Agents of Change

A few months back, a neighbor at my business park had a garage sale. Their space had been the warehouse for a well-known local retailer, but the business was about to change hands, so some housekeeping was in order.

I dropped by an hour or so before the sale was to begin. You could see right away that it was shaping up to be a big event, with lots of individual items. As they were laying out the offerings, I browsed through the selection, hoping to get first crack at any bargains. This hope was quickly dashed, though, as it became apparent that even were I interested, the cheapest items were well beyond what my wallet would tolerate.

There were probably two or three hundred items in total: furniture, appliances, art items, and knick-knacks, almost all of it thrift-store grade, but at ten times thrift store prices. A battered foot stool, one leg noticeably shorter than the others, looking for all the world like it had sat in the sun and rain for five years, and for which I would not give fifty cents, was priced at $50. A pair of utterly unremarkable, bile-colored Naugahyde love seats, almost laughably uncomfortable, going for $450. Apiece. That sort of thing. With this kind of pricing I figured my neighbors would be selling a whole lot of nothing.

I figured wrong. Before the opening bell had even rung they were lined up to get at the loot. By 10 a.m. mobs of customers prowled the makeshift storefront, wearing determined expressions, AMEX cards in hand, eager to snap up the bounty. It was quite a crowd.

You couldn’t help but notice, though, that there were two distinct types of attendee. One type was dressed almost uniformly in Weekend Austin Casual attire. These folks came, assessed, and left pretty quickly. You got the impression that they had just sort of happened by, following the crowd. And finding nothing to their liking, they moved on straightaway. This type was a distinct minority.

But the dominant type was not of your typical typical garage-sale demographic. This was a well-heeled crowd, chicly clad in the latest styles. This group might have been right at home at a Sotheby’s auction. An unusually high percentage were botoxed and flaunted personal-trainer bodies. At its peak, there could easily have been a couple of million dollars worth of plastic surgery strolling about. I felt like an alien in my own zip code.

Making light of the situation, my crew and I began to play an impromptu game we called “Spot the Californian.” But we had to cancel the fun after only a little while because it was just too easy. It was fairly apparent that anyone who spent more than a minute or two at this sale was probably from the Left Coast. If their manner of dress and comportment, their accents, and the plates on their expensive automobiles were any indication, that is.

The sale had been scheduled to run from 9 to 4, Saturday and Sunday. But by 3 pm on Saturday they had already called it a day. They had to because there nothing was left to sell. Every last item, even the bedraggled little eyesore of a footstool, had been sold. All that was left were a couple of display shelves, which themselves disappeared shortly after being hung with “Free” signs.

In my business, you also tend to see two types of customers. One type knows that you are doing them a service and is thankful for any help you may be able to provide. They approach you very respectfully, almost as a supplicant. They say things like “I’m at your mercy” or “My life is in your hands,” smiling as they do so, but they’re really only half-joking. They look you directly in the eye. They make an effort to engage you. And if while you are talking with them their phone sounds off, they will ignore it, choosing instead to give you their full attention. You notice all this, of course, and it affects you. You are reminded that you have a responsibility, as a professional and as a fellow human, to reward their trust in you. And so you make a mental note to give them the best service you possibly can. Older people, working-class persons, natives of the Midwest or the South, and long-time Austinites tend to fall into this category.

The other type of customer has a very different approach. From the beginning they make it clear that they, not you, are in charge; you are just the hired help. You get the distinct impression that they think they are doing you a favor. They do not maintain eye contact for very long, and tend to elevate their gaze a little as they speak to you, so that they are quite literally looking down at you. If, while you are explaining the process to them, their smart phone should sound off, they will without hesitation suspend your conversation to attend to it. In the course of your transaction this may happen several times. And if while you are waiting for them to ring off you take a moment to attend to some other task, they will react with visible irritation. They are likely to demand an estimate before you even know what the problem is, and haggle with you over your very reasonable pricing. They will expect you to put their job before others, but will balk at paying extra for this special consideration. And if things are not exactly to their liking, there is a good chance they will punish you with a bad review.

