How Dallas Became Home (With No Time to Spare)

I had exactly four hours to find an apartment, sign a lease, and get back on a plane. That’s how I met Dallas.

Two days before my wedding in Shreveport, I flew to Dallas in the co-pilot’s seat of a twin-prop plane. My wife-to-be and I were moving here from Alabama in 10 days, right after our honeymoon, and I was looking for an apartment. I was wearing earphones (it was a private plane), listening to the pilot as he spoke the strange language of air traffic control and we descended through a thin line of clouds toward Love Field. The moment was almost surreal-two days before my wedding, here I was above the skyline of my new home, a place I’d visited only once before. From the cramped copilot’s seat, the buildings seemed a strange mix of the gaudy (Reunion Tower) and the sublime (The Crescent); the cars appeared like tiny cells pulsing through arteries away from and into the glistening city. At the perimeter of it all, vast, flat land. For a moment, I felt as though time and motion were suspended-the living city sprawled beneath us, the babel of aviation in my ears-and then the pilot touched my shoulder.

“You’re home,” he said. We were on the runway, tires screeching, a rush of color past the window. My new home.

I knew almost nothing about Dallas then, and what I believed was mostly received wisdom. Like many of the thousands of newcomers to Dallas-Fort Worth last year, my perceptions were an amalgam of stereotype (“It’s nothing but big hair and big money”) and reality (“It’s hot and flat, but charming”). Much of my wife’s family lived here, and they assured me I’d love it. There is so much to do, they said. The restaurants, the shows, and-best of all- the shopping. The people are friendly and the opportunities are unlimited, they said.

My mother, who used to own a business and came to work at the Trade Mart every summer, offered a different view. Dallas, she had always said, was a city choked by heat and traffic. Her time here was limited, she admitted, and she had not really seen that much of the place, but her first impression was a strong one. She was bom on a high, sylvan plateau in Tennessee, and the daily cab trip from the Anatole to the Trade Mart-under Stemmons Freeway, to the windowless gray buildings-had made the city seem incredibly unappealing. That her son was moving there must have made her shudder, at least in private.

I didn’t know it then, but that first whirlwind day in the city-I had exactly four hours to find an apartment, sign a lease, and get back on the plane-would tell me a lot about Dallas. Now, after more than a year here, I know that the things I saw and heard were signals of a place that had made itself into a world-class city in a manner unlike any other in America.

Friends and relatives had compiled a list of neighborhoods and streets for me to try in my apartment search, and I decided to start with Uptown. (Other cities would call the neighborhood Midtown, but Dallas is a city that thrives on image, and Uptown sounds much more genteel.) 1 called Cowboy Cab-a moniker that, whether a reference to the football team or the mythical American man, told me 1 had arrived in a place that had created its own identity. From tabula rasa to hub of Western machismo in only 150 years.

The driver, an Indian who stepped out to greet me, showed up in a clean, new van-my second signal of Dallas’ nature as a city where everyone drives. In New York or Boston or some other urban landscape, the cab would have been weathered, with cracked vinyl seats or an interior suffused with the dank odor of stale smoke. (My first cab that day smelled like the curried vegetables the driver was eating from a Styrofoam plate.) In Dallas, the cabs are clean for a reason: They never fight Manhattanesque traffic, and they’re not running constantly. Residents do not take cabs in Dallas, because to drive yourself is more than a convenience here: It’s a right, a verification of independence. To take a cab in Dallas is to succumb, to admit to a certain kind of defeat. (Some weekend nights, I’ve suggested to friends that we take a cab to Deep Ellum, and each time the suggestion has been met with a look of incredulity, as though I’d just suggested we all walk naked through NorthPark mall.)

Cowboy Cab shuttled me back and forth between several new apartment buildings in Uptown for an hour before I found the one that seemed right-a four-story building near the Quadrangle. The building manager (who, in fact, had big hair) introduced herself as Barbara and took me to see the available apartment. Inside, we stood at the French balcony overlooking a 5-acre wooded lot. I was thinking how nice it was that, in the middle of the city, we would have a place for the dog to run, a quiet, shady lot, when Barbara gave me a worried look.

“Don’t you worry about that big empty lot,” she said, tapping my shoulder with long, pink nails. “They’re going to build a Ritz-Carlton there.”

Just then her cellular phone rang, and she stepped into the other room to answer it. I stood at the balcony, imag-ining the day they’d fell the tall oaks in the middle of the lot. For Barbara, the lot was an eyesore, a nagging reminder of unfulfilled potential, like a high school valedictorian in junior college. But in that moment, I’d seen a glimpse of another quality that makes Dallas what it is. In the same spirit that gave 19th-century Dallas its accidental birth as a rail crossing and commercial center (see “50 Events,” p. NC6), Barbara saw a world-class hotel where there was nothing but trees and grass. She was an aspiring entrepreneur in the most enterprising city in America, and that lot by God should be something. Maybe a Ritz-Carlton, maybe a Tuscan restaurant bordered by a florist and galleries. But it couldn’t just be vacant-that was like throwing money away (a bad idea anywhere, but a sin in Dallas).

Dallas, I knew then, is a city where people come to make money. People say it’s materialistic, and I suppose it is. But there’s something refreshing about all that hope for all that money. The air of possibility here is so close you can feel it.

By the time I’d signed the lease and picked up my keys, it was time to get back to the airport. I called Cowboy Cab and waited at the curb in front of the building, late afternoon traffic forming a steady stream down Cedar Springs. The bright sun lit the high-rises along Turtle Creek in shades of copper and cinnabar, just beyond the misused lot of trees and grass. I sat for what seemed like a long time, thinking about this new city of commerce and traffic, self-creation and possibility, when the minivan cab pulled up to the curb. The driver-the same one I’d started with at the beginning of my day- reached over to open the door for me.

I climbed in, the sounds of George Strait on the radio, the vague, sweet smell of curry in the cab. I closed my door, looked at the photo of the driver’s family on the dashboard-his wife and children dressed in colorful red and purple robes in the parking lot of Texas Stadium.

“You find a place to stay?” he asked, turning up the radio a notch.

“Yeah,” I answered, feeling the new keys in my pocket. “I think so.”

The driver tapped the steering wheel to the sound of twangy guitars, then clicked on the meter.

“It’s a good place,” he said. “Big enough for everybody.”

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