By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sometimes people look at the wrong thing when they look at Dallas. They want to find what makes Dallas unique, so they look for something unique. But the thing that makes this region unique is its perfect, flawless, seamless lack of uniqueness.
OK, I know, it needs a little explaining. But listen: When they start looking around for people to populate the first colonies in outer space, they're going to come crawling to our doorsteps.
We'll say, "What's a doorstep?" And then they'll know we're perfect.
Harvey J. Graff, who used to live here, has written a new book called, The Dallas Myth: The Making and Unmaking of an American City, published by the University of Minnesota Press. He's an academic in a field called literacy studies at Ohio State University.
Graff lived and taught in Dallas from 1975 through 2004 and was active in community affairs. He was at the University of Texas at Dallas, which as we know is not in Dallas. It's in Richardson. Graff brings a lot to the table—the incisive, disciplined eye of an academic who's not a native but knows the city well. And he has very interesting things to say about the city in his book.
He explores why we have this bizarre need to keep repeating the no-raison-d'être myth: that there was no physical or "natural" reason for building a city here, and therefore Dallas is entirely the creation of human willpower. Graff does a great job pointing out that this nutty story is no more true or untrue of Dallas than of most of the nation's inland regional cities.
He ponders why Dallas thinks it would be a good thing not to have a reason for being, and he offers some very smart possible answers. He says the important thing is that Dallas doesn't need a reason for being: "More than most places, I argue, Dallas is an invention, an imagined environment, mythologized and promoted in singular images."
I think he's spot-on. The heroic myth of Dallas is that the city is entirely a creation of willpower and salesmanship, the twin pillars of secular fundamentalism. We are the ultimate evolution and expression of wild-eyed, ascetic frontier shamanism—a city where the most real things are the things we dream up in our heads.
That's what happens when you leave people out in the woods too long. They wind up with an origin myth that's spooky as hell and doesn't even make sense, but they find great comfort in it. Now, see, my argument is that these are exactly the kind of people you want to shoot off into outer space.
I almost hate to talk about this in the same breath with Graff, because his book is serious and very important, and I know you're going to take what I have to say as a joke. But it's not. I'm quite sincere.
Do you remember the Hale-Bopp people who all killed themselves while in their bunks in California in 1997? Their group was called "Heaven's Gate." They committed suicide because they thought the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet was a sign that the Earth was about to be "recycled." I'm sorry, that's as much as I can tell you. They're all dead.
Many of them—on the lam and hiding out from family members, creditors and other interested parties—had lived in North Dallas off and on from the 1980s into the mid-'90s.
When the story of the mass suicide broke, I was the Dallas bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle. My boss called, naturally, and told me to buzz out pronto to the area in North Dallas and Richardson where the Boppers had lived, then talk to neighbors and friends, co-workers and so on to find out what their problem was.
I discovered that all of the Boppers' addresses were actually codes at a commercial post office where you could get fake addresses that looked like street numbers. My discovery led to one of the least distinguished paragraphs I have ever written in my entire 200-year reporting career:
Melvin Stokes, manager of the Mail Boxes Etc. store that the cult often used as a mailing address, held up both arms and shrugged to express his complete unfamiliarity with them.
Eleven years later, I'm still embarrassed. This just in, folks. Mailbox guy couldn't tell suicidal Hale-Bopp space-agents from anybody else in North Dallas.
Actually, he gave me another quote (this often happens) that was too good to use, too provocative. It would have taken the story way off down another path and required too much explaining.
I poked on him a little and said, "C'mon, man, the cops have shown you their pictures. You must have at least recognized some of them."
He sort of motioned around the place with one hand at the people coming in and out—a typical Dallas suburban mélange of types, maybe from Indiana, maybe India, maybe Industrial Boulevard, all speaking hip-hop cool-guy slang in indistinct accents and wearing sort of FUBU-looking rugby shirts, baseball caps and gold chains.
He said, "Why would I recognize anybody here?"