Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler


Live Shots From The Austin Chronicle (5 of 5)

by Allen Varney


Hogg Auditorium, recently

I've always found life peculiar and baffling. Yet if I saw all the invisible eccentricities, silent anomalies, and genuine weirdness that goes on unnoticed around me, I'd probably feel like a medieval Breton pig-farmer who eats moldy rye bread, trips out on ergot poisoning, and suddenly beams into a London East End rave with 90-decibel industrial music, strobe lights, thrash dancing, body piercing, and frequent bursts of glossolalia.

I went to a late-night foreign film on campus. I sat alone in a long row of seats, and all the rows ahead of mine were also empty, except for a young couple. They arrived shortly after I did and sat one row ahead and four seats down from me. Before the lights dimmed I saw them: a tall, lissome blonde woman in a stylish executive dress jacket, and beyond her a ragged-looking youth with black hair, a wilted polyester shirt, and a three-day beard.

Lights down, film started. About 20 minutes in, during a quiet moment, I overheard him say to her in a low but carrying voice, "Give me your wrist." At least it sounded like that. Another ten minutes passed, and then he unzipped what I suppose was a backpack and held something out to her. I couldn't see it. "You know what's in here?" he asked her.

She shook her head.

"My handcuffs," he said.

I don't recall much of the movie after that. A person of stronger moral character might have changed seats, although I can't believe that Miss Manners has addressed proper etiquette in the situation. Me, I was, like, Superglued in place. I thought about hunching down and concealing light-colored clothing, but strangely, these two didn't even look around.

She took the cuffs, and I glimpsed a long leather strip, about three inches wide, with slits cut along its length and a metal tongue like a belt buckle. I saw no chain, but I did hear a quiet, characteristic rattling. Watching the couple bend toward each other, you might have thought they were closely examining the armrest between their seats. I heard him say something about wrists, and then, distinctly, "Lucky I cut that extra slit, or they'd be too loose."

I couldn't see what happened then. On sober reflection, I believe he cuffed her wrists and ran the chain down under his thigh, or maybe around the far seat's support strut. For the rest of the movie she sat angled slightly forward and toward him. Once she said, in a feisty, even cavalier tone (I swear, she wasn't even trying to be quiet) -- she said, "You know, I think I could get out of these." He instantly adjusted his position, and her tilt suddenly increased.

A few minutes later she said something low, and he said, "Of course your nose itches. Everybody says that." I cannot capturethe quiet (I almost said "restrained") enthusiasm that marked his voice. They said nothing else for the rest of the movie; they hardly moved; yet I still watched them sidelong, not aroused but mesmerized -- as much a prisoner, in my way, as she was.

As the lights rose, I pretended sleep while he removed the cuffs. She murmured to him affectionately, "Thanks for not publicly embarassing me," a comment that still resists my most intense analysis. They walked out hand in hand.

Ryder's Clown Audition

Frank Erwin Center, 5/13/1987

Having performed as a juggler for ten years, Ryder Schwartz has now reached the ripe age of twenty-one. Performing has "had its ups and downs," Ryder says, but he "always dreamed of being in a big show. And I never wanted to perform in any other circus but Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey." When Steve Smith, director of the Ringling Bros. Clown College, came to Austin to hold auditions, Ryder saw his big chance.

Last year the Clown College auditioned 2000 people nationwide. Only 50 were accepted. Ryder prepared his resume carefully, citing his extensive performing credits, skills in gymnastics, magic, knife throwing, skateboarding, and so on. He didn't have a high school diploma; but when you can juggle torches on a unicycle, who cares?

The main auditions were Saturday, May 14. But Ryder had a show that day, so they auditioned him on Friday. He'd spent most of a day filling out the application, answering questions like "When was the last time you cried, and for what reason?" And he'd gotten the three closeup and three full-body photos. He was set.

First came expression tests: "Smile. Show sadness. Embarrassment. Jealousy." Then he did his hat-ball-and-cane manipulation.

