Last week, I ran across an interesting article in the Times called "Hello, Stranger" about the value of casual social interactions. It describes how a few behavioral science experiments have proven what Austinites have long known, that being open and kind without provocation is the key to happiness. It's what noted restaurateur and rub board player Danny Roy Young (z"l) had paraphrased on the front door of his Texicalli Grill on East Oltorf... "Just Be Nice". I remember that Mr. Young actually helped teach me about the magic of the "casual social interaction" when I first moved here. As he trolled slowly through the Bouldins and Zilker in his gleaming white hot rod, we'd often cross paths whilst I was about making my bike deliveries. He'd roll down his window and from behind mirrored sunglasses, he'd turn, smile, and give a double-pistol "attaboy" sort of maneuver.
That kind of light community connection is what shaped who I have become, and shaped what The Soup Peddler became. It shaped the concept for my book, Slow and Difficult Soups. The NYT article points out that these "weak ties" go a surprisingly long way to fulfilling us and making us feel connected to the whole. That's the feeling that people (historically) have had upon arriving in Austin. A delight in the easy connection with people. Really, it's more than that. A real "Austin" day is when you've had a meaningful connection with a complete stranger. When you open yourself and discuss something deeper than just the weather.
For outsiders, it can almost inspire suspicion. Why are they being so nice? What are they trying to get out of me? Once, my wife and I picked up a friend at the airport, fresh out of NYC, and drove straight to Guero's for a welcome margarita and people-watching. We got out of the car, stepped onto the sidewalk, and a woman walked by and cheerily said "Hey y'all!" Our friend said, "She's a plant, right? You called her and told her we'd be coming by at such-and-such a time, make sure to treat the New Yorker to a hearty Texas welcome, right?"
These recollections are from before the advent of the smart phone, which the article mentions as a woeful preventer of such connection. It's also before the mad acceleration of growth, the rapid influx of out-of-towners. That's not to say that this town hasn't always been made up of out-of-towners, but I fear that this delicate, precious modus operandus is getting snowed under by the sheer volume of change.
A friend of mine named Marty Butler posted this informal study on Facebook (I'm therefore assuming it's for public distribution...):
"I did an informal survey on our dog walk tonight. About 50 percent of the sample was either uncomfortable or unaware of how to wave. Perhaps the immigrants are unaware of our local custom: extend all five fingers, face your palm outwards and move your wrist side to side while smiling. This simple act makes Austin a lot less like the place y'all are all running away from."
So let's each do our part today. Let's get out there and show 'em why Austin is the Casual Social Interaction Capital Of The World. Let's keep Austin sweet. Thank you for listening.