Boomerang Days: Nightcrawler

 

Boomerang Days: Nightcrawler

A Longhorn does college all over again.

My favorite hours as a Longhorn were spent between midnight and dawn—those deep, dark hours when all good people are tucked in their beds and the ne’er-do-wells seek out coffee, conversation, and 4 a.m. queso.

We’d stay up unraveling theological mysteries, deconstructing U2 lyrics, or arguing over the tastiest Skittles flavor. Nights before a big test, we’d abandon sleep with the false assurance that a semester’s worth of scholarship could be absorbed in a single caffeine-fueled 24-hour cram session.

So I’m returning to the campus spots that still thrive during the graveyard shift. There’ll be no sleep tonight.

Midnight: Enter the Hookah House

For years, there was no better home for the night owl than Mojo’s on the Drag. In the shell of an old Austin home thrived a punk and art scene where scholars and street kids alike sucked down enough coffee to kill a buffalo. The place was cozy, decorated with the kind of thread-worn, third-hand furniture a thrift store would reject.

Mojo’s is now Kasbah.

Persian rugs, low red couches, and flowing, embroidered curtains give the impression one has stumbled onto the set of I Dream of Jeannie. Kasbah is a hookah bar, something I have to pronounce very carefully when explaining to my wife where I’ve been all night.

I’m a little lost on how to order a hookah. But the hookah dealer—is that the term?—explains the process. From an expansive collection of flavored tobacco, he recommends blueberry-mint-vanilla-absolute zero. It sounds like a tornado hit a Glade air-freshener factory.

I’m rewarded with an intricate glass water pipe as tall as a toddler. It’s balanced on the table before me like God’s favorite bong. The immediate head rush is bewildering, as is inhaling the flavors of mint and blueberry, like two species of gum in a forbidden relationship. It’s kind of awesome.

For a good hour I sit enjoying my hookah and reminiscing of past all-nighters.  But Kasbah isn’t open all night, so it’s time to go.

For last call I once again step into the Love Goat (see “Boomerang Days: Barfly” from the May|June 2016 issue of the Alcalde). The bartender remembers me from my last visit. Which is a bad sign. I don’t remember her.

2:30 a.m.: Closed Doors and Donuts

Say goodnight to the bar-hoppers and head-nodders. Now the real weirdness can begin.  I could head out from the campus area to the delightfully eclectic Bennu Coffee, or grab a wonderfully grease-soaked breakfast taco at Star Seeds. But closer to campus, the choices are slim.

Players is long gone. Spider House closes at 2 a.m. The perfectly named Insomnia became Metro, a two-story coffee shop where the espresso shakes and unforgiving metal chairs warded off any prospect of sleep. Now the place is home to a Caffe Medici. Cool spot, but it closes at 10.

I head north of Guadalupe to La Tazza Fresca, a nifty coffee shop/oil change garage. I’m greeted by an eerily friendly automated recording.

“The store is now closed. You must leave the premises. The store is now closed.”

I feel like the Carl’s Jr. kiosk from Idiocracy is about to scream at me.

JP’s Java on San Jacinto was a great late-night spot. The location is now open 24 hours a day, but it’s not JP’s anymore. It’s a 7-11.

I’m losing hope when a glowing, fluorescent beacon draws me in. An all-hours paradise where the post-bar crowd and the weary textbook crammers indulge in the perfect combination of sugar and fat: Ken’s Donuts.

These donuts were a staple of my college diet, ranking just below baked beans and free samples at H-E-B.

Ken’s Donuts hasn’t changed a thing, including the roach traps and hairnets. There’s a reason one must be intoxicated or sleep deprived to enjoy Ken’s. The ceiling leaks and the coffee is about as fresh as the last Sugar Ray album, but hey, it’s open!

4 a.m.: My Darkest Hour

It’s strange to be alone on a campus usually filled with tens of thousands of bustling students. For now, squirrels sleep, bats circle, and I lay down in a dry fountain to watch purple clouds skirt the sky.

Where are my peeps? Where are the no-sleep connoisseurs? Where are the Dobie midnight screenings, Einstein’s marathons, after-hour Quack’s, and all-night poetry readings? Dear God, what happened to us?

5 a.m.: Found ’em!

The sky is beginning to pale when I step into Kerbey Lane Cafe and find exactly what I’m looking for. A Wisconsin transplant in a yellow V-neck sweater talks politics with a spiky-haired skateboarder. You could hang a closet full of clothes-hangers through the holes in the waiter’s ears. Two sorority girls stumble in, crying out for Diet Coke and pancakes. Raise your coffee and toast this hodgepodge community, this cross-cut subset bound only by the oddness of the hour and love of pancakes. I may smell of mint, blueberries, and fountain residue, but I fit right in.

Illustration by Mario Zucca

 

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