A Walk in Austin's Shoes

Curious tidbits and Austin arcana passed down, through the generations, to you

Every city has its idiosyncrasies, and here in Austin, we're especially attached to ours (to the point of codependency, some might say). But many of our peculiarities have settled so deeply into our psyches that we've forgotten we're different, and when we find ourselves in another city – especially in, say, a fancy restaurant – we suddenly feel oddly conscious of our naked, flip-flopped feet. Lest you, special guest, ever feel self-conscious in our friendly town (nakedness, after all, is worn proudly here – and nice restaurants, for better or worse, rarely alter our foot fashion), we've compiled a brief, admittedly haphazard list of stuff all Austinites seem to know so you can feel right at home – or at least not get lost or arrested.

Don't Bogart That Joint, My Friend

A Walk in Austin's Shoes

Although 14 states have already legalized medical marijuana, Texas is not among them. That means if you must smoke, you will light up at your own peril. In fact, it wasn't so long ago – in the grand scheme of things – that possession in Texas of just a single joint could net you up to life in prison. Yes, life. For a joint. Fortunately, those days are mostly gone, and in Austin, at least (where you likely couldn't toss a fat nugget without hitting a toker), they were perhaps never quite so bad as in the rest of the state.

In 2007, state lawmakers passed a so-called "cite-and-release" law, making possession of up to 4 ounces of pot a crime for which going to jail immediately after being caught isn't automatic. Instead, the law allows cops to issue citations for low-level possession (though it does not preclude the eventual possibility of jail time if a defendant is convicted). In any case, the cite-and-release law does not apply to pot-toking out-of-towners; to qualify, you have to be a Texas resident and have been popped in the county in which you live. That means if you don't call Austin home – or don't have the state-issued ID to prove it – the law doesn't apply to you.

So, smoke if you will, but remember to do so in private. And if you think that means you'll be fine lighting up in any of the newer Downtown hotels, think again. These newer buildings have never allowed smoking inside, so the smell tends to travel, and quickly. And when it does, odds are a cop'll come calling, and – if you're lucky – you'll be asked to leave immediately (and to pay a hefty smoking fine). Trust us on this, but don't ask how we know.

Joplin Was Here

A Walk in Austin's Shoes

Who was in the running for UT's "Ugliest Man on Campus" for 1962? If you answered Janis Joplin, you were probably there. Joplin's Austin history was relatively brief but full of odd signifiers, like that mean-spirited campus nomination marking her as a "blues/beatnik" local character. Already a rebellious outsider back in Port Arthur, where she grew up, she was never meant for frat-straight early-Sixties UT. She was enrolled as a fine arts student and began playing autoharp in a bluegrass band, both on campus and at the original Threadgill's Bar & Grill on North Lamar, which is still cooking up good food and good music nearly 50 years later. By January 1963, she was San Francisco-bound and wouldn't return to Austin until the fall of 1965, once again singing blues in clubs around town. The next spring, she briefly considered joining Roky Erickson's band, the 13th Floor Elevators – what might that collaboration have delivered, and who would have thought Roky would be the one to survive the Sixties? In May of 1966, Janis headed back to San Francisco to join Big Brother & the Holding Company, and another Texas musician brought her music, her spirit, and her heartache to the wider world.

You Can't Get There From Here

A Walk in Austin's Shoes
Illustration by Jason Stout

Prior to becoming the city's first mayor in 1840, Edwin Waller famously laid out the simple grid that still forms Downtown Austin, with streets named for the rivers of Texas (Brazos, Colorado, etc.) flowing north to south and streets named for trees (Cedar Street, Pecan Street) growing east to west.

Suffice to say things have changed.

Changing the tree streets to ascending numbers going northward, as the city did just prior to 1900, made sense, as does the traditional practice of bestowing numbered streets with a secondary, honorary name (e.g., First Street became Cesar Chavez; 19th became Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard). Had it ended there, one could excuse our thoroughfare befuddlement – but Austin's streets face a full-fledged identity crisis.

Start with our freeways: Loop 1 is much better known as MoPac (short for the old Missouri-Pacific railroad it straddles), but good luck finding that on a sign. State Highway 183 runs by the west side of the airport (that's Austin-Bergstrom International), but traveling north, don't be surprised when it turns into Ed Blue­stein, then Anderson Lane, then Research Boulevard.

