Jesse Woods lives in an unusual compound in the neighborhood of Austin that houses Texas’ brightest, shining future. You know the area, where the rent is cheap and the Pakistani owners of the convenience store at the bottom of an overpriced-high-rise-luxury-student-living-Ikea-store know your name because you’re one of fifteen people who frequent in the summer that aren’t hunched over a laptop grinding their teeth and developing RLS.
It’s also the only place in Austin where you can see Thee Oh Sees play a set in a literal jungle of open door efficiency rooms and half naked teens standing motionless in the corner because they tried mushrooms and/or meth for the first time. Not that I’m being serious – I’m sure the kid with his underwear around his ankles, his body melting into the stairwell, was just peeing on himself for the effect, almost like the rooms built for standing in line for anything at Disney World. I guess if it’s your first year in Austin, it’s hard to believe that endless free beer isn’t a plague sent from God.
Resting casually between “a frat house without letters” (as Jesse has pointed out, and the residents fully reaffirm) and a surprisingly well kept garden of only moderately fried plants protected by hand-made signage that reads “THIS IS A GARDEN NOT TRASH,” is a lazy front porch only mildly littered in cigarette butts and sticky spilled kombucha.
I first arrived to The Orphanage to have a beer with Jesse and his friend between attending a group meditation session involving one man’s penchant for waxing on about one’s perineum and a vintage pop-up shop shindig on the side of a nondescript warehouse that I only half believed was being rented out by somebody the organizer actually knew. Stand By Me was projected on the side of the building as young hipsters ate pâté and reminisced about the one time they caught part of the classic film on television. There was definitely an actual baby in attendance.
The next day, I found myself lingering around the porch, discovering that not only was it a lofty place to drink and smoke with my bud, but an island of misfit toys. Here I was amidst a sixteen room complex of retired hobos, pyromaniacs, and probable schizophrenic veterans that Jesse isn’t quite sure will kill him off or not. Go USA.
The Orphanage, at first glance, is just a house. This is merely a façade casually cloaking the driveway into a little plaza that leads to the other apartments. The place was built in 1937 so the porch is leisurely enough to take up just the right amount of space until the large oak tree takes over the shady patches of rare lush grass shooting up amongst sun baked tire tread marks. One of the residents just purchased a slick black Lincoln and is sneakily challenging Jesse for the coveted spot accessible without having to jump a busted up sidewalk that grins with broken bottles in the sunlight.
After peeking out the blinds to check if the porch is clear of unwanted guests, Jesse makes his way to one of two round “hippie chairs” (One of the kids called them a forgettable name) closest to his door and lights up a cigarette. Woods, in his usual Saturday hangover attire, dons a tank top and swim trunks, planning on making it to the pool after he’s taken a stroll around the post-apocolyptic wasteland.
Moments later, the only other door on the porch opens up and a man and his eighty doller Strat come to take the other hippie chair. If he hadn’t already been strumming a mash up of rock n roll licks learned by every eight year-old in guitar lessons, he is now that he has an audience. His lyrics are muddled like he doesn’t have much to say, even though sans guitar he just doesn’t know when to shut the fuck up.
Not that Roger doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s always got some advice for Woods on songwriting. “Your songs are good, Jess, but you need to learn how to write a good hook!” and whips out one of his own. He actually holds two degrees, one of them in architecture. He takes a cab to go grocery shopping once a month and talks to his momma on the phone every Sunday, but still hasn’t been able to figure out the camera on the damn thing.
Within the few hours we’re wasting away in the balmy summer heat, more of the compound’s inhabitants come to take their turn on the porch. Others make less apparent their residency, slinking across the plaza out of view. “Who was that?” I ask, spotting the first woman I’d seen on the property. “Oh, she tried to light Robert’s room on fire last week. He’s just tryin’ to get by and the bitch keeps startin’ fires.” I don’t remember who said it, the conversation twists and turns in too many directions on the porch for anything to really linger in your mind for too long.
We decide to grab some lunch, exhausted by the sun baked chattiness, only to find that Jesse’s car won’t start. “I’ll just go grab Joe for some tools,” and knocks on the door of the guy that repairs his guitars for pennies on the dollar. Joe comes out, wearing faded jeans and a breezy button down. He’s clever and relaxed – calls them as he sees them. When changing the battery doesn’t get the car started, he does the research for Woods and figures out exactly what part to order online and emails it over within minutes. He’s just that kind of guy to take care of what needs to be taken care of, offering to pick up an ounce for Roger while he’s out running errands in the heat of the day on his motorcycle.
Robert, a burly guy with a head of Jesus-level hair and matching scraggily beard, is the next resident I meet. Because only two of the rooms in the complex lead to the main porch, it’s a constant dance around who you’d rather not run into. After Jesse befriended a homeless man that started to permachill on the porch long enough to steal a guitar, it’s good to know that Robert is actually worth talking to for awhile. So we did.
Robert has Wolff Parkinson White Syndrome, and recently experienced a heart attack. He says he’s had his heart rate skyrocket to 180 bpm, and after bumming a few cigarettes and downing an energy drink in just a few seconds, I think I believe him. The conversation is quick, I keep up, but the absurdity of Robert’s life begs for a question every other sentence. I learn to sit back with my beer and let Jesse cut through the bullshit. They talk about making noise for God, his stints as a medical study regular, and Robert’s theory that George Bush is Batman. Robert’s convinced he’s not human, and knowing him well, Jesse’s not convinced either.
Before an exhaustive comparison on the benefits of the NASA study he’s considered, where you lie down for sixty days and get thrown tens of thousands of dollars, I’ve become fluent in topics I didn’t know existed. If anything, life at The Orphanage is educational, if not a bit of a pick-me-up when you’re feeling like things aren’t really working out. After a day soaked in other people’s troubles, surrounded by “been there, done that” wisdom and a white man’s attempt at the blues, life seems worth taking your time at, even if it’s as simple as walking instead of driving to pick up a six pack of Shiner. I’m still not totally filled in on how Jesse ended up as a resident here, but I think he fits in alright, although he’s the youngest and only normal guy there. Even with an overbearingly chatty new neighbor, making L.A. sound better every day, it’s worth the rare form of humanity that clings to The Orphanage to stick it out and listen.