Just “Austin,” please

I live in Texas. Sort of. It’s a slightly uncomfortable and quickly-qualified admission for those of us who don’t particularly identify with oversized ranch vehicles, personal firearms and high-heeled riding footwear. Even boot-clad songster Jerry Jeff Walker was quick to say “Hell, I don’t live in Texas — I live in Austin.” I’ll second that.

Austin’s position as a blue and green oasis in the middle of a vast red expanse has a distinctive effect on its political and cultural identity, prompting one of its many nicknames: “The People’s Republic of Austin.”

For the benefit of all the urbane, progressive out-of-staters who are surprised to learn about Austin, I usually point out that we’re not actually in Texas, we just happen to be surrounded by Texas. There’s a difference.

My home town gets its share of attention in the media, mostly for its music and high-tech goings-on. Typically, any mention will take the form of some breathless “whodda thunk” discovery that the place is decidedly cosmopolitan and the living is pretty darn congenial.

However, the reference to it is invariably “Austin, Texas.”

Now, this is a bone that needs picking. You never hear “Seattle, Washington” or “San Francisco, California.” Right? Sure, people are always on a first-name basis with Seattle and San Francisco. Not “Austin Texas,” though. I’m afraid we’re destined to be the Charlie Brown of major cities. Or maybe the Rodney Dangerfield. But heck, there’s more than a million people here. Brood on that, Seattle!

Of course, this is a state where you can actually hear mention of “Paris, France.” As opposed to any other Paris. Well, Texas does in fact have a Paris of its own, so there is an irritating sort of local logic to it.

To be fair, Texas and Texans do get a bad rap, with any number of Yosemite Sam/J.R. Ewing/Billy Roy Boondock stereotypes to go with it. Not that there isn’t a grain of truth there — and more, as I learned in my college days trying to make my way unscathed through the frat-house district looking like I might need a haircut. My only serious objection to Texans is against the ones who think they own the place. They tend to act it out in a big way.

In general, though — to the extent that you can generalize about such things — Texans are a unique breed, with much to admire about them. It’s that affable, salt-of-the-earth, don’t-bullshit-a-bullshitter thing they’ve got going. Ann Richards was a Texan. Definitely salty. Ditto Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower. Even Bill Moyers has that Texan style, in his own low-maintenance sort of way.

John Steinbeck, who was Texan by marriage, grapples eloquently with the paradoxes of Texanhood in his book Travels With Charley:

Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word. And there’s an opening covey of generalities. A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner. …I’ve studied the Texas problem from many angles and for many years. And of course one of my truths is inevitably canceled by another. Outside their state I think Texans are a little frightened and very tender in their feelings, and these qualities cause boasting, arrogance, and noisy complacency– the outlets of shy children. At home Texans are none of these things. The ones I know are gracious, friendly, generous and quiet.

All of this might lead one to conclude that the Texas paradox, at least in part, is that of a nation fully surrounded by another nation. And with a recursive but satisfying twist, also the plight of Austin. That’s Austin and Texas, comrade — not Austin, Texas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *