Challenging Austin Exceptionalism

A new book explores the lives of 11 city-dwellers disenfranchised from Austin's financial success.


A version of this story ran in the September 2015 issue.

The raison d’etre of Invisible in Austin is not only to demonstrate that there is an Austin parallel to the hightech, fast-growing, “cool” and increasingly affluent city that appears in popular culture. The point is also that the people disenfranchised from Austin’s financial success are multidimensional individuals with complex, nuanced lives characterized by choices. In other words, the difference is only money. Written as a research project for the sociology department at the University of Texas at Austin, the book offers lengthy profiles of 11 “invisible” Austin residents. Among them are Kumar, a multilingual taxi driver who taught political science in his native Nepal; Clarissa, a homeless woman proud of her middle-class Texas roots; and Ethan, who was profoundly connected to his job as a front desk manager at the W Austin. His profile, written by Katherine Sobering, is excerpted here.

Ethan: A Product of the Service Industry

Ethan, 34, is a tall man with brown skin, stylish, short black hair, and a trimmed beard. “My mom is black, my dad is German,” he told me during one of our first meetings at a local coffee shop. A gay man active in Austin’s vibrant queer community, Ethan described himself when we first met as being in a “limbo state”: he was getting ready to go back to school to finish his bachelor’s degree, working a couple of part-time service jobs, and “single, on the market, but not desperate!” Ethan told me all this in his deep voice, laughing, smiling, and exuding his characteristic down-to-earth confidence.

We met regularly for five months in the fall of 2013, spending hours talking about his life and work over coffee. When not meeting in person, we often exchanged friendly text messages: “Study study study!!!! Have all the confidence in you!!!!” he texted me the day before my comprehensive exams. But in early December Ethan stopped responding, and eventually my text messages stopped going through.

Invisible in Austin
Edited by Javier Auyero
University of Texas Press
271 PAGES; $24.95 (PAPERBACK), $75 (HARDCOVER)

I began to worry about him and soon discovered from the public records that Ethan had been arrested and booked in county jail. “How are you doing?” I wrote in one of our letters back and forth. Ethan responded on paper I had paid for ($0.10 per page), explaining what had happened and why he was still there. He had been alone in a hotel room in Houston (“at an AA convention. … I know it doesn’t make sense”) when he relapsed on drugs. He spiraled out of control, taking methamphetamine and prescription pills until he was arrested weeks later when he was found asleep in his parked car. He clarified, “I was parked in an intersection. Not a four-way stoplight but an intersection in the parking lot.”

Almost three years before his most recent arrest, Ethan had moved to Austin and gotten a job at the W Hotel just months after it opened. How Ethan ended up in Austin managing the “talent” at the W is a journey through restaurants, resorts, and hotels in what could be called the “service capitals” of the United States: Orlando, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Dallas, Texas. For all of his adult life, he has struggled with addiction; not just to drugs but also, as he describes, to money, stress, and “the chase of the tip.”

Luxury in the “Live Music Capital”

As you walk through the heavy glass doors at the W Hotel in Austin, you enter a world of twenty-first-century luxury and modern style. The reception desks are made up of silver-plated islands where “tal“ ent”— young staff who could pass as guests, save for the small W-shaped pins they wear on the lapels of their designer ensembles — stand ready to welcome you. To your right is a long wooden table with a single Remington typewriter placed at a chair in front of a wall covered in a patchwork of large framed photographs of quirky local landmarks: Leal’s Tire Shop on the East Side, the BMX park in central Austin, and a man in a tuxedo perched on the tip of Red Bud Isle in Lady Bird Lake.

From the hidden office behind the podiums where guests check in and out, Ethan coordinated all the operations in the front of the house, from parking and reservations to the concierge and guest lounges. There, Ethan managed the very pinnacle of customer service at the highest end of the hospitality industry. As he described it, “Service at the W is unmatched. There is no margin of error, and we were building loyalty and also maintaining the W’s reputation.”

“I have these expectations of people that are very high, and of myself and the things that are around me, and I don’t know where that comes from. I’m just a prima donna, I guess!”

The W Austin takes up a whole city block in the trendy downtown Second Street District. Opened in December of 2010, the W Austin sits inside a $300 million property made up of a thirty-seven-story tower and 251 hotel rooms topped by 159 luxury condominiums. Also called “Block 21,” the W complex houses the Moody Theater, where the PBS series Austin City Limits tapes its shows, as well as multiple restaurants, a spa, retail businesses, and a recently built “luxury” Starbucks — with design inspired by a mix of music and recycling.

