NATIVE SON My Home Town
Searching for the "real" Dallas, a native son ponders time, memory, barbecue, the Cotton Bowl and a certain je ne sais quoi, y’all
It is 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. We arc sitting in Adair’s Saloon in Deep Ellum. Old friend Mike is telling me what he doesn’t like about Dallas, but I’m distracted by the horse-apple-sized spit wad that hangs like a stalactite directly over my head. The spit-wads, like the webs of graffiti, are everywhere, part of the Adair’s ambience transported here in 1983 when the joint moved from Cedar Springs after 19 years there.
"You know what the problem is with Dallas?" asks old friend Mike.
"Water. There’s no water."
The mention of water brings me back to the spitwad. What prodigious masticator, I wonder, launched that monster skyward? How long did it take him to gum it all together? What were his friends thinking as he chewed on through the afternoon toward his glorious goal? What if it fell on my head? There was probably a lawyer in the house, maybe over near the pool tables with the construction workers and the woman who let out an orgasmic squeal when things went right on the pinball machine.
Old friend Mike is serious. "Water is like a highway taking you away. It makes things more mysterious and more open at the same time. A huge river or an ocean... It’s like infinity. A vanishing point. It’s like part of the Japanese sense of aesthetics..."
I hate to break up a good lecture, but I remind him that Dallas is not exactly sagebrush and Gila monsters. What about White Rock Lake, I ask. There’s water for you.
He frowns and begins talking about Zen (and the art of spitwad making?), but he’s drowned out by the chorus of pool and pin-ball players who are howling the refrain on "Come Monday, " one of the juke box’s newer offerings. ("I spent four lonely days in a brown LA haze and I just want you back by my siiiiiiiide!")
Anytime you find yourself talking about infinity and White Rock Lake under a giant Adair’s spitwad, you’d better backtrack and ask just how you got there. My excuse was simple. At a staff meeting some weeks ago, it was revealed that I was the sole Native Dallasite on the D Magazine editorial staff. Their confessions of non-nativeness cleared up some mysteries about my colleagues, a couple of whom had been "passing" for years. I had always thought they looked kind of funny, Now I knew why.
So, before you could say Big D, little a, double 1-a-s, an idea was born. Native credentials in hand, I was to seek the Real and Essential Dallas, nailing down and elucidating the very thing itself, which was, of course, uh.. Well, let’s not bog down in definitions so early.
Yes, I’ve spent all but four of my 41 years living within 15 miles of downtown Dallas; not always in the city proper but close enough so that it made no sense to establish a separate suburban identity as a Carroll-tonian or a Garlandite. For the past decade I’ve lived within the city limits, but it’s always been the same; regardless of my address, when it was time to work I came to Dallas. When it was lime to play I came to Dallas.
But, we must ask, so what? Are native Dallasites granted, along with that 105-degree heat shield, some special perspective that is denied to outlanders? Is there some sixth sense or wisdom possessed by natives that is cosa nostra, and nobody else’s? I don’t know. It’s not something I would put much money on. Perception and insight are individual gifts, not granted en masse to groups by virtue of birthplace, gender, race or anything else. A newcomer may see things about Dallas that natives miss, and vice versa.
So the point is not to exclude, with anal-retentive fastidiousness, those who don’t boast a Dallas pedigree. The essential Dallas I would hint at here is open to everyone who cares about the city as something more than the source of a paycheck. We’re sharing a place and time, and all the things that go with that-memories, certain foods, treasured hangouts, local legends, reaction to change. Somewhere in the nexus of those things lies the Real Dallas.
I. Drawl, Memory
Our own lives, like it or not, are intertwined with the life of the city. We change, yet we are the same people, somehow, from our grade-school pictures to our wedding pictures, from our first bike to our first child. By the same token, Dallas has grown and mutated, yet retains some unique identity we would never confuse with New Orleans or Chicago.
