Now that's weird: Austin may be cool, but it clings to its oddball image

January 16, 2011

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 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.

In 2000, the place got "a serious amount of money" when it sold a $28 million lottery ticket to former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, a regular. Would Nau's renovate away its charm? "All they did was switch from manual to electronic cash registers," says Wassenich, 60.

In Wassenich's view, weirdness is directly tied to the city's two major employers: the University of Texas and the state government. "You've got underpaid, highly educated people, and that makes for a breeding ground for weirdos," he said.

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.

The whole "weird" thing, Hannemann tells me later, doesn't sit well with him. "Is getting along with people who are different weird? That we've got quirky people who live in our midst, is that weird? I don't know.

"I think there's no denying that the tide has gone in the other direction a little bit from what everybody loved about Austin," he continues. But "I think this kind of thing means a lot to a lot of people still. I don't think they'll be able to stamp it out, no matter how many highways they build."

Pure enchantment

That night, I meet up with a college friend who has moved back to Austin after years in Oregon. Carole Zoom, an artist and activist, knows the weirdest place to take me after dinner. Tonight is the rare coincidence of a total lunar eclipse and the start of the winter solstice, and Zoom has heard about a celebratory gathering at the Enchanted Forest.

The what? "You'll see," she promises.

We take separate cars down South Lamar, turn onto Oltorf and park. True to her name, Zoom comes zooming up in her electric wheelchair (she has had muscular dystrophy since childhood), and we head through unmarked but ornate open gates and down a gravel path through what looks like a junkyard.

In fact, the place is part "Sanford & Son," part Burning Man. We pass various trailers and cars until we get to the center camp, where vintage furniture sits under tarps, next to an outdoor kitchen and even a little music room crammed with records and speakers. Zoom introduces me to the place's landowner/patron, Albert DeLoach, who says, "Wanna look around? Follow me."

As soon as we move out from the lights of the little tarp-covered camp, I can barely see a thing, but DeLoach leads us to a curving 17,000-pound granite sculpture made from countertop scraps, then to a life-size rocking horse and to other pieces by an artist named Shrine. It's pretty eerie here at night, especially with the sound of drums mixing with crickets, and the drums grow louder as we head around the corner. We come upon a shirtless, bearded guy who's twirling and spinning fire, and DeLoach points straight up at the moon, which is starting to be eclipsed but is hidden behind clouds.

"Whenever they start drumming, it opens up the clouds," says DeLoach, who has endured his own zoning disputes with the city but has persevered to keep the forest open. "Come on, bring it on, man, let's see what's going on up there." He gets me to help him drag out an old recliner to make for easier, no-neck-craning viewing. No dice: The clouds win out.

We start to leave just as a dozen college kids, many of them holding paper-bag-covered bottles, begin to stream in. As I'm pulling my car around in the little lot, I see a young man dressed like Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean" caressing the gate's ironwork. He comes up to my car, eyes wide as saucers, and asks, "Is this the Enchanted Forest?"

"Yes, it is," I reply. "You look like you belong here."

He smiles: "I was drawn to it."

Street art and street food

For all the criticism it gets for enforcing zoning and permitting issues, the city government fosters some weirdness, too, such as some of the art it commissions. Drive south on Lamar Boulevard from downtown, for instance, and just past Fifth Street, as you go through an underpass, you might wonder just exactly what those bright blue and white street signs on either side of the bridge are trying to tell you.

Caution? River crossing? Elephants ahead? There are no figures on them, just a white rectangle on blue, but they seem so official, they must mean something. I slow down to take a closer look, and somebody behind me leans on the horn.

Turns out it's a 2003 artwork by Carl Trominski called "Moments," and it has generated plenty of chatter. Such as: Is it good? Is it art? Is it good art? Was it a waste of city grant money? Last summer, the city commissioned another artist to knit colorful patterned sweaters to temporarily cover each of the 6-foot blue signs like tea cozies. Some of my friends wish that they had been permanent.

If you're a street-food lover like me, another thing you'll brake for in Austin is one of the more than 1,000 food carts, trucks and trailers. 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, an adorable vintage blue-and-white trailer selling smoked meat and sides in a parking lot in Central Austin. (The owners are preparing to open a brick-and-mortar spot and close the trailer in February.) 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.

Another evening, we meet friends at an Indian-food trailer ingeniously called G'Raj Mahal. With tile tables under tarps, heat lamps, ceiling fans and table service, it's more like an outdoor restaurant - or maybe a meal at a really cool party. Inside the silver trailer are cooks and a tandoor. Outside, a wild bike-art sculpture from Austin Bike Zoo stretches out like a giant skinless snake on wheels.

After a fresh and spicy cheap meal that includes saag paneer, lamb vindaloo, chaat papri, garlic naan and our BYOB wine, we contemplate dessert and can't resist the promise of "Indian beignets."

"Those are sopapillas," my friend Tanya says when they arrive, referring to the classic Tex-Mex puffy fried dessert. "Do they really have sopapillas in India?"

Our waitress, clad in fedora, colorful layered skirts, striped leggings and boots, tosses back one of her long braids and says, "They're beignets, which they also don't have in India. The chef is from India and his wife is from the South, so we have Indian beignets."

Winter wonderland

That night, Tanya leads us to her candidate for weirdest Austin attraction: a bar in the Allandale section called Lala's Little Nugget, where the slogan on T-shirts tacked to the wall proclaims "Christmas cheer all year." It's the week of Christmas, so the sparkling tree, garland, candy canes, strings of lights and 1950s photo of a woman sitting on Santa's lap don't seem that unusual. Well, except that it all looks really old. "Just pretend it's July," says Tanya.

The drinks run us just a few bucks each, served up by a 60-something bartender whose attention is a little hard to get. Granted, she and her colleague are fending off a crowd of hipsters, many of them no doubt drawn by the place's many Best of Austin awards from the weekly Austin Chronicle: Best Neighborhood/Dive Bar, Best Bar to Relive Your Childhood, Best Improvement in Bathroom Decor, Best Bar Crawl With Easy Parking, Best Dancing Elves, Best Puppets on a Pulley. Those last two must both be referring to the little elf figures on wires over the bar; when the men's bathroom door opens or closes, they bounce up and down over patrons' heads, as chestnuts such as "Dream a Little Dream of Me" play on the all-retro jukebox.

Internet accounts say that Lala's decor is a tribute to a husband who died around the holidays, but 80-year-old owner Frances Lala tells me later that such stories are bunk. When the place opened four decades ago, in October, "The walls were really bare, so we decorated for Christmas," she says. "Then when we took it down in January, we said, 'Uh-uh,' and we put it all right back up. It's been that way ever since."

Does it qualify as weird? Lala doesn't like the phrase, either. "Kids today, I don't understand their language sometimes," she says. "When I was growing up, a dive bar was a place a lady didn't go. And I don't know what they mean by weird, I really don't."

I explain that the word is trying to describe a quirky, independent spirit. "Oh," she says. "I think we got that here, sure."

In fact, there's enough of that spirit throughout the city that I find myself, for four days, thinking not about my favorite '80s-era landmarks that are no more, but about the quirkiness that has survived, and keeps coming anew. When I return in June, I decide, I'm going to see the Holy Rollerstake on the Hellcats in a roller-derby game, I'm heading to Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon for some live music and a few rounds of chicken-poop bingo, and I'm making an appointment to see the Miraculous Weeping Crocodile at the Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata.

So much weirdness, so little time.

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post. He got the cooking bug from his Indiana-born mother who let him use her stand mixer when he was 8 years old because it was cool.
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