“Keep Austin Weird” says the city’s slogan, and there are a million ways to do that in this city. But to prepare yourself for a weird weekend of entertainment, you need to line your stomach. And in around here it doesn’t get much better than some good old fashioned fried chicken. In many other parts of the world, that would mean looking for the famous red and white colours of Colonel Sanders. They have different ideas this far south.
Gus’s was founded in Memphis, Tennessee, but has now spread to some thirty locations across the States. You can argue over what makes the perfect piece of fried poultry, but here it’s all about the skin. There are no breadcrumbs or arduous preparations. From the counter you can see your bird going straight into the fryer. Yes, there’s a secret seasoning somewhere, but the key to this dish is the crunch and colour of the cut. The place is packed, with long lines of groups waiting outside. Thankfully, as a solo diner, they fine me a stool at the counter. And very good it is too.
Suitably fortified I do what most residents of Austin don’t. I’m about to head a couple of miles south for this evening’s entertainment. Most will drive, some will get a cab. Just about nobody gets the bus. It’s a curious thing that most American cities have perfectly good bus services, taking you to just about any corner of town you like. And yet, most of the passengers here are – by appearance alone – the poorest in society.
The bus pulls up just a couple of hundred metres from my destination. But getting there takes a feat of skill and risk, negotiating a four lane main road with a limited opportunity to cross safely. At the roadside, a small building, no more than a wooden shack – a single storey high. Inside, a world that can only be Texas.
If you thought that country music was getting a bit too modern and fancy for its own good, you need not worry, for here is the Broken Spoke, one of the last remaining Texas dance halls, and it attracts hundreds of people from all over the world. It’s rootin’ tootin’ old time dancin’ the way it should be done. And before the main entertainment, there’s a lesson to be had.
Visitors turning up one hour before the main show are treated to a walk through of how to dance by a hostess who has certainly been there and done that. Like a strict school teacher, she barracks the women down one side of the room and the men down the other. In turn, they are told precisely how to step, how to mix and how to behave. It’s like a pre show where the customers are the stars and it’s fascinating to watch. The room fills up, couples arrive, as do singles – some in groups of friends, some seemingly waiting for the perfect partner, and some who like to make a statement.
It’s experiences like this that make me want to come back to Austin time and again; this is my third visit. Each time, you learn something new and see something different, be that good or bad. One of the negative sides of things today is America’s homelessness problem. A few years ago, you might notice rough sleepers in corners of New York of San Francisco. Now, the issue has moved into the centre of almost every city. Here in Austin, a large row of tents lines Trinity Street, one of the main thoroughfares in the heart of downtown. It feels like a more dangerous place than on my first visit in 2013, especially when you see the grim sight of an ambulance joining several police cars around a doorway.
It’s a sunny Sunday morning, and my E-Scooter takes me over the Colorado River to SoCo – the district known as SoCo – “South Congress Street. The river itself has a pleasant array of green spaces, full of fitness fanatics either running or cycling, or simply people walking their dogs. On the main drag of SoCo is a large strip of independent shops. Many of these are high end clothing stores or restaurants where you imagine the latest reality show of Austin’s Beautiful People being made. But there’s also the quirky and friendly, like Jo’s.
The great thing about E-Scooters is that they can be parked just about anywhere. Which means an easy transfer to a bus back over the bridge and then to another suburb. Once again, the bus is hardly used by anyone and it pulls up on a sunny afternoon by a series of non-descript drive thrus and car dealerships. But one building stands out, and that’s because this is the Little Longhorn Saloon, where on a Sunday you can play bingo. With chickens.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is Chicken Shit Bingo. Look closely and you’ll see a numbered card on the base of the cage. Excitement builds before each round with customers buying raffle tickets from the Longhorn’s owner. And wherever the bird poops, the winning number is declared. The whole thing is insane – multiple tickets for each number are sold meaning there could be three or four potential winners. A regular ticket wins you a share of the prize fund – guaranteed to be at least a hundred dollars per ticket. Buy a premium ticket and you could win a lot more.
The whole thing is held together by the genial singer of the band, which plays throughout the entire afternoon. And this is truly a global sensation. The winner of this round is Mary from County Kerry, Ireland. I comment “you wouldn’t see this in Dingle”. She replied “You wouldn’t. Too fecking boring!”
Alternative events had been on offer in Austin today, including a high octane round of Nascar racing and a real life Rodeo in another part of town. Quite frankly, though, I’d rather be betting on where the chicken is gonna poop. Bliss.