Category Archives: Austin


Stopping the presses (an ode to paper and ink)

It’s hard to write a love letter to a printing press. They’re big, ugly throwbacks, a steel-clad gnarl of gears and rollers and blinking control panels attended by black-fingered guys in coveralls with “Lou” stitched on the chest. They smell like ink and grease and machine oil (the presses, I mean. Well, the pressmen too). I love them all the same.

Next week, my old paper, the Austin American-Statesman, will stop printing onsite and start outsourcing the job to facilities in Houston and San Antonio. Which means the end of any late-breaking news in the printed paper because of the earlier deadlines required to ship papers to Austin every morning. And it means 100 very dedicated people will have to look for new jobs.

I understand. Newspapers have been struggling for years, the loyal ink-on-paper customers are a dying breed, and you gotta save money where you can. But it still makes me sad.

IMG_0012I worked at newspapers for 24 years, and they all had that mysterious sanctum that housed the presses. If the newsroom is a newspaper’s brain, the pressroom is its gut, the place where the messy stuff happens. For me, the Statesman pressroom was where magic happened: aluminum plates bent by hand around hard rubber rollers that would spin and roar while rolls of paper the size of Yugos unspooled into the thing’s maw. Those old offset presses would shudder and clatter and the ink would churn in the glass-fronted gearworks and crisp, folded newspapers would roll out the other end by the thousands.

I used to lead the occasional newsroom tour – mostly for my University of Texas journalism students – and the pressroom was always the highlight. We’d start in the newsroom where the reporters cubicled: fluorescent light, computer screens, fingers tapping at keyboards. Standard office scenery. (I secretly wished someone would jump up mid-tour and yell into the phone, “The truth, senator! All I want is the truth!” Never happened.) So, on to the presses.

Down the long blue linoleum hallway, past the vending machines. You feel them first. A warehouse full of running presses will set the floor buzzing and tickle the soles of your feet as you get closer. Then you hear them: a low metallic thrum that vibrates in your chest. Through the metal doors, the noise drowns all conversation and you’re wrapped in that inky industrial exhale. I memorized a few fun facts that I’d shout at the students: each press can spit out however-many thousands of papers per hour, each paper roll would stretch 2.3 miles if you unrolled it (or whatever it was, I had a cheat sheet). Most of the students were too busy gaping and pointing to listen.

IMG_0019Then we’d file down the narrow little stairway to the dimly-lit room beneath the presses where giant paper rolls rode grooved tracks in the floor, following some mysterious mechanical choreography before they were loaded into a press.

I remember ducking into the pressroom in 2002 with David Hafetz and Maria Henson to watch what we thought would be a landmark story come off the presses. Those were exciting days at the Statesman – the staff was still big and growing, the dot-com bust seemed like a temporary blip, and few of us saw the digital cliff ahead.

David had spent a year reporting and writing the story of Jacqueline Saburido, a Venezuelan exchange student who’d been horribly disfigured in a car wreck and was desperately trying to find a surgeon who could repair her face and hands. I’d been the editor – my first really big story since crossing the aisle from reporting – and Maria (a veteran editor) had swooped in to rescue us when David and I lost all perspective inside that massive story (which ended up running as its own section of the paper).

We walked along the flanks of the presses, watching the paper web whir through the cylinders, images flashing on the paper with each revolution like a jittery old movie reel. We snagged a few fresh copies and flipped through them quickly, enjoying the feeling of a long, hard journey finally transformed to ink-and-paper reality. Then we climbed the metal stairs on Big Blue, the vertical German press that had just been installed (the Statesman had to literally raise the roof to accommodate it). We climbed to the top catwalk, where downtown Austin was perfectly framed in the windows, washed in sunset colors.

It’s still my favorite pressroom memory. I get a little inky just thinking about it.



ACL 2014 at Zilker Park

Moshing for Beck

I’m going to get back to work on the novel. Really I am. As soon as I can take a breath.

Austin, you’re a beautiful distraction. But I really need to get back to work now, I have this book I’m trying to … what’s that? ACL? In the park, with highs in the mid-80s? Well … just for a few days.

Of course I was going to Austin City Limits. I’ve gone for 13 straight years, through the highest highs (more transcendent performances than I can count, from Arcade Fire to Café Tacuba to Los Lonely Boys in the gospel tent) and the lowest lows (the Year of Dust, the Year of Mud, the skin-melting 100-degree days, and we won’t speak of the night that Bob Dylan sent 10,000 people rushing for the exits after three songs). It’s an Austin ritual, an orgy of sun and bodies and sweat and flags fluttering above the writhing masses. And it kicks my ass every year.

It’s about more than seeing the bands and hitting the food tents (which are always good. Thai fried chicken at a festival?). For the last eight or nine years, it’s been an excuse for my core group of friends – guys I went to college with that have stayed close ever since – to get together for four nights of musical brotherhood.

Everyone stays at my house (which becomes a sort of middle-aged dorm all weekend).  Thursday night we party like it’s 1989: the kitchen counter fills with bottles, the fridge fills with beer, everyone makes a drink and catches up a little, then Jerry, my freshman year roommate and the group’s Minister of Music, plays cuts from a couple dozen obscure bands so the rest of us can figure out who we want to see. Most years we segue into a trip down musical memory lane, playing road trip anthems from long-defunct Austin bands, maybe breaking out some bad ’80s hair bands or old Sabbath.

We drink. We swap stories about jobs and kids and marriages, we talk about favorite shows from past ACLs, and at some point Buck – the group’s Minister of Jokes – starts throwing down some of his best material until some guys are laugh-crying. This year the festivities went until 4 a.m. (I was out by 1:30, for the record) before everyone flopped onto whatever bed, sofa or air mattress they’d claimed.

