It's easy to poke fun at Texas, especially if you're from one of the more enlightened parts of the country. While New York has both larger-than-life and goofier-than-life figures (think Mario Cuomo and Al D'Amato respectively), Texas seems inclined to combine both roles into the same individual (think Ross Perot, if you don't consider it a contradiction in terms). And where I find someone admirable in Texas, it's almost inevitably because of how far from the mainstream Texan they are. Like Molly Ivins, the seemingly last liberal in a world of arch-conservatives.
But like any good guest, I try to bury my prejudices when I visit
someone's home. And such were my good intentions on a recent run
through Texas to help with a couple of customer seminars. Said good
intentions lasted just long enough for me to check into my hotel near
San Antonio's airport (not the most interesting neighborhood, I grant)
and look across the freeway at a giant pair of cowboy boots adorning
the local shopping mall. They appealed to me in a goofier-than-thou
sort of way. But what I didn't expect was that the Best of San
Antonio guidebook in my hotel room would make special mention of these
boots and their creator. What I considered an example of amusing bad
taste, the local tourist people thought of as significant sculpture
and a local landmark. Which does make it a bit harder to take a place
seriously, you know?
Of course, one should never judge a place by its airport, especially
one that's such an extreme example of suburban ugly. And San Antonio
has done an interesting and much nicer job downtown, modernizing
without completely obliterating the past. A curious example of the
former is the Riverwalk, which turns the city's river into a
concrete-sided decoration for the downtown shopping mall. Does it
really improve a river to make it so perfect and organized?
Things get a bit less perfect and a lot more interesting as soon as
you step away from the mall. Here the buildings take on a lot more
character and look more distinctly Texan and less like generic Small
American City. The river changes dramatically as well, from a deep
and flowing engineer's dream to a damp and muddy trench. Not as
picturesque, I grant. But that's just nature being contrary, I
Before I arrived, all I knew about San Antonio was that it was home to the Alamo. (Not that I know a whole lot more now, you understand.) And what little I knew about the Alamo came from song lyrics: a fortress all in ruins that the weeds have overgrown. Old song, I guess. Because the Alamo is neither in ruins nor weed-infested. It's in fine shape, well maintained and beautifully landscaped. And it's nice of the locals to move it to such a convenient location in the heart of downtown. (That's a joke. Yes, I know it's where it always was and that the town grew up around it. Sheesh, some people...)
I've heard people say that the Alamo is a lot smaller than they
expected. Perhaps it is small for such an important location in Texas
history. But I guess it's just about the size I'd want to
defend with a small band of fanatic patriots. Of course I'd want
some heavy artillery, air cover and a wire-guided missile or ten...
Austin is an interesting set of contradictions, a Texas city that often doesn't feel like it belongs in Texas. It's not such a big place; like other state capitals, it was chosen for the availability of cheap land. (Texas financed the development of the capital by claiming large amounts of land and then selling off what it didn't need for the government.) Thanks to the high tech boom led by the University, the Microelectronics & Computing Consortium (which may be no more) and, more recently, Michael Dell's little dorm room enterprise, there are nearly as many people who sound like me as like George Dubya. And then there's the music. And the food. (A little bit of heaven for anyone, like me, who lives for a taste of down home Southern cooking. And then there's barbecue, about which enough good cannot be said...)
Downtown Austin is a tribute to Texas-size egos, from examples of nineteenth
century conspicuous consumption like the Driskill Hotel to the state Capitol complex, whose dome rises higher than that of any other state in the Union and even outdoes the one in Washington. A guidebook I read had a lovely story about a fellow named Littlefield, who owned the Driskill around the turn of the century. It seems that he and a builder named Scarbrough had a little "mine's bigger" competition going down 6th Street from the Driskill. When Littlefield discovered that Scarbrough's office building was to have one more floor than his, he retaliated. Both structures survive, thrive even, in downtown today.
Austin sits on the Colorado River, which becomes wide enough in town to become Lake Austin. Strangely enough, the modern downtown doesn't follow the river east and west. Instead, it runs due north, with the city to the south looking more industrial and working class. The guidebooks tell of the pleasure the locals take in the river and the lake. Obviously, they don't want to share that pleasure with visitors; for the life of me I couldn't find anywhere to park within range of the river. This picture was taken to the northwest of the city, where the Mansfield Dam separates Lake Travis from the river down below. Nice to know that the locals can experience a bit of nature without having to head too far out of town.
There was something different about this particular trip. I came to Austin not as a tourist but as a potential immigrant, having been most unceremoniously dumped by a disaster of a Silicon Valley startup. As a result, I spent more time in places I wouldn't normally go, investigating neighborhoods and considering commutes and shopping requirements. I spent more than a little time in the northern suburb of Round Rock, home of Dell Computer. I thought I'd seen URLs almost everywhere. But Round Rock may be the first town I've seen advertise its web presence from its water tower. High and low tech at one and the same time. (I developed a particular fondness to a neighboring town called Pflugerville, almost entirely for the Petticoat Junction quality of its name. If it had been even remotely photogenic I'd have brought it to you.)
Round Rock's historic district is a carefully preserved tribute to its nineteenth century beginnings. I particularly admired this old hardware store, marveling that anyone would go to so much trouble to sell hammers and hinges and lumber. Then of course I realized that to its original customers, this was the Sharper Image, the Hammacher Schlemmer of its time and place. Every era needs its temple to Man And His Toys.
I think I could have been very much at home in Round Rock.
Finding a comic shop right next to the cowboy gifts seemed just
right. And knowing that at least someone here shares my sense of the
joke gone too far; how much is that worth? Exhibit A: the gas station
at right. It is a gas station, isn't it? The sign, old
pickup by the pumps, the awning to keep the customer dry. Of course
it is. Except that it isn't; it's the home of some business called
Creative Garage. Judging by their offices, they deserve every bit of
(In case you wondered, my remaining in the Bay Area was the result not of a
cultural mismatch between me and Austin but of a skill or perhaps
personality mismatch with the interviewing firm.)
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California