THE WAY WE LIVE The Big, Fat Central Fact

Have you ever driven from the center of Dallas to the edge of the city and tried to see just where the edge falls? If you were a stranger, driving through on the way from Atlanta to Las Angeles, you might have some sense of where Dallas begins and where it ends. But where? And how?

Especially on the drive from Dallas to Fort Worth on Highway 30, where mere is no appreciable opening of the country and the landscape is consistently urban and suburban, how do we have a sense that half of the trip is Dallas and the other half Fort Worth?

Everyone Wakes up with his or her own idea of what this city or any other city is about on any given day. In some cities there may be a Big Fat Central Fact-like Wall Street or the Loop or the Golden Gate-that helps to shape a shared vision of the place. But we don’t really have a Big Fat Central Fact here.

If there is any shared sense at all of where the city begins, what it feels like and where if stops, it’s born of attitude and impression-a mosaic of dreams, a foam of moods.

The amazing thing is that people have any shared concept of the place at all, especially when you think how changeable and fickle our individual concepts may be. I might driva downtown one day and look out the windshield in a certain mood and see the city as a film noir backdrop-a place with a] thousand tales to tell, all of them really depressing.

But then I might drive downtown the next day after a different sort of night and a different set of dreams and see the city as a Busby Berkeley musical-those shiny, jaunty little towers in the distance, high-stepping across the stage in their dancing boots and their Phillip Morris pillbox hats-a happy skyline on a bright, happy, patriotic kind of a day.

Most people, I think, develop their sense of what it’s like to be in Dallas based mainly on what it was like to be standing out in front of their own houses and apartments the night before sipping a cool one. Or they look out of bus windows and gaze over the handlebars of bicycles and see a city in which the cars are new and the curbs need repairing, a city where normally thoughtless men come home with unexpected flowers, where some small boys finally learn to ride bicycles and other small boys shoot cops through the window, a city in which drunken chief financial officers beat their wives, crepe myrtle trees are beautiful, dogs die and the breakfast Pop Tarts suddenly have mysterious cake frosting on them. Somehow that all comes out to be Dallas, not Fort Worth.

One of the best newspaper editors I ever worked for, John Oppedahl (now in Phoenix), had a theory that every city in the world has a nexus-a centering point around which all of its power and personality is arrayed. But the center moves constantly, he said.

In order to find a city’s point of confluence, you have to look all over, he said, and you have to know where to look. But if you can find it, you can feel and hear everything in the city, and you can see how the city is a fingerprint-separate and distinct from all the other cities in the world.

We worked together in Detroit. On the night he expounded this theory to me, Oppedahl was convinced that the point of confluence for the preceding day had” happened in a frame of the cartoon strip “Nancy and Sluggo.”

The next day the city might flow together in a sermon in a synagogue or on the side of a bus where some smart aleck had drawn a mustache on an anchor lady. You never knew, he said, where to expect it.

There are bad city days, of course, just as there are bad hair days. There are days when nobody in town has a sense of being anywhere. But there are good city days, even great city days, when everybody in town has a strong sense of being right here in Dallas, and everybody knows just where the edges and the center of the city fall.

Sometimes, in order to know where to look for the center, we need a tuning fork. We need someone-a weather man or more often a morning-drive radio personality-who is gifted with a supernatural ability to resonate at the magical pitch of the city. That person tells a joke about something that happened, and we hear the joke, and the joke is right.

It’s a tiny little sliver of a feeling that somehow, without meaning much, manages to slip through everyone’s dream and mood that morning and form the silver thread that binds.

And then the weave is passed down by receptionists in doctors’ offices and by teachers in corridors and by guards in the lobby-people who repeat the jokes-until we are all stitched together. For a day.

And that’s all the city really is. A thread. A shared signal- A sense of direction. For a day. Once the signal is gone-once the Oppedahlian Point of Confluence is no longer the same for the whole ground-the city is gone. It becomes different places, places with nothing in common, places with separate and unconnected centers.

Because there is no Big Fat Central Fact here, either physical or ethnic or historical, Dallas is a fragile commodity. We are totally dependant on the tuning forks. Here, the city must live or die entirely according to its dreams and its wisecracks. We have no White House, no Hollywood sign. Our face is the face of whatever we are all thinking about at the moment.

For a long time we were Tom Landry. That was probably our longest-lasting single recent incarnation. Then we went through a major life-change and became Diane Ragsdale. We changed clothes again and became Ross Perot. There was a very brief period recently, probably no more than a matter of a few minutes, when I looked up, still thinking we were Ross, and discovered to my shock that we had become Gennifer Flowers.

What gives pause is this: the very real possibility that we could wake up one day and have no edge, no center, no Oppedahlian Point of Confluence-the skin stretched too tight from Frisco to DeSoto, Forney to Grand Prairie. The bubble of our dreams and moods might simply bum up in the sun and cease to be. At least then the town fathers of the 1970s would see their dream come true, and that dismal parking lot of an airport would finally become the central defining element of the city’s character. Wouldn’t you really hate that?

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