, 10, or 2 in the morning.

When I was introduced to the Big Boss, who remained seated at his desk, and was flanked by flunkies, like an Oriental potentate, the work conditions were explained to me again. I said,

–Well, gentlemen, I apologize for wasting so much of your time, but I’m afraid we can’t do business. I need a job, but I’m not willing to work seven days a week. And I’m not willing to work without knowing my hours in advance. I don’t have a car, and the City buses only run to a certain hour. I live way out in Northwest Austin, and I don’t want to get stranded downtown or have to shell out for a pricey cab every night. And finally, I have a dog, and I don’t like leaving him alone in the apartment for more than eight or nine hours at a time. It’s not healthy and it’s not fair for him. He needs food and exercise. And I don’t want to come home every evening and find he’s had another accident on the carpet because he didn’t know when or if I’d come home.

The Big Boss and everyone else sputtered in shock. He said,

–You mean, you’re passing on the job? You’re not going to take the job at all, even try it out first?

–That is exactly what I’m saying. Thank you for your time. Good day to you, gentlemen.

I walked out of that office feeling ten feet tall! I felt as if I’d already endured months or years of bullshit from those assholes and was finally quitting. And most of all, I felt like I was shoving both of my middle fingers under the noses of all my detractors and authority figures over the years and screaming,

–FUCK YOU!

A few weeks later [I was told] I needed to apply for welfare. I couldn’t handle this. I couldn’t bear the shame. How much further down would I have to sink?

A few days later I got called in to interview for a part-time position as a Circulation Clerk at the Downtown Public Library. I didn’t want the job, but I was scared of the idea of welfare.

About a week after I started at the Library, [I learned I was getting] part of my inheritance from my grandfather–$60,000 worth of Chevron/Texaco stock [which had been put away] since 1987. [It had been kept from me all that time out of fear] I’d piss it all away.

I didn’t know what to say. Did [no one ] have a fucking clue what all these emotional ups and downs were doing to me mentally?

[I was] told to treat the stock with caution—just take out a little at a time, and use it as a supplement to my income.

My job was to pay $179 a week with no chance of advancement. How was my stock money a supplement?

I opened up the first bank account I’d had in years. The bank officer signed me up for a number of features I didn’t ask for. Then he misspelled my name….

And yes, initially I did plan to be conservative with my stock money, though I pooh-poohed Paddy’s silly notion that if I was careful I could make this money last the rest of my life.

Since I now had a City job I had to put up with City bullshit and City bureaucracy. This started with a two-day training session way the fuck on the southeast side of town, at the airport.

Later on there was one truly pointless training session, held, oddly enough, in the building that used to house my old employer First USA Bank. Among the nonsense we were taught there was how to properly operate a City truck and how to work with asbestos. Never mind that I’d not been hired to drive any vehicle anywhere or install, remove, care for, or feed asbestos.

The computer instructor for the Austin Public Library System seemed competent at first, but then when she started talking about the “Internets,” and not in a joking tone of voice, I began to get concerned.

Honestly, I can’t remember how many training sessions I went to for that fucking job. I only stayed there for five months, and I was still being scheduled for them when I resigned.

When I started work at the Library they closed the building to the public for about a week or so. Someone had the bright idea to spend a ton of money on machines that would allow the patrons to check out most materials on their own, thus eliminating the need for most Circulation Clerks like me. But for this system to work, every circulating book in the collection had to have a special computerized tag added to it. So we shut down and everybody—no matter their rank—pitched in and went through every circulating book in the building, pulling those that didn’t have a tag, and adding one.

A few weeks into the job I came down with pneumonia. I went to the doctor and got a prescription. [I was forced to go back to work while I was still very sick.] It took months before I got all that matter cleared out of my chest.

During the summer I had something akin to a spiritual crisis and decided to join the Catholic Church—something I’d been thinking about doing for twenty years. I went through a five-month Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process and was confirmed shortly before Christmas.

Also during the same period I engaged in a brief flirtation with Socialism, even attending the meetings of a UT student socialist group, and if I remember correctly, joining the Socialist Workers Party. Yes, it was a long, long way from my College Republican days, but I figured that if there was such a thing as an oppressed worker, then by God, I was it.

