Horsemen, Goodbye

Thoughts on the gradual march of civility and urban sprawl across the lost frontier.

in Houston, where as a student, professor, and bookseller I lived for seventeen years.

Houston was more or less my Paris, or such Paris as I had, and I still think of Rice University as my intellectual home. Every time I go there I meet the city limits sign fifty miles farther out. So ferocious and uncheckable is Houston’s growth, and Dallas’s also, that I consider it not impossible that a child born today could live to see the merging of these urban behemoths, which might occur somewhere near Madisonville, producing a megaplex whose models are already there in Arlington and Plano: travelers heading north on Interstate 45 are in Oklahoma before they are entirely free of Dallas.

In literary terms I was a reasonably brash young man when I wrote “A Handful of Roses,” but the thesis I argued, at times to the point of tedium, still seems to me indisputable: Texas in the sixties still thought of itself as a frontier; its cities and their residents were not yet maturely urban. In support of this thesis I cited various examples of a frequent resort to gunplay such as might occur on a frontier, my favorite being a snippet from one of the Houston papers about a diner on the always risky north side who shot a waiter because there weren’t enough beans in his chili; though equally exotic was another snippet someone sent me about a citibilly from Wichita Falls who drove his pickup through the wall of a honky-tonk and tried to run over his wife.

My point, much reiterated, was that Texans in the main were not yet able to handle the pressures of urban life. I saw this demonstrated on a hot summer day on the Houston beltway, where traffic neither moved nor offered the slightest prospects of movement, when the two cars in front of me bumped fenders; their drivers, both wearing ties and pinstripes, got out and flung themselves at one another. Soon they were rolling around on the burning pavement, in the traffic. Several drivers, including myself, tried to reason with them, and eventually it took, up to a point. Neither car was hurt at all, but the two men got up, exchanged insurance info, shook hands, and got back in their cars. Twenty minutes or so later the traffic moved normally again. Terrible traffic is the price Houstonians pay for living in a real city.

When I published my essays with the Wittliffs, they had no interest in curbing my wordage; they wanted as much book as they could get. Not so the Monthly: it serves a readership whose attention span is far from limitless. More than forty years have passed since I took that first look at the cities of Texas. Now many of its citizens have shaken off the frontier ethic and become mature urbanites. In response to this change, most of the cities have gone to the trouble to provide their better-informed residents some of the trappings of high culture. There are several excellent museums and an opera house or two. In addition, these cities have produced a number of locally grown artists who are good in various spheres. This is no small thing.

We’re not just hicks with money now, though there are still quite a few hicks, some of whom have money, and there’s been some rather interesting generational change. A few years ago I happened to be driving to DFW Airport on Texas Highway 114, which passes what used to be Bunker Hunt’s country retreat near the small town of Roanoke. Bunker, who has had serious reverses, was having a yard sale. Bunker Hunt? Yard sale? Had time permitted, I would have stopped and bought a lawn chair or something, but time didn’t permit. On Highway 114 as it is today, no amount of time is enough, and Bunker Hunt’s former home is now owned by Ross Perot Jr., who keeps a few buffalo, along with much else, north of Fort Worth. There is an international cargo airport in the area now, and a NASCAR facility whose parking lot is said to hold 80,000 cars. And NASCAR fills it.

If I were to anatomize the six major cities more or less in order of urban merit, I would now put Houston first by a large margin: it’s a great city. Next would come Austin and Fort Worth. The latter has those three world-class museums, plus that glorious livestock exchange building over by the Stockyards, and Austin has a music scene that has nurtured both my son, James, and my grandson, Curtis, not to mention the ebullient Kinky Friedman and many another gifted bard. Dallas I haven’t enjoyed since the sixties, when I could still scout books at the Harper’s big bookshop in Deep Ellum, where my son now often performs. Dallas is a second-rate city that wishes it were first-rate.

San Antonio, too, I most enjoyed when it had a big messy bookshop, in this case, Brock’s, whose owner, Norman Brock, was known as poor broke Brock. The River Walk is still the most gracious promenade in Texas, and the breads at the Liberty Bar are wonderful—if you enjoy bread, and who doesn’t?

El Paso just doesn’t feel to me like a Texas city. It’s Mexico or, at the very least, New Mexico. It’s hard even to drive through it on the Ten and not be aware of the carnage across the river. My friend the writer Tom Miller, who has driven every mile of the border and written about it, told me recently that he had stopped crossing the bridge into Juárez. It is now too scary.

The pages I devoted to Austin in In a Narrow Grave recall a rather giddy time when the city boiled down to the Legislature and the university, plus a few fairly uninhibited women who picked and choosed between such celebrities as not infrequently drifted in. The nearest thing to a celebrity locally was the novelist Bill Brammer,

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...