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Via George the ’92 Geo Prizm, the yinzer author’s first, splendid stint in Texas was in H-town/Get-down. Photo by Anthony Mariani

 

Before I moved to Texas from up north in the late 1990s, I genuinely thought there’d be horses on every street corner. All I really knew of Hee-Haw, U.S.A., was (in order): the Dallas Cowboys, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Dallas, and Dolly Parton, who’s from Tennessee. My knowledge of the state inversely matched the joy I felt at finally escaping the Rust Belt backwater where I’d been spending my 20s dying slowly on the inside from unemployment, boredom, and loneliness. Living at my sepulchral parents’ house in Pittsburgh, I woke up late every morning, watched cable TV by myself on the couch for hours with my finger up my nose, sometimes drove into town to fill out a job application or two, went to the gym twice a day (purely to be among other human beings my age, definitely not to work out), and dragged myself to the terrible bars and nightclubs every weekend out of obligation to appear “normal” and nonsuicidal. Repeat. All those good, healthy years — wasted.

“It’s not you,” Pittsburgh whispered to me every night before I slipped from sobbing into dreamless sleep, “it’s me.”

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The old saying is true: I got to Texas as fast as I could.

A few others have followed my trendsetting ways. More than 30 million people now call Texas home, making it second only to California in size. They come for the jobs, the decent weather, the lack of a state income tax, the flat prairieland, I guess, and the culture. Texas music, food, and fine art rival the best in the world’s aesthetically and also financially, having generated $6 billion statewide over the past decade. Clearly, there’s a lot to love about Tejas — and it’s even lovelier if you’re not a woman or any other kind of minority.

Forcing birth even if it means infertility, disfigurement, or death; slashing LGBTQ rights; banning books; willingly pocketing blood money from the gun lobby; piecemeal ghettoizing public education to create elite schools for wealthy, white Christians only; disenfranchising voters of color; palling around with Nazis; turning the border into Squid Game; rejecting not only public opinion but common sense on nearly every issue — Texas, in a world full of hellholes like North Korea and Florida, is right up there with the worst of them.

Our home on the range hasn’t always been this horrible and bleak. The sun once shone brightly on it, and it wasn’t that long ago. Some of us remember it, and some of us like Progress Texas, MOVE Texas, Texas Appleseed, RAICES, Texas Gun Sense, Beto O’Rourke, who still persists, and Colin Allred and Roland Gutierrez, who both aim to unseat Sen. Ted “Cancun” Cruz next year, keep fighting the dread to bring back hope, to offer us sane Texans a return to freedom from the absurd dictums of white, wealthy, mostly male Christian Nationalists. And I am here for hope’s comeback. And left, right, or middle, you should be, too. You’re where it starts.

 

*****

 

Regressive politics were far from my mind in 1999 when I piloted George, my red ’92 Geo Prizm (top speed: 64 mph), to Houston, where I resumed hacking it up as a writer after a good two or three years of working construction jobs for scratch when I was working at all. Remember: Lots of Regis & Kathie Lee, SportsCenter, and The Grind filled my waking hours back in the ’Burgh. Space City won me over instantly. The cool buildings, the cool music, the cool art, Mexican food! And I’m talking actual, real, bona fide, authentic Mexican food. Not the Chi-Chi’s that my 27-year-old yinzer self had been duped into thinking was legitimate south-of-the-border cuisine. I was in love another way — the marketing girl at work I asked out to a moe. concert (lolz) is now my wife. And like D., almost everyone I partied with or looked sideways at in H-town/Get-down was progressive. Texas. Who knew it was so alright, alright, alright.

I never could have imagined what it has now become. Texas certainly isn’t alright, alright, alright. It’s all right, all right, all right, and the data show that a lot of us have I-35 eyes longing to vamos.

“People are leaving Texas over rising costs, partisan politics, and a sense of disenchantment,” Business Insider says, adding that more than 494,000 Texans split between 2021 and 2022. This mini exodus “could intensify as [the state’s] housing costs surge and the … political landscape becomes more polarized.”