I lasted with the group for maybe three months, and after my initial burst of enthusiasm, I became quite disenchanted. I only hung on because I enjoyed hanging out with college students again, people who still had plans for their lives, were enthusiastic and eager, and hadn’t been dragged down by marriage, children, mortgages, and shitty jobs in bland office parks.

Despite the fact I always have been and always will be a huge elitist and a devout monarchist, I was by now overcome with rage towards all the forces that seemed to have conspired, either actively or passively, to prevent me from having a decent, fulfilling life. I wanted to take some of the power back. So at the time socialism seemed an attractive option.

But I soon had problems with a lot of what I was seeing and hearing: 1) I didn’t like the fact that only about four people did all the speaking and the order-giving in the group, while everyone else passively went along with them. 2) When I spoke to some members casually, quite a few advocated violence to achieve their ends. At the time I wasn’t willing to accept that. 3) I disliked the anti-clerical stance of most of the group. 4) Every time I went to a group gathering, I was pestered to make a donation. When I started with the group I couldn’t afford this. Then after I came into that inheritance I didn’t want to blow it on donations, and I certainly wasn’t going to hand over my inheritance to further the struggle of the proletariat. 5) They were always trying to get me to commit to working a certain number of hours a week, usually in the fucking morning, selling copies of “The Socialist Worker” newspaper. I’ve always hated sales work and felt uncomfortable approaching people with items for sale. Plus, I don’t willingly get up in the morning for anything. I suggested that instead of just selling the paper on campus and at yuppie farmer’s markets and protests, that they also peddle it in neighborhoods where the actual working classes lived, but they were not enthusiastic about the idea. 6) Finally, while pursuing my Catholic studies I came across the writings of several popes who said membership in the Socialist Party was a big no-no. So I stopped going to meetings, even though I remained more or less sympathetic to many of the causes the group promoted.

*******

A Blog Post on December 25, 2004

“Give me crack and anal sex.
Take the only tree that’s left
and stuff it up the hole
in your culture….”

–Leonard Cohen, “The Future”

First you have to picture me in a psychiatrist’s office. I’m standing at a scale, getting weighed. The shrink, a Pakistani who talks like “Apu” on “The Simpsons,” has asked me to take off my shoes, so he can get a more correct weight for me. This makes me uncomfortable, as I don’t like undressing in public.

–So, Mister B___, Dr. H____-C____ has asked for a test for you for Hepatitis C?

–Yes, and I don’t really know why.

–Well, considering the problems you’ve been having with your liver, she apparently thought it would be best….

–But how could I get Hepatitis C?

–Well, there’s any sort of recreational intravenous drug use….

–No, that’s not an issue….

–Or unprotected anal sex with a man….

–No.

–Just once is all it takes….

–No!

–All it takes is just one time without a condom for it to be….

NO! That is not a factor. That’s not one of my big things to do. I think I’d remember if something like that had happened!

And so it goes. That should give you a taste of the strange nature of my medical adventures of the past year. This particular scene took place about two months ago, but it is typical of my experiences of the past year or so and should explain, to some degree, why I’ve been more twisted than usual lately.

I begin this screed on Christmas Day in this year of grace, 2004. I am home alone, but for my beloved Basset Hound, Fred….

God, I told my [primary] doctor that any shrink could make a career just writing about me. I said I could become a classic case study subject, like Rat Man or Anna O., but she didn’t get the Freud references, or if she did, didn’t find them amusing.

It’s been over a year since I was diagnosed with depression. I’ve tried what has seemed like every pill in the P.D.R. and have found the “cure” to be often worse than the condition itself. I changed doctors several months ago.

The new doc charged me a couple hundred bucks to tell me something I figured out on my own at least 21 years ago—that I am manic-depressive. She said she needed to bring in a shrink on the case, as my condition baffled her. It seems that meds often have the opposite effect on me than the one intended. (The example I often give to illustrate this is how non-drowsy allergy meds make me sleep like a baby.)

The shrink suggested I get a therapist, but I had one as a kid and he was useless. Anyway, the fewer appointments and obligations and requirements I have over me, the less stressed I am.

The shrink tried a few more meds on me, with disastrous results, and finally concluded that there were only three types of meds he could put me on: 1) meds that would make me sleepy all the time, 2) meds that would make me angry and irritable all the time, and 3) meds that would cause me to put on lots of extra weight and would put me at risk for getting diabetes.

