Looking back at Dallas from the high road to New York

MY FRIEND WILLARD says I have no subconscious. Willard is the only person I’ve ever known who really chortles. He is tan and lean and very smart, and he enjoys what he regards as the charming foibles of women. So when I told him the dream about the symphony parking lot, he chortled. Then he said that I have no subconscious, by which he meant, I suppose, that he understood my dream.

What I dreamed was this: I was all dressed up to meet my husband, Willem, who works for the Dallas Symphony. He and I were supposed to meet in the symphony parking lot to go to a fancy symphony party together (black tie and all that). I looked quite nice in my dream, but I felt desperate. All around me, other people, trailing ostrich plumes and sequins, wheeled off blithely to the party. The lot grew empty, and the attendants watched me suspiciously while I wandered around disconsolately searching for my husband or my husband’s car.

“It’s so transparent, I’m embarrassed for you,” Willard said. “Cars and mobility are power. You can’t find the car, you don’t have a ride to the party, you’re all dressed up and no way to go. What’s more, you’re not even looking for your own car, you’re looking for your husband’s. Obviously it’s a dream about leaving Dallas. You’re scared to death.”

Willard may sell my subconscious short — I think that’s a pretty subtle dream myself — but he’s dead on about my anxieties. After 14 years, I’m leaving Dallas. What’s more, I’m leaving just the way I came: following a man because of his job. In the past decade and a half, I’ve never been away from Dallas for more than a month at a time. Now my dean and chairman at SMU have kindly granted me a leave of absence from teaching, and D Magazine has agreed to publish what I write in absentia. Willem has a contract as executive director of the American Symphony Orchestra, which performs in Carnegie Hall. We’ve sold our 1910 house in East Dallas and have taken a lease on an apartment in a 1982 high-rise at the corner of West 96th and Broadway. New York City. And I’m scared to death.

Moving to Dallas in the fall of 1970, I didn’t expect much. I had a brand-new graduate degree in English from the University of Texas in Austin, but that didn’t bring us here. The man (then my husband and still my friend), Bill Porterfield, had accepted a position in Dallas, a reporting slot on Channel 13’s hot new Newsroom, a glamorous job indeed after two years of freelancing in our Austin basement. So we — Bill, 10-year-old Erin, 7-year-old Winton and I — came. To me, Dallas was incongruously the site of both Neiman Marcus and Kennedy’s assassination — the glittering, mannered, treacherous aristocrat of Texas cities. I preferred loudmouth Houston or funky Austin, where I knew the terrain.

Now I look up, 14 years later, and realize with surprise that I’ve lived here longer than any other place in my life. I treasure the memories of my Mississippi childhood, but Dallas is the mother of my adulthood. In the shelter of her arm, I’ve come through trauma and triumph: divorce, remarriage, children, career, houses, cars, money — the full catastrophe, as Zorba the Greek says. Nothing can make these things easy, but Dallas has made them easier, at least for me.

Remember Yossarian’s theory in Catch 22? Yossarian said that life goes by too fast when you are happy. He wanted to do things that bored him or made him miserable. In fact, I recall somewhat uneasily a line of graffiti in the ladies’ room in Scholz’s Beer Garden in Austin: “Yossarian is alive and well and living in NYC.” If you are bored or miserable, life might not actually be longer, but it will seem longer. My years in Dallas have seemed short — too short.

New York beckons intriguingly, and of course, I want to go — I’ve wanted to live there since I was 21, which is quite a while now. Every May for the past five years or so, I’ve taken a group of 20 SMU undergraduates to Times Square for a week of theater. Through these visits and others, I’ve learned the lay of the land, know that the streets run east and west and the avenues north and south, know how to distinguish the Village from SoHo and Tribeca from NoHo. I’ve checked out the New Yorker Fur Thrift Shop, shopped Parachute and the Canal Street Flea Market, mingled with the crowds at Zabar’s, danced (once) at Xenon’s, heard Bobby Short at the Carlyle and walked by the Mudd Club. I’ve ridden the subway to Coney Island on a sunny Saturday and to the Cloisters on a rainy Tuesday, and have taken the tramway to Roosevelt Island. And I look forward to doing all the rest — everything there is to do.

So what am I afraid of? I’m afraid of what I’ll miss in Dallas. I spent the summer saying goodbye for now to this city I have come to love, and I’m painfully, regretfully aware of all the things I still haven’t done here. Can you believe I’ve only been to the Galleria once? I haven’t been to the top of InterFirst Two to see the city laid out below. I have never been to Texas Stadium, have never seen the Mustangs or the Cowboys play football and have never danced at Confetti. I have never heard the Rev. Criswell preach, and I am unexposed to exposure, the Lone Star Drive-in, Billy Bob’s Texas, White Water or Six Flags Over Texas. My Dallas may not be your Dallas, and you may very well wonder how I have spent my time.

