This comes to you from near Manchester. Not Manchester, England, but Manchester, Massachusetts where I have come after Austin to visit relatives. At SXSW, in addition to watching lots of films, I became slightly obsessed with what we British call toilets, lavs, the ladies, the gents, but Americans like to call bathrooms or restrooms. Here, toilets flush themselves, the soap dispensers are automatic and paper unrolls in reaction to movement. I started to feel superfluous as a human being and slightly contagious. The first time I came to the USA I read a section of a guide book on Greyhound buses and how they were equipped with restrooms, which I thought were rooms where travellers could take turns laying down – some kind of pilgrim elegance.
Perhaps the Greyhound is a good way to begin to try to tell you about the strange sense of emotion I experienced on South Congress (a strip of road with lots of groovy shops and cafés.). All around street music was at full convergence and I had developed an ear infection and was in a bubble. I was browsing the packed shelves and secret corners of a second hand/ junk/ antique shop. Nothing in the shop was familiar; it was all Americana and as far away from the stuff of my past as anything can be. But in the midst of it all I began to think of my mum, Dilys, who died towards the end of making Dreams of a Life.
I was unsure as to why this particular place brought on such powerful and strong thoughts of her, but connected it to the fact that Dilys, who had never been to the USA (though she did have an American granddad who ran away to Wales), would have loved rooting through all this eccentric ephemera. But then I began to think about how my mum actually wanted to own very little and that on her 60th birthday she announced that what she had always wanted to be was a bag lady. But perhaps these thoughts of my mum were caused mostly by looking through boxes of discarded sepia photographic portraits of people – faces looking towards the lens with wistfulness and hopefulness, futures ahead of them – long since dead.
I realised that in so many ways Austin and SXSW had surrounded me with death – so many shops had Day Of The Dead objects for sale: skulls and effigies of people in coffins. I’d also seen Kevin Macdonald’s fascinating film Marley, and wept for the untimely early death of Bob; I’d seen The Imposter, shadowed by the disappearance and possible death of Nicholas Barclay; and I’d watched Sean Baker’s Starlet, with death not far away in many ways. Also, I’d been reading Larry McMurtry’s book, In A Narrow Grave, Essays on Texas and in this he quotes Teddy Blue: “Cowboys loved to sing about people dying; I don’t know why. I guess it was because they were so full of life themselves…” Somehow, in the midst of SXSW, which is so full of life, of people revelling in the heady moments, and as far away from home as I’ve been in a long time, I was finding it easier than ever to think about my mum no longer being alive.
But the Greyhound bus does really have a part to play in all this. In the second hand shop I found an official Greyhound metal box, with an old ticket to ride inside from 1965 – way before my long ago travels, but it was a must have – and now the box will always remind me of this trip to SXSW and my bus travels through North America when I was twenty-one years old. I will look at it and remember when a young mother and her children got on the bus and urged the driver to hurry over the state line as her husband, in fast pursuit in a car, was not allowed to leave the area. The bus driver picked up speed, and we passengers all watched through the back window as the woman’s husband remarkably did stop at the border and was left behind. She had made her escape.
I paid for my Greyhound box and went and sat on a sidewalk and, shutting out the world around me, leant on the box and wrote postcards home until a woman’s hand clutched my upper arm tightly. Thinking my bag was going to be robbed I held it close. She crouched down, looked at me intensely and said: “You are such an awesome person writing postcards to people when all this stuff is going on around you – when there is just so, so, much to do.” This made me feel guilty for not doing more. There were films and music events and here I was sitting on a kerb writing postcards and then she said, “You are so kind. Would you be my Facebook friend? You’d be an amazing Facebook friend.” So, in the hope of being alone again, I instantly agreed and she gave me her card and happily strode away, making more Facebook friends as she went.
Across the road I saw two cowboys on horseback. I have no idea if they were real cowboys or dressed for the part, but it felt like a demonstration of a disappeared world- now we are in a digital age where writing postcards is quaint. But, as I watched the cowboys and my new Facebook friend make her way along the street, I thought SXSW has in so many ways been all about one major thing – telling stories. Such an old fashioned thing – but an enduring one. Whether it’s the singer-songwriter on the pavement or Bruce Springsteen (not that I saw him or anything, but he was at SXSW) singing his songs, or communally experiencing a film in a darkened room, we were all watching and listening to stories unfold. And there’s nothing more primal and necessary than that.
Our last screening was full, and people had to be turned away and according to the cinema staff that is unusual for a daytime screening on the last day of the festival. Mark, who saw the film in the UK, and who we had dinner with previously, brought a group of friends with him to watch, and the film played out – a London story- all the way to Austin. A universal story – with a nice review in the Austin Chronicle as proof!
As we left SXSW and hailed a cab to the airport from our hotel, a man asked if he could share our ride as he was also heading to catch a flight out of town – to Seattle. On the drive we got talking and it turned out, many years ago, he was Joyce’s friend’s husband’s friend. He was two degrees of separation from Joyce. And so as I departed Texas, the sense came over me, that there really is probably less than six degrees of separation between us all and that it really, really is a small, small world.