After New Orleans, I returned to Austin, drained and dispirited, and I tried to shift my focus to law school and the upcoming final exams. I couldn’t handle the emotional storm inside me. I didn’t have the time or the ability to manage it, and so I just wanted to suppress it all. To somehow force everything back inside the disintegrating dam. Hide it away so that I could try and get through my year in Texas, and maybe even enjoy it. Sometimes that worked. There were moments, hours maybe in the spring and summer of 1996, when I didn’t think about my brother and his death. But predictably, there were also many difficult times when the dam broke, and everything just came flooding out.
I remember one night, about a week after spring break, I went out with Marc and some old friends of his that were visiting from out of town. We went out to a bar, but I was feeling down and couldn’t shake it off. So I was a bit quieter than usual, and not very interested in any of their conversations. I listened politely, but I didn’t participate much. So Marc’s friends started saying things like “Oh Pete hates us”.
When I told them it was nothing to do with them, and that I was just feeling a bit low, they started probing and prodding, insisting to know the reasons why. So I tell them respectfully, about 10 times, that it was not something I really want to talk about. I try to change the subject. Then, when I go to the bar, Marc tells them what happened with my brother, and they just can’t leave it alone. “How are your parents?” they ask when I return. “I don’t really want to go into it” I reply. “Was he your only brother?”…“How did he die?”…“Did he look like you?”… “Were you guys close?”
I couldn’t handle it and so I just got up and left. I walked outside and didn’t come back. So that made me the asshole. At the time, I just didn’t see the point in talking with strangers about it. All it was going to do was make them sad, and that would make me sad. I didn’t want their pity. I just wanted to be treated normally.
I’d become aware of one of the many differences in cultures between the US and the UK: Americans love to talk about their feelings. And that’s fine. I see the benefits of that now. But in 1996, being 20 years old and having been raised in the emotionally barren landscapes of Glasgow, I didn’t really do ‘feelings’. And so I definitely didn’t want to talk about them to strangers in a pub.
That sort of thing happened a lot in the spring of 1996. I tried to act normally, but I was not myself. I’d always been a bit of drinker but now there was a purpose for drinking. The more I drank, the less I would feel.
I was also having horrifically vivid nightmares. There was one recurring dream that a small dog would bite me, and then he’d slowly start to eat my whole arm. I had several nightmares where I actually died in the dream, either in a plane crash or falling off a cliff, but then other things happened. I know that you’re not supposed to die in a dream, and so waking up from those was especially unnerving. But the worst dreams were the ones where I dreamt that my brother Andy was still alive.
They would be the most vivid, realistic dreams, as if I’d just been talking with Andy on the phone, or hanging out with him at the house in Barrhead. And in my dreams I believed that I was mistaken about his death. That it had all been a bad dream.
Then I’d wake up in my room in Austin, tired, usually hungover, panicked and confused about what was a dream and what was reality. There would be a brief moment of hope, that maybe his death actually had been a dream. But then I’d see something in my room, a photograph or some other reminder of what had really happened. The sadness would wash over me and the reality of his death would break me again.
I hardly talked about my feelings with anyone, but I found comfort in music. Certain lyrics from songs took on hugely personal significance, as if they were somehow able to express the emotions I couldn’t. There was one song by the British band Gene that I used to listen to again and again. I don’t know what the song is about but the last few lines to ‘London, Can You Wait’ would echo in my head:
I was having the time of my life,
So, why did you have to die?
I’m lost again.
In April 1996, I remember I went to see another Britpop band called Echobelly at Liberty Lunch. They played a song called ‘Scream’ that it seemed had been written for me. The song starts with the lyrics:
What’s it all about?
Spent my whole life praying for a chance to be here;
And things are not the same as expected;
It’s been a hard time,
Oh, to be wrong;
There’s no heaven in the sky, have you ever?
Have you ever? Have you ever? Have you ever
Cared to scream?
There is another part of that song that mentions “a waterfall made of alcohol”. I would fall asleep to that song almost every night. The cd spinning around and around on the tiny pawn shop boombox on the floor of my room next to my mattress. Stereotypical tears on my pillow. And that image of a ‘waterfall made of alcohol’. Again, I’ve no idea what the song is about. Maybe they just needed a word to rhyme with waterfall. But to me it was poetry. It was my song.
