Midnight in the Garden of Memory

I grew up in a San Antonio that had a collective allegiance to the notion that time could be stopped and that things should never change. Now that I know better, it is hard to go back.

December 2005By Comments

FOR MANY YEARS, colleagues suggested that I was missing a bet by ignoring San Antonio as a subject for my work. It’s ripe for the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil treatment, they would say, but I couldn’t see it. John Berendt’s best-seller about idiosyncrasy and mayhem in Savannah was written by an outsider. Growing up so close to the narrative, I spent most of my time in San Antonio plotting my escape. Back then, I was intent on facing forward, envisioning a future that included an apartment in Greenwich Village, subway rides, city blizzards, and big-time intellectuals—things that swiftly lost their appeal once I actually began experiencing life on the East Coast. Still, I didn’t go home. I chose Houston instead, which, I enviously tell friends who are natives, is the most underrated city in the world. When critics counter that San Antonio is so beautiful and gracious, I offer my stock treatise on opportunity and openness—for me, San Antonio had neither—and change the subject.

I’ve come to see in midlife that I have been playing an exile’s game with this uncharacteristic lack of introspection. While I thought I was just marking time in San Antonio, I now realize I was indelibly marked by the place. It’s just taken me a very long time to understand how—and to understand why, in turn, I no longer spend much time there.

When I say “San Antonio,” I am talking about a place that, unless you are over forty and grew up there, you probably wouldn’t know. The city’s image makers have done a stellar job of shaping its modern identity, touting the River Walk, Sea World, Fiesta Texas, and two very pricey spa-golf resorts. The local industries, like SBC and Toyota, are good, clean citizens. It’s a big city—the nation’s eighth largest, bigger than Detroit or San Francisco. That is not where I grew up. My San Antonio was an overgrown small town, socially stratified and inbred, controlled by a handful of old, wealthy families who clustered in oak-shaded mansions in suburbs just north of downtown, not far geographically but otherwise light-years removed from the Mexican American enclaves on the south and west sides. The winding streets of the city had an illogic that could leave a newcomer in tears—North and South St. Mary’s occasionally runs east and west—but I never felt lost. My life was circumscribed by what were then the city’s most prosperous neighborhoods: Olmos Park, where my mother was born and raised; Terrell Hills, where I spent my childhood; and Alamo Heights, where I lived until I went away to college and where, twenty or so years later, my parents sold the house and moved about a mile away to a high-rise condominium. In those days, it seemed to me that everyone knew everyone else and weirdness was an accepted part of life. You had to appreciate eccentricity—no one thought it odd that the gowns worn by local royalty during Fiesta week cost upward of $5,000 in the sixties—and you needed a tolerance for duplicity, which I saw most frequently in the exceptional number of closeted gays among the city’s upper class.

Most important, however, was San Antonio’s relationship with its past, which had to be perpetually preserved, protected, and polished to perfection: There was the Alamo; there were the other missions and the Spanish Governor’s Palace; there were the King William and La Villita historic districts. Their protectors included the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and the San Antonio Conservation Society, among myriad others. There was a collective allegiance to the notion that time could be stopped and that things should never change, ideas that appeal to entrenched powers and those able to abstain from natural human skepticism. How can I explain to you the complications of growing up in such a place?

Two of my closest friends live in San Antonio today—both from somewhere else—and I am constantly amazed by the sophistication of their lives: They have neighbors from Manhattan and Los Angeles; they lunch at French bistros; they have yoga teachers and big-city amenities. “Let’s go to Neiman’s,” I heard someone say on my last visit, and had to pinch myself. They weren’t headed to Houston or Dallas but just out Interstate 10, for Neiman’s at La Cantera, the posh, new, Hill Country—inspired shopping center northwest of town. When I was a kid, my mother and I put on our best clothes and flew to Dallas on a prop jet for a special shopping expedition, an event that underscored, to my thirteen-year-old way of thinking, that there was a far bigger, far more glamorous world outside my hometown, and damned if I wasn’t going to be part of it. No one could tell me what I was missing right under my nose. Regret is not a concept of much interest to children or teens.