They stopped him there. Ryder didn't act a pantomime skit like other candidates, or even get to show his five-club routine. He hardly knew what to think -- until they called a few days later. He was in! They were "excited about what I could already do," he explains.

Now, come August, Ryder will make his way to Venice, Florida, for the Clown College's 10 1/2-week tuition-free course in (according to the circus) "comedy, makeup, choreography, stiltwalking, juggling, acrobatics, unicycling, improvisation, prop building and decoration, costume design and construction, magic and music." He hopes to learn more about expressions, "how to walk funny and dance," and creating his own clown face. (Maybe you already knew that every clown's face is unique.)

Ryder also wants to learn more about marketing himself as a performer. Marko Ellinger, a friend and fellow professional, hopes Ryder can master the business end of showbiz before he gets exploited. "Talent is only a part of what you need to succeed" as an entertainer, Marko observes.

The College opened in 1968. Ryder will be somewhere around its thousandth clown. Then, more than likely, he'll join the circus for an 11-month tour. But he wants to come back to Austin "every chance," he says. I'll try to keep you posted.


Austin, 10/28/1989

I rendezvoused with friends at a movie theater, and we enjoyed the film -- but where were their other friends, who were supposed to meet us for the show? After the film, in the dark of a cool October midnight, my friends drove out to the absentees' last known location, and I tagged along.

The search led to a spacious residence west of campus. In the back yard, on a wooden deck dimly lit by the house's light, we found our absent friends. Crouched near a huge, gnarled live oak, they were pouring lighter fluid into a long metal tube made from a stack of tin cans. "We're going to wassail the tree," they said.

Evidently the topic of wassailing ceremonies had arisen shortly before they were to meet us at the movie. Absorbed in their spontaneous wassail attempt, they had forgotten us. (Yes, they may have been drinking.)

Just to refresh your memory: "Wassail" derives from Old Norse ves heill, meaning "Be in good health." The wassailing ceremony, evidently a pagan ritual to ensure that a tree remains healthy and fruitful, begins, at least as these friends explained it, with the firing of a shotgun over the tree.

Well, our friends had no firearms. So before we arrived, they had spent the fleeting hours making the long metal tube and readying the lighter fluid. Then, as we watched from a safe distance, they plopped a tennis ball into the tube and lit a hole at the base. Foomp went the tube, and the ball flew into the neighbors' yard. Step one complete.

Then the fellow who started all this (the Archdruid, if you will) raised a mixing bowl holding ginger beer, honey, and sweetcakes. "O Tree," he said, "be strong and healthy in the coming year." Then he sipped from the bowl and passed it along. Each of us in turn toasted the tree, after our fashions: "Ave atque" -- "Good luck, tree" -- "Live long and prosper."

The bowl came around to me. I hardly knew what I was doing there, let alone what to say. "Here's looking at you," I said, sipping: a strong, sweet, heavy taste.

Then the leader placed a cake from the bowl in the tree's branches and poured the liquid over its roots. "Too bad," I said, wanting more. "Not for the tree," they replied.

But say, isn't wassailing supposed to be a Yuletide ceremony? Evidently so, but I can't see what difference it makes to a tree. As we drove away, my companion said, "If that live oak bears apples next year, I'm definitely becoming a druid."

Christmas Food Catalogs

My mailbox, 8-10/1987

My god, stop, enough already! When I ordered that single smoked turkey as a thank-you gift in those innocent days many months ago, you scoundrels in New Braunfels should have warned me that your mailing list goes to every turkey, ham, cashew, berry, onion, biscuit, salmon, and tabasco packager in the Western Hemisphere. Now I'm getting four and six catalogs a week, and Christmas not yet a dreamy fear in my eye. Quit it!

It looks like you guys mail enough food each year to feed Ethiopia, assuming Ethiopia wants Smoked Bacon Bites or Sweet Pepperapple Relish or Brandy Alexander Cheesecake or Sopaipilla Mix or fifty million half-ounce cheese wedges or Bland Farms' unfortunately-named Bland Barbeque Basket. (Mr. Bland, fire your marketing department.) Even turkey and pork are salted, nitrated, and petrified into the stuff of reactor shielding.

