I’m not sure what to expect out of Ft. Worth. Call it a preconceived stereotype: I’m a Yank from New Jersey; worse, I’m an Eagles fan (Fly Eagles, fly. Superbowl, baby). I think big trucks and bigotry when I think Ft. Worth. Praise the lord and pass the ammunition. My own forms of prejudice. Suffice it to say, I’m ambivalent about this destination.
Constant construction, lane closures, sudden merges mar the Texas roadways. I suppose there’s nothing else to do in all this space but build. Cat Stevens would be spinning in his grave (if he was dead). Joni Mitchell might find it sadly poetic. But David Byrne would understand.
Ejected from the interstate into a crusty-looking neighborhood, and my notions haven’t quite changed. I see poverty and check-cashing shops. Neglect and tired eyes. But a few blocks into the residential area, liquor stores melt into a quiet neighborhood, ramshackle in that pretty sort of way. Our accomodations — a little four unit apartment in the Fairmount neighborhood — stands amid flowers and trees, signs endorsing Beto for the U.S. Senate, people of every color and persuasion. Gentrification or gentle co-existence? Perhaps I’ve been too harsh on the city.
Our apartment overlooks a street where half the houses are being gutted, while the other half contain a motley assortment of faces. A little rough around the edges, but that suits me just fine. Down around the corner, a large, Tex-Mex-meets-Gothic cathedral rises from across an abandoned lot. Half its windows are boarded up, while the other half of the prodigious structure functions as a chapel and children’s center. That surprisingly cozy existence between worlds looms once more.
Ft. Worth is full of surprises. Quite possibly the cleanest city I’ve ever visited, full of unassuming artistic touches, buttressed by reminders of its cattle-driven past. The city seems to be at some sort of easy-going odds with itself–part modern, anesthetized metropolis; part dusty John Wayne B-role background set.
Our host for this leg of the journey is a scruffy little mutt named Reggie, who likes to pee on everything that stands over 3 inches from the sidewalk, and has a hard time jumping up on furniture. His owner (unbeknownst to us prior to arrival) has left him in our care (or to watch over us, depending on one’s viewpoint) with promises to walk him twice a day, which largely go unfilled.
Having a soft spot for ugly little critters, I take to walking Reggie in my free time. We explore concentric circles around the historic southside of Ft. Worth, past broken porch swings, salvaged art galleries, and lots of waving flags. I ask Reggie what he thinks of the renaissance gentrification has brought to his community. He studies the freshly-planted flowers in front of a recently renovated house and lifts his leg.
We’re in Ft. Worth to visit Charise’s dad, his wife Beverly, and her half-brother Jeremiah, who will one day scale tall mountains, if his long limbs and proclivity for climbing things holds true. Our time is spent discussing family memories and touring around town: first, a huge resort–the Gaylord Texan, located on the edge of the city, where has been recreated scenes from San Antonio lore for those unable or uninterested in driving down to see the real thing.
The resort comes complete with its own Alamo, vineyard, and riverwalk, much of which is located within a huge dome bearing a giant single star. Paul (Charise’s father) says that the resort sometimes holds light shows there, pointing out a bevy of spotlights arrayed around the giant outline of a cosmos imagined in geometric minds.
I wonder about the people who stay in such a place, if they ever look up at that big star and ask who decided gaseous balls of fires have 5 points. I wonder if that’s the way stars look in San Antonio.
Our final day in Ft. Worth, Reggie gets the jump on a black cat and almost catches it, and we go visit the old Ft. Worth stockyards, where one can learn the history of the Texas cattle industry, ride a mechanical bull, buy copious amounts of fudge, and drink beer on the street.
I fare middling on the bull, but much better on the beer. I talk with a man holding a steer for tourist photo ops, who tells me that he and his bovine friend have been at this hustle for 5 years.
“I took a month off for the first time last March,” the man tells me, one eye mindful of the steer’s sprawling horns, which it swings ever so slightly. “He’s been mad at me ever since.”
I agree the steer seems slightly perturbed.
Another man on his lunch break tells us “Texas” jokes, and brags about his wife’s ability to fix a pickup truck transmission. I agree that is a good skill for a person to have.