Packing up George the Prizm to flee my perpetually gray living hell up north, my yinzer friends unloaded all the expected “jokes” on me. “Bet they’d never seen an Italian cowboy before!” “Better work on your quick draw, pahdner!” “Have fun cow tippin’!” All that kind of inanity. I approached my new life in Houston with the sense that my American Dream may finally be starting and that my pals were wrong. I set out to prove that Texas wasn’t all guns, “churchies,” and twangy crap. Texas was gleaming, stunning skyscrapers and straight-talking thinkers and groundbreaking rockers and rappers and fierce painters, sculptors, and filmmakers, and there was occasionally a lake or river nearby and only a couple of horses. Screwston, as I said on calls to my boys back home (this was before cell phones, holy shit), was as cosmopolitan as any other metropolis in the world. And, in many ways, it and the entire state still are.

The cultural scenes in every major Texas city continue buzzing, and some, like ours, are growing courtesy of our multitudes. As part of Texas’ population boom, Fort Worth drew the most new residents (48,542) between 2020 and 2023. Reflecting a statewide trend, most of them came from Mexico. Compared to whites, who make up 39.8% of all Texas residents, the U.S. Census Bureau found that Hispanics account for 40.2% of the state population. The diversity driven by them, Blacks (13.4%), and other people of color manifests itself in our culture delightfully and in our politics … delightfully-ish (because still for some unbearable reasons many ethnic minorities strive to be white-adjacent #gross).

With the exception of Fort Worth, nearly every other sizable Texas city leans left. It’s why the legislators in Austin — majority Republican, majority wild-eyed with hate in their tiny, black hearts and spin-doctored scripture verses in their big, fat mouths — have criminalized bodily autonomy and are destroying voting. They don’t have any solutions, our state GOPers. None. Just full diaper loads over how people dress, who they love, and what they do with their own bodies, and it partly explains why so many creatives and progressives have I-35 eyes.

Techies who piled into Austin from elsewhere during the pandemic are booking return flights. One Cali tech bro likened our state capital to a “watered-down” San Francisco or L.A., and he’s not wrong. Current and future physicians and other high-level health-care workers also keep deserting our once-exemplary republic.

“The onslaught of health-care bans [is] driving nurses, medical students, and doctors out of Texas,” says The 19th, a nonprofit gender-policy news outlet.

When I left the state my first and only time, it wasn’t because of politics or even a job. My soon-to-be-fiancée had always dreamed of living in New York City, and since I once spent a couple years there, we thought sure, what the heck. I donated George the Prizm to science (technical school), and D. and I loaded up a U-Haul towing her Aggie-maroon Frontier named Trey and decamped from Houston for the Big Apple. After D. and I were confronted only by glorified closets to rent in Alphabet City, DUMBO, the Village, and a few other allegedly affordable Manhattan neighborhoods, we found a huge apartment for around the same price ($1,500/month!) in Bay Ridge. Our part of Brooklyn was as sleepy and about as traditionally New Yorkish (read: not at all) as where I had lived on my own earlier. Morningside Heights, like Bay Ridge, shut down promptly at 9:30 p.m. every night and didn’t even have the common decency to plant supermodels in every bar. Bay Ridge, which is where I think Tony Manero lived in Saturday Night Fever, might as well have been Hulen Bend or Meadowbrook.

