Books, Piss, and Kneecaps: My First Month in Austin

This month marks 30 years living in Austin. Like many before and since, I moved here because of a girl.

After passing only three classes in two semesters, not surprisingly with A’s in both of my English classes and a B in political science, I wasn’t welcome back to the University of Houston. Nineteen, still living at home, working as a bookseller and a pizza delivery driver, and feeling adrift in Houston, something needed to change. Many of my high school friends had gone off to college or moved on to the next period in their lives. Perhaps most importantly, my high school sweetheart Sandy had moved away a year earlier to attend the University of Texas in Austin.

We started dating our junior year in high school and were practically inseparable for those two years. During that year apart, there were many trips to Austin. She lived that first year in the Castillan dorm and although she wasn’t supposed to have overnight guests, I spent many a night there. During that time we got engaged.

In late August 1997, I loaded all my meager belongings into my Jeep Eagle Wagon and moved to Austin. I borrowed some money to get an apartment on east Riverside in the same complex where Sandy now lived. That first week, I sold my car for $1400, which enabled me to pay back the loan, covered my first two months rent, and allowed for some food money while I looked for a job and acclimated to the city.

That first month I laid around my apartment a lot and read. Across the street was a used paperback bookstore, all books ranged from a quarter to a buck, depending on condition and original cover price. Over the next month or so, I was a regular customer. I don’t recall everything I read. I know there was a lot of Phil Dick, Michael Moorcock (probably read my first Cornelius and Von Beck stories), LeGuin, Chandler, Hammett, Heinlein, and many others. It’s when I developed my distaste for Norton, Asimov, and Tolkien.

My most memorable read of that month was The Mote in God’s Eye and not just because the Niven/Pournelle novel is a compelling read. I was two-thirds of the way into the classic, when I had to pee. I took my worn copy into the bathroom, which was SOP. As young men are apt to do, I stood to pee. I kept reading when the last third of the book decided to rebel, separating from its compatriots, and fell to a watery death in the toilet below. Disgusted with myself, I fished out the pee stained, water logged pages, threw them in a plastic bag, and returned to the bookstore. Thankfully they had another copy and I was able to finish. You’d think I learned my lesson but a similar thing happened a few months later with H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man.

Before I found a job, I dislocated my kneecap for the second time in 3 years. The first happened on the last day of school before summer break. I was 16 and working as a sacker for Randall’s. Paper bags, in the days before the rise of plastic, were delivered to the stores in large, heavy bundles, 25 bundles per pallet. When the bags arrived, several of the younger men were rounded up to unload the bundles. While lifting a bundle from a higher stack, I slipped between the slats of the pallet, dislocating my right patella. Up to this point in my life, I had several concussions, a shattered knee cap (on that same knee), and many stitches, but the pain associated with this injury was the most excruciating. The ride in the ambulance to hospital was no picnic either. Every bump sent jolts of pain.

The procedure for fixing a dislocated joint is relatively simple. The joint is popped back into place. But with me being a minor, the doctors weren’t allowed to even do that without permission from my guardian, never mind administer pain killers. At the time, portable phones were reserved for the uber-rich or science fiction. My mother had taken time off work to run an errand with my sister and couldn’t be reached. My aunt, who held documents giving her explicit instructions to act in my mom’s behalf in such matters, was MIA as well. I languished in the hospital, with a large bag of ice on my knee, for over two hours before my grandparents could be located to give permission. I really messed things up. I tore the tendon behind my leg. The doctors placed me in ankle to hip cast that I wore for most of the summer.

The second dislocation happened before a midnight screening of Heavy Metal on the UT campus. As Sandy and I took our seats, I slipped and the same knee popped out. Again another ambulance ride. This time since I was 19, they fixed me up right away, took some X-rays, gave me some painkillers, and sent me home. A week later I saw a doctor who informed me that no permanent damage was done but that I should be careful in the future since this likely would be a chronic issue. Thankfully, it’s never happened again though it acts up when rain is coming. Unlike the previous, the swelling was gone within two weeks and everything was back to normal.

While in the months and years that followed I met many important and interesting people, it was the unexpected re-connection with Dan Harris that was my first significant Austin friendship. Dan and I were tangentially associated since junior high. We shared the same best friend, but rarely spent time together beyond the occasional Dungeons & Dragons games. We didn’t even like each other all that much. But to be honest, we barely knew each other. Although we went to the same junior high, we didn’t go to high school together. I didn’t even know he was in Austin.

Sandy learned of a role playing group that met on the UT Campus. I walked into the meeting not knowing what to expect. There were tables with sign up sheets and lots of geeks standing around talking including Dan.

Since he was the only person in the room I knew, I approached him.

“Hi, Dan”

“I don’t go by that name anymore. I’m Asshole.”

This response shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Dan. A) that’s how his sense of humor works and B) he is an asshole.

