Hints, Allegations And Things Left Unsaid From Last Week's Road Trip
Last week I went to South by Southwest for the first time. And then I got stuck there. Dustin wrote a fantastic blow-by-blow account of our trip live, as it happened, so please read that first. As with all things, perspective counts. And before everything became too misty and far-away in my brain, I figured I’d just elaborate on a few parts of the journey.
Now then, let’s Rashomon the shit out of this trip.
So (Editor-in-Chief) Dustin (Rowles) was 100% right when he reported that I said “fuck it, we’re driving.” That was a direct quote.
But what preceded that was a harried, head scratching litany of about sixty minutes of calls to every airline, saying things like “can we get to Baltimore? No? What about Washington? No? How about Providence? No? What about anything in New York? No? Are there any flights from Houston? No? What if we depart from San Antonio? No? Can we connect to anywhere north of the Mason Dixon line from any airport in the world? No?”
It was ridiculous. But I HATE being stuck. In anything. I can handle just about anything in any arena of life if I feel like I’m making PROGRESS. But stuck? Hellllll no.
So, I suggested that in the vein of Nate Dogg and Warren G, we mount up.
Because I LOVE A GOOD ADVENTURE.
And Lady C has this awesome cousin who works for Enterprise Rent-A-Car and he always sends us kick-ass ‘friends and family’ deals. I had already called the Austin Enterprise, which was like five minutes away. We already had a car on standby at a great rate if we wanted it.
All I needed was some buy-in from Dustin.
So…we’re in the hotel room, Dustin is kind of silent, looking at me, probably the ‘friend’ of his he knows and likes the least, and there’s this fucking fog of impending doom behind his eyes. Don’t get me wrong, we’re friends. Real friends. But if you could chart Dustin’s friendships on a ziggurat, I would be at the bottom fucking tier. Maybe with one foot on the ground. Dustin abides my friendship the way a mountain abides the surf that crashes into it.
Dustin and I met twelve years ago when Seth pulled him into a fantasy football league that I was in. That’s how we originally knew each other. And so, no matter how close we’ve gotten over the years, Dustin always views me with the wariness of a person who has tried to rattle you in combat. I have spent more than a decade getting in his kitchen. I have, intentionally, bid on his favorite players just to make him go insane. Three years ago, in the middle of a particularly vicious auction for his favorite player, I drove the price up so insanely high that Dustin was covering his own face with his hat so he wouldn’t bid, but was then YELLING bids through the cap.
For those of you blessed to avoid the sportsball testosterone of archaic rhino-on-rhino tomfoolery, let’s just frame it like this: I am an aggressive, Machiavellian motherfucker and Dustin is kind and thoughtful and has a heart of solid 24K gold.
So…we’re in the hotel room in Austin. Me, Dustin and (Pajiba Co-Owner) Seth, who is lounging on the bed just eating this shit up. And being Seth, he’s helping, (try this airline, they have a main hub here etc) buuuuuuut he’s also lapping up our desperation like a fine stew.
Fuck it, we’re driving.
Dustin, initially, is not on board.
And I’m trying to Sisyphus this shit up the hill, yelling “COME ON!” and “WHOOO!” and “WE’RE MEN OF ACTION, BABY!” And I’m clapping my hands as if the fate of every middle school pep rally depends on it.
Seth is grinning like a Cheshire cat. I mean ear to ear. Because he’s a student of behavior and knows me really well, but he knows Dustin REALLY well, and this may very well end in bloodshed.
Dustin is standing there in a half-daze. All the energy has drained from his body. His phone is in his hand, just dangling there, limp. Where, a minute ago, there was hope in the form of a tryin’-hard Delta agent, now there is only a hootin-and-hollerin’ idjit in front of him suggesting that he commit a version of self-flagellation.
SNORT SNORT LET’S GIT DRIVIN!
Seth hasn’t moved, but he’s beaming, and somewhere the penis of dead Nero is getting erect as Dustin does the math. He has OBLIGATIONS. He has MADE DEALS. He has a wife and kids and there are THINGS THAT NEED DOING. And SOON. The earliest flight is FOUR DAYS AWAY. Four. His eyes are soooo distant. He’s pondering the possibility of blimp travel. He’s calculating the effect of sleet on trains. For a second, he considers killing himself just to get away from me.
“This is too far to drive, though.” He says. “Like, I wouldn’t even drive this far with Seth. I don’t think I’ve driven this far with my wife. I don’t think I’ve ever driven that far with ANYONE.”
I say nothing. I do not move. I do not blink. I am a stone golem. Seth chuckles.
