Mar 31 2006

Behind The Magic: The Making of “Public Cans of Austin: Donn’s Depot”

bend over
The graffito reads “DUDE some-one seriously needs to show me what it feels like to get my ASS giggled.” “Bend over” suggests some subsequent respondent, reasonably.

Because the compulsion to illuminate the infinitely tedious minutiae of Central Texan existence is what separates the spinster aunts from the boys, today I inaugurate my latest project, a new photo series I like to call “Public Cans of Austin.”

It began thusly: After getting outside four exquisite courses at the excruciatingly decent Jeffrey’s on West Lynn, Stingray and I sped off into the night. Forty-seven seconds later Donn’s Depot Piano Bar and Lounge hove into view.

“Why not?” I asked.
“Why not?” Stingray agreed.

When liquid refreshment lies on the other end of a proposition, Stingray, it must be noted, is Congeniality itself.

So I crammed the truck into the last parking space, and the stoop of Donn’s Depot—already afflicted with an unnatural crepuscularity—we did proceed to darken.

Donn’s Depot is a capacious, shambling dive reeking of denial, Ben-Gay, and crumbled dreams. Keepin’ it real, I ordered a Budweiser, a habit formed during my 25-year exile in St. Louis, but Stingray kept it local with a Tito’s Handmade Vodka (“handmade” vodka! The American fetishization of an utterly flavorless booze is a constant source of mirth to the cynical spinster aunt/wino. Verily I say unto thee: vodka, like Jesus, is encrusted with baloney).

Smoking in Austin bars, even one like Donn’s Depot which is begrimed with enough nicotine residue to immobilize the lungs of anyone who so much as drives by, is by unpopular decree considered a crime against humanity punishable by 25-to-life. So, bearing our cocktails like chalices, Stingray and I lambada-ed on feather-light feet across the parquet dance floor and made for the deck to fire one up (an Austin bar without a deck is like a day without Fox News reporting on a serial killer against a backdrop of bouncing teen boobies).

god bless america On the deck a perfect breeze whipped up from the lake. In the cavalier fashion of spinster aunts who have just been well stuffed with exotic cuisine and New Zealand bubbly, we leaned back with both elbows on the rail watching the SUVS roar hypnotically down 5th Street. Stingray chatted of this. I chatted of that. Some little time later we observed a booze cruise pull up and disgorge into Donn’s Depot a murder of revelers who, sharing but the flimsy bond of some tedious daytime interest, couldn’t spend the evening in one another’s company without being imprisoned on a bus together and fed quantities of alcohol.

The band began an ill-advised cover of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

“Hmm,” I ventured.
“Hmm,” Stingray agreed.

A whipping sound above our heads caused us to glance upward. We could naught but perceive an enormous sheet of red, white and blue fabric snapping in the night wind.

What was this thing? A strong sensation of familiarity washed over me. I felt deeply as if I’d seen something very like it, yet very unlike it, before. The enormous Twisty brain eventually formulated the most likely explanation. It was some poor, inept outsider artist’s attempt to create one of those “Kill Iraqis” ribbon magnets one sees on all the Ford F-150s. Only the poor chump had gotten it all wrong. It was too big, too flaccid, too unmagnetized to be of any use to a truck-driving bigot. And so here hung the failed endeavor, a drooping, emasculated, almost nonpartisan anomaly, suspended from a lonely pole at Donn’s Depot, helping to Keep Austin Weird.

During these deep ruminations, the Budweiser had worked its singular magic upon my internal systems, and it became necessary to repair to the Ladies Room. Behind the door of which privy I beheld a spectacle of uncommon and romantic magnificence. Whereupon tears of red velvet kitsch welled up in my eyes, and Public Cans of Austin was born.

4000-year-old joshua tree in Donn\'s Depot can the absinthe drinker
Left: Donn’s Depot’s little-known 4000-year-old joshua tree. Right: Stingray enraptured by the grimy red shag grandeur.


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  1. politblogo.typepad.com

    Girls bathrooms have icky graffiti too? Who knew? (Except those of the female sex who must use these things.)

  2. Personally, I love the public washrooms at my University. The students have taken over the walls of the stalls for use as an educational forum. Every trip to the washroom is educational to be sure, with exam answers, full-on debates and philosophical musings all on the menu.

    Also, this is probably the only time I’ll ever disagree with Twisty, but I love smoking bans. I’m fairly severely allergic to cigarette smoke (and react badly to most toxins in general) to the point that I develop pneumonia at the drop of a hat if I’ve been exposed to it for more than a few minutes. Over here, the smoking bans were created mostly as an issue of worker’s rights as well, spearheaded by a non-smoker waitress who’d developed some serious smoker lung and subsequent lung cancer.

  3. Ah, Twisty…love the concept, and look forward to more of this series. You’ve put the ‘Charmin’ in charming.

  4. You edited the toilet paper rolls didn’t you?

    Tsk tsk.