This is food? No, this is that posh suburb of food, the snack: the food we eat without necessarily wanting to digest it. The food we would never consider buying for ourselves, and therefore the perfect gift for others.

I admit being intrigued by your many Gift-A-Month plans. These itineraries promise that the lucky addressee will receive macadamia nuts in January, papaya slices in July, the Distinctive Cookie Tin in September, and so on. You guys push these heavily, and it's easy to understand why: Average out the price tag over a year, and we end up paying nine bucks for a can of almonds.

Curiously, I think this is a fair deal, given a friend worthy of such extravagance. We impress the recipient anew each month, without hassle. More importantly, your service provides a convenient front for those who want to lavish gifts on someone without appearing forward. If we took the trouble to mail a tray of dried apricots to our close-but-married friends every month, they would see it as a come-on; let Pepperidge Farms do it instead, and all is well.

The only drawback is that in placing an order, we end up on your mailing lists all over again. Another year of glossy catalogs and mincing sales pitches! Paper drive, anyone?

Terra Toys Yo-Yo Contest

1708 S. Congress, 9/10/1988

William Hendrix, born to yo-yo, is looking for kindred spirits. So he approached Terra Toys owner Charles Edwards to suggest a contest in this neglected sport. Hendrix "has a lot of presence," says Edwards. "When I talked to him on the phone, I figured him for a man of 25."

Hendrix, 14, just entered ninth grade. The south Austin resident has yo-yoed for three years, and now loops the loop, walks the dog, skins the cat, rocks the baby, rounds the world, and splits the atom with casual skill.

Before the contest, which he helped judge, Hendrix spoke of the pleasures of yo-yoing, such as outstripping his eighth-grade gym teacher, and of its problems, such as the modern lack of wooden yo-yos. Duncan Yo-Yo, the IBM and General Motors of the yo-yo world, has not made wooden models since it bought a plastics company, the Flambeau Company, whose slogan is "Shaping the World of Tomorrow in Plastic." Edwards says wooden yo-yos, now custom-made, are "better than plastic but wear out quicker."

The contest, divided into three age categories from 6 to 17, attracted few entrants, but they dutifully lined up on the sidewalk in front of Terra Toys to show their skill in up to ten tricks. They drew a small crowd of about 20 onlookers, mainly the contestants' parents.

Points were awarded according to how many tries it took to do the trick. In the 10-13 group, Reagan Broesche defeated four or five others to win a gift certificate, while Jeff Looney in the teen group narrowly defeated Ryan Broesche (Reagan's brother, a yo-yoing dynasty in the making) through a "loop-off" of nearly 70 consecutive loop-the-loops. Joel Davis of radio station K98 handed out cassettes and entertainment passes to all entrants.

There were no entries at all in the 6-9 category, and energy never ran high in the contest. As observer Steve Wiswell remarked, yo-yoers are "a low-key class of people." But this first effort may lead to greater things. Charles Edwards says they may hold another contest in November, and Hendrix intends to challenge all comers.

The true attraction was, as always, that magical store. Terra Toys eschews the faddishness of the big chains that hawk licensed "action figures" and electronic dolls and cartoon books the PTA has bled dry of entertainment. Terra offers dinosaurs and kaleidoscopes and a wall full of doll furniture from all periods, gyroscopes and prisms and handmade wooden rattles, solid ancestral stuff and novelties chosen with taste. Terra's book section has all the classics, and they sell some of the best candy in town, including Sen-Sen (yes, it's still made) and Pez and my favorite, Botan Rice Candy from Japan. And yes, they sell yo-yos, both Duncans and Hummingbirds, butterfly models and classics. I fall away from Terra Toys into the outside world, yet always the store pulls me back. I rest there, held in the warm hand of the past.

