Austin may be cool, but it clings to its odd­ball im­age

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOE YO­NAN

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 toWest 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 ofmy 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 counter-cul­tur­al­ism. (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 westop 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 tomy 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 some austin

thing. 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 ofmy 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 TexMex 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 60some­thing 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 aboutmy 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 rollerderby 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.


Guy and Fara Ler­oux of Cor­pus Christi, Tex., take in the Cathe­dral of Junk in Austin.


Tues­day nights at the En­chanted For­est in Austin fea­ture fire-spin­ning.

Clock­wise from near left: A boxing nun is part of Vince Han­ne­mann’s eclec­tic Cathe­dral of Junk; a bike-art sculp­ture at G’Ra­jMa­hal, an In­dian food trailer-turned­out­door-res­tau­rant; Stacy Looney, left, andMari Ruckel play foos­ball at Lala’s Lit­tle Nugget, where Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions stay up all year-round.

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