I was talking with a friend over coffee about what it is that makes us tick and why we do what we do. He asked what it was that made me want to go out and make movies. I said that there’s no single thing and the motivating factors change from time to time. It’s a counter culture with a limited life span. It’s a worm hole into another world with different rules but it’s also what you make of it. It has a different flavor for each person because we all bring into it a different perspective. And you have to be serious but not too serious. I was serious about the work ethic but the culture vibe in college was more laid back. I kind of went with the flow and being a goof in high school, I brought that frame of mind into it which surfaced every time it found an opportunity. That’s one of the things about the college years that makes them unique. Most people at that age don’t have a good reason to be too serious because of the nature of a youthful disposition. That’s how my goofy disposition was able to coexist with the seriousness needed to do the work.
For example, I loved to goof off in high school. At times when there was nothing special going on, my mind would wander and I’d think of something funny. I credit the weekly four hour blocks in my youth reserved for looney tunes every Saturday. Also like I’ve said before, I discovered my genetic pre-disposition for a goofy sense of humor which explains why, in those days, I was easily entertained. As a senior in AP English, we read a lot of Shakespeare. I wasn’t a huge fan because of the erudite nature of the old English prose. However, a cool component to the class was that our teacher, Mrs. Trawick often showed a contemporary movie in class. One of them was “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, a satire adapted from the play of the same name. It was absurdist comedy which I found to be really funny. But, I was the only one laughing. My classmates were more amused at the absurdity of my laughter than the writing in the film. I loved the scenes where they play tennis with no ball or test the theory of gravity (that says that everything falls at the same speed) where they drop a feather and a bowling ball at the same time and the bowling ball goes crashing through the floor while the feather floats gently to the ground, a flawed experiment that appears to prove the scientific theory wrong. When I think about it, this kind of comedy is similar to Looney Tunes. I guess the thing that makes me a fan of these kinds of stories is probably the same reason why that day on the University Campus, I was more than a little amused when I ran across a group of student democrats that were acting unusually cordial as they eagerly awaited some unknown spectacle near the driveway to the rear exit of the student Union.
The Union is a Grand Mansion of a building, constructed, like many of the classic buildings on the 40 acres, in the Spanish Renaissance style. It’s a good sample of Austin culture because it’s conventional style contrasts starkly with the buildings that sit right across Guadalupe Avenue, AKA: The Drag) which are more alternative in their style and function. This eclectic mixture of style is an example of what Austinites call “Weird”. The Union rear entrance opens up to a circle drive, the middle of which is sheltered by a car port. The two ends of the driveway meet Guadalupe where thousands of students pass every day. One day I was approaching the union where the walk angles away from the road to make room for a landscape installation.
On both sides of the walk, there are short brick walls about four feet high, at the most. The walls stop where the walk meets the drive. I had heard that some big political event was going to be held that day but hadn’t been paying close attention because I wasn’t into politics (other than poli-sci majors….who’s got the time?). So when I noticed a long line of students standing there bobbing up and down, left and right to peer out at some thing or other, I was a little perplexed. I was in one of my goofy moods and the sight of eager young people in an absurdly ordered single file line with nothing special going on to warrant all that gawking, made my looney sense tingle. I knew that somewhere in the vicinity, hijinks were afoot (or should be).
That year, I had a fairly new minidisk Walkman which I had gotten as a Christmas gift. That thing was awesome because it was like the old tape based Walkman but everything was way smaller, the battery was rechargeable, and it was digital. I used it to record audio for a couple film projects and I remember my friend Mark scoffed that he would not have one because they were too expensive. However, that semester, I got my money out of it when I used it on my short film about Mikey, my “Stand Up Roommate”. The results were so good that our instructor, Rachel (Greek pronunciation: “ra-khiel”), thought that everyone else had just screwed up on their projects and giving them lower grades. They had used the old-school cassette tape recorders provided by the University which were ancient and had the sound quality to match. “Stand Up Roommate” was about my buddy Mikey, his background as a D.I.Y. comedian and a first effort at open mic night at the local Cap City Comedy club. Speaking of Mikey, he had copied a Poe CD onto minidisc for me (the one with Angry Johnny on it) and I played the crap out of that disc for a couple years. Aside from that one song, I hadn’t been familiar with Poe but soon found that the whole album was really good. It’s style was fresh or weird or counter culture or whatever you want to call it, but a fitting anthem for my film school experience. So that day, I was probably listening to the “Hello” Album (or possibly a dub I had made from my Ugly Americans CD) as I cruised along on a sunny day, headphones strapped on, lost in my own world, not expecting a detour on my thus far smooth commute to the next class.
