Since childhood I have had the pleasure of living in The Republic of South Austin. South Austin is to Austin proper as Billy Carter was to Jimmy. It is the slightly seedy, sometimes embarrassing poor relation that’s always been a little off. Land of pawn shops and pink plastic flamingos, yard art, couches on the front porch, chain-link fences, and cars on blocks. Chamber-of-Commerce types look faintly uncomfortable and change the subject when you mention south Austin. Keep Austin Weird was born here. Armadillo World Headquarters, avatar of Cosmic Cowboy Cool that put Austin on the map, was located here. Old Austin, that oasis of laid-back tolerance and artful eccentricity, still survives here in assorted odd enclaves, even under intense and sustained assault from the relentless juggernaut of gentrification.
One of these remnants is right in my back yard. Tucked into a bend in a creek, a three-wood from one of the busiest streets in town, it seems so completely out of place in today’s busy, cosmopolitan metropolis that it feels like a museum exhibit for a vanished culture.
With the creek and a cliff on one side, and a low bluff topped by mature live oaks and thick undergrowth on the other, dotted with towering ash and pecan trees, the two acres of Weird lie almost invisible to the busy city that surrounds it. You could pass by it every day for years and not know it was there. Which is exactly the way Tim O’Bannon* and his many friends like it.
Every every second Wednesday for the last twenty five years, wherever he happened to be living, Tim has graciously hosted an open house pot luck. The price of admission is whatever you happen to bring, even if that means just yourself. No one is turned away. There is no agenda; nobody gives a speech, there are no name tags, nobody tries to sell you anything. You can mingle or not, eat and drink or not, join in on the activities or not.
Tim’s current home has hosted the open house for only about the last ten years. For the fifteen years or so before that, the gathering took place at his rented house in Barton Hills. Like most traditions, it started modestly, with only a handful of attendees. But as time passed, it’s fame grew, and at its peak it was not unusual for three or four hundred people to attend.
Which was a little more than the neighbors could tolerate. Newly energized with an infusion of well-to-do out-of-towners, the neighborhood group got involved. The city got involved. All the usual civic weapons were deployed: noise violations, fire hazard citations, public nuisance warnings, parking violations. There was much waggling of fingers and harrumphing. Pressure was brought to bear on the property owner to put an end to it, and eventually he caved, and with profuse apologies called a halt, Weird be damned.
It might not have seemed like it at the time, but they actually did Tim a favor. The new place is a giant upgrade. It’s a better location, the grounds are much more spacious, there is privacy, parking is better, he’s no longer at the mercy of a landlord. Plus the whole thing is completely inconspicuous, situated as it is in a wooded glen off a quiet, little-used byway.
The property had been vacant for years, and a pretty good chunk of it is in the flood plain, so Tim got it for a song. It came with a couple of houses and a scattering of outbuildings. This gave Tim an idea. He hauled in few travel trailers and a couple of Airstreams, built some tiny houses and an outdoor communal kitchen. He added a glassed-in gazebo for ceremonial uses or just for hanging out. And then he invited some of his friends to move in. Tim made his own little community.
The little village has a improvised, thrown-together feel, heavy on quirky charm, and is intentionally low-key. And for good reason, because a City inspector would probably have a field day here. Austin, a town once famous for laid-back laissez-faire, has lately taken a hard line on those not up to code.
An engaging lass of thirty five or so stands watch at the entrance, welcoming everyone and pointing newcomers in the right direction. She is tall and slender, moves with the easy grace of a dancer, and exudes whimsy. I am reminded of Heather Graham as “Roller Girl” in Boogie Nights. As we chat, a new arrival walks up, looking a little lost. She scans both our faces before settling on Roller Girl, who anticipates her question. Before the newcomer can even open her mouth, Roller Girl points down the well-worn path and says “See that goat over there; jog left, go though the gate and then take the footpath to the bottom of the hill.”
