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MY FRIEND, SEATED next to me at the bar, leaned forward as though he had a secret. I’d told him I was soon to leave for a weekend in Austin. He is a University of Texas graduate, and I thought he’d be pleased.

Instead, he scrunched up his face, stamped out his cigarette, and made what I consider a startling confession: “I’m so sick of Austin.”

In Texas, this is blasphemy. Texans are supposed to believe, without question, that the three coolest things about our state are Tex-Mex food, Shiner beer, and Austin. Austin has the hippie-music cred of Seattle, a top-tier university, a downtown lake, and proximity to the Texas Hill Country -- what’s not to like? To love, in fact?

His point was not that Austin wasn’t once tremendously cool. It was that everyone (including his friends from Chicago, his colleagues in New York, etc.) discounts the cool factor of every Texas city out of hand while still giving Austin a free pass. “And so much of the city has changed,” he said. “Austin has become a lot like Dallas or Houston. It’s not unique.”

Well, is there a place in the city that still holds the eclectic, funky, famously weird vibe of the Austin he remembers? He shrugged his shoulders when asked and said, “Maybe South Congress.”

So it was that I pulled onto South Congress Avenue, the heart of the “SoCo” neighborhood just south of downtown. The hip factor of this area was solidified when Quentin Tarantino filmed scenes here along the street and in some of the restaurants for Grindhouse. I was just hoping to find someone half as cool as Kurt Russell.

It was Friday night, and I knew where I wanted to stay: the Hotel San José, a modish urban hotel when it opened in 1939, importing the Spanish colonial architecture, bungalows, and open-courtyard feel of California to the South Congress Avenue thoroughfare. Its decline was sealed when a freeway was built near it, and local legend has it that the San José became a brothel in the 1960s before finally bottoming out as a drug haven in the 1970s and 1980s. Not long ago, it was lovingly restored, a symbol of what was happening to the entire area.

“Hi, do you have a room?” I asked the front-desk help. They looked at me like I was joking. “Weekend nights are booked weeks out,” a kind young woman told me, as though explaining addition to a four-year-old. “Well,” I asked, “can I get on a waiting list in case someone cancels?” “That never happens this late, and there’s already a long list, sir,” she said.

Then the phone rang. “Well, we’ll still have to charge you for your room. … I understand.” She put the phone down, looked at me, and then ran her eyes along the long trail of names on her waiting list. She raised her head, smiled, and held out a key. “Lucky you,” she said.

Fair enough. After ordering a sangria (the hotel-bar special) and enjoying the cool Austin night in the Zen-heavy courtyard, I went to my spare but sophisticated bungalow to change. And by “change,” I mean “dress down.” I used to recruit college students in Austin, and every time I ventured on campus, I found I couldn’t dress grungy enough to fit in. I always felt like the kids were pointing at me and calling me a culture narc. So I kept it simple: white undershirt, blue jeans, black cowboy boots.

For that evening and the rest of the weekend, I rented the hotel’s Polaroid camera (and later, its old Remington typewriter to bang out captions). I wore my Austin uniform up and down the few blocks of South Congress, and I soaked in the funk. At night, huge plates of Tex-Mex and big helpings of live music at Guero’s Taco Bar and El Sol y La Luna (which, sadly, is scheduled to move downtown, to Sixth Street, this month) were followed by a pub crawl on both sides of the block. In the morning, migas and a Southwest-inspired breakfast (and amazing Bloody Marys) at South Congress Cafe were followed by the best vanilla latte I’ve ever had at Jo’s, a small walk-up coffee shop in the parking lot of the San José. The days were spent lazily patrolling Allens Boots, area boutiques, and resale shops for must-have deals (defined as: Can I slip this through on my expense report?).

I didn’t find Kurt Russell, but I did talk to a heavily pierced waitress who favored knee-high socks with holes in them, a college graduate student who had spent an entire afternoon chatting with an area homeless man, and a shop owner, who described how to construct a proper Day of the Dead shrine. They were funky, hip. You could even call them cool.

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