Work. I’ve spent a lot of hours at work. Most Dallasites will understand. I know, from trying to get people on the phone in New York, that nobody in the Big Apple works before 9:30 or 10 a.m. or after 5 — make that 3 p.m. — on Friday. Big D, on the other hand, is a city that works early and late. Many of the businessmen I talk to are accustomed to 7:30 breakfast meetings, business lunches of Lean Cuisine in somebody’s office and 11- to 12-hour workdays. We are masters of the Puritan work ethic; we work hard and expect rewards. And we get them.

In my own case — and I think I’m typical of a certain Dallas attitude — the greatest reward is the work itself. We like what we do. On the threshold of another life, I wonder how I will manage without the constant round of teaching college kids. What a fearful pleasure those classes have been! I’m not as bad as Willard, also a teacher, who more or less routinely throws up before his first classes every semester. But for three weeks or so, I suffer from insomnia, heart palpitations and sweaty palms. Not for us the serene arrogance of the old prof in The Paper Chase or the foggy sweetness of Mr. Chips. We want to please, to instruct, to uplift, to inspire, to — well, maybe we want too much. Looking out at a garden of 19-year-old faces blooming with innocence, how can one avoid wanting to give them everything? Who knows what they get?

Certainly not always what’s intended by the teacher. I spent June going through my files, laughing and brooding over the messages I have received from undergraduates over the years. I know what it’s like to be an undergraduate. For four years or more, I recall, what my professors in college thought (or, more realistically, what I thought they thought) colored almost everything in the world for me.

That spirit persists today. From one of my brightest students came a William Hamilton card that pictures, on the front, two urbane couples dining in formal dress. “Oh, come on!” one of the women says, “You mean I’m the only one here … [open the card] … who dropped acid at Woodstock?” Tim’s note reads, “Jo, this made me think of you. Who can say why?” Je ne sais pas, Tim, but keep a lid on it, will you?

From V.W., Conneaut Lake, PA, in 1977, I received a postcard with a weird X-ray face on the front and the message, “Dear Jo, I ran into an itinerant neo-dadaist the other day and he sold me this card. For some odd reason I thought of you. Wonder why?”

A mother whale with two babies swims into view on a card from Washington, with this note: “I remember a particular passage in Moby Dick, describing the whales at home, playful and comfortable in their element. Mother whales oversaw as the babies happily rolled about in the waters. You said it touched your deepest maternal emotions. This picture made me think of you.”

Occasionally, someone writes his own poem. In the conclusion of something entitled A Christmas Jo-em, I become a sort of human Rudolph:

So with afirelit sparkle in her eyes And an elfin innocence in her smileShe calls to her reindeer and ascends into the skies
In Santa’s old tradition but with a new-fashioned style.
On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer, on Blitzen
On through the white of that starlit snow.
What’s that overhead? Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
No, no, take comfort, my friend, it does not feign.
It’s only Christmas Jo.

Another poem from a male student with a temporary crush tried for a Garden of Eden image but got it a little out of focus. I hardly know how to take the unforgettable line, “You are the apple fermented by age.”

And a girl who wrote a lovely note a year or so after her graduation ended it with: “Oh yeah, even though I’m not able to see you twice a week anymore, you are still one of my favorite models. You and Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.” I’m pretty sure she doesn’t mean my singing voice, so it must be my maternal qualities.

Because, of course, these are baby whales and I am the mother whale. College students look and act deceptively mature. Tall, chic, sophisticated-looking, many of those at SMU know how to get a flight to Europe, can tell Gucci from Fiorucci and can build a vodka martini. But missives such as these over the years serve to remind any teacher of the waters we all swim in.

The angry letters seem even younger. In a posh school, students often expect to get the good grades they think they have paid for, and the teacher who holds the line may come in for some abuse. Willard and I once joked that on the first day of class we would pass out a questionnaire that read: “Name,” “Social Security number,” “Grade desired,” and then we would just dish them up to order. “You want an A, Sally? Here you are, fresh from the oven! Eat it while it’s hot.”

If we’d acted on this plan, I’d have missed some memorable plaints over the years. One disillusioned lad scrawled a single line across his teacher evaluation form: “It gets old fast.” And a female, more noteworthy for her absence than her presence in class, wrote a two-page letter of protest. Smarting from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in a C-minus on a paper, she wailed:

If you would of confronted me personally with whatever troubled you about me, perhaps we could of solved the problem before your attitude caused me to first experience guilt and then later resentment, which of course hindered my performance in class. I myself didn’t realize how far it had gone until I received the paper. Otherwise, I would of confronted you myself.

As for my fragmented sentences, they are a result of my fiction writing, in which they are very useful. I know and like who I am and I not allow anyone to tread on me in any form without strong resistance.

I should of been more careful.

MY OTHER CAREER in Dallas has been writing — not only academic writing but writing for the popular press, particularly for D. I began writing for D in 1976 at the request of Charles Matthews, a former SMU professor turned editor. The first year, I wrote book reviews. At the same time, my husband and I were doing anonymous restaurant reviews, eating out two and three nights a week for a while.