About a hundred yards or so down the path lies the gathering place. There is no set schedule, but by seven-thirty a small crowd of early arrivals has already assembled. Donated food items, disposable plates, utensils, and paper towels are on one large table, while liquid refreshments of many varieties, adult- and non-, are on another. A well-used fire pit surrounded by benches and chairs and seat-worthy logs is close by. At some point Roller Girl, clearly a fixture around these parts, makes a grand entrance in a Cushman runabout.
A menagerie of goats, geese, chickens, cats, and dogs has the run of the place. You think that this arrangement could not possibly work, yet somehow it does, with only minor frictions. At one point someone’s dog, new to all this, eyes a goat curiously, unsure of how to deal with the unfamiliar creature. Does it want to play? the dog seems to be thinking. Seeking an answer, it assumes full Downward Dog, the canine invitation to frolic. It takes the lack of response as a yes, and charges the goat to begin the Beguine. But the goat is in no mood for fun and games, and lowers its head, adorned with a full rack, to repel the mock attack.
As the evening wears on, right and left people spot each other and hook up, renewing decades-old connections. The crowd skews very much Baby Boomer. Gray is the predominant hair hue, with bald pates running a close second. Most of those present will not see the sunny side of sixty again. But there is a small and growing contingent of younger folks. Some, the kids or companions of regular attendees, look a little out of place. Others are right at home, though, the founding stock, perhaps, of a new generation of Austin Weird, and you wonder if maybe Tim has an understudy waiting in the wings.
If you stick long enough you are guaranteed to see people you know. Some you will not have laid eyes on in years. At least a third of the people look naggingly familiar, and you’re just about positive that you know them from somewhere. You find yourself repeatedly perusing the Rolodex cards of your memory for their names and the circumstances of your previous association, mostly in vain. You begin to get a sense of how very many people you have crossed paths with over the years.
At some point guitars and portable keyboards are broken out, and a jam session begins. Roller Girl keeps time on an impromptu set of drums fashioned from upturned buckets, using twigs for drumsticks. She is actually pretty good, with an idiosyncratic style given to accenting the beats in an unconventional way, suggestive of jazz. When a song everyone knows is played, a chorus of voices spontaneously joins in. Some voices are uncertain and a little foggy on the concept of “pitch,” while others are impressively strong and clear, as though they might actually be used to make a living. And then you recognize their owners, and are reminded once again that Austin really is a music town. Harmonies phase in and out. A fellow about my age stands nearby, mulling it over for a while before tentatively joining in on the chorus, singing bass.
As night deepens, you marvel once again at how improbably secluded this place is. Scanning through a full 360, you are able to spot only a couple of sodium-vapor security lights off in the distance, faintly visible through the trees. Walk a short distance from the fire and you are enveloped in darkness of a caliber you rarely find within city limits. The sounds of the city seem muffled and distant.
For the moment all is rosy, but you wonder just how much longer it can last. Right across the creek, Tim’s property is bordered by an eight-acre tract. For years it has been only lightly developed, mostly grassy field with a few groves of trees and a scattering of modest dwellings. A couple of small businesses occupy one corner.
But this is about to change. The contracts have been signed, the plans have been drafted, and the property is about to be completely transformed. Every square inch of the eight acres will be developed in an ambitious multi-multi-million dollar deal. The trees and the grass and the handful of low-key neighbors will go away, and a ultramodern agglomeration of concrete and steel and glass and asphalt will take their place. The prime location along the clifftop will be covered with high-end condos, built to the max the law allows, with a ground floor of trendy bistros and pricey retail. “Progress,” some will call this aggressive, obnoxious presence blasting light and noise and an uncertain future at the laid-back little community across the way, minding its own business, harming no one.
It won’t matter that Tim was there first. It’s like a law of nature that Money cannot coexist with its lack. And it always, always, wins.
The final unraveling could easily begin quite by accident. Some city inspector, taking a break, wanders up to the edge of the cliff one day, and sort of randomly glances in Tim’s direction. He spots the odd collection of trailers and tiny houses. He sees the goats and geese and dogs and cats roaming freely about. And his rule-bound, petty-bureaucrat heart starts to beat a little faster as suddenly he realizes that there, right under his nose, is a thing that does not belong.
*Not his real name