The W Austin positions itself as the place to stay when visiting the “Live Music Capital of the World,” promising on its website to “unleash your inner soul man, rock god, or indie hipster.” As one of the trendiest luxury hotels in town, the W touts itself as the destination for the young, rich, and famous. Ethan’s work there involved catering to the needs of people paying upward of $400 a night. During Austin’s many festivals and events — from the Formula One races to the South by Southwest music festival — rooms at the W start at $999 a night, and the hotel requires a five-night minimum stay.

Ethan spoke for hours about the W, and I noticed while transcribing our interviews that he frequently used the present tense. If I hadn’t known he didn’t work there anymore, I would have been convinced he was still managing the front desk.

Ethan bragged about his former workplace, telling me about its impressive statistics. The W in Austin, I came to find out, is the second highest performing location in the W brand. It also has the highest average occupancy rate of any hotel in the United States. “Sitting at a 90 percent occupancy all year long, your clientele is completely different,” Ethan told me. People want to stay there. “There are not kids running around your hotel; there’s actually just dogs with their owners.”

Living on the Edge of His Life

Service work is often distinguished from other types of jobs based on the degree of interaction with the customer. When the customer is king, service workers navigate a triangle of relations, having to respond not only to their bosses’ demands but also to those of their customers. To Ethan, however, working in service is about much more than the customers. It is also about a lifestyle: “Most waiters and bartenders and service industry people live for excitement, fun, spontaneity. They live on the edge of their lives, really. We like the instant gratification. We like being in the spotlight. We’re narcissists. We are into punishing ourselves as well. We live in that high-stress life — that high-reward life too.”

Ethan has strong views about work in the service industry, often making broad claims about why people choose that work and what kind of life it entails. Despite these generalizations, Ethan knows that he has worked at the top of the industry. Not all service workers make impressive tips, work in luxury facilities, or even choose to do service at all. Yet at the highest end of the service sector, Ethan continually emphasizes the lifestyle: “People stay in it [service] because . . . they are in that lifestyle. They still drink a lot. They still party a lot. Or, that’s the lifestyle that they prefer. And then there are other people that stay in it . . . because they still need that quick money; no savings-living, you know, night to night. It’s like, ‘Well, I’m going to work tonight so I can pay my bill, my phone bill, and then I work tomorrow so I can pay electric.’”

Ethan is reflective about his life experiences. He is good at waiting tables and providing services, but he didn’t start working in service because he wanted to “be of service to people.” He did it for the lifestyle that enabled him to do what he wanted in a way that was “more forgiving than a nine-to-five job.” Luxury service work allowed Ethan to “work, party, [and] make fast cash.”

From “Server” to “Talent”

Ethan has worked in the service industry since high school. His first job as a teenager was at Wal-Mart, although he laughs when he assures me that he wouldn’t be caught dead there now. He also did an internship at Disney World and worked in clubs, restaurants, and hotels in Las Vegas — and the list goes on. But it was at the W that he says he learned how to provide real luxury service.

Through connections he had made in the hospitality industry, Ethan went to a “casting call” at the W (the hotel doesn’t hold “job fairs,” and prefers the Hollywood term “casting call”) and quickly got a job. “I went in there with my head so big, thinking, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go run this shit.’” But the W was a different story: “I’m like, ‘Oh, okay. I’ll start off as a front desk agent, but you just watch.’ You know? That’s what [was] happening in my head. And so I get there, and I’m quickly humbled. I realize that what’s happening at the W is a whole other level of service, knowledge, expectation, performance — just service overall. It’s just a whole different ballgame.”

This “whole different ballgame” is part of a global brand that concentrates on design and luxury at the highest end of the hospitality industry. In 2013 there were forty-five W hotels around the globe, each intended to have its own “personality” by incorporating local influences and cultures into high-design spaces. In the company’s words, W hotels mingle “vibes and elements” to create a sense of comfort, style, and technology.

The lobby at all W hotels — the “Living Room” — is made up of multiple lounge areas styled according to different themes. As the W’s press materials insist, this represents “the transformation of the traditional, transactional hotel lobby into the W Living Room centered around cocktail culture.”

In Austin, the Living Room consists of variously sized spaces with different aesthetics. One long sunny room has tall windows and low couches accentuated by boldly colored walls and a small but well-stocked bar. If you walk through a doorway, you enter the “Records Room,” which features midcentury modern furniture and a crackling fireplace. Not surprisingly, one full wall is covered in shelves filled with records. A couple evenings a month, the W hosts an event called “Off the Wall,” where DJs play records on expensive vintage turntables; guests can select the music from the hotel’s collection of vinyl or, as the online invitation suggests, “bring your fav record from home.”

The lights dim as you step through heavy curtains and into the “Secret Bar,” an interior room with tall ceilings and a long bar backlit in watery blue lights. Red velvet couches wrap the sides of the lounge, and couples drink fourteen-dollar cocktails and eat truffle popcorn or pork belly sliders while listening to music over a powerful sound system. Although local musicians sometimes play, the W brand also has a global music director, charged with curating around-the-clock soundtracks for W hotels.

