When I told people in New York that I was moving to Texas, the conversation pretty much always went the same way: “To Austin, I assume?” (Yes.) “Oh, well, Austin isn’t Texas. I hear people love Austin.” In fact, Austin is in Texas, as evidenced by the very name of the university at which I now work, and the fact that the capital of the state is here. From the iconic bell tower on campus, one can look upon the domed and columned capital building down below, the largest state capital in the United States (no surprise there).
You also know you’re in Texas when you’re in Austin because the rules that apply to all Texans also apply to you. Lately, that has a lot of people agitating around a new Campus Carry law that went into effect on August 1, allowing anyone age twenty-one or older who has obtained a permit to tote a concealed handgun on their person. In Texas, for some, a gun has just become the newest must-have on the back to school shopping circuit.
The website of the University of Texas has a page now dedicated to the Campus Carry law, and a statement was posted on July 29 stating that although “we have heard and understand the concerns raised by many members of the campus community,” the university will, nevertheless, “implement the law as smoothly as possible.” The tricky thing about the law is that the weapon must remained concealed at all times. This means that if a student, or any one else on campus, claims to be carrying a gun, or, if you notice a “bulge” in someone’s clothes where a bulge ought not to be, you are charged with immediately calling 911. It also means that anyone carrying a weapon must keep that weapon on or “about” their person at all time, “about” meaning that one can “carry a handgun — holstered — in a backpack or handbag.” For this reason, it is stipulated by the university that “all license holders must think through the activities of their day” before said day commences. For instance, the potential gun carrier would do well to consider that, “if you are going to a Rec Sports area, have a class that requires role playing, rolling, or spinning or contact with other students, you might expose the handgun.” On such a day, it follows, a student, faculty, or staff member should consider leaving their gun at home.
The inherent absurdity of the new regulation — which went into effect fifty years to the date after a sniper open fired from the campus bell tower, claiming seventeen lives — has been illustrated evocatively by a student group on campus, which goes by the hyper-hashtag-able name, Cocks not Glocks. The name is in reference to a Texas obscenity law that potentially makes it illegal to carry a dildo on campus, and on the first day of fall classes, student organizers distributed dildos below the bell tower. Its most visible members are women who have vocally and eloquently rejected the Campus Carry law in the newspaper, on television, and across social media — and by voicing their opinion have fallen prey to the all too predictable ire of the Internet.
Taking a different line of dissent, three professors — also all women, and all teaching subjects in the Humanities — sued the state and university in an attempt to keep guns out of their classrooms on the grounds that guns in class would limit free speech. Makes sense to me, but the assistant attorney general for the University of Texas, Anne Marie Macki, says au contraire, such a notion is itself in fact “rooted in assumptions and prejudices.” Although the lawsuit was not successful, it would appear that for now, our autonomous bodies (until shot at, god forbid) are still our own to legislate as a place on campus where firearms may not tread. A professor in the office across from my own regularly wears a black shirt with bold white lettering that reads, “I AM A GUN-FREE ZONE.”
It would also appear that it is but a small minority who cares to carry. The president of the university, Gregory Fenves, told The New York Times that student and faculty “overwhelmingly opposed” the new law, though despite a consensus to the contrary, he will make sure that this massive state university is compliant with Texas legislation. (Can we get a referendum up in here?) In my own classroom, I feel little concern that any of the sixteen students I teach across three courses are the gun-toting type. It just doesn’t seem to me that those who have chosen to subject themselves to the study of an excessively difficult and small Slavic language, or geek out over avant-garde magazines, would harbor a dual interest in taking their guns to town. It is also within my legal rights to prohibit students from bringing guns into my private office, though a “no guns allowed” sign on the door is not considered to be sufficient; each student must be verbally notified.
So far, the UT campus has seemed more like some sort of southern paradise than a danger zone. Though I don’t have anything to back this up besides the bites on my legs and no bullets so far, I think it’s safe to wager there are a whole lot more mosquitos here than guns. I can eat my lunch beside a turtle pond or read on one of the loungers that line the outdoor pools at the gym, shaded by palm fronds. At least one undergrad, noticing my lostness on this large campus, asked if he could help me find my way, and didn’t leave my side until I had. On the first day of class, I admitted to my students that I’d only lived in Texas for about four days, and in response, one drawled, “Awww, welcome to the best place on Earth!” Everyone says y’all with an earnestness alien to my East Coast ears.
Gun laws aside, the city of Austin has come to replace the “Modern Love” column in the Fashion & Style section of The New York Times as my guilty pleasure of choice, with its badass succulent scene, abundant swimming holes, and a heat that makes it hard to believe I ever lived through a winter of snow. And I can’t imagine the breakfast tacos and fifty cent avocados ever getting old. About this time a year ago, I wrote here of moving back to New York, not imagining that so soon, I’d be gone again. It’s not a move I’d anticipated, and unable to fully grapple with this new reality by the time it was time to leave, I left most of my things in New York. There still resides my bed, my books, my winter boots, my boyfriend (no longer really mine). I live in limbo between two strange places.
In my new “home,” I reside on a street of brightly colored duplexes. There are chickens in the backyard and a cat named Ginger who lounges all day in the sun. One chicken in particular, our downstairs neighbors tells us, may turn out to be a rooster. If we hear it crow, we ought to let them know, as residents are not allowed to keep roosters. The bird in question — we call her Ethel — is a white fluffy thing with feathery chaps down its stick legs who goes everywhere with a little blonde chick we call Marge. Marge has a plume of feathers at the top of her head that covers her eyes and makes her look more like a Dr. Seuss character than a hen. Some evenings, the two climb the wooden, slatted steps up to the back porch of our second floor apartment, and snuggle together against the railing, Marge nestled under Ethel. In the yard, they scurry about together, avoiding the other three — older and larger ladies — as they peck eternally at the dirt.
One morning, I wake up early, realizing it’s Ethel’s crowing that has roused me. I bury back into bed and hope I’m mistaken. I continue using the female pronoun in referring to her, in hope that it’s enough to make her so. But Ethel keeps on crowing, joyful to have found her voice, unaware that announcing it — simply doing what roosters do — will only mean removal, and separation from Marge.
On Saturday morning, they take Ethel away.
Late Saturday night, there’s a shooting at a frat house near the UT campus.