We survived. D. worked in marketing for a ballet company in Union Square, I officed nearby as an editor at a glossy architecture magazine, and we traveled to and from work every day together by subway. The ride was 45 minutes each way. It got dark at 4:30 p.m. every day. I had to wake up two hours early twice a week or more to sometimes dig out Trey the Frontier from beneath hillocks of snow to re-park him somewhere else in the neighborhood (often blocks away) so we didn’t get a ticket or get towed because of mf street sweepers. We didn’t socialize much because everyone we knew and/or liked lived on the island and we simply did not have the bandwidth to drag our weary, sleep- and sun-deprived bodies back onto that subway on the weekends. Then D. got laid off. We returned to Houston after only a year or so. We lived at her parents’ house in a planned community south of downtown. While she went back to work at our old company, I freelanced — wholly unsuccessfully. Walking 15 steps to log on to the family/community desktop did not stop me from checking Hotmail 500 times a day for only one or two new messages per week. (All that stepping — did ancient tech kept us fitter?) D.’s folks did not charge us rent, and when her older brother also came to live with us (also rent-free), I have to admit that feeling like part of a nuclear family hit a sweet note in my life, especially during and after 9/11. For D. and me, Texas was our salvation, and it’s largely for nostalgia’s sake that we wouldn’t mind growing old here.

Neither would millions of others. Along with the rest of the country, Fort Worth and Texas are getting older. The nation’s 65-plus population shot up by over a third since 2010, the Census Bureau says. “No other age group saw such a fast increase.” One of the country’s “most rapidly aging states,” the Census goes on, is Texas.

As the number of Texans under 60 continues shrinking, the proportion of the state’s population over 60 grows. By 2030, more than 20% of Texas’ total population will be redeeming senior discounts at CVS.

In Fort Worth, our burgeoning senior contingent now accounts for more than 10% of our total population, and the percentage of our total population over 65 will rise through 2040.

One way our little slice of heaven is graying is through migration. Retirees are flocking to DFW from out of state for our urban cores and cultural scenes. And our moving sidewalks. Just kidding. It’s for our jobs.

Not only are Texans aging en masse, they’re working longer. A recent report by SmartAsset shows that the largest senior workforces are in Dallas (1), Austin (3), Houston (4), and Fort Worth (8). That’s four Texas cities in the Top 10 for older workers. Or maybe we should say “… for people over 65 who can’t afford to retire so they’re hogging jobs that could go to younger people whose cultural output generates billions of dollars in revenue for their state and respective cities.”

 

*****

 

Andrea Bocelli performed in Dallas last week, and as D. and I sat in a nearly packed American Airlines Center and witnessed high art enrapture all these souls — most older than us but some younger — I had to remind myself repeatedly that I was in Texas, still the same Texas as I had imagined it as a sad, ignorant Pittsburgher in the ’90s but grown, mature, respectable.

And that’s the thing about big money. Whether it comes from oil or gas or oil and gas doesn’t matter. No artist, architect, choreographer, whatever will say no to a fat paycheck, and through the work of Texas’ blue bloods of yesteryear, we can brag on our world-class arenas and our world-class museums, orchestras, and dance companies. Fine art in Texas is doing just fine. Local artists, not so much.

Most of our independent musicians, painters, and other creatives can practice their crafts only after working two or sometimes three part-time jobs. We can’t reliably blame the institutions to which our artists aspire. Most of Texas’ marquee museums sponsor outreach programs for and employ lots of local creatives, and we can’t expect the Kimbell or the Modern or, musically speaking, Dickies or the AAC to devote tons of money to unknowns. Institutions do not exist to break artists. That’s the job of us locavores, and we’re failing. Maybe instead of downloading the latest darling on KXT or Pitchfork or staying home during gallery walks or buying art only from IKEA, we could, I dunno, read the local papers and download whoever they’re writing about or save the next episode of The Great British Bake Off for another night, put on our drinking shoes, say a blessing over our debit cards, call an Uber, and go out to have our minds melted.

Bocelli’s still got it, hitting those high C’s with ease and holding notes longer than I can sit in a recliner on Sundays. At one part during the show, another Italian guy came onstage and painted a portrait of the singer on a giant canvas, immediately transporting me to the Wreck Room circa 2003. For real. There was a time in the Fort when the grassroots cultural scene began asserting itself, and one manifestation of that awakening was Experience the Art of Music. Dreamed up by two friends, a local painter and a singer-songwriter, the event at the legendary, long-defunct Fort Worth venue put bands onstage alongside painters. It was adorable. At the time, the Wreck was one of only a few spots (along with The Aardvark, The Moon, and the Ridglea Theater) for live, local, original, non-genre music. Fast-forward 20 years, and not much has changed.

