They asked me to write 1,500 words on why I would never move back to Texas. “Only fifteen hundred?” I replied, but that was a joke. I would move back to Texas, for a home next door to George II and permission to form a Sex Pistols tribute band and rehearse in the garage. I would also require the $2 million I am due for bearing the scarlet T burned into my forehead for all these years in civilized society. I would rather obliterate the state from my memory, but like the emirs of most oil emirates, Texas plunderers have stolen some great paintings from free spirits in foreign lands. They have recruited some great chefs and athletes from foreign lands. They built a great university with professors from foreign lands—and I loved the university, for as long as I could.
I lived in the stacks. I worked hard and learned to write publishable essays, which were published—but not by me. My colleagues and professors published my work in tiny magazines as their own, to help with tenure. I heard my own aperçus quoted back to me in class. In other words, these obsequious hypocrites just flat stole my shit, because I was a “hillbilly savant,” as one professor called me, and always would be as long as I stayed at the university. I was far from the only victim of faculty plagiarism, but I was the one who whined the loudest. I can never tell hurt from anger, but whichever it was, I quit the university. I opened an art gallery in Austin. Ninety percent of the art I sold was to people in New York and Los Angeles. The state comptroller didn’t believe my documents, however, and penalized me $5,000. (Thirty years later, they deducted this fine, plus interest, from a fee I received for speaking at the university.)
So I left Texas to live in Manhattan, Southern California, Nashville, Las Vegas, and Santa Fe. I work in the international art world, where non-billionaire Texans are regarded as knuckle-dragging, sexist, racist troglodytes—and those who aren’t troglodytes dare not say they’re not. Walking out of a gas station in Waco, I heard three rednecks discussing politics. “I tell you what,” one of them said, “I cain’t even thank about Hillary nekkid.” At a debutante party in Dallas, one tuxedoed gentleman remarked, “I love that Tom Landry. Only man in Texas who can make a jungle bunny do the same thing twice!” A friend of mine knocked up his girlfriend and shrugged. “What are coat hangers for?” he said. These things are crude—but then again, Texas is crude. It is one of the state’s favorite words. I imagine Cowboys Stadium in the future surrounded by desolation, filled up to the brim with crude.
Even in kindergarten, I quickly hit the wall. It was just after the war, and in Oak Cliff, we drew pictures of the Nazis getting their butts kicked. Once, as a statistical nicety, I drew one American plane falling from the sky. I was branded a traitor and ate alone in the lunchroom for two weeks. I told Bob Rauschenberg this story, and he said the same thing had happened to him miles away in his place of birth, Port Arthur. “Ostracism,” said Bob. “Patriotic ostracism. And my plane had a little parachute! I never hated any place worse.”
Years later, Bob and I were standing on the Gulf beach of Florida’s Captiva Island, of which he owned a big chunk. We were facing northwest, and Bob explained that were it not for the curvature of the earth, we could give the finger to Port Arthur. Bob and I were very bad Texans, but we were very good haters, and we were still Texas kids from the subdivisions—exceptional at making people laugh, which is not a Texas kind of exceptional. The mentality of Texas exceptionalism writ large is currently feeding the flames in the Middle East, marking the death knell for living cultures. In Texas, you can’t even suggest that people might be missing a few things by living in the Promised Land. Try proposing that Friday Night Lights and Jerry Jones are slightly delusional and see what happens.
Or, for a contrary opinion, ask my wife—also a Texan—about how she felt about having a cross burned in her yard when she was a high school cheerleader. I spent 28 years in Texas, here and there, off and on, and I behaved badly on every occasion. Back in my gambling days, Townes Van Zandt and I went to the track in Ruidoso. We won some money at the rifle range, because we were good shots. Then we bet our winnings on quarter horses with exotic names, because we were people of the word. On our way back to Texas, we passed a stock pen just across the state line—one of those angle-iron, taut-wire affairs, pinned at the corners. Townes, ever the aristocrat, pointed and said, “Now, there’s a Texas fence post,” dismissing all the fence posts we had just passed in New Mexico—and thus ennobling every other fence post in Texas.
