In late December, as the country was beginning to reckon with the national convulsion that was the presidential election, I flew from New York City to Tyler, Texas, a smallish town in the eastern part of the state. From the air, Tyler is a tight constellation of lights twinkling against the heavy dark encircling it, the aptly named Piney Woods: lush, humid, and Bigfoot country. On the road, from my rented red compact, the contrast was starker — I felt as though I was driving through the oil that’s trapped beneath the surface of East Texas, which, along with cotton and farming, is what drew settlers here in the first place. The roads are wide and curve gently, and I was the only pair of headlights drifting through the night.
Tyler also happens to be my hometown. I came back to take a road trip that would lead me in a 365-mile route through Houston and Austin, ostensibly to eat and drink and shoot the shit with friends who came home for the holidays. But mostly I was here to take the temperature of the place in the quiet days before Donald Trump’s inauguration as president. My destinations represented a blueing political inclination — from the bloody crimson heart of Tea Party country in Tyler to the cornflower dot on the map in Houston, where Texas’s demographic future rests, to Austin, a liberal sapphire near the middle of the state.
The future is a scary thing to most people, but to me it always seemed like Texans were more afraid than anyone else; the state was always on the forefront of sweeping demographic changes — Houston is “majority minority,” to borrow a ridiculous phrase, and, by some measures, is the most diverse city in the country — and is also uniquely afraid of losing its heritage. This, I think, has to do with the state’s independent history: Texans still like to boast, incorrectly, that their state can secede whenever it wants. Nostalgia more than anything powers these fantasies. In itself that isn’t a bad thing; people here settle in the same spot their ancestors did, defending the same patch of land from intruders, and modernizing only the few traditions that demand it.
The rub is that outsiders are drawn to that independence, that nostalgia. The state’s promise to its residents is simple: You keep what you can carve out of the soil. We won’t help you, but we won’t interfere either. It’s appealing in so many ways to people looking for a fresh start, a place to call home, a place to have great-grandchildren and give back to your community. But the promise only ever extends to certain people, and Southern manners dictate this never becomes explicit. In Tyler, it looks like a surgically segregated population. The dividing line is Gentry Parkway: to its north are the black and Hispanic people the rest of the town never seems to think about. Texas is a state at war with itself.
Writing now, December feels like a world away. I mean, what were we even listening to? (Billboard suggests “Closer,” by The Chainsmokers and Halsey.) My memories of the time are oddly clouded — remembering it feels like watching a movie through glasses with dirty lenses, or like trying to observe fish in an algae-strangled pond. I suspect this amnesia is a result of how quickly the awful predictions made in the wake of Donald Trump’s election were proven wrong, and how everything has seemed to turn out for the worse. There is an ascendant streak of nastiness in this country, one that historically precedes brutality; America is a deeply racist country, and Texas is a bellwether. A month ago in Houston, James Scott Lee II, a suspected member of the Aryan Brotherhood — a white supremacist prison gang that’s been around for 53 years — took to the streets to kill a random black man. “I hate niggers and I’m gonna kill me one today,” Lee said, while he threatened the other man with a knife. About a week before I landed in Texas in December, the Texas Observer began tracking “hate incidents” across the state, because of a spike in race-related violence after the November election. The list is updated regularly.
I spent my first day in Tyler mostly in the front seat of Jamie’s car, a black Infiniti he’s had since at least our junior year of high school. It was the day after Christmas, and the town was quieter than usual; there wasn’t much traffic. We fell into the usual pattern. He drove, fiddling with the music, while I made conversation. Today the car is filled with the detritus that accumulates during a long drive: Jamie had risen in the wee hours to make his way west from Auburn, Alabama, a nine-and-a-half-hour journey. He was heavier than he used to be, because he owns an internet consultancy which leaves him no time to cook for himself, he said; his hair was as red as I remembered, though, and his driving — very fast, very methodical — reminded me of the nights we’d go exploring in empty neighborhoods and on dead-end streets.
Tyler is a place unremarkable in every aspect, and that, paradoxically, is its most remarkable feature; it is the apotheosis of the American suburb, leaning its ass out against the untamed wilderness of the prairie. Fast-food restaurants and Walmarts blinked by outside, as Jamie pointed out new stores in suburban retail complexes that, to me, all looked the same. When we did this in high school, the sights were similar: Taco Bell, McDonalds, Whataburger, small Walmart, larger Walmart.
There are generations of people in Tyler, especially in the few families that have their names on everything in town. They built the town and established its customs. The first, and earliest, is evident in the founders’ decision to keep the city away from Texas’s highway system: Thou shalt have no riffraff, especially not those who might blow in and out like tumbleweeds. The people there are rooted. They stay. My parents, Caribbean immigrants and no great fans of the place, made Tyler their home for just about twenty years. They left their youth there, and then they lit out for California.
