Texas is the Last Stop
There are all kinds of major and minor annoyances that you come to resent when you remember you’re paying a premium for the privilege of being irritated by them in coastal California. Like the time a guy jacked off to the back of my head on the BART train in Oakland.
There I was, humming along in my headphones, thinking that the view of San Francisco was particularly lovely that day, when a man across the car began trying to make meaningful eye contact with me. This is pretty standard woman-existing-in-public stuff, so I averted my eyes and thought harder about the nice view, trying not to notice that the man was furiously scribbling something on the back of a yellow flyer. When he got up to approach me, I was ready to shut him down — but he practically threw the paper in my lap before retreating to his seat. Scrawled on the page: “The man behind you is doing nasty things.”
He had underlined “nasty” three times. Without turning around, I abandoned my seat, thanking the note-writer as I passed him, and switched cars at the next stop.
This kind of thing isn’t unique to the Bay Area. Like most women, I’ve encountered creeps everywhere and always. In high school, there was the guy who followed me on my drive to work at a suburban Fort Worth mall, making sure to stay even with my car in traffic so he could look at me while he masturbated. In college, I lost count of the number of times I was groped on crowded New York City subways. A few years ago, while I was jogging in my neighborhood in Austin, a car full of sleazebags crept behind me, honking and hooting for blocks before I could disappear into a coffee shop.
But this time felt different. Dear Lord, I thought as the train dipped below the San Francisco Bay, let me live somewhere I can get sexually harassed on public transportation for a reasonable price.
That terrible day on the train was months ago. Just after Christmas, I began writing this piece from the porch of my family’s lake house, nestled deep in my ancestral homeland of East Texas, as my husband and I prepared to move back into our house in Austin. (The bathroom floor fell in while we were on the West Coast. Experts on such things advise against living in houses with no bathroom floor.) In total, we spent a little over two years in California, hopping from the East Bay to San Francisco trying to find a place that felt like home.
Finally, we did — the one we already had in Texas.
We had good reasons, initially, for going west. Patrick’s family back in the Bay needed looking after, and he managed to score a dream job that made the move possible. We packed up the cats and the dog in a rented RV and spent a lazy week cruising through New Mexico and Arizona and up through California’s inland agricultural belt, nary a Buc-cee’s in sight. But even after we moved into our new place a stone’s throw from a Bay-front beach that was even occasionally safe to swim in, I still spent weeks waking up two hours early, my body clock anchored to central time and the terrifying pull of a news cycle obsessed with forecasting and re-forecasting what it would be like when Donald Trump took office.
It was a bad time to leave everyone and everything you know and love. Nightmare days reading Twitter turned into actual nightmares about North Korean nukes just across the Pacific. A small comfort: they sell liquor in Bay Area bodegas, and on Sundays! Good for my nerves, bad for rekindling a freelance writing career. But I began to muddle through.
One of the first things I learned is that California, and the Bay in particular, really gives Texas’ propensity for self-aggrandizement a run for its money. Say what you want about Texas kitchens stocked with Texas-shaped frying pans; Californians are high as hell on their Golden State.
Bet you’re glad you got out of there! was the running refrain from locals who too often underestimated my affection for Texas. I would bristle and tell them that in fact, I dearly missed the place. Ah, but you’re from Austin — that’s not really Texas, is it? And so it went.
These conversations exhausted me, even as I realized that I had not infrequently been the same kind of smug cheerleader when addressing critics of the Lone Star state. We love the places we love. We want to defend our homes. We are the only people who get to talk shit about our families.
The truth is, California and Texas are so much more alike than they are different. The fact I can hear this assertion ruffling feathers both Californian and Texan in equal measure merely proves the point. Here we both are: Big, really big, and geographically and demographically diverse; loaded with gobs of industry money that talks to lawmakers and is rarely put to work for workers; fucked-up infrastructure and forgotten rural corners; passionate people and problematic politicians.
