“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
— Henry David Thoreau
“Dallas is my second-favorite city. My favorite city is everywhere else.”
— Kinky Friedman
I am in the architectural nightmare of the living dead: an intersection somewhere in Dallas. Looking across the street from where I sit, I squint at a brilliantly lighted Exxon station and a shop that cashes checks for those who endure life without a bank account. Over there I could grab a Checker Burger then spend my disposable income on Blockbuster Music or Old Navy Clothes. Neon tubes as adamant as Exacto knives trim the strip mall’s sharp edges;
spotlights striving heavenward mirror the beams at Nazi rallies staged by architect Albert Speer.
But that’s across the street, and though it’s only 30 yards away, I would have to drive to get there because this city has few sidewalks and drivers here do not distinguish between pedestrians and abandoned puppies — both make great sport. A Dallas boy behind the wheel of a massive unmuffled Ford F-150 barges through a peopled crosswalk. He wears a sadistic grin because fate has placed something that he can smash in his lane. His angry eyes peer out from beneath his Stetson to defy what little dignity you might have left in the wake of his V-8 and dual gas tanks which, I have no doubt, are bigger than bath tubs.
So I will not walk over there. This other strip center, where I sit and write, has a Barnes and Noble Bookstore, a Tom Thumb grocery store, a World Savings Bank, some clothing and linen stores, and the Boxies Cafe where I sip espresso
beneath an umbrella protecting me from a sun that has already set. Besides, I’d rather spend my money on books and coffee than burgers and trousers.
Boxies Cafe reeks of a modernized American Europhilia in tune with the current fashion for cafes — though Left Bank Bohemians are conspicuously absent. Boxies serves espresso and latte, sandwiches and chicken cordon bleu in a high-tech ambiance of chrome and exposed air-conditioning ducts and
jazz playing steadily on an automated sound system. I can sit and read and write for hours and no one rushes me. Attorneys meet clients and they linger over coffee and contracts, divorce papers and restraining orders, but most
people pass through with the same haste they employ at McDonald’s: drive, order, eat, drive. In the car landscape, so many people hurry everywhere they go. I get ulcers thinking about it.
Except for the stains in the parking lot where incontinent cars leak vital fluids that glow in the sickly sodium vapor light, geometric order reigns with fascistic tyranny. At this intersection where asymmetry has been jack-hammered and wafted away as though it were some natural embarrassment or a fart in the face of civilization, the will of some manic
architect, obsessed with 90- and 45-degree angles, has ascended from blueprint to law. I have no way of knowing whether an expeditious drawing tool on a draftsman’s computer or a phobia of odd angles creates this uninspired architecture, but this does not matter because we are dying in this compulsively neat right-angled wasteland. Just as the annually shrinking dictionary in George Orwell’s 1984 stripped vocabulary and thought from the popular mind, the limiting designs of modern cities squeeze our imaginations
into ever narrowing frameworks.
Cartesian streets repeat in two dimensions the maddening permutations of shopping centers, apartment blocks, and priapic towers of steel and glass stretching into forever. Some people may find the effect exhilarating; I fear the impersonal weight of all this minimalist architecture will crush my soul. People shop here, work here, live in apartments shaped to form three or four honeycombed cells or, if they’re lucky, in a house hidden around the corner
from all this. I write from one intersection among thousands on the grid, and they all look just the same.
In Dallas you are free to get out and drive around, but the roads lead from the suburbs to work and shopping places. The sidewalks, when they exist at all, either provide paths for schoolchildren or they lead adults as though by the hand from parking spaces to the front doors of offices or stores. The roads may seem free ways to travel, yet in reality they are as restrictive as railroad tracks. People become so locked into the grid system that they no longer know there is an alternative.
This is a world where, except for sweet vacations at Club Med or Cozumel or Vail, people spend whole lives. They even die from the ill effects of this life as they lay in top-floor hospital rooms with views of the grid system pocked with concrete boxes spread out before them, and then they are buried in cemeteries with rank-and-file systems as orderly as the one in which they lived.
Without a car in Dallas you teeter precariously on the edge of the world, depend upon a bus system that barely exists, and barely exist yourself. Dallas callously disregards the pedestrian and even throws Coke cans at him and yells class-war insults at him and the police harass him. A stigma comes with walking: it looks poor and Americans equate poverty with a moral defect. The sidewalks offer few roadside attractions anyway: you cannot pass afternoons in real cafes and you won’t find neighbors, intellectuals,
conversation, hookers, dandies, musicians, magicians, hot dogs, pretzels, books sold from carts, or outdoor architecture that sincerely invites you to linger. If you must walk, the implicit message is: Go to the mall! There, at least you can find Disneyesque replicas of Le Dôme Café mocking civilization.
People accept this world because, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “We do not know what we do not know.” We do not know an alternative so we don’t believe an alternative exists. If we dream of alternatives in our youth, we acquiesce in maturity. No one in his right mind lingers in the tropics or on the slopes after his allotted annual fortnight. You may leave your house to work or shop; you may go to a movie if you buy a ticket; you may have holidays, but responsibility looms as the foremost value in a culture of consumer credit (decent architecture, meanwhile, hovers somewhere near the bottom).
Blindfold me in Dallas, spin me around, lift the veil and ask me where I am, and I could say Memphis or Atlanta, for all these cities sleep in the recurring nightmare of homogeneity. If television unites us in a Global Village, then all our cities mirror each other with alarming uniformity. More than any other medium, television defines our culture, and the same programming that gives me a burger “my way” in Tulsa inspires you to wear L’eggs in Phoenix and “lifts and separates” in Little Rock.
The broadcasting of a well-defined set of commercial values gives me and my neighbors a hankering for clothes that cast my TV persona; for a sumptuous dinner requiring less than two minutes between the order window and the pickup window; for a sexy and violent video that will manipulate my emotions, tickle my funny bone, and jerk my tears; for a sensual and unbreakable condom; a shiny fast car; and a Coke. And if television reduces our desires to the lowest common denominator of kitsch, it also builds cities of the same sort of ticky-tacky.
I focus on architecture and the sidewalks because with them I can take the temperature of civilization in Dallas and dozens of cities just like it. I can check the city’s pulse to see that the great public works here are merely freeways to the market. Surely someone’s experience of Dallas has led them to realize their potential, but I think that most of us feel empty. A few of us may know why.