Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Making My Peace With East Texas

This past weekend I went into Manhattan to see a showing of the new film Bernie, which was followed by its director, Richard Linklater.  (I've been a fan for quite some time.)  In case you didn't know, it's the true story of a funeral director in Carthage, Texas, who romanced and then murdered a rich widow, and whose winning personality and generosity made it difficult for the townspeople to disown him.  I liked the film a lot, but I laughed a lot harder than the New Yorkers in the audience on more than one occasion.  Linklater, born and raised in East Texas, really nails a lot of the region's idiosyncracies in all of their brash ridiculousness.  As he ably demonstrates, East Texas is a very distinct place with its own rules, culture, and way of life, all which tend to be rather strange to outsiders.

I lived for three years "behind the pine cone curtain," as they say, in a university town not too far from Carthage.  Apart from some fine students I had the pleasure to teach, and some great friends I was truly lucky to meet, they were three of the worst years of my life.  Most of this had to do with having a shitty job with a controlling boss and bullying colleagues, but much of it had to do with the town I lived in.  The locals seemed absolutely hostile to the university, even though it was the only viable employer in town besides a chicken gutting operation.  Outside of the campus itself, you'd never guess you were in a college town.  There was not a single used book store, no quality sit-down restaurant, and only one viable non-undergrad bar, which wasn't that much to write home about.  Bakery-made bread and copies of the Times could not be had.  At least the downtown had beautiful bones, it was full of gorgeous old buildings.  However, instead of being occupied by funky college-town type businesses, they either sat empty or housed antique stores.  Apart from Wal-Mart, non-antique retail stores were practically non-existent; I had to drive to other towns miles away to do my shopping.  At least I had access to a truly fantastic local coffee house, my one refuge outside of my friends' patio.

The politics of the place were truly scarifying.  On tax day in 2009, my town, despite its small size, had one of the biggest Tea Party rallies in the state.  A speaker invited by the students to a history club event referred to Arabs as "rag heads" in a discussion with a student after his talk.  One member of my department referred  to "lesser peoples" when discussing Native Americans (on multiple occasions.)  The school regularly invited in reactionaries to speak, including bringing in Dinesh D'Souza under the auspices of "international studies."  The faculty was almost completely white, and several departments were a whitewash, but no one in the administration seemed to care.

If you dared suggest to any of the locals that something was amiss, they looked at you as if you had just taken a dump on the American flag.  As far as they were concerned, Texas was the greatest place on earth, and East Texas was the crown jewel.  This defensiveness and lack of contact with the outside world infected the university, which had all the signs and consequences of inbreeding.  Its leaders all had connections to the place, and seemed to concern themselves most with doing whatever they could from keeping anything from changing. It became obvious to me, in both the university and the town, that I would always be an outsider, and a threatening one at that.

I spent three years fantasizing about getting out of the place, and when I drove out of town I blasted Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" at top volume.  I had made a solemn oath to myself that whatever happened to me, I was never, ever going to die in East Texas.  Leaving (and moving to be in New Jersey with my wife) felt like some kind of salvation from the Almighty.  Needless to say, I never thought I would ever want to go back to the place I managed to escape from.

Despite all of these feelings, watching Bernie gave me a little sentimental twinge.  Most of it came from being reminded of a place where such cherished friends still live. Some of it, I must admit, came from a grudging attachment to the place.  Make no mistake, my relationship with East Texas is a hate-love relationship; it's just that there is a little glimmer of the love.

Some days I miss the food.  I used to get great Vietnamese sandwiches, succulent barbecue, delicious fried chicken, and mouth watering tacos on a regular basis.  The sit-down places sucked, but man the take out was out of sight.  Other times I miss the beauty of the pine trees, their smell, and the gentle sound of the wind rustling through them.  I also fondly recall the easy-going nature of the locals, and personal interactions so much less laden with bullshit than the ones I have now.

Most of all, however, I miss the bizarro character of East Texas so well captured by Richard Linklater.  It's a place that seems to cultivate wierdos, eccentrics, brigands, thieves, and colorful characters.  For an area with such a small population, the local crime reports always brimmed over with all kinds of crazy events.  Just recently an insurance agent whose face is plastered on prominent billboards throughout the area was implicated in a drug ring selling cocaine and GHB.  When I lived there, the authorities busted an illegal casino set up, I kid you not, in a double-wide trailer.  It's a fucked-up, backwards world where if you lift of the rock of its Southern Baptist exterior you find all kinds of sinful lichen and disreputable worms underneath.

Still, the memories of my time there are so painful that I don't think I could ever bring myself to go back for a visit.  Instead I have delved back in the work of East Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale, the true poet laureate of life behind the pine cone curtain.  I figure I also avidly read the works of Doestoevsky and Tolstoy, but have no desire to go back and live in nineteenth century Russia.  Present day East Texas is just as rich a literary seedbed, and just as maddeningly behind the times.  At least it makes for good stories, and my time in the purgatory of the piney woods lets me in on the jokes.

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