And then Dustin sighs.
“Okay, fuck it.” He whispers, barely audible. Resignation to a horrible fate. “I guess we’re driving.”
I’m over the moon. Because I love Dustin and I feed off his natural tension like Wensleydale and by god: I LOVE A GOOD ADVENTURE.
“I LOVE A GOOD ADVENTURE!” I yell.
“I’m fucked.” Dustin says.
Seth is now just fully laughing at Dustin’s misery. It’s all great. Dustin is looking at Seth pleadingly, like “is there anything you can do?” Like maybe Seth could just choke me with my SXSW lanyard or something. He’s waiting for Seth to say “this is a bad idea” or “whoa whoa, I’d think twice about this, guys” but Seth says nothing. Instead, he starts to raid our Press screening passes for the movies we were supposed to see before Dustin’s worst nightmare came true. “You fuckers won’t need them.” You can take the scavenger out of Philadelphia but you can’t take Philadelphia out of the scavenger. Here’s the picture Seth sent me when I first asked the Overlords to check the quality and fit of Pajiba gear. “Mine fits great.” He said.
That’s who he is.
Dustin and I pack up in silence. I am elated. He prays for the sweet embrace of death.
Now we’re ready to go. Dustin is facing his fear like the Persian emissary that Leonidas kicks into the hole in Sparta. He KNOWS he’s going in that hole, and he knows I’m gonna be the one to kick him into it, but goddammit, he’s not going to whine about it.
Dustin is out in the hallway, I ask Seth to just do an extra sweep of the room before he leaves and he says that he usually leaves after Dustin and he always does an extra sweep. These guys have been going to SXSW for nine years with Joanna Robinson and Kristy and a bunch of other good, smart people that I am in daily awe of. This is the first year they let the fucking barbarians into the temple. Seth assures me that he knows the drill.
Before I go, I head over to Seth to give him a final hug adieu, — and this is what I love about Seth, among other things — he has this flash, somehow, of elevated thought where he tetrises the various pieces of mine and Dustin’s personality into a complicated grid, bakes it for the length of the drive and it hits him: wait — this might actually WORK. And the last thing he says, half to himself and half to me, is “Fuck. I kind of wish I was going with you guys.”
With that, WHOOOOSH, the solid core hotel door closes behind me and I catch it like Bruce Lee before it slams, because I AM DAD and somewhere on that floor there may be a baby sleeping and I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to be the douche that wakes up a baby like that. The door closes with a tickle, and Dustin and I step into the elevator. The buttons with floor numbers on them are worn and pitted. There’s broken tile around the edge of the carpeting. The mirrored glass portion of the elevator car is blemished with smudges that haven’t been wiped since Cheers was on TV. It’s kind of a shitty but cool, banged up hotel. I press the button tentatively, casually, so Dustin doesn’t start to tic. We ride down in silence. He lets me lead the way.
Me, mighty mighty pathfinder.
Him, catatonic vegetable person.
We have a super-nice Trump supporter cab driver (no Uber or Lyft in Austin!) who switches off Fox news radio as we get into the taxi. He’s affable and makes polite conversation about where we’re headed. He commiserates about the storm and says he heard it was a biggun but he doesn’t know any more specifics about it.
“Well then what good are you?” I ask him. “We were counting on you to know all about it.”
Luckily he chuckles and drops us off outside the rental station without incident. Dustin pays for the cab and pretty much gives the guy a 90% tip. Like, I think it was $6.10 and Dustin is like, “and add five dollars to that.” Because he’s a goddamn angel straight from heaven.
If tipping is an art form, Dustin is a finger painter. If tipping is comedy, Dustin is Gallagher. You sense that, in every tip, it’s less for Dustin about finding the appropriate digit of remuneration and more about just leaving a trail of joy and making up for past regrets and generally medpacking the shit out of the universe. He is not restrained, but he doesn’t tip like a bourgeois pig. The shit that guides his tipping comes straight out of the Old Testament. I promise you that if he ever got really wealthy he’d lose half of it to tipping. He’s that kind of person.
For what it’s worth, I would have given the driver two dollars. Because that’s pretty much the baseline. And he’d be damn lucky to get it, too. Fucking Fox News. Mouthbreathing shitshow. To clarify: I don’t hate the driver, I just hate everything that happens to get nice people like him to vote irredeemably cruel people into office. Everyone in my family is that driver.
But, y’know. That’s me.
