Bob Makela didn’t move to Austin for a woman. He moved here for two women.
The writer’s girlfriend, Molly Owen, moved back to town in 2009, but Makela didn’t follow. He wanted to line up a job first. So he searched for work in Austin from his home in Los Angeles, waiting for the opportunity to re-join Owen.
Then he got a call from a contact at Spitfire Pictures, the company behind such music documentaries as Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan film “No Direction Home” and “Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who.” Makela had worked for Spitfire before, including an odd job writing stage banter for The Who’s Roger Daltrey, and they wanted him back.
After years of turning away producers and directors, Janis Joplin’s brother and sister had given the greenlight to a documentary about their legendary sibling. Spitfire would produce, and they were bringing on Oscar-nominated Amy Berg (“Deliver Us from Evil”) to direct. They wanted Makela to write the screenplay about the Port Arthur native. The film would be announced at South by Southwest 2010. Makela’s ticket to Texas was punched.
The Southern California native arrived in Austin on St. Patrick’s Day 2010. The party wouldn’t last long. After two weeks of research, including trips to Port Arthur to interview Joplin’s former neighbors and kindergarten teacher, the project came to an abrupt halt. The roadblock, as Makela understands it, was the prohibitive costs of the rights to the music for the film.
It wasn’t the first close-call for the man who graduated with a degree in English literature from UCLA in 1984. In the decades after graduation, Makela made a career as a freelance writer covering sports and music, while suffering near-misses with screenplays, TV deals and a Web series he created at the height of the dot-com craze.
The collapse of the Joplin project hit Makela hard. He had waited a year to move to Austin until the time was right. He had waited even longer for the break that had eluded him.
“I was bummin’ hard,” Makela said in an interview recently, spoken like a true SoCal native.
He spent the next few weeks searching for a job in Austin — census taker, sandwich maker — with no luck. Then he spotted an ad on Craigslist to be a taxi cab driver.
“I love to drive. I’ve taken a lot of road trips and had always been intrigued with the idea of driving a cab, but the circumstances had never shoved me in the right direction as they had here,” Makela said. He got behind the wheel May 28, 2010.
One of those many road trips was born from a night of hanging out with his roommate Jon Congdon at the San Francisco Saloon in West L.A. in 1992. Bored and too hesitant to approach any of the ladies at the bar, Makela scribbled down the made-up title of a poem on a bar napkin and slid it to Congdon, who wrote a poem to fit the title. Then Congdon gave Makela a title. Back and forth they went for hours until they had a small pile of napkins. And the attention of more than a few ladies.
“We realized that over the course of the evening every woman in the bar had wandered over to ask us what the hell we were doing,” Makela said. “We realized, we just met every girl in the bar and we never got off our barstools. We weren’t doing this to meet girls at a bar. We were just killing time and having fun, and it was a great byproduct of exercising your creative muscles in a bar setting.”
Makela eventually compiled the poems into a small book sample. He was introduced to a literary agent who was fond of the barstool poetry idea, but told Makela that poetry didn’t sell. But he liked Makela’s writing and creativity, so he helped get the writer a book deal to tour the country interviewing people at bars about the idea of true love. Makela loaded up his Volkswagen bus and made his way through 42 states in 100 days, hitting 165 bars along the way.
When he returned to Los Angeles to write the book, Makela found himself overwhelmed. Thousands of hours of interviews, a quick turnaround time, a laissez-faire editor, a new job opportunity and a devastating family tragedy combined to knock him off track with his book of love.
But he held onto the poems.
Late last year Makela returned to the barstool poetry idea. He took more than 500 of the poems he’d collected over the years and self-published “Barstool Poetry (The Early Years: 1992-2000).” One of his regulars named Dave bought a copy, which he shared with friends. Excited by the concept of creating the poems, Dave helped Makela set up a night for a Barstool Poetry event at the Star Bar late last year.
More than 50 people, most of them regulars from his cab, showed up to participate. The rules were simple: Grab a blank cocktail napkin, write a poem title. Grab another napkin with a title on it and write a poem. Deposit poem in bowl. At the end of the night, Makela read the poems aloud. They were bawdy, touching, absurd, nonsensical and clever.
Makela published the 50 poems from Star Bar as the second volume of “Barstool Poetry” and held another event in January at the Violet Crown Social Club, which attracted a bigger crowd. The third installment will take place Saturday at Gourmand’s Neighborhood Pub on Webberville Road in East Austin. Makela compares the nights to “a karaoke poetry slam mixed with a little bit of open-mic night at a comedy club.”
“I didn’t set out to do this, but once I got into it I really feel like it’s so hard for people to connect in bars a lot of time,” Makela said. “I feel like there’s a lot of angst boiling under the surface at a bar, and I feel like this is just a great way to bridge all that and a way to get people to come together and just break the ice. And beyond that it’s just a great way to purge whatever’s going on in your brain and your heart in the moment. Also, it’s just a great creative exercise. I fervently believe everyone’s creative even if you don’t think you are.”
Makela admits that he never expected to be driving a cab in Austin, especially not almost 30 years after graduating college. But the experience has helped revive his creativity — he’s working on a screenplay, has started a blog and is considering a podcast. And without the experience behind the wheel, it’s unlikely he would have decided to finally publish his book of collected poems. He wouldn’t have made so many new friends, and he wouldn’t have found satisfaction in such an unlikely place.
“I’ve had a lot of good ideas that I didn’t follow through on to the very end, so to actually cross the finish line on one and see how it’s been received has been gratifying,” Makela said.
And while things might not have worked out with Joplin, the move to Austin proved to be a good idea: Makela and Owen are still together.
What: Barstool Poetry event
Where: Gourmand’s Neighborhood Pub (2316 Webberville Rd.)
When: Starts at 9 p.m.