I said that none of those sound like really worthwhile options.

He then put me on some meds that made me sleep 14 to 16 hours a day. Now I love to sleep, but this was ridiculous. I wasn’t getting anything done. I’d eat, shower, walk and feed Fred, and that was it. I was too sleepy to even bother to check my mail.

I called the shrink. He told me to cut my dosage. That didn’t help. I finally just took myself off the crazy pills completely and felt great. My doc heard about this and freaked out, saying it was dangerous. But I was in a great mood, for a couple of weeks, at any rate.

Then I landed the library job and slid into a deep depression. My regular doc told me to stick to a certain low-fat, heart-healthy diet, but as I got more and more stressed and depressed over the job I began to gorge myself on junk food.

The matter was compounded by my perception that I was pressed for time, having to run around from one place to another for job orientation, or to try to catch a bus from my rather remote apartment someplace else. I had other meetings and classes and so forth to go to, and the stress was just piling up. I wasn’t given new depression meds, but I was put on mood stabilizers, which merely put me into a constantly simmering, pissed-off state….

I’ve been keeping very busy lately. I’m contributing editorials to an alternative weekly that my friend Max works for in Conroe. And I was just given a column on local history in Austin’s new “Central Austin World” newspaper. I also submitted three stories to a children’s literature contest sponsored by Discount Book City.

Basically I just have to keep in the writing game any way I can, so I can maybe one day go back to doing it for a living. That’s really the only sort of career that will satisfy me at this point.

Promotion of “Writing Austin’s Lives,” the book I was anthologized in, continues apace. I was one of three writers in the book asked to do an autographing at the Southwest Book, Photo, and Ephemera Show a few months back.

I had a blast there. I autographed all of four books, we sold none, but they had me wear a badge that said “J____ S____ B____—Author,” which caused a lot of the dealers showing that day to give me a “professional” discount on my purchases from them. I think a lot of the dealers assumed I was in the rare book trade too.

And while I bought some books that day (naturally), the main thing I zeroed in on was antique postcards. I hadn’t realized until then how much those things interest me. I really stocked up on postcards of the homes of old-time movie stars and of pre-World War I German royalty.

I can’t wait for the postcard show that comes to town in January.

But there were other historical things there too: maps, old photos (including panoramic ones), and one dealer had notebooks of material about San Antonio’s Menger Hotel and the King Ranch, both subjects I’ve wanted to write books about! But none of his material was for sale, and I never got a chance to talk to him. I also met a Houston-based book dealer who had been a music student under one of my step-brothers in the late ‘70’s….

I applied for the city library job just to humor my mother, and went through the motions at the interview, so you can imagine my horror when I got the job. Everyone was carrying on, shooting fireworks in the air, saying,

–Oh, you’ve got it made now! A city job?! That’s lifetime security.

Well, before everyone gets too excited, I should point out the job pays a mere $179 a week. There is no advancement in this position. It will always be 20 hours a week, no more, no less.

(The library is basically a daycare center for the city’s homeless population, and when I learned these homeless people often urinate on the furniture in the library, I almost ran screaming from the building. I’ve already come in upon some guy washing his crusty nether regions in a men’s room sink.)

I don’t have dependents other than Fred, and am not interested in working at any one job or place all my life, and certainly not the City or State for more than a short amount of time. Of course, it’s not my plan to stay in Austin the rest of my life either, though who can tell how that’ll work out.

[Someone] said sarcastically,

–Well, at least you get to work with your beloved books.

The thing is these won’t be my books, and anyway, the jobs I’ve had with books haven’t turned out well.

During my time job-hunting, people hear that I love to write and use words, so they mistakenly think I’d enjoy something like data-entry or working as a file clerk or some kind of record-keeper. Au contraire! I’m only interested in doing creative writing, putting forth my own views and takes on things in my own words.

So anyway, I entered into the vast bureaucracy that is the City of Austin. I had to undergo something like two weeks of really dull training. Paddy, my friend, and Aide to the Mayor, warned me that the experience would be a total waste of time and a great opportunity to work on my doodling skills. Boy, was he ever right!

My general orientation sessions were to be out at the new airport, which is outside of town, to the southwest. I live in far northwest Austin. To spare me about two hours one-way on the bus, James took me down the first day. The second day I missed the bus and blew about $45 on a cab down there.