Like how there’s only a couple exhibition spaces for independent painters, sculptors, and other visual artists, even fewer spots exist for live, local, original, non-genre music with the recent closure of the largest, most popular, and most loyal platform for those kinds of sounds. Part of the reason Lola’s shuttered may have something to do with skyrocketing rent, an international problem fueled primarily by price gouging. Another, perhaps handier explanation is that we’ve all stopped going to concerts with any regularity. Enjoying local, original, non-genre music requires openness, a sense of abandon, and patience, sometimes a lot of patience, and after suffering through four years of Donald Trump, a pandemic, corporate profiteering, and almost four more years of worrying about Donald Trump and his MAGA zombies, maybe our bandwidth is simply tapped. I know our patience is gone (I say as I wrap myself in another episode of Bake Off like a warm blanket woven by angels).

While Fort Worth’s population has grown by 390,000 souls since the time of Experience the Art of Music, our independent cultural scene seems to be regressing, and besides our collective inertia, a likely culprit could be that local, occasionally leading artists have not only been leaving Fort Worth steadily — “So long, Maren Morris!” “See ya later, Austin Fields!” — but putting the entire Lone Star State in the rearview.

 

*****

 

“The worst state to live and work” is Texas. A new CNBC report says the sixth-ranked state for business (yay) is also “the least welcoming to workers and their families” based on several quality-of-life criteria, including crime, discrimination, environmental quality, child care, and health care. The pinko-commie agitpropists’ Top 10 is rounded out by No. 2 Oklahoma followed by Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, and, finally, Florida. Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma are also among the country’s poorest states. The one thing that unites them all is years of Republican leadership.

With their massive tax breaks, Gov. Greg Abbott and the rest of the cons in Austin bend over for Big Business at the cost of our quality of life. Texas ranks in the bottom half for K-12 education, is 13th worst for poverty, and, according to WalletHub, is the country’s third most dangerous state (48th in emergency preparedness, 43rd in personal/residential safety, and 50th in share of uninsured people). Whether for Civil War II or a trip to 7-Eleven after 8 p.m., looks like I’ll need a gun either way. Especially if I plan on spending any time near a K-12 campus — Texas lags behind only California in number of school shootings.

As a straight, middle-aged white guy with a beard and tight T-shirts, I’m mostly insulated from change, gradual or sudden. As the father of a Black male sixth grader, I experience what’s happening today on a subatomic level. I feel it with every breath. The only way D. and I can raise him here long-term in good conscience is if hope comes back, and the only way it can is if sane people mobilize.

My man Beto is doing his part. Through his PAC Powered by People, the former gubernatorial and senatorial Democratic candidate recently launched a new statewide voter outreach program, and the timing couldn’t be better. Ratings for congressional Republicans “have reached their lowest point yet,” he says, which, if you stop to think about it, may be expected in a state described by a former Texas GOP chairman as a “lean Republican” one, meaning not solidly Republican at all. Now is a chance for Dems to flip the House.

As it appears to be every single election, because the Democrats we put into office refuse to fight dirty like their counterparts across the aisle, democracy itself is on the 2024 ballot (see: bandwidth, lack thereof; see: patience, depleted). As the most recent presidential election proved, mobilizing Texans works. Of the state’s 17.7 million registered voters, 67% cast ballots in 2020, and Biden ended up losing the state by only 5 percentage points, a (sad) moral victory but a noticeable improvement upon the past.