So we change together, we and the city. Here am I, a child of the ’60s, too young to have been an Elvis fan, and certainly much younger than I usually feel, but I can remember only yesterday when the now-puny Southland Life Building was the city’s tallest. It housed the chic Ports O’Call restaurant, where rich boys in madras and English Leather took girls in madras and Jungle Gardenia for dinner on special occasions. There was an open-air observation deck, of course, as you would expect from such an architectural behemoth. Old friend Mike, who didn’t get here until the mid-’60s, swears he thought you could see the curvature of the earth from that deck. Maybe you could.
I can’t remember the first time Deep Ellum was a nightlife mecca, but I can remember when it was mostly boarded up and deserted except for a few places like the wonderful Harper’s Book Store, sans air conditioning and dusty as an Egyptian tomb, the polar opposite of a modern B. Walden Book Purveyors Inc. Old Harper had no apparent shelving system for his thousands of books and magazines, but he could put his hands on anything you asked for in an hour or so. And if he couldn’t find it that day, you’d be browsing a month later and he’d walk up with your book in hand.
I can remember going with my father to see the young Dallas Cowboys, NFL virgins, get annihilated at the Cotton Bowl. For that matter, I can remember seeing the Dallas Texans get annihilated at the Cotton Bowl before Lamar Hunt hied them away to Kansas City. Somewhere in a box of childish things sits my Dallas Texans Huddle Club membership card, which carried with it at least as many rights and appurtenances as the average B. A. degree gets you today.
Those memories could be multiplied, but we have to be wary of the Good Ol’ Days trap. Much was stupid and unfair Back Then, as it is now. Perhaps Time, the subtle thief of youth, tricks us into thinking that what is old is good when it is merely old.
And yet, how can we deny that memories are a key to something real and valuable about the city? Consider the oceans of facts and impressions that wash in and out of our minds each year. So much we did and said and hoped-gone without a trace, beyond the power of the biggest Day-Timer to recall. Who can even remember what happened last Thursday at noon? Therefore the face, the building, the scent that lives in memory must have its place in some grand pattern we barely glimpse.
II. Of Time, Meredith and the Comet
What and where is the Essential Dallas? Groping for pseudoscientific criteria, I thought about the Don Meredith Test: If it’s old enough for Meredith to have seen it when he quarterbacked the Cowboys, it’s a candidate for Essentialness. Of course, Meredith’s years in Dallas (1960-1968) were just a second ago for those Dallasites, long before my time, who remember when White Rock Lake had a beach for swimming, and where the original site of the Hockaday School was (Belmont and Greenville) and how the old Fort Worth Highway was once a major artery into Dallas. Some things, of course, endure until they span and link generations. Riding the old Comet roller coaster at Fair Park used to thrill and terrify me-and part of the thrill came from knowing that my father had ridden the rickety giant as a boy 40 years earlier. The Comet, I knew, was old.
III. Places in the Heart
Of course, my fist of Essential Dallas places cannot be identical to yours. I’d name places like Flag Pole Hill, White Rock Lake, the Hunt mansion, the DeGolyer Estate, the Magnolia building, the old El Chico in Lake-wood, the Texas Theater, Norma’s Cafe, the sixth-floor window, the grassy knoll, the spot where old Burnett Field stood, the Lakewood Theater, Turtle Creek, Love Field, Poor David’s Pub, Lee Park, Sonny Bryan’s, Fair Park, the Greenville Avenue Bar and Grill.
It’s a list that tilts toward East Dallas, downtown and Oak Cliff, which have been my bailiwick. I wouldn’t argue with anyone who plumped for Preston Center or St. Mark’s or the Aerobics Center or myriad other North Dallas favorites; but those places are not part of the sediment of my past. Still, time can marinate anything, even the obdurate glass and steel of Prestonwood Mall. I won’t be surprised in 20 years to read a heartfelt memoir, perhaps called Bent Tree Boy, about a North Dallas kid whose most precious memories spring from the ice-skating rink at the Galleria.
