Wassenich resists the arbiter-of-weird role even though he wrote "Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the Odd Side of Town" (Schiffer Publishing, 2007), a photo-heavy tour of the city quirks that still exist. Some have since died, including Spamarama, the annual celebration of the canned meat product, and the 37th Street lights, a holiday tradition of folk-art brilliance (think small Goudas in a manger marked "the baby cheeses"), a flicker of its former self.
Trademarked by a design company for T-shirts, hats and mugs, the slogan has been spoofed ("Make Austin Normal," "Keep Austin Corporate") and co-opted, as you might expect. One day during my visit, a black SUV whizzes past with "Jeep Austin Weird" emblazoned on its backside. And the new W Hotel, a symbol of upscale hipness everywhere, dared to cite the slogan in its opening press materials. That irritates Wassenich, because weirdness requires cheapness: The kind of folks who can produce the city's unique culture - all the live music, the oddball art - need to be able to afford to live there. "Now we have the highest cost of living in Texas," he says. "Most weirdos don't have a lot of money."
Treasures and trash
Nonetheless, weirdness dies hard, and after lunch Wassenich takes me to see two favorite examples. First, a glorious little mosaic-covered bridge in a residential neighborhood in South Austin. It was created by artist Stefanie Distefano, who lives next door (at her FlamingO Ranch and Studio), partly as a memorial to a friend who died. Swoops of orange, aqua, green and gold take the shape of two fish, one leaping and one diving. "She just did it, and the city came out and said, 'You can't do that,' but some friends who were lawyers and some other friends downtown got the city to stop and just let it be," Wassenich tells me.
A few minutes away, the famous Cathedral of Junk was almost demolished by its creator after a similar encounter with city zoning officials. Vince Hannemann spent more than 20 years wiring together bicycle frames and air-conditioning vents, colorful bottles and shiny CDs and the like into an 80-ton, 32-foot structure. Last year a neighbor's complaint about traffic and noise prompted a building-permit dispute. To satisfy the city, Hannemann, 47, dismantled almost half the structure, no longer allows people to climb on it and limits visitors to 30 carloads a week.
The artist isn't around when we stop by, so Wassenich calls him to get permission to enter the back yard. As we walk around and inside the structure, 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, to someone who hasn't seen it before, it's awe-inspiring.