“There’s the family that you’re born with and the family that you choose, and this is the family that we choose.”
That’s Caroline Spector talking about the breakfast bunch — a group of Austin friends, rotating roomies and collaborating creatives that has gathered for breakfast each Saturday morning since early 1989. I joined them recently for a meal at Waterloo Ice House.
Spector’s right on the money. If you’ve ever been to a large family meal — full of the warmth, sarcasm, laughter and camaraderie that springs from shared experience — then you know exactly what the meal was like.
The group includes Spector, an Austin writer who collaborates with “Game of Thrones” creator George R.R. Martin on the dark “Wildcards” superhero books, and her husband, Warren, a video game designer responsible for “Deus Ex” and Disney’s “Epic Mickey” franchise.
Four other writers are in the group: Walton “Bud” Simons worked on “Wildcards” and has written for DC Comics; Bradley Denton creates short stories and novels; Howard Waldrop is a multiple award-winning short story writer; and Jessica Reisman works with younger writers in town when she’s not penning her own stories.
Rounding out the bunch is local artist Doug Potter, who designed a T-shirt with caricatures of the original members years ago for a Christmas gift; former KVUE program coordinator Robert Taylor; Denton’s wife, Barbara; and group founder Sven Knudson, a programmer and talented amateur photographer.
In the beginning
Knudson: That was way back in the mists of time. It was early ’89, right after I broke up with Nadine.
Caroline Spector: “Back When I Broke Up with Nadine.” Jesus, that’s a country-western song.
Warren Spector: If we start going into break-ups, we’re going to be here all day.
Caroline Spector: Really, that could take some time.
The breakfast bunchers have known each other for so long, it’s hard for them to remember exactly when and where they linked up.
“I met you at a Halloween party and you were wearing a devil’s costume,” Caroline Spector tells Simons. “Actually, you knew me before that,” he replies.
“Barb, you got here in what? Late ’88, right?” Warren Spector asks. “We met you standing in a line for something at (annual Austin sci-fi/fantasy literary event) ArmadilloCon.”
“That is not how we met them,” his wife interjects. “We met them at a party.”
It’s a good bet that these people all met one another at some combination of parties, science fiction conventions and/or book events (all are avid readers). Knudson modeled the gathering after another ritual breakfast group in Houston. He invited a few friends to breakfast one Saturday, and it grew from there.
The number of attendees varies (they recall one week when about 30 people showed up) and although members come and go, all of this week’s diners, with the exception of Reisman, have been around since the beginning.
“If you find another group that’s been going longer than us, let me know and we’ll just invade,” Warren Spector says.
Warren Spector: (To me) If you want me to stop talking, I will.
Simons: How about if “we” want you to stop talking?
Good luck with that one. The chatter is rapid-fire and nonstop. The group, which divides off into subsets for more intimate conversations, might discuss current projects, childhood jobs, the Internet, movie trailers, the economy, politics and the weather. Odd topics that pop up include ortolan-eating etiquette (the French cover their heads with napkins to hide the unsightly and now illegal bird-eating spectacle), classic Terrytoons cartoon character Gandy Goose, and a likely apocryphal episode of “The Bob Newhart Show” in which Bob’s wife, Emily, got it on with his dentist friend Jerry, which Waldrop swears he has seen.
Interestingly, that’s about the only mention of sex that I heard, a marked difference from when the group began, Warren Spector says: “We used to talk about who was doing whom; now we talk about our back pain. This is what we’ve become.”
He tattles that his wife and Simons spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the online role-playing game World of Warcraft. “It’s really entertaining,” he says, sarcastically.
All around the table, the diners finish one another’s sentences and are extremely quick with clever or lovingly biting retorts. To put it into terms they would understand, it’s like eavesdropping on the hive-mind of “Star Trek’s” Borg collective.
Warren Spector: Caroline only gave me half of her waffle and bacon. When she’s out of town I order her breakfast just to honor her.
The table looks about as you’d expect, with plates of migas and breakfast tacos, a stack of pancakes here, a side of bacon there. Coffee all around. It’s all happily served up by Erin Sessions, who more than one diner described as “the world’s best waitress.”
“They’re awesome; I really love them,” Sessions says. “They’re so fun and easy to take care of and eccentric — just really good people.” She says that everyone pretty much has a regular order. Once in a while they’ll switch it up, especially Warren Spector, who occasionally tries to trick her. “But it’s usually one of three things, and I already know what they want to drink when they sit down.”
“Erin is a crucial part of this group,” Knudson says. “One of us could not show up, but when she doesn’t show up …”
“Oh, it’s horrible,” Simons concludes.
Warren Spector: It’s all interlocking Austin weirdness.
Caroline Spector and Simons might spend time together online, but most group members only see each other for an hour a week (“and that’s enough,” Knudson cracks). Still, they have had great influence on one another’s work.
Denton was the inspiration for J.C. Denton, the main character in Warren Spector’s video game, “Deus Ex.” A character named Walton Simons (sound familiar, Bud?) is one of the big villains in the game. Denton’s novel “Lunatics” is set in Austin and its characters are thinly veiled mashups of breakfast bunch members. Taylor designed a game years ago called “Rivets,” which Simons and Warren Spector played frequently, never knowing that their friend created it.
Other real-world interactions have brought group members closer together. Various pairs and trios have been roommates over the years and the Spectors, along with Brad Denton, had a sci-fi-convention-circuit band called “Wasted Youth.”
“Then we discovered that there was a real band called Wasted Youth,” Warren Spector says. “People were showing up thinking they would hear the real Wasted Youth. So now we’re called Two-Headed Babies.” Since Warren has been too busy to play, Brad Denton and Caroline Spector perform as the duo Bland Lemon.
Knudson: Once a year, in the spring usually, we go to Salt Lick and then we’re comatose for the rest of the afternoon.
The group has gathered at many Austin eateries over the past 24 years, and they joke that as soon as they switch to a new place, the previous one closes. Among them were three Lone Star locations (“Did we shut down the entire chain?”), Hudson’s, the Bluebonnet Cafe, the Texican at Brodie Oaks, and El Sol y La Luna, until they moved.
“We’re kinda’ not Sixth Street people, if you haven’t guessed,” Warren Spector says.
There are a few rules: The restaurant can’t be too expensive, nor too busy, and whoever gets tired of a place has to come up with the next location.
It’s no surprise to me that these fast friends have stuck together for so long. I ask the group what the weekly gathering means to them. At first they respond with wisecracks.
“Pancakes,” someone shouts, and everybody laughs.
“You guys can joke, but this is like the anchor of my week, you know?” Warren Spector says.
“Food and continuity,” comes another reply, probably a bit more sincere.
After a pause, a final, perfect comment comes from the far end of the table:
“Whatever else happens, there’s always Saturday breakfast.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of Brad Denton.