In the midst of the very strange times in which we currently find ourselves, the Texanist has made the decision to deviate from his usual format of doling out fine advice and, instead, take this opportunity to look in on y’all and see how everything is going. Is everybody okay? The Texanist and his people are pretty good—knock on wood—and he hopes the same is true for you and yours. Unfortunately, the Texanist is aware that this might not be the case. At the time of this writing, the Texas Department of State Health Services was reporting that across 217 of Texas’s 254 counties there were 35,390 cases of COVID-19 and a total of 973 fatalities. And business as usual has become quite unusual. For much of this still-young year the entire state has been at a standstill. Though the situation is changing, the restaurants have been closed, the bars have been closed, the movie theaters have been closed, the dance halls have been closed. All businesses deemed “nonessential” were shut down. (The Texanist, by the way, was classified as an essential worker, a fact he finds both affirming and a little amusing.)
There’s not a whole heck of a lot the Texanist hasn’t seen in all his many days on this earth, but he’s never seen anything like this. Not by a long shot. The present state of affairs is downright surreal. The Texanist is working from his home office; the missus has turned the kitchen into her home office; and the teenage girl Texanist is receiving her schooling over the internet in her home classroom, a.k.a. her bedroom. It’s a weird time, indeed.
And, to put it mildly, it’s not a good time. For many of our fellow Texans it’s very much a bad time. As noted, loved ones are getting sick and, sadly, some are dying. We lost country star Joe Diffie, who lived on and off in Texas during his younger years and was a staple of many a honky-tonk jukebox in his later years. We lost John Prine, who never lived in Texas but was a favorite singer-songwriter of many Texas singer-songwriters. We lost playwright Terrence McNally, who grew up in Dallas and Corpus Christi and went on to win Tony Awards. We lost 97-year-old Bay City funeral home operator Eddie Roberts, a veteran of World War II who became Texas’s first reported coronavirus fatality when he died on March 15. And we’ve lost hundreds more since.
Thanks for reading Texas Monthly
On top of all this there’s the unfathomable financial pain that’s caused when normal life suddenly grinds to a halt. The Texanist is lucky to be gainfully employed, but many of his friends and neighbors have suddenly found themselves in dire fiscal situations. Think about all the shopkeepers, the restaurateurs, the waiters, the bartenders, the bellhops, and the housekeepers. Think about the school cafeteria workers and the janitors and the out-of-work musicians. Think about the barbers and the bingo hall operators and the bowling alley attendants. The Texanist knows you have already thought about all of these folks, but think about them for a minute longer. Let it soak in. There’s hardly anyone who has gone untouched in some way, large or small, by our coronaviral conundrum. And, oh yeah, on top of all that, the price of oil sank into negative territory for the first time ever, prompting a colleague to point out that, for a moment there, a barrel of oil was cheaper than a six-pack of Lone Star. A bust seems to be nigh, which will make things even worse for many Texans.
The messages from our leaders at every level of government have been confusing; protocols and directives change at a head-spinning clip. People don’t know what to do. The parks are open. The parks are closed. Churches are open for Sunday services, but gathering in groups of ten or more is a bad idea. Don’t wear a mask unless you are exhibiting symptoms. Everyone must wear a mask at all times. Don’t use the walking trail in your neighborhood. Use the walking trail, but only in a clockwise direction. While wearing a mask. Or not. Unsurprisingly, nerves are a bit frayed.
Even after the all-clear signal sounds—and the Texanist feels a perhaps misplaced confidence that it will, someday, sound—the repercussions are going to be long-lasting. How many businesses won’t recover? How many workers won’t go back to work? Will swimming pools reopen? Will summer camps reopen? Will there be a State Fair of Texas? Has there ever not been a state fair? (Answer: there was no state fair in 1918, because of World War I, and again from 1942 to 1945, because of World War II.) What about county fairs? And rodeos? And cook-offs? And conventions? And all the rest? Is there even going to be a football season, be it high school, college, or professional? There are so many questions with no clear answers, and in the absence of good information, minds can wander to the gloomiest of scenarios.
Yet, despite all the darkness of the day, life’s proverbial street still has its proverbial sunny side. This is where you’ll find the Texanist, and he invites you to join him there—at a safe distance, of course. There is, after all, abundant reason to not lose hope or a sense of gratitude. Despite the health crisis and the economic pandemonium and the actions of the panic-stricken toilet paper hoarders (the Texanist still doesn’t understand what’s going on there), the scamming opportunists, the wacky protesters, and the bossy know-it-alls on social media and in the online neighborhood groups, the reasons to maintain an optimistic outlook are plentiful.
Who hasn’t noticed the striking uptick in neighborliness? The blocks are abuzz with street walkers. (Not that kind! Get your mind out of the gutter!) The Texanist has been working with his windows open lately, and he regularly stops what he’s doing to take note of birds chirping, squirrels making squirrel sounds, and children he’d never even noticed before playing on the sidewalk below. The dogs are getting lots of love—and giving it too. Lulu, the Texanist’s puffy and loyal three-legged bichon frise, seems even happier than her usual exceedingly happy self. Also, there’s no traffic. The Texanist was driving through downtown Austin just the other day, and where he once would have sat, fuming, mired in a bog of fellow fuming motorists at every red light, he instead encountered block upon block of open road, adorned with perfectly synchronized green lights. And those swarms of annoying scooters? He saw nary a one. Perhaps best of all, Texas has witnessed the advent of the to-go margarita, a glorious genie that the Texanist believes might—fingers crossed—be hard to get back in the figurative bottle
All of these good things that have come out of a very bad thing are certainly a salve for tattered nerves. But they’re also beginning to seem like something more—specifically, a welcome reminder of a simpler, slower-paced Texas, a far-off place that the Texanist recalls from his small-town upbringing in the sixties and seventies. Back then families gathered around the table for dinner every evening and had the time to take a leisurely walk around the neighborhood, stopping often to chew the fat. Back then we looked our grocery store checkers in the eyes and thanked them. Back then a person could drive on I-35 or Loop 610 or Central Expressway unimpeded by maddening traffic jams. (The Texanist realizes that there was actually never a time, even in the bygonest of eras, when 610 was traffic-free, but let it go—he’s on a roll.)
The Texanist does not want to sound like a Pollyanna. During this unusually anxious yet quiet time, we’ve also had to give up a slew of activities that are quintessentially Texan: eating at a favorite Tex-Mex joint, say, or hitting the dance hall, or joining the revelers down at the local swimming hole. The list goes on. Texans, after all, are a decidedly social and fun-loving lot. But even so, the Texanist can’t shake the feeling that in recent weeks, as everything has slowed down, we’ve been usefully reminded of something we didn’t even realize that we’d forgotten about, something we lost as Texas has grown bigger and busier and hurlier and burlier and less like itself.
The question of whether the coronavirus will forever change the world is getting asked a lot these days. It’s a whopper of a query and one that the Texanist, a simple purveyor of advice, isn’t equipped to answer definitively. But he has been thinking more and more that there’s a pretty good chance that this pandemical pickle just might, in some ways, change Texas for the better. Maybe, long after the all-clear signal has sounded, we’ll remember the silver linings of these cloudy days. And maybe we’ll choose to live the sorts of lives that will have Texas looking something like Texas once again.