Austin lost an icon this week.
The outpouring of local stories from people whose lives he touched are boundless, and a search this afternoon even turned up an article in The New York Times on the person who impacted thousands simply by being a kind, spectacular but sometimes shy homeless man who sauntered around town in a feather boa and a thong.
For those of you who don’t live in the weird, wild heart of Texas, do not adjust your monitor: you did indeed read that correctly. Leslie Cochran was a cross-dresser without a home who wandered the streets of Austin, sometimes ran for mayor, and often held memorable conversations over drinks or meals with pretty much anyone who extended the invitation. His image was once uploaded onto the People of Wal-Mart website by an unknowing onlooker, and the web exploded with cheers that it was, indeed, our Leslie, and that he was a damn icon around these parts. I only saw him once, at my first Pecan Street Festival in 2009, and I remember feeling like I’d reached a milestone in my journey toward being an Austinite simply by laying eyes on him. And it wasn’t because of the thong and the boa… it was because of the fact that he could get away with wearing a thong and a boa and still elicit real conversation, camaraderie and even respect from the people around him. Let’s be real, friends: that’s a tough thing to pull off.
Unless you’re in Austin, that is.
I’m sure he had his troubles. I’m sure they were many of the same self-sabotaging, reoccurring challenges much of the impoverished population faces, along with some of the rest of us who live in nice houses with fancy window coverings that make it easier to hide our demons from the world outside. I’m sure some of you are raising an eyebrow at the fact that so many people could celebrate the life of a person who seemed to the naked eye like a local celebrity who’d made a name for himself based on spectacle alone. But that’s the thing… Leslie was more than a spectacle. In fact, he was more than a person too, in a way. He was the personification of the reason people flock to Austin to begin with: here, you can be who you are — no matter how odd — and be accepted, embraced, and even celebrated. But there’s a catch to that last part: unlike the realm of celebrity in general, here, it only works if you’re kind to the people around you.
I was one of the lucky few who happened to see the quiet tribute the Paramount Theater staff paid to Austin’s vagabond son on Thursday morning just after everyone heard the news of his death. The global juggernaut that is SxSW was about to roll into town any minute, and I’m sure they had plenty of important festival details to display on their marquee. But just for a few hours, before the town opened its doors to tens of thousands of visitors, we took a moment by ourselves to pay a quiet tribute to the man who reminded us that it’s okay to just be who we are. For just a little while, the Paramount marquee simply bore two words: “Peace Leslie.”
A few weeks ago, we were all buzzing about the fact that Leslie was talking about leaving Austin for a little town outside of Denver where he used to live. I think we can all agree we’re glad he didn’t go… he belonged here. But now that he’s truly gone, wherever he is, we can bet he’s keeping it weird, just as he damn well should.