(My bus stop is almost at the end of a route. I often miss the bus I need because the drivers frequently speed up towards the end of their route, so as to have a longer break at their lay-over.)

As a part-timer, I’m ineligible for any benefits, so most of the two-day initial orientation was a waste of time. (My doodling, FYI, mostly took the form of architectural sketches.) For some reason, at the various forms of City orientation sessions,  the trainers hand out new employees—presumably literate adults—all sorts of printed material to read, and then feel the need to turn around and read these documents out loud to the trainees, word for word. These sessions also involve cramming the maximum amount of information into the heads of the trainees. That trainees have a mental saturation point for dull, dry information has apparently never been taken into consideration….

At lunch during the general City orientation session I left my fellow rubes to scrounge among the vending machines in the break room and headed over to the Airport Hilton for an over-priced burger. The Hilton occupies the cylindrical building that used to be HQ for the old Bergstrom Air Force Base, the previous tenant of the land now occupied by our airport. I never did get to see the new terminal, though.

When all that was finally over with, I managed to figure out where to catch a shuttle bus downtown. The bus stop was in the middle of nowhere, and was surrounded by flat, featureless grassland. I waited and waited, bored. Then I noticed a plane flying overhead and became terribly amused, because I released I must’ve looked like Cary Grant in “North By Northwest,” when he’s waiting at the bus stop on the prairie, before being attacked by the bi-plane.

(The one perk a City part-timer like me gets is I can ride City buses free if I just flash the drivers my badge when I board. A few years ago, Carter Newton brought me back a similar-looking badge from Hawaii, bearing the image of Jack Lord and the words “Hawaii Five-O Investigator—Steve McGarrett—Officer In Charge.” I’m tempted to flash that badge instead and see if anyone notices the difference.)

After this there were several days of library orientation downtown, conducted in a classroom where the lights were usually off and a Power Point presentation was being projected onto a screen. During all this the chief challenge was to try to stay awake, and I failed as often as not. Some time later I learned the other trainees in the room had been dozing off as well.

(I’ve noticed that the less important the job, the more the people in charge try to make that job sound vitally important and highly complicated. They usually do this by utilizing unclear, specialized language, the explanation of which does not normally follow from the context in which it appears. …

Finally, to my great joy, after two or three weeks with the City, I fell ill. At first I thought it was just a bad cold. I called in sick. But the thing is, my voice didn’t sound all that bad….

(One thing I’ve developed over the years is a lack of fear when it comes to the idea of being fired. I’ve had enough bad jobs to know there’s always another one just around the corner, and I can hold out until that one becomes available. What’s hard, though, is waiting, waiting, waiting for a good job that is actually personally and professionally fulfilling.)

…I went back to work too early and I still have some crap in my lungs and throat….

I’ve been to a lot of parties and gatherings lately, which is unusual for me. At one party I was trying to recruit a new generation of B____ disciples, and, after an hour of conversation about politics, drug use and abuse, and H. P. Lovecraft, one guy told me,

–You’re like my dad, only if my dad was cool.

Another got me into a discussion about my writing, and for some reason, without ever reading any samples of my work, decided that there must be some parallels between my work and that of Hunter S. Thompson (though I really don’t see that).

I explained that I used to know Larry Brantley, the guy who did the voice for the TV dog “Wishbone,” and that when Larry was in high school, he had a big Hunter Thompson obsession, to the point of talking like him, dressing like him, affecting Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, tennis hats, and cigarette holders, etc.

The guy I was telling this to was so young he said he’d grown up watching “Wishbone,” and had used certain episodes of it to cheat on school book reports.

(I neglected to tell about the last time I saw Larry. My friend Max and I had been invited to a party at Larry’s house, and we decided to put in a quick appearance before going down to Houston for the evening.

What we didn’t know was that this was a pool party. Max and I were dressed up. But some high school punks there decided they try to throw their elders into the pool.

Well, Max is a big guy, and he flung his attackers off with no effort. I didn’t have it so easy. I wound up crushing my cigarette on the forehead of the kid who had grabbed me from the front.

But there was still another kid who had me from behind. So I dragged him over to the patio, picked up a heavy, wrought-iron patio chair, and stretched back and beat this kid over the head with it until he let me go.) …

I was at another gathering at a rather rundown house on the East Side that had been furnished with all sorts of junk shop curiosities. Bored with the company, I started examining my surroundings. In pride of place over the couch was what appeared to be Maxfield Parrish’s “Daybreak,” only it wasn’t. I asked some girl if she knew what the deal was with this picture.

