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