IV. The Grub of Youth
In recent years, knowing that a waist is a terrible thing to mind, I’ve hewed to a Sino-vego diet and welcomed with open mouth all our new Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. Writing this story took me back to the cuisine-make that grub-of my youth. As much as I’ve grown to like sag paneer and dolmas and cuttlefish with black bean sauce, settling into a chicken-fried steak and peach cobbler at Norma’s in Oak Cliff is like coming home after a long trip abroad. Granted, few diners here look like they’ll be running marathons, but this is not the place to think about banning cholesterol. As for those delicious chunks of salt pork in the turnip greens, it’s been discovered that fatback, like gravy and chicken skin, is actually good for the heart. (Not.)
And then there’s Sonny Bryan’s shack on Inwood, where the food tastes even better than it smells-and that’s major praise. The aroma of Sonny’s, however, may not quite match that of the old Bob White’s at Gaston and East Grand, where the carnal perfume of barbecue pervaded the area for blocks around. My mouth waters to this day when I think of those ribs and chicken livers.
The third leg of the native-food triad, after soul food and barbecue, is of course Tex-Mex, We’re rich in fine Mexican restaurants-Matt’s Rancho Martinez, Javier’s, La Suprema Tortilleria, etc. -but my unschooled palate has trouble finding bad Mexican food. The unofficial historical monument out in front of the El Chico in Lakewood (the chains second location, opened in 1946) was not erected because they serve the best Mex in town, though they might have 30 years ago. But nostalgia affects even our taste buds. When I was a tot, my mother and grandmother would take me there for lunch on their way to Neiman’s or Sanger’s, back when the better stores for women’s clothing were all downtown. So there are some memories and distant voices to go with the margaritas and the murals that blend the Cuellar’s family history and the city’s.
Native food is like a language you learn as a child and never forget. You go off to college and suppress your twang, learn to pronounce think and thank as different words, maybe drop "fixin’ to" from your vocabulary. Then, at a Rangers game years later, you meet up with some unreformed rednecks from your old high school, and within an hour you’re twangin’ again, maybe slipping in an "ain’t" here and there.
Likewise with food, You can grow to be a citizen of the culinary world-but if you’re born around here, your passport has gravy stains on it.
V. The"Dallas" Thing and J.R.
Trillions of words have been spent on the Kennedy assassination and its awful impact on Dallas, a city of innocent bystanders. According to the elders, it was first the success of the Dallas Cowboys and later the television show "Dallas" that helped us recast our image and wipe off the bloody "K" that had been painted on the communal forehead.
I suppose we should be thankful to Lorimar Productions, Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and the rest. A generation ago, traveling Dallasites were scorned as bloodthirsty night riders. A friend tells of visiting Paris in the early ’’70s. A waiter, learning she was from Dallas, looked at her in disgust, made his thumb and forefinger into a gun, and said, "Bang bang." Five years ago, in a little fishing village 30 miles outside of Belfast, Ireland, my accent betrayed me as American to a shopkeeper. "What city?" she asked. When I told her, she pointed at me, grinning absurdly, and laughed, "J.R!"
OK, J.R. is a step up from Lee Harvey. But if "Dallas" really made us look better in the eyes of the world, we must have been way, way down. And did you think it was over? Thanks to cable and syndication, J. R. may be putting the screws to poor Cliff Barnes in the year 2000. Go out to Southfork now and you’ll be amazed at the number of tourists who still trek to the ersatz lair of our most famous (fictional) rich white trash.
Most of us who lived through "Dallas" have given our own speeches to out-of-town guests or colleagues who wanted to know if Dallas was really like "Dallas. " Of course it wasn’t. "Dallas" was riddled with fallacies-among them those oil wells pumping hot air on the horizon. Dallas County, where Southfork claimed to be (it’s actually in Collin County), is one of the few Texas counties where no oil has over been found. Even in 1978, Dallas was already too complex and variegated for any lone Satan in a Stetson to pull all those strings.
As I recall, local historian A. C. Greene suggested that a more fitting title for the series would be "Wichita Falls. " But who would have watched it? Dallas carried a preexisting penumbra of mystery; out there in the world beyond the Trinity, people wanted to know more about that hot, braggadocious place that had killed a president and spawned the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.