The picture had many of the elements of “Daybreak”: the framing columns, the mountainous background, but the figures in the foreground looked different and were in totally different positions. Actually, there was just one figure instead of two. Plus there was a total absence of the use of “Parrish blue” in the painting. What was this? Where was it from? Could this have come from an old paint-by-numbers kit?

The girl just gave me a blank stare and said,

–I bet you’re a big “Antiques Roadshow” fan, right?

I admitted I was, but that I only ever really watch the British version, because the things on there are older and more valuable.

On one of the few bitterly cold nights we’ve had this winter, I got on board a bus, headed to the back, and was greeted very effusively by two teenagers. I was wary—most people don’t act that way, especially teenagers. I assumed they were religious nuts of some sort, preparing to evangelize me.

This turned out not to be the case. The kid who did most of the talking turned out to be an active member of Austin’s subculture of graffiti artists. He was amazed I knew as much about the subject as I did, but then again, so was I.

I held forth on all the elaborate graffiti that appeared on my old apartment building shortly after the fire, and of the other unusual designs and tags I’d seen around town. Before he deboarded he said he wanted to shake my hand, and claimed I was one of the few people in Austin he could respect, because I (apparently) understand what graffiti artists are trying to do.

Huh. I’ll be damned.

Oh, by the way—I was given a clean bill of health on the Hepatitis test. Apparently some of my depression meds were aggravating my liver. So I guess I can now resume shooting up smack and having lots of anal sex with impunity.

*******

I was surprised how quickly I came to despise this job. My shrink gave me a prescription for a medication to use on “special occasions” when I couldn’t sleep. Every night before I worked I’d have to take this pill to calm down enough to sleep. (You see, if I have to set an alarm and know I have to get to sleep by a certain time and get up at a certain time, and that if I don’t fall asleep when I’m supposed to, I begin to panic, fearing that I won’t get enough sleep, and I’ll have to face the day exhausted.  I’ve had to work on little to no sleep before, and it’s a miserable, painful feeling. And I’m not one of those people who eventually perk up after a few hours or a jolt of caffeine—if I wake up exhausted I stay exhausted all day.)

When I’d wake up in the morning I took another pill to calm me down enough to work. And it seemed that no matter how early I got up, I was always running late for work. I’d walk and feed Fred, then run down the street to the supermarket, buy some fatty food for breakfast, like a chocolate eclair or sweet roll, force it down my churning stomach, then run off to try to catch my bus. Invariably, the driver, in a hurry to get to the end of the route so he could have a longer lay-over break and smoke a few more cigarettes or talk longer on his cell phone, would have already sped past my bus stop earlier than expected.

Eventually, I started having to take cabs in order to get to work on time, and was spending about as much on them every week as I was making on the goddamn job.

As soon as I got to work I’d need to use the bathroom, but I refused to use the ones open to the public, because there were always homeless men in them, jacking off in the stalls or washing their genitals in the sinks. So I’d have to take the elevator to the fourth floor, which was off-limits to everybody by Library staff, and use the staff crapper up there.

The job managed to be both hectic and dull. Part of the day was spent at the Circulation Desk, part checking books back in in an unheated work room next to the loading dock, and part re-shelving books on the first floor.

Though we had brand new flat screen monitors donated by Dell, the Library software had been designed in 1985 or 1986 and was very user-unfriendly. I more or less got the hang of the procedures we did all day every day, but there were some really odd and esoteric transactions that came up so infrequently—maybe once a month—that I never did often enough to learn them. This pissed off my supervisor’s boss, and I think I was actually called into somebody’s office and lectured about this. I do know my supervisor’s boss was a sour-tempered woman who was always scowling, and who several times stood directly behind my chair, arms folded, breathing down my neck.

My supervisor was a nice enough woman, though quiet. I had a feeling, though, had I stayed at the Library longer we might have clashed.

One of the Senior Circulation Clerks was one of those pretentious assholes who shaves his head in order to look tough. He always looked angry about something.

