Arts & Culture

The Heart of Texas

An epicenter of both independence and generosity, the state—and especially its people—has a way of surprising you

Photo: Trevor Paulhus

Here’s a story about Texas: A friend of mine went to a supermarket in Austin to buy a pie. But when she got there, the pies, made by a company called Pam’s Pies, were sold out. She made inquiries. No, there were no more pies in the back room. No, there were no more deliveries that day. No, there was nothing they could do about it. They were sorry. My friend left her name anyway and went home to figure out what to do about dessert.

An hour later the phone rang.

“Hi, this is Pam,” said the cheery voice on the other end of the line. “I hear you need a pie.”

Though this may seem like a very small story about a very small thing, it is actually a very small story about a very big thing. When we moved to Texas, my wife and I never expected to find, nestled among the clichés, stereotypes, and sweeping mischaracterizations about our new state, good old-fashioned friendliness. People being nice, courteous, and helpful when they didn’t have to be. People acting in a spirit of generosity and decency. Texas, to our surprise, turned out to be by far the friendliest place we had ever experienced. Nothing was even a close second. Many states seem to be under the impression that their inhabitants are as warm and cuddly as Labrador puppies. People in the Midwest think this, for example. They are wrong.

Texas—playing utterly against type—is a state full of Pams. So much so that when we first arrived, moving to Austin from New York City nearly three decades ago, we were often not sure what we were looking at. After we had crossed the Arkansas border and were pushing through East Texas, we noticed something very strange. Cars in front of us on two-lane state highways kept pulling over onto the shoulder and driving slowly. Lots of them. After the tenth time it happened, we realized: They were just being nice. They were letting us pass. We found this same spirit all over the state.

I am a Connecticut Yankee—pretty much everything Texans should hate. I compound that sin by being a reporter, cold-calling people who frequently don’t want to talk to me, nosing into their business and speaking in a voice that drips with Eastern boarding school, the Ivy League, and summers on Cape Cod. But I have never, in a long career as a journalist, been treated as politely and considerately as I have in Texas—by secretaries, switchboard operators, CEOs, felons, ranchers, shrimp boat owners, and candidates for office. They do something very odd here: They give you the benefit of the doubt. 

Before I go any further, let me point out that Texans aren’t perfect. They are human beings like everyone else. They sometimes swagger around and have exaggerated opinions of their own importance. They tend to look down their noses at the ignorant hillbillies to their immediate north, west, and east. They keep reelecting Republican attorney general Ken Paxton, who has been indicted for multiple felonies, accused by his own employees of taking bribes, and sued by the Texas bar for making false claims. When they want to express the idea of “a great deal” of something, Texans often use the word buttload. They believe, uncritically, that the Dallas Cowboys are a decent football team.

There are other reasons we choose to live here, related in various ways to the idea of niceness. When we first arrived in Austin, there was this quirky natural foods market called “Whole Foods” that offered a level of quality in products and service we had never seen before. The company was one of many businesses in the state that capitalized on Texans’ native friendliness and generosity. (Southwest Airlines, in Dallas, was another. Pam would have been a star in the Southwest culture.) What struck us was not just the open, transparent culture at Whole Foods but the employees themselves. All were extravagantly friendly. Many were tattooed and pierced and dyed. When you talked to them, you learned they were also working on their PhDs in microbiology or computer science at the University of Texas, running yoga studios, plotting Asian fusion restaurants, and playing lead guitar in alt-country bands. They had law degrees and were trying to start salsa companies. They had English degrees and were writing code. We had never seen quite this level of self-reinvention, this sense of limitlessness. 

I am not sure how to explain why my adoptive state should be this way. As a historian, I naturally look to Texas’s uniquely tortured past. When the state won its independence from Mexico in 1836, it suddenly found itself quite alone in the great American beyond. Though its leaders had wanted Texas to become part of the United States, the virtual certainty that Texas would join as a slave state delayed congressional action for a decade.

Photo: Randal Ford

Maverick, a longhorn steer at the Fort Worth Stockyards.

And so Texas was left, a self-contained republic, yes, but broke, militarily punchless, and facing existential threats from Comanches to the north and west and Mexicans—who did not give up trying to take Texas back—to the south. Until it became a state, in 1845, Texas enjoyed no federal protection, no security. The problem persisted when the state seceded from its second country—the United States of America—in 1861. As a “federal” authority, the Confederacy was a joke. Indian conflicts increased. Chaos prevailed. Texas was again as good as alone.

What did that all mean? Well, it meant that, like an orphan who is raised in foster homes, Texans had to be fiercely self-sufficient. They had to save themselves because no one else was going to save them. They had no expectation that some large, disembodied abstraction like the state or the federal government was going to bail them out. And thus we evolved into the “low tax, low service” place that liberals love to hate. While Texas is one of the best states for jobs and business, it ranks last or near last in the provision of social services, including the percentage of people in general and children in particular with health insurance and Medicaid, welfare and food stamps benefits paid, and regulation of all sorts including environmental protection. The message is clear: We won’t help you, but we won’t get in your way, either. And, implicitly, if you don’t like that, move to New Jersey.

But there is another meaning. Though Texas is known for its swagger, the state’s weakness, isolation, and vulnerability in those early years actually produced the opposite effect: a massive inferiority complex. We were helpless, actually. Easy prey. The famous braggadocio came as a reaction to all that. So did Texas’s kindness, and generosity. Or at least that’s my theory. Beset by enemies on all sides, with no cavalry on the way, the orphan needed to fight, certainly, and fight hard. But the orphan also needed friends. The orphan needed to be nice in order to survive. Somehow, in spite of the recent influx of residents from elsewhere, the idea persists. Outsiders actually adopt this behavior. The spirit of Pam’s Pies, in that sense, has been just as important to the state’s history as the spirit of San Jacinto, the 1836 battle where, against all odds, Texas won its freedom.