As summer approaches and the prospect of free time increases, I find myself thinking about what I want to do during the upcoming school break. I love learning new things, meeting new people, and hearing new music. I often find myself asking people about their favorite band or song. I find it’s a great way to learn about people and find new music. Everyone has a favorite piece of music they can talk about. As summer approaches, I find myself thinking about places I’ve already been and want to re-visit. Lately I’ve found myself thinking about last summer and my couch surfing experience in Texas and the music I found there. I find myself in the wet heat of San Antonio, standing on a front porch with a man in a cowboy hat, holding an icy beverage in my hand, and how he taught me something about living and the music of the world.
Couch Surfing is one of the coolest ideas I’ve run across in a very long time. Simply put, Couch Surfing is a system where like-minded individuals travel and stay with strangers along their way. It is social networking for travelers who believe the world is a good place, filled with good people, who can be trusted. The site has some safety features but it really is up to each traveler to look after themselves. But the real magic of Couch Surfing is that strangers stay with strangers but leave as friends. The world gets smaller, not bigger. You get to live in the place you’re visiting; not just visit there. You get to spend time with locals who love their city and want to show it around to strangers. It is one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. I hope to have more this summer.
Last summer I visited the Lavens – a family full of kindness and music. They took me in last minute as I was headed into San Antonio, Texas without blinking an eye. The wife, Jana, picked me up from the airport and from the first minute she was a tour guide. Making her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend sit in the backseat while she talked and pointed out all the places of interest in her town. She was kind and friendly and amazing. She made me feel incredibly welcome. Jana is a high school teacher who lives with her husband and daughter in a beautiful little neighborhood of San Antonio. But it wasn’t until I arrived and was directed to my bedroom that I found out the magic of the Laven household. They are musicians.
The bedroom I stayed in was lined with guitars. Guitars of every type. Guitars and tour posters of some of the greatest names in country western history. I just stood and stared at this cool place and how amazing it was they were showing this amount of trust to a stranger. I was exhilarated. This was the kind of life I wanted to live. This was the kind of person I wanted to be. Trusting the world. Not mistrusting everything everyone did. When I made my way back downstairs, Jana explained to me that their entire family was musicians. All of them. The family itself was its own musical group – The Lavens. I was amazed and impressed. They were a true Texan family. They would have Friday night parties with all their friends and all the food you could eat. Lots of good stuff to drink and music. Always the music.
Jana introduced me to her husband Andreas – the epitome of a Texan musician. He was tall and lanky with shoulder length hair pulled back into a clean ponytail. He wore an old pair of Wrangler jeans and a button down shirt – tucked in. An old cowboy hat sat on the back of his head. His hands were big and clean and he shook mine with purpose. He was as quiet as Jana was talkative. He had little to say to me at first but welcomed me into his home and went quietly back to what he was doing. Jana took me on a tour of San Antonio that evening – she wanted to show me everything because she was leaving on a trip herself and wasn’t going to be around.
Jana left the next day. The house was quiet and Andreas was in the kitchen having coffee with his daughter Rachel. Rachel is a beautiful 17 year old who has a voice rivaling many artists out there today. She is another Taylor Swift waiting to happen. But she had things to do and places to go. So Andreas and I were left to ourselves. Slowly we began to talk and around mid-day he asked if I wanted something to eat. I never turn down a meal and so he began making lunch for us. It was a lunch any Texan would be proud of. He started up the hand-made, cast iron grill out back with mesquite wood stacked just to one side. Once the wood started to smoke, he laid marinated skirt steak and chicken legs on the grill and pronounced we had some time to wait. So he grabbed an ice-cold beer and I grabbed a soda from fridge and went out to the front porch. We talked about living in Texas and living in other parts of the country. We talked about neighbors and friends. We talked about looking out for folks around you. I told him I wished I knew my neighbors better. Not just the folks to the left and right of me but my neighbors. My neighborhood.
He glanced at me then. Just a slight turn of his head, his eyes looking at me from under his worn straw hat, and his mouth made a single line. Maybe I’m remembering a sadness in his eyes only found when I evaluate myself. Maybe he felt sorry for me. But he turned and looked back out into the neighborhood and said, “Trouble with the North is no one sits on their porches.”
“What do you mean?” I said, with my one eye scrunching up a bit. I could smell the mesquite smoke coming from the back yard and the meat cooking ever so slowly.
“Well,” he said, shrugging his shoulders almost imperceptibly “seems like the best way to get to know your neighbors is to get out of your own house. Down here we grab ourselves a cooler full of beer and sit on the porch and enjoy the evening and invite folks who are walking by to come and have a beer with us. Or we just take a walk and end up on someone else’s porch. Seems like folks up north don’t get out of their houses enough. Maybe you oughtta just sit on your front porch and talk to folks.” He let his words hang there in the warm Texas air; the cicadas hummed hypnotically for a moment before he said, “Just my opinion.” He finished off his beer and turned toward the door. “Meat’s probably done.” He headed toward the grill out back.
And there it was. Something I’d been missing. Something so simple. It was the most Andreas talked my entire trip. But it changed the way I looked at my own neighborhood and how I was interacting with it. That day we sat in the Laven kitchen and ate smoked chicken and steak inside warmed tortillas. We washed it down with more beer and soda and enjoyed an icy chunk of watermelon. Juice kept trying to sneak down my chin. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what he had said. I just need to get outside. I just need to spend time on my own front porch.
It’s been almost a year since I visited Andreas and his family. Summer is coming again. I hope to be traveling soon. I still have a few weeks before I’m free of school, so last night I mowed the lawn. I mowed and edged and cleaned the yard in preparation for folks who are coming to a Friday night party at my house. We’re going to grill and smoke some good meat; drink frosty beverages and sit outside and take it easy. We’re going to talk and laugh and enjoy each other. We’re not neighbors, but we are friends. I’m starting small with folks I know – then I’ll move out to my actual neighbors. I’ll be playing some music I picked up from the Lavens – John Prine, Susan Gibson and Terri Hendrix. Of course the Lavens themselves will play over my speakers and into my back yard and out into the spring night.
In preparation for Friday night, and for the rest of my summer, I bought a bench. Not an expensive one and not a big one. But it’s nice. It’s meant for outside and it fits my small porch. My porch isn’t big and spacious like the one on the Laven’s old San Antonio house. But it will do. I washed out an old cooler and left it to dry out back. I washed grass stains and dirt off my bare feet. Then I went inside and made me a plate of smoked baby back ribs, baked beans and sweet potato fries. I grabbed myself an icy beverage and headed to the front porch. And I just sat there. I sat there and enjoyed my dinner and sipped on my soda. I breathed in the spring air and listened to the sounds of my neighborhood – not the sounds of my television. I smiled and waved at folks passing by. I made kiss-kiss noises at a dog that seemed to have lost his way. My own 16 year old daughter came out and talked to me for a while and we enjoyed the smell of the newly mowed grass and cool spring air. I thought of Rachel Laven and her amazing voice and I wondered how the Lavens had been doing. I stood on my front porch and held my can of Mountain Dew a bit higher in honor of Andreas – the man who taught me to smoke my food and come out on my porch. He taught me that being on your front porch is a good thing. No one stopped by. No one came to sit with me. But I have the whole summer to practice. And a newly washed cooler to put all my soda in.