Another clerk looked like the computer geeks my buddy James hangs out with—thirty-something, with a receding hairline, and a long, knotted ponytail. Though he admitted he really wasn’t surviving on his Library salary (he was fortunately married to a woman with a decent job), he said he was going to stick with the Library so he could keep that City health insurance coverage. I’ve never really understood that—maybe because I’ve not been sick enough. But I don’t see how insurance can be so important if you’re not making enough to eat or keep a roof over your head or your utilities paid.

One of the clerks was a middle-aged woman who worked full-time at the Library and had a second job at the IRS income tax processing center, so she could let her unemployed husband “find himself.”

I worked with some people who were studying library science at UT. I learned enough from them, about how much they hated their jobs at the Library and how much they hated library school, that I was glad I’d not pursued that option.

I actually made friends with one of my co-workers, who’d recently moved to Austin from Los Angeles.  On two occasions after I left this job he e-mailed me and asked me to plan romantic weekends for him, for two separate girlfriends. One weekend was in Austin, the other in San Antonio.

I had a mere twenty minutes for lunch every day, which wasn’t enough time to go to the cafe across the street, order a meal, eat it, and come back. I took to buying junk food from the machines in the break room. My stomach churned all day long. In the five months I was at that job I gained fifty pounds from stress eating.

I hoped I didn’t wind up like one woman I saw in the break room every day. She was so obese she had to wear special shoes with springs on the heels.

In all the jobs I’ve had over the years, I’ve never met a more arrogant, status-obsessed bunch of assholes as the people at the Library. If you didn’t have a Masters in Library Science degree or higher you were regarded as shit. Even though I checked in, checked out, and shelved books all days, I was not called a “Librarian”–you were supposed to have a degree for that. I was an “Administrative Assistant.”

And if I referred to myself as a called myself a “Librarian,” some people would gasp, as if I’d stepped over some important line of protocol. Never mind that I single-handedly updated a school library that was twenty-five years out of date, running it on an annual budget of less than $4,000. Or that I’d probably forgotten more about rare and collectible books than these pricks would ever know.

There was one guy who worked up on the Fourth Floor. I don’t know what his title was, but he clearly thought he was hot shit. He was one of those pathetic guys who clings to his youth so desperately that he continues to dress and wear his hair like a twenty-year-old, even after he’s well into his forties.

He walked around with his nose in the air, taking affectedly long strides. He wore skinny jeans with frayed knees, Chuck Taylor All-Stars, a striped long-sleeved T-shirt, and a black motorcycle jacket that was so small it only came about two-thirds of the way down his torso. Clearly he thought it was still 1977 and the Library was CBGB.

So one day this ponce came through the line with some stuff he wanted to check out. I had problems with his card or the software or something. Whatever happened, I wasn’t waiting on him fast enough. Finally he had the gall to say,

–Don’t you know who I am?!

I looked up him with the expression on One Who Truly Does Not Give A Shit. And then Ponytail fidgeted in that rodent-like manner of his, and said,

–Oh yes, I’m sorry. I’ll take care of you.

The one higher-up I genuinely liked was Linda Larson, Director of Libraries—the Big Boss. She was a fan of my newspaper column and used to tell my supervisors to stand the fuck down whenever I had to duck out for awhile during work hours on “City business.”

Once when I was working the Circulation Desk a woman approached me and said,

–Aren’t you J____ S___ B____? Didn’t you have some essays published in “Writing Austin’s Lives”? I’m sure I saw you at one of your readings.

I was deeply embarrassed.

–Yes, I am, albeit in much-reduced circumstances.

One of the most memorable things to happen while I was at the Library was the death of Pope John Paul II, which I’d been monitoring on TV at home and on-line at work. Unfortunately, he died while I was at work, but afterwards I went over to the St. Mary’s Cathedral for a Mass. There were TV trucks clustered everywhere.

Following on this was another big event–the election of Pope Benedict XVI, which I heard announced on my pocket radio, while I was in the back of a cab, speeding me downtown to work.

I couldn’t handle the stress of the job anymore. I was in a frenzy on work days, crashed and catatonic on my days off.

I told my shrink about my use of the “special occasion” drug, how I’d been consuming it several times a week. He explained that when used at excessive levels like that it could cause weight gain and actual raise, rather than lower stress levels.

I quit it all—the Library, my doctor, my shrink, my meds. I was going to live off that stock money for as long as it lasted.