Neither Texas nor California are the boogeystates their respective naysayers would like to believe, but neither are they the respective red and blue utopias their political partisans love to brag on. For a detailed and exhaustively reported look at how the states compare, I strongly recommend Curbed’s The United States of Texas and California, a series which drills down into the nitty-gritty of issues we’re both grappling with: transportation, immigration, urban policy, and economics. You can still get a good deal on a bedroom in the Bay — if you’re willing never to cook in your home. And an upcoming boon in San Francisco millionaires — thanks to public offerings — is about to put the base price of a one-bedroom condo at $1 million. If you’re a numbers person, the evidence is all there — in spades.
But I’m an affect person, more interested in teasing out the cultural quandaries presented by a political moment when, it seems to me and perhaps to an entire nation that is wondering what the hell is wrong with us, Texas has a big decision to make: Who can we be, and perhaps more importantly, who can we be for?
I watched Beto O’Rourke’s senate bid from afar, only half-seriously considering writing him in for an empty San Francisco judgeship just to say I’d voted for him. O’Rourke’s run provided a welcome respite from the Boy you got out of there just in time! conversations that had grown so thoroughly tiresome. At last: A Texas thing even Californians could toast their Napa blends to.
And then, of course, he lost. Nevermind the fact that he’d energized a frustrated progressive base so obviously tired of seeing Democrats play to the meaningless middle. Nevermind the fact that his campaign turned out enough voters to flip Tarrant County blue and with it my reliably red hometown Congressional district. (Confidential to Pete Sessions: Nobody likes you.) Nevermind the fact that O’Rourke scared Ted Cruz shitless. No, nevermind any of that; the salty Monday-morning (well, Wednesday-morning) coastal quarterbacking was in full swing.
The unreserved joy that the worst kind of California liberal takes in the suffering of red states is a deeply unbecoming default to which so many revert when us hayseeds fail to perform to their standards of liberal political comportment, which is to say, anything short of declaring a sudden socialist republic. So, basically always.
Let them secede! they chuckle whenever the Jade Helm crowd gets to crowing about leaving the union, conveniently forgetting that a California splice-and-secession measure narrowly missed their own ballots in 2018. Cut them loose! they crack, when Texas passes another asinine anti-choice law, even as Governor Jerry Brown vetoes an entirely uncontroversial bill that would have made medication abortion available on California college campuses. And thus it was, that week in November 2018, as I crawled back online to read another round of lefty snarking from my newish neighbors — neighbors who spectacularly rejected an eminently reasonable statewide rent control proposition.
O’Rourke’s campaign showed, in high and live-streamed definition for a national audience, the scores of Texans who complicate the dismissive dipshit narrative that those who reside in red states deserve whatever they get. These are the Texans who are as ignored by the state’s Republican cabal as they are unappreciated by the smug twitterers of Silicon Valley. The people who deserve access to the voting booth, but who are dissuaded from making their voices heard by racist voter ID laws; the people who deserve access to abortion care, but who can’t find a clinic for hundreds of miles; the people who deserve to go to church and to school without being shot up by another white supremacist asshole, but who know they’ll never get anywhere questioning the gun cult of the Texas GOP, or who are too dead to do anything about it, anyway.
The subtext to the coastal snark — and sometimes the text itself — is Why don’t you just leave? But of course it is a privilege to be able to decamp from a home that disrespects and maybe even rejects you and seek out a new life in a friendlier, more progressive or liberal geography. I mean, I get where the blue-state smugness comes from. The civil protections and safety net programs that California can offer are not merely attractive — they are life-saving, if you can afford to avail yourself of them. But why should Texans be forced to leave our families, our jobs, our livelihoods, for the safety and security that all of us, regardless of where we call home, should enjoy?
This is my beef with the holier-than-thou attitude espoused from blue-state altitudes. Is there room, in San Francisco, for all of the queer kids from Waco and Midland? Can a Black family from Waller County, who’d rather their kids not be subject daily to unapologetically racist policing, find jobs that pay the rent in Cupertino — at $2000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment? Housing prices in Bakersfield and San Dimas might be alright, but can we presume that these destinations are somehow less prone to the same endemic and systemic problems with racism, xenophobia, and queerphobia that Texas cities have? This presumption is a stretch indeed when you look at battles both historic and ongoing against police brutality, anti-queer and anti-trans violence, and gentrification in California’s most ostensibly progressive locales, let alone the cities along its deeply red Interstate 5 backbone.
