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 attitude toward service, had been leveled - to make room for a Starbucks. Goodbye, two-buck "peasant's bowl" of black beans, rice and cheese; hello, four-buck latte.
Still, I suspected that in joining the old-timers in singing the Austin-will-never-be-the-same dirge, I'd been suffering from nostalgic myopia. So 10 years after an Austin Community College professor coined the phrase "Keep Austin Weird," which has become the unofficial city slogan, I vow to spend a little more time, open my eyes a little wider and try to answer the question: As the city builds expensive skyscraper condos and battles choking traffic, has the weirdness kept pace?
In 2000, when Red Wassenich first uttered the phrase that launched a thousand bumper stickers, he seemed to be speaking for everyone who worried about the loss of Austin's famous counterculturalism. (Another old joke: The only thing wrong with Austin is that it's surrounded by Texas.) 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, Eeyore's Birthday Party). It has had some successes; Borders pulled out of a plan to open a store near local favorites Book People and Waterloo Records. And it has spread: Communities as divergent as Portland, Ore., and St. Joe, Mo., are among the many that have felt the need to start their own weirdness-protection programs.
I meet Wassenich at Nau's Enfield Drug, a pharmacy and soda fountain in the West Lynn neighborhood that has been around since the 1950s. We sit at the curvy sage green Formica counter, order $4 burgers and $3 shakes, and marvel at the economically diverse crowd around us: businessmen in suits, students in jeans, families with children, a couple of guys who might be homeless. Nau's still lets customers take mags from the sales rack to read while they eat - and put them back, without buying them.