Culture: How a Brit Sees Dallas
I fell in love with a famous artist who showed me the wonders of London—and, in the process, rediscovered his affection for his city. But then I got homesick and made him move to Dallas. Now it’s my turn.
I met Richard in the first months of the new millennium. He had come to Dallas from London for a one-man show at the Dallas Museum of Art, and I was supposed to write about his paintings. Instead, two weeks later, I was living with him in London.
I had actually planned the move for months. I had saved 10 grand, run a reconnaissance mission, purchased a plane ticket, and arranged for a lease on a tiny flat—all of this long before I met the guy. The goal, as I told those who thought I was nuts for leaving my comfortable life here, was to write a book about the historic exchange between American and British popular culture. Or something like that.
To be honest, I was going to hang out in rock clubs and drink gallons of lager and mess around with pale, gangly men. I had lived in Texas all my life. Time to shove off.
But when I got off the plane, Richard was waiting. Extraordinarily talented, unfailingly honest, deeply kind, highly sensitive Richard. Cutting the euphemisms, let’s just say he’s neurotic, like the best of us. And he swept me up into his rather rarified world of the London art elite. He had been considering a move to New York. No more—I was in his town now, unpacking my suitcase in his East London painting studio, telling him all about why I needed to stick around for a while. Seeing his city through a newcomer’s eyes, Richard rediscovered his affection for the place, and he was a host on fire. In the 18 months we lived together in London, I had, via Richard, the kind of experiences most tourists can’t imagine (and not just because most tourists don’t get a host they fall in love with).
We zipped all over town in his classic ’69 Porsche 912; dined often at the super-exclusive Ivy and the ultra-cliquish St. John; attended swanky dinner parties in Notting Hill, Mayfair, and Islington; sipped wine at invite-only art openings at White Cube and Anthony d’Offay; and shopped at Selfridges and Liberty. We had access to private clubs like the Groucho, where I would keep one buzzing eye out for my London heroes: Martin Amis, Stephen Fry, Blur. But any well-heeled visitor could manage most of that.
My experiences went deeper. I deliberated at 2 a.m. with a sober Damien Hirst (!) over the current state of painting. Ad mogul Charles Saatchi, whenever he saw me, would bellow, "Christina! What CDs should I buy next?" I saw a huge fox run through old, industrial Hoxton at midnight; I drank with really old pros like author Peter Ackroyd and painter Howard Hodgkin. I "went down to the shops" each day, because English refrigerators are so tiny that they hold food enough for only eight hours. I ate in cafes where the Krays once planned their gangster hits, wandered a million miles of maze-like London streets in beat-up combat boots, clutching a shredded little A-Z—not for one week, but more like 80 weeks, until I could advise the famous, big-brained London cab drivers on shortcuts. I learned how to tell good tea from bad (like a Texan taking for granted the difference between a good and bad margarita) and how to tell a Georgian façade from a Victorian from an Edwardian. And I knew in my perverse, landlocked heart that if I could live anywhere in London, it would be on a houseboat on the Thames, docked in Chelsea. Well, right—Chelsea’s terribly expensive. A very small houseboat. And I grew addicted to baked beans. And I forgot to write my book.
Richard was a bank of information about his city and culture. He could answer all my questions, from "Tell me about World War II’s bouncing bombs" to "Why is Clerkenwell kind of creepy?" He knew about London’s politics, economics, and had a gracious way of explaining (and navigating) his home’s all-pervasive class system. He was a walking, talking, horny version of London itself. Quite a time for a girl from Irving.
But Richard didn’t have to work very hard to convince me that London was fascinating and complex and impressive. London is the kind of place where people want to be—seven and a half million people; more than 600 square miles; and centuries of bloody, glorious history.
I wondered how a guy like Richard would take Dallas. His first visit to my young city had lasted a few days and hissed by like indecipherable static for him. He still didn’t have an impression of it. I fretted.
Because I got homesick in London. After six months, the new-place novelty faded. After eight, I missed seeing the sun and stars. After a year, I was itching for more space, more green, more quiet. I missed my paychecks and my family. After a year and a half, I was broke, gray as the London sky, and swampy with writer’s block. I spent my days watching soul-numbing gardening programs on the BBC and my nights at the pub. Art openings became tedious, dinner parties were nasty obligations, celebrities were boring wankers. Richard was the only reason I remained.
I dreamed of a house in Dallas. A yard with fireflies. Tex-Mex. Heat. It was time to shove off again. So we moved to New York.
