Vaguely Purposed Zombies

First Thursday brings 'em in, in droves

Vaguely Purposed Zombies
Photo By John Anderson

Leslie's in Blackmail, cocking a jaded eye at some dark, translucent negligee, some wisp of sheer fabric that would be much better displayed on the less-hirsute-and-weatherbeaten-
than-homeless-mayoral-candidate-Leslie Cochran physique of what's-her-name, Ethan Hawke's wife.

I'm in Blackmail, too, moving slowly through Gail Chovan's tony emporium of all things dark and beautiful. I'm moving slowly, my preteen daughter limpeted to my side, because it's packed in Blackmail tonight, people milling thickly about, shuffling like vaguely purposed zombies among the bright and elegant displays. It's packed outside Blackmail, too. It's packed everywhere in the neighborhood, in fact. It's First Thursday on South Congress, and the locals are swarming.

"Why are we here, again?" my daughter asked as we exited the car -- parked, finally, on a wooded side-street four blocks away from South Congress.

"For the Chronicle, kiddo. Gotta cover the scene; see what's going on. It's a mandate," I told her, "from my shadowy masters."

She rolled her eyes as we trekked toward the night's roiling epicenter. She widens her eyes as we leave Blackmail. "Wow," she says, "look at all the people!"

The population seems to have doubled since we entered the store. The sidewalks are all but impassable, advancement a fluke of Brownian movement. Who, I wonder briefly, is elsewhere in the city, robbing the homes of all the Austinites busy blocking my passage through this night of festivity?

It is festive on South Congress tonight, and a lot of eyes are widening at the sights: the shop displays, the art openings, the yammering buskers, the whole mad crush of themselves and their neighbors thronging over the concrete and asphalt. I imagine myself astrally projecting, leaving my body and floating above the Avenue to get a view of the bigger picture.

To the north there's a glut of stylish citizens gathering near Wet Salon's threshold, drifting inside with all the nonchalance they can muster, treating their hipster eyes to the walls' stunning array of Ricardo Acevedo photo-manipulations. There's Acevedo himself, sipping at a plastic glass of something complimentary as he chats with choreographer Ellen Bartel. There's that waitress, the blond one from the diner downtown, except now she's got on these supervixen boots and a silk dress that leaves less than a 10% tip to the imagination.

There's a much bigger clot of people, like a tumor about to metastasize, near Rue's Antiques. They're crowded and half-dancing around a live, many-membered band, spilling into the street as they bob in time to the music. Look at them, these music-loving revelers: old hippies in new tie-dye, young frat boys in cargo pants and cryptically soled sneakers, groups of glassy-eyed girls in wife-beaters, the ink of yesterday's tattoo session gleaming wetly from their pale shoulders. Across the street, on the east side of Congress, a less unruly gang is jammed into the Texas Folklife Resources space, scrutinizing photos of accordion players, discussing the oral-history documentary that's just screened.

Farther south, beyond the guy performing tricks with a Chinese yo-yo, there's a line of citizens snaking into the entrance of Lone Star Illusions. The line continues through the store, past all the shelves of retro accessories, toward the back where someone's dispensing free beer. Half a block over, past the kids looking like extras from a Sex Pistols biopic, there's --

"Dad," says my daughter, tugging on my jacket's hem, slamming my astral self back into its cage of meat, "I'm hungry."

Ah, right: It's way past suppertime. Gotta get the girl something to eat, feeling a bit famished myself. And, hey, look what's here: Lambert's, El Sol y la Luna, Texas French Bread, Magnolia Cafe, etc. No problem, right?

But then I look closer and see that all the nearby eateries are jammed with patrons. Not an empty table or chair in sight and waiting lists that resemble a collection of "Free Beer for Me" petitions. Shit. "Honey, listen, I don't think we -- "

"We could get hot dogs," says Ange, pointing toward a vendor's cart at the next corner. A handsome, bald-headed guy is dispensing his bunned franks to a line that's only five deep.

"Hey, sure," I say, and we take our place in line. Only four people ahead of us, now. Including this guy right under my nose, this short guy with the suspenders and the old-fashioned mustache and, oh, wait. Jesus, it's Max Nofziger. First Leslie, now Max. The candidates are coming out of the fucking woodwork. What next? Marc Katz stage-diving at the Continental?

"So, Max," says the hot-dog man. "Think you've got a chance?"

Nofziger grins at him. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I've definitely got a chance." Now he's got a hot dog, too; he's paid, and he's moving away, heading toward the music. I buy a dog for the kid, another for myself, and we walk over to the less-hectic side of the street.

"That guy with the mustache?" I tell her. "That was Max Nofziger. He's running for mayor."

"Oh," says Angelica, who couldn't care less, who's more interested in what looks like a sudden Volkswagen parade: new Beetles and old, a microbus or two, veedub after veedub tooling along under the streetlights. Is this some planned part of First Thursday, I wonder, or just coincidence? And does it really matter? The live music, the art exhibits, the open-air stalls hawking beaded jewelry and patchouli soap, the usual freak-show attendant to any large collision of passion and commerce: It's Austin as it's always been, just a lot more crowded than normal. It's especially what this part of South Austin, South Congress Avenue, becomes each First Thursday of the month: an eclectic marketplace for folks bored with the homogeneity of malls, a living spectacle for those fed up with the more formulaic banality of television, a diversion for slackers with nothing better to do. And a haven, still, for the characters and businesses and ideas that make this city unique, regardless of -- not due to -- any council-based Keep Austin Weird agenda.

So I have to park in a residential section four blocks away. So parts of the crowd seem a cross between a Scientology seminar and a mosh pit. So there's a pair of college kids barfing up their free beer against the wall of a church. So what?

Leslie's in Blackmail; all's right with the world. end story

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First Thursday, SoCo, South Congress, The Avenue, Leslie, Nofziger, Blackmail, Keep Austin Weird

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