“I LOVE SAN ANTONIO,” Sam says to me as we drive home. There is always a tone of defensiveness in his voice when he brings up this topic, as if he expects a debate from me. I don’t give him one. The difference between the contempt he imagines and the ambivalence I feel is not something I’m willing to get into with a smart, argumentative fourteen-year-old. San Antonio is not fraught with meaning for him. He’s amused by his grandparents, and he feels at home in Hispanic culture. “Look for the Tower of the Americas,” I tell him as we close in, an old game in which we search for the landmark that signals our arrival in town. For Sam, the tower is just a tall, thin, somewhat jaunty shaft; for me, it’s the beginning of a chain of associations that will not stop until I see it again in my rearview mirror. It means HemisFair, the 1968 international event that brought my family into the larger world just as it awakened the city to its possibilities. Of course a working-class Mexican neighborhood was displaced to do that; of course the buildings owned by old German families in the same area were lovingly restored for show. I paid more attention to my first bite of tandoori chicken and a glimpse of LBJ in a limo, intimations of life beyond San Antonio. My friends and I put our tokens in the turnstiles, walked into the future, and never looked back.

Or so I thought. This trip, with Sam, is an unusual one. Fleeing Hurricane Rita for nine hours, we arrive as wilted as any refugees, our golden retriever, Chuy, panting in the back. My husband, a journalist, has stayed behind to work in Houston, and my parents are on an extended trip to New England. For the first time in as long as I can remember, there is no one between the city and me. When my parents are here, we fall into old habits, lingering, half-dressed, around the breakfast table until it is time for lunch, talking politics, gossiping, making plans for the day and then ignoring them. Sometimes I take a walk with my father around the neighborhood, greeting people we’ve known for decades; then we visit one of three or four restaurants, always the same ones. My mother likes to show me the ducks that live in the creek behind their high-rise, sending me into a metaphorical tizzy by pointing out that they mate for life. The family pictures in every room—my father’s parents, in their seventies, touching heads; my parents in evening dress for the opening of HemisFair; my brother Jeff, now 46, long hair in his eyes at 20, a ringer for my dad at the same age; my brother Ed, 42, as a gawky high school kid; Sam, at 5, in horn-rimmed glasses, a necktie, khakis, and flip-flops. Within an hour or so, the emotional elixir of memory has taken effect. I am reminded that Sam was dressed that day for my father’s seventieth birthday dinner, that Jeff and Ed live far away with children of their own, that I am far older than my parents were in 1968. I long for a nap.

Today Sam and I head for the Liberty Bar instead, one of the four family-approved restaurants. It is located in a restored (of course) brothel, a listing, wood frame building where, if you’ve had too much to drink, walking past the crowd to your chair can feel a little like being on a pitching ship. Next door is another restaurant, which was originally Fincke’s meat market. My grandmother used to shop there for dinner, back when it had a live-oak tree growing through the center of the store. Naturally, the trunk has been preserved.

We meet my friend Jan, her husband, and their son, who diverts Sam while I try not to stare at Tommy Lee Jones in the corner. An old friend of my parents’, walking with a cane, passes by. “I’m Mimi,” I say, certain that first names are enough. I’m not sure he recognizes me. Rudy, the waiter who has ministered to my father for decades, makes a fuss over Sam the way people used to make a fuss over me—“Could that be Sam?”—and I beam as my parents used to, while Sam is friendly but disengaged. He’s growing up, as opposed to aging, not yet humbled by the effects of time.

THE NEXT MORNING, the sun wakes me up early. Dust motes dance in the light streaming through the windows. I pad across the wood floor, half expecting to find my parents at the breakfast table. My mother saved little from our previous house—the art, some good antiques—and then, for their “last home,” as she put it, set up this place with new, contemporary furniture. Spare and uncluttered, it’s as serene as a monastery. My father’s coveted special-order coffee chills in the freezer; my mother’s artwork sits on the dining room table; their books, collected over a lifetime, wait patiently for their return.

The dog and I set out for a walk, sneaking out a back way into Cathedral Park next door, where my high school friends used to smoke dope, and head up Torcido Drive, which overlooks Olmos Basin. The houses that used to be on this steep, winding road were always large, but like those in so many other wealthy neighborhoods, they’ve been replaced by even larger ones. The only difference, this being old San Antonio, is that the homes have been designed mostly by conscientious, eco-friendly architects. No McMansions in this part of town.

