Tuesday, July 7, 2009

More is Less in Texas

I have spent so much time in the United States over the past fifteen years, and I feel such affinity with the nation and its people, that I have come to think of it as my adopted home. If my identity is attached to a geographical location, or if it is determined by the community to which I belong, then even if my blood and my passport are Australian, in spirit and in my daily life, I am American.

At least, this is what I thought until I came to Texas. As a foreigner, I have the luxury of choosing what, where and who America means to me. And it’s New York City in the first place, with San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC in reserve, and Syracuse, the Hudson Valley, and Burlington VT when all else fails. For years I have read about the real America, been cognizant of the Walmart world through TV, yet somehow ignored all those red states on the voting map: as if they don't belong to the America I hold so dear. Driving through Southern Texas over the past few days, I have begun to realize what people have tried to tell me again and again over the years: I have no idea.

As I sit here in the Best Western Hotel on the A90 at Del Rio, sequestered in my air conditioned hotel room, my designer handbag on the dresser, fruit, lowfat yoghurt and salad in the fridge, I can still smell, even taste the air of the Dairy Queen at Uvalde where I picked up a coffee this morning. Monday morning, 11am, there wasn’t a free booth in sight. And each booth was filled, and I mean filled, with four supersized Texans, eating supersized fried something from a plastic basket lined with greaseproof paper. The image, the smell and the taste of that fast food chain captures what for me is the most depressing and distressing aspect of Texas: carbohydrates and fried fat are the only things that bind these people together.

Granted, I have not been to Church since coming to Texas. I know the church is an important aspect of community life here – when we drove through Bracketville on the I90, population 1000, we saw no less than six churches – but fast food seems to be the only place that people come together in Texas. Despite being in Houston for five days, I never had a sense of the city as a whole. Downtown was a spectre of buildings clustered somewhere in the distance, an abstract image seen from my hotel window. I knew downtown was in the east, but that was the limit of my sense of direction and location in Houston. There was no point at which I had any sense of the city as a whole; it was an incoherent and abstract collection of shopping malls, freeways and a museum district. There was nothing to bind the city or its people together. It was such a shock to my European sensibility which is acquired from being able to walk around the city on the day of arrival and get a sense of its dimensions, its tone, its character. In Houston, the only form of spatial recognition came through the use of a map, and as far as I could see, there was no character.

This initial sense of alienation has ricocheted outwards since leaving Houston. Last night in Uvalde, the fast food chain after fast food chain on Main Street said it all – Wendys, McDonalds, Dairy Queen, Jack in the Box, and on and on and on. And at the end of the street, the last stop on the block before Main Street became the freeway … a Walmart superstore. I would like to be impervious to the geographical, social and emotional isolation of this world, but I can’t. I am still haunted by the sensory assault of this morning's trip to Dairy Queen.

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