Carly McNamara wants to dispel stereotypes about low-income housing. She, her burly husband Chopper, and her son, Brian, share an apartment in a low-income housing complex along Highway 290 in far northeast Austin. Carly has two master’s degrees (medieval history and adult education) and a good job at the American Cancer Society, but it’s still not enough to make ends meet. At less than $30,000 a year, their blended family of three qualifies for government assistance.
As Carly prepares a shepherd's pie for dinner, she tells Jeff and I that she’s moved around Austin a lot, but this three-bedroom apartment is the best place she’s lived so far. The lack of public transportation to a place where many people need it is one of the only drawbacks. This place is so far out no one will deliver pizza and it's outside of the Car2Go range.
“You have to hike up the road about two miles to get to the nearest bus stop,” says Chopper, shaking his head on the living room couch. “Or else you have to have a car or a bike or something.” (Walking two miles is not an option for Chopper, who walks with the aid of a big wooden staff after a severe motorcycle accident left him with an injured back and foot.)
Carly and Chopper have only been in this apartment since February, but they’ve made it their own. “Noble truths” with Norse symbology hang from the wall, the kitchen is equipped with an elaborate cider and mead home brewing operation, and an altar by the front door is laden with sacred objects (candles, wolf sculpture, animal horn, herbs for burning).
Carly, a classically trained fencer, identifies as a Irish Reconstructionist, while Chopper identifies as a pagan in the Norse tradition. Brian announces that he’s currently undecided in the spiritual tradition department.
“Did you two meet at a medieval festival?” asks Jeff as we sample the home-brewed mead, a sweet liquor made from distilled honey that goes down easy.
“I think he’s talking about the ‘ren fair’,” says Chopper to his wife. He has a hint of playful sarcasm in his voice. The “ren fair” is obviously something they both have opinions about.
“The renaissance fair…that’s not the medieval community,” says Carly, firmly correcting Jeff. After years of studying the nuance of Irish history, she clearly wants to distance herself from turkey legs and fake ye olde English accents. “My self-identification is more of an academic one,” she clarifies.
But despite Jeff’s rookie mistake, he wasn’t completely off the mark. Carly and Chopper, who married last November, met at a pagan campout that Carly is now the executive assistant director for. “I was the ranch manager and she was completely unaffiliated with the staff,” says Chopper with a gleeful grin, “Now I’ve drawn her in.”
Brian gives Jeff and I a tour of the shoe box sized vegetable garden on the balcony. Their apartment is at the very back of the complex and the balcony overlooks a broad copse of trees. There are no buildings in sight. For a moment Jeff and I are disoriented. Carly and Chopper’s little medieval homestead is so convincing that we almost forget we’re in a low-income apartment complex on the outskirts of Austin. For all we know, we could be looking at the Irish countryside Carly visited for her dissertation.
Photography by Jasmine "Bobby" Oliver