IN 1985, AFTER THE DEATH of my mother, I left New York for good to seek shelter in the small towns that lay scattered about the Hill Country as if they were peppered by the hand of God onto the gravy of a chicken-fried steak. In New York people believe that nothing of importance ever happens outside the city, that if it doesn’t occur inside their own office, it hasn’t occurred at all. My friends told me that I would be a quitter if I gave up whatever the hell I was doing in New York and went back home. One of the things I was doing was large quantities of Peruvian marching powder, and I now believe that leaving may have saved my life.
I’d had, it seemed, seven years of bad luck. One of my two great loves, Kacey Cohen, had kissed a windshield at 95 miles per hour in her Ferrari. My other great love, of course, was me. My best friend, Tom Baker, troublemaker, had overdosed in New York. I’d come back to Austin just in time to spend a few months with my mother before she died. My dear Minnie, from whom much of my soul springs, left me with three cats, a typewriter, and a talking car. She wanted me to be in good company, to write, and to have somebody to talk to. The car’s name was Dusty. She was a 1983 Chrysler LeBaron convertible with a large vocabulary, including the phrase “A door is ajar” (at this time of my life, one definitely was). My mother had always believed in me. Now, it seemed, it was time for me to believe in myself.
After New York, you’d think Austin would be a pleasant relief, but to my jangled mind there still seemed to be too many people. So I corralled Cuddles, Dr. Skat, and Lady into Dusty and together we drifted up to the Hill Country, where the people talk slow, the hills embrace you, and the small towns flash by like bright stations reflecting on the windows of a train at night. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “It takes a train to cry.” As I once wrote, “Anything worth cryin’ can be smiled.”
What is it about small towns that always seems to be oddly comforting? Jesus was born in one. James Dean ran away from one. While visiting Italy, my father once said, “If you’ve seen one Sistine Chapel, you’ve seen them all.” This is true of small towns as well, except they’re not particularly good places to get postcards from. “Why would anyone want to live here?” somebody always says. “It’s out in the middle of nowhere. It’s so far away.” And the gypsy answers, “From where?”
There is a fundamental difference between big-city and country folks. In the city you can honk at the traffic, shout epithets, and shoot the bird at anybody you like. You know you’ll probably never see those people again. In a small town, however, you’re responsible for your behavior. Instead of spouting off, you have to simply smile and shake your head. You know you’re going to see the same people again in church, or maybe at a cross burning. (Just kidding.)
Another positive aspect of living in or near small towns is that they’re breeding grounds for some of the most colorful characters on the planet. They’re also good places to hear stories about snakes. Dry cleaning’s cheaper than it is in the big city, and life itself perhaps is a bit more precious, always allowing for inflation. There is, of course, no dry cleaner’s in Medina. You have to go to Bandera. And if you want to rent a good video, you probably should go to Kerrville. I say this because the Bandera video store has Kiss of the Spider Woman racked in the section with Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Arguably Agatha Christie’s greatest creation, Miss Marple, hailed from the small English town of St. Mary Mead. In a lifetime of fictional crime detection, the sage Miss Marple contended that the true character of people anywhere in the world could be easily divined by casting her mind back to the people she’d grown up with. For instance, the shy Peeping Tom in London reminded her keenly of the butcher’s son in St. Mary Mead, who’d been slightly off-kilter but would never have harmed a flea. In such manner she determined that he was not the murderer of the fifth Duchess of Phlegm-on-Rye. In other words, the small town, like the small child, often dictates the emotional heritage of the human race. Unfortunately, because of shifting populations, even this great measure of mankind seems to be changing. When Tonto gets off his horse these days and puts his ear to the ground, he says to the Lone Ranger, “Kemosabe, thousands of yuppies are coming!”
So maybe there’s not that much difference between small-town life and life in the big city. When I lived in New York, like most New Yorkers, I rarely ventured outside my own little neighborhood in the Village. I bought newspapers at the same stand every morning, frequented the same cigar shop near Sheridan Square, and hung out at a bar right across the avenue called the Monkey’s Paw. Like most Manhattanites, I never went to Brooklyn, never visited the Statue of Liberty, never ascended to the top of the Empire State Building, and never took a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. That was all for the tourists, most of whom, ironically, were from small towns.
My old departed friend Earl Buckelew, the unofficial mayor of Medina, always used to say, “Everything comes out in the wash if you use enough Tide.” Yet there are tides that run deep in small towns, deep as the sea of humanity, deep as the winding, muddy river of life. There once were two lovers who lived in Medina: Earl’s youngest son, John, and his true love, the beautiful Janis. Though still in their teens, it is very possible that they shared a love many of us have forfeited, forgotten, or never known. A love of this kind can sometimes be incandescent in its innocence, reaching far beyond the time and geography of the small town into the secret history of the ages.
In June of 1969, at a country dance under the stars, John and Janis quarreled, as true lovers sometimes will. They drove home separately, and on the same night Judy Garland died, Janis was killed in a car wreck. John mourned for her that summer, and in September, he took poison on her grave, joining her in eternity. John and Janis were much like another pair of star-crossed young lovers, the subjects of one of that summer’s biggest films. The town was too small for a movie theater, but that year, many believe, Romeo and Juliet played in Medina.