Everything in Texas is exceptional by virtue of being in Texas. To demean a single Texas fence post demeans them all—and this is treachery. If I like Lutèce in Las Vegas better than Luby’s, that’s treachery too. If I read a Texas novel and think it deserves a wider audience than Texas, that’s treachery again. Nothing is wider than Texas, or narrower. So there is no work for critics like myself who volunteer high-spirited opinions for your amusement and education. (Molly Ivins could do this, but her dad ran Tenneco, and oil protects its own, even its scallywag liberals.)
This also explains why all the garage bands in Austin are so wonderful, even if they’re out of time and out of tune. That’s Texas music, sonny boy. That’s why a lighthearted remark I made to Ann Richards about Laura Bush’s footwear caused such a kerfuffle. Richards’s lesbian Mossad repeated it, and hitherto, Bum Phillips had been one of the only people in Texas who could say witty things that people repeated (“Good sportsmanship gets you beat 28 to 17”—a jewel). But if it wasn’t Bum or Ann or Molly, it was New York negativity. One of the happy coincidences of my life is that I moved to New York the same week that Jerry Jeff Walker moved to Texas, thus setting the blossoming of Texas urbanism back about a decade.
As for politics? It’s pasteurized. All decisions hark back to the pasture. They always have. A booming economy makes little difference when the state’s suits, conservative and liberal, are all-hat-no-cattle hometown boys. So never mind that the vast majority of Texans live in urban Texas. They are nowhere represented except by Jamba Juice stands, Starbucks joints, and skateboards. Foreign things. The real movers in Texas got a wise old grampa, a great-uncle with emphysema, and a spread down in the brush country that you can’t get to anymore because the oil trucks and the fracking have worn the roads down to gravel that’s sprouting little mesquite trees.
Even I had a crusty father-in-law, whom I loved: Elliot Taylor, of Lubbock, he of the dry, droll wit. During the Cold War, Elliot was resolved not to worry about the Chinese until they crossed the Garza County line and occupied the Dairy Queen in Post, because the caprock that falls away south of Post could be so easily defended. On the other extreme, should overpopulation threaten the Panhandle, Elliot felt we should breed people down to the size of Coke bottles. But there I go again, being nice because it’s in my nature. Even so, it’s hard to stay awake through dinner parties in Texas, unless you imagine all the volumes that aren’t being spoken out of fear. In my case, I can’t tell hurt from hate. Most of my Texas friends can’t tell resentment from despair, and I shut up too, because I don’t want to know.
This is one reason all my favorite Texans had to leave Texas before they could blossom like the little flowers they were: Ornette Coleman, Bob Rauschenberg, Candy Clark, Waylon Jennings, Don Barthelme, Bobby Keys, Rip Torn, and most egregiously, Natalie Maines, who publicly apologized for George II, as we all should, and now lives like a fugitive. This is why I am mostly mentioning dead people, because most living Texans are secretly squirrelly about open carry. The waiter drops a tray; everyone hits the floor. (Been there, done that on Congress Avenue.)
And I am a little flower myself, vulnerable to big, pointy boots, so I only enter Texas with a return ticket, a passport, and pesos, lest Texas secede while I’m there and the Dallas Cowboys become a soccer team. Should this happen, I will stage a rock concert just across the Oklahoma line. James McMurtry will kick things off with “Choctaw Bingo,” and we will fill the sky with fireworks and play funky music as the tanks roll by, leaving Texas and entering the plain old, unexceptional United States. So move to Texas if you must. If you’re a man or a woman, though, you should think it over. If you’re a horse’s ass, what can I say?
This piece is just one bit of wisdom offered in our April 2015 cover story, “Welcome to Texas!” a friendly user’s guide for our state’s most recent transplants. To read more advice, go here.