Be Careful

Sam's BBQ, Austin, Texas

I arrived in Austin as dusk was beginning to descend and was at loose-ends until a meeting at noon the next day. I had a relatively sedate, if not exactly sedentary, evening planned. I had mapped-out a three hour trek that would take me to a seemingly well-regarded BBQ joint, into the heart of the downtown South by Southwest Festival scene, and back through the University of Texas campus to the crappy hotel where I was staying.

Forty minutes after setting-out, I found myself on Austin’s East 12th Street, as grim and raw as any nighttime streetscape you might care to imagine. The streets were just empty enough to feel abandoned, just populated enough to exude a palpable desperation. There was almost no car traffic, despite the relative breadth of the thoroughfare. I had no intention, of course, of wandering into an area of human tragedy. Google Maps can chart one’s path to bypass such things as toll roads or highways, but it does not counsel the avoidance of poverty and hopelessness. And I was not of a mind to alter course, in any event.

There is an inescapable fascination to finding oneself in a landscape of human suffering, irrespective of intention or compassion. East 12th Street was an otherworldly scene I could not help but absorb in voyeuristic detail. Apparently, the exoticism was quite mutual. Conversations conducted in the topicless, high-volume haze of booze and dope would cease as I’d approach and resume only after I walked past.

Half a dozen dazed souls, sprawled on the sidewalk in front of a boarded-up shack, still open-for-business selling cheap cigarettes, stared at me in the same hushed astonishment with which an ornithologist might regard a rare and unexpected bird. Becoming collectively self-conscious, they stuttered a “What’s up?” in semi-unison. “I’m good,” I replied. “What’s up with you guys?” My rhetorical question went unanswered as the group resumed their silent examination. “Be careful,” one man advised. “Thanks,” I called back over my shoulder.

Half-a-block later, a police car pulled along side me, rolling slowly to keep my pace. The window came down and the officer in the passenger seat inquired, “What brings you to East 12th?” “I’m looking for Sam’s BBQ. It’s supposed to be quite good,” I answered. “Be careful,” said the cop. “Thanks,” I said as the cruiser pulled away.

I passed a well-witnessed domestic conflict which, while sporting no overt violence, featured the angry epithets “nigger bitch” and “nigger whore” in every shouted sentence. She’s the one who needs to be careful, I thought, wondering where that patrol car might have gone.

Just as Sam’s BBQ came into view, I was approached by a huge, if somewhat drug-addled man who asked if I could give him seventy-five cents. “I need a little gas to get my family home,” he explained. Somehow, in the course of his entreaty, we wound up with our arms over each other’s shoulders, strolling down the street together like long-lost friends. I can’t recall the choreography that got us into that position, but it seemed like the right posture from which to deliver the bad news. “I am not giving you seventy-five cents,” I said. “Not after you break-out that tired line about needing gas money. It shows no respect for either of us.” His arm came off my shoulder and he stopped. He was certainly unhappy, though he seemed more frustrated with himself than with me. “How about you give me seventy-five cents because otherwise I’m gonna bust a cap in your ass?” he offered in a tone that failed to live-up to the menace in the message. “Sorry,” I answered with a degree of false cheer I hoped would mask my discomfort at that moment. “You missed your chance.” He smiled in spite of himself, and I grinned back at him. “Do you smoke crack?” he asked. I told him I didn’t. He was flabbergasted: “Then what-the-fuck are you doing on East 12th? Everyone here smokes crack!” I solved the riddle for him: “I thought I’d check out Sam’s BBQ. I heard it was good.” He grinned again, his exasperation having passed. “Be careful,” he said, turning to retake his position up the block, the place from which he first intercepted me.

Sam’s BBQ is a squalid little hole-in-the-wall business. Its four nasty tables were brimming with non-customers, who seemed more like extended family than diners. Eating on the premises was not an option, so I took my order of ribs to go. The elderly man behind the counter – either Sam or whoever was playing Sam in that night’s performance – saw me off with a warm smile and good-natured advice as I headed for the door: “Be careful!”

“You are the fourth person to tell me to ‘be careful’ in the space of the last six blocks,” I told him. “Six blocks?” he asked, in an animated voice. “How’d you get here?” “I walked.” He let out a quizzical exclamation memorable mostly for being delivered in the unguarded voice-crack of a teenage boy. “You walked? Man, it is crazy shit out there!” “Not any crazier than many other places I’ve been,” I reassured him, “but I promise to be careful anyway.”

As I walked west on East 12th Street, bound for the affluence and merriment of downtown Austin, I received a friendly nod of hello from the guy who, fifteen minutes earlier, had vaguely threatened to shoot me, and more curious stares from the sparse twos and threes who loitered here-and-there along my route. I passed several semi-conscious women who may have been on professional duty, but looked more as though they’d wandered there by accident.

On an otherwise desolate stretch of one of the last truly decrepit blocks before East 12th Street began to show signs of rejuvenation, I came upon a woman who was clearly in bad shape. She was bent at the waist, clutching the rim of a garbage can in the attitude of a dancer stretching at the barre. “Are you okay, ma’am?” I probed. She looked up, nearly losing her balance in the process, blearily unable to make sense of my presence, much less my question. “I’m fine,” she offered eventually; so I set off. “You be careful, honey,” she called after me in a weak voice.

I crossed under Interstate 35 and into the carnival-like anonymity of a downtown Austin in the throes of its famous South by Southwest Festival. No one there evinced the slightest concern for my safety, or even my existence. It didn’t much matter, since neither was in substantial doubt.

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3 Responses to “Be Careful”


  1. 1 jude galligan 19 March 2009 at 6:11 am

    Crap…. you inadvertently strolled into the shadiest intersection in Austin! 12th @ Chicon is the belly of the beast. I used to live at 11th & Chicon, next to a crack house, and my crack house neighbors wouldn’t go near there.

    The rest of Austin rocks, though.

  2. 2 naren 19 March 2009 at 6:58 am

    Enjoyed this!

  3. 3 blaark 19 March 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Welcome to America, where even the crackheads are friendly and compassionate… This was amazingly clear-eyed anecdote of passing through another world… I’m glad that nothing more questionable happened to you– you handled the possible problem with grace and intelligence…


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