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, that was the hippie-crazy 1960s or '70s. To my crowd, it's 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 (aka "the drag"), becomes a Tower Records? 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.
Still, I suspected that I was 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 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. 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).
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 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.
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. The new, upscale W Hotel 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 -- 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."
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. 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.
Nearby, 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. Hannemann, 47, dismantled almost half the structure, no longer allows people to climb on it and limits visitors to 30 carloads a week.
"There's no denying that the tide has gone in the other direction a little bit from what everybody loved about Austin," Hannemann tells me. But "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."
One night I meet with a college friend, artist and activist Carole Zoom. It's 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. 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.
The place is part "Sanford & Son," part Burning Man. At the center camp, 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."
DeLoach leads us to a curving 17,000-pound granite sculpture made from countertop scraps, a rocking horse and other artwork. It's pretty eerie 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. "Come on, bring it on, man, let's see what's going on up there." But no dice: The clouds win out.
As we leave, a young man dressed like Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean" caresses the gate's ironwork. He comes up, 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."
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. I practically cause an accident when I spy the converted shipping container called La Boite Cafe while heading to a vintage shop on South Lamar and pause for excellent coffee and macaroons.
Another evening, my sister and I 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. 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. Our fresh and spicy cheap meal includes saag paneer, lamb vindaloo, chaat papri, garlic naan and our BYOB wine.
That night, my friend 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" and the decor includes a sparkling tree, candy canes, strings of lights and 1950s photo of a woman sitting on Santa's lap.
Drinks run just a few bucks each, served by a sixtysomething bartender whose attention is a little hard to get. Granted, she and her colleague are fending off a crowd of hipsters, many no doubt drawn by the place's many 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 retro jukebox.
Internet accounts say that Lala's decor is a tribute to a husband who died around the holidays, but owner Frances Lala, 80, tells me later that's 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. "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 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'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.
If you go:
Where to stay: Park Lane Guest House, 221 Park Lane (512-447-7460, 800-492-8827; www.parklaneguesthouse.com). One room in the main house and three cottages. Rooms start at about $150, cottages at about $200.
Hotel San Jose, 1316 S. Congress Ave. (512-444-7322, 800-574-8897; www.sanjosehotel.com). A 1939 motor court transformed into the hippest lodging in town. Shared-bath rooms from $95, private bath from $160.