an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Les Amis Cafe is a Starbucks. The original Texadelphia sits empty behind boarded windows. Daniel Johnston’s iconic frog who asks, “Hi. How are you?,” is now the wall art of the restaurant Thai, How Are You Sushi and Thai Food.
I haven’t frequented the blocks of Guadalupe running along the western edge of UT’s campus since the days of grunge and Steve Urkel. Back then, the eclectic collection of cheap restaurants, copy shops, coffeehouses, and bookstores offered me an education as rich as any classroom did. Today, I’m back. And it’s a shock.
The employees of GM Steakhouse aren’t here to berate me with a delightful slew of soul-singeing insults. No beeps and whirs come from Le Fun, the only video arcade in Texas bold enough to sport a French theme. I can no longer purchase a ticket for the Dobie Theater to sit in a perversely angled seat under the scowling glare of a ceramic gargoyle to watch My Own Private Idaho for the fourth time.
Where are you, Captain Quackenbush’s Intergalactic Dessert Company and Espresso Café? You sweet beige cavern of conversation and coffee, selling feasts of beans and rice for (if I remember correctly) 11 cents a plate?
Speak to me, Sombrero Rosa, you neon nipple of mediocre Mexican cuisine. Return to me, Mad Dog and Beans! Once again fill my belly and clog my heart. On your job applications you inquired:
DO YOU USE DRUGS?
IF NOT, WHY?
Oh darling Drag, how I loved you!
You accepted me even as I flipped through the CDs at Technophilia looking for John Denver bootlegs. Even as I questioned why the Pipes Plus tobacco looked so green.
Where now are the blistering sermons of the brown-robed bearded pastor? Where are the grimy Zendik Farm hippies selling revolution one zine at a time? I miss Martha, bald angry mystic of the streets. I miss the grizzled poetry of Crazy John, who became such a dear friend to me.
What was once the Varsity Theater, once Tower Records, once Intellectual Property Books is now home to a food court and cooperative coffee chain. Instead of serving deliciously greasy egg rolls, the once mainstay street vendors are serving prison time for selling stolen goods. The Showdown Saloon is now a bar called the Local (note: any bar named the Local is almost certainly not the local.)
Longing for some remnant of years gone by, I duck into the Co-op, the perfect place to grab textbooks, school supplies, and perhaps a Longhorn knickknack.
Et tu, Co-op?
Today’s Co-op looks like a bloated Bevo wandered into a Neiman Marcus and exploded. You can buy UT-themed mugs, undies, ashtrays, dog beds, coin banks, garden gnomes, soap dispensers, little U- and T-shaped pasta, baby onesies, futons, Purell, and inexplicably, a Star Trek: The Next Generation commemorative Pez Candy Dispenser Collection.
They even sell Longhorn Men’s Cologne. The scent of real Longhorns … bottled.
This is not my Drag! What kind of creative revolution can arise from a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf? Who reads Sartre at a Jamba Juice? Does a John Lennon poster purchased at Urban Outfitters even count?
Where’s Europa Books, the old Antone’s? Even the legendary brothel Vicky’s Massage has met with an ironically unhappy ending.
But as I walk I start to see the truth. Plenty of things are just as they were. The Renaissance Market supplies all your tie-dye and hemp essentials. The Goodall Wooten continues to offer the most conservative haircuts humanly possible. You can still get your soul dry cleaned and pressed at the Church of Scientology.
And new legends have been born: Madam Mam’s Thai Cuisine, Malvern Books, a Kerbey Lane a pancake toss from campus. You can find hidden thrift stores and basement bookshops, wonderful haunts and hangouts. But they are not my haunts and hangouts, and that breaks my heart.
Truth is, the Drag has always been less about the storefronts and more about the wild energy of this border between campus and city, this meeting place of ideas and identities. A new influx of waking minds hits the Drag every semester. Change is natural.
I end my day at the Hole in the Wall and feel immediately at home. Same odd yellow sign, same worn wood walls and beer-stained floors. Only now the Hole is also home to Top Chef Paul Qui’s East Side King. So my old-school Shiner is coupled with squid ink ramen (though paying anything over $1 for ramen feels immoral.) A little old, a little new. That’s tasty!
Taking a break to relieve myself, I find the one truly unchanged spot on the Drag: the Hole’s hygiene-challenged, creatively fragrant, petri-dish-esque men’s room. Pure, untainted history. Nothing has been touched in 40 years. I do my best to continue that tradition. Thank God for Longhorn-themed Purell.
Owen Egerton is the author of the novel The Book of Harold, The Illegitimate Son of God, the short story collection How Best to Avoid Dying and the novel Marshall Hollenzer is Driving. Based on these books, Egerton was voted Austin’s favorite author in 2007, 2008 and 2010 by the readers of the Austin Chronicle. Egerton also co-wrote the irreverent Dadlabs Guide to Fatherhood: Pregnancy and Year One (Quirk Publishing 2009) as well as a series of award winning web videos found at Dadlabs.com. He has also written several comedy screenplays including Bobbie Sue (Warner Brothers) and Henchmen (MRC). His writing has been featured in American Short Fiction, Puerto del Sol, Killing the Buddha, Tiferet, Word Riot, and elsewhere. He has also been a reoccurring commentator on NPR stations. Egerton was co-creator of the award winning comedy hit The Sinus Show at the Alamo Drafthouse Theater, and for several years was the artistic director of Austin’s National Comedy Theatre. He still performs comedy around town, including working with Master Pancake Theater. Egerton earned a MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University in 2005 where he was a recipient of the Rose Scholarship. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two children.