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Writing Austin's Lives

Writing Austin's Lives
Illustration By Jason Stout

I got connected to Writing Austin's Lives without even meaning to, by taking Carton's class on 19th-century poetics. WAL was getting off the ground and needed volunteers to brainstorm its implementation. Intoxicated by a semester of Whitman's verses, I eagerly jumped on the train.

Simone Biow of LBJ High School, 78705:

You have officially slipped on a pair of glittery shoes, a poofy skirt, and a pair of wings. You will soon discover that I am a childish girl who releases her creative energy by wearing costumes, writing, and analyzing and making movies. Welcome ...

Hundreds of stories have arrived so far: tales of lives transformed by fate or love or weather, alongside stories of the slow, steady work of daily survival. I learned that people in early photographs look so severe and dour not because they had just eaten boiled cactus or whipped the mule, but because they had to stand still for up to an hour in order to let the film expose -- and an unsmiling expression is the easiest one to hold. I also learned that it is easy to exist in assumptions. If you're anything like me, when you think of ZIP codes 78702, 78757, 78705, or others, stereotypes jump to mind first: poor mom working two jobs, suburban white mom driving SUV, tattooed mom with baby in corduroy Snugli ... images dance along the ZIP code song. But stereotypes, I regretfully remind myself, will make you go blind and possibly grow hair on your hands.

Lissa Whitehurst of 78703:

Sometimes we went to my mama's mother's house. My daddy said she was a Nixon-lovin', Bible-thumpin', war-supportin' type and couldn't understand why she liked living in a place called Clarksville. My mama said, "Shut it, Wix." On special occasions, we went to my aunt and uncle's house. My dad said they were Nixon-hatin', hippie-lovin', free-thinkin' types. My mama said, "Shut it, Wix."

Imagine West Lake Hills sitting down to talk and listen to Far East Austin over a cup of coffee. What do they have to talk about?

Beulah Cooper of 78752:

When I moved to 7205 Bethune in November 1944, I lived on an unpaved street. There was no sewage, no electricity, no natural gas, no telephone, and the nearest bus service was at 51st & Airport, which was two miles from my house. I used to stand in my backyard and watch dogs herd cattle to the pasture that was east of Cameron Road and south of what is now Highway 290. ... By the way, I picked cotton in Oakwood, Texas, to earn my train fare to Austin. In 1937, they paid 50 cents per hundred pounds picked.

Mary Bruce of 78745:

I see Wooten Hall, my dormitory when I was a student at UT, being renovated. It is refreshing to learn it was built in the 1800s. I have been looking for anything older than I for a long time (I am 75).

Most of the stories come in, handwritten or typed, in white envelopes. Some of them are generated out of workshops taught around the city by a team of writers including Valerie Bridgeman Davis, Liz Belile, myself, and several others.

It is humbling, adventuresome, and intimidating to be one of these workshop leaders. It is a rare privilege to enter a bookshop, home, or place of worship for a few hours, arrange chairs in a circle, and watch people put their hands deep into hidden pockets of their own lives. The willingness of strangers to do this -- to write, and then read aloud what they have written, even if it makes them feel shy, or laugh or cry, is stunning.

Sometimes I feel like a combination of the Fuller Brush man and an evangelical preacher for the power of the pen. Other times, like a child tasting every fruit in a neighbor's garden, and falling down from the glut of flavor and the fullness in my belly. Mostly, I am there to open the space and ask questions. My gratitude to the people who come to write is a hot-burning fuel.

Janie Cardenaz of 78745:

When my father was murdered in a bar on Red River at age 30, he left behind my 28-year-old mother with five children to raise. Since my father believed in life insurance, there was a small sum to buy a home. It was on Seventh & Chicon. ... There was a young skinny guy who brought ice to our home for the ice box. He was Richard Moya, who later was the first Mexican-American to be a county commissioner.

My paternal grandparents came from Mexico in 1907 and settled at East First Street. My grandmother had a boarding house. My grandfather repaired phonographs. Many years later that corner was Goodyear Tire Company, and my stepfather Tom worked there. Now it is One Bank Plaza. Güero's restaurant on South Congress & Elizabeth used to be a feed store where I would take my grandmother to buy feed for her parrot in the 1960s.

When we are all a part of Lost Austin, a bundle of beautiful, 21st-century bones, the breath of the community will still be commingling in the books and artwork that comes of these projects. So if you feel morbid about mortality, remember how people whose world you can't yet imagine will seek out and hold your story tenderly, weave you into their dreams.

So take out a pencil. Tell us where you are and how you got there. Ask your grandmother what the house she grew up in looked like, what her dreams were as a child, how she learned to cook lasagna. Write them down and share them -- they are treasures. Stories keep us warm at night. Getting to know one another frees us up to love one another, laugh at our ignorance, and spread out the lavish feathers of our expertise. end story


Abe Louise Young is a freelance teacher and a poetry fellow at the James Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.

For more information on the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past, contact 441-9255, and for Writing Austin's Lives contact 471-2654.

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