|We will sing the praises of Chinese cleavers in a future post.|
Since I've been gone, everything's gotten bigger. Austin's gotten bigger, of course. Back when I lived here before, I had a girlfriend who lived up by Braker Lane, which seemed impossibly far away, but was only 15 minutes from my house in central Austin. That was the northern frontier, though: over at Braker and Lamar stood the Skyline Club, the notorious nightclub where both Hank Williams and Johnny Horton played their last gigs, back when its location was described as "just out of town on the Waco Highway," which was to say North Lamar. Austin's beloved Soap Creek Saloon was housed in the Skyline's building for a brief while, and it seemed like a long way to go for a little honky-tonking. Not that that stopped me. At least you could get there. I'd be reluctant to head off to my ex's place between 3 and 7 pm most days now because of the traffic, and the site of the Skyline is across from Austin's Chinatown mega-mall, featuring a supermarket that's bigger than any supermarket here in town when I lived here last, and it only sells Asian groceries.
The cars, too, are bigger, to the extent that anyone even drives a car any more. I'm not even sure I'd describe what I drive as a "car," for that matter. Someone told me it's a hatchback. It's not quite a station wagon and not quite a small truck. But it's also not an Escalade, which may be the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. "The most-stolen car in America," as a friend calls it, is nothing short of a Cadillac truck. Of course, the other luxury marques have to compete, so Lincoln has one, as does BMW and Porsche, all producing vehicles that hover around the SUV/truck/assault vehicle axis. (Oh, yeah: they're not as common as they seemed a couple of years ago, but there are still Hummers around, too). Buick has something called an Enclave, a word I suggest they'd want to look up, but it's a bit too late for that.
Lots of people, though, drive trucks. Huge, stretched-out pickups, like you'd use on a ranch. (My favorite is the Toyota truck advertised on billboards all over town: "The only truck built in Texas," it proclaims. Its name? The Tundra. Because nothing says "Texas" like tundra. I'm not a hunter, but I do appreciate it when friends come through with some reindeer or a brace of ptarmigan). Of course, particularly in the part of town I live in, a lot of folks use their trucks for work, but from looking in parking lots around town, I'd say not all the trucks out there are used for anything but transportation from A to B. It's always amusing to see one of these things squeeze into a parking space, its door open, and a tiny woman get out. She's actually not that tiny, but between the message the truck sends and her actual dimension vis a vis its size, it seems that way for a second.
I've learned to keep a respectable distance around these things, since they can rarely see me, even in my larger-than-I'd-like car, and the way people throw them around like they were sportscars is indeed scary. And I really don't see bitching about gas prices if you drive one of those things. I suppose I could look up an Escalade's gas mileage if I wanted to, but I'm more concerned about keeping my fairly efficient hatchback fuelled -- and finding it in parking lots where it disappears among the giants.
Texans have always liked things Big, but I suspect this is the way all across America now. Certainly, my fellow Americans were always easy enough to spot in Europe because of their size (and the bottles of water they clutched tightly). But one place this really hits home is when I go shopping for food.
Okay, guilty pleasure time. Sometimes -- not often, but sometimes -- I like to have some fishsticks for dinner. This must go back to my childhood somehow, but there you have it. (In France, they had fish croquettes, in which fish was mixed with mashed potatoes seasoned with garlic and herbs. They were even cheaper than fish sticks, tasted better, and I miss them.) So the other day I was stuck for something for dinner and wound up at the supermarket staring at the frozen food aisles. Apparently they don't make just plain fishsticks anymore, so I wound up looking at frozen breaded fish fillets. Here was a bag of 12. Here was a bag of 24. Here was a bag of...102. What? Well, I've never had a family of eight to feed, so maybe it makes sense. Thing is, it's kind of hard to buy for a single person. Even a dozen is pushing it. But I was impressed. That's a lotta fish fillets.
Ah, but I hadn't seen anything yet.
In my last post I was grumbling about going to get my first prescription here in the U.S. and getting socked for $110 and change for it. Turns out, there was a little trick I didn't know about -- and still don't fully understand. Apparently Walgreen's has a "generics club" I could have joined that would have deflated the prices significantly. Someone showed me HEB's version of it, for those of their supermarkets that have pharmacies attached. And other people informed me that the pharmacies at Walmart (ain't gonna go there), Target (not exactly in the 'hood) and Costco (aha!) sell at those prices without your having to join anything. Okay, I'll try it out, I said, since I had a new prescription and had just discovered that there was a Costco behind the Whole Foods near me. Went down there, marched up to the window, and the guy quoted me a price that was about right. "Give me about 20 minutes," he said, "and this'll be ready."
I suddenly realized that I was in the Cathedral of Big. Here was an institution I'd heard lots about while I lived in Europe, but never seen. Members-only, $55 to join, many benefits: if I'd known about their travel club, I could have saved a barrel when I first got here and had to rent a car before I found one to buy. There's the cheap pharmacy (although you don't have to be a member for that), and apparently all the electronics and so on are rock-bottom priced. Of course, whether a single guy not making a major purchase could make that membership fee pay off over the course of twelve months is another question. But I had 20 minutes to find out, so I started walking.
I have to admit, it was staggering. There was a grocery section. I doubt that there was anything as minuscule as a 105-fillet bag of fish. There were boxes of cereal that were four or five times as large as the largest I'd ever seen, multi-can packages of tuna shrink-wrapped together, vats of olive oil, tubs of lard, unimaginable quantities of ketchup and mustard...it began to blur after a while. But, at the same time, other things became clearer, like how middle-America consumes stuff. Apparently it's not just the Mormons and the survivalists who shop in these quantities.
To cool off I wandered among the TV screens, which were also Big. Some day I may want one of these, since the whole Netflix thing is interesting (but I do have to cancel my account since there's very little they stream that interests me, plus sitting in front of this screen all day means I don't want to do it any more than I have to) and the amplifier I have to play CDs through has all kinds of facilities for modern TV watching, things I only dimly understand at the moment because I can't afford to install one. Near the electronics was a section of office supplies, something I definitely could get into, but again, the quantities were disturbing.
Fortunately, my prescription was just about ready, and it was going to be something of a hike back to the pharmacy window, so I took off, only getting lost a couple of times. I was in the belly of some kind of beast, one that wasn't entirely hostile: my 90-day supply of pills cost around ¼ what Walgreens had euchred out of me for 30 days' worth at half the dosage. Still, I took a deep breath when I was finally outside and scurried back home. I thought about the reaction some of my European friends would have to such a place (and the cars and trucks in the parking lot, for that matter). And I realized that I'd have to go back soon -- today, in fact -- to transfer my other two prescriptions from Walgreens to Costco and have another waiting period to wander the Cathedral of Big and stir my thoughts up some more.
Okay, now, about those jalapenos...