Earlier this summer, a visiting niece asked me to take her on a day trip to Austin. She had somehow gotten wind of the gaudy murals with which many blind walls in the hipster districts of that city are decorated, and was eager to stand before these gaudy murals and snap selfies for her Facebook page. You may well imagine the grim sense of avuncular duty with which I dressed that morning.
There are a great many of these murals in the vicinity of Sixth Street, which is a sort of postmodern Rat Row directly adjacent to Austin’s central business district. I wrote about Sixth Street once before, saying that it exercises a terrible fascination for rootless young worker bees with bad cases of nostalgie de la boue. “Civilized men have been known to adopt the habits and customs of savages,” and in our postmodern age, they do this each weekend in the drinkeries of places like Sixth Street.*
Sixth Street has a peculiar crapulence in the light of early morning, very much as if a hangover had been transformed into architecture. Bourbon Street, New Orleans, has the same ambiance when the sun is rising and the drinkers are snoring in bed. One hears the tinkle and crash of empty bottles spilling into a garbage truck; one sees the glint of water hosing vomit off the sidewalk; one smells the unique and inexpungible pong of urine and sour milk.
I cannot explain that smell of sour milk, and wonder if it might be an olfactory hallucination. Of course, anyone familiar with Christian mysticism knows that an olfactory hallucination can be a spiritual intuition. Encounters with supernatural goodness are invariably fragrant, whereas encounters with supernatural evil stink.
For instance, one seventeenth-century guide to the detection of witches observes that a witch’s lair may be known “by the smell of the place, which (as very learned men do avouch, and is found true by experience) will stink detestably.”**
Another author from the century before tells us that, where sorcery is afoot, “some pestilent smell or vapor doth . . . infect an whole region through which it breatheth.”***
It would be an exaggeration to say that Sixth Street stinks detestably, or that it is shrouded with a pestilent smell, but it does have, as I said, a unique and inexpungible pong.
But Sixth Street in the morning is so especially like a hangover because even a man refreshed by eight hours of honest sleep will look upon it and feel faint waves of nausea. Like the painted face of a harlot, Sixth Street was made to bewitch drunks after dark; and like the painted face of a harlot, it is more than a little ghastly in the light of broad day.
There are in the vicinity of Sixth Street a great many bums. On the morning of our visit, most of these bums were loitering outside the Salvation Army, awaiting disbursement of their morning rations. Others were recumbent on the sidewalk, sleeping or otherwise comatose, and quite a few were bivouacked in an encampment of tents and cardboard shanties beneath the interstate.
Waller Creek runs under Sixth Street at one end of the rows of bars. Like the gully below Bryan’s Rat Row, Waller Creek was long lined with ramshackle shanties; like the Ohio River below Cincinnati’s Rat Row, Waller Creek would periodically overflow, thereby discouraging the building nearby of anything but shanties.
In an effort to reclaim Waller Creek for the enjoyment of decent people, and to replace the shanties with a “riverwalk” and parks, Austin voters approved a $25 million bond issue to construct a tunnel that would drain off overflow and maintain Waller Creek at a constant level. As seems to be the invariable way with such worthy and well-meaning projects, this tunnel has so far cost $163 million, and is still only “operational, but not yet fully functional.”
Waller Creek has, nevertheless, been visibly transformed with its “riverwalk” and parks, and I am the sort of person who warmly approves this transformation. I believe that a civilization can be measured by its success in making spaces for the enjoyment of decent people, although I am aware that there are others who believe that a civilization can be measured only by its success in making spaces for the enjoyment of rats.
The tension between these two views is implicit in a quote from a man named Peter Mullan, CEO of the Waller Creek Conservancy, the non-profit that is managing the public-private partnership behind the Waller Creek renovation. Mulan said,
“The reason cities are so exciting is because they provide opportunities for diverse communities to rub up against one another and connect with one another, and new things come out of those connections and those collisions.”†
I saw one of those exciting collisions the morning I took my niece to Austin. Three women of a manifestly decent sort were climbing the stair that connects the Waller Creek walkway to Sixth Street, but they were stepping gingerly and holding their noses, as if passing through the lair of a witch. When they reached street level, they suggested that I might not want to “go down there,” while they vigorously scraped the soles of their sensible shoes on the sidewalk pavement. They had, it seems, “rubbed up against” Austin’s puking drunk community, although the connection was mediated by the puke with which those drunks had, the night before, coated that worthy and well-meaning stair, and with which the stair had, just now, coated the women’s sensible shoes.
I could not say what “new things” came out of this particular “connection,” so far as the three decent women were concerned. As for me, it was a not altogether new appreciation of the reason decent people cannot have nice things.
*) W. Cooke Taylor,” The Natural History of Society in the Barbarous and Civilized State, 2 vols. (1841), p. 197.
**) Richard Bernard, A Guide to Grand Jury Men: What to Do Before They Bring a Billa Vera in Cases of Witchcraft (1627), p. 221.
***) Lambert Daneau, A Dialogue of Witches (1575), p. 33.