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;