Austin, Tex., keeping it weird

Despite conflicting opinions by some "old-timers," Austin's bohemian roots are alive and well.
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 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.

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