He was what my late father used to call “a good-looking kid”: in his mid-20s, tall, athletic, broad, casually dressed, and wearing clean new sneakers. He sat down beside me at the empty bar of an Austin, Texas, beer-and-sausage joint. It was the lunch hour, exactly noon, and in front of me, while I waited for my bratwurst—a regional food in this German-settled precinct—was an appetizer of deep-fried pickles I had ordered at the suggestion of the barkeep.
“How are those?” the kid asked me. I’ll call him Paul. He was holding and scrutinizing a plastic menu, and there was something faintly offbeat about him, pleasingly so but difficult to specify.
“Try one,” I said. I slid my plate his way.
“Really? You sure?”
I nodded. “Absolutely.”
He reached for a fried pickle spear, striving to convey polite excitement, the way a well-raised child accepts a birthday gift. He bit into one end and meditatively chewed, then cast me a grateful smile. We started talking. Paul told me he was a “cyber-security guy,” then asked me what I did. I risked a truthful answer: “journalist and writer.”
“Cool,” he said, nodding. “You know what I think? Good journalists are saving us these days. I don’t know where we’d be without them, frankly.”
I voiced my agreement with this statement, though what it implied remained obscure. I feared Paul and I might be headed for a clash. In these divisive, picky, ill-tempered times, there are many types of journalists, many threats from which they might be saving us, and many ways they might be doing it. Depending on the nature of Paul’s views, I very well might represent the enemy, the threat from which he felt rescue was imperative, what with my skepticism about progressivism and my disenchantment with a ruling class I view as ruthless and self-obsessed.
Why had I even allowed him to engage me instead of burrowing into my phone? And why had he, on sitting down, not observed our contemporary national custom and burrowed into his? I had spent the past week in wary New York City, where I doubted this encounter would have occurred. Ignoring the stranger beside you is an art there, one that has spread widely throughout our land. But I was in the Lone Star State—expansive, good-natured, open, a different realm altogether. Howdy, stranger.
As it would soon become clear, my encounter with Paul revealed something about the stubborn and somewhat mysterious persistence of real regional differences in America.
You might think, given the smoothing-out effects of mass communications and social media, that all of us would be pretty much the same by now here in the world of 5G and Instagram, or at least, that our differences would express themselves in only minor, trivial ways, at the levels of hairstyle, dress, and self-adornment. An example of the second instance, of merely superficial regionalism, would be the eager adoption of cowboy boots, including some awfully pointy and shiny pairs, by out-of-state newcomers to booming Austin.
The day before my lunch of pickles and sausage, I had strolled for an hour down South Congress Avenue, the central city’s long showcase of a main drag. A lot of the clothing stores trafficked in what I’d call corporate neo-individualism (Madewell, LuluLemon, etc.) and might as well have been in Santa Barbara or a hotter, more humid Brookline, Mass. But a few of the outfitters worked a dust-bowl angle. They specialized in tall boots and broad-brimmed hats for recently transplanted Google and Tesla earners. They were showy emporiums, these places, with fancy light-fixtures and shelving units redolent of borderless new capital. The transformations they offered to recent transplants—tourists who sign leases, basically—were only lizard-skin deep, if that.
If meaningful regional differences still exist in Americana-brand America—differences in manners, not just in footwear—the proof of them lies in people such as Paul and in such ingrained habits governing how one approaches, or doesn’t, an unknown stool-mate. I wrote earlier that I found something odd about him, a quirk of body-language maybe. Even though I live in rural Montana, which outsiders may think of as Texas-But-With-Mountains, his neighborly, frontal, easygoing vibe was slightly alien to me. In Montana, we like to leave each other alone until a good reason not to presents itself. We live, and we let live—but at a distance, preferably. It’s a state built by fortune-seekers and AWOL types, by homesteaders, deserting Confederate soldiers, immigrant miners, and black sheep second-sons. More recently, rich Californians are rolling in, but no one who has been there a while much wants to meet them, unless it’s to over-charge them for plumbing work.
I dealt with the challenge of Paul’s promiscuous friendliness by tenderly probing him through small talk. When I learned he had attended Texas A&M, a stronghold of robust traditionalism compared to Austin’s somewhat forward-leaning University of Texas, I felt more comfortable. I even hazarded a sour word or two about the high price of bratwurst nowadays, a comment which might be construed by touchy ideologues as a knock on prevailing economic policies. Paul didn’t scowl. He reacted not at all, as though my grouching were only common sense. And then, at long last, he showed a card.
“I’m not sure I’m brave enough to be a journalist. Everyone’s so nutty nowadays, I’m afraid to ‘like’ certain posts on Instagram.”
A meat-eating freedom-lover. I should have guessed. He had accepted a stranger’s fried pickle— need I know more? Indeed, what was wrong with my powers of observation, which I had always been proud of as a writer? I blamed the same “nutty” times responsible for Paul’s reluctance to be himself on Instagram and open himself to algorithmic peril. How hard our culture of malignant zeal, of blameful and unrelenting code-enforcement, had made it to be a sweet, large-hearted Texan of the sort any reader of Larry McMurtry novels or fan of Red River or buyer of pointy new boots should dream of meeting here on his first visit. Forget all those fussbudgets, Paul. Remember the Alamo!
Because, even now, we still come from where we come from, and every place is not the same. Does that upset you? Paul doesn’t give a damn. Or he does, just a bit, but he wishes he didn’t. It’s a wish I find poignant in a big, polite, young Texan who ordered his own plate of pickles, then gave me one.