When four in ten Americans say they couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency without going into debt or selling something essential, exactly how progressive is it to imply that Texans must either cheerfully swallow Dan Patrick’s Bible-thumping bullshit or abandon their homes and loved ones and hope there’s a $72k-per-year job waiting in Marin or Los Angeles? That we should just move?
I mean, to where, exactly?
The San Francisco I came to know was a profoundly sad, fucked-up place. Our neighborhood, Hayes Valley, was a gentrified hub of tony boutiques and slapdash modern condos that cropped up after the ’89 earthquake put a highway overpass in the Western Addition, a historically Black neighborhood, out of commission. White people had been cleared to move in to sell $95 exercise pants.
Ironically, those $95 exercise pants came from a shop called Outdoor Voices — an Austin original. The neon storefront lights — very Austin! — hilariously and plainly read “Doing Things,” which always made me laugh as I guided our dog around the syringes and human shit on the sidewalk out front. The night we moved into our apartment up the street from this little taste of home, Patrick and I tucked ourselves into bed, surrounded by cardboard moving boxes, and peered out the bedside window at the city only to see another couple doing a version of the same, building a pallet out of cardboard and sleeping bags in the sustainable, xeriscaped planter downstairs. They would be gone early the next morning, before the Blue Bottle coffee kiosk next door opened to sell $8 espressos.
I have given up on trying to describe this thing without sounding like an asshole. I know that merely seeing and recognizing the manifestations of white supremacist capitalism, and all its awful derivations, does little to mitigate its effects. My guilt is not in itself useful and other people’s reality is not made more important or urgent by my feelings about it. These everyday vignettes of the appalling wealth disparities in San Francisco were everywhere. Every trip to the corner store for a bottle of wine or a can of Chef Boyardee needled in a different way, sharp and relentless reminders that I was a certain kind of privileged intruder making dinner or walking the dog or folding the laundry in a city teeming with endless variations of my species. Was it white liberal guilt? Sure. Plenty of that. But it was something more, too — the feeling that I was both out of my element and taking up space in a place that not only didn’t need or want me, but to which my very presence was a fundamental detriment.
The result was a deep helplessness that I just couldn’t shake. I did the things I thought I could do — I voted, I followed local politics, I volunteered and supported the grassroots organizations that are doing incredible and meaningful work in the Bay against the tech-bro odds — but mostly I just felt like the whole place would be better off without me and people like me. I could feel as sorry as I wanted about it, and do all my little do-gooder Brownie-badge things to assuage it, but the fact was, I knew I had absolutely more in common with the douchebags across the street using a car elevator every night than the people sleeping on the streets. I was simultaneously extra and part of the problem.
And in every part of my mind, I knew that there was a place I was passionate about, a place that had raised me and courted me and loved me, and I had abandoned it. Texas. This whole operation — living in California and specifically the Bay, pretending like I had a place among those who either rightfully had no use for another nice white lady, or among nice white ladies who stressed out about $60,000 pre-school tuition and in turn freaked me out — seemed like a tremendous waste of time and, if I am allowed to be a little self-aggrandizing, and I think Texans are, talent.
I have a passion and a love for Texas that has always drawn me back to my home, in all of its fucked-uppedness, no matter how many times I’ve tried to leave over the years. I had nothing to offer the Bay, and no reason — family ties, an alma mater, or some such similar legitimizing connection — to offer myself to Sacramento or the Lake Counties or any other arguably less hippy-dippy outpost in California where I might find a place and a purpose. California was not my people. California did not want whatever salty Texan bullshit I had to offer, anyway. I felt a fool, and I was tired and angry and useless, and tired and angry about my uselessness.
I wanted — no, i needed — to go home. And so, because geographic mobility is both a privilege and an accident of this irresponsible and capricious universe, I soon (but not soon enough) did so.