But even with this new wealth, Alamo Heights feels unchanged, as if agreeing to perpetuate the behavior of the old-timers was a prerequisite for moving in. The owners still decorate the front doors of their shingled bungalows with expensive seasonal wreaths; there are still signs in front yards championing the high school football team, the Mules. Occasionally, I hear stories about the people I went to high school with: which wealthy scion is now out of the closet, who is trying to cheat his wife out of an enormous divorce settlement, who is in rehab. Mostly, though, the people I knew have gone on to lead quiet, successful lives as bankers and lawyers, dads and moms. When I think of things that have happened to my friends’ children elsewhere—driving off cliffs, arrested for selling drugs—the Alamo Heights scandal of a couple of years ago, about the cheerleaders who were suspended from school for a party that included underage drinking and their wearing bras on their heads, seems markedly benign. 

My parents knew the whole city, sharing coffee with the indomitable politico Rubén Munguía on the West Side and trading intelligence with shrewd cultural impresario Jo Long on the East, but I was a teenager and refused to do anything as boring as explore my hometown. Yet even in my own small world, I absorbed the lessons of singularity from the ancient spinster who sold homemade pies out of her home—Mrs. Craig, a paler, more Hitchcockian version of Betty Crocker—and the jug-eared family who used to own the Ize Box, a zany architectural wonder where we could get ice-cold draft root beer on our walks home from school. Approaching the antebellum mansion that has housed the Argyle Club forever, I think less of my own wedding there than that of my friend Debbie Kalter’s, who came down the outdoor steps at midday in a gleaming white dress with her orange hair seemingly aflame. We were part of the disaffecteds in high school—we’d probably be on Columbine watch today—but Debbie went on to Brown, Baylor medical school, and AIDS research before dying of lymphoma before her fortieth birthday. I think that wedding may have been one of the few times in her life she did the conventional thing.

Maybe by now you are beginning to understand my problem with going home. In my day-to-day life in Houston, there are not many reminders of my past, or my mortality; in San Antonio, there is a ghost on every corner, including the girl who used to be me.

EVEN WITHOUT MY PARENTS, I uphold the Saturday lunch ritual, which is to go to El Mirador for the sopa azteca. Located on the edge of the King William Historic District, it’s one of myriad places that reflect the unself-consciously bicultural city San Antonio has become: The owners, Julian and Diane Treviño, give me a tour of their new party house—restored from an old existing home—while the line of people who look like Ralph Lauren models, eager to eat the Treviños’ authentic cooking, snakes out the door. Forty years ago, our family restaurant was La Fonda, a windowless Tex-Mex venue in Alamo Heights. It was run by the father of a school classmate, an Anglo, as they were not called in those days. My father, from Baltimore, was not then acclimated to the local cuisine, and so when he worked Thursday nights at the family clothing store (now restored as a Fuddruckers), my mother took the kids there for child’s plates—scrumptious platters of brown and orange sludge that included beans, rice, and one enchilada.

That was the way the old, white families coexisted then with the growing Hispanic population: denatured and at a distance. The Mexican American kids sat in the back of the classroom or went to school on the West Side, where the streets were paved with caliche. Or they lived in hidden pockets, like the company town that was a part of the Alamo Cement Company. That is now a shopping center known as the Quarry, where, of course, the old smokestacks have been turned into decorative elements, and the cement quarry itself is a golf course rimmed by mansions.

Everyone of a certain age remembers the turning points in the ethnic life of the city: In 1970, while the camera panned over horrific slums, Mayor Walter McAllister told NBC news that Mexican Americans weren’t hard workers, but they sure loved flowers. Subsequently, community organizer Ernesto Cortes urged Mexican Americans to clog the teller lines at the Frost Bank by changing their dollars into pennies and back again—the San Antonio equivalent of commandeering a lunch counter. Within the next two decades, Hispanic surnames were no longer mangled on TV newscasts, Henry Cisneros was elected mayor, and power eventually shifted away from the white oligarchy. As a teenager, I was obsessed with the civil rights movement but oblivious to San Antonio’s particular issues. There was no Hispanic History Month at my school. For much of eighth grade, I borrowed bus fare from Naomi Cortez, who sat behind me in social studies, never paying it back, never thinking of the implications. My part in the subtle, well-mannered bigotry of life in Alamo Heights, despite the good works of my politically active parents, went unexplored.

WHEN I DRIVE SAM AROUND SAN ANTONIO, there are things I show him and things I do not. I take him by our tiny first house in Terrell Hills, for instance, a midcentury modern number. “I don’t like what they’ve done to it,” Sam says. Of course, they’ve hardly done anything. I let Sam test his driving skills at the small park in Olmos Basin, where I learned to drive too. We pass a few men who are parked in cars, waiting for dates in the public restroom, just as they were decades ago. I wave to one of them, who has been viewing us with consternation.