Even more confusingly, Airport Boulevard once rolled right past the airport – that is, the old Mueller Airport (now a neighborhood, but we kept the tower) – but it won't get you to one now, at least not before becoming 183 briefly, before you exit to Highway 71 (aka, Bastrop Highway).

Streets are no better: 26th Street turns into Dean Keeton as it passes by the University of Texas School of Law and then, east of I-35, into Manor Road. How about Highway 290, which west of I-35 turns into Koenig, then 2222, then Allandale, then Northland, before morphing back into (Ranch to Market, or RM) 2222?

But finding your way around Austin's streets is infinitely easier than pronouncing them. Consider the examples above: Manor is pronounced with a long "a," as if it were spelled m-a-i-n-e-r. Koenig, too, has a long "a" rather than the "o" sound you might expect. Then there's Manchaca (obviously "man-shack"); Burnet (it's "Burnet, durn it, learn it"); the above-mentioned Mueller (rhymes with "tiller") development; and our original phonetic sin, Guadalupe, with its aggressively Anglicized enunciation: gwada-loop (with a hard "G" sound). No wonder locals call it the Drag.

So How Cold Is It, Barton?

Popular mythology – generally spread by folks who only occasionally swim there – says the waters of Barton Springs Pool are a goose-bumping 68 degrees year-round. In fact, depending on recent rainfall in the watershed feeding the Edwards Aquifer, in turn feeding the Springs, the water coming directly from the Springs (under the diving board) can range from a tingling 65 degrees to, elsewhere in the pool, a relatively balmy 71; 70 is more a rough average. It's plenty cold for standing around, which is why everybody's swimming. Ask the regulars, and you'll get the plain and existential truth: In winter the Springs feel warm, even literally steamy (until you get out); in high Austin summer, a leap in is always icily refreshing; and now, in spring – well, a swim up and down its spectacular length is just downright perfect.

There's Always Deep Eddy

Despite rumors to the contrary, Barton Springs is not the only cold freshwater pool in town. Up the river a bit, off Lake Austin Boulevard, just west of MoPac, is a well-fed freshwater pool with a recently restored historic bathhouse built in the 1930s by the federal Civilian Conservation Corps (what we now call a "public option"). On a hillside overlooking the Colorado River, Deep Eddy is a century-old traditional lap pool combined with an enormous kiddie pool for families. Barton Springs has its die-hard enthusiasts, but Deep Eddy has its own – most Austinites like to take turns and spend months and years comparing the relative virtues. How cold is it? Just about the same as Barton Springs, on the days that Barton Springs is just about as cold as Deep Eddy.

Letting Your Freak Flag Fly: Public Toplessness

A Walk in Austin's Shoes
Photo by Will Van Overbeek

Like the legend says: It's legal for both men and women to be shirtless (or "topless," or "top-free") within the Austin city limits, although it's a freedom mostly associated with the paradisial past of Barton Springs Pool, when topless sunbathing was commonplace, everybody else pretended not to look, and nobody much made a big deal of it. The Sixties (which in Texas occurred in the 1970s) have not returned, but in warm weather, you will occasionally still see a brave and proud woman recalling the past and enlivening the present. In plain fact, there is no state law against toplessness either – only badly drafted bans on exposure of the genitalia in offensive and arousing ways – but we don't recommend testing the boundaries unless you want to spend way too much time among cops, lawyers, and junior prosecutors. (A few years ago, a visiting performance artist in fact tested the law banning nudity along Congress and on the Capitol grounds – she was busted but acquitted, and the whole episode became another moment in her ongoing documentary film.) Austin cops are largely (not universally) cool about random top-poppers, but if some bluenose complains – "Won't somebody think about the children?!" – more than likely you'll be asked to cover it up, and disobeying a peace officer is against the law. On the other hand, it's spring, it's Austin, it's South by Southwest – and Barton Springs beckons as it has for thousands of years.

