A MAN’S PORT OF CALL.
I stole the post title from Bruce Springsteen’s song. The Boss tells a story like few others and this tune is one of my favorites. In a little over four minutes, we experience the joy of growing up in a place, the sorrows we share with it, and ultimately, the hope that flows from our connection to a hometown. Despite Bruce’s affinity for the rural, working-class vibe, I hear the song and think of San Antonio, Texas.
Strangely, my hometown refers to a city where I lived full-time for only eight of my 59 years. The last time mail arrived for me in San Antonio was 34 years ago. Still, when people ask me where I am from, I tell them the River City.
In some ways, moving around gave me the luxury of picking a hometown. Life’s circumstances sticks some people with a location for better or worse. Like any relationship, the longer you wake up with a partner, the more warts you see. My long-distance affair with San Antonio allows me to ignore the traffic (my father-in-law insists that a “drunken cowboy” came up with the original street plan), the unsightly billboards and the constant controversy over Alamo Plaza.
So I recognize that the idea of coming home might not be the same thing as being home. That distinction does not bother me. To over-romanticize the point, sailors love the sea, but they dream of dropping anchor in a favorite port. The sights, sounds and smells of that port sustain them during their journeys. Thus, whether your travels take you on a rare business trip or you wander broadly, it is best to have a place to drop anchor.
One attribute San Antonio owns over other hometowns is its permanence. Not many places in the country claim over 300 years of existence. More than just being there; the tiny mission first built on the banks of the San Antonio River in 1718 holds the city together three centuries later. Such is the gravitational pull of one of the most famous places in the world.
The friars who decamped at the river named the Mission San Antonio de Valero for St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, and for the viceroy who funded them. The mission became the “Alamo” in 1803 to honor the Mexican town that provided its troops. Thirty-six years later the world equated the name with heroism and liberty. John Wayne showed up soon enough. For a 12-year old kid who gobbled up social studies, moving to Texas just in time to catch seventh-grade Texas history made falling in love with a new hometown easy. Every Texas town has its Bowie, Crockett and Travis streets. We had Bowie, Crockett and Travis.
As a bonus, the Alamo begins, rather than defines, San Antonio’s historical significance. Our wedding reception took place where Teddy Roosevelt headquartered while forming and training the RoughRiders. Robert E. Lee watched the storm that became the Civil War from San Antonio. Two of the defining generals of World War II, Eisenhower and MacArthur, spent significant time at Fort Sam Houston. Congressmen Henry B. Gonzales represented the burgeoning movement for Latino rights and power. My new hometown had recently hosted the world in the 1968 Hemisfair.
San Antonio has a sense of place, a heft to it that only an accumulation of history can give. The city means something around the world; when you claim it as your hometown, you do not have to explain it.
The famed Riverwalk powers one of the world’s most potent tourism engines. Visitors from all over enjoy the scenery and climate, and taste the culture. What culture is that? The Mexican restaurants suggest an obvious answer, but the truth is more complicated.
San Antonio was the most important outpost for Mexico and that cultural influence will always be huge. As the chief city of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, San Antonio drew adventurers from its South and its East. By the 1800’s escapees from everywhere showed up: Anglo opportunists out of Kentucky and Tennessee; French adventurers from Louisiana; and the existing mix of Spanish, Mexican and Native settlers. Stephen Harrigan, in his brilliant history of Texas, Big, Wonderful Thing, refers to this confluence of people as ‘Texians.” After the revolution, a hefty group of Germans joined the party.
Strolling the Riverwalk, reveals that the idea of Texians remains. Tex-Mex options are plentiful, but there is also the Little Rhein Steak House, Boudro’s, Paesono’s, and Biga on the Banks. You can eat your way around the world. The traditional spots are awesome; the dining in the exploding Southtown area and the Pearl Brewery district might be better and represent even more cultures and fusion.
Great food speaks for a city, but in San Antonio the food represents something grander. Born of colliding cultures and sustained by a massive presence from the most color-blind employer in the world, the United States military, the city comes close to America’s melting pot dream. A hometown that celebrates all of us is worth praising.
TIES THAT BIND.
Relationships with hometowns can start with pride and history, but ultimately love for anything is personal. My first beer, which I drank to impress the beautiful Jody Gutierrez from down the street, was a Lone Star brewed downtown. Summer days were spent at my neighborhood pool, the McFarlin tennis center or the Breckenridge golf course with best buddies. A love of movies flows directly from watching the classics with Matt Petersen at the Olmos. My high school crew spent spent News Year’s Eve at the iconic Mi Tierra’s pretending to be grown-ups.
I threw the Express-News as a paperboy; my reward as a contest-winner for getting the most subscribers was a meet and greet with an athletic role model, George Karl (a slow white guard with no vertical leap) of the San Antonio Spurs. Dad was the official statistician for the Spurs for more than four decades and our family’s devotion to the team runs deep. I still hurt from Derek Fisher’s dagger with only 0.4 seconds left or the Miami Heat escaping our clutches while the championship trophy was being prepped for the celebration. Of course, like any great movie, the good guys win in