The law school finals were in early May, which meant that I spent much of April and May 1996 writing essays and studying for finals. Studying can become like an addiction too. Another diversion from reality. I would watch a lot of TV as well. I’d never watched shows like Letterman or Seinfeld before, and they became part of my routine.
That was also around the time when I first started getting into Chicago Cubs baseball. I’d been watching the Chicago Bulls all season on WGN. That was the year they won 72 games with Jordan and Pippin, but I was obsessed with Dennis Rodman – the outsider, the freak. Then WGN started showing the Cubs. When I learned that was the team that Ferris Bueller had gone to see I fell in love with the Cubbies, and Harry Carrey, and Ryne Sandberg, and Wrigley Field. That was a good distraction.
I went with my Scottish friend Lisa to see Oasis play at the Austin Music Hall on Sunday April 21, 1996. By this point Oasis and Britpop were already huge in the UK. 6 days later Oasis played two gigs at Maine Road in Manchester in front of 100,000 people. It was a great show and Champagne Supernova had become another song that had taken on a life of its own for me. It’s a song that makes no sense to most people, but one lyric became a symbol for my inability to understand why my brother had passed away:
But you and I will never die
The world’s still spinning around we don’t know why,
Why, why, why, why?
“Why?” was the question that I couldn’t answer.
In May ’96 I started to think about summer plans, and staying in the US for a few more months. I didn’t want to go back to Scotland until I had to. So I tried to convince some friends from Glasgow to come out to America to do some traveling. The day of the Oasis concert I called my friend Nelly, and he told me that he and another mate, Cheesey, were planning on coming over for a month in the summer. I was so excited, but I also knew that I didn’t have any money to go traveling, so I needed to get a job.
Before I could get a job, I needed a work visa. I found out that I could get a work visa if I was taking summer classes at law school. It was a bit more complicated than that, but I convinced my Sports Law professor that he should sponsor me to write a dissertation on the Bosman free agency case and how it would change European soccer. He agreed and then I took his sponsorship letter to the international student office, and they got me a temporary work visa.
I applied for jobs at all the bars I used to frequent – The Crown and Anchor, Waterloo Brewery, Lovejoys, The Copper Tank, Casino El Camino, and a few more. A couple of days later I got a call from Mr. Casino himself, the owner of Casino El Camino, asking me to come in for an interview. We met the next day and he offered me a job as a bar-back starting that same night.
I didn’t tell him that I was only going to work for a few months, but I figured he knew I wasn’t going to be around forever. So I started working at Casino El Camino. It was then, and probably still is now, my favorite bar in the world. It had only been open for a couple of years in 1996, and most of the original bartenders were still there. Awesomely cool guys with names like ‘Blackrock’ and ‘Gargoyle’ who took me under their wing. And unlike Finnegans Wake in Edinburgh, these guys liked to have a drink or two while they were working. It was a perfect job for me at the time.
I finished my last exam on May 14th, 1996, and by then I was working 3 or 4 nights a week at Casino, either helping out the bartenders or flipping burgers in the kitchen. I died my hair black and each night, I’d borrow Marc’s bike and cycle through campus from our house on Elmwood downtown to 6th Street. Slowly all the students went home and Austin seemed so much quieter.
I got my exam results pretty quickly too. A couple of A’s and a couple of B’s. I was pretty happy with that considering. One professor wrote to me suggesting that I should try and publish my research paper comparing Environmental Laws in Scotland and Texas. I didn’t, but I shared that letter with my whole family back home.
I tried to convince my friends Stu and Lisa to stay on for the summer but they went home to Liverpool and Aberdeen. Lisa left in mid May. I remember she came in to see me at Casino on one of her last nights and she was wearing a bright yellow dress. Along with Marc and Stu, Lisa had been one of my best friends for the whole year, and I’d never thought of her as anything other than that – a friend. But I remember thinking that night, for the first time, that she looked beautiful. How had I known her for a year and not noticed that I wondered?