I am back in Texas for days, torturous days, before we — my husband, myself, and my parents, who didn’t even pretend to hide heaving sobs of relief as we pulled up to their house in a jam-packed Volkswagen, various pets yowling and howling from the depths of the vehicle — make it out for proper barbecue, the barest simulacrum of which you cannot even hope to get in California. In line at Stanley’s in Tyler, we get to talking to a regular — a former journalist, as it happens — who recommends we order the “Mother Clucker” sandwich, which features barbecue chicken with some kind of spicy mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, and a fried egg on jalapeno cheese sourdough. If you’re feeling a bit more than merely peckish, you can add guacamole and candied bacon.
We have a good laugh about that before the conversation turns to Texas politics. It happens before I even know it — one minute, haha, this sandwich, ridiculous, and the next minute, the name of Louie Gohmert, the local Congressman, tumbles out of someone’s mouth.
“He has some interesting ideas,” the Stanley’s regular offers. I know this gambit because I have often used it myself as a reporter. He is testing the fences, as it were — seeing if these people are going to shock, or be shocked.
I raise my eyebrows. “Bow howdy,” I say, trying to imagine what commentary I will offer on a man who has made a career of unapologetic bigotry. “That guy.”
The regular smiles. “Well, he represents what a lot of people around here believe.”
I can’t tell if he means me to understand that he’s sorry about that, or what. Then my dad swoops in with an innocuous Dad question about Where is downtown Tyler from here anyway, and we move on and the moment is lost, and I still don’t know if the guy who told me to get the Mother Clucker thinks that Louie Gohmert is on to something when he says gay guys are too obsessed with massages to fight in military battles.
I get a brisket plate — heavy on the bark — just to be safe.
But these are the conversations I must face — irrespective of whether my dad, a Nova PBS devotee who nevertheless supports the party of climate change denial, wants to change the subject. The onus is on those of us who have the ability to live safely and confidently in a challenging place like Texas, to do so. It’s awkward and unsettling and entirely my responsibility to ensure that where I want to be is where anyone can be.
Texas has been wooing me my whole life; sometimes quietly, sometimes not so much. It has taken me a long time to appreciate those gestures for what they were, even as I stubbornly kept one eye always on elsewhere — decamping to New York City twice, a stint studying in London to see if that might fit better, and then of course my most recent move, my family’s ill-advised relocation to California, however necessary at the time.
When, for example, the Dallas wedding venue Patrick and I had chosen fell through at the last minute, we had only to look across the street from our Deep Ellum apartment for a replacement — Club Dada cleared out for a Saturday night so that a couple of regulars could declare our undying love for each other, there in the dive bar with Patrick’s comically wholesome South Dakotan clan and my Mema.
Of course Texas is not the only place with great local bars that treat their regulars right; undoubtedly this exists in those destinations that I have spent so much time flailing in. But I, an unrepentant barfly, have never managed to conjure this particular spell anywhere else, even as I return, happy hour after happy hour. For me, this is a special kind of magic that only works between the Red River and the Rio Grande — at the Coral Reef on South Padre Island, at the Black Swan Saloon in Dallas, Hoots honky-tonk in Rendon or at Austin’s Workhorse Bar and Hole in the Wall.
I recognize that it seems silly (and possibly alarming) to use the entirely subjective friendliness of bars and bartenders as this kind of geographic barometer, but I never feel comfortable unless I can feel at home away from home. For me, home is a good bar. For others, it might be the right hiking spot, or a great neighborhood playground.
These homes-away-from-home don’t happen on their own; people make a place, and my people are here, in Texas (and probably at the bar), and I know that those who need that same kind of comfort can’t necessarily expect it in this place. If you fear being aggressively misgendered in a bar bathroom, or you’re unable to take your kids through a border patrol checkpoint to see their aunties, or you know you’ll have no recourse if you lose your job because of who you love, the onus must not be on you to fix it. People like me, who mostly already feel safe in the public spaces available to us, must work toward the kind of social change that engenders safety for everyone.
An essential, and for so many of us, an easy part of that is merely being present, building lives and political and cultural norms that buck the right-wing status quo in Texas. Because the funny thing is — and it’s some cornball Mary Poppins nonsense but I really believe this — there are more people in this state who aren’t miserable shitbags than who are. But it’s going to take an awful lot of work, not just in what we say but in what we do and in how we live our personal and professional lives, to make a new Texas, a Texas that really can be for everyone, happen.