  5. Twisty

    Fuck no, I didn’t. If you think me capable of such a thing I can’t imagine why you even read this blog!

  6. mmmmmm, “liquid refreshment!” Sounds good to me. Is it happy hour yet???

  7. grannyvibe.blogspot.com

    Oh lord, you are SO gonna get your hairy humorless ass arrested before this project is complete, taking a camera into those sacrosanct Ladies Spaces. I can just see us now, holding quaint candlelight vigils where we all chant, “FREE TWISTY! FREE TWISTY!” outside the Austin city jail while poor Stingray desperately tries to convince yet another sleazy bail bond guy that your Les Pauls really are worth more than fifty bucks. Oh man.

  8. Good grief. It wasn’t meant as some kind of formal indictment. Just a insider’s joke. You *do* have some common background to me, I suss?

  9. Twisty

    Actually, Liz, while we were hanging around in there drooling at what can only be described as a human-sized kitty condo made of red shag stretching all the way to the ceiling, one of the cocktail waitresses wandered in and congratulated us on our good taste in photographing the restroom, a feature of her place of employment in which she takes obvious pride. She also intimated that we were far from the first to have had the brilliant idea of taking pictures in there. A tiny blonde customer in stilettos added, pointing at the kitty condo, “I’ve had girlfriends hide up there! Y’all have a nice night!”

  10. saraarts.com

    Oh, Twisty. Budweiser? Really? (sigh) Drinking that so makes you the Patriarchy’s plaything.

    Oh, well. It could have been worse. It could have been Coors.

    Funny post. And that photo of Stingray almost makes her look like she’s wearing the kind of thing I’d expect to see on Chopin or Beau Brummel, the cutaway jacket and ruffled shirt. Then I put on my glasses and saw it wasn’t so. Still, I think that’s a look she could rock.

  11. Twisty

    JOKE, Pony! JOKE!

  12. acunningplan.typepad.com

    Ah, the artistic process laid bare. Is the fact there is beer/bubbly involved inspired by yesterday’s adoring email?

    Do you have a muse?

  13. I plead cultural dissonance. Cognitive dissonance too.


  14. genderberg.com

    I once conducted a study for a sociolinguistics class on the difference between writing on the walls of men’s and women’s bathrooms around campus. I have a notebook full of collected writings, including a very long debate about whether Courtney Love is a real rocker or a poseur Cobain-hanger-on from the second floor Humanities women’s room. The best part was the look on men’s faces as they saw me coming out of men’s bathrooms with a notebook.

    Women wrote a lot more, having conversations on lesbianism, debates on abortion rights, and calling out certain men on campus as rapists/abusers. Men had more calling other men fags, short poems on various scatalogical topics, and all sorts of nasty things to say about women in general but not about particular women on campus.

  15. shatterlands.com

    i love graffitti. there’s a heart-shaped anarchy symbol on my old college campus, and an ugly scrawling of a woman masturbating in one of the photography building’s bathroom stalls. the woman’s bathroom stalls. which is certainly comparative to what we do there as art students.

  16. I should warn Twistiites looking forward to a fascinating tour of Austin washrooms over the coming years that this particular series has already peaked. I last visited Donn’s perhaps three years ago, and I still remember my trip to the washroom much more clearly than any particular drink or dance partner. There’s not another that rises to this level in all of central Texas.

  17. angryforareason.blogspot.com

    For some reason I miss the bathrooms at Lovejoys, but I hear it may have closed all ready. I practically lived there.

  18. Twisty, I’m poking my head up to point out that this is one fine piece o’ writing.

  19. twisty, you have GOT to point the blame-mobile in the direction of san luis obispo, a town that is not only along the california “mission trail” and home of a state university big on agricultural studies, but ALSO features the madonna inn. http://www.madonnainn.com/ [it was built before pop-star madonna was out of diapers, so it is safe on that score.]

    of course, the restrooms there have been photographed a few times before, and it is slightly outside the austin city limits. http://www.urinal.net/madonna/ the ladies’ is an ungodly mess of marble, red tufts, chandeliers, painted porcelein, etc. — i’d offer photos if i had patience to sort through all the google links, but it is a must-see for the intrepid blamer. although the rooms [all theme rooms!] have gotten pricy, they have good pastries and breakfast, and they let visitors wander about to admire the kitch. all i’ve ever had in the bar-cave is a shirley temple, which tells you something about the age of the place, but it is possible there is an amusing night-life, too.

  20. Damn you write well! (As always!) I love the heaving hoves and the sllthy toves (OK the slithy toves are not yours but it did seem to follow)

    but Twisty! no smokey!!! step away from the danged marlboros!
    We need you too much for that.
    Yes, I know, it’s your body, your life…tough! you are now obligated by virtue of your brilliant wit and insight to live long and blamefully!
    ( I’m like Arianna – the lung airways close up shop upon contact with cigarette smoke, even from a relative distance. I don’t miss those days of fleeing for my life from indoor public meeting places.)

