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Austin, Tex., keeping it weird
In Austin, weird is revered Despite conflicting opinions by some "old-timers," Austin's bohemian roots are alive and well. » LAUNCH PHOTO GALLERY
By Joe Yonan Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, January 14, 2011; 1:29 PM
How many Austinites does it take to change a light bulb? Four: One to change the bulb, and three to talk about how cool the old one was, before the yuppies came along and changed it. That joke has been around in one form or another for decades. Even when I lived there more than 20 years ago, old-timers were bemoaning the loss of, well, old-time Austin. To them, "back in the day" meant the hippie-crazy 1960s or '70s. To my crowd, it means the '80s era captured by Richard Linklater's 1991 do-nothing film, "Slacker." I dip into Austin every December on the way home to West Texas, and I'm as guilty as anyone of romanticizing all the things that made the city unique during the six years I lived there, especially the ones that closed after I left. The Varsity Theater, a dusty art-house cinema right on Guadalupe Street (a.k.a. "the drag"), where I saw "Wings of Desire" dozens of times, becomes a Tower Records? Say it ain't so. Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, just south of the Capitol, gets pushed out for a development that never occurs? There goes my annual stop for the vegetarian tamal of my dreams. But nothing has topped the shock I experienced in the late '90s, when I drove through the West Campus neighborhood and saw that Les Amis, a funky place we'd nicknamed "Lazy Me" for its
he seemed to be speaking for everyone who worried about the loss of Austin's famous counterculturalism. We sit at the curvy sage green Formica counter.attitude toward service. as you might expect. are among the many that have felt the need to start their own weirdness-protection programs. And it has spread: Communities as divergent as Portland." he said. 2007). It has had some successes. I'd been suffering from nostalgic myopia. a symbol of upscale hipness everywhere. a pharmacy and soda fountain in the West Lynn neighborhood that has been around since the 1950s. order $4 burgers and $3 shakes. including Spamarama. Eeyore's Birthday Party). hats and mugs." says Wassenich. Goodbye. So 10 years after an Austin Community College professor coined the phrase "Keep Austin Weird. hello. Still. dared to cite the . and marvel at the economically diverse crowd around us: businessmen in suits. 60. a regular. One day during my visit. open my eyes a little wider and try to answer the question: As the city builds expensive skyscraper condos and battles choking traffic. In 2000. the slogan has been spoofed ("Make Austin Normal. "You've got underpaid. students in jeans. and St.) The slogan turned into a call to fight the forces of homogenization and corporate development (Cheesecake Factory be damned) and to support all things quirky and independent (rock on. four-buck latte. Mo. the annual celebration of the canned meat product. when Red Wassenich first uttered the phrase that launched a thousand bumper stickers. had been leveled . And the new W Hotel. I suspected that in joining the old-timers in singing the Austin-will-never-be-the-same dirge. Some have since died.. a couple of guys who might be homeless. Ore. and that makes for a breeding ground for weirdos. I vow to spend a little more time. In Wassenich's view. (Another old joke: The only thing wrong with Austin is that it's surrounded by Texas.and put them back. Joe. Wassenich resists the arbiter-of-weird role even though he wrote "Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the Odd Side of Town" (Schiffer Publishing.. I meet Wassenich at Nau's Enfield Drug. Trademarked by a design company for T-shirts. Would Nau's renovate away its charm? "All they did was switch from manual to electronic cash registers. Borders pulled out of a plan to open a store near local favorites Book People and Waterloo Records. a holiday tradition of folk-art brilliance (think small Goudas in a manger marked "the baby cheeses").to make room for a Starbucks. and the 37th Street lights. a flicker of its former self. without buying them. two-buck "peasant's bowl" of black beans. highly educated people. a photo-heavy tour of the city quirks that still exist." which has become the unofficial city slogan. rice and cheese." "Keep Austin Corporate") and co-opted. Nau's still lets customers take mags from the sales rack to read while they eat . weirdness is directly tied to the city's two major employers: the University of Texas and the state government. families with children. has the weirdness kept pace? In 2000. a black SUV whizzes past with "Jeep Austin Weird" emblazoned on its backside. the place got "a serious amount of money" when it sold a $28 million lottery ticket to former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson.