Mobilizing is key, but to begin moving our feet, we’ve first got to uncross them, get them off the coffee table, and put them on the floor. I’ve never knowingly heard a Taylor Swift song except the one where she repeats “shake it off” like 50 times, but I love her. And, as her new billionaire status appears to indicate, I am not alone. And I can’t help but think that she and her numbers — along with endless streaming and scrolling coupled with almost wartime levels of stress — are poisoning us. This Lotusland of sequined leotards, hilarious memes, comfy blankets, and superheroes is not sustainable. We need to wake up. (Now would be a good time.)

We need to move our feet even if it’s just down the street to watch one of our friends warble through an acoustic set or to gander at some abstract-expressionism. One of the hardest parts about leaving New York City was feeling as if D. and I had failed, as if somehow our best was not good enough. And that stink followed me throughout our early days in the Fort. I battled back by writing about every decent band and art exhibit I could find and by going out almost every night. Back in the early- to mid-aughts, Funkytown was always a party. That go-out-for-one-beer/come-home-at-4-a.m. meme started with us (probably). We were all broke, but we were all also electrified by life! (And cocaine.)

We are all older. We are more tired. We have more responsibilities. I also think many of us are sort of been-there/done-that about the scene (thanks, IBS and multiple DUIs) and perhaps even life in general. *raises hand* Which is fine. The Lifestyle is a young person’s game, always has been, and while we may not be old, we are no longer young. Look at me. Instead of rocking out to Zeppelin, BULLS, or Public Enemy, I listen to 175-year-old songs sung by a 65-year-old blind Italian dude. Yes, nostalgia plays a part in that. Bocelli has always been a favorite around the house. When Romanza came out 25-plus years ago, you couldn’t come within 100 feet of my mom’s ground-floor efficiency back in the ’Burgh without hearing him belting out his brand of popera or “La donna è mobile” on repeat.

That’s one reason we Marianis all love Bocelli. The other is: His music’s great, and D. and I have climbed to that age where we’re much closer — mentally and physically — to our elderly parents than we are to our children. Going to see Andrea was our first night out in months. It’s not necessarily that she and I don’t want to leave the house. We do. -Ish. But we’ve only recently been able to trust our 12-year-old to entertain himself for a bit and me not to get absolutely shit-hammered when I’m near beer. Last Thursday at the AAC was a sober-curious success. I see more nights out in our future — as long as we’re home by 11. I mean that. There’s no good reason local shows can’t start at 8 or earlier. Don’t make me wag my finger. I am not the open-minded, open-souled, patient guy I was back during Experience the Art of Music, and I don’t believe many of the folks I traveled with are either — if we are even here at all.

 

This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. He will gently edit it for clarity and concision.

12 COMMENTS

    • I had to leave Fort Worth and the state so that I could live out of the closet without fear. Seems to me the “hateful and miserable” ones are Texas conservatives who want to criminalize and punish every aspect of LGBTQ life.

  1. As an artist all I can say is Ft. Worth is a tough nut to crack and it gets tougher every year. A town that has such an impressive array of art museums doesn’t translate into support for local artist. It is sad to see it play out.

  2. Didn’t really think this column was all that hateful. Opinionated maybe, but that’s why columns like this are written in the first place

  3. I’m glD to have read your deep down feelings of your n Ds struggles. And accomplishments. Nice to read about what goes on down south of Pittsburgh from a pittsburgher . To read your outlook on life.You know the saying you can take yourself out if Pittsburgh but can’t take Pittsburgh out of you.people say they arrive in pittsburgh are shocked how we say hello even if we don’t know you . I was taught to be kind n friendly to all white, black ,gay ,whatever nationality you are .everyone should to kind to each other Even tho some aren’t
    They don’t know how a new person alone feels .So say hello good morning .good afternoon .its only a few words even just HI! Makes ithers fill welcome. Miss you anthony i still consider you one of the Taylor street gang.loved reading your article wishing You n D n Son a merry Christmas and happy new year.love Franny Shane

  4. Love your passion, soul, vulnerability and perspective…
    Life throws a lot of curveballs at us…friendships, memories and hope are the fuel in my tank that keeps me going..
    You’ll always be family to me brotha!
    Love ya

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