Rice Krispies Squares

Halloween 1993

Just as comedian David Brenner designates as history's bravest hero the first person to drink milk ("See that animal over there, and that bag hanging down under it? I'm gonna squeeze that bag, and whatever comes out, I'm gonna drink it"), so I regard as the most innovative thinker of modern times whoever conceived of mixing melted marshmallows with puffed-rice breakfast cereal. The resulting breakthrough, the Rice Krispies Square, must rank as our culture's most age-dependent food. I made eight recipes of Squares for a party, incorporating both pristine Rice Krispies and the more exotic Cocoa Krispies -- usually segregated, once in a mulatto mix -- and while gobbling them down every jaded grownup said the same thing you're thinking, "I haven't had these since I was a kid."

For all their recent abstemiousness, those guests voiced strong and affectionate memories of Squares with raisins and even, no joke, with peanut butter. One friend recalls that her family never waited for the formality of cooling and cutting, but that they dumped the warm agglutinant filamentary mixture (what we experts call the "Ur-Krispie") onto waxed paper and ate directly from it by the fingerful. All these people would scorn childhood concerns like Etch-a-Sketch or Play-Doh, to say nothing of cooties, but the RK Square still exerts its attraction across the years. So why does puberty banish it?

Here a big-league thinker would propound true insights. Me, I think in the maelstrom of adolescence we just lose interest in both cereal and marshmallows, and without proximity the desire to combine them fades. A shame, because in making those recipes I found a little lesson. Well, yes, "Make sure you mix in all six cups of Krispies or you wind up with a gummy calamity, a fiasco, the Bay of Pigs all over again." Oh yeah, and "Take care in prying the cooled Squares from the pan, or they twist and you have not Rice Krispies Squares but Rice Krispies Torsional Surfaces." I learned those two lessons, sure, but I also saw a symbol of the desires and fears that plague us.

When the completed Squares go into their bags or wrappings, they leave behind pots, pans, and spatulas horridly encrusted with goop. Even by goop standards it's tough stuff, adhesive and insidious and smeary. Scrape at it, sweat over it, and the sugary goop resists like Stalingrad. Yet run hot water in the pans, let it stand five minutes, pour out the water, and all the goop has vanished. I believe the Buddha taught a parable along similar lines, although it may not have involved marshmallows.

"Investigated Rice Krispies Squares." One more box marked off on my deathbed checklist.

Three AM Phone Call


My phone rang at three in the morning. By rare accident I was still awake and answered it. A young man asked, "Is this the Crisis Hot Line?"

"No," I said, and came that close to chewing him out for dialing carelessly at that godforsaken hour. But given the request, I hesitated, and he said, "I dunno -- I just needed to talk to somebody. I think I should kill myself."

It felt like being on camera. Suddenly every move becomes important. Disoriented, I went on automatic: "Hey, don't do it, there's a lot to live for." Like what? he asked. "Like love," I said, rooting for the phone book. I looked up the Crisis Hot Line. The number was nothing like mine. The guy probably just dialed random numbers.

It could have been a prank, and I kept thinking he would fire a pistol next to the phone, howl in anguish, and hang up. But you can't say "Is this a joke?"

He spoke in a meek, cornered voice, ignoring my mention of love, speaking his problems in hesitant bursts. I offered the Hot Line number and he ignored that too, so I just stayed on the phone. I guess if I'd had training, I would have let him keep talking. But to be honest, I just wanted (at first) to get it over with, hand him to someone qualified, not get involved. I kept jumping in and sermonizing, like I could argue him out of suicide and get back to bed.

He said, "I'm a senior in college and I haven't amounted to anything." At that I snorted openly -- probably the wrong technique -- and scolded him. "That's just dumb! You're, what, 23?" (Probably closer to 20, I realized later.) "Nobody should expect you to be something by 23. That's just your programming, the way you let everybody rate you with letter grades and numbers, as if it mattered. I'm 28, and I haven't 'amounted to anything' yet. I mean, I'm doing okay, but I've seen people who did better than me in college end up with unhappy lives, and people who did worse and now have great careers. You just have to get rid of that programming, you're not a robot."

