On Friday, September 18, I was driving to the store to get some beer after my last meeting of the day.
It had been a particularly weird week — my birthday was the day before. It was a pandemic birthday, so we stayed in and ordered Tex-Mex from one of my favorite local spots in South Austin, El Borrego De Oro.
My ultimate comfort food is a plate of cheese enchiladas covered in chili con carne. But when I ordered online, I accidentally selected “chili con queso” for my enchilada sauce instead of “chili con carne.”
Amanda, Tim (my business partner and one of my closest friends, who has been part of my very small quarantine pod since March) and I sat at the dinner table and just couldn’t stop laughing, imagining what the chef must’ve thought, looking at my order.
Ok, so this guy wants cheese, wrapped in a tortilla, covered in melted cheese, with… a large side of melted cheese?
That’s what the order says.
I couldn’t finish the plate, mostly from laughing. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that queso can be lethal if you snort it.
Now here I was on Friday, driving to the store to pick up some beer, trying to clear my head. The weather was finally nice enough to roll down the windows, so I did. Then Eric Clapton’s cover of JJ Cale’s “Don’t Wait” came on shuffle, my cares drifted out the window of my truck for a second and I took some deep breaths.
I was snapped back to reality when I drove under a freeway overpass and saw just how much a particular homeless camp under I-71 has expanded. What was previously a relatively small group of people trying to shield themselves from the Texas summer heat had grown at least five-fold with elaborate camps and makeshift housing made of tents and tarps.
Over the last few years, I’ve done a decent amount of work to learn about the drivers of a challenge like homelessness—and there are many. I think Austin is moving in the right direction by investing in hotels and motels that can be retrofitted to include wraparound services like mental health and other healthcare, addiction and recovery, job placement and training. I think we’re moving in the right direction by investing more money into those services in general. We’ve got strong public-private-nonprofit partnerships in place that are working together on this. I think we need more clarity on the long-term plan, but these are good, necessary things.
But we can’t do those things and forego the real elephant in the room: zoning reform. It’s too hard and too expensive to build housing in Austin, so we don’t have enough, which means what gets built new here is usually luxury or single-family and what we have already continues to get more expensive. It’s a supply and demand problem. We have a ton of demand and we need a heck of a lot more dense housing supply to make this city affordable—we need it yesterday.
Last year, the City of Austin continued along with its plan to rewrite its zoning laws, previously called CodeNEXT. Having been scuttled and delayed on multiple occasions, the final nail in the coffin before the pandemic was a lawsuit alleging that individual homeowners should have a right to carve their lots out of any plan to upzone their neighborhood. That lawsuit won and right as the ruling came down, so did Coronavirus-19.
I think the assumption is that COVID-19 is responsible for a lot of new problems in our city and all over the world, but the truth is, like most unexpected national tragedies, what it really does is show how many people and how many systems were hanging by a thread in the first place.
Many people who were on the edge financially before the pandemic fell off because they lost a job; many restaurant, bar, and other business owners shut down or instituted work-from-home before the city put shelter-in-place orders in effect, and many didn’t have enough in the bank to hold on for this long so now they’re shutting down for good; people who could barely hold on to housing before, now homeless.
This is heavy stuff and, while I have a lot of ideas for how we can fill gaps to solve some of these problems, none of them are easy or convenient, and sometimes it boils down to, “We need to care for people and that involves personal sacrifice, even and especially from privileged people like me and you. So suck it up, buttercup.”
People aren’t exactly thrilled when I tell them that.
But it’s true. It’s how I feel. Spin the wheel:
Schools and education
Public health and COVID-19
Policing and police violence
Revenue and the city budget
The Presidential election
Mail-in ballots and voting
Take any issue on the table right now, pull the thread and you find out that
There are no magic wands, and there is no resolution without sacrifice. But there are things we can do, right now, today, to move the needle. It has never been easier to learn about a problem, find a group that’s doing something about it, and get involved than it is right now.
Which is why I smiled as I turned the roundabout.
Here, late on a Friday afternoon, was a group of about six Austinites, wearing masks, holding clipboards and, I can only assume, asking the folks living under the freeway if they needed anything as they passed out PPE. Talking to them—human to human—because until we can house them, these folks should know that as long as they’re in Austin, this city cares for them. Until we can do more, we should at least do that.
It got me thinking about how my dad and his church have been going out of their way to take care of frontline healthcare workers in California. How friends of mine who are firefighters in California and nurses and EMS workers here in Texas are putting their lives on the line to keep people safe. How friends of mine are teaching me every day what it means to be antiracist—how to follow their lead and advocate for racial justice in a way that’s actually helpful. How friends of mine are spending every waking moment they can registering people to vote. How Americans have already voted in record numbers, despite a pandemic that has already tragically killed more than 204,000.
The state of our politics may be small, but we are more than capable of meeting the moment.
Why should I let despair win?
Why wouldn’t I be hopeful?
Why wouldn’t I be optimistic?
I have to be. Not just because I hope to live another fifty years, and not just because I want to make sure our kids have a better and brighter future. But because every time I’m down, somebody picks me up. Every time I’m out of ideas, I see that somebody else is already doing the work and I can join or support them.
For every reason we can think of to be angry about the state of the world, I think we can find ten to be hopeful in each other.
As I pulled into the parking lot at the grocery store, I let the song finish. It was just too good. What a groove.
I looked at my phone. I had six text messages from six different people, each of them a single word, all-caps:
The indomitable Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, less than fifty days before the 2020 Presidential election, sparking what has become a very real battle for the soul of America.
I laughed. Why would I ever even consider writing something as stupid as an article about how “optimism is so important, even and especially in dark times”?
Would that make me sound clueless?
A couple of weeks later, I got up before the sun on a foggy Saturday morning and drove to a school parking lot in Del Valle to distribute food with a bunch of new friends with the Central Texas Food Bank. When we pulled up, I couldn’t help but smile again.
The punches kept coming, but here we all were. Strangers to each other, familiar with the problem, determined to do something.
That gives me hope.