Monday, July 11, 2016

Nobody Says I Love You Anymore

I’ve spent my life complaining and arguing and telling stories about the city I came from. Then I changed—but it did, too.

When I moved from Manhattan back to my hometown of Dallas last June, people asked the same question: “Why?”

I was accustomed to New Yorkers taking broad swipes at my home state, but I was surprised to get the question from people in Dallas, too.

“You’ve moved back!” an acquaintance said when I ran into him at a party. “I’m sorry about that.”

Perhaps his assumption was that I had flamed out in the Big Apple—and in a way, I had. I was bone-tired by the time I boarded that plane from LaGuardia with my orange cat. Six years of crowded subways and jackhammers and fourth-floor walkups had ground me down to a bitter nub. But I suspected my friend was not teasing me for escaping the big city; he was teasing me for drag-assing back to the place I came from. He was taking a swing at Dallas, which I recognized because, well, I used to do it all the time.

Growing up, I did not like Dallas. To be fair, I did not like growing up, period, and I suspect that whatever city in which my adolescence unfolded would have taken the blame. My family rented a sweet, shabby little home in a privileged section of town, known for its excellent school system and status cars, and my most vivid memory of being 11 and 12 is simply the feeling of not belonging. That’s as unique as braces and bad skin among this age group, but the fact that I could not afford a $300 Louis Vuitton handbag or that my parents drove a dented silver station wagon felt like the worst thing that had happened to anyone, ever.

Going to college in Austin sharpened my knives. Every great city has a nemesis, a place against which they define themselves—New York refuses to be Jersey, San Franciscans despise Los Angeles—and in Austin, a city so hell-bent on quirkiness that it elevated a cross-dressing homeless man to the status of cult hero, the general consensus is that Dallas blows. (“Keep Austin weird,” the slogan says, to which there is also a response T-shirt, “Keep Dallas lame.”) This was back in the early ’90s, when the fault lines between the two cities were far easier to demarcate. Austin was the town of “Slacker,” a bohemian paradise for pot smokers and amateur philosophers, and Dallas was the birthplace of the outdoor mall. I began to embrace torn jeans and a natural curl in my hair. I stopped waking at 7:30 a.m. to do my makeup before class. It was a rite of passage for a college girl at that time to crank Tori Amos and give Banana Republic the double-fisted flip-off, but I understood this shift in stark geographic terms: Dallas was conformity, Austin was freedom.

Those storylines were so cemented in my mind that it jarred me when anyone disrupted them. I was visiting New York in my mid-20s when I met an editor who worked for the most impressive newspaper there is. When I found out he once wrote in Dallas, I offered my condolences.

“Actually, I loved living there,” he said.

Oof. How could someone so smart be so dumb? “We’re going to have to agree to disagree,” I said. We left that conversation each feeling a little sorry for the other person.

At the time, I was traveling around the country in my Honda, enjoying the hit of admiration I got from strangers when I told them so. I had pried myself out of Austin, and was casting about for my next home, which I assumed would be a place like Portland or Oakland or Brooklyn. I never liked telling people I was from Dallas. They asked about the television show, or stared blankly and said something like, “Fun!” (Meanwhile, saying I lived in Austin elicited envy and cooing sounds. “That town is great!” people said, though they often had not been.) I had long phone conversations with my mom on the road, and she said, in that gentle voice reserved for mothers, “What about moving back to Dallas?”

No way. Absolutely not. What is the opposite of yes? That is my answer. A thousand-billion times no.

The knee-jerking was a little extreme. But when you construct your meaning from things outside of you—the cool job you have, the music and the movies you enjoy, the vintage brush of the funky corduroys you wear—then you are bound to live in cities on the Approved List, which Dallas certainly was not. If you had asked me what was so terrible about the place, I would have sneered that it was an image-based society. But the funny thing is that I was totally image-based at that time. I needed your admiration. I needed your approval. The image I wanted to project just had little to do with Mercedes-Benz and Neiman-Marcus and more to do with knowing the bands at SXSW.

But in a twist I did not see coming, I went to my 10-year high school reunion the following month, fell in love with a guy, and moved back to Dallas. So much for all that.

I complained about Dallas in those years, and it was a problem. No one wants to hear that the city they live in—the city they feel comfortable in and fairly thrive in and a city they have no desire to leave—is somehow inferior.

“I was thinking you might like San Francisco,” I said one night at dinner.


And that was pretty much the entire conversation. Well, there were tears (mine) and sighs (his) and dissatisfaction on both parts. I don’t feel proud that the subtext to many conversations he and I had during that time was that I wanted to get the hell out of Dallas. But in the two years I spent casting aspersions on the city, something unexpected happened: I came to really love it. At least, I really loved the people, who were funny and smart and bent in all the right ways, and loving the people in a city is a very, very short walk from loving the city itself. When my boyfriend and I broke up, and I decided to move to New York, no one was surprised. But I was taken aback by the pangs of remorse I felt leaving the cozy dive bars where I spent most nights and the ramshackle Tex-Mex restaurants where I’d nursed every hangover. I drove out of town in an old hatchback wearing one of those baby-Ts you buy at airport gift stores. It said “Dallas” in a cheesy, cursive font. It was so tacky. It was so fantastic.

It’s funny how living far away from a place can make you feel closer to it. Friends who moved to New York decorated their home in Texas kitsch we would have laughed at back home. Longhorn coat racks, cowboy hats on the mantelpiece. My keychain was a medallion in the shape of the state that doubled as a bottle opener, which is everything you need to know about me at this time. (...)

I never wanted to be one of “those people”—the ones who talk about New York all the time, who compare every single experience to Manhattan (like you care), who complain about the G train or the square footage of their studio apartment or tell war stories about the Whole Foods in Union Square. And I would like it on record that after moving back to Dallas, I was totally this person, and I know that, and I’m sorry.

by Sarah Hepola, TMN |  Read more:
Image: Gwendolyn Zabicki, Billboards, 2011