On my last day Ponytail made an interesting observation,

–You know, I’m not really all that surprised you’re leaving. I always knew you were different—not the usual City Library employee. I mean, the usual City Library employee doesn’t get chatty personal e-mails from Linda Larson herself on his work account. And the usual employee doesn’t get paid time off in the middle of a work day because he has a private meeting with the Mayor. I knew you weren’t “average.”

*******

Central Austin World newspaper–2004-2006–1 1/2 years–Part-Time unpaid Columnist/Contributing Editor.

At some point in 2004 my friend Paddy took me out to dinner at the buffet at the Whole Foods flagship store. While we were eating he told me he’d talked to some friends who were journalists, and the consensus he’d gotten from them was that editors were not looking for writers who were good—they were looking for writers who kept working and getting published constantly, the idea apparently being that if somebody was working steadily, he must be pretty good.

Well, something about this threw me into a rage. I shouted a string of obscenities, slammed my fist onto the table, jumped up, and stormed across the sidewalk cafe where we’d been sitting. But in seconds I realized that Paddy was probably right. And I really hadn’t been writing much at that point except for the tens of thousands of words I’d poured into my blog, and that, for some reason, didn’t count officially. If I had learned anything it was that the world is never fair or logical, and that bosses always put quality work well behind other considerations. God-for-fucking-bid I get a job based on my talent—no, something else had to come into play!

I calmed down quickly and apologized to Paddy, and he suggested I write for some of the small community papers in the towns and suburbs nearby. But I had never heard of the papers he mentioned, I had no idea how to get out to their offices or to cover stories in their area without a car, and so while I was more or less persuaded that his argument was correct, I didn’t think it very likely that I’d ever be writing for any of those papers.

So I was a bit surprised when, a few months later, Paddy told me he’d talked about me with his friend Ken Ernest, the publisher of the “South County News” and a new paper called the “Central Austin World.” Paddy drove me to the interview and Ken and I agreed I’d be a good fit.

There were only two catches. One was that he couldn’t pay. I was okay with this, since I was mostly just looking to keep my clips current and have an audience for my work. Two, was that he couldn’t give me the job I wanted, which was Food Editor, because that slot was already filled by a pompous blowhard who devoted a third of his regular column to listing his credits and affiliations. The only position he had available was local history columnist, and though I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Texas history, I decided to give it a shot.

I researched most of my subjects at the Austin History Center, often making $20 to $30 worth of photocopies each visit. My columns were usually illustrated with photographs I took myself, or with antique postcards from my collection.

To amuse myself and to see if anyone was really paying attention, I started dropping humorous, snarky asides into my pieces. Ken told me everybody loved that and I should keep it up. He and his secretary told me my column was the most popular feature in the paper, that everyone would always mention it. I asked him to forward me some of these e-mails, but he said no one ever wrote in—they just told him in person. And so I painted myself into a corner as a humorous historian.

Ken also found that since my columns often ran to 5,000 words or more, they would take up one-fifth to one-fourth of each issue, so he never had to worry about blank space to fill.

While I was working at the Downtown Public Library, the City’s Library Director sent me personal messages on my work e-mail account, telling me how much she loved my column, and that she’d directed the Library to start carrying and archiving the paper.

The reactions of my “nearest and dearest” were mixed. Some thought the first few columns they read wordy and dry, though they were amused with later ones. They did not, however, express interest in having me send the columns along regularly. A friend who had joined a cult that taught him to be bluntly honest in everything he said, even if it meant being insulting, said he appreciated the idea of me as a writer, and thought that I wrote well, but never read my column because he wasn’t interested in any of the things I wrote about and thought I talked too much about architecture.

Apparently my work was well-distributed. A lady who was a member of Austin’s pioneering Bremond family once wrote me asking if she could quote from my column at length. She was writing a book on her family genealogy, but she thought I’d understood and explained its complexities better than she ever could.

Sometimes I took field trips to do research. When I went out to Camp Mabry, a local National Guard installation, I took a cab. Unfortunately my driver was a dead ringer for Saddam Hussein, so the guards at the gate gave us and our vehicle a rather thorough going over.