dismantled almost half the structure. "Is getting along with people who are different weird? That we've got quirky people who live in our midst.all the live music. Hannemann. I meet up with a college friend who has moved back to Austin after years in Oregon. As we walk around and inside the structure. The artist isn't around when we stop by. colorful bottles and shiny CDs and the like into an 80-ton. because weirdness requires cheapness: The kind of folks who can produce the city's unique culture . "Now we have the highest cost of living in Texas. Tonight is the rare coincidence of a total lunar eclipse and the start of the winter solstice.slogan in its opening press materials. no longer allows people to climb on it and limits visitors to 30 carloads a week. and the city came out and said." she promises. Swoops of orange. who lives next door (at her FlamingO Ranch and Studio). Carole Zoom. . doesn't sit well with him." Pure enchantment That night." Treasures and trash Nonetheless. aqua. Hannemann tells me later. Vince Hannemann spent more than 20 years wiring together bicycle frames and air-conditioning vents.' but some friends who were lawyers and some other friends downtown got the city to stop and just let it be. green and gold take the shape of two fish. "She just did it. and after lunch Wassenich takes me to see two favorite examples. the oddball art . The whole "weird" thing. To satisfy the city. is that weird? I don't know. weirdness dies hard. and Zoom has heard about a celebratory gathering at the Enchanted Forest. 'You can't do that. one leaping and one diving. But "I think this kind of thing means a lot to a lot of people still. It was created by artist Stefanie Distefano. it's awe-inspiring. partly as a memorial to a friend who died. no matter how many highways they build." he says. First. That irritates Wassenich.need to be able to afford to live there. I marvel at Hannemann's handiwork and feel overwhelmed trying to take in the macro and the micro: Is that a suit of armor? Do I see a birdcage? A merry-go-round horse? Even at its diminished size. so Wassenich calls him to get permission to enter the back yard." he continues. "I think there's no denying that the tide has gone in the other direction a little bit from what everybody loved about Austin. 32-foot structure. I don't think they'll be able to stamp it out." Wassenich tells me. Last year a neighbor's complaint about traffic and noise prompted a building-permit dispute. 47. knows the weirdest place to take me after dinner. "Most weirdos don't have a lot of money. to someone who hasn't seen it before. The what? "You'll see. a glorious little mosaic-covered bridge in a residential neighborhood in South Austin. A few minutes away. the famous Cathedral of Junk was almost demolished by its creator after a similar encounter with city zoning officials. an artist and activist.
Zoom introduces me to the place's landowner/patron. We pass various trailers and cars until we get to the center camp. Albert DeLoach. begin to stream in. "Wanna look around? Follow me. We come upon a shirtless. I can barely see a thing. and somebody behind me leans on the horn. He comes up to my car. the place is part "Sanford & Son. and DeLoach points straight up at the moon. no-neck-craning viewing. In fact. too. and just past Fifth Street. Zoom comes zooming up in her electric wheelchair (she has had muscular dystrophy since childhood). "Whenever they start drumming. just a white rectangle on blue." Street art and street food For all the criticism it gets for enforcing zoning and permitting issues. then to a life-size rocking horse and to other pieces by an artist named Shrine. "Come on. I slow down to take a closer look." says DeLoach." He gets me to help him drag out an old recliner to make for easier.We take separate cars down South Lamar. let's see what's going on up there. Turns out it's a 2003 artwork by Carl Trominski called "Moments." and it has generated plenty of chatter. and we head through unmarked but ornate open gates and down a gravel path through what looks like a junkyard. Caution? River crossing? Elephants ahead? There are no figures on them. it opens up the clouds. True to her name. "You look like you belong here. where vintage furniture sits under tarps. you might wonder just exactly what those bright blue and white street signs on either side of the bridge are trying to tell you. We start to leave just as a dozen college kids. the city government fosters some weirdness." As soon as we move out from the lights of the little tarp-covered camp. "Is this the Enchanted Forest?" "Yes. who says. which is starting to be eclipsed but is hidden behind clouds. bring it on. it is. eyes wide as saucers. next to an outdoor kitchen and even a little music room crammed with records and speakers. and asks. but they seem so official." part Burning Man. and the drums grow louder as we head around the corner. No dice: The clouds win out. man. who has endured his own zoning disputes with the city but has persevered to keep the forest open." I reply. It's pretty eerie here at night. As I'm pulling my car around in the little lot. turn onto Oltorf and park. they must mean something. bearded guy who's twirling and spinning fire. but DeLoach leads us to a curving 17. for instance. especially with the sound of drums mixing with crickets.000-pound granite sculpture made from countertop scraps. as you go through an underpass. such as some of the art it commissions. Drive south on Lamar Boulevard from downtown. Such as: Is it good? Is it art? Is it good art? Was it a waste of city grant money? Last . I see a young man dressed like Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean" caressing the gate's ironwork." He smiles: "I was drawn to it. many of them holding paper-bag-covered bottles.