They are not the friendliest people, and tend to be rather terse with you, but being the sociable type you try to engage them anyway. So to make conversation, you ask them where they are from. Quite often they react to this very reasonable question as though it were an act of impertinence. So they say, vaguely and bit dismissively, “the West Coast,” or “the LA area.” Which confirms what you already knew because you had earlier noted their area code, which they provided when they wrote their contact info on the Request for Service form that every customer fills out.

For the first few years I was in business, customers of the second type were rare, and so I had the luxury of turning them away if I was so inclined. But over the last decade or so the proportion of this type of customer has crept steadily upward, and some weeks fully twenty or twenty five percent of the people who walk through the door might fall into this category. So turning them all away is no longer an easy option.

It is tempting to regard this explosion of entitlement as evidence of a larger societal shift. After all, rampant self-absorption seems to be on the uptick everywhere you look. But when I consider my very worst customers I cannot help but notice that the same area codes keep turning up again and again: 818, 323, 213, 562, 949.

By the time you reach middle age, your viewpoints and habits and ways of looking at the world have more or less crystallized, and a sort of stasis sets in. You muddle along, stuck in your routine of many years, perceiving that things are a certain way, meaning, more or less, as they were when you were young and at the height of your powers. Then one day something happens that shocks the hell out of you, and reminds you that the world has, in fact, changed, and that things are, in fact, very different than you had imagined. My neighbor’s sale was just such a reminder. Five years ago, such an event would have been almost unthinkable. But now I suspect that it is distressingly routine.

It sometimes seems that the depth of meaning of a word is inversely proportional to its length. All the really big concepts seem to fit into a single syllable: love, hate, good, bad, young, old, sex, life, death, time. You have to assume that as our distant forebears gained the power of speech, over thousands of generations, certain fundamental, universal, concepts would have been recognized and named first. And just as you must crawl before you can walk, our ancestors would have made simple words before more complex ones.

“Change” is also one of these words.  We all understand what it means, even though we might struggle to define it precisely. We think of change as a force, and a purposeful one at that, almost like an entity, which operates with some sense of predetermination as though there were a master plan.

Change has something for everyone. Sometimes we welcome it, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we embrace it, sometimes we strive to keep it at bay. Sometimes we look forward to it, sometimes we regret what it has wrought. Always, we wonder whence it came, whither it goes, what may it hold for us.

It is trite, I suppose, to complain about change. We wonder, ruefully, why things cannot remain the same, which is to say to our liking. But by definition, life, the state of being animate, requires change. In the course of normal metabolic activity, every atom of which you are composed will be periodically exchanged for another, so that you are quite literally not the same person you were even ten years ago, in substance if not in form. Every living organism is the endpoint of an unbroken thread of continuous change dating to the condensation of our solar system from interstellar gas and dust. Wherever there is matter and energy, there is change. Change occurs because every last particle in the Universe, every quantum, is in motion, infused with energy, and interacts to a greater or lesser degree with every other. “Change” is the observed effect of this endless, inconceivably elaborate interaction.

I cannot escape reminders of a very particular type of change because they surround me wherever I go. As I write this from my home on Williamson Creek in South Austin, through closed and draped windows I can easily hear the rumble of heavy earth-moving machinery, punctuated at intervals by the warning beep beep beep of this or that piece of equipment backing up. Six hundred feet away in one direction, eight hundred feet in another, are giant complexes of luxury condominiums nearing completion. In total, they will house well over a thousand persons, where formerly there were none. Within a mile are probably ten more such developments in various stages of completion.

At my shop, less than three miles away, it is the same story. If I exit the front door there and turn to the right I can see a a pair of giant cranes looming above a line of trees a short distance to the west. If I walk a hundred feet toward the road and turn to my left, another massive crane towers a few blocks south. If I were to climb up on the roof, I would be able to spot several more. They are like giant hands, these mechanical beasts, assembling structures that will, when completed, tower above the handful of older buildings that somehow still remain, and will house thousands of new residents, nearly all from somewhere else.

Courtesy of well-paid consultants, these places will have clever marketing strategies and evocative names that promise just the right blend of status, ease, and urban sophistication. And having built it, they will come. Hipsters and hustlers from SoHo and Santa Monica will swarm to fill these vacancies. And each of these new arrivals will bring their own cultural DNA. And with each new arrival, those of us who were born or grew up here, who have spent our lives here, who carry the institutional memory that has made Austin, Austin, become a little less relevant.

