If you meet the Buddha on the road…
Urban hiking in America with its obsessive car culture shocks even the woke walker. I am on the path beside the ugliest street in the universe. Sometimes there’s sidewalk, and sometimes it’s a narrow earthen path pounded down by the passage of feet. As a rule I walk on the left side of the road so I might see that final car that comes for me, and this heightens the sense of swimming against the tide in shark-infested water. A family who have thrown off the humiliation of generations by buying a Cadillac mock my poverty as they drive by me, and I suspect they can’t conceive of walking by choice — after all, in a car culture, all but the most abjectly poor can get some kind of car. In the din and assault of onward moving cars, I come to a utility pole supporting something high above my pedestrian realm — high-tension power lines, probably — and on this pole is scrawled in chalk, “BudDha.” Knowing what little I know about the Buddha, this is at once the most unlikely and the most likely place to see the name.
Burnet Road is the aorta of commercial goods and consumers into my Austin neighborhood. Here rush torrents of groceries, furniture, and new and used household goods. The restaurants receive pleasure foods, kegs of beer, and cases of wine. Along the street flows an incessant river of traffic — cars, panel trucks, and the occasional bus. High-rise apartment buildings mushroom up to house people who want to be convenient to this hive of consumerism. Cars run down Burnet at close to 50 miles per hour, so big garish signs scream for the attention of passing motorists.
I have been around this avenue on and off since 1960. I experience it in an extra, historical dimension. I see not only what is there now but what was there before. I simultaneously love and loathe this street and its ugliness. I remember when it was two-lane blacktop highway that, true to its name, went to Burnet, Texas. I remember when it widened from two to four lanes and suffered from its first infection of junk food restaurants. Here there was a Taco Bell, then the building, with its rubber-stamped architecture became the office on a lot of used cars, and now it sits vacant. Even before cars, it was the high road atop a windy ridge (it’s still windy but only pedestrians notice) and parallel to the low road along Shoal Creek, a quarter mile to the west. In the winter, you take the high road and go down into the muddy creek bottom only to water the horses. In the summer, you take the low road along the creek shore so you can water the horses often.
In the mid-1960s, down where Hancock Drive intersects Burnet Road, a strip mall incubated a used bookstore called the Book Stall. At the time, as an elementary school kid, I dabbled in science, and I delighted in the store’s old textbooks that were on sale for ten and fifteen cents — even I could afford that. Then the Book Stall moved to a strip mall on Burnet directly across from Lamar Junior High School, where I was systematically tortured by pubescent classmates, but I could save my lunch money and buy books every day on my way home from school. I got really skinny and bookish in junior high. Then one day Mr Half-Price himself showed up from Dallas, bought the the Book Stall, and it became Austin’s first Half-Price Books. In the following years, the store moved to another location a little further up Burnet Road, then around the corner where it settled for a while on the Research Boulevard service road — a place even uglier than Burnet Road — but this was the peak of their presence in Austin. Finally the Research Store and the UT campus area store merged into a single location at 5555 North Lamar Boulevard — the ticky-tacky shopping center built on the old site of the Chief Drive-In movie theater across the street from the Stallion Drive-In restaurant. The Chief, the Stallion, along with the original Threadgill’s service station and beer joint, were all a part of the Dallas Highway culture in post-war Austin.
I don’t have a car, partly because I’m poor, and partly because I have little interest in joining the car culture if I can avoid it. I work at home and pretty much everything I need is within walking distance, and it’s wonderful how much you can get delivered these days. Even vegetables come running to me on Fridays. (After I move to Colorado, I’m planning to hibernate a whole winter by receiving necessities through USPS, UPS, FedEx, and Amazon delivery vans. That will be my only winter in Colorado because after that I will be more sensible and head to the tropics. I just want to have one Shining season.)
Cars are dangerous, noisy, noxious, and they’re destroying the planet. They destroy people too: more die in cars than wars. In Austin lately pedestrians have been struck by cars every night. It’s not good odds: human tissue walking at a top speed of 3 mph stands little chance against metal propelled at 50 mph. Cars mandate architectural and urban design paradigms that lead to garish monstrosities like Burnet Road. We don’t build cities for people: we build them to accommodate cars. These are not the healthy uplifting cities in which we could live.
Because, much to my peril, I walk alongside this mindless non-stop surge of traffic, I notice things that speeding people miss. On a 2.5-mile hike to the library this afternoon — the closest I get to a pilgrimage in Austin — I came upon the word BudDha scrawled in pastel on a metal utility pole. I honor that capitalization of the second D because it looks meaningful, as if it might go on to spell out Dharma. Imagine that this is written by a philosopher walking in that counter-traffic, anti-cultural space with a fragment of pastel in his or her pocket, and spotting an untagged surface, he writes the title of the enlightened one, the one who didn’t say, “Do this or rot in hell,” but “This frees me: why don’t you try it and see if you free yourself?”
