The Dirty Sixth
AUSTIN, Texas 30° N, 97° W
We aren’t tourists, we are the guides…Hank Williams Jr
The asphalt of Sixth Street is sticky with a confluence of spilled fluids. Texas heat licks at my face like the dry tongues of the thousands of bats which finished feeding hours ago. The street lights are on, albeit unnecessarily; the overhead illumination is moot given there are enough neon beer signs to light-up all of Hill Country.
“I was here when the last bluesman keeled-over and they rolled him out in a wheelbarrow, replacing him with a damn disc-jockey.” says the raspy-voiced Jimi con Carne, an off-duty tour-guide, as he stands next to an Austin P.D. roadblock; the spinning police lights give his white hair a patriotic shine. Jimi claps me on the back, his hand heavy with rings, “I know what you’ve got churning under your skull-cap, hombre!” Jimi speaks a butcher-floor Tex-Mex Spanglish, saying hombre with a hard-H (“home-bray”) instead of the Spanish silent-H while keeping the E silent in his surname (“kahrn” instead of “kar-nay”). “You’re thinking Jimi con Carne must be older than Moses’s dick and you’d be right, studs. But I tell you, son, the day the last bluesman went tits-up is the day Austin, true Austin, went tits-up.” He takes a sip of his plastic cup of draft beer to remedy his dry mouth before continuing, “Speaking of Moses’s staff, did you know he – Moses – dipped his toes into serpent-worship while down in Egypt-land? True fact, studs. Yeah, Moses brought that shit back to the tribes of Israel. The Jews didn’t invent circumcision, for example, they learned it from the serpent-worshiping pharaohs. It is a metaphor for shedding snakeskin, if you can dig it… That little bit of knowledge is on the house. Tip your waiter…”
We’re outside the Plucky Gopher, “a sudsy-jugs & fuddy-duds joint”, as Jimi calls it, where we were recently tossed out by security over a simple miscalculation on my part. My bad math involved a local girl and the unknown variable of boyfriend: a slack-jawed flat-earther who wanted to peel the ears off my round head. It was Jimi con Carne, a stranger sipping tequila & soda across the bar, who mediated and eventually exacerbated the dispute until Jimi & I were both tossed-out by handsy bouncers. Jimi dusted off his leathers and handed me his business card as he provided his first lesson of the night, by way of pop-quiz, “Okay, studs, riddle me this: why do you think that beautiful piece of Texas scenery sat her blue-jean bottom on the stool next to you and asked you to buy her a drink? I will give you multiple answers to choose from: was it because a) she knows a sucker when she sees one, b) she wanted a free drink, c) she wanted to piss-off her boyfriend who was sitting in the corner, d) she knows her boyfriend is a feistier fuck after a bar brawl when his adrenaline jump-starts his steroid-limp dick, or e) all of the above?” I guess correctly. “Gold star, hombre. You’ve got a chance at sucker redemption, yet.”
Out of appreciation for his saving my face further brunt-force battery, I offer to buy Jimi con Carne a drink. His trembling spit-shake suggests he is ready. Jimi waves me west along Sixth Street, across a murderer’s row of dime beer saloons with cheaper candied-liquor shots catering to collegiate coeds and out-of-town stag parties. It is not my first time to Austin and I too remember when these streets were full of live blues as if it were the Texan Beale Street. At some point during the Obama Administration, as Austin became a Silicon Valley hub, the city changed. Jimi con Carne explains between hand-rolled cigarettes, “Devil gone and done left Texas. Or maybe he was evicted by the bankers who wanted to turn 6th Street into an industrialized keg party. Another lesson on the house, hombre: the Dirty Sixth is no filthier now than back when, but the corporate suits decided to quantity over quality… quantity of the intoxicated over quality of the scoundrels. They replaced live music stages with beer pong tables. Devil figured ’nuff is enough and got the hell out.”
The path west is easy as the police have quarantined the Dirty Sixth: no vehicles are allowed on 6th Street at this hour, only the drunks and/or the lechers and/or the mounted police and/or the curious onlookers. We could have hopped a pedi-cab to expedite our journey, but Jimi con Carne is intent on his meandering oral history, pointing out individual bars and specific persons who used to go by other names under better times.