So on it goes. Southfork now offers South-fork Trade Days one weekend a month, where vendors on "Bobby Lane" and "Jock Ewing Lane" hawk everything from a 1951 Monopoly game ($47.50) to last year’s exercycle. And when you swing your gaze from the regal mansion that was the Ewing’s facade to the tables filled with what must be called junque, it’s hard to resist a comment on the trajectory of our state’s economy over the past 10 years. From awl bidness riches to garage sales.
Meanwhile, in the souvenir shop, those quaint Dallas customs prevail. You can buy two post cards: for $1, but you can’t buy one for 50 cents. They want to move this stuff. You almost feel sorry for the two young Swedes who lay their purchases on the counter.
"That’ll be 8 li’l ol’ dollars, " says the cocky guy behind the counter, who must get called J. R. at least once a day. The two young men look at each other, perplexed. Does this Dallas have its own currency, too?
VI. Speaking of Cowboys...
Anyone searching for the Real Dallas must grapple with the Cowboy culture. Always, Bubba and Bubbette are possible role models for any Dallas man or woman; even if you ride herd on computers during the day, you can saddle up the Ram Charger after dark and sashay into the Debonair Danceland or Borrowed Money for some boot-scootin’ fun.
During my first year on the high-school paper, I covered the Future Farmers of America chapter ("Ag Boys Bring Home Bacon From Decatur Show"), and I’ve felt an uneasy distance from Cowboy culture ever since. The heifer-lovers with their hand-tooled belts and curious brown-stained boots were the main enforcers of dress-code conformity ("Bwah, when yew gonna git that hair cut?") and I wanted no part of it. My first adult heroes, beyond sports figures, were Eric Sevareid and John Lennon. It was hard to imagine either of them swaggering down the Midway with a chaw and a six-pound belt buckle.
OK, I’m holding a grudge. No doubt much has changed. If a North Dallas CPA wants to dress up and play cowboy, that’s no less authentic than a kid from Garland dressing like a Carnaby Street mod, I even like some of the new country music, though my appreciation seems to increase as the crossover music sheds the pedal steel and generally de-countrifies. Hey, some of these guys are even smashing their guitars like real rockers! At the recent Farm Aid Concert, however, I noted that a good many of the boos and catcalls for Jesse Jackson came from the Stetsonites. That sort of thing, I tell my Yankee import friends, is just part of the deal in Dallas.
VII. The West End Problem and Other Changes
Fill in the blank: What I don’t like aboutthe West End is.
Tourists, right? How ironic. Eight years ago, we were saying how awful it was that downtown was a wasteland after dark. You could fire a cannon down Main or Ross and not harm a soul. Gee, we said, we need streetlife down there. Gotta have that streetlife. Can’t let downtown die.
Then came the West End. Many of us bit the coin, pronounced it bogus and screeched, "Oh, no, not that kind of streetlife! We meant real streetlife."
In the minds of too many Dallasites, downtown means either a tourist trap or a wasteland. And that’s not surprising, since so many never go there except for jury duty or to pay a traffic ticket. They’ve never had any fun there or bought anything in a store. They don’t remember that fewer than 20 years ago, there was a lot going on downtown. When I was a freshman in high school, a friend’s father worked for the company that owned the Majestic, one of several downtown theaters still thriving then. He hired our band to play at the premiere of Kaleidoscope, starring Susannah York and a young actor named Warren Beatty. Red carpets, searchlights, limos-an affair unimaginable in today’s downtown.
The West End is no solution, but like the much cooler Deep Ellum, it’s a piece of the puzzle. It’s genuinely old, and represents an exception to the rule about knocking down our past. There’s even a real brewery, serving a nice lager, in the Brewery. The West End is home to Dick’s Last Resort, which features the politically incorrect themes and decor of the ineffable Buffalo George Toomer. And in one hour recently, 1 saw four live bands in the West End. For free. Two of them I would have paid to see. That’s not a bad percentage.