Long-time Austinites have a vibe about them, almost like a pheromone. If you are one yourself you are able to detect this vibe right away in others, and in mere seconds you find yourselves talking about this or that shared  experience. If the conversation continues for any length of time you are almost certain to find a friend or acquaintance or institution in common. But these new arrivals seem somehow different. There is something faintly foreign about them, and you find that you cannot properly tune in their wavelength. Their experience is a mirror, of course, but you often get the impression that to them we long-timers are something of a quaint curiosity. They regard us, I suspect, in much the same way as a colonial regards an aboriginal.

In many ways the new arrivals do, in fact, behave very much like colonials. They come here drawn by our city’s reputation as a “cool” destination, but they tend to be very selective in the ways that they interact with their new home. They overwhelmingly gravitate to places and people that fit a certain narrow profile. They don’t seem to be all that interested in blending in, making the acquaintance of locals, or partaking of anything that smacks of “old” Austin. You wonder how long it will take before this place wears on them and they set off in search of the next new “cool” destination.

But while they are here, the new arrivals seem not at all reluctant to remake the place in a way more to their liking, even if it means removing every last trace of what used to be. And this is understandable, because adapting to a new environment is rather a lot of trouble, and it’s just easier in the long run if it does the adapting instead.

Thirteen years ago, when I opened my shop in the dog-eared little business park on Thornton Road, one of the first things I noticed was the fantastic water pressure. If you attached a garden hose to the faucet out by the garage door and opened the tap you got a splendid fifteen-foot arc of laminar-flowing goodness. You could fill a five-gallon bucket in about forty seconds. Five or six years ago, this began to change. And by “change” I mean “decline in quality.” Now, years of non-stop development have taken their toll. With the finite resource that is our water supply now spread among many more users than before, there has been a corresponding reduction in the availability of that resource to each user. It now takes close to four minutes to fill that same five-gallon bucket. Every day for thirteen years, my route to and from work has taken me down a road that was lined with trees, almost like a country lane. Note the past tense. One by one, the many pleasant pockets of green that made this little part of the world so agreeable have been cleared and replaced with condos and mini-mansions. I may have to find another route.

Many other things have changed in thirteen years, including me. I am no longer youthful and eager. I am no longer unfazed by large challenges. I am closing fast on sixty years of age, very nearly an old man yet still slogging it out in a young man’s game, liking it a little less with every passing day. I feel the shadows lengthening.

When people who are of a certain age and who have lived here for a while get together, sooner or later the conversation always turns to “what happened to Austin?” To a certain extent this is to be expected: The old always carp about the new. Kids nowadays!  Yet there is something altogether right and proper about this heartfelt lament. Because, you see, once upon a time Austin really was special, a thing most rare and precious. And from a very early age we all somehow knew it too. We knew that we had been blessed with the immensely good fortune of living in a golden time and place. The Austin of my youth was a tolerant, friendly, uncrowded, inexpensive, benignly eccentric yet deeply wholesome place. And it was our little secret. But the secret got out, and Austin was discovered. And now that happy, sleepy, grown-up small town, our oasis, a place we dearly loved, no longer exists.

Reluctantly and with much sorrow, I have come to accept that Austin, which has been my home since childhood, no longer has a place for people like me. Slowly but as surely as the Earth turns, we are being squeezed out. This town worships two things now: money and youth; the one I have never had, the other I have no longer.

Change is the evidence by which we know that time has passed, and a reminder that we continue to exist. To live is to experience change, at all times in all places. Bit by little bit, change alters or removes every trace of the world into which you were born. It takes the place where you entered this life; it takes the place where you grew up. It takes the places where you played and the places where you worked, where you went to school, where you hung out, where you shared your first kiss, where you learned the meaning of the word “heartbreak.” It takes your friends and rivals and loved ones without regard. It takes the persons whose union brought you into existence. One by one, change takes the places and the people and the things you knew and loved. And then one day, it takes you.

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