At the back of the line with my senses tingling away, I stopped and surveyed the scene, trying to focus my powers of perception and hone in on the source of the disruption. My path to the south side of campus was pretty narrow because of the walls. Just enough room for two way traffic on a normal day. Of course, today it was jammed up with young, hungry minds waiting to get a glimpse of some mysterious sight. In spite of the large crowd and its indescribable enthusiasm for what must be a once in a lifetime opportunity, the right side of the walk was completely clear. So, I could get through if I was willing to angle around the oncoming traffic walking in the opposite direction. looking all around for the source of the bottle neck, I hit the stop button on the end of the cigar-shaped remote clipped to my shirt and lowered my headphones to rest around my neck. I had just come from the Communications complex which is on the northwest corner of the campus, right on the drag.
We, the RTF majors had the best part of campus as home base for our core classes. We were a hop, skip and a jump from Tower Records (which had actual records, as well as CD’s…real handy when you needed to find unique music for your student film score),
the Hole-In-The-Wall which had beer and the best fish tacos around. Also, there were countless restaurants of all kinds within a five minute walk and a cool, weird coffee shop called Spiderhouse located in an old 1920’s home sporting a hardwood floor within ten.
And most importantly, the 7-eleven was right across the drag right next to the Hole-In-The-Wall which was a one-stop shop for cigarettes, Funyuns, Dr. Pepper and one of my favorites, the pecan praline during those late night editing sessions that sometimes went until dawn when you would eerily sense the sun coming up after splicing together the same two pieces of film three times in a row (dropping an F-bomb each time).
The Praline is a handy snack because they come shrink wrapped. You can stock up and have plenty to last you the day as you make your way between classes. I had over an hour between my last class and the next one so, taking my time I decided to stop off for some pralines before heading down the drag for an elective class on the other side of the campus . Back at the student Union driveway, the high level of anticipation as well as the strange line-forming behavior peaked my curiosity. I had to find out what’s the hub bub…Bub. As I navigate towards the front of the line, moving around stationary people as well as those just passing through, still munching on my first pecan praline, I maintain civility with the regular utterances, “Pardon me, Excuse me, Excuse me, Pardon me, Pardon me, Excuse me”. There are no obvious signs that the event has begun but I can’t be sure plus, as I’ve said, I’m interested in the behavior of the people awaiting its coming. As I move halfway to the drive, I sidle up to a girl in line, and turn to take another look at the spectators, this time from the front. I could see their faces bobbing back and forth and yet, they weren’t looking at anything in particular. The second thing that I noticed was that no one even looked at me much less did they get angry in spite of the fact that I had basically cut half the line. Not even the person right behind the girl I was standing next to so much as broke her concentration on the location of this phenomenal event that was surely on the verge of gracing our presence and certain to change the life of one and all in a dramatic way. I was astounded. It was like I was invisible.
See, where I come from, you can’t cut a line without risk to your safety (or at least your ego). I remember at Hubbard Middle School one year, it became all the rage to stand in line and buy lunch from the cafeteria instead of brown baggin’ because the lunch lady had been cookin’ up some mean chicken fingers. At this age we were starting adolescence, branching out and discovering new choices in grown-up society where you have to get along with lots of other people and make decisions about whether you go with the flow or do your own thing. For some reason it became an accepted practice to cut the line at the chicken finger station. Once it started, it rapidly snowballed and after several days got to be a wide spread thing. One day I decided to go with the flow and cut in front of my friend Lee, whom I’d know from Green Acres Baptist Church Sunday school class going back to the elementary school days. I turn around and cheerfully say, “Hey, Lee. What’s up“, then turn back towards the glorious chicken dispensary. A few seconds later, he taps me on the shoulder prompting my undivided attention. As he glares at me with his mean face, he says, “It’s fixin’ to be what’s down fooool“. My bad. I went to the back of the line