The Three Austin Food Groups

While in Austin, you must worship the Holy Trinity. No, this isn't a call to church – we're talking Southern comfort food, barbecue, and Tex-Mex – the pillars of Texas eating. The easiest in range of Downtown are Thread­gill's World Headquarters just south of the river (near the site of the short-lived but still legendary Armadillo World Head­quarters and run by former AWHQ proprietor Eddie Wilson) or Hoover's, east of the UT campus on Manor Road. Yankees in particular really need to try this thing called "chicken-fried steak." For barbecue, Iron Works has the advantage of being right next to the Convention Center; Sam's on East 12th was a favorite of Stevie Ray Vaughan; Uncle Billy's south of the river will offer you a fine microbrew with your meat; and Ruby's, just north of UT, offers a great vibe and all-natural meats. Take note: Other states may love the pig, but Texas was built on beef. (That doesn't mean you can't get some fine pork ribs next to your brisket.)

Tamale House
Tamale House (Photo by John Anderson)

As for Tex-Mex: You can't swing a dead cat in this town without getting hair in somebody's enchiladas. Too many great places to list here, so if you can't find some, you're not trying hard enough. And yes, as The New York Times recently acknowledged (it takes a while for news to reach the eastern provinces), we eat tacos for breakfast here. And migas: a lovely mess of eggs, tortilla strips, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cheese that will start your day exactly right. Some of our personal faves for the morning hangover: Tamale House on Airport (tiny place, best to order to go, and don't expect tamales, as they're not on the menu), Joe's Bakery on East Seventh, or Juan in a Mi­llion on East Cesar Chavez.

Downtown Ranger: Friend or Foe?

Don't get the Downtown Rangers confused with the Texas Rangers. These citizen officers of the Austin Police Department patrol a 200-block area of Central Austin (7am-6pm, weekdays; 8am-5pm, weekends) and can be a useful source of advice if you get lost. Good for them: After all, when did Walker, Texas Ranger ever point you toward your hotel?

Gone Fishin'

Yes, that enormous domed building at the end of Congress Avenue is the state Capitol, but, no, there are no politicians there. The state Legislature only meets for 4½ months every two years, and 2010 is an off-year. Don't worry, we only pay them $600 a month (although their Downtown parking is a pretty sweet perk).

Thinking of Moving Here? Don't.

A Walk in Austin's Shoes

That's been the reaction here ever since the first Cro-Magnon nervously eyed a second interloper hulking toward his spot along the Colorado – damn carpetbagger was going to muddy the Springs. But you never listened – since the amazing fact is that for most of this century, Austin has essentially doubled in size every 20 years.

Well, kinda.

While the population-doubling factoid has traditionally been a favorite of whoever's currently occupying the mayor's office, city demographer Ryan Robinson says, "It's really not true – and yet, there is some truth to it." In fact, says Robinson, "It really depends on how we define our community." For example, the city's population swelled from nearly 346,000 in 1980 to 656,600 in 2000 – an incredible rate of growth, but not quite doubling. But within roughly the same time frame – from the late 1970s to 1990s, the five-county region (Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson) did double in only 17 years. In actuality, it's safer to say "the city of Austin proper" doubles its size roughly every 25 years. "We've been at or near the top of the fastest growing cities and metropolitan areas in the country for almost four decades," says Robinson. "We've seen a lot of rapid population growth over a long period of time."

So, L.A. visitors: Move here, and in 10 years it'll be like you never left home. Better yet, leave us alone and try Houston – you're already there.

Burnt Mansion: Most Wanted Texas Arsonist

A Walk in Austin's Shoes
Photo by John Anderson

The everlasting governor of Texas – Rick Perry, now in his 10th year – didn't always live in a rented suburban swankienda at taxpayer expense. Because of planned renovations, he and his family had moved out of the Mansion at 11th and Colorado several months before the June 8, 2008, early-morning fire that gutted the historic Greek revival (i.e., antebellum plantation) building. The state police not only bungled security (while some nitwit was heaving a gasoline bomb at the front door, the lone officer on duty in the backyard was surfing the Web), they haven't had any luck since in tracking down the perpetrator. The likely suspect, caught on grainy security film, was wearing a Longhorns gimme cap, a T-shirt, and cargo shorts. We call him the "Cargo-Pants Arsonist," and his description fits, oh, maybe 100,000 or so local residents.

So if you should see him while you're in town ... it probably ain't him.

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