Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Road to Del Rio VII: Dallas on Their Minds

Bonnie, Clyde, and Herbert T. Barrow all came from Dallas and even though they never got to pass through it during their several-state crime spree, in a way, they didn't have to. Dallas was always on their minds. But then Dallas has always been as much a state of mind as it is an actual place.

Dallas is one of those rare cities built on an idea rather than a piece of geography. The idea behind Dallas could be characterized by a single word: Money! It was founded by John Neeley Bryant, a "man on the make" and a civic booster looking to found a city he could boost. He and men like him built a city on the prairie, overlooking the Trinity River, a glorified creek,which was really more of a nuisance than a bona fide geographical feature. Dallas rose up on the eastern side of the Trinity, a city fueled by ambition and opportunity. Once people had money, they wasted no time acquiring the best, most up-to-date style and class that money could buy.

But Bonnie, Clyde and Herbert were all from the other side of the Trinity, from West Dallas, which stayed poor and hopeless and remains that way to this very day.  Bonnie was born in Rowena, a little town an hour or so south and west of Dallas that no longer exists. Bonnie's father died when she was little more than a    baby and her mother moved her and her younger sister to a place in West Dallas called Cement City, built around a cement plant. They were considered lower middle class, which meant mainly that Bonnie's mother managed to hold down a job and pay rent and that she aspired for better things for her daughters. Bonnie attended school and got good grades and was valedictorian for her high school class. The school she went to is still there, though it shut down decades ago.  Not so long ago, people went into the school building and found a copy of her grade card.

Clyde's family could not have been considered anything but bottom-of-the-barrel West Dallas grit. It would be wrong to call them "White Trash," because they weren't. They were hard working, hard scrabble, fierce, proud, and profoundly unlucky. They'd tried farming in a couple different places around east Texas including, finally, Teleco, south of Dallas. They finally gave up and moved to Dallas, for the same reason everyone moves to Dallas; for opportunity.

But all the Barrows could afford was Eagle Ford, a place on the Trinity that was about as close as you could get to Dallas without actually being there. But Eagle Ford was still on the wrong side of the Trinity and to this day it remains an economically depressed, crime ridden hole. For a while the Barrows lived in a canvas tent, then they managed to build a shack with a gas station, both of which are still there.

Across the Trinity River was Dallas with its skyscraper buildings, its grand hotels like the Baker and Adolphus where the rooms all had flushing toilets and hot and cold running water and the big movie houses all proudly featured something called "Air Conditioning." Dallas was where Bonnie, Clyde, and Herbert T. Barrow all felt they naturally belonged. In keeping with the Dallas ethos, Clyde always dressed impeccably, spoke perfect English and even though he could barely read or write, he handled himself so well that co-workers who'd managed to graduate from high school, often invited him home to meet their sisters. To this day, if you ask around a little, you'll find people who'll tell you their grandmothers dated Clyde a few time and that he was a cordial, well-mannered fellow.

Bonnie, for all her education and literary ambitions, was a bad girl, through and through. At fifteen, she married a hoodlum named Roy Thornton, who was gone a lot and then gone permanently when he got sent to prison. Bonnie worked in various restaurants and cafes and had enough of an engaging personality that men were continually falling for her. She reportedly also turned the occasional trick. She liked dressing well, putting on makeup and going out and having a good time, something which Dallas of the day certainly was equipped to do. Dallas had gin mills, night clubs, honkeytonks, and some very classy places for dancing to orchestras, like the Debonaire Danceland, out on Samuel Boulevard, a place where, more than once, Bonnie went to dance, and Herbert sometimes played, and where they both reminisce about while driving through Oklahoma in search of gas stations and grocery stores to rob.

Herbert was much the same as the others when it came to Dallas. He dressed for Dallas, taught himself not to talk like a hick. But instead of settling in Dallas, he went on to New York, where no one at all ever suspected he came from Dallas, let along Eagle Ford. But both places continued to define him at least in his own mind.     .

Following is an excerpt from Friend of the Devil:

Clyde Chestnut Barrow might stand only five foot two, but by the way he carries himself, you’d swear he was six foot four. It’s hard associating him with the grit boy I once knew. Everything about him shouts out ‘big city’: the silk shirts with French cuffs, the fine ties and sharply tailored suits which highlight his taut, compact frame. This Clyde has correct posture and manners, can carry on a polite conversation and knows when and when not to say ‘ain’t.’ I’m just a dumb, off-the-rack country hick compared to him. But, of course, I can read and write.

Clyde dresses like a dandy and handles himself like a gent, but there’s no mistaking that glint of menace in his eyes. It’s there when he smiles and laughs. It’s there when he says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and inquires how you’ve been keeping yourself. And it’s there when he asks if you’ll do something and you tell him it’s something you don’t want to do.

Now Clyde wants me to join the outfit.

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