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.

Now it can be revealed: Joe R. Lansdale’s HAP AND LEONARD: BLOOD AND LEMONADE

Cover by Elizabeth Story

Cover by Elizabeth Story

As many of you may know, I was the editor for Tachyon Publication’s Hap and Leonard, a collection of Hap and Leonard short pieces. It contained all the extant stories (several have been published since) and timed to premiere with the SundanceTV series of the same name. Turns out the book, much like the TV series, was a success, enjoying a reprint shortly after publication. I was tasked by Tachyon publisher Jacob Weisman with approaching Joe about a second Hap and Leonard collection to come out when the second season premiered.

Joe: No. I won’t give Tachyon a second collection.


Me (flabbergasted): Huh? But.. the book.. it sold well.. it has a cover you love… we can guarantee Elizabeth [Story, who did the first] again… but.. why?


Joe (with a cocky smile): I want to do an original Hap and Leonard novel.


Me: I think Jacob will be okay with that.

The book Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade is a mosaic novel of sorts. That’s when you take a bunch of related stories and connect them with adjoining pieces ala The Martian Chronicles and the like.

Here’s some copy I threw together to help explain the book. I hope the fine folks at Tachyon can gussy it up a bit.

Since their first appearance in Savage Season through the recent hit SundanceTV series, the unconventional ass kicking duo of Hap Collins and Leonard Pine captured the hearts of fans everywhere. Now in this unconventional novel, creator Joe R. Lansdale explores the beginnings of the decades long friendship between the white, liberal, good ‘ol boy Hap and the black, Republican, gay, Vietnam veteran Leonard. The complicated tale of violence and humor, set in the racist, homophobic late 60s East Texas, introduces the two boys who grew up into the men, who become far more than friends. They call each other brother.

Watch for Blood and Lemonade this March.