After that rocky start, Asshole.. er.. Dan and I decided to sign up to be part of a D&D campaign. We ended up playing monthly with that same group of guys for five years or so.

Turned out that Dan lived just around the corner from me. Thanks to our joint geek interests and proximity, we started hanging out. A year later we moved in together and have been friends ever since.

Dan introduced me to the cyberworld and the communities within. My comfort with social media and, though I was introduced to it years later, Linux are directly attributable to those early years.

Ironically, neither Dan or I are friends with that best friend anymore.

By the end of September with my financial resources dwindling, I finally got a job at Bookstop. Though I had sold books briefly while in Houston, this new experience lead to my lifelong vocation. But that’s a story for another time.

Thurman; or How I Became an Astros Fan

As many of you know, I’m a huge baseball fan especially of the Houston Astros. But that wasn’t always true. With the Astros playing the New York Yankees for spot in the World Series, I thought this would make an ideal time to share this previously unpublished essay “Thurman,” which reveals my early love of the Yankees.

Honestly, I’d forgotten about this piece until my mom uncovered some of my childhood writings. Among those missives was a paper on the tragic Thurman Munson, who was one of my childhood heroes. When she told me about this, something went off in my head and I began looking through my files where I uncovered this essay written about 20 years ago (probably nearly 20 years after the one my mom found).

In the late nineties/early aughts, the burgeoning site Salon held an essay contest for writers to share tales about people who affected their life in some way. I quickly cranked out the below piece and sent it off. In my haste, I missed the fact that it must be about a living person. I did write another piece, “Michael Moorcock: No Ordinary Buckaroo.” While still a quality essay, it’s inferior to the emotional “Thurman.” Though it met the prerequisites, the second piece didn’t win, but it did eventually see publication in Geek Confidential.

So enough preamble, let’s play ball!


About the only worthwhile thing I learned from my father was that it was okay for a man to cry. My folks had split by the time I was five and, like so many of my generation, I was raised without a father. It’s really a sorry state of affairs for my generation, the so-called Gen X, afflicted with so many deadbeat dads. Luckily for me there was my grandfather and there was Thurman Munson.

Arguably the greatest American League catcher of the 1970’s, Munson donned the mantle as the first Yankee captain named since the great Lou Gehrig’s forced retirement back in 1939. A leader who won the 1976 American League Most Valuable Player while leading the fabled Yankees to their first World Series in over ten years. Sure they lost that series but then came 1977 and ‘78. The Yankees won those and to the boys living in New Jersey, there was no one greater than Munson. We could emulate his batting stance. We knew he learned to fly planes so he could visit his family in Ohio on off days. He was the first Yankee to win both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards during his career. In short, he was our Superman. And for many of us, he became a surrogate father of sorts. There he was every day, playing for the team you loved. We knew all the guys in the Bronx like they were our neighbors. Reggie, Willie, Catfish, The Chicken, Louisiana Lightning, sometimes Billy, sometimes Lemon, and above all Thurman. From 1976 through 1979, I don’t think I missed a Yankee game on the tube. Only school could keep me away. It was a blissful time to be a child. But then the fantasy ended.

August 2, 1979, the saddest day in Yankee history since the death of the great Gehrig. It feels like it just happened. A group of us, 10-11 year old boys, were playing ball when a neighborhood kid named Patrick emerged in the park with tears in his eyes.

“Thurman.” He had trouble breathing. He kept gulping for air between the tears, but he finally got it out. Thurman Munson died! We stood there stunned. Surely he was wrong. Patrick managed to tell us he saw it on the news. He went down in a plane while visiting his family. Tears welled up inside of all of us. There we were five pre-teen boys, standing in the park with our gloves and bats, bawling for our dead hero. We all cried, but not just for Munson but for losing someone we loved. Again. For some of us, it was our fathers leaving again. Here was this great man, doing the right thing, but now he was gone as well.

A memorial for our fallen hero occured before the scheduled national TV game with the Baltimore Orioles on August 6. To this day I have yet to see a sadder thing on TV. All the Yankees wearing black armbands, the crowd eerily silent for five full minutes, and then the kicker of them all: Reggie Jackson in tears on national TV. I cried along with him. I ceased being a Yankee fan that day, my love going down in a plane over Akron, Ohio.

Even now, the memories of that day cause a lump in my throat and bring a tear to my eye. For my thirtieth birthday, my aunt gave me a Thurman Munson statue. It was one of the most thoughtful presents I ever received. A reminder of the legacy of Thurman Munson. You must do what you can today for tomorrow may never come. And above all don’t forget or forsake your family, something most of us never learned from our own fathers. A lot of boys of my generation learned that lesson that day. We are all the better for it.


A few weeks later, we moved from Old Bridge, NJ to Houston, TX and I latched onto my new team and to perpetual heartbreak Houston Astros.