an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Saint Elmo Afternoon was made in a vacant lot where South Congress meets West Saint Elmo Road. Saint Elmo is shorthand for Saint Erasmus of Formia, the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain. Perhaps there is a relationship between the occupation of sailor and abdominal distress, so they just lumped the two conditions together into one saint whose namesake would be carried on by a charming, bright-red puppet who entertains children. If Saint Erasmus of Formia has any complaints about this, he’s bound to be in a better position now to lobby the powers that be into doing something about it. For those of us still in the world of the flesh, we must submit our prayers to him, in hopes of swaying power in our direction.
Saint Elmo Road is split into two roads, east and west, just as Austin is split into two Austins along those very same lines. This lot is at the spot where West Saint Elmo Road simply ends in a T junction. One must walk thirty yards or so south along Congress to pick up the beginning (or ending) of East Saint Elmo and then you’re on your way to increasingly affordable real estate, in comparison to what lay to the west. “Affordability” here is an obviously relative concept. The walk from my front door in an apartment complex that attempts to present itself as trendy (but only ends up looking like a silly knock-off set from Tati’s Mon Oncle, complete with bizarre, corporate-abstract sculpture gardens) takes one past another, decidedly less frilly, low-income housing unit of brown-red brick, from whose windows the screaming and laughter of children can often be heard. The young lady who cleans the bathrooms (and all other unsightly messes) at my office lives here. I often see her driving by, she never fails to extend her arm out the open window in an attention-grabbing wave.
The road ends at a traffic light, and here one is a afforded a view of the lot in my little movie. Once a house or some such structure stood here, now only a foundation remains. A crepe myrtle, fairly drought-tolerant, sustains itself still, as does the towering oak that drops its acorns all over the concrete. Somewhere a sign advertises the fact that this lot is for sale and, for extra incentive for those with little imagination, it provides a generic artist’s rendition of what it would look like of someone built some shop and office spaces here. From our current position, in car as otherwise, you would be standing in the middle of the road. What was once Ruben’s liquor store stands to the right. I don’t drink much, but the store had its own kind of independent charm, with its dusty wooden shelves stacked with all the mid to low shelf faire you could want. Two old-timers in matching red polo shirts stood around all day in the air conditioning, keeping the lights on and manning the drive through window. Like so many things around town, Ruben’s is gone, but the structure remains, just like the vacant lot across street. This corner, like the city, is in limbo, waiting for something to happen, while too much is always happening all the time. Perhaps that is why I use such long takes in the picture, to give the viewer enough time to see something beyond what the image represents, to look beyond the promised economic opportunity of a vacant lot and instead focus on the deceptive surface of the world, the immutable reality of what is and isn’t there.
Jarrett Hayman is an Austin-based film and video artist. He is a programmer for Experimental Response Cinema, a local screening series showcasing avant-garde and experimental moving image works.