I remember I got absolutely shit-faced on the night she was leaving Austin a few days later. I was sunburnt and I had my kilt on for some reason. I couldn’t speak. I was drinking a lot at that time. When I wasn’t working, I’d go out, and then when I was working, well, I don’t remember much about the end of those evenings.
I do know that the Casino bartenders had this great rule: that whenever there was a rush on the bar, and everything was going nuts, someone (usually Blackrock) would announce that the bar staff had to stop what we were doing and that we should all have a shot. And that’s what we’d do. All the customers would have to wait while we all clinked glasses and threw back some whisky. The bar got busy countless times a night. It was great.
Some of my nights out with the Casino guys were the wildest experiences I’ve ever had. I saw a different side of Austin that summer from the law school college scene. We’d go and see punk bands at Emo’s, or crash parties on the sketchy east side, or get in fights at Star Seeds Café at 5 in the morning. It was crazy. But I made a lot of money in the few months I worked there. Enough to go traveling around America.
Stu stayed though June, partly because he’d fallen for an Austin girl that he would later marry, but eventually it was time for him to leave too. We went out for dinner at Baby Acapulcos on his penultimate night. I took my video camera out for some reason. I was feeling bulletproof.
Marc’s friend Brian was in town and he drove us from our house near campus down the drag and over to Riverside. I filmed the whole thing like a tour guide, purely for my own amusement. It’s strange looking back at Austin in 1996. It doesn’t seem that long ago to me now, but it was another world.
Stu’s last night was June 10th. It was also around that time that the soccer tournament Euro ‘96 started in England. Back then soccer wasn’t as big a deal in the US. ESPN had the rights to show the tournament but they only showed about half a dozen games from the whole of the group stages. Fortunately two of them were Scotland games.
On June 10th I was in the pub at 10am, by myself, with my kilt on to watch Scotland v Netherlands. We drew 0-0 and then I stayed there celebrating all day. By the time Stu showed up around 8pm for his last night party I could barely walk. By the end of the night I’d convinced myself that Scotland had won the game. We ended up in Magnolia Café at 4am, and again, I have no memory of that, other than I remember that I couldn’t speak.
Saturday June 15th was the day of Scotland v England at Wembley. I’d worked on the Friday night at Casino until 5am and when I got home I couldn’t sleep because I was so nervous. The game kicked off at 9am Austin time and I’d convinced a few people to join me to watch it at the Posse East on the Saturday morning. I was so pumped up for that game. It was everything. And I was equally as devastated when Scotland lost.
A few days later Scotland had to beat Switzerland and hope that England would beat the Netherlands by four goals. A highly unlikely situation. ESPN were only showing the England game and I had no way of finding out the Scotland score. But England were winning 4-0 with 15 minutes to go. I had to call my Dad to find out what was going on. Scotland were winning 1-0. But then Holland scored a shitty goal, and that meant Scotland were out on goal difference.
One of the benefits of being a Scotland football fan living abroad is that when you watch the team achieve a predictably glorious failure on TV in Austin, you can just walk outside and no one else knows what had just happened. The pain recedes quicker because there are fewer, if any, reminders of the misery. I like that.
And I think the same applied to my grieving, or lack thereof, in Austin in 1996. There were fewer reminders in Austin. People didn’t know me as well. I could pretend to be just a normal hard drinking Glaswegian kid. But I knew that eventually I would have to go home. I would need to be with my family and friends again, and I wouldn’t be able to ignore the tsunami inside of me.
My visa expired on August 20, 1996, exactly one year after I arrived. But before then, I wanted to try and enjoy my summer. It was two days after Scotland were knocked out of Euro ‘96, on Thursday June 20th, that I got a phone call from my mate Nelly in Glasgow.
The bad news was that Cheesey was not going to make it. The good news was that Nelly was coming for a summer of fun all across America. And he would be arriving in 7 days. I had a week to finish my European soccer dissertation, hand in my notice at Casino, and plan a summer adventure riding around the country with Nelly. We decided to travel to Chicago, New York, Boston, Toronto and Mexico. On a train.
I was also aware that Nelly knew me as well as anyone. I couldn’t pretend to be anything around him. Sure enough, when he saw me, he knew that I was fucked-up.