Walking past the Stevie Ray Vaugan statue to Zilker
Walking past Stevie Ray’s statue

Then, suitably sleep-deprived and hung over, we lather on sunscreen and walk all day in the heat and the sun – starting with our ritual mile-and-a-half hike along the lake from the American-Statesman parking lot to Zilker Park.

ACL always shrinks the city for me. My friend Dan, who I met at the UT student newspaper 25 years ago this summer (happy anniversary, brother), is always there with his neighborhood crew. I bump into co-workers, old friends, former students. It’s like going to a small-town July 4 parade, everyone you know is probably somewhere in the crowd.

Dan and Dave, ACL 2014
Dan and Dave, ACL 2014

It never fails to test my stamina. Every year the sun seems a little hotter, the crowds a little denser, the evening walk back to the car a little longer. And I know it’s just me getting older. This year, all of that was magnified by the shift from mountain to city. Going from the cabin’s solitude to a milling mass of 70,000 people was kind of dizzying the first day. Then Jimmy Cliff, decked out in gold and grinning like it was his first time on stage, started playing and everything was good.

This year gave us the best ACL weather ever, thanks to a perfectly-timed Thursday night cold front, but musically it didn’t have as many highlights for me – there wasn’t that early-in-the-day band each day that blew my mind.

Jimmy Cliff
Jimmy Cliff

But there were enough: Jimmy Cliff, Spoon, Ozomatli, Lana del Rey – I even got into Eminem’s show a lot more than I’d expected. And then there was Beck. A few of us moved up close to the stage for this one, which was only possible because Outkast had siphoned off most of the crowd to the other side of the park. Beck, who’s two years younger than me and still looks like a video store clerk, delivered a great big rock and roll show that made me glad I made it 13 in a row this year.

Now where did I leave that novel I was working on?


Pearl Jam on the big stage
Pearl Jam on the big stage

Re-entry to civilization and my film debut

I remodeled the master bath in June and got to use the shower three times before leaving for the mountains.
I remodeled the master bath in June and got to use the shower three times before leaving for the mountains.

I was happiest to see the toilet. The shower was a close second.

I’ve been back in Austin nearly a week. It’s a strange sensation, going from mountain solitude to the fast river of a big city again. Traffic on I-35 felt like it was moving 100 mph for the first couple of days. The house smelled different. And suddenly it seemed like I had a hundred things I needed to do.

I’ve been in constant motion. Cleaning the house, finishing the final touches on the bathroom, re-stocking the fridge, knocking out some small house projects, and most important, re-connecting with my friends and with the city. I’ve met a half dozen friends and my aunt for lunch or dinner in less than a week, which is a lot of socializing for me. This weekend is the music festival, I’ll have five friends camped out for the long weekend. And I still have a long list of people I want to see. It’s been a lot of fun. Exhilarating. The novel will sit on the back burner until next week.

Yesterday, I drove to Victoria and shot a scene for a movie. Guillermo’s wife, June Griffin Garcia, is an actor and asked if I could play a magazine reporter in this indie film she’s in. Sure, why not. I shot a short video audition and emailed it to them, and they hired me (I suspected I was the only choice, but June tells me there were others, including TV anchor types). I only had to memorize about a dozen lines for two quick scenes (reporter interviewing a main character), and hey, I can play a reporter with my eyes closed, right?

The film is called The Sauce, and all I can say is that it’s a comedy about high finance. And most of it was shot in an empty office at the Austin American-Statesman, my recent ex-employer. Alas, my scene was shot 120 miles away in a semi-legendary Victoria barbecue joint called Mumphord’s. I drove down with the Kansas-based actress I would do the scene with, feeling very much an amateur after hearing her talk about beginning her singing/acting career at age 6.

My acting career, of course, was launched by American-Statesman reporter Andrea Ball’s straight-to-DVD production Destroy Roy, about a newspaper staff being roiled by budget cuts and Internet competition. I had two lines, I think. That was in 2008, and I have to say my acting career has been in a bit of a rut since then.

When we got to Mumphord’s, which was closed for the day, I hung out and chatted with the owner (a prince of a man named Ricky Mumphord) and watched the action until it was time for my scene. The crew was small, efficient, professional. They got the extras in place (eating barbecue in the background), then ran the first scene six or seven times, changing camera angles, changing the action, having to start over when a brisket-seeking customer barged in. I got my makeup done, changed into a reporterly button-down shirt, ran through my lines in my head again and again until they called for me.

Immediately, the director changed the order and had us do the second scene first. Which rattled me enough that I flubbed the pre-shoot practice. I had three little lines — 13 words total – and I couldn’t spit them out in the right order. My co-star was gracious enough not to roll her eyes, but I could feel the sweat beading up at my hair-sprayed hairline.

After the two whiffs, I took a deep breath, waited for the girl to snap that little clapper thing they use before each shot (“scene 92, take one”), then the director yelled “action” and we were off. Somehow I managed to get those 13 words in the right order this time, the director was satisfied, and we moved on to the first, longer scene. After the first try – in which I apparently sounded like that computer-generated weather service voice — the director basically said, “Don’t speak like a Vulcan. Use some inflection.” He said it in much nicer, gentler way, probably thinking that he didn’t want to rattle an amateur for an important scene.

This is actually the first scene in the movie, the director said. I had the first line in the first scene in the movie.

No pressure.

We shot it six or seven times. I blew my lines a few times, because I was focusing so hard on talking like an actual human being, and the director called it good and sent me home.

So if this fiction writing thing doesn’t work out…