Everything in Tyler flows from this first rule. Because of it the place does not care what’s en vogue; it acknowledges no new trends. There are debutante balls. And everyone has a very long memory. Being the high school prom king is an identity you can inhabit for the rest of your life, if you want to. Which is why it feels like a lacquered place, culturally speaking, even if it doesn’t necessarily appear that way; each year is a thin coat that preserves whatever’s beneath. And in that light, 2017 and 1940 don’t look that different, if you’re there and you glance at it a certain way.
Of course, that only goes for the privileged parts of town. In the other parts, the public schools are abysmal and violent, and there are no sidewalks, I’m told, because the city declines to fund them. This all generally went unacknowledged, which is so purely American, or at least as American as baseball and apple pie. It’s a symptom of a larger conservative pathology: Ignore everything in the past or present that doesn’t directly — or seemingly directly — threaten you. On the Texas State Historical Association website’s section for Tyler’s history, for example, it’s how slavery and its effects only get three sentences in a 1,479 word piece:
As in much of East Texas, the city's economy was heavily dependent on slavery. In 1860 more than 35 percent of the total population of 1,021 were slaves. Not surprisingly, Tyler residents voted overwhelmingly for secession, and local men volunteered for army service in large numbers. During the Civil War Tyler was the site of the largest Confederate ordnance plant in Texas, and in 1863 a large Confederate prison camp, known as Camp Ford, was built four miles to the northeast. With so much of its wealth invested in slavery, Tyler and Smith County suffered from an economic depression in the early post war period.
There’s no mention of slavery on the city’s Wikipedia page. There’s not even a history section. In middle school, every kid looked forward to their visit to Camp Ford. I distinctly remember feeling haunted when I got home. Which is something I’ve also felt on some roads in Tyler — mostly the ones that dead end in dark woods, where no light seems to filter through the trees, no matter how bright it is. Places that seem to have a history but no memory.
While Jamie and I were driving around the city killing time, he got me up to speed on the new developments in town while he drove us to On The Border. Jamie got the unlimited enchiladas. Actually unlimited, too — he got a full second order before tapping out. I had chicken tacos, and I could tell the artisanal boom has passed this particular chain outpost by: The bland chicken, slathered in some kind of cheese, was at least twice as greasy and salty as it needed to be to qualify as comfort food, while the rice was just overcooked enough to signal it had been prepared in an assembly line.
As we ate, we covered the usual subjects — politics, religion, old memories. We decided to text Eric, another old friend, and he showed up about half an hour into our meal; Eric returned to Tyler after graduating from college in upstate New York, and was now studying to be a nurse. He didn’t waste time before asking who we’d voted for. Jamie said he’d voted for Gary Johnson as a protest — his business, self-owned and -operated since college, had turned him into a hardcore libertarian — and Eric said, after a tense pause, he’d voted for Hillary Clinton. Same, I said. It was a relief to hear Tyler hadn’t turned my friend who still lived there into a Republican fanatic, as it’s done with most everyone I knew there, at least since high school.
During the 2008 election, discussing politics in my high school had become a minefield. Most of my peers inherited their parents’ political views, and many of them had found the Tea Party’s energy seductive. At the same time, we all had access to the internet; my classmates were being polarized more quickly than ever. That was also the year my chemistry teacher informed us that “global warming” was a myth, and then played a documentary that purported to prove it. I distinctly recall a biology substitute teacher — normally a gym instructor and football coach, who at the time lived in the school’s athletics field house — who taught our class that the Earth was only 5,000 years old, and that fossils weren’t real. (Jamie still has the notes.) On the other side of the spectrum, the anatomy teacher taught undercover contraception against the wishes of the administration, which would have us believe that abstinence was the best form of birth control. (That class was always popular.)
The next day, I met Peyton, a friend from high school, for lunch. He’s a salesman and soccer coach these days, but still has an unbotheredness I remember from school. He lives with his girlfriend in an honest-to-god house, and his rent is perhaps a third of what passes for normal in New York. He seems content, and told me as much over lunch at Happy’s Fish House, a spot that serves massive plates of expertly fried seafood. It’s newish, with kitschy sea-inspired decor — bits of rigging, pulleys, fish on plaques. The food is Southern, but there’s a definite bayou influence; the Louisiana state border is only about 45 minutes east of where Peyton and I were sitting. He filled me in on the gossip while I munched on a fried shrimp po’ boy and worked my way through some hush puppies.
After lunch we drive downtown to the new coffee shop, The Foundry, which happens to be inside a church; the nitro cold brew is delicious, and also the first I’d ever had in town. We sat outside — it was literally 74 degrees and sunny, which is unfathomable in late December — and we talked about our ambitions. Peyton told me he wants to start a T-shirt business, and also a high-end craft whiskey distillery, maybe using a moonshine recipe he knows.