He tells us that forces are at work to “Disney-fy” the Stockyards, which I take to mean add more kitch-y crap and disallow public drinking and the smoking of cigarettes. I agree with the man that this would be a travesty. He’s a nice enough man. Perhaps a little lonely.
At 3 p.m., the cowboys on site lead a “cattle drive” down the main street of the Stockyards, though I’m not sure where they’re driving them to. The kids and tourists from the midwest and the east get a kick out of this ghostly visage of the town’s former rough-and-tumble character. A police officer doubles as a janitor, sweeping up the excrement left in the cattle’s wake — it occurs to me that this is a valuable duel use of law enforcement, and I wonder why more cities don’t employ such a tactic.
Despite the tourist aspect of the whole charade, the cowboys still cut a nice figure on their horses, with their hats and spurs and stirrups.
Near the center of the Stockyards, a statue of Quanah Parker surveys the goings on. The great Comanche chief, born of a white woman who forsook her own people to throw in her lot with the most feared light cavalry of its time, Quanah was reviled by the white settlers of the Ft. Worth area he terrorized with his warriors, and hailed as a hero by his own people and the other native tribes being crushed under the weight of a Texas Ranger-led crawl towards Manifest Destiny.
Alas! Quanah too was brought to bay and stuck on some nowhere reservation far from his native lands, made to settle into a suit and tie and play the part of a proper white speculator while his people suffered. All so white men like me could one day drink beer and stare at a statue of the great Comanche chief in the middle of the historic Ft. Worth Stockyards, sandwiched between the old a converted stable and a restaurant which plays a varying mix of country music.
I wonder how many cattle Quanah Parker’s statue has watched those cowboys slowly usher up that road, and if he misses the buffalo. I wonder if anyone ever lays a flower at his feet, or scalps a tourist in his honor.
The day finishes with a stroll around Ft. Worth’s Water Gardens, a lovely little urban oasis. Designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, the whole thing is a play on aesthetics–tiered concrete steps simulate mountains; another set of descending platforms draws you down into the middle of a cascading set of waterfalls. Knobby hemlocks twist into strange, ludicrous swirls around the meditation pool, while water trickles daintily from the walls around them. Little jets spray droplets in an arch at the aeration pool nearby — the idea is to create the impression of “panels” and lure the viewer into thinking one can walk across the water. I wonder if anyone has ever tried it.
Walking towards a place to eat dinner, we come across the memorial to John F. Kennedy. Descriptions of his fateful visit to Ft. Worth in 1963 stop just short of the moment the Zapruder film begins. Several inspirational quotes surround a larger than life statue of JFK, poised with his right arm semi-extended, seemingly in mid-stride. He may be about to deliver an address to the nation, or he may be buzzing in on Jeopardy.
Charise points to one of the interpretive panels surrounding him. It’s an excerpt from his famous speech, where he admonishes Americans to
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Her finger rests on the line just below it:
“My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.”
“I like this part of the speech much better,” she says. “why doesn’t anyone ever quote that?”
It’s a good question, and I look to the man who wrote it for answers. But his lips don’t move, his arm remains extended as if he’s considering whether to take a step forward or not.
“I’m not sure,” I say. “Maybe they ran out of column space.”
Reggie is sad that we’re leaving. Dogs always seem to know. He sits at my feet out on the small deck of our second-story apartment, poking his head out between the railing slats to stare at people passing by below, scratching himself incessantly, due to his skin allergies.
I come to the conclusion that it must be difficult to be a dog, constantly at the mercy of whomever happens to hold the leash. The oak tree overhead is blooming, and pollen sifts almost imperceptibly through the air, landing on me, Reggie, and the rest of the world of Fairmount, in the historic southside neighborhood of Ft. Worth, Texas, where Quanah Parker once struck down interlopers the same shade of pale as his mother, and cattle men drove their legions of longhorns through the city towards slaughter.
Ultimately, Ft. Worth is not at all what I expected, and exactly what I thought: a place that embodies all the good and bad, the authentic and artificial that Texas is capable of. It’s a fine city to pass some time in, provided you ask not what it can do for you, and stop to take a leak on the neighbors’ flowers, now and then.