  21. Public restrooms; always a place where the truth flourishes. Perhaps you could branch out with the series when on your yearned Airstream road trip, write a book, publish. “Public Cans of America”

    I remember some myself, such as when I went to the Boston library to do some research and entered the room of government documents. I was required to sign in and offer up my ID for proof of my worthiness to read such secrets as publications on the ‘war on drugs’, with ‘unclassified’ stamped all over them.

    I was surrounded by yuppies in the latest designer clothes and serious business and government types in ox blood loafers and black suits. Aged brass lamps sat in the middle of oak library tables, at least 70 years old and untouched by time. No one spoke and no one looked at anyone else, all the better to remain anonymous and possibly imagine one is engaged in something more important than they really are.

    Then, in need of physical relief from the coffee I drank all morning I found the public restroom way down the hall and went into a stall. Upon enclosing myself in the cramped cubicle to domy duty I looked forward to find a primitive gynecological illustration with the phrase, “I luv being a whore cus I luv to feel my pussy tingle.”

    The dream world was inside the walls of that library room while the real world lurked outside, drawn there apparently from the same need I had and to that area by virtue of market forces most would rather we not see.

  22. thenextfewhours.com/blog

    Is Donn still around? When I was there last with two chums (eh, uh, maybe 14 or 15 years ago now?), he rather placidly (and successfully) responded to all piano challenges. I recall being amazed when he played “What made Milwalkee Famous Made a Loser out of Me” without a hitch. I should have known that anyone who ran such an establishment would have an unparalled reperetoire. He also played a mean “Suspicious Minds”. I never did pee there, though. I imagine he may no longer be around, huh?

  23. I’m shocked to learn “Kill Iraqis” slogans would be even be allowed. Wouldn’t that be considered a hate crime; hate literature?

  24. I meant “blamingly”!

    ( I think.. —anyone know the correct adverb?)

  25. Stingray so beautiful. And she have cool clothes.

  26. kathymccarty.info

    I didn’t know you have a LesPaul Twisty !! I have one too!!I also have an occasional smoke. I wish I knew more about your guitar-slinging past.

  27. New Zealand Bubbly!?

    Can I ask what New Zealand bubbly?

  28. This is a very pleasing resource I felt the need to share with all of you.


    It is a Shakespearian Insult resource. Teh bomb.

  29. vociferate.wordpress.com

    Stingray does have cool clothes.

  30. hedonisticpleasureseeker.wordpress.com

    Rating public bathroom decor is a hobby of my sister’s and mine; has been since we were children! HM. Now Twisty has given me an idea. My cell phone has a camera. HMMMMMMMMMMM . . . .

  31. alphabitch.org

    I’m a big fan of public restrooms; I used to write down the best of it, but it loses too much in the transcription. Photos are much better, I think.

    I recall a lovely exchange that accumulated in a stall I frequented, well, rather frequently, that started out simply “sigh.” To which someone added: “general ennui.” Months later someone wrote “capt. boredom,” followed quite some time later with my favorite: “private longing.”

    A stall nearby that one declared “WAR = MENSTRUATION ENVY” with which I can’t disagree. Way more plausible than that whole penis envy thing. Gimme a damn break.

  32. Well more than 20 years ago in Austin, I came across my very favorite piece of bathroom graffiti. It was in a bar on either 5th or 6th street….but off to the west end of it, before you get to MoPac.

    I wandered into the girls room and written on the wall was:

    “My mother made me a lesbian”

    Written below it….and in a different handwriting and color pen was this:

    “If I get her the material, will she make me one too?”

    I still laugh at that one…..even now.

  33. OMG, donn’s depot. have I been there, you betcha! although it’s been a while.

    was donn on the piano the night you ventured forth? the best night by far is thursdays, or at least used to be, when the band will recognize the errant musician who might happen to by. my sitings include jerry jeff and earl campbell (but not together). both performances were hands down memorable, in a drunken sort of way.

  34. OMG too…..that bar I was in 20+ years ago was Donn’s…..just seeing you mention it now brings it all back. Holy Shit. Too much alcohol in the meantime has dulled the memory.

  35. me with betsy. Stingray is hot as. and the clothes.

  36. Twisty

    You gals need to quit objectifying Stingray. I’m really ashamed of you.

  37. The bathroom at Dan’s Depot is a site to behold. I’ve drunkenly climbed to the top of that bathroom railcar, too. The dust and spiders were worth it. It was like a party in the bathroom.

    Another candidate for Pubic Cans of Austin is Deep Eddy Cabaret. I could spend hours reading the graffiti — it’s poetic.

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