As I brush off a pecan crumb from my shirt, I have to take a minute to process this gross indifference that the liberal student body has to my blatant disregard of line etiquette. I’ve only been in Austin for about a year, so I’m still getting used to the laid back nature. My Looney sense tingles again telling me that this is no time for procrastination so, I have to get movin’. Having finished my first praline, I peel the wrapper off a second and start munching, dropping more crumbs on the sidewalk as I go, not really paying attention to my snacking habits. In Texas, pecans are a local crop so these praline things are everywhere. Growing up here, I probably developed a slight addiction to these and Dr. Pepper too (Dr. Pepper is a Waco TX born native). I resume my advance towards the source of attention. Pretty soon I’m literally standing next to the girl at the very front. Again, I turn around to see if my line cutting has subdued any of the festiveness of the crowd. Sure enough, as before…no change! The line had just gotten longer from my point of view which means I now see double the heads bobbing back and forth and this makes me smile. So I turn back to the front, take another bite of praline. With my elbow I lean against the wall to my right as I turn to the early birdie that had the best seat for the show. My L-sense is tingling like crazy now. Being a smart alec under the circumstances, I wasn’t being discreet any longer. I glance at my soon to be new acquaintance, formulate a plot, look back at the driveway and take another bite. Munching away I seeing nothing. I generally like to do my homework before bothering people with dumb questions so, I thought maybe If I “Do as the Romans”, the truth about what we’re all looking at will reveal itself, so I start bobbing my head back and forth and up and down while checking my form against that of the people who had been standing here bobbing away for God knows how long….Still nothin’. Finding out the nature of the event is a high priority but the sociology is important too and I’ve not yet gotten any kind of reaction out of this unusual crowd. Working smart, not hard, I think maybe I can knock two birds out with one stone. As I take another bite, smackin’ away with my mouth open, dropping crumbs with every bite, I execute the next step of the plan which is to engage the crowd. Speaking with a wry smile full of sweet, sweet praline, I say to the girl, “MNyaaa…..Waht’s up Doc?”. Surely this would garner an “Oh Brother”, rolling eyes, possibly an oblique comment or even some scorn. I was braced for sarcasm of some kind but no such luck. My longhorn co-ed friend turns to me and with eyes buggin’ out of her head, she exclaims, “Ohhh. Hilary Clinton is speaking in the Union today! She’s coming out at any minute!”. I take another bite and say, “Ahhhh. Yaaaaa….that’s the ticket. Hilary Clinton. I knew that. I heard that somewhere”. With no abatement of enthusiasm, her eyes gleam back a reply, “Yaaa, I know! Isn’t that awesome!” then she turns her attention quickly back to the driveway. Suddenly, someone yells out, “Here she comes!“. I finish my last bite and dust off my hands as I notice that indeed, there is a detail of people coming out of the rear entrance, making their way to the cars queued up under the carport. As they pile in, a murmur rises among the students. I’m really determined now because I’m fresh out of pralines, running out of time and I need to think of something to get these people off kilter. Now that I know what the spectators want, the line is even more absurd than before, mainly because of the wide brick walls on either side of the gawkers and not a single person has jumped up there to get a better look…weird! Haven’t these kids been to Sunday School and sung the song about Zacchaeus and the sycamore tree? My hands, now free, hoist me up and I take a seat on the wall expecting that my young democrat friends would take the cue and join me so as not to miss this chance of a lifetime to, not just see, but be seen by the First Lady of the entire free world. I settle into my spot as the cars fire up and make ready their exit onto Guadalupe en route to the airport. I look over my left shoulder to see if anyone has been affected in any way whatsoever by my disruption of the young liberals’ line-standing code. Again…Nothin’! They’re still bobbing up and down left and right in single file! What the hell?! Determined, I turn my attention to the head democrat as the cars pull forward. I’m starved for attention and I’ve got to get some kind of recognition for all my efforts. As the First Lady’s car approaches, the crowd murmur grows louder. I notice that Mrs. Clinton has her window rolled halfway down and she’s waving at people but the only person that she can really see is the girl in front because all others are obscured by the wall….with one exception, me! At the very front, perched on the wall, I have the catbird seat. As the car approaches The wife of The President with her waving hand cocked and ready to go, looks up and notices me just eight or so feet away smiling my wry smile and looking right at her. She smiles back and shifts her entire body so that she can raise a hand and wave at me.
Now, I have nothing against Democrats. Some of the most active Christians at the various church groups that I call friends are Dems. I consider them just as much my family as the Republicans. My actions are not about snubbing anyone but rather a scientifically relevant (how exactly, I’m not sure since I’m not a scientist) sociological study on human behavior in a group setting.
As The First Lady waves, she smiles real big right at me when she notices the big smile on my face. I do not wave back. Instead I keep looking right at her, concentrate, and amplify the wryness to a degree that is unmistakable. At this she is taken aback and as the car passes she recoils a little as if she had unwittingly committed some kind of terrible faux pas, exiting the circle drive with a perplexed look on her face.
Bang! Reaction received. Mission accomplished. Bugs Bunny….eat your heart out.