In Colombia I learned to watch graffiti — I became an amateur semiotician — during the long war between the left-wing FARC guerrillas and the reactionary right-wing AUC. Left-wing graffiti often argued that the right-wing guerrillas were really government special forces doing unofficially what the government couldn’t do officially — like midnight raids on a pueblo accused of aiding the FARC, rounding up all the men, and killing them. The Colombian conflict occurred not only in fields of coffee and coca but on walls where the red graffiti of the FARC over-painted the blue graffiti of the AUC, and on and on in layers sometimes twenty spray-paintings deep.
Along Burnet road similar battles occur between the left and right hemispheres of schizophrenic brains. The plaints in graffiti focus on medical professionals, how they have murdered various patients, and how they are conspiring to kill the graffiti author / patient, who might be named Vicki.
There are other such paranoid scenarios involving murder and insurance scams written in black marker on the sides of charity donation boxes and dumpsters along a one-mile stretch of Burnet Road. In researching this article, I found a post in Reddit about similar posts in other parts of the city.
Did the author of the ISAS message (the similarity to the abbreviation used for the Islamic State is striking and probably not accidental) also scrawl BudDHA on the utility pole three miles north of here? I think not because Schizophrenic delusions diametrically oppose the inherent sanity of Buddhism. Both the handwriting and the character of the messages are different. By itself, the word BudDHA is inherently positive — indeed, I’ve seen positive Buddhist graffiti all about the US and as far south as Guatemala — while the wild accusations of the long screeds are the work of a troubled individual.
Yet some of the graffiti are written in joy.
Given the focus of the traffic on Burnet Road is a single-minded focus on money and consumerism, this graffito that urges me to meditate and feed my soul seems like a carnal ground practice.
Of course there are radical political posters too. As in the battle between left and right in Colombia, the posters get attacked. Yet the visceral American right is notoriously illiterate, inarticulate, and scarcely able to spell, so they settle just for ripping the posters off their poles. I take note that a party unable to tolerate its opposition is a dictatorship.
El Chilito (a taquería at 6425 Burnet Rd) didn’t last long. The previous occupant of the building, Church’s, had dished up fried chicken, fried okra, and red soda for nearly fifty years, from 1969 to 2017, and I was surprised that Flyrite Chicken, who opened a store a few doors down at roughly the same time, didn’t seize this well-chickened location, but maybe the plat’s flatiron footprint at the convergence of Burnet Lane and Burnet Road didn’t suit their franchise-style architectural design.
At its peak, El Chilito had a deck across its front that provided a cozy dining area and at least an illusion of isolation from the torrent. Yet the small taco chain made small but consequential mistakes, and things went wrong quickly. Austin is only 239 miles from the International Bridge, so the taco is the sacrament of Austin’s weirdness, and the competition here to wrap the best taco in a tortilla is fierce. Fish tacos are my personal favorite, and at El Chilito the alleged fish comprised tough dry chewy cubes vaguely tasting of fish. Compare that to the succulent fillets of blackened salmon or the guajillo-seared ahi tuna — the Reservoir Dogs tacos called Mr Orange and Mr Pink, respectively — at Torchy’s, a mile down the street, and I imagine the Wicked Witch of the West on her broom skywriting “Surrender Chilito” in the sky. Yet the coup de grâce was the deck itself, which had been built without the proper permits from the City. Defying city code and inspection is as perilous as not paying taxes, and the lovely deck, an oasis of safety and comfort, had to be torn down. We know that “if you build it, they will come,” and it turns out conversely that “if you tear it down, they will stop coming.” Thus emasculated, El Chilito passed quietly one night in its sleep.
Like circling buzzards smelling and spotting carcasses below, the taggers, another breed of graffiti artists, soon swooped in. I caught this picture of the building only a couple of days after El Chilito closed. El Federico’s mural, Los Tacos Unidos, is still clearly visible. The building looks naked without its deck.
All those who paint and scrawl on blank surfaces in the city share one thing. No matter how mad may be the spray painters, pray painters, flag wavers, mental Marks-a-Lot conspiracists, radical poster hangers, inarticulate poster rippers, taggers, and the chalk BudDhists, they unite in a single voice to remind us that the authoritarian neon-light-powered signs that dictate our consumer culture are not the only voices on this street.
Burnet Road is my island drama. It is a microcosm of what happens in every American city and in many cities around the world. I live in a culture in which what I consume defines much of my identity. To practice consuming mindfully, to eat well (which precludes eating in many restaurants), to walk instead of drive, to seek alternatives in a tidal wave of conformity, to practice diversity in the intolerant and sometimes angry face of homogeneity is like grasping at a passing wisp of smoke. So build a fire.