Our second house, in Alamo Heights, is nearby, one of the places not on the tour. It has been redone and, in the tradition of the day, doubled in size. We moved into it when I was in middle school, and I focused all my hostile grief over the change on our sunny, unflappable realtor named Mazie Hill. I can’t imagine now what I objected to. The house had a fountain and a wishing well, and my parents gave me the room on the top floor all to myself. It was my mother’s dream house. She and my father had spent years scrounging up the cash—$48,000 in 1967 was a lot of money—and urging the elderly widow owner to sell. Situated on a bluff near the Olmos Dam, it was white stucco with a red tiled roof, the architect’s vision of a Mexican hacienda, though he’d never actually seen one, or so the story went. My parents quickly set about authenticating the place, traveling to Mexico for statuary and stone and bringing it back in the family Oldsmobile station wagon. My moving trauma passed. By the time I was a freshman in high school, my friend Jill and I would sit on the rooftop patio and smoke cigarettes and plan our lives-to-be in New York, oblivious to the perfection around us: the sun going down through the live-oak branches, a new, if fleeting, stained-glass window almost every evening.

By the time my parents put the house up for sale decades later, my brothers and I were long gone, and my mother could no longer manage the stairs. I knew I was seeing the end of something but knew, too, that I had no say in the matter. By then I had my own life, and my own family, in Houston. With the loss of the house looming, I visited more often, sleeping with my husband in my old room, eating chilaquiles in one dive or another, Spanish rolling off my tongue, abruptly, inexplicably, sorry to leave.

The other place I avoid on return visits is out the Austin Highway. Tucked behind the old northbound road and the Jewish cemetery is the former home of Robert Tobin, a philanthropist and an arts patron my father went to work for after he left a job at HemisFair, in 1968. His was second-generation wealth. Robert’s father, a World War I flying ace who started Tobin Aerial Surveys, took stock instead of cash when he agreed to survey an oil company’s holdings. Robert gave to places like the Metropolitan and Santa Fe operas and built for himself on the grounds of his family’s former country place a sprawling, flat-roofed Roman temple with, among other things, a sunken bathtub. Every spring, he had a party that included rides on his decorative herd of Shetland ponies and, at least once, a tour of a Chinese junk he’d imported and kept at the deep end of his swimming pool, which was the length of a football field and filled with icy water from a nearby creek.

Robert’s house was not stocked with Texas landscapes or taxidermy but with contemporary art and his collection of tiny, seductive boxes of stage designs, known as maquettes. Easily bored and prone to drink, he changed clothes several times during his fetes. His mother, white-haired, with eyes as blue as an arctic sky, lived on a more conventional estate in Terrell Hills. When we went to call, seated on the edge of the furniture in our best clothes, we visited in a room that contained one of Monet’s “Water Lilies.” Both Tobins spoke in an accent that was reminiscent of Lionel Barrymore.

No one ever indicated to me that there was anything at all unusual about these people. (The two went everywhere together, even buying twin town houses on the Upper East Side of New York.) They weren’t the kind of people who warmed to children; on the other hand, they provided my family with access to a world we would not have seen otherwise, the one far beyond Friday night football and dove hunts. Opera singers, museum directors, and painters joined the politicos who came to dinner, and when my family went to New York, we stayed on Park Avenue, in one of their extra apartments, as if it were ours.

Of course it wasn’t. My father worked for Robert for thirty years, then there was an unhappy parting. By then Robert’s face had collapsed due to cancer, and decades of alcoholism and recovery had taken their toll; he covered the mirrors in the house and rarely ventured out, except among a new coterie of young, gay keepers. His longtime promises that my father would always have a place in the company came to nothing. Someone else controls it now—an eager young attorney with burning eyes and a clammy handshake, a former friend of my father’s who gave me two dozen Tiffany wine glasses when I got married. I have one left after almost two decades, which I preserve on a shelf, a reminder that nothing, but nothing, lasts forever.

In fact, the last time I saw my parents in San Antonio, my father gave me a beautiful alarm clock. “It’s about as old as you are,” he said, handing me a cheery orange-and-white plastic cylinder from the sixties, with those flip-over numerals that predate liquid crystal displays. He told me it would keep the best time if I wound it at the same hour every day. When I got back to Houston, I kept up with the practice for a while, but the ticking was very loud and distracted me. Now I just keep it on my dresser, where I can be reminded of him. I already know what time it is.

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