Twenty years ago this week, I started a new job in Austin. There was only a 3% vacancy rate on rental property at the time, so I had to stay with my friend Randy and his roommate, Peggy, until I found an apartment. They lived in a small house near the airport. Every day, dozens of jets flew over, making the whole place vibrate. Conversations were put on hold. Parts of TV shows went unheard.
After weeks of looking every afternoon after work, I finally found a nice place not far from downtown and the Colorado River, which dissects the city on the southern edge of downtown. The tall buildings were reflected in the water. To get to work, I took
Riverside Driveto the western part of town, got on a highway, and then off at
Bee Caves Road, where I worked. I thought that was an interesting name for a city street and wondered where the caves full of bees were.
My job was sales representative for the Kinko’s in that part of town. It was one of five in the city. At the time, Kinko’s was moving from the college market toward a business-based clientele. I called on businesses in the southwestern part of Austin, which is where the Texas Hill Country begins.
I was doing outside sales (again), living in a funky, offbeat college town (again), and best of all, I was in the hills again (though not as green as the Ozarks). I felt right at home. It was like Fayetteville, but with all the big city amenities. I was moving there from Dallas, so that was important. And after living in Big D, Austin seemed quaint and small by comparison.
Austin and I have been through major changes since then.
Years earlier, Austin had been described to me as a “bigger version of Fayetteville.” That turned out to be quite accurate—even down to how the city was laid out. The downtown was closer to the southern—and less affluent–end of town, a street running east-west lined with bars, restaurants, and shops connected downtown to the university campus. A bypass highway looped around the west side of town. Farther to the west was a lake, just a few miles out of town.
In May, I had used my employee flight privileges with Southwest Airlines to fly to Austin from Dallas. It was only a 45-minute flight, but a three-hour drive. I wanted to be fresh for the job interview and didn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn and risk truck troubles on the way there.
It would be an understatement to say I was optimistic. It was a base-plus-commission salary, which meant unlimited income and even at the minimum it was more than I was making at Southwest. I was excited about living in a more laid-back, offbeat place that reminded me of where I spent most of my childhood.
At the airport, I rented a car. I don’t remember the make and model. I do remember it was nice, newer, and cleaner than my truck. The stereo sounded good, too. As I pulled out of the airport, I heard a new song by Lenny Kravitz for the first time. “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmENMZFUU_0) And I I thought. Over? This is a new beginning.I’ll get this job. I’m meant to be here.
They called and offered me the job on my birthday, which was on a Friday. “Can you start on Monday?” I told them I could, without knowing how I was going to pull it off. But, just like I have a tendency to do, I found a way.
While staying at Randy’s those first few weeks, my route to and from work took me past The Texas School for the Blind. More than once, I patiently waited while teachers helped blind kids cross the street and I felt grateful for not having to grow up blind.
After living in expensive Dallas and making dismally low wages, I was in credit card debt up to my nearsighted eyeballs. But, I was full of optimism. My life was on an upswing. Driving around town, calling on accounts, I often heard a song by the Divinyls titled “Make out Alright.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GG8ZhzJteFY) It could have been my theme song.
Barely a month into my new life, I learned that my kidneys were failing. I’d known something was wrong because of all the edema (swelling) in my feet, which gradually moved higher until I looked like an overweight guy from the waist down, and a skinny guy from the waist up. It hurt to walk (more like waddle), but I persevered.
A thin but comfortable layer of denial allowed me to keep from panicking, hundreds of miles from my family and without health insurance until I had worked for Kinko’s three months. A song by a new artist named Seal titled “Crazy” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgxpDgSjxkA) gave me a valuable piece of advice. “We’re never gonna survive unless we go a little crazy.”
To get rid of the edema, the doctor put me on strong diuretics, which made me tired. The intense summer heat central Texas drained me ever further. My sales—and income—increased, but I really pushed myself to make it happen. The easier life I expected wasn’t happening. Every day, I hid my terror and called on businesses in my territory with polished fake confidence.
I also noticed traffic signals didn’t look as clear as they should have. For years, my contact lenses wore out and had to be replaced every September. With money being tight, I told myself I could wait until then if it didn’t get much worse. It had gotten a little worse. I discreetly used the copy machines at Kinko’s to enlarge business cards and other printed material I couldn’t quite see well enough to read.
September rolled around and the eye doctor sent me to a retina specialist, who injected yellow dye into a vein and photographed the veins in back of my eyes. I went home with skin temporarily stained yellow and worried all weekend. The diabetes had already damaged my kidneys. Now it looked like it might have hurt my eyes, too.
The following Wednesday, they called me at work. “You have retinopathy. If you don’t have laser surgery soon, you could lose all of your vision.”
Even though I was halfway expecting it, it was still a big jolt. I ran out of my office, jumped in my truck, and drove home to break the news to my parents. It was time to stop pretending everything was OK. We decided I would move back to Arkansas and stay with them while I endured whatever was going to be done to save my sight.
On my way home from work one afternoon with the radio on (as usual), I heard a song by a heavy metal band for the first time—“Silent Lucidity” by Queensryche. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LniY0pDQGaE) It was soothing, like it was just for me, with lyrics like “If you open your mind to me, you won’t rely on open eyes to see.” The main message of the song was about someone or something watching over you, protecting you in the night. I guess you could say it was a “God Moment.” It gave me the first bit of peace I’d known in several weeks. I had been so distracted listening to the song, I looked up and noticed the light was green. When had it changed? The driver behind me never honked their horn, and for that I was grateful. I continued on my way, trying to concentrate on my driving and the lyrics of the song.
I had a sale and sold most of my furniture and some other things I didn’t need anymore. My time in Austin had only lasted four months and I hadn’t felt well enough to get to know the place like I wanted. I knew I had found the place I wanted to stay, even if I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. In a city like Austin, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I felt defeated, that so much was left undone. There are still times when I wonder what my life would have been like if my health had held up and I stayed in Austin.