an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Some of the other End of Austin pieces will undoubtedly focus on how the city has changed, how it is no longer what it once was, how and when it met its demise. Rather than be concerned with how Austin is growing yet decaying, or has ended, or is ending, or will end, this one takes a different approach. Instead of being concerned with the “end” of the city in a teleological sense, this piece explores the possibilities of other kinds of “ends”—margins, peripheries, the end of the line, the last stop, the end of usefulness, the end as the point of no return…or potential redemption and creative reappropriation of the objects once useful to Austin’s two main institutions, the state capital and University of Texas.
One of Austin’s many distinctions is being one of only a handful of cities that are home to both the large bureaucratic institutions of state capital and primary university. Texas is the second most populous state (more than 25 million residents) and UT has the fifth-highest single-campus enrollment in the nation (somewhere around 50,000 students), so it’s a lot for these institutions to manage and oversee. And not that there’s necessarily an inverse relationship between size and efficiency, but these two giant entities generate a lot of excess objects which ends up in two different warehouses in different parts of the city. They’re not exactly like the enormous facility where the Ark of the Covenant is taken at the very end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but there are more similarities than differences.
The state surplus facility sits in a somewhat secluded corner of southeast Austin in a building shared with the state Railroad Commissioner. Commuters and truckers rush past on Highway 183, perhaps noticing the parked fleet of former police cars (there was also a police boat the day of my visit), but I suspect few have actually been inside. This is where official property of the state of Texas ends up—the endpoint of utility as far as the state is concerned.
The first room contains items that have been confiscated at Texas airports – large bins of pocketknives, corkscrews, and blunt objects that airline passengers neglected to clear from their carry-ons. One can’t help but feel a bit sympathetic for whoever’s bone-handled, engraved silver pocketknife is now being offered for sale here for $300. Surely that must have been an uncomfortable exchange to watch in the airport.
Other objects lie in wait, each with stories of their own. The fancy cake knife with a beribboned white handle from a recent wedding. The rack of snow globes, each containing more than the maximum amount of allowable liquid. The glass tequila bottle shaped like a handgun. Perhaps more interesting is the rack with confiscated items that I assume the state cannot legally sell, yet doesn’t rid itself of either: bullet casings, defused grenades, and a rope noose, among other oddities.
Moving beyond the entry room, a set of double doors opens up into a giant warehouse with rows upon rows of office furniture. These items are mostly desks, office chairs, and file cabinets (“you gotta get a five-drawer,” suggested a helpful state employee). Sprinkled in among these rows are a refrigerator, a pair of deep fryers, several drawer-less bookshelves, wooden cabinet televisions, and small office storage supplies. A large Texas flag hangs from the ceiling, reminding visitors again whose junk this is for the time being.
The other facility that represents this particular kind of “end” in Austin is tucked away in the far end of the 475-acre Pickle Research Campus (named for former State Representative J. J. “Jake” Pickle), which traces its roots to the Applied Research Laboratories, originally dedicated to military applications of acoustics and electromagnetics during the Cold War. The University’s unwanted goods and taken eight miles north of UT’s main campus to this science and research campus, to be stored in proximity to the Library High Density Storage Facility, the Center for Transportation Research, “Radioactive Materials Storage,” and “Explosive Storage B.”
After a brief sign-in (I gather this facility is not open to the public except on auction day), I walked through the doors that led into the cavernous warehouse. Like the state surplus facility, there were numerous file cabinets, chairs, desks, and bookshelves. Back in the rear corner were a couple rows of archaic electronics, calibration devices, and other mysterious scientific equipment. One can’t help but wonder what kinds of experiments these devices were once crucial to, or what became of the students and faculty that once used them.
The next room is where all the old computers end up. CPUs and monitors were stacked several units deep, and along the wall on the shelves were dozens of laptops. Most appeared to be somewhere between 5 and 10 years old, but one laptop (ancient by current computing capabilities), a twenty-year-old Apple PowerBook 100 with a trackball, stuck out like a forgotten relic.
The variety of objects, as well as their age and condition, all indicate something about the size, complexity, and purchasing power of the University of Texas. Some of these things, particularly the scientific equipment, must have been quite expensive when new. And now they sit in a warehouse, their useful lives having met an ignominious end.
From time to time, the University holds a public auction (in case you ever need a lot of 30 cafeteria tables, commercial freezers, or a twenty year old minivan) but the warehouse eventually fills back up. Apparently they can’t get rid of bookshelves fast enough; no matter how many are sold at auction, generally in large lots, the surplus trucks keep bringing more, discarded from various departments and offices on campus. (But what of the books they once held?) Still, one can’t help but wonder why the University ever needed an Italian movie poster, or why scrapbooks featuring members of the 2008 track & field team ended up here, or why they were created in the first place.
For these objects designated “surplus” and unwanted by the institutions that once owned them, these two warehouses don’t represent the end—only a temporary stop in a cycle of utility. The state’s file cabinet will eventually find new life in someone’s home office; the university’s bookshelf will surely be put to good use someplace else. For the moment these items exist in a sort of bureaucratic limbo, a material purgatory, the liminal space between (from the state’s perspective) useful and useless. Who knows how long they are to remain there or what their ends will be.
Brendan Gaughen is working his way toward a PhD in American Studies. His research interests focus on the connections between material culture, collecting, mobility, and the human relationship to place. When not doing academic-related things, he enjoys playing vintage video games, wandering America’s backroads, and a GPS-based hobby called geocaching.