Cactus Café

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul recalls bittersweet memories of automatic urinals and Lesbian Folk Singers.

The first time I came head-to-head with an automatic flushing urinal I was disgusted.  It was 1988 and I was just finishing up my first date and second semester as a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin.  Stephen, the nerdy cute junior I had been madly flirting with for months at the gay gathering place just outside the Student Union, had finally asked if he could buy me a cup of coffee at the Cactus Café inside.

Unfortunately, the “date” didn’t go so well.  It was open-mike night at the dark little venue that featured a small stage for live music performances and bad poetry readings.  That night, I had a hard time focusing on my crush Stephen, and not because he spent most of the evening regaling with me his sexual exploits in the men’s toilets of a bathroom in another campus building.  Odd fodder for a first date, but I made a mental note to check out the scene.

No, I was distracted by the improvised tunes from a series of never-ending performers straight out of Slacker Austin Central Casting—earthy crunchy women with stringy hair and out-of-tune guitars.  Other than listening to Joan Baez records on long car trips with my Dad, I had never been exposed much to folk music, and based upon what I was hearing, wasn’t sure it was my favorite genre.  Although, years later, the performers became the basis of a character called Lesbian Folk Singer in my film GayTV: The Movie played by one of the founder of the Dixie Chicks, Laura Lynch.

That night, I excused myself to the bathrooms just outside the bar.  After relieving my bladder, I was flummoxed by this new contraption facing me.  There was no handle to flush, and a large sign explaining that the Student Union was testing this new technology in order to make our lives easier.  Well, I was disgusted that our student fees—taxes, basically—were being wasted on such a silly concept.  Why not spend it on an education campaign teaching men how to behave appropriately and flush it themselves?  Ah, youth.  How sweet, and how naïve.

Oddly, I remember those Cactus Café handle-less urinals every time I pass through a public restroom.  So it was with a real hint of sadness that I read a New York Times story this weekend about how the days of the campus live music venue may be numbered thanks to budget cuts.  Evidently, the university could save a measly $66,000 by closing it.  The outpouring of affection from musicians and fans has been dramatic—using words like “irreplaceable,” “legendary,” and “iconic.”

But so far, no one has remarked on the once cutting-edge urinals of the Cactus Café, or worried about what will happen to the Lesbian Folk Singers.

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