My personal favorite of all my columns was the one about the Austin State Hospital. I was given a tour through the old main building, past the abandoned morgue, through crumbling hallways with collapsing ceilings, and even up into the truly unsettling attic, which was decorated with turn-of-the-century graffiti by workmen long dead. The Hospital’s Public Relations Liaison, who took me on the tour, wanted to be very sure I got my facts straight, and asked if she could read my piece before I sent it in, and though I didn’t want to do so, I agreed.

The last part of my column was devoted to an angry attack on the fucked up Texas Legislature and State governments and its mixed up priorities. I railed on, saying the mental health system needed better funding and that this architectural landmark should be restored before it falls down. The PR lady naturally had a fit. She was terrified that if anyone in the State government read that they’d cut the Hospital’s funding. She had me rewrite and tone down that goddamn article at least three or four times and even after that she was worried.

I also did a few articles for Ken’s other paper, the “South County News.” The one I did about murders in Southern Travis County was a disaster. My article was by no means intended to be an in-depth discussion of the various cases, and I stated as much, but the mother of one of the murder victims I mentioned got very upset that I’d not gone into more detail, and insisted that no one in the press ought to write about her daughter’s case unless they cleared it with her first. I wrote the woman a letter of apology and I think Ken later wrote an article himself on just that one case.

The only difficulty I ever had with Ken was that shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Ken suggested I write about infamous floods in Austin history. I thought that was exploitative and in poor taste, but I reluctantly wrote the piece, turning it around as best I could, trying to show that disasters had hit Austin as well, and haranguing the readers to contribute to Katrina disaster relief.

The Austin Convention Center was converted into a Katrina disaster shelter. Ken already had other writers doing articles on that, but he said if I could find a new angle he’d be interested. Paddy was Aide to the Mayor and easily arranged for me to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the facilities.

I attempted to take pictures of the Mayor on site for the paper, but he was losing patience with me, since I was having trouble getting the damned shots lighted correctly. After that Paddy took me around. I saw the Job Bank, the two pharmacies, the rows of outdoor showers, telephones, and computers, the piles of school supplies, the crayon drawings of Austin school children welcoming New Orleans children to the city. I saw the vast ballrooms and exhibition halls filled from one side to another with cots. I saw people staring, lost and confused.

Paddy found an old black woman in a wheelchair, totally disoriented, not sure where her bed was. She told Paddy her room and section number, and he pushed her all the way back, through room after room, clear over to the other side of the Convention Center. I was having trouble taking all this in. I had this strange sense that this poor old black woman was God, come down to take a look at what we were doing. I felt, for some reason, that the overwhelming amount of sadness and loss that hung thick in the air had turned this building, usually devoted to frivolous boat shows and music conferences, into a sacred space.

I needed some air. I walked outside in time to see school buses pulling up and happy children running across the sidewalk into the arms of their parents. I saw some guys shooting hoops. And then I saw about a half-dozen miniature horses, and people gathered around them, petting them. Fascinated, I began to take pictures, and talked with Lynn Flanagan, a representative of the charity Hearts & Hooves, which uses miniature horses as therapy animals. I quickly realized this was going to be my story.

She said the day before a child had approached her, looking shell-shocked and barely talking, as if he’d lost everything dear to him. All Lynn was able to get out of him was that his aunt and grandmother were missing and no one in his family had heard anything from them.

–Do you need a shoulder to cry on?

Lynn led the boy over to one of the miniature horses.

–He went off in the corner over there with that little horse for the longest time, and then he eventually came back, handed me the lead, and I asked him if he felt any better and he said he did. And he did look relieved. He went back into the Convention Center and not five minutes later he came running back out again yelling, “They found my grandmother! They found my grandmother!” He tried to take me in there to meet her, but I never did get to meet her because she was getting processed.

Lynn was convinced her little horses had played a part in a miracle and I did not doubt it.

My time in the spotlight ended after a year-and-a-half. Ken had a two year anniversary for the paper at a downtown art gallery. All sorts of big shots were there. The entertainment was provided by some performance artists and two really awful bands. I, as usual, hovered around the food tables.

Ken said he was closing the paper down for retooling and that the party was designed to attract investors. The paper had been coming out every two weeks more or less, but he wanted to make it a weekly. I said if that happened I wanted to do a column called “Dinner and a Movie,” where I reviewed both restaurants and films. My last column was a gazetteer of all the places serial killer Charles Whitman visited in Austin on the last day of his life.

Ken eventually got his bank loan and scared up some investors, but the paper never returned.

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