DURING THE LAST WEEK OF JUNE IN 2000, sometime between the announcement that I would take over as the editor of Texas Monthly and the day I actually stepped into the job, I received a “Yankee, Go Home” letter from Dick J. Reavis. Dick, some of you will recall, has been a longtime contributor to our pages—at various points a feature writer, a columnist, and a contributing editor—but since leaving the staff in 1989, he had been serving, self-appointed, as our purity tester. No one wears his Texanness on his sleeve as aggressively as Dick, who was raised in various small towns, including Waxahachie and Coleman, and subscribes to the theory that there are two kinds of people in the world: Texans (worthy of working for Texas Monthly ) and everyone else (not). He makes no bones about his distrust of outsiders, and he distrusts no one more than New Yorkers, who, to his mind, are as unworthy as they come. When we hired one of our star writers, Pamela Colloff, in the mid-nineties, Dick complained loudly that she was from New York and insisted we fire her and hire a Texan; never mind that she had lived and worked in Texas for several years before coming aboard. I’m a native New Yorker too, so it was no surprise that the news of my being named editor was an affront to Dick, who immediately wrote to say that if I really cared about the magazine, I would pack my bags, board the first available train, and move back to Gomorrah.
I thought about Dick’s letter as we put together this month’s special “Where I’m From” issue, because it raises, for me and numerous other carpetbaggers from both coasts, modern-world kinds of questions: Can you call yourself a Texan if you weren’t born here? What if you’ve lived here for ten, twenty, thirty years? At what point do you pass muster? What if you were born in Texas but moved away? How long did you have to have lived here to be considered legit?
Around our office we argue all the time about the Texanness of expatriates and recent arrivals. Steve Martin, the actor and writer, was born in Waco, lived in Texas until he was six, and then moved to California, returning only to make movies here. Does he qualify as one of us? What about comedienne Carol Burnett, who was born in San Antonio and moved to California while she was in grade school? Or President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was born in Denison and moved to Kansas at age one and a half? A few months ago, before the start of the TV season, our creative director, Scott Dadich, proposed a story about Jennifer Garner, the star of Alias. Turns out she was born in Houston—but she grew up in West Virginia. Likewise, the hip-hop star Nelly was born in Austin but grew up in Missouri and hasn’t lived in Texas since. Do our readers really consider these folks Texans?
By contrast, there’s brush-clearin’, g-droppin’ George W. Bush, who was born in New Haven, Connecticut, while his father was still enrolled at Yale University, and didn’t get to Odessa until he was two. Is W. less of a Texan than Ike? Well, he flunks the purity test. So, for that matter, do a number of famous “Texans” who, like the president, came into the world somewhere other than here, including PBS newsman Jim Lehrer (Kansas), syndicated columnist Molly Ivins (California), novelist Sandra Cisneros (Illinois), Bush confidants Karen Hughes (France!) and Karl Rove (Colorado), philanthropist and statesman Jesse H. Jones (Tennessee), former U.S. senator Phil Gramm (Georgia), former governor Sam Houston (Virginia), future governor Kinky Friedman (Illinois), and, believe it or not, purity tester Dick J. Reavis (Oklahoma). Who says irony is dead?
And then there’s me. I had driven through Texas only once, on the back end of a cross-country trip after college, before moving here to take a job at this magazine a few days after Christmas in 1991. (I vaguely remember stopping for gas in Roosevelt, off Interstate 10, and drinking tequila at the Hole in the Wall, in Austin.) At the time, I absolutely considered myself a New Yorker, never imagining that I would last this long in Austin or Texas, let alone make a happy life for myself. Texas is where I met and married my (non-Texan) wife. Texas is where our children were born. (My daughter’s second word, not long after “mama,” was “taco.”) Texas is where we bought the only two houses we’ve ever owned. Texas is where we found a church—and religion. Texas is where we got hooked on fund-raising for the arts and social services. Texas, specifically West Texas, is where we vacation. My kids have nearly killed themselves a million times climbing on the metal playscape behind the elementary school in Marathon. I’ve made two trips, years apart, to the emergency room in Alpine. I can find my way around Marfa in the dark without a map, which is more than I can say about Manhattan these days.
Texas, in other words, is my home. But even after fourteen years, my Texanness is still an issue, and not just to Dick. Everyone has a laugh line in his bio, and mine, whenever I’m introduced before a speech or some other public appearance, is that I’m a native of you-know-where. (At which point I make sure I’m in on the joke and note that I’m “a recovering New Yorker.”) It never fails to generate a reaction. It’s like that Pace Picante Sauce ad of a few years ago, the one in which the cowboy at the campfire is outraged when he learns that his salsa was made in “New (pause) York (pause) City!” Headline writers clearly pick up on this, because whenever I’ve been profiled in newspapers around the state, Lyle Lovett’s lyrics are right there in giant type: “That’s right, you’re not from Texas.”
Of course, the next