Joe lives across the street from Clayworks, my family’s thirty-seven-year-old pottery business. The building it’s in, however, is even older, as Joe can attest. He’s lived across the street from it since the ’40s when he got back from the war, in a big white house that leans a little and hasn’t had a paint job since the ’90s. But the porch is perfect for people-watching, positioned high above the street, and the iron gate around the yard once lined the yard at the Texas capitol building. Joe, like nobody else, has seen Austin’s Eastside get scraped away and replaced with multimillion-dollar condos.
First came the bike shops which replaced the piñata shops, then came the hipster bars which replaced the Tejano bars, then came the $$ restaurants that replaced the $ restaurants. Then came the “coming soon” signs marked by major developers, and the mom-and-pop shops trembled. Then came 2008: boom, bust and the signs collect dust. The food trucks moved in on the plots with now faraway plans of development (someone had to pay the ungodly property taxes).
After a few years of quiet, once the banks felt safe and secure sitting atop a new buffer of taxpayers’ dollars, they unclenched their fists, started loaning money again, and the crooked, graffitied “coming soon” signs were replaced with shiny new ones. Joe has watched it all from his porch, looking up every now and again from his paper to wonder at the tattoos, mohawks, and construction hats walking by.
By the time my dad bought the building at 1209 E. Sixth Street in 1979, Joe was already retired from a job at the Austin American Statesman where he worked in printing. He likes to tell about the time in November, 1963, when the Statesman decided they would do a human interest story on him, a WWII veteran—they gave him a framed picture of John F. Kennedy and arranged for him to meet the president when he got to Austin and have it signed. Joe was so proud. And then he, along with the rest of the country, was crushed when Kennedy never made it past Dallas. He still has the unsigned photo.
Joe started working for my dad right away doing everything from wiring lamps to cleaning up to staffing the gallery. Take notes those of you who want to live a long life: Joe has never driven as long as I’ve known him, and he has always had a job; he still comes over to Clayworks for about fifteen minutes at a time to “check on us” and straighten up. When he leaves, he always tells us he’ll be across the street if we need anything.
When Jojo was born Joe called her his “tocaya.” This is a word we don’t have in English—it’s someone who has your same name: Joe and Jo.
I’ve known Joe my whole life and have good memories as a kid of going to his house for a coke, sitting on his porch to watch people to go by, visiting to see the kittens that had been born under his house, and the comfort of always seeing him at Clayworks or on his porch monitoring the neighborhood.
Last week we sat on that porch while Jojo showed him her toys—he called her his tocaya and they both spoke a mixture of English and Spanish to each other. There is nearly a 100-year gap between the two of them and as they played it felt like the world slowed down. I don’t know anyone else in their nineties who isn’t in a nursing home. I don’t know anyone else in their nineties who still feels compelled to check on me and tell me to come over if I need anything. Our elderly can’t get out in the city we’ve designed, but very old people and very young people need access to each other. This porch, these two people, and this still-standing house on E. Sixth Street is a precious moment in time.