A blip in the story. Okay, maybe a bit more than a blip, but it was sort of on the way back to Texas. Some of my closest friends had migrated there, and Richard could still be a big-shot painter in New York.
We found a cool place in Brooklyn and settled in. He secured a long-term artist visa, and I did some freelancing. Many months passed. I was still homesick. As the most brutal, dismal, winter wound down to an unconvincing close, I told him: "I’m going home." (Besides, our two claustrophobic dogs were eating our furniture. Wait. That was me.)
So here we are. We’ve kept our place in Brooklyn but bought a house near White Rock Lake. I’m here much of the time, and Richard is here more than he ever could have predicted. If you had told him a few years back that he’d be living in this town, he would’ve smiled and slowly backed away. Most of his London and New York peers were visibly horrified when he told them we were getting a place in the—cue scary music—Bible Belt. He may as well have announced to Michael Moore that he was sleeping with George W. at the Crawford ranch.
And now our roles have reversed. It has fallen to me to introduce Richard to Dallas as successfully as he acquainted me with London. Worrying that my city lacks the inherent cultural power and history of a place like London (or New York), I’ve been playing the Dallas host, doing a schizophrenic dance: "Hey! We’ve got the best of both worlds here! We’re slick and sophisticated like the bigger cities, but we’re also rustic and friendly. We’ve got world-class restaurants as well as gun racks on our trucks. Like sports? Check. Hate sports? Okay, let’s see what’s scheduled at the Meyerson this season."
But our first stop: NorthPark. I wondered if he’d read it like just another mid-American mall with a Dillard’s.
He had questions. "Why is there a real Rosenquist on the wall?" I was ready. I pointed out the Flanagan, the Warhols. "See the Stella, Richard? You’re influenced by Stella, right?" I told him all about Ray Nasher, about his collection and vision to bring art to the masses through this chunk of modernist real estate. Then I told him more about the new Nasher Sculpture Center, which he’d been hearing about in New York and London. I talked about the big plans for the Arts District, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry. And he listened, like I did in London, while admiring NorthPark’s light and layout.
Then he said he needed sunglasses. Dallas has sun like London never sees. And Richard wanted Prada. Well, then, we were off to Neiman Marcus. And he wanted a margarita. Great. It was enchilada night at El Fenix. Finally, I felt the scope of my city.
Which means sushi at Tei Tei one night and beer biscuits at Barbecs the next morning. Taking my dad’s truck down to Cedar Creek and pointing out the longhorns along the way, and then turning around for a trip to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Richard has been to the top museums in a dozen countries. Some of his paintings are even in them. But Richard thinks that the Modern is perhaps the best museum he’s ever seen. Score.
All along, I’ve been leaving him at home each day to work on the house—a real fixer-upper—and he’s been getting to know Dallas more deeply, on his own time. Like Home Depot, where he’s on a first-name basis with the paint guy. Target. Design Within Reach. Whole Foods. And he’s gotten intimate with mosquitoes, St. Augustine grass, and his own accent, which stymies strangers even though Richard speaks more clearly than most news anchors. Meanwhile, he thinks everyone here sounds like Hank Hill or Owen Wilson, which he finds charming. He appreciates air conditioning and my friends who are still around—an easygoing, motley crew of, uh, creative types—and seeing our dogs run wild over our lawn.
He loves driving. Dallas is, if nothing else, a driver’s town. He wonders if he should ship over his Porsche or bring down his old Jaguar, the one he bought in New York to make himself feel more at home in the States. He thinks his Jag-ew-ahr could be content in Dallas.
He’s not much into sports, but as he grows more fascinated with Dallas and Texas iconography, he’s looking forward to watching a Cowboys game at Texas Stadium. (Mental note: rent North Dallas Forty.) The South is sneaking into his work in unexpectedly fruitful ways. He’s played with images of Daisy Duke and of Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson. And although he’d never before accepted a commission, he agreed to paint a woman named Amy, a former Cowboys cheerleader. It was a surprise gift for her from her New York-based husband. Richard nearly thinks of it as a self-portrait: both a celebration of his new life and of the oddness he feels about existing outside it, looking in.
A sense of displacement is pretty much unavoidable after a big move, as I found during my stint in London. But I’ve also found I don’t have to work so hard to convince Richard that Dallas is an okay place to live. Dallas has done that on its own.
And while he really likes Tei Tei and the Modern and NorthPark, it’s when he’s looking at me over a margarita at El Fenix that he says, "Blimey. I’m really happy." Could be the tequila. But I don’t think so.