Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Austin Chronicles: Robots, Beer and Socio-economics

The Austin Chronicles are an ongoing series about a California gal (me) who decided that Texas during the Bush Administration would be the best place to get a graduate degree in Women's Studies. I learned much more living in Texas than I did in school.

Before I left for Austin, other people were far more concerned about how I would pay my bills than I was. One of my mom's friends was really excited by the prospect of bartending downtown at Coyote Ugly, "Just think of the tips!" My mom suggested that it might actually be something to look into, since it could be considered participatory observation, suggesting that I write my thesis on it. But I did not have to squeeze into leather pants, dance on a bar, and pour tequila down frat boys throats to gain a better understanding of social mores, socio-economics and gendered performance while paying my bills.

I had barely hung up my tuxedo shirt and bow tie, before I got a call for a job with the catering company. It turns out, the company did a lot less catering and a lot more slinging of booze, so the next day I found myself in the center of a convention floor surrounded by kegs at ten o'clock in the morning.

I, and my wares, had been delivered to the exact center of the floor with the help of Angel, a very nice guy with tattoos covering his neck and knuckles, who reassured me that "This is gonna be easy. You've only got two on tap: Lone Star and Shiner Bock." I of course didn't ask him to explain the difference (Shiny what?) since I didn't want to look like a complete idiot. Nor, did I tell him that I had never touched a keg in my life.

I had gone to undergrad at a small liberal arts college where everyone lived on campus and everyone at the party would be fined a thousand bucks and threatened with expulsion if Public Safety found a keg in the room. Upon graduation, I went straight to San Francisco where no one is willing to haul a keg up three flights of stairs. And while I may have lived in the land of micro-brews (my dad even had a brief foray into brewing very dark European-ish beers, first in our garage and then opening up a small pub), once I hit drinking age I was limited to what was carried at the corner liquor store and what the bars in my neighborhood had on tap, which was increasingly being taken over by the hipster co-opted Pabst Blue Ribbon.

My inked guide interrupted my brief panic attack - complete with visions of killing convention attendees with exploding kegs - "Oh, and because of the union contract, I have to tap all the kegs, sorry."

"Oh, hey, no problem," I said as blase as I could possibly muster while silently thanking the beer, union, and minimum wage gods. I then watched as he coaxed a light beer, the likes of which would only be imbibed ironically in my former Mission neighborhood, from the steel drum labeled Lone Star, and a darker one from the other one which was conveniently missing the part of the label with it's name - so for now, it remained "Shiny."

At that point, I heard a string of swear words and laughter behind me. I turned around to face two bleached blondes who, though they were both about 5'4", looked like they could probably take Angel in a fight.

"Hey Angel! Setting up without us?" said one of them in a voice that betrayed the pack of cigarettes she smoked a day. The other one swore at her cellphone, slammed it shut, and started stuffing the tails of her tuxedo shirt into her pants.

"Yeah, Steph here is helping me, but you're gonna be seeing a lot of me since I have to tap all of them."

"No shit! You got hired?"

I would find out later that there was an odd and incestuous relationship (both professionally and otherwise) between the national company that held the contract for all temporary service work (what the uninformed would call catering) at the local convention centers and hotels, and the company that had hired me. I was a contractor for a contractor for a contractor. Angel had been hired by the contractor at the top of the pyramid. I tried not to think about what kind of ding that left in our paychecks. Instead I was relieved that I'd been referred to as a familiar, which meant the two girls who I would have made sure not to make eye contact with in junior high PE, assumed I wasn't the newbie I really was.

Katie and Jamie introduced themselves, Angel hopped in his golf cart to go set up the next beer island somewhere in the vast expanse of the convention hall, and I was left with the girls, who asked if I'd counted the cups yet. I looked at the giant pile of plastic cups under the table, "Um, no? I didn't know we were supposed to...I've never actually done one of these before."

That was it, I had revealed my weakness.

"Oh, really? Angel didn't tell you? We have to count all of the cups before and after so they can make sure we aren't drinking any." I attempted to join the chorus of eye-rolling. I was evidently going to learn a thing or two, besides how to tap a keg, since I had no idea how you would sneak a beer standing under thousand watt fluorescent lights in the middle of a convention floor.

I gathered cups from under the table (I would count A LOT of cups while wearing a tuxedo shirt) relieved that, like Angel, Katie and Jaime's personalities couldn't be judged by their hard exterior, while I frantically searched for a labeled keg of the Shiny Something-or-other. Thankfully, the yellow and brown label was on the first keg I smacked my knee against: SHINER BOCK.

Dear reader, you may already familiar with this Texas staple (and in fact it has by now made it's way to the taps and liquor aisles of San Francisco), or you may be trying to figure out why I was so perplexed by such a simple name, but let me explain to you that I am a visual learner. And, as we have discussed before, not everything in Texas is spelled like it sounds.

I had learned about Lone Star on my first trip to the grocery store. The Official Beer of the Republic of Texas (no, really) was sure to make itself known, if not from end cap displays, it's ubiquitous presence in undergrads' grocery carts. From the price point, I figured it was the state version of Pabst.

