Austin Angel

Concrete, steel, and glass on every boxed corner and hill, parking a commodity and the summer’s sun burning intently on the pitch-black macadam beneath our feet.

The heat swelled in humid ninety-point waves as an almost still breeze softly floated through the catacombs and sewers of every front street sidewalk, lonely deserted alley or open-air trolley pushing its way past the throngs of festival patrons in this southern Texas city street.

And there he stood, in the midst of it all, partiers, drunks, tourist and general confusion, who in celebration and revelry were enjoying the warmth of a new summer just come. Eating, drinking, listening and searching through the arts that were displayed on this Cinco de Mayo Festival day in downtown Austin.  Like a Broadway actor, the lights cast down on his performance alone, singled out from the crowds and other bodies which stirred around the steps, he never takes. Culled from the herd and separated, as though glowing in darkness from all else he stood, this figure like a statue, a sad and helpless statue, he stood staring.

Not that anyone else seemed to notice, as they didn’t. Maybe because they had grown accustomed to sights such as his or maybe because they were so involved in their own little existence that situations of this kind mattered no more and he was at best, a throw-away, a shadow that was stepped through, invisible to the world. To me, however, he looked so in need, so lost, a vision from the dust bowl era in the early 1900s. His face shaved tight, hair cropped short, trousers too big and rolled over so they would remain in place, no shirt, sun-scorched almost burnt skin and that stare, that stare which fixated on one booth and with each step a reveller would make, his head tilting or turning ever focused on that booth, the one with the Texas Gulf Coast Shrimp sign, which lay just before him in the near distance.

But this, this wisp of a man in the crowd, standing as though fixated on a vision, his legs frozen, his mouth agape as though he wanted to ask questions, that no one would hear or respond, caught my attention.

Now let me explain something, I’m not a romantic, hell I hardly notice anything taking place in front of me, an ADHD who never focuses, is always thinking about this point or that creation of Gods, who sometimes envisions others considered successful as slow, just because they can’t keep up with the constant drill of thought which runs through my mind 24 -7 or the shifting from topic to topic in a split second as though playing a game of cubic chess. But this, this wisp of a man in the crowd, standing as though fixated on a vision, his legs frozen, his mouth agape as though he wanted to ask questions, that no one would hear or respond, caught my attention. In all of the noise, which didn’t matter, and laughter that would be gone tomorrow, this little man in the distance reached out to me and said, Come Here, come find out, come see. So, I did. I walked towards that booth, holding Nancy’s hand, pulling her through the crowds past this art display or that food stand selling jerky, or some other trinket, towards this solemn little figure just ahead.

Maybe it was because of the fried shrimp banner which piqued my interest or maybe I just needed to know what it was he was in lock step with, this skinny little-emaciated man in his mid to late ’30s who seemed hypnotized and lost in a world of his own. It mattered not as we moved in his direction next to the concessionary stands.   A place where throngs of patrons stood in long lines waiting to sample the fine fried Tex-Mex delicacies simmering in golden oil, when from nowhere and about the time I was going to move towards this fascination of mine, Nancy says, “Oh fried shrimp”, can we get some?”

Having grown up in the Carolina’s and believing that shrimp, like sausage and any other product from the sea or a hog, screamed staple on the dietary food chart, I agreed and we stepped towards the lady dishing out mounds of fried bugs and pilling them on southwestern salted fries for anyone with a $10 bill looking for a heart attack. And then I turned, as Nancy took the paper plate, piled high with seafood and fried potatoes swimming in golden batter and Mazola. A dish designed to clog the arteries of some poor, corn feed, 45-year-old southern soul who had for too many years feasted on pork rinds and fried bacon his entire life, managing to reach the weight of 350 pounds, to have a heart attack, drop dead right there on the sweltering streets of Austin and end up in a cross-town funeral home, where people weeping and standing around would whisper, “poor Leon, he died so young”. 

To see him, that little man who I had briefly forgotten in the noise and confusion, who had obsessed me for the past 10 minutes, standing only a few feet away, not moving except for his eyes when others would walk in front or around him.

Just staring.

So, I walked over to where he was, “Hey buddy, what’s up? I said.

No answer……

You hungry?

His head lifted slightly and he looked my way with eyes in need and small beads of sweat covering his blank stare, saying in a mumble, “yea”.  He didn’t seem drunk, even though there were a lot of people around us who were and it didn’t look like drugs was his thing so I kept the conversation going and said: “tell you what, how bout I buy you some shrimp?” Then with a slight glace in my direction, I saw in his eyes a small weary light as though I had connected and he seemed to become excited pulling his mouth tight and swallowing as one might when thirsty.

I walked towards the display we had just left and handed the lady the $10 bill she was expecting, took the plate of bugs with fries and walked over to where he stood. His mouth open and his stare shifting from the stand with the sign to the paper plate I held and handed his way. “Here you go bubba,” I said and he grabbed it in anticipation pushing its contents into his mouth. “Take care buddy”, I said walking away, feeling good about helping another of God’s creations and headed over to Nancy, who was standing on the curb trying to dodge the people bumping into and walking around her.

“You know that old saying I said as I tightly grabbed her left hand? “Which one,” she asked? “The one about never knowing who an angel might be”, she nodded and we began to push our way through the crowds, heat, noise, and streets, and who knows, maybe past another angel we didn’t recognize standing beside us.


Johnny Johnston
Johnny Johnston
An artist/writer as well as graduate of the University of South Carolina with degrees in journalism/20th Century American Literature, and retired senior executive of several international hotel/resort corporations, Johnny is the product of the south having been raised in the ever-changing transient lifestyle of a Carolina coastal resort. A point where he discovered, within his 300-year-old heritage and the world's dramatic social/cultural shifts during the late '60s to early 80’s an ambitious hunger and overwhelming curiosity to touch, see and become a participant in the virtually unlimited possibilities offered to those who wish for and seek life experiences. A journey which when hearing its details initially makes one a bit skeptical, questioning its validity as it is hard to imagine that incidents such as these may have crossed one man’s lifetime. This is the fodder required to step into zones exposing one's personal inner self, which many of his paintings and the words he writes do, openly. An ability to see and hear the tragic, beautiful, accomplished, exciting journey in a life free of inhibitions allowing others the opportunity to live vicariously and become, through his works, a part of its future. His larger works which have been featured in several Colorado and Fredericksburg Texas galleries and resorts have produced a number of collectors and fans. However, over the years, his paintings are mostly viewed by friends, enthusiastic new artist encountered on the streets or a small number of acquaintances he meets when dining in local cafés with his wife.

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  1. I can relate to that I was in Cracker Barrel once Sunday and a man was sitting by himself in an old southern suit from the 40’s. He said a prayer and started eating his two biscuits. We asked him to join us and feed him a big meal. He seemed invisible to everyone else but I felt like I was sitting with an angel. Great story Johnny. I could see, smell and feel the story.