I saw a news story the other day that made me sad. Leslie Cochran, the cross-dressing homeless guy who has been an icon in Austin for almost as long as I can remember, is leaving the city, going to a town in Colorado where he hopes he will be “loved and respected.” I hope he’s right and I wish him well.
There was a time when most Austinites at least seemed to love and respect Leslie. He ran for mayor a few times. Not sure how many votes he got, but it helped make him the talk of the town. Someone made a “Dress Leslie” refrigerator magnet set. Leslie sightings were among the highlights of any trip to Sixth Street. You could pretty much count on seeing him at anything that drew a crowd, if you kept an eye out.
He liked to wear a thong, sometimes a mini-skirt (He might have to wear more clothes in Colorado). Locals with visitors from out of town would get Leslie to pose with them for pictures. Someone even painted him into a mural, down on Guadalupe Street (The Drag). He was fairly well-known for his run-ins with the police and has in the past carried signs around, protesting some abuse or other (“I was down on my luck and the Austin Police stole my purse!). He was someone who made Austin for me. I’d see him once and a while and think, “Keep Austin Weird” and smile.
I guess it’s too much to expect that a city growing as fast as Austin could keep its culture. The city is touted as the Live Music Capital of the World, but the fact is, a lot of people came simply because they found a job. Some came because they heard it was a cool place. But they came from a more conservative place and don’t actually like the things that made the city cool. Bohemians are just scruffy people to them. Music is noise. Someone like Leslie is just another weird panhandler to them. Folks who come in from the country probably have a more insulting name for him.
Austin used to be a city that loved its freaks, a city that embraced creative, odd people. There are plenty of people around who still get it, but they are in danger of being overwhelmed by the people who don’t.
I say, don’t let it happen. If you’re a freak and you want to be one, go for it. Don’t be intimidated. If you’re someone with the old liberal Austin mindset who likes having those folks around, stand up for them. Austin is still a unique place with a lot to offer. Looks like we’re just going to have to try harder to keep it that way.