Thursday, December 8, 2011

With Blackbirds On The Wires, He Dances Alone

My commute to work is no longer arduous, for which I’m grateful. However, much of it capably vies with similar stretches in Texas metropolises — for the ugliest urban landscape not yet declared an EPA Superfund site. I will put far North Lamar Boulevard up against any ugly roadway in Texas. Its unrelenting parade of failing strip centers, garish signs, tilting utility poles and potholed parking lots has little to recommend it aesthetically. Pawnshops abut Indian restaurants, which nudge up against auto parts stores, which share a wall with a wig salon, next door to a discoteca. And so forth, for miles.

At night, the lighting resembles a poor man’s Las Vegas or Times Square, garish and jarring. North Lamar would be a fine location to shoot scenes for a film noir, featuring a hard-bitten sleuth who spends too much time eating bad Chinese food and drinking cheap whiskey neat at bars with names like Mike’s Stay Awhile. Some signs displayed on the hodgepodge of freestanding buildings along the boulevard were sloppily painted by amateurs over the signs of the previous and doubtless now-broke tenant. They advertise transmission repair, fortunes told, money loaned, fortunes lost.

I travel this route twice daily during the workweek, at dawn and dusk in these pre-winter solstice days. Lamar Boulevard is congested both ways, but it beats taking MoPac or I-35, the two main arteries. Of the latter, the late and sorely missed columnist Molly Ivins once said, “The key to happiness in Austin is to never, ever drive on I-35.” This, indeed, is sound advice that I follow faithfully. The only reason I get on I-35 is to head back to East Texas, and that is only because there is no other route, at least starting out.

The most intriguing intersection on the North Lamar route is at Rundberg Lane. Spindly Bradford Pear trees line the patchy grass between the concrete sidewalks and asphalt road. The grass is turning green again after a few welcomed bouts of rain, but the trees look diminished by the heat and drought. Who isn’t? Two corners contain seedy strip malls. The ubiquitous Sonic Drive-In and Walgreens anchor the other two corners. At 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., when I am passing through, the sun is either barely peeping over the nearby interstate horizon to the east, or sinking below the modest subdivisions that begin a few blocks west. The line of taillights waiting to get through the traffic signal invariably stretches in both directions for hundreds of yards to the next set of signals. So I have had plenty of time to study this intersection.

Dawn and dusk are when the blackbirds hang out at Rundberg and Lamar, literally thousands of them darkening the trees, lining the utility wires, streaking the pole signs with their droppings. Roll down a window, and the air is filled with the unmelodious conversations the blackbirds are having among themselves. I worry about the folks sitting at the bus stop benches. “Look out below,” I’m tempted to shout, “Incoming!”

In the evenings, the birds — and the motorists stuck at the light — often are entertained by a young thin black man wearing earbuds, dressed in a brightly colored tracksuit. He spends evening rush hour dancing and singing exuberantly, smiling and gesticulating at the drivers, most of whom look straight ahead with that “Ignore the Panhandler” gaze big-city dwellers learn quickly to adapt. There is a panhandler at most every urban corner here, with a cardboard sign, battered backpack and a defeated look about them.

But this man isn’t hip-hopping for money, not that I’ve observed. He doesn’t approach cars with his hand out but simply dances along the sidewalk quite adeptly, smiling broadly all the while. Some days the man dances in front of the Sonic; other days he gyrates near the store on the opposite corner. Every day, he is harmonizing with the blackbirds as he dances alone at Rundberg and Lamar. I wonder what he listens to, what type of music gets his feet to tapping, his hips shaking.

I have tried to figure out why the blackbirds gather at this spot. Web searches indicate the birds gather en masse at promising sources of food. But this intersection contains the barest remnants of nature, a sad, dying display of trees and grass strips. The air is foul with vehicle exhaust. Sirens blare, horns are honked, and a man dances alone to music only he can hear.

I’ll likely never know why the blackbirds gather at Rundberg and Lamar, each dusk and dawn. Or why that man dances as we all head home after work, both providing a few seconds of entertainment to the appreciative few. That’s OK. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.


  1. Good column. Hate those damned birds. You nailed that area.

  2. By the way ...