The young lady who helped us at Enterprise had sherbet hair and pretty much the nicest demeanor and there was no line in front of us when we got there. That’s when the worm started to turn for Dustin a little. Because it was zero hassle, and she walked us outside to get into our car and she’s like “we’ve upgraded you to an SUV” (FRIENDS AND FAMILY Y’ALLS) and Dustin looks at me for the very first time since deciding to murder/drive with me and he’s like a little boy.
“This?” He whispers, genuinely shocked.
Yup. This, I say.
And now the picture in his mind starts to shift a bit. When he was picturing our fate in the hotel room, we were driving in a white-out blizzard in a rusty Renault Le Car stick shift with no radio and one seatbelt that you had to pull from the driver side all the way across to the passenger door.
He had imagined being so close to me he could smell my sinuses. He had pictured us fishtailing on a back road in the deep south and crashing into a crick. But he had not, even once, imagined that this big honkin’ tank would be our chariot of choice.
Our sherbet-haired friend lets us know that Friends & Family comes with all kinds of insurance (FRIENDS AND FAMILY Y’ALLS) and my American Express card comes with a shitload more and after the compulsory walk-around, we are R. T. G.
Dustin is settling into the super-comfy bucket seats of our Buick Enclave and he sees that there’s a built-in USB charger. That had been a concern of ours. And now, that concern was gone. Poof! One less thing. The Universe giveth and Enterprise taketh away.
First stop: Best Buy. I plug it into Waze. Six minutes away.
We pull out onto Colorado Street and stop at a red light near the Texas State Capitol. I take a picture. The first of many.
I do not talk. I give Dustin the minimum information he needs to keep his fraying sanity in check. The quality and comfort of the car has mollified him some. No sense in spooking him with an elaborate plan. I think about that line in Cider House Rules about how thoroughbreds are harder to manage. Dustin is a thoroughbred to me because he’s a prolific writer. It hit me a few months ago that over the last decade or so, I’ve read more things written by Dustin than by anyone else. Homey can fucking write. I need to make sure that’s exactly what he can do on this trip. In the immortal words of Jim Croce, You don’t tug on Superman’s cape.
“We’re going to hit Best Buy and get a mount for my phone.” I say, “because I’m not driving that far looking down at my lap and shit. And also we’re going to find you something that you can plug your laptop into.”
To his credit, Dustin is game. He worries that a mobile plug might be priced at kind of a rip-off tier, but then again, what’s his sanity worth? The demanding, always-on never-off business of running a website doesn’t allow for vast windows of him falling into a snow-void. I’m trying to seed the trip with some positives. I feel like those plugs go for like fifty dollars. We decide that a hundred dollars is on the high end, but would still be worth it. Anything under the forty dollar mark would feel like a victory.
The plug is thirty six dollars. Dustin is pumped. And not only does it have an AC plug, it also has a USB port. So now we BOTH get to have charged phones. We pick a phone mount that attaches to the windshield and the whole Best Buy diversion takes maybe nine minutes. I make sure to give them my phone number at check out for the points and in the car, Dustin is set up and plugged in. We’ve tucked these metal plates into our phone cases and now our phones magnetically stick to a small, convenient, elevated arm off the dash.
We are strung tight, as they say, and Dustin has a fully-functional mobile office. We both have wireless hotspots on our phones. He is in the Pajiba mainframe like Oz. Like Neo. Phones are charged. He has INTERNET and we have SIGNAL and the ‘Murican SUV has big-ass cupholders and comfy-ass seats and 7/8ths of a tank of gas (Enterprise records tanks by eighths). I botch Dan Aykroyd’s quote from Blues Brothers, but I get ‘gas’ and ‘cigarettes’ and ‘sunglasses’ and ‘HIT IT’ in there and Dustin laughs, because, despite a world where it feels like fucking morons have taken control of everything, this shit is NOT VERY BAD.
“There’s an In-N-Out Burger .6 miles away” I say.
Dustin smiles. The conflicted, war-weary, howlin’-at-the-moon Dustin from five minutes ago has vanished. Now, he’s got a twinkle in his eye that isn’t 100% against this adventure any more. We’re not EXACTLY Chris Farley and David Spade, but if you yarn-walled us, we’d be pretty goddamn close. He nods his agreement. The longest journey begins with the very first step and heaven knows that step is always better if you put an In-N-Out burger in your gullet before you take it.
I drop the transmission lever into D for Drive. Like a bauce.
Dustin clicks his seat belt in.
And like the Blues Brothers, we HIT IT.
(That’s the super boring time lapse of us leaving Austin on Day One.)
Many more visual aids tomorrow…
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