The New New Yorker

The New New Yorker

When I was 19, I moved from Huntsville, Texas, to New York City. Technically the reason for this move was my acceptance at Sarah Lawrence, but I felt as though I’d been granted political asylum. Now, I don’t want to exaggerate here. Because no matter what you’ve heard, Texas is brimming with good, kind, progressive people, and I love the state dearly. But just before I moved to Manhattan, Matthew Shepard, a young gay man to whom I bore a marked resemblance, was slain in Laramie, Wyoming, a town to which Huntsville bore a marked resemblance. And honestly, I couldn’t swing a dead cat around without somebody telling me how terrified they were that I was going to get clubbed to death. Right and left, people actually said to me, “I’m just so terrified you’re going to get tied to a fence and clubbed to death.” And then they’d give their heads a wistful little shake, like they were already planning my big gay funeral. Friends, I don’t care how much you love your town—sooner or later that kind of talk’s going to make you nervous. And then you’re going to start pricing airfare.

Somehow, by packing my bags and moving from one town to the next, I had been transformed from avant-garde to retrograde.

So I came to Manhattan and Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 1999. Now, I suppose a person’s first taste of freedom is always somewhat disorienting. But while strolling down the streets of New York or rambling about the Sarah Lawrence campus, it was a strange and remarkable thing not to have to worry about being heckled or mocked or spat upon. My new freedom literally registered itself in my body, so that when I went back to Texas that Christmas, all those good folks who’d been sweet enough to worry about my getting flayed on a fence couldn’t get over how well I looked, how much more confident and relaxed and well-moisturized—which was partly due to living outside an atmosphere of physical terror, but also to the commendable line of men’s skin-care products I’d recently discovered at Kiehl’s.

However, there were some less-than-glorious aspects of the transition I was making from Texan to New Yorker. I mean, imagine how you’d feel if one morning you lolled out of bed, stumbled into the powder room, and suddenly discovered you’d become a Republican! Such is the power of context, friends. I had not altered a single political opinion. But somehow, by packing my bags and moving from one town to the next, I had been transformed from avant-garde to retrograde. I don’t think I’d been on campus fifteen minutes before some furry, fervent classmate dismissed me as “heteronormative”—which, in order to save you the effort of looking it up (like I had to), basically boils down to a nasty, highfalutin’ way of saying that, although I was gay, I was just as boring and bourgeois as any old straight person. Part of it was that I ironed my clothes every morning before class, and spray starch is very heteronormative. I hadn’t yet absorbed the fact that, in the New York avant-garde, the worse you look, the more liberal your politics are presumed to be. So there’s really no hope of being taken seriously until you look like something the cat threw up, as we say back in Texas. Which was an idea that I found terribly confusing at first.

And there were other things that confused me. For instance, I thought “vegan” meant “veggie burger.” It took me years (years!) to learn that “polenta” was just Yankee-talk for “grits.” And I thought an “installation” was some kind of construction site. During my sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence, I accidentally swept up some poor girl’s senior thesis, because in Texas we don’t have garbage art. We have loads of terrible, crummy, lousy art. But we don’t have art that’s actually garbage, like old candy-bar wrappers that have just been strewn about the floor and such. Due to the disadvantages of my background, I lacked the requisite cultural refinement necessary to distinguish garbage that was garbage from garbage that was a masterpiece, and I’m afraid it all somehow ended up in the same Hefty bag. Before I quite knew what was happening, some extremely angry person started yelling something like, “What happened to the installation?” Which, as you’ll recall, I still thought referred to some place where they were adding on a den or enlarging the master bath. So I just kind of looked around and mumbled to myself. And then I was reported to the dean for vandalism—though my criminal status, as it were, was downgraded from vandal to Neanderthal as soon as I mentioned I was from Texas.

It was one of the rare, happy occasions when I actually benefited from a prejudice I experienced constantly—namely, that New Yorkers tend to believe white Southerners are very, very stupid. This prejudice was in no way lessened in the late fall of 2000, when George W. Bush stole the presidency. Which, in case you’re wondering, was a wonderful time to be Texan in New York City. Once, in the public library, I was accosted by a total stranger in capri slacks and a sweater set, who gave me a thorough tongue-lashing on account of the Texas decal on my laptop.

“Listen, lady,” I said, in a speech I’d been slowly honing to perfection, “I’ve had to put up with Bush longer than you have. Plus, I lived through his defeat of Ann Richards”—Texas’ beloved, brassy, big-shouldered, and liberal former governor. “Ann Richards! And you lost, who? Al Gore? Cry me a river!”

It took me a long time to be able to respond to Yankee snobbery like that, to be able to counter a dig about George W. Bush with a reference to Molly Ivins or Barbara Jordan. The slow development of such ripostes had something to do with confidence. But mostly it had to do with how long it took me to say anything at that time, because of my dag-nabbed Texas accent. For a solid year, nary a day passed without some pitiless New Yorker actually lifting his hands while I was speaking, and twirling them around in a circle, right in front of my face, in a subtle hint that I should talk faster. Until finally I became so self-conscious about it that I over-compensated and started talking like an auctioneer. This seemed to satisfy New Yorkers, but it made my family back in Texas very sad, as though I’d rejected my cultural heritage of torpor.

I’m not joking about torpor being my cultural heritage, by the way. In fact, this now strikes me as the single biggest difference between Texas and New York. In the Texas I come from, anyway, there seemed never to be any expectation that you’d actually do anything. “There is no such thing as a good job,” my grandfather used to tell me, back in the oil boom. Because in Texas, at least at that time, you were as idle as you could afford to be—which, at least among lots of people with whom I grew up, was very idle, indeed. Sitting around, drinking beer, and telling stories about your mama was considered an extremely industrious way to spend an afternoon. Whereas in New York, not only are you expected to have an occupation, you’re expected to be occupied. And this has been the single greatest advantage, to me personally, of having become a New Yorker: a developed awareness that I’m actually supposed to do something. It’s also, likely, a leading factor in why I became a writer. These days, whenever I have a story to tell about my mama, I write it down, and then I sell it to a magazine.

So now I’m an author, which is a lovely thing to be, and also something I very much doubt I’d ever have become if I hadn’t moved to New York. Strangely, my Texas childhood prepared me well for life in Manhattan. In Texas, we’re bred for size and swagger. We prize the exaggerated and outlandish. We talk funny and we buy fancy footwear. And we also tend to believe that we are simultaneously the great American exception and the best America has to offer. Even at 19, as a little gay lamb wandering the Big Apple, it didn’t take me long to realize that this was an education to which any New Yorker could relate.

Robert Leleux is the author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, which was excerpted in the fall 2009 issue of Sarah Lawrence. His second book, The Living End, will be published next year.