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Letters From Dallas

Nobody Says I Love You Anymore

I’ve spent my life complaining and arguing and telling stories about the city I came from. Then I changed—but it did, too.

Gwendolyn Zabicki, Billboards, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Roberts Bills Contemporary.

When I moved from Manhattan back to my hometown of Dallas last June, people asked the same question: “Why?”

I was accustomed to New Yorkers taking broad swipes at my home state, but I was surprised to get the question from people in Dallas, too.

“You’ve moved back!” an acquaintance said when I ran into him at a party. “I’m sorry about that.”

Perhaps his assumption was that I had flamed out in the Big Apple—and in a way, I had. I was bone-tired by the time I boarded that plane from LaGuardia with my orange cat. Six years of crowded subways and jackhammers and fourth-floor walkups had ground me down to a bitter nub. But I suspected my friend was not teasing me for escaping the big city; he was teasing me for drag-assing back to the place I came from. He was taking a swing at Dallas, which I recognized because, well, I used to do it all the time.

 

Growing up, I did not like Dallas. To be fair, I did not like growing up, period, and I suspect that whatever city in which my adolescence unfolded would have taken the blame. My family rented a sweet, shabby little home in a privileged section of town, known for its excellent school system and status cars, and my most vivid memory of being 11 and 12 is simply the feeling of not belonging. That’s as unique as braces and bad skin among this age group, but the fact that I could not afford a $300 Louis Vuitton handbag or that my parents drove a dented silver station wagon felt like the worst thing that had happened to anyone, ever.

Going to college in Austin sharpened my knives. Every great city has a nemesis, a place against which they define themselves—New York refuses to be Jersey, San Franciscans despise Los Angeles—and in Austin, a city so hell-bent on quirkiness that it elevated a cross-dressing homeless man to the status of cult hero, the general consensus is that Dallas blows. (“Keep Austin weird,” the slogan says, to which there is also a response T-shirt, “Keep Dallas lame.”) This was back in the early ’90s, when the fault lines between the two cities were far easier to demarcate. Austin was the town of “Slacker,” a bohemian paradise for pot smokers and amateur philosophers, and Dallas was the birthplace of the outdoor mall. I began to embrace torn jeans and a natural curl in my hair. I stopped waking at 7:30 a.m. to do my makeup before class. It was a rite of passage for a college girl at that time to crank Tori Amos and give Banana Republic the double-fisted flip-off, but I understood this shift in stark geographic terms: Dallas was conformity, Austin was freedom.

We left that conversation each feeling a little sorry for the other person.

Those storylines were so cemented in my mind that it jarred me when anyone disrupted them. I was visiting New York in my mid-20s when I met an editor who worked for the most impressive newspaper there is. When I found out he once wrote in Dallas, I offered my condolences.

“Actually, I loved living there,” he said.

Oof. How could someone so smart be so dumb? “We’re going to have to agree to disagree,” I said. We left that conversation each feeling a little sorry for the other person.

At the time, I was traveling around the country in my Honda, enjoying the hit of admiration I got from strangers when I told them so. I had pried myself out of Austin, and was casting about for my next home, which I assumed would be a place like Portland or Oakland or Brooklyn. I never liked telling people I was from Dallas. They asked about the television show, or stared blankly and said something like, “Fun!” (Meanwhile, saying I lived in Austin elicited envy and cooing sounds. “That town is great!” people said, though they often had not been.) I had long phone conversations with my mom on the road, and she said, in that gentle voice reserved for mothers, “What about moving back to Dallas?”

No way. Absolutely not. What is the opposite of yes? That is my answer. A thousand-billion times no.

The knee-jerking was a little extreme. But when you construct your meaning from things outside of you—the cool job you have, the music and the movies you enjoy, the vintage brush of the funky corduroys you wear—then you are bound to live in cities on the Approved List, which Dallas certainly was not. If you had asked me what was so terrible about the place, I would have sneered that it was an image-based society. But the funny thing is that I was totally image-based at that time. I needed your admiration. I needed your approval. The image I wanted to project just had little to do with Mercedes-Benz and Neiman-Marcus and more to do with knowing the bands at SXSW.

But in a twist I did not see coming, I went to my 10-year high school reunion the following month, fell in love with a guy, and moved back to Dallas. So much for all that.

I complained about Dallas in those years, and it was a problem. No one wants to hear that the city they live in—the city they feel comfortable in and fairly thrive in and a city they have no desire to leave—is somehow inferior.

“I was thinking you might like San Francisco,” I said one night at dinner.

“Hmm.”

And that was pretty much the entire conversation. Well, there were tears (mine) and sighs (his) and dissatisfaction on both parts. I don’t feel proud that the subtext to many conversations he and I had during that time was that I wanted to get the hell out of Dallas. But in the two years I spent casting aspersions on the city, something unexpected happened: I came to really love it. At least, I really loved the people, who were funny and smart and bent in all the right ways, and loving the people in a city is a very, very short walk from loving the city itself. When my boyfriend and I broke up, and I decided to move to New York, no one was surprised. But I was taken aback by the pangs of remorse I felt leaving the cozy dive bars where I spent most nights and the ramshackle Tex-Mex restaurants where I’d nursed every hangover. I drove out of town in an old hatchback wearing one of those baby-Ts you buy at airport gift stores. It said “Dallas” in a cheesy, cursive font. It was so tacky. It was so fantastic.

 

It’s funny how living far away from a place can make you feel closer to it. Friends who moved to New York decorated their home in Texas kitsch we would have laughed at back home. Longhorn coat racks, cowboy hats on the mantelpiece. My keychain was a medallion in the shape of the state that doubled as a bottle opener, which is everything you need to know about me at this time.

I found myself defending Dallas in those years, or hoping to explain it better. When a friend referred to it as a “white, suburban” town, I took pains to point out that the city’s racial demographic was split in thirds: black, white, Hispanic. When a colleague complained it was all strip malls, I told her the greatness of the city just required a little digging. But mostly New Yorkers didn’t give a damn about Dallas, or Texas, and they would say things like, “How can anyone live in a state where Rick Perry is governor?” I liked to point out that they lived in a country where George W. Bush was president and seemed to survive just fine.

I missed Austin so much in those days. To me, it was the polar opposite of New York, a place of leisure afternoons and low expectations, frozen margaritas sipped on a porch wide as a football field. But I also became wary of how many people were loving Austin. The cute barista in the coffee shop where I bought my morning lattes. The daily commuter rag, who hailed it as the hippest place in the country. The New York Times. I felt a bristling defensiveness for the city that had raised me. Why didn’t anyone love Dallas? Why did it get such a bum rap?

“What are people from Dallas like?” a friend of mine asked. He only knew the city from shows where vapid women shop all day and wear stilettos and gesture wildly with fake nails (a brand of television that is proliferating).

I thought about the mix of eccentricity and toughness and sweetness I wanted to convey. “Well, they’re like me,” I said.

After six years, I moved back home.

 

I never wanted to be one of those “those people”—the ones who talk about New York all the time, who compare every single experience to Manhattan (like you care), who complain about the G train or the square footage of their studio apartment or tell war stories about the Whole Foods in Union Square. And I would like it on record that after moving back to Dallas, I was totally this person, and I know that, and I’m sorry.

But it was hard coming back. I struggled to find my spot, to understand myself. I was struck by things I’d never noticed before. Have we always had so many car washes? Is it strange to anyone else that a woman on the hike and bike trail is wearing a mink vest? I practically drove off the highway one day when I saw a billboard that read, “Actors, Models & Talent for Christ.” What the hell? I scribbled it all down in a notebook I carried with me, the notebook I bought at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, a notebook that read NEW YORK in giant letters. In case you didn’t know this about me.

But I was happy, too. In the fall, two of my best friends visited from Manhattan. We ate tacos at Fuel City—a gas station/taco vendor off the highway that also boasts a car wash next to a field of cattle (in a word: genius)—and we had dinner that night at Smoke, a BBQ restaurant where the dinner was so good and the serving plates so awesome that my friends bought a set to bring back to New York. A reminder of just how great Dallas could be.

 

Not long ago, I got into an email debate with a friend who is the editor of the local glossy. I had written a story for another publication about a bizarre internet dating episode that happened right after I moved back to town. This editor has never been less than complimentary about my work, so the email he sent took me aback. “When you write for New York, you aren’t afraid to play up the Dallas stereotypes, are you?” he asked. “You watch yourself, missy.”

I felt terrible. I felt guilty. I felt both of those things before I even knew what he was talking about. This was not a story about Dallas; it was about deception and online identity. But there was one section in which I referred to my hometown as a “city of silicone and steakhouses.” I explained that strip clubs around these parts are “ubiquitous.” I tossed off a line about “Dallas trophy wives” and “Texas alpha males.”

It was about the number of strip clubs in Dallas, but what was really at stake was the character of our town, what it looks like to us and to the outside, the sticky business of reality versus fantasy.

None of it felt like stereotypes to me. It felt like an actuality I had reckoned with all my life. But I was aware that he saw something I did not: a native badmouthing the locals to East Coast elites? A writer too big for her britches? An uppity bitch who needed a smackdown? What, exactly?

