There is a WalMart in Austin. It looks like every other WalMart. It is on the southern side of downtown, accessed by taking the East Ben White Boulevard exit from 71. The blue and grey building sits next to a Starbucks, a pawn shop, a gas station, and a few other corporate staples.
When you face the building and look to its left, you’ll see that part of the parking lot is slightly detached from the rest. Not by infrastructure, but by placement. It is so far to the left that it doesn’t line up with the store. Adjacent to that left edge of the parking lot is a side street that takes you back onto the feeder. This side street sits at a higher elevation than the parking lot, so when you park on this very left edge, a stone wall of five feet shields you from the street. It makes for a somewhat private place to park. Nobody on the street can look into your vehicle thanks to the wall. And no customers park there, because it is such a long ways from the store.
Instead, these spots are filled with vagrants. Some are permanent, though not as permanent as Seattle vagrants. No one has made a makeshift house here, or filled the parking lot with boxes and canvas. It’s just that some car people choose to swap sleeping places each night, and some do not. A patch of grass in the bottom-left corner is filled with homeless smokers and shopping carts. A tree covers this spot, which again adds privacy for the loitering. It was such a cosy spot that it is hard to believe it wasn’t designed to house society’s finest.
On my very first night in Austin, I slept here. To my knowledge, this is no longer possible. In early 2019, a security guard was hired to kick us out. I was eating a bowl of ramen the night the knock came at my vehicle’s window. It wasn’t my first time being removed from a spot, so I didn’t take it personally. I looked out my window and saw that the same was happening to my comrades. I tried to return a few nights later, but the guard was patrolling, and none of the permanent vagrants were anywhere to be seen.
But for a time, it was a very safe place to sleep if you had no bed.
One night, just a few weeks before the guard knocked on my window and asked me to leave, I took Blue Jeans for a walk here. It was one of my first attempts at walking her. Walking a cat is difficult enough on its own, but in a city that doesn’t want you there, or in any city, for that matter, it is almost an impossible feat. Noises abound, as do points of escape for the animal. It is stressful and challenging. But a cat isn’t a goldfish, and must go on walks. So I began by bringing her to the places in Austin I knew to be the safest.
It was during a walk on this night in this parking lot when, not understanding what she was doing or where she was, she quickly hid under a car and tore part of her leash on its license plate. It took me a minute to remove the snagged cloth from the thin piece of steel, the whole time knowing that nearby, a vagrant was watching me fiddle with her car. Upon freeing the retractable leash, I found a tear of a few inches on one side of the cloth. I tried to cauterize it as best I could with a lighter I kept only to lend to those who asked. It didn’t work; the tear eventually came through the burnt nylon, and I accepted it as part of the leash. It still worked, after all.
The tear is still there. Moments ago, I reached for the retractable leash in the top of my closet and passed it through my hands, pulling the cord and finding the scar. It occurred to me while doing so that by measuring the distance from the end of the leash to the point of this tear, that I can see just how far Blue Jeans had gotten underneath the car before it snagged, before I started to coax her back out. I can see how far from her I was while trying to remove it from the license plate.
In California, Oregon, Washington, and Texas, the leash snagged on that tear every time it rolled back into the handle. It was a daily annoyance, something whose cause I rarely remembered. Just an accepted part of the inconvenience of life at that point in time. No matter how many times I walked her, the shadow of that memory, that early attempt, remained.
Everything has changed.
- Charlie Jean.