Monday, March 23, 2015

Two Days in Austin to Attend SXSW

Nancy and I traveled to Austin, Texas this month in connection with my speaking on a panel at SXSW, with plans to tour Texas afterward; Nancy had never been to Texas at all, and our itinerary included several parts of Texas that I had never seen, as well as the chance to visit with several old friends along the way.

We flew into San Antonio because it turned out that renting a car with a drop in a different airport than our pickup would have been prohibitively expensive had we picked up our car in Austin; presumably, the presence of SXSW meant that the car rental franchises in Austin were desperate to keep their cars in Austin, so the drop charges during that period were several hundred dollars.  So we arrive in San Antonio about mid-day on Thursday and drove directly to Austin for the first couple of days of our visit.  We were fortunate to be hosted by Smitty (Tom Smith), the head of Public Citizen’s Texas office, in the home he shares with his wife at the south end of Austin in a development that backs up on a creek and park area (he walked us back there the morning of our departure for San Antonio, showing off a series of hiking trails whose creation he had helped foster).

We relaxed that afternoon, then headed down to walk around near the river at the edge of downtown, then listen to some live music.

We had an early dinner at Guero’s Taco Bar, a classic eatery on South Congress strip; we enjoyed having tacos, then strolled up Congress toward downtown, where we admired the city skyline

and walked along the river.

Our original plan for the evening was to see Paul Oscher, Muddy Waters’ former harmonica player, performing at Cboys, but when we reached Smitty by phone to tell him we were on the way there from the river, he mentioned that on the way to Cboys he had noticed the beginning of what seemed to be a Cuban band in Guero’s own Oak Garden open courtyard; he noted that the performance at Cboys was going to end in little more than an hour anyway, and suggested that we see whether we liked the sound in the Oak Garden.  We did, and he came to join us.

There was no charge, nothing but a tip jar for the band, and we could have stayed without even buying food or drinks. The crowd was very diverse in both age (ranging in age from young children with their families, to a significant student-age audience, to couples our age) and ethnicity, all sitting around at picnic style tables, either enjoying the music entirely for free, or ordering  from the small list of available tacos and beers.  Smitty had his dinner there, and eventually I had some more tacos as well – the tacos were prepared right before my eyes on a grill under a tarp, and the prices were lower than at the sit-down part of Guero’s down the street.  The band turned out not to be Cuban at all, but a local alt-Latino band called Son de Rey, playing covers of various other bands (including the Killers) as well as their own compositions. 

 Eventually, a young woman joined the band to add her voice to the singing – a tiny woman with a big voice.  A number of older Latino couples rose to dance; they knew what they were doing, and it was a bit intimidating to think of joining them on the dance floor part of the grounds.

The following morning, we enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in – we were on vacation, and beginning to relax – then headed down for a tour of the State Capitol before a planned lunch with Public Citizen’s staff and my talk at SXSW.  The Capitol is a lovely chocolate-colored building

with designs embedded in the terrazzo floors and frosted windows as well as nice original woodwork

We ran into Smitty who, with an intern in tow, was heading toward a meeting; he paused to describe some of the features of the Capitol building, including the fact that, after a major fire during the 1980's had destroyed many of the Senators and Representatives offices, they had put all the offices underground which not only protected against a recurrence of the fire but also enabled substantial energy savings.  Before going to visit the underground office complex however, we headed upstairs toward the dome over the rotunda – the walls were lined with portraits of Texas governors

visiting the chambers of the State Senate, with its well-separated desks

as well as the far more crowded House of Representatives

Then we went downstairs into the legislators’ offices – natural light was brought into the corridors by placing skylights in the ceilings as well as digging courtyards two stories deep at the end of each corridor

I had lunch with Public Citizen’s Texas staff at on the nice patio of Serrano’s, which is apparently a local Tex-Mex restaurant chain; unfortunately, I was kept so busy talking to the staff about what I do for the Litigation Group, and what the rest of the Litigation Group does, that I had no time to order, so there is little that I can say about their food.  After lunch, we had a whirlwind tour of Public Citizen’s current office space as well as the new office with street-level storefront space into which Public Citizen would soon be moving.

From there it was a quick walk to the Austin Convention Center for the SXSW conference; we had to spend an hour online waiting to register for my speaker’s badge and materials.  We whiled away the time talking to an enthusiastic young man from a cricket farm who was registering to speak about their activities; he was lugging a crate of sample cricket powder which is being raised as a nutritious food, and he talked about their efforts to create a business while negotiating with the FDA about standards and safety considerations for their new kind of food.

Our panel on Commercial Threats to Online Speech went well; there were thirty-five people in the audience, which was unfortunately dwarfed by the rather large room in which our panel had been placed.  Photos of the panel are here:

Afterward Nancy and I, as well as Washington City Paper publisher Amy Austin, headed over to a hospitality operation called WeDC that the District of Columbia had organized at a restaurant across the street from the Convention Center in the hope of attracting tech businesses to D.C.

Nancy and I headed back to Public Citizen’s office to join Smitty.  On the way to his car, we passed a local church that featured a sculpture of a homeless person sleeping on a bench.

Smitty drove us first to one of the city’s venerable music venues, the Saxon Pub, where we heard the first show, featuring guitarist Denny Freeman (formerly with Bob Dylan) and friends.  It was high energy rock and roll, and the joint was jumping although there was barely enough space to dance. A very different vibe from the night before – the crowd consisted entirely of older gringo couples like ourselves.

Then it was on to Black’s Barbecue for dinner.  We stood in a cafeteria-style line, passing by bins of beer bottles whence we could pick our drinks, choosing among the various kinds of grilled or smoked meats as well as sides.  I had a humongous beef rib that was sold by the pound; it was delicious but too much to eat at a single sitting.

The following morning, it was our turn to host for breakfast, although of course it was Smitty who chose the venue:  Mi Ranchito Taqueria in Manchaca, a couple of miles from his house.  although inside seating was also available, we sat outside at a picnic table to schmooze and enjoy our breakfast tacos: dirt cheap and delicious.  After dropping Smitty off at his house, we were off to San Antonio.

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