We used to scuff our boots in the dirt and say naw, this ain’t no place for tourists. Them tourists would a darn sight rather go up to that Niagary Falls or out t’ Hollywood. Now here they are, poking around the West End and taking buses out to the Arboretum, and we shudder at the very idea of getting caught on a bar stool next to a real estate broker from Milwaukee. In New York fast year, I took a 30-block cab ride just to stare at that grand anachronism, the Flatiron Building. Isn’t it possible that, to visitors, Dealey Plaza is just as fascinating? As a pop psychologist might say, let’s give ourselves permission to be interesting.
VIII. The Hunt Continues
All of this hunting and pecking for the Essential Dallas may be just a rear-guard action fought in a lost cause. There is depressing evidence that, due to mass communications and mass consumerism, every place is becoming more like every place, and therefore no place.
In his novel The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s Binx Boiling believes that too many of us actually live Nowhere, rooted in no real place or time, filled with a wistful, existential emptiness. (And he didn’t even have to watch the Mavericks. ) Ironically, Binx finds that seeing his city, New Orleans, in a movie "certifies" it and gives it a strange cinematic reality. Having tried certification with Dallas-based movies like State Fair (mellow Pat Boone), Robocop (violent Peter Weller) and Problem Child (smarmy John Ritter), I can’t say any of them made my home town seem more real to me-quite the opposite, in some cases. Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio, for example, gives the world an eerie, oxy-moronic view of Dallas: A gleaming, sky-scraping Oz peopled by predatory hicks and bigots right out of the ’50s.
Playing off Percy’s idea, though, we might seek to maximize the Real Dallas content of our lives. Going to the State Fair of Texas, for example, is a strong first-degree Dallas experience. Running into Roger Staubach on the Midway would kick it up to second-degree Dallasness. If Staubach is cranking up for the football toss, you’re flirting with a third-degree Dallas experience.
Or try it another way: Rummaging through Half Price Books, a Dallas institution that’s gone nationwide, is definitely first-degree. Finding (here a first edition of North Dallas Forty, Pete Gent’s fictionalized expose of the Dallas Cowboys, takes you to second-degree Dallas with a bullet. But look out. If that Gent book is inscribed, "To Coach Landry, in spite of everything, " you’re in third-degree Dallas nirvana.
IX. The Inevitable Question, and an Answer
Twice in the past three days, I’ve been asked the question every longtime Dallasite, especially the lifer, has to answer: Why do you stay? The questioner usually means well and is looking for insight. What wonders could make a man spend most of his life eight miles from where he was bora? What’s great about it? they’re really saying, though some add a tinge of pity, and from a few the question means, "Are you so second-rate you couldn’t hack it in New York or LA?"
What do you say? I’m not good at short answers, so I usually stammer out something banal. Well, it’s pretty nice... I like it here... Iike my job... Got a son living in the area... You get used to the heat.
It’s curious how right the question seems. Staying in one place does seem to demand a good defense, while moving around is the natural state of things. American mobility, and all that. A nation of strangers.
So why stay? The quirks of personality, maybe. Some people are goers and some are stayers. We are born with unequal parts of wanderlust and need different doses of change. I’ve married, divorced and remarried. That’s a lot of change for one lifetime. And while I do not discourage calls from The New York Times, I love my work and can do much of what I hope to do from Dallas.
Does staying mean I love Dallas? Not like Romeo loved Juliet. Show me the person who can love everything about a densely populated urban center with recurrent racial myopia and 105~degree summer days, and I’ll show you a lobotomy scar. But I love it some of the time, like it most of the time. It’s comfortable, humble accolade though that is. Walking around the State Fair each year, I think I spot my teen-age self squiring a pretty, gum-smacking girl down the Midway. I’ve seen a thousand sunsets over White Rock Lake but still look forward to the next one. By some coincidence, the best friend of my youth is buried at Restland. just a few yards from my father’s grave. I could take a lot of those memories with me and may yet do it, but for the time being I’m comfortable. If only that spitwad doesn’t fall on my head.