The Fort Worth Hilton’s concierge could not have been more helpful. ‘Welcome to the land of liberty,’ he said, after I’d asked if there was anywhere nearby where a visitor might enjoy a cigarette with his drink. Such a wonderful place was just two blocks away. I walked in, ordered a beer, lit up a Winston and immediately travelled back decades to a far better time.
Texas is like Australia with the handbrake off. There is no individual income tax and no corporate income tax, which explains the state’s rapid economic and population growth. A recent downturn has sparked some concern, however. Apparently Texas will only create another 150,000 jobs during 2015 – about the same number as Australia, from a population only a few million larger. In a good year, that number of jobs is easily generated by a single Texan city.
I have a couple of appointments, so the hotel arranges a car and driver. This is the same hotel where John F. Kennedy and Jackie stayed the night before JFK’s assassination. Haunting photographs of the doomed President are everywhere, including one that shows him leaving through the front doors on 22 November, 1963, and heading for his Lincoln. I leave through the same exit – approximately; the place has been renovated – and blanch when I see that my car, too, is a Lincoln. At least mine has a roof. ‘Please,’ I ask the driver, ‘don’t drive past any bookstores.’ No sense tempting fate.
Fort Worth and Dallas are only 40 minutes apart by road, but their rivalry makes that between Melbourne and Sydney seem like a Greens-ABC lovefest. Dallas views Fort Worth as a hick-infested cowtown. Their western neighbours sneer at Dallas’s perceived pretentiousness. And both cities are suspicious of Austin, the Texan capital, with its music, hipsters and embrace of oddball culture. The friendly mood of the man at the rental car counter shifts a little when I tell him I’m Austin-bound. ‘Why?’ he asks. Then he warns me against drag racing. The car is a Kia.
Well, here’s one reason to head for Austin. I’m staying at the sprawling compound of mysterious internet identity David Burge, among America’s most perceptive and hilarious online commentators. A routine is quickly established. By night, the Burges take me around Austin’s finest and lowest establishments (often they’re the same). By day Dave runs whatever business he’s involved in – stolen human organs, for all I know – while Mrs Burge and I check out the sights. I buy a pair of shoes at a store that also sells pistols, rifles and semi-autos, drop by Torchy’s for a Trailer Park Taco (experienced hands know to order them ‘extra trashy’) and then we wheel the Burge family’s train-sized Ford F150 through a car wash. Remarkably, the car wash is beneath a scale replica of the University of Texas tower – a structure notorious for gunman Charles Whitman’s 1966 killing spree, which reduced the university’s need for graduation diplomas by 14. ‘You should have seen it before,’ an employee tells me. ‘The university made us change the top so it didn’t look the same.’ The university is notable, of course, for reasons other than Whitman’s mass slaying. For a start, it’s the only place in Austin where people seem glum. UT attendees are just as beat-down and dismal as any sad second-year sociology students at the University of Sydney. In 1966, UT students rushed to their dormitories, grabbed their rifles and pinned Whitman down while police stormed the tower. The current mob look like they’d read Sylvia Plath’s poetry at him. A statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, has stood at the university since 1933. The day after I photographed it the statue was removed due to complaints about racism. Students cheered. Finally, something made them happy. The bronze statue is now destined for a museum, where it will presumably appear alongside other university relics such as jokes, freedom of speech and students who aren’t total whiny bitches.
As a general rule, the shabbier a barbeque joint, the more delicious will be its various briskets, ribs and sausages. Texas isn’t big on regulation, but many of its best barbeque sites must be in breach of a building law or two. Some seem so aged and fragile that they’re defying the law of gravity. Let’s reconsider that; maybe I’m looking at them from a perspective warped by Australia’s excessive safety rules. After all, the building that since 1948 has been Vencil Mares’s barbeque cafe is the only one in Taylor to survive the great fire of 1879. It’s still going strong. So is 91-year-old Normandy veteran Vencil, although he’s in hospital with a broken leg. A kind waitress gives me a newspaper signed by the great man. Texas is the future of the US. For that matter, it should be a guide to the future of Australia. NSW in particular could learn from the superbly predatory methods of the Texan government, which as a matter of policy targets for relocation businesses in higher-taxing areas. If Texas was between Victoria and Queensland, both of those Labor states would be reduced to economies based on ad revenue from anti-fracking websites.
From Texas to New York. My beautiful nieces Amy and Lauren are enjoying this city for the first time, ahead of further US adventures. We spend a fine day strolling around Greenwich Village, which despite a crowded street fair conspicuously lacks Austin’s energy. The girls are brilliant company, as always, and are eager for travel tips from their old uncle. I’ve never been very good at advising my nieces, but on this occasion I know exactly what to say: ‘Go to Texas.’
Tim Blair is a columnist with the Daily Telegraph