I mean, consider the words: You watch yourself, missy. I mean, who says that? Are you kidding me?

And I was pretty sure he was kidding, because that editor is always kidding. The words felt designed to playfully make my head explode, and so to let him see the bits of brain splattering my laptop was to let him win. I stayed calm in that conversation. But goddamn, I felt misunderstood, and goddamn if I didn’t spend that afternoon arguing with that editor through email, and later on the magazine’s blog where he posted our correspondence, and later in my mind, where I would invent clever things to say that were far more astute than the things I actually did say. And like so many arguments, ours was wildly beside the point. It was about the number of strip clubs in Dallas—which, apparently, has dipped since a city-wide crackdown nearly a decade ago—but what was really at stake was the character of our town, what it looks like to us and to the outside, the sticky business of reality versus fantasy.

And I understand why he chafed at what I wrote, even if I didn’t like the way he told me about it. (I would have preferred roses, and “You watch yourself, missy” spelled out in chocolate.) It gets tiring to hear that your town is all one thing, when it is clearly so much more. Dallas may be a city of silicone and steakhouses, yes, but it is also a city of NBA championships and the state’s largest gay population and hugely popular black dance clubs I know exactly nothing about. As the poet says, Dallas contains multitudes. So how come this one sliver of the city represents all of us? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t “Dallas”? And why did it feel like, for so long, I didn’t get a say?

 

There is a lovely neighborhood not far from where I live. All rolling hills and trees that canopy the streets. Recently I heard about a friend’s reaction upon driving through it for the first time. “I like this place,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like Dallas.”

I have used this compliment many times: This is so not Dallas. I’ve said it in the craft boutiques of Oak Cliff and the quirky coffee houses of my Lakewood neighborhood and while strolling the curb-less streets of Little Forest Hills, and it makes me wonder—when does that become a meaningless statement? This place in Dallas is so not Dallas.

Meanwhile, I visited Austin not long ago, and I was gobsmacked by shiny new construction by the lake, which I described in a way that many other people have: “This feels very Dallas.” I adore Austin, and always will, but the hippie-dippie college town of my youth has transformed into a yuppie heaven where everyone seems to be a marathon runner, a bicyclist, a doting parent, or all three at once.

And Dallas is becoming a city that feels more like me. All my friends have been talking about it, what a good time this is to live in Dallas: The parks downtown, the food trucks, the bike lanes, the new Shepard Fairey murals. Sometimes I think we’re just telling ourselves this stuff to feel better about living here, and then I think: What’s so wrong with feeling good about living here?

When I moved to New York, I had this idea that I would write stories about that place, because it’s what important writers did. But every idea I hatched was tackled by Seinfeld eight years ago. I was a cliché machine, raking over the same soil that thousands of writers had tilled, which gave me a sense of legacy, but not originality. The world doesn’t need more stories about New York. Or let me say it this way: There are so many other places in the world left to discover and understand. There are so many stories all around us, untold.

Here is one. A few weeks ago, I went with my friend Allison to a party on the new downtown bridge. I love that bridge, white and sparkling and gorgeous. It reminds me of a carnival ride in mid-spin. And on this day, you could walk across it, and when I stepped onto the freshly laid cement, the stereo was playing Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” which is one of my favorite songs ever. There was so much great music that day: a retro soul band with a Filipino-American singer who had mad pipes and a Latino band with tattooed Hispanic guys blowing brass and the chatter of the city, enjoying itself.

Allison lived in New York when I met her. We used to get drunk together in Brooklyn bars and at her apartment in Park Slope and talk about the place where we came from in that style known to girls striving for something bigger, missing wherever they last were. When I first moved back to Dallas, I was struck by how calm and content she seemed living here again. When she told me how much she loved being back, I confess some skeptical part of me thought it was overcompensation. It’s great to be here! Couldn’t be better! But over the months we have spent taking long walks and going to art-house movies and Rhett Miller concerts and wearing eccentric wigs to swank places, I understand it not as overcompensation but as point of fact. She is better off here. I am lucky to see the city through her eyes.

As we drove back into downtown that evening in her beat-up BMW, the sun was sinking down behind the skyline I have known all my life. “I kind of love Dallas,” I said, reaching over and giving her a little squeeze on the shoulder, because I was also trying to say that I loved her, that I loved the two of us here, that I loved me, in this place, right now.

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TMN Contributing Writer Sarah Hepola is the Life editor at Salon. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Nerve, and on NPR. She lives in Texas with a sweet orange cat who is not fat, he’s just big-boned. If you just read her story about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, she’d like to point that it is fiction. More by Sarah Hepola