“If you can’t be handsome, be handy,” quips our handyman, John, as he fixes the latch on the door of our screened porch in Rockport. Raising two hammers at once, he continues: “One to use and one to lose.” He moves his cowboy hat–shaped hard hat to a rakish angle and adjusts the tucked-in tea towel that he has pinned to the hat’s back brim. It covers his neck as a makeshift sunburn protector. His thick-as-sorghum drawl, liltingly mellifluous, is music to my ears. I’ve missed those soulful Texas accents in recent years. It seems like they’ve all but disappeared in Austin—and other metropolises—as Texas has grown more urbane in recent decades. But they aren’t gone after all. They’ve apparently been stored here on the Texas coast in a sort of folkloric repository. While John works, this talented handyman, his face as weather-beaten as washed-up driftwood, continues to share life-skill tenets—all with the twist of a screwdriver.
“Everything decays down here,” he says, resignedly, almost as if it’s a virtue. “Belts, shoes . . . the shirt off your back. Hell, your car festers away bit by bit every single damn day. Even plastic rusts in Rockport.” With that, he warns us to park our van in a different direction each day, otherwise the wind and salt will rot the offending side faster. I raise my eyebrows, wipe some salt off my cheek, and find myself wondering how that’s worse than a car moldering from various directions all at once. But I trust our handyman on such philosophies. He’s from Rockport. And we’re not.
I’d lived in Austin for a long time—since the early 1980s, when I came for graduate school. But I’d been slowly moving away from the city for years. First it was through my back-to-back work travels, which left me feeling disenchanted with Austin’s trumpeted attributes. The rest of the world, after all, was pretty cool too. And as the city began to transform and sell itself vaingloriously, I felt like a stranger in my own metropolis. In the last few years, my husband and I (and our two dogs) began spending weeks, even months, during the winter in Rockport-Fulton and Port Aransas. Unexpectedly, with the verve of dilettantes, we evolved to become quasi birders. And my husband sealed the deal by eschewing all foot coverings except a pair of well-worn flip-flops. Sand was omnipresent, but that was better than Austin traffic. I could still travel from the coast, taking advantage of Corpus Christi’s diminutive airport, a bolt-hole that reminded me of Austin’s former Lilliputian airport, the one where you could arrive just minutes before a flight and manage to board on time.
Last year, with the Hermès launch in SoCo, I’d had enough. I wanted to still love Austin. I really did. But most of the things that epitomized the city in my mind had disappeared, lost their luster, or been supplanted by something hollow, faux—or utterly predictable. Where had the weird gone? What had happened to that slightly arty outlaw vibe, the earthy one that seemed rooted in a “don’t get too fancy for your pants” kind of ethos? I had loved our city’s “don’t look twice; that’s normal around here” attitude toward anything outlandish or eccentric. We were a place where a G-string-wearing bike rider on the streets of Central Austin was the celebrated harbinger of spring each year. (Presumably a Leslie Cochran imitator, he also sometimes wore the same outfit when walking his cat.) Now we seemed content to morph into a comfortably hip city, trendy enough to have people stand in line to shop at a Chanel pop-up store, an outpost that can be found in most pedestrian urban areas around the globe.
So, this winter, we came to Rockport—but didn’t return to Austin. Instead, we found ourselves a beat-up fishing shack on North Fulton Beach Road, right on the water, with a spit of land holding a parcel of anthropomorphic oak trees, their limbs twisted like those of supplicants. We did what we could to revitalize it—and guzzled the salty sea air like thirsty children. The sunrises were transformative. On our first day in the house, like an omen, a deeply tanned, elderly man in a tiny Speedo atop a prehistoric bike rode by and waved—Rockport’s version of Austin’s G-string man? I felt immediately at home. But there were new things too: roseate spoonbills, who looked like pieces of bubble gum impaled by wooden spoons, took refuge in our yard, and storybook dolphins did playful leaps beside our broken-down pier. An alligator, who seemed to subsist on raw chicken feet fed to him by a neighbor’s children, lurked perilously near our walking path.
Right away, we noticed that people were quirky here—in a good, new way that may really be the old Texas way. They’re territorial—God forbid the pizza-delivery truck drives up the wrong driveway, your foot stomps carelessly in someone’s yard, or you try to share a lap with someone at the community pool. (“This is private property. Get on out of here.”) But they’re friendly too. Everybody speaks when passing someone on the street, not just saying hello, but often stopping to wax poetic about the weather or perhaps utter something more personal and probing. (“Whatcha going to do with that hole you’re digging in the front yard?”) We suspect one resident of deliberately giving us misinformation for her own amusement (“That gator won’t hurt you. He’s a saltwater gator.”). And then there are the golf carts—legions of them, like clown cars at a circus. They patter up and down North Fulton Beach Road, adorned with flags. Sometimes the driver seems to be a dog, and the people the passengers.
Perhaps most delightful are the nicknames. I am not sure whether these sobriquets are self-dubbed or formally christened, but they’re colorful and ubiquitous. Case in point: svelte Tiny, as she introduced herself, weighted down with an immense diamond ring and bearing a bottle of wine to welcome us (we’ve never seen her since). There’s Green Willie, suggested by our handyman for his expertise with landscaping. One-Eyed Jack has been mentioned for one chore or the other by somebody. Nicknames even adorn the signs of local businesses. One business downtown advertises its proprietor on a placard as: “Agent/Owner ‘Squeeky’ Luce, LUTCF,” who apparently provides “all lines of personal & commercial insurance.” We haven’t met her yet. But it’s a small town (population 10,436), and I am sure we will.
It’s well known that Rockport touts itself as an artists’ colony. Galleries abound, painters set up easels at the marina, and various arts festivals occur throughout the year. But this past December, Rockport took the artiness up a notch. It opened the shiny, $12.5 million Rockport Center for the Arts on Austin Street, the town’s veritable main street. Sleek and contemporary, stretching 1.2 acres, the complex holds galleries, classrooms, meeting spaces, and auditoriums. Its ambitious programming includes everything from art classes to concerts in a variety of musical genres. We’ve been tempted by a pottery class and seen two concerts: bygone heartthrob Gary Morris at an outdoor venue (some older women screamed like teenagers) and effervescent Sara Hickman, who was the debut musical performance at the Center, kicking off what promises to be a new chapter of musical history in Rockport, which was the beloved Guy Clark’s hometown. Both of the musicians we saw sang for intimate crowds of one hundred or so, musical events that reminded me of the times when you could walk into a tiny cafe in Austin and hear rising songbirds like Robert Earl Keen croon, up close and personal.
Every place evolves. The fringes of Rockport look dizzyingly different than they did when I was a kid coming down here to visit my great-uncle Wilbur, the guy who taught me how to fish off a pier. New developments mottle the sand, and real estate prices are rising. But this funky Rockport-Fulton area seems to have found its sweet spot between old and new, between the weird and the mundane. Cozily recognizable, it’s still that slow-paced place where somebody takes a reflective pause or two in their day to cast a fishing line the way people used to take cigarette breaks in another era. Sometimes I feel that those fishers look like so many rubber boot–clad Zen poets in meditation as they wade through the shallow water and fish off the pier. They remind me to be that kind of person too. Like Rockport, I’m seeking that sweet spot between old and new, looking for weird one piece of found sea glass at a time.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of “Squeeky” Luce and misstated her gender. The story has been updated.