I told him what I was looking for, and mentioned just how different the town seemed. Tyler felt positively progressive, or at least appeared that way because it had suddenly started acquiring the trappings of a larger city — a craft beer brewery, more than one venue for bands, a nascent startup scene. (Just then, a man on a fixie rolled up, dismounted, and flounced into the coffee shop; he wouldn’t have looked out of place in Austin, Brooklyn, or Paris.) This was important, because Tyler is the only place I know where aesthetics can reliably predict politics. Peyton agreed, and told me a lot had changed, politically speaking. Despite Rep. Louie Gohmert and Sen. John Cornyn’s political dominance — Gohmert is a member of the Freedom Caucus, the far-right, ultraconservative wing of the Republican party; in 2013, the National Journal ranked Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, the 14th most conservative member of the Senate — not as many people as you’d think are fans of Trump, Peyton said. Especially not the youths.
To me it seemed dubious that a place known for hardline conservatism could change so dramatically within a decade. According to former NPR journalist Tasneem Raja, though, who moved down to Tyler a few years ago, I’m not imagining things. “There’s a real feeling that Tyler is moving in a new direction,” she said when I reached her by phone a few months after I’d returned to New York. “The old guard is losing their grip.” These days, Raja and her husband publish The Tyler Loop, a local interest website. It’s their way of setting down roots. “Gohmert represents the sort of old guard Tyler,” Raja continued. But for the first time, people feel that the congressman’s reelection isn’t a given. “You hear people saying: ‘For the longest time, I thought I was the only one,’” she told me. “They kind of kept their heads down, and it felt unsafe: personally, socially, politically. That isn’t the case anymore.” They have, Raja said, strength in numbers.
Tyler – Houston
Every road has its own personality, because speed is a character trait; there are some that move you the way molasses drips, and others that are white-knuckle contests of survival. In Texas, the drivers have a calm disregard for other vehicles that fluctuates based on their size. A rule of thumb: the smaller your car, the more disregard you generate. It’s a variation on another pillar of Texan society — the implicit threat. You can’t hurt me, but I can hurt you.
My own car was very small. I played Hell Hath No Fury at the beginning and the end of the three-hour drive south to Houston, because it’s a fitting accompaniment to driving in Texas: Clipse’s coke-rap masterpiece is all about implicit threats, and the ability to make that violence explicit. That ethos, too, is part of the state’s language, built into the way people down here communicate with each other. Even simple things are rendered in the language of violence; it stems from the wariness independence requires. You can’t protect your homestead if you let everyone in willy-nilly, because that’s a good way to get robbed. If you remind everyone who comes by you’re not to be fucked with — whether that’s with a gun or with your fists — you can ensure people play by the rules. This logic extends from properties to bodies, and it’s why the bars down here crackle with a peculiar energy.
The night before I left Tyler, I went with Eric to Rose City Draft House, a newish craft beer spot with 57 taps. While we were filling each other in on the last four years, a fight broke out between a man and a woman I presumed was his girlfriend, directly in front of our table. As best I can tell, it started because she told him she wanted to go home, and he was mad she’d distracted him from his conversation with a buddy. He was perhaps twice as large as her; he physically loomed over her and began to yell. When he was done she walked away, back to her friend. The man turned to his friend and continued his conversation. The bar didn’t quiet down. Nobody but me seemed to notice anything had happened at all.
Houston is gigantic: nearly two and a half million people spread across 667 square miles, which makes it the fourth most populous city in the country and the largest city in the south. When you’re driving in, the city doesn’t loom on the horizon like New York or Los Angeles; the highway deposits you directly in the disconcerting mass of it.
I was there to visit my friend Abigail. She’s been bouncing between New York, Boston, and Houston since graduating from school a few years ago. In Texas she lives with her family in one of the tonier parts of the city, on a tree-lined street in a neighborhood tucked away from urban bustle. When I pulled into her driveway, five or six of her giant lurchers (a mix of various hound breeds, most notably the Scottish deerhound, I learned) ran to greet me. We made dinner reservations at Underbelly, which people say is one of the best restaurants in Houston, with drinks at Anvil — a posh bar — first.
Abigail is singular, generous, and private. I see her when I’m in her town, and vice versa, often enough that it’s always a pleasant surprise to see her. At Anvil, she ordered a tequila and I got a Manhattan; she was a bit manic that night and I was looking for an adventure, so we ordered a second and Abigail struck up a conversation with the woman next to her, Giovanna, who looked like she was waiting for a date (she was, but he was a flighty soccer player) and decided to join us for dinner at Underbelly. We got a table for three and ordered wine; the menus were written inside the covers of old children’s books — mine was literally called “The Value Of Responsibility,” and featured a black cartoon man side-hugging a Gumby-looking skyscraper? We shared some unremarkable meat, cured in a room abutting the bathrooms, and it was fine. Later we went to the club, which was also fine; at certain hours every club is the same, no matter where it is or who’s inside. What’s better than fine is going to Whataburger, a Texas-born chain, at the very end, at whatever hour it is, and gorging on warm cheesy salty meaty burgers.