We find a taco stand whose owner discretely adds tequila to two bottles of Topo Chico before offering them to Jimi con Carne. He drinks as a “Man out of Lubbock”, handing me one of his Ranch Waters, insisting I stay hydrated. “Keep your head on a swivel, studs. Listen up, you can be a sucker for beautiful women all you want… just not in Texas. And keep your eyes out for a mestizo succubus, the most beautiful creature this side of Dallas… she’s a witch who’s after unassuming gringos, like you, studs. Her name in Comanche means, ‘Radioactive Wolf Maiden’, but she goes by ‘Jennifer’.” He whistles at me through his bottom lip and top teeth, “Keep up, studs, time to get. Depending on who’s at the door, we might be permitted into Shakespeare’s.”
“Speaking of Billy Shakes, I got some Brit history for you, studs.” Before Jack was ripping in England, the infamously anonymous serial killer was here in Austin, according to Jimi con Carne. Known locally as “the Servant-Girl Annihilator”, this pre-Jack ripper stopped his Texas killing spree and hopped a ship for merry-old Mother England. Jimi personally believes a Malaysian cook who worked the galleys of merchant vessels in the late 19th Century was the man responsible for the murders here and later in Whitechapel. “It’s primeval evil here. Austin has more bats than Transylvania, hombre. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mephistopheles introduced Robert Johnson to downtown Austin.
Jimi con Carne rattles off names of long-dead guitar players while counting them on bejewelled fingers, “I saw them play in places which are now disc-jockeyed or have beer-funnel tournaments. Listen here, hombre, as a kid I saw the Texas Storm: Lightnin’ Hopkins. Those were the days of the devil music, but the Devil gone and went! The bankers have come in with their commercialization and their greed and they have replaced our Devil with Moloch, a refashioned Old Testament rival god who eats sacrificial children and vapes e-cigs and whose owl-face can be seen in the Frost Bank Tower.” Jimi con Carne, growing more hysterical with his spittle and drivel, points in a general upward direction, past balconies of topless brides-to-be and vomiting groomsmen towards what locals refer to as “Owl Tower”. Jimi went on, “Austin has been whitewashed and re-branded, replacing the dark roots of the city with rosy-cheeked frat boys and speed-eating sorority girls… intoxicated youth, who are ritually sacrificed to Moloch right here on Sixth Street… 2-for-1 tacos on Tuesday night!”
We’ve run out of road. Brazos marks the westernmost end of the Dirty Sixth, yet, Jimi con Carne and I are not quite to Congress Avenue, which divides us from the more sophisticated West Austin. It is from this Brazos Street vantage point I understand where Jimi con Carne wants to cash-in his drink credit: the Driskill Hotel. We step inside the historical landmark, engulfed – immediately – by the air-conditioning, which had been lacking in our urban trek, even when stepping within the shady confines of daiquiri dens, tequila hovels and cheap beer troughs along the Dirty Sixth. By the time we’ve made it to the hotel bar, security have set upon Jimi con Carne, who’s become hostile in attempting to liberate a longhorn head from the wall. Once the tuxedoed security has him, Jimi doesn’t put up much of a fight. Occupied with the cocktail list, I do not follow the exodus of my old-as-Moses tour-guide, opting instead for the Lady Bird tequila & grapefruit cocktail. The bitter-sweetness of my drink is an apropos cap to the evening. I sip it reluctantly and admire the mirrors lining the extravagant hotel walls. Somewhere here is a mirror featuring the bust of Empress Carlota. It was a wedding gift to her from her husband, the ill-fated Maximillian who was the Emperor of Mexico, well… until he was executed by Mexico.
“Do you like what you see?” comes a voice both feminine and serpentine. My eyes find her reflected gaze in the mirror (or did my reflective gaze first find her eyes?) and we trade mirrored smiles: hers suggestive and mine agreeable. She is sultry and preternaturally Texan from a time before Texas was Texas. She asks if I would buy her a drink. My peripherals study the mirrored room for lurking boyfriends and other potential for bushwhackery, finding none. She asks for something off-menu called the Pitchfork, which involves bourbon, cinnamon bark, blood of a virgin, topped with three Scotch-soaked cherries. She is standing behind me, still speaking to me through the mirror. She mentions her name is Jennifer.
Maybe the Devil hasn’t left Texas… Maybe he turned right around.