This job sounds better than it is. We had two children at home, and we planned to feed them from doggy bags. But it didn’t quite work that way. When your 10-year-old greets his dinner with, “Oh, no, not escargot again!” you know you’ve gone too far. And food reviews are hard to write. Willem and I once roared with laughter when we discovered ourselves arguing about whether a sauce should be described as “subtly authoritative” or “authoritatively subtle”; we decided on “bland.”

Next, I wrote a monthly column called “Families” (really a series of personal essays), then I went on to do similar but longer features. Writing these pieces has gotten me out of the ivory tower and has made friends for me all over Dallas — friends and critics. My favorite letter of criticism and a classic of the genre, I think, sent no sniper’s bullet at a single story but a judiciously administered nuclear attack on my entire character and the faults she no doubt rightly found in it. Entitled “Rebuttal,” her letter deserves quoting in its entirety.

Dear Editor:

Only a TALENTED backsliden Baptist could so sufficiently travel full steam ahead on the wrong tracks of pride and vanity with ambition as crossties — as Jo Brans is now doing in D Magazine!

How do I recognize the problem? Simple. I have made the same mistakes as a backslider, and as a Southern Baptist. Yes, I have repented, and yes, I have “turned my train around.”

As a Christian, Jo, I flag you down with these 3 verses found in The Holy Bible, King James Version –The New Testament — the book of II Peter, 3rd chapter. Notice verses: 7, 10, and the wonderful verse 13. Each tick of the clock brings those verses one moment closer. You see, Jo, soon only the Word of God will be left to stand on. It shall never pass away!

I like you, tho I have never met you. I am impressed with your talent and leadership ability. But Jo, — somewhere — someone threw you the wrong switch, and you are now on the track to destruction — pulling a train load of readers (souls) behind you. I have added you to my prayer list. The First Baptist Church of Dallas makes a good Roundhouse in which to turn “your train” around.

Most Sincerely,
(name withheld)

Now, I was brought up a Baptist, and I can’t tell you what fits of remorse this letter threw me into. Reckoning that I had perhaps committed the Unpardonable Sin, as Baptists call it, or fallen into Moral Turpitude, as it’s known in academics, I went to my chairman as the only confessor I had. (Even I know better than to confess to an editor.)

The Chair, a Jew from Brooklyn, saw the occasion for some tidily applied literary criticism. “Her conceit is so charmingly insipid,” he objected. “She seems to want to ‘railroad’ you. Is she writing a song, or has she heard this on a country/Western radio station?”

I appreciated his support, but I could see the real concern that chugged her train along. All Baptists, fallen and otherwise, know that they are responsible for saving the heathen. My mother once told me in all seriousness that all those people in darkest Africa who went to hell were my fault. My soul was being saved in this letter.

So what will happen to me in darkest Manhattan without these people in my life who try, often to no avail, to keep me on the track? Will I forget who I am without students who confuse me with dopers and reindeer and neo-dadaists and whales and apples and Julie Andrews? How can I not be scared?

New York is going to be wonderful, and I wouldn’t pass up the adventure of discovering it for anything. As Saul Bellow’s Augie March says, “Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near at hand.” But I’ll miss Dallas.

These are a few of my favorite things, the things I’ll miss:

I’ll miss Last Call at Neiman’s. Even New Yorkers like Last Call. The last time I hit Last Call I was with Peter Anastos, a New York friend, and he went wilder than I did. After we’d grabbed all we could get, I told the clerk, “I’ll take this dress [Armani, black, for a song] if you’ll cut off the tags and let me wear it.” Of course she did. Would a New York clerk sneer at me for that?

I’ll miss Cafe Cancun and Chiquita, Peggy’s Beef Bar and Zanzibar, the Grape and La Tosca — everything except the buffalo at Routh Street Cafe, the Grand Marnier souffle at Calluaud and the bread pudding at Wyatt’s on Northwest Highway. But man does not live by bread pudding alone, and I’ll miss the Dallas touch with the staples of life. I’ll miss knowing where to go for haircuts (Mia) and for hems (Fantastic Tailor) and for fitness (Celebration).

And Dallas culture. I’ll miss Joe Bob Briggs. (John Leonard will be a wimpy substitute.) I’ll miss concerts at the Music Hall and the Majestic and the Dallas Symphony parties afterward. I’ll miss the SMU Literary Festival, which during the last eight years has allowed us aficionados to meet such gods as Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Eudora Welty.

I’ll miss Dallas weather and the nice predictable stretch of 100-degree days every summer. And Central Expressway — how can I leave it when I’ve just learned how to get on it?

I’ll miss my friends, although I honestly believe that anyone who is ever really in your life is always there. We expect a lot of company in New York.

But mostly I’ll miss my work. I’ll miss standing in the checkout line at Tom Thumb in Old Town, feeling the excitement when I see the new D with my piece in it. I’ll miss the back-to-school palpitations. I’ll miss the angry and the loving notes from people trying to save my soul. Missing these, I’m afraid I’ll miss myself.


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