Keeping Austin weird
Why did Austin think it had the market cornered on weirdness? What about the Corn Palace in South Dakota?Before moving to Austin six months ago, I had never lived anywhere but Kentucky. I'd never even lived more than fifty miles from the farm where I grew up. When I received a fellowship to the University of Texas, I planned a road trip to Austin with my friends, Annie and Karen, to check out the city. Within an hour of arriving in Austin, we started noticing those "Keep Austin Weird" T-shirts, hats and bumper stickers.
"I bet it's not as weird as Kentucky," I said.
Why did Austin think it had the market cornered on weirdness? Berkeley's pretty freaky. So is New Orleans. What about the Corn Palace in South Dakota, the Jungle Room at Graceland or Jesus of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs, Arkansas? For that matter, what about the road I grew up on?
One summer when I was little, a family down the road from us decided to raise zebras, emus, buffaloes and giraffes. People drove from all over the county to see those animals. Everybody else was raising Angus cattle, but the Pittmans started a miniature Serengeti in the middle of the Bluegrass.
And while I was in high school, Jimmy Duvall, owner of the trailer park on Myers Road, nailed 1,000 hubcaps to his barn. That turned out to be pretty weird too. Especially after Mrs. Sutherland, the elementary school bus driver, drove into a ditch when the afternoon sun off those hubcaps blinded her coming down Duvall Hill.
"Kentucky's scary weird," said Annie, splitting hairs. "Austin's probably more artsy-fartsy weird."
I had never been to Austin before. I didn't know what to expect.
Within the first 15 minutes, someone thought they saw Elvis in the lobby of the Austin Motel on South Congress where we had rented a room for the night. We climbed the stairs to find our room in a 1776 explosion — beds draped in thirteen-star Betsy Ross flags, gold eagles on the wall, the Declaration of Independence hung above the toilet. We didn't know whether to sit on the bed or salute it.
We went shopping down the street and the first person we encountered was a bearded man in a thong, sports bra and faux-diamond tiara standing outside Goody Two Shoes.
"I love these! Don't you just love these?" He held up a pair of chandelier earrings.
We scooted on down the street to an ice cream stand. That had to be safe.
"You wanna see some guys throw ice cream across the street?" A girl in black hip boots whose hair looked coiffed by Edward Scissorhands sidled up to us. What did she mean? Was this a coke deal going down?
A crowd gathered. Then, a guy hurled what looked to be a single scoop of Mint Chocolate Chip over five lanes of traffic to another guy standing across South Congress holding a quarter pint cup. And he made the catch!
Later that night at the Continental Club, some sleazy would-be pornographer tried to pick up Annie with that old "nice cheekbones" line. I met a guy named Pod whose parents, he claimed, were hippies, and Karen ended up talking all night to a former male stripper named Cobra.
"When I dance, people die," Cobra told her.
"Wow," Karen said as we got on I-35 and headed north to Kentucky. "Austin really is weird."
Now I've lived in Austin for six months, and while I love this crazy town, I'm worried that Austin might just weird itself out of existence. Could all this gabbing after weirdness have an adverse effect on the city? Could weirdness become the norm? And, in the absence of normality, aren't only the normal truly weird?
For example, before I moved to Austin, I was thinking about getting a tattoo. Branding myself for life with text or a random symbol was recklessly weird. However, to be truly weird in Austin, I need to keep my skin pure because everyone has a tattoo. Not just one or two, but full sleeves of dragons or whole world maps etched out over their backs. Fittingly, Austin is home to Engima, a tattoo artist who has horns implanted in his forehead and is covered in puzzle piece tattoos. And there's also Lizard Man, another Austin tattooed fetishist who bifurcated his tongue and has sub-dermal Teflon implants over each eye to form a horned ridge.
These good folks are just doing their part to keep Austin weird, but it seems people in Austin have to be Really Weird because Plain Old Weird is the new Normal. When I'm having coffee at Quack's on 43rd and see Barefoot Girl with Green Dreadlocks walking her shaved dog in his feather boa collar, I want to say, "Are you truly eccentric or are you just trying to outweird the dude in the prom gown by the window?" Weirdness then becomes a thing people do to support their own press instead of truly marching to the beat of a different drummer. Performed for the sake of itself, novelty soon becomes a cliché.
Barefoot Girl with Green Dreadlocks drives a BMW — how weird can she be?
Don't get me wrong. Even though I think Austin should relax about its identity as the weirdest place in the universe, I do love this town. I was proud to be one of the Austin Weird when election results came in and Texas was a sea of red with a tiny blue island: Travis County. Minnesotans might have scratched their heads and remarked over their hot chocolates, "That's weird, eh?" But Austinites, used to swimming against the tide, weren't surprised.
After Christmas, I was especially grateful to be back in Austin's off-beat culture after the crucible of driving through the rest of Texas with its multi-plex Churches of Christ, Vasectomy Reversal billboards and Ten Commandment yard signs. Turning onto 51st Street and seeing this crazy guy in a conical safari hat doing Tai Chi shirtless on the sidewalk beside Intramural Field reminded me that I lived in a very special place. Viva La Weird!