His parents are pressuring him. Yeah, I said, parents can be problems, I had problems with my mother. "Did you ever slap her?" he asked. No. "I slapped my mother, and kicked her," he said in a tone of sheer disbelief. "I wanted to see her hurt." That threw me. But I guessed that slapping didn't solve much, that he should just get away. Another sermon, but more sincere; I warmed to the argument, wanted to convince this guy for both our sakes.

"You're in control of your own life," I said. "Scrape together what money you can, go down to the Greyhound bus station, and buy a ticket to anywhere. Set up a new life without her, meet new people, maybe you'll meet someone you can love." And I plowed on with that, because I'm not Dear Abby, I don't have answers. But I can talk about what helped me.

"When you fall in love, it's a whole new world," I said. "I used to feel like you do, waking up every morning and running down the list of reasons to go on living." (Not strictly true. I never got quite that bad off, but it was close and my destination loomed clearly.) "And then I met her, and I started feeling wonderful things, things I never knew I could feel."

"There's nobody like that in my life."

"Sure, it's tough to find her. You just have to keep getting out there, meeting new people. Like they say, you can't win unless you stay at the crap table. Keep at it, and you can find her." It sounds so trite as I recall it, but it's what I said on the phone at three in the morning. And I really can't apologize for it, because even now, in cold recollection, I believe it like the law of gravity.

I thought, but didn't speak, the rest: So far as I see, it's as random as earthquakes. You might meet your true love tomorrow, or live in loneliness for twenty years. It didn't really matter. It doesn't change the advice. And I didn't want to bring this guy down, this total stranger who had all at once become as important to me as anyone I know.

I feared he would ask some logical question like "Did she love you too?" But he didn't. He sounded more cheerful. I gave him the Hot Line number again, and this time he took it down. "Talk to them," I said, "they'll be able to put it better than I can." And he replied, "I think you said it pretty well." Goodbye and goodbye. It had taken twenty minutes.

Three twenty a.m., way past my bedtime, but I was wired. Pursuing one of my worst habits, I replayed the conversation in my mind, imagining how to have said things better. Then I decided how to answer a question about the outcome of my love, and I wish I could tell it to my caller now.

In my fantasy I became eloquent. "I'll tell you the truth," I would have said, "and pay attention. As it turned out, she didn't care for me at all. She went on to blissful happiness with another man. But that doesn't matter a bit. Not one bit. Because from her I learned about thinking in a whole new way. A new way of living.

"I always looked for the negative, and always found it. She looked for the positive; I don't know that she always found it, and yet her world looked so much brighter than mine. Life, to her, overflowed with opportunities -- every person a potential friend, every place waiting to be explored. She had decided to be happy, and she made me realize I could decide to be happy too, if I only had the courage. I haven't managed it yet, because without her it's so hard. But I still think there's someone else out there who can help me find the courage."

I keep thinking about that call, and the troubled people at both ends. Before it came, I thought about making a list of reasons, the way I lied about doing. She's been gone a long time, and life has turned dull and lonely again, and work isn't fulfilling, and all the world runs by money or bombs. Nearly everything in my life so far has turned out a waste of time. I think of It's A Wonderful Life, where Jimmy Stewart's guardian angel shows him the world as it would have been without him. If my angel showed this world without me, would it look different?

Yet I haven't come within ten miles of suicide. Maybe it's just a twist of brain chemistry, but now, since that phone call that crystallized my feelings, I think there is more to it. Anyone who lives near a busy street is never more than two minutes from death under an auto tire -- the bombs could take us all out in an hour -- we exist on a knife-edge. While we balance, life is various and surprising. We will be dead a hundred billionyears. Losing even an instant of this brief interval is a pointless waste.

My friend, wherever you are out there in the mysterious telephone system, I hope this finds you well. I can't help you any more than this. I've always worked better in writing than on the phone, anyway. But the people at the Crisis Hot Line will help if you become troubled again -- and if you stay in the race, then however you finish, I'll be cheering for you.

[Note: Austin's Crisis Hot Line number is 472-4357.]

Live Shots index, File 1, File 2, File 3, File 4

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Copyright (C) 1999 Allen Varney.