At four o’clock on any given day one could lose track of time in this inner lounge. One Saturday afternoon I sat on the velvet couch, watching people walk to and from the bar. A man dressed in a tuxedo and a woman in a full-length, backless gown ordered glasses of champagne while a group of women celebrated someone’s thirtieth birthday. Hotel guests wandered through the lounge, and I counted at least six different dogs — a standard poodle, an Italian greyhound, a golden retriever — that were paraded through over the course of an hour.

The W also sets out to reinterpret the “traditional hotel lexicon.” Employees at the W are called the “talent,” and other services also have shortened names, often starting with the letter w. The room service menu for dogs is called “woof” (“You know these dogs wouldn’t be caught dead with kibble!”), part of the “P.A.W.” program that reminds guests that their “pets are welcome.” Housekeepers are “stylists,” charged with the task of “designing” (a.k.a. cleaning) the rooms. The gym is called “sweat.” The happy hour is called “S.I.P.” (“social interactive playtime”). The valet, “wheels”; the swimming pool, “wet”; the laundry bag, “wash”; the concierge, “whatever/whenever.”

“Most waiters and bartenders and service industry people live for excitement, fun, spontaneity. They live on the edge of their lives, really.”

All the Dads Were Gone

“Let’s start at the beginning,” Ethan suggested during our second meeting. Ethan was born in North Dakota and raised in a military family. He described a happy childhood that was marked by frequent relocations as his family hopped from air force bases in Nevada, Washington, California, the Netherlands, and then Florida. “My dad was in Desert Storm, Desert Shield. I remember the holidays with my dad being gone. He was — or is — a middle-class worker. He has worked for everything he’s ever had.”

Ethan grew up with his sister, just eighteen months his senior. “We never needed anything,” he remembered. “We weren’t spoiled, [but] we usually got most of what we wanted. We weren’t the kind of family that, when we turned sixteen, we both got cars. That wasn’t the story. But we had everything we needed.”

Through the many stories about his family, I got the sense that his parents acted as a unit, even during his dad’s long absences. In one of his many uses of business analogies, Ethan compared his family to a corporation, likening his mom to the general manager and his dad to the CEO. With his charming smile, Ethan explained, “Mom is the one that is in the daily operations of the family, but dad’s really the one in charge.”

With his dad on duty, Ethan and his sister spent their days with their mother. “Mom was always there, always poker faced, very stoic. We never knew when things were rough or hard, you know?” Although he never remembers going without, Ethan is now aware that his parents struggled during his youth. “It’s funny, because when I look back on it now, she [Mom] started working, like overnight sometimes, which I just couldn’t understand. What I didn’t realize was that she was sleeping while we were at school. It never occurred to me or crossed my mind what my parents were doing so that we would have what we needed.”

“I hope you marry rich”

After living for four years on an air force base in the Netherlands, Ethan and his family moved back to the United States. “Can you imagine? Being fifteen years old, going to the spring break capital of the world?” Ethan asked me. This “spring break capital” was a scenic beach town in Florida: “white sand like flour and emerald water.”

A tall and gregarious teenager, Ethan described himself as a star of his high school football team and an all-around achiever. “Good morning, Rams!” Ethan would announce over the PA system every morning at school. “This is Ethan, your student body president. Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the playing of our national anthem.” In high school, Ethan explained, he developed “all these alter egos”: he would play hard at the football game on Friday night, and then after, “I was completely wasted, tripping on acid with other jocks and cool kids. But then Monday morning would come around, and I would be somebody else again: student body president!”

“It’s like, ‘Well, I’m going to work tonight so I can pay my bill, my phone bill, and then I work tomorrow so I can pay electric.’”

“I have these old scripts that tell me, ‘You have to be the best.’” Ethan’s many stories of trying to be the best were frequent during our meetings. He had to be the best waiter at the best restaurant with the best chef or get promoted the fastest. As Ethan explained, “I have these expectations of people that are very high, and of myself and the things that are around me, and I don’t know where that comes from. I’m just a prima donna, I guess!”

“My mom always tells me, ‘I hope you marry rich, because your tastes came from some other family — it wasn’t ours.’” Ethan laughed out loud and continued, “We always joke about that, you know, because I see it now. I’m like, ‘What happened to me?’” Different from his family and balancing his “alter egos,” Ethan was also coming out of the closet, experimenting with his sexuality away from the gaze of his parents. “I felt a lot like I was overcompensating for something that I didn’t know about,” Ethan told me. “I was just in the closet and unaware of what was happening, but I knew that something was different.”

Featured image by: Julia Robinson