MAXWELL: Culture shock in San Angelo, Texas

8/28/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

SAN ANGELO, Texas

I am in the grips of major culture shock.

I am not just talking about being unable to get the New York Times delivered each morning on my front stoop. For the last eight years, until now, I had awakened each weekday morning with the assurance that I would enter the St. Petersburg Times building, hash out the day’s issues with my Editorial Board colleagues, work on my column and go home.

I was responsible to Bill Maxwell. My day was done. Now, suddenly, I have 16 students in my Opinion Writing class and 26 in my literature class (more are signing up as I write) to worry about. Yes, I have donned the hat of the university professor, and I am responsible for a lot of young lives for a semester.

Gone are those long hours of solitude, when I did not have to see anyone or speak to anyone, when I was not expected to care about what others did with their time. Now, I must care about these students, about how they use their time. I want them to read the assigned books and complete their essays and articles competently and on time.

In other words, these are my students, and part of what happens to them both in the short- and long-term is my responsibility. I have gone from being a loner to being a visible caregiver simply by driving 1,500 miles across country. Culture shock.

In somewhat the same light, I have gone from seeing people I know to seeing total strangers everywhere. I do not know a soul here. San Angelo has a population approaching 90,000. Roughly 41 percent is Hispanic, 55 percent is Anglo and 4 percent is black. As I move around town, I see very few people who look like me. The artist colony where I live is in the middle of a mostly Mexican neighborhood. I do not exaggerate when I say that I am doing what we call “Negro sightings” _ looking for my kind anywhere.

On the campus of Angelo State University, the situation is not as dire. I see black students on campus. I have nearly 10 blacks in my literature class but none in journalism. Although the university has more than 6,000 students, I can count the black professors on one hand.

On the bright side, that much-ballyhooed West Texas friendliness is not a myth. These folks, including many teenagers, are wonderful. I am totally unaccustomed to warm greetings from strangers. Merchants and cashiers act as if they really appreciate your business.

Why, just this morning, a white student saw me studying an area map, and he offered to escort me around town.

“I was born and raised in San Angelo,” he said. “I know where everything is.”

He gave his name and telephone number. This weekend, I intend to take him up on his offer. I am not used to so much kindness. I am from transient Florida, where “it’s every man for himself.”

Speaking of Florida, as a native, I was born about a mile from the Atlantic shore. Here in West Texas, I am landlocked in the middle of desert-like terrain, 200 miles away from other major cities. I am not a landlubber, and I not do have the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico as ready escapes.

Speaking of escapes. I cannot avoid the West Texas heat. As luck would have it, I moved here just as the mercury was breaking records. Indeed, on Monday, the temperature rose to 104 degrees in San Angelo, a figure that broke the previous record set back in 1922.

As I write, the weather folks are predicting 105 degrees. Of course, I am used to hot weather. I am a Floridian. But, listen, Florida ain’t dry-hot like this. I cannot touch my steering wheel without burning my skin. Want to talk about frying an egg on the hood of your car? I can tell you about giving a T-bone a hard time on my hood.

And with the heat comes dust. I am not talking about wind-blown dust, but just plain old dust that piles up and gets tossed around in the regular course of driving and walking in a place where an inch of rain would be like manna.

More culture shock: The water tastes awful. Everyone says so. In fact, the local stores sell a flavored brand of coffee called “Taste of San Angelo.” The joke is that the flavor is to hide the terrible taste of the water. They even have water stations and water stores.

Here is the greatest shock of all: I love wine. Well, guess what? San Angelo is in Tom Green County. And guess what else? San Angelo, a university city, is dry! That is right, folks. A wine lover has been banished to a town where wine and spirts are difficult to find. I am used to buying wine in any supermarket or 7-Eleven.

I have been snake bit. Is this culture shock _ or what? But do not misunderstand. I love this place.