Abigail and I recovered the next morning at the Avalon Diner — their motto, “Justly Famous since 1938,” feels like an understatement; the place is a monument to the mysterious power of a perfectly tuned diner breakfast — and didn’t talk politics until later, at the Menil, an oil-moneyed free art museum, when her friend joined us and I had to explain race in America in front of the Picassos.
Which is something I feel like I can’t escape in Texas. In New York I rarely have to explain myself, and I’m almost never called on to speak on behalf of Black People In America. Down south, people seem to feel more entitled to my time and energy than they do anywhere else, especially if they’re a friend of a friend who feels comfortable enough to ask me what they wouldn’t dare ask someone else. Abigail apologized for the guy later.
The Picassos were beautiful, though. One of them was a portrait of Abigail’s grandmother, done in pencil; she watched over the three of us as we left the exhibit. I brought up the rear and didn’t look back until the city receded in my rearview mirror.
Houston – Austin
Clipse again. I supplemented with podcasts, this time, because it makes me feel like there’s someone in the passenger seat. The three-hour drive west was easy enough — Google says there are only five directions to follow to get to Austin. Which means that the time becomes an opportunity to meditate. Driving in Texas is different than most of the rest of the country, because it’s hard to comprehend how big and empty it is. If you take the highways, you can spend hours before you see another town; country roads, on the other hand, take you through countless forgettable, one-stoplight towns. The landscapes are beautiful but unchanging, at least in the eastern part of the state — heavy woods give way to pasture, and back again. I lost myself in the rhythm of the highway, and didn’t notice I’d reached the outskirts of Austin until the speed limit dropped and a fog descended.
I arrived at sunset. I’d left myself two days here, because Austin is supposed to be fun — and it was, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a budget version of Los Angeles. I spent a lot of time in my car, alone, observing the way the city moves in the last days of a climactic year. To Tylerites, Austin is the city on a hill, a place to aspire to. (The most popular t-shirt at Racquet and Jog, the most popular sporting goods store in Tyler, reads “Keep Austin Weird.”) It’s slow in the morning, even though brunch spots are packed early, I noticed over a sublime waffle sandwich from Forthright — smoked bacon, Gruyère, eggs over easy, topped with maple syrup.
I have two friends from high school here, Eric T. and Jerry, and I saw both of them before I left. They’re different now from when I knew them in Tyler — it’s like they’re more curious than they were, or perhaps more accurately, they are more cognizant of what life can be like. What I’m trying to describe is a flowering: an opening to the world, and a new understanding of all the different lives they could lead. The sense that there’s a single path, established by strictly policed norms, has vanished.
Jerry traded Tyler for Austin after high school. He went to the University of Texas here and studied mechanical engineering. When we went out for bulgogi burgers at a place he recommended, Burger Tex 2, I got the distinct impression that he’s happier here than anywhere else. Burger Tex 2 is a hole in the wall that has Korean “takes” on classic American dishes, which mostly means adding a lot of kimchi. This burger was unlike any I’d had before, and I mean that in a totally neutral way. Jerry told me about his life here — his brother just started at UT in engineering, like him, and his sister is back in Tyler, he said. The conversation never turned to politics, which I was thankful for — and I’m thankful for how easy it still was to speak to him. The burger left me full for the rest of the night and the next morning.
Austin is a place that can tell you who you are, if you don’t happen to know already — there’s an identity there to inhabit, a mode of being. It’s hip, funky, and inescapably Texan, which is undemanding and easy to tailor to your personality, especially if you’re moving to escape a more repressive corner of the state. My friend Eric T. from high school said as much. He moved to Austin because he and his girlfriend wanted to get out of Tyler. He’s happy there too, happier than I’ve ever seen him: they’ve started to build a life together, a warm little family. I dropped in on them on my last evening in Texas. We watched movies and TV and played with the dogs. I think we talked a little about politics, but what I remember most is feeling safe in their apartment — or, if not safe, less apprehensive of the future. I left for New York City in the wee hours of the next morning, while everything was still quiet, and I could pretend nothing would change.
Correction: Whataburger is Texas-born, but not Texas-only. Eater regrets the error.
Bijan Stephen is a writer who lives in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Esquire, and elsewhere.
Header art by Melissa Deckert and Nicole Licht
All other photos by Bijan Stephen
Art direction by Nicole Licht
Copy edited by Jaime Green
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