There’s a bit from Texas writer Lawrence Wright’s latest, God Save Texas, that really gets to me. One of my former editors, Brad Tyer (a Texas expat who has decamped from his native Houston, but I won’t drag him for it here), reviewed Wright’s late-life primer on the peculiarities and foibles of Texas in the present political climate, for the Los Angeles Review of Books:
“Lawrence Wright is 71 now, and in a final chapter that’s largely about his choice of burial plot in the luminary-studded Texas State Cemetery, he writes, ‘I accept that my life has already been lived.’ He has let readers know that he might, at various junctures, have liked to live other, perhaps more ambitious lives, in the power centers of Manhattan or Washington, DC, say, where ‘my life might have been larger, but it would have been counterfeit. I would not be home.’
I am so relieved, now, to reclaim my little life within Texas’ bizarre and troublesome borders.
Ryan, who has a San Antonio area code, answers the phone practically on the first ring and I nearly drop my Bloody Mary in my lap. It’s a sunny San Francisco Sunday last October, and I’m phonebanking for Gina Ortiz Jones, who’s challenging Will Hurd in the TX-23 Congressional race. This mostly means getting people’s voicemails. Ryan is the first person to pick up out of dozens of calls, and I’m flustered, so I just launch into the script: Gina’s a hard-working army veteran who wants to ensure everyone has access to health care, I stammer cheerfully.
“It sounds like she’s a Democrat,” Ryan says. She is, I say.
“Well, I don’t want to upset you,” Ryan twangs, “but I’m a Republican and I’m 18 years old and I just voted for the first time this year and I’m going to be voting Republican for the rest of my life, so I don’t think we have much to talk about but thanks for your time.”
I can practically hear him throwing an empty beer can in the Comal as he hangs up. I am embarrassed and incensed. How dare this kindly bro so thoroughly waste the privilege of his vote in Texas’ hottest Congressional contest? Hell, he’s probably going to vote Republican and eat a goddamned breakfast taco, just to spite me out here in this damned liberal breakfast taco wasteland.
I imagine Ryan — white, crew cut, tooling around San Marcos or Alpine in a Luckenbach t-shirt, meeting his buddies for volleyball and nagging his girlfriend for topless selfies. I imagine his whole life, cruising through a series of jobs with his buddy’s dad or his dad’s buddy. Passel of kids on a Christmas card — This one’ll say Merry Christmas, dammit, none of that PC happy holidays bullshit — and passing out on the couch to Fox News.
Will he know challenges in his life, and heartbreak? Sure. We all do. But Ryan will never wonder if the things that happen to him, and the things that people do to him, are borne out of bigotry — for the color of his skin, for his sexuality, for his gender, for his immigration status, for himself. He will be comfortable, happy to cast his vote for similarly comfortable men and, sometimes, if he absolutely must, for the women who believe their deference and proximity to such men will bring them legitimacy and respect.
His comfort comes at a cost, but it won’t be his to pay. It comes at the expense of Texans who are silenced and shamed and unable to be who they are, freely and safely, because of the small-minded shitbaggery of the most powerful men in this state. Men who enjoy their positions because those who would oppose them are exhausted and browbeaten and tired of losing, so it becomes easier not to try. The not-Ryans, we survive and even thrive, but always because we are twisting, molding, shifting, moving, trying to stay out of the line of fire, maybe literally. It is a restless survival, and all the more remarkable for it.
But it is not sustainable.
I knew it was coming — we all did. And when it did, Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign announcement was as clunky and awkward as his senate campaign was seamless and charmingly janky. Here was a Vanity Fair cover with a truck and a dog, the story within featuring distressing and self-aggrandizing quotes about being “born to be in it,” accented with what read to me as unsettingly dismissive quotes about his wife and family’s desire to, well, not be in this, specifically.
I knew this was coming because I’d briefly fled from California to Texas for a whirlwind stay on election night 2018 so I could be among my people for the results, hoping desperately to be celebrating a Beto for Senate win. As we gathered around a laptop in a North Austin yard for the concession speech, having already broken out the bourbon and the Kleenex, it was clear even then that Beto had bigger things on his mind.
I say “bigger” because I’m not sure there’s another word for this thing — the thing that Lawrence Wright, bless him, said he’d finally decided he didn’t want — the bigger, more important, more influential life, full of dinner parties in the big pond with big, hungry, powerful D.C. or New York fish. It broke my heart. Here I was, trying to get back to Texas, and here was Beto, the first politician in years who’d captured a progressive Texanness that spoke to so many people, thirsty for the chance to move on.
It is a testament to O’Rourke’s easygoing, people-centric senate campaign — eating tacos in the car, sure, but also saying deeply resonant things about shared values and visions for a more equitable state — that I saw myself in him. Someone who cared about Texas, deeply, and who was committed to un-fucking this place. But then, suddenly, he became a man who turned too quickly into someone else, someone who — again, like me — has believed the lie that Texas is not big enough.
I know this is about my own shit. I know that. But I also know that what I know — the feeling of wondering if I should just move, if this state really is just a hopeless shithole — is something that a lot of Texans wonder, and not idly. This state is not safe for too many people; this state is too safe for too many people.
It is truly remarkable that Beto O’Rourke managed what he did in his senate campaign. It is depressingly rare for a Democrat to achieve the kind of statewide goodwill and name recognition that O’Rourke did — without, of course, being dragged down by the awful problem of being a woman, and even worse, a woman who supports abortion rights. Beto fucking had it! He had us! Here, finally, was the nice white guy who at least, you know, said the things.
And yet when tempted with the adoration and appreciation and opportunity of somebodies and somewhere else, he has sought to capture that. I see it and feel it and hate that I see and feel it. Because the other thing that I know, which I know today better than I have ever known it, is this: The work is here.
O’Rourke has polled very well nationally since his announcement, and I see homemade “Beto 2020” signs around my Austin neighborhood every day. I do not think it is impossible for someone to be a good and proud representative of Texas and do great work on the national level; I would love to see a Texan president in my lifetime who did not shamelessly usher in a xenophobic, and specifically Islamophobic, zeitgeist of murderous bigotry. But I also know that long-term change begins at the local and hyper-local level. If we are to counter the worst impulses of the average American with the progressive, forward-thinking demands (not merely a vision!) of justice and equity, the work starts at home.
Literally, at home. In Odessa, in Texarkana, in Orange and in Corpus Christi. In Austin and in Dallas and in Arlington and Victoria. In Jefferson and Paris and Alpine and Del Rio. In Edinburg and Pampa and Amarillo and Wichita Falls. And in El Paso.
If a “blue wave” is ever going to hit Texas, Texans need to pave the way ahead of it by developing a progressive Texan identity that works for all Texans — one that doesn’t leave rural Texans, especially rural Texans of color, behind. I saw in California how deeply the reliance on urban blueness can silence and shame those who call rural and suburban locales home.
This means the onus is on us Texans who can afford to — because we are safe, because we are comfortable, because we can — to create welcoming, sustainable, progressive spaces because we have a unique opportunity not to fuck this thing up as the state is changing shape politically and demographically. People who are able to safely stay where we are and make change at home must do so — and, for the record, this includes Republicans, who need to get their shit together and either pull their party leftward to the causes of justice and equity or abandon it entirely to bigots, letting the GOP rot and fester in the filthy and unceremonious death it deserves.
Like any long-term movement building project, this can’t be something we only invest in during elections, or depend on the goodwill of exploitative capitalist outfits to engineer for us with tax breaks and concessions. We must look to worker organizers, feminist and reproductive justice movement leaders, immigrant justice advocates and regular fuckin’ Texans to lead this project, to build investment among many stakeholders working together for a common cause: A genuinely less fucked-up Texas.
We cannot abandon Texas when it fails to give us what we need on demand. We must persevere as only Texans can, and trust each other to be committed to this project of progress. Beto for president? Sure. Fine. Whatever. But America will not move forward without a Texas that is fully invested not just in Democrats or one good Democrat, or in lefty politics when an election rolls around, but in a fundamental future of freedom for all.
This requires hard work by dedicated people who choose to start somewhere small: Texas.