Some of my friends wish that they had been permanent.000 food carts. served up by a 60-something bartender whose attention is a little hard to get." my friend Tanya says when they arrive. The drinks run us just a few bucks each." says Tanya." It's the week of Christmas. when the men's bathroom door opens or closes. which they also don't have in India. The chef is from India and his wife is from the South. "They're beignets." Winter wonderland That night. clad in fedora. tosses back one of her long braids and says. Granted. Best Bar Crawl With Easy Parking.) And I practically cause an accident when we spy the converted shipping container called La Boite Cafe while heading to a vintage shop on South Lamar and pause for excellent coffee and macarons. where the slogan on T-shirts tacked to the wall proclaims "Christmas cheer all year. (The owners are preparing to open a brick-and-mortar spot and close the trailer in February. Inside the silver trailer are cooks and a tandoor. garland. a wild bike-art sculpture from Austin Bike Zoo stretches out like a giant skinless snake on wheels. striped leggings and boots. Outside. "Just pretend it's July. it's more like an outdoor restaurant . another thing you'll brake for in Austin is one of the more than 1. . the city commissioned another artist to knit colorful patterned sweaters to temporarily cover each of the 6-foot blue signs like tea cozies. trucks and trailers. many of them no doubt drawn by the place's many Best of Austin awards from the weekly Austin Chronicle: Best Neighborhood/Dive Bar." "Those are sopapillas. Tanya leads us to her candidate for weirdest Austin attraction: a bar in the Allandale section called Lala's Little Nugget. we contemplate dessert and can't resist the promise of "Indian beignets. candy canes. strings of lights and 1950s photo of a woman sitting on Santa's lap don't seem that unusual. referring to the classic Tex-Mex puffy fried dessert. Best Improvement in Bathroom Decor. If you're a street-food lover like me. chaat papri. ceiling fans and table service. they bounce up and down over patrons' heads. After a fresh and spicy cheap meal that includes saag paneer. Those last two must both be referring to the little elf figures on wires over the bar. Well. With tile tables under tarps. Best Puppets on a Pulley. lamb vindaloo. "Do they really have sopapillas in India?" Our waitress. so the sparkling tree. My sister and I spend an hour and a half in line waiting for what has to be the best brisket in town at Franklin Barbecue.summer. an adorable vintage blue-andwhite trailer selling smoked meat and sides in a parking lot in Central Austin. Best Dancing Elves.or maybe a meal at a really cool party. colorful layered skirts. as chestnuts such as "Dream a Little Dream of Me" play on the all-retro jukebox. she and her colleague are fending off a crowd of hipsters. heat lamps. garlic naan and our BYOB wine. so we have Indian beignets. Another evening. Best Bar to Relive Your Childhood. we meet friends at an Indian-food trailer ingeniously called G'Raj Mahal. except that it all looks really old.
" In fact." she says. independent spirit. So much weirdness." she says. we said. a dive bar was a place a lady didn't go. I'm heading to Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon for some live music and a few rounds of chicken-poop bingo. "The walls were really bare. And I don't know what they mean by weird. It's been that way ever since. and I'm making an appointment to see the Miraculous Weeping Crocodile at the Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata. 'Uh-uh. for four days. thinking not about my favorite '80s-era landmarks that are no more. there's enough of that spirit throughout the city that I find myself." I explain that the word is trying to describe a quirky. I decide." she says. so we decorated for Christmas. "I think we got that here. but 80-year-old owner Frances Lala tells me later that such stories are bunk. When the place opened four decades ago. When I return in June. "When I was growing up. in October." Does it qualify as weird? Lala doesn't like the phrase. I don't understand their language sometimes. I really don't.Internet accounts say that Lala's decor is a tribute to a husband who died around the holidays. "Then when we took it down in January. . "Kids today. "Oh.' and we put it all right back up. but about the quirkiness that has survived. so little time. sure. I'm going to see the Holy Rollers take on the Hellcats in a roller-derby game. and keeps coming anew. either.
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