But that morning, I had been surrounded by kegs of something that sounded like it was filled with glitter-covered chickens, or maybe a rare kind of black eye that made the victim cluck like one. I wasn't about to say something that to me sounded like clucking. I was relieved to finally discover, not farmyard animals, but a Bavarian brew.

Secure in my knowledge of what I was serving, Jaime, Katie and I made small talk while we counted approximately 789 cups. Topics of conversation included why I would come to Texas from California, of all places, and what a dipshit Jamie's boyfriend was. By that point, early arrivers had begun filing in and I started to pay attention to what kind of convention our beer island was in the middle of.

There was a whirling thingamajig to by left. To my right, was a shiny full-color graph that I'm sure I would have understood better had I taken the second semester of AP Calculus. And straight ahead of me was some sort of interactive video display that had a smattering of skinny guys in jeans, tennis shoes and glasses trying not to topple over an entire row of displays as they jumped up and down and waved their arms.

The spectacled attendees looked a bit like the throngs of 28 year-old coders, programmers and engineers (all the same to everyone, but them) in San Francisco that moaned about taking paycuts the size of a teacher's salary after the tech boom busted, but there was something just a tad different about these folks. It wasn't just that Fluvlogs and Converse had been replaced with Nike's and hard-soled shoes. The bits of conversation that I picked up weren't about cascading style sheets and Google, but things like velocity and joules (things I vaguely remembered from high school physics), and yes, NASA contracts.

I scanned the room for some sort of signage that could put everything into context. Above the heads of the crowd, banners declared this "NI Week:National Instruments Worldwide Graphical System Design Conference and Exhibition." Uh, huh...

That wasn't much help until I remembered the great hulking brick called a T1-81 I had to buy for Alegbra II so that I could figure out cosign without really knowing why I was figuring it out in the first place. But, graphing calculators were made by Texas Instruments. National Instruments made something much cooler: Robots.

Sure, they make other things like kinetic cooling systems (the whirling thingamajig), but they also make honest-to-goodness, oh-my-god-I-loved-Short Circuit-because-the-main-character-was-named-Stephanie, robots. I had come to Texas expecting cowboys, or at least Republicans, and here I was in the middle of nerd-central (I assumed they were not Bush-era Republicans since they believed in the crazy notion of science).

I'm not trying to belittle the people that make robots. We have already established that I am a nerd of a different ilk. Nor were these folks geeks. These were not your everyday geeks of the video game and cosplay, or even coding, variety. These were honest-to-goodness, Stephen-Hawking-would-be-proud, nerds.

And I was one of three girls in the center of it all who was there to serve them beer. Free beer.

I would learn later, that the open bar is the bane of the bartender's existence. When the bar is open, the wallets are closed. No open wallets, no tips. But, it seemed that rule did not apply in the land of robots. As Jaime and Katie poured perfect beers faster than I could say "ROBOTS!," I chatted up the people that will send us to Mars and find viable alternatives to oil, and brought in the tips that we would pool at the end of the day.

Don't get me wrong, there were women nerds holding their own, and showing up the boys on the convention floor, but they weren't up for drinking before noon as much as their male counterparts. And you can forget the belief that nerds don't know how to talk to girls. If we were going to characterize these male nerds as anything, I would actually say they were quite chatty.

Unfortunately, my genuine interest in mechanical ways to perfect brain surgery and the details of NASA contracts started to be misconstrued (probably helped by mass quantities of free beer) and I began to hear this refrain:

"Hey, so do you know of a good place to hang out tonight?"

Translation: Thanks to our casual culture and your public position, I don't have to actually ask you out and be bothered with the fear of rejection to a direct question or stress about figuring out what to do, but really, I am asking you out so that I have a story to blog about.

"Not really, I've been here two weeks."

Translation: Thanks buddy, I thought we were talking about robots. I mean you even kept eye-contact and didn't stare at my boobs. But, I've got a boyfriend, and really, I have no idea where we should "hang out" because I've been in Austin all of two weeks.

I would soon find out that receiving half-assed proposals (and some more direct ones) while wearing an ill-fitting tuxedo shirt were not a side effect of free beer or robots.

To be continued...

PS: (Shameless Spousal Promotion) If you make robots or just think they're cool, check out my husband's project ONE HUNDRED ROBOTS.

Photo from Flickr user littlelostrobot


  1. Hello! I saw your blog over at Feministe and am intrigued. Austin is about the last place you would meet cowboys or Bush-era Republicans. You've chosen the most California-y city in the state.

    If you'd like to see some craziness, you should skip over to my blog. I just moved from Austin to College Station. I look forward to more posts in your Austin Chronicles. :)

  2. Thanks, Courtney.
    For the most part your right, Austin is a little liberal island, but just wait until the post about the Rodeo Gala...republicans and cowboys, oh my!
    I look forward to reading about College Station!

  3. I love reading your Austin Chronicles. You paint a lively picture, and it makes me reminisce about Fayetteville, my very different but very own little corner of the south. I should perhaps start a Fayettenam (as it's not so lovingly called by many who have resided within) Journal. Either way, keep up the good work - you do the cockroaches (and republicans, but I digress) justice.


be nice.


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