For Eddie “Bear” Lopez, happiness is a paper route in his East Austin neighborhood, a quiet latticework of residential streets where he delivers the newspaper early (way early) each morning tossing the rolled papers with the precision of a baseball pitch.
This self-described “paperboy” is a youthful 60-something who has lived in the same house his entire life, watching the neighborhood change from his window — and windshield — and since the 1990s, has watched the shiny face of gentrification appear.
In “Happiness is a Journey,” on view at Big Medium in Austin, filmmakers Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan have collaborated with Lopez on a multimedia installation to tell a story about change: within a neighborhood, within the newspaper industry and within Bear himself.
Despite the large lettering of Lopez’s name emblazoned on the gallery’s windows, the entrance is easy to miss. The windows, after all, have been plastered with a layer of newspapers like an empty storefront hiding its failure from view.
The exhibition is rife with visual metaphors about a dying industry and a diminishing era in which electronics have usurped ink and virtual experiences have outpaced brick-and-mortar businesses. Inside, beat-up newspaper vending machines lay dead on their sides, and unread copies of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal clutter the floor. Each headline — about Biden, Bernie, Syria, and Trump — forms a frozen moment within our national consciousness.
Bear’s various sculptures brighten up this journalism death rattle with peculiar artifacts of childhood and tchotchkes: a plastic dog perched on a platform of beer bottles, dolls and trucks and countless crushed cans, UT’s beloved longhorn Bevo hookin’ ‘em atop a toy Harley. Lopez’s artwork culminates with an altar which features a map of his paper route and a wall full of personal photos, mainly old-school selfies and shots of friends and family. In the center of the altar lays a jaundiced newspaper curled at the corners, its front cover an image of the Twin Towers wrapped in flames and smoke. The date reads September 12, 2001.
At the time of 9/11, Lopez was still fairly new to being a paperboy, showing up nightly to the Austin American-Statesman building, inserting coupons and rolling newspapers into neat logs, slipping them into thin plastic bags before delivering them all by sunrise. The demanding schedule has required him to work seven nights a week since the very beginning. After 21 years, he has never missed a shift.
“The only day you get off is when you’re dead or in jail,” he tells me. And neither of those have stopped Bear, though he’s encountered his fair share of danger both on and off the job.
Bear earned his nickname in his 20s, when he tipped the scales at 460 pounds (he has since lost 200) and downed two cases of beer each day (next year marks 30 years of sobriety). Recovery meant putting down the booze and picking up a camera to create a collage of his life in East Austin. Eventually Lopez landed the newspaper job, its strict nightly routine helping to combat his insomnia.
“Sometimes I work until 6 a.m., but then I go walking or lift weights just to get tired,” he explains.
His trusty sidekick is a 20-year old half-blind chihuahua named Star who’s been riding shotgun with him all this time, cruising with a truck full of newspapers, listening to KASE 101 Country while dodging drunk drivers and startled raccoons. Bear’s hands are dipped in a heavy assortment of turquoise and silver rings — I counted 28 when we met — which sometimes fly off with the paper. He’s a natural at “throwing,” the official term for tossing papers, but each November Black Friday tests his mettle (and metal) as he lobs newspapers four times their usual size from his car window.
Filmmakers Lucas and Bresnan were eager to record Bear’s Black Friday paper route last holiday season, but ultimately settled on Christmas Eve footage for the show at Big Medium. Their 15-minute two-channel video is the fulcrum of the installation, a strange version of Santa’s Workshop in the massive Statesman warehouse bustling with newspaper workers and holiday tunes while young children run around, waiting for mom or dad to finish their shift.
At times the screen splits and we experience two angles, two versions of the same thing. One such moment captures Bear at his workstation, gently guiding a paper into its plastic bag with the humbleness of a Benedictine monk. The image is hard to shake, establishing an emotional intimacy more often found in film than video. We then watch Bear load up his vehicle and hit the road, as he and Star quietly complete their task in the pitch dark, just in time for Christmas morning.
Lucas and Bresnan met Bear while renting space in the Statesman building a couple years back while they were in the midst of editing their documentary film “Pahokee” which premiered at Sundance earlier this year. Working late into the evening often meant the filmmakers overlapped with the nocturnal crew of carriers who would arrive by midnight and wait for the paper to come up from San Antonio. (The Statesman shut down its presses in 2016 and began outsourcing printing.)
“It’s 100,000 feet of empty space during the day, but at night the place fills up,” says Bresnan. The nearly vacant Statesman building, once home to 1100 newspaper employees, is on borrowed time. It will be razed to make way for a mixed-use waterfront development in the near future.
Though Lucas and Bresnan befriended many of the newspaper delivery workers while in post-production, Bear stood out in particular. They were intrigued by his work station, a shrine of Monster Energy drinks and Big Gulps, bags of Flaming Hot Chips and various toys, as well as pictures of Jennifer Lopez.
“It was just so wild and sculptural,” says Lucas.
The husband and wife team has an award-winning knack for finding beauty outside of society’s margins. (Their next project involves a nudist colony in Florida.) As they got to know Bear after their own long day of editing, they soon began filming him as well.
Bear’s house stands on a cozy corner in East Austin, not far from his paper route. His front yard is a larger version of his desk at work; an ornate sculpture garden of found objects and lost innocence, a carefully constructed display of toy cars and weather-beaten dolls which welcome onlookers while fortressing his home.
“It’s my therapy,” he offers up. “If I feel sad, I stand in the center and feel calm.”
Bear is a compelling embodiment of contradictions. He is gregarious, but gentle, a big talker but a good listener. He won’t touch a drop of alcohol, but he loves bringing beer to his friends. Even as his paper route dries up, as people die or move away, he remains optimistic.
The biggest change in the neighborhood over the past 30 years, he admits, has been within himself: “I recognize everyone now, I have my wits about me.”
While we’re talking, some guy pulls up in his Mercedes and snaps a shot of Bear’s yard before zipping off. I ask Bear if his neighbors mind all the bright plastic decor. He shakes his head and smiles.
“The family down there has me beat by 10 years. And Barbara over there is my best friend— she’s been here for about five.”
He points to her home, a newer-looking structure. “That’s where we used to park cars during South By.”
Out of the blue, Bear asks me if I remember the sinkhole in East Austin a couple years back, and how it swallowed a car. (I don’t.) He says he had been driving toward it that day, but suddenly turned around when he got a bad feeling. I nod my head, trying to understand where he’s going.
“My point is,” he says, “in life, sometimes you have to change your course.”
“Happiness is a Journey” is on view at Big Medium through Nov. 24