Cactus Pryor; Prophet or Just Full of Common Sense?
I’m pleased to present another offering from Austin writer Teresa Kohl!
Bad habits sometimes lead us to unexpected benefits. One particular bad habit of mine is cruising into Half Price Books to examine the clearance section for old books that I may or may not ever read solely for the joy of buying a possible antique for a mere dollar. I am particularly fond of books that were made into movies in the 30s and 40s, like recent finds, Cheaper by the Dozen and Rhubarb. Though, I admit other topics aren’t immune from my interest.
Such was the occasion recently when I happened upon a copy of Cactus Pryor‘s book, Inside Texas. It is less an antique and more along the line of vintage, being published in 1982, but that was no matter. This one was different because I had worked with Mr. Pryor briefly in the early 9os. I was curious about the contents of this bit of Texas history, as told by our hometown version of Will Rogers. This one I read.
My personal introduction to Cactus Pryor was not an incident of note to either one of us. He was his kind and friendly self to all and I was just an intern on his TV show where Pryor and UT football coach Mack Brown dissected the previous day’s football game. I am not an avid football fan and was less then enthusiastic about working this gig at the time. But a job is a job and we got it done. Hook ’em and all that business. Hurrah. While reading his book I found I had missed an opportunity because I soon discovered Mr. Pryor’s book is a treasure of old Austin/Texas insight.
Complied from his radio show, which aired on KLBJ-AM for many years, the essays were full of Texas tales. I learned a lot of interesting tidbits about many people that many current Austinites may only know from the random name on a street sign or building bearing their names. I read about places that are now gone or very nearly (Ciscos Bakery) and places that are still standing like Matt’s El Rancho and Dirty Martins. If you come across this book and are interested in such history I recommend it highly.
For me the most interesting essay in the collection is the one that sounds like it was written yesterday. The essay is titled “Save Us, Willie Nelson” and it decries the corporate sameness that is infecting Austin with the sole purpose of making money. It mourns the loss of our uniqueness to corporations that replace our history with sanitized versions trumpeting claims of new and improved. Mr. Pryor implores Mr. Nelson to come and bring his outlaw sensibilities here to stand up to the greed that is killing the character that made us attractive to profiteering corporations in the first place. He wrote the essay in the 80s! Does it sound familiar today?
We will be losing ramshackle South Austin shopping center “Slackerville” before the year is out… to a self-storage building. How “Austin” is a storage facility? Over the years we have lost so many other “Austin” places. Experimental theaters, music venues, character buildings, homes and other memory jolting landmarks have been bulldozed over in favor of mcmansions, overcrowded apartments and most shameful of all, self-storage complexes. New infill housing developments with HOA’s that allow homeowners to live in the homes they purportedly own as long as the houses remain painted the correct colors and the lawns are kept just so. There won’t be any artistic expression in Mueller by golly unless it is voted in by committee. Mr. Pryor didn’t address a resident explosion, but at the time Austin had a more manageable population of 550,000ish so traffic and housing weren’t as big a problem. Our population has since tripled.
The new dimension to the dilemma he described is the demands of triple the population. Sad to say but next to none of them were born here. Apparently new residents want to say “I live in Austin,” but in a “normal” house with normal neighbors and with no overt signs of weirdness whatsoever. They want to imagine how great it was, but not actually see, feel or experience how great it was. I wish the new residents who made such an effort to move here with the expectation that Austin is weird and wonderful and full of interesting experiences to discover would stand up for them as soon as they cross that city limit sign. But I think their first question is, “where is the nearest Starbucks?”
I’m sure that new Austin residents are tired of hearing “Austin was great last week, before YOU got here.” Perhaps they are wondering what was so “great?”
So here is a list of my “Austin Greats” from the way back machine:
- Getting around town in less then 15 minutes. Yes, that was possible without speeding, weaving or otherwise breaking the law.
- Being able to easily find a parking space downtown.
- The free downtown ‘dillo bus.
- Being able to drive through UT campus, carefully of course.
- The feral cats that use to live at UT (may still be there.)
- Driving through the Trail of Lights while drinking homemade cocoa and listening to Christmas carols.
- Speaking of Trail of Lights, going to festivals/events without getting an attack of claustrophobia.
- The days when IH35 was actually drivable but a tad dangerous because of short access lanes.
Tubing/canoeing Town Lake on the 4th of July (close enough to get nailed by falling debris) in order to watch the fireworks.
The motorcycling cat. (He use to ride on his owners’ shoulder down Lamar on his way to adventure.)
A welcome overabundance of anonymous Mom and pop junktique stores to explore that sold all kinds of used items for reasonable prices.
Local stores Eclectic for the spendy hippy and Celebration for the broke hippy
- When Campbell’s Hole was kinda a secret.
I expect if Mr. Pryor were still here to put on his radio show he could simply pull his essay from his archive as-is and read it, since it’s just as true today as it was all those years ago. Please save us Willie Nelson.
Teresa Kohl is a jill-of-all-trades who hopes one day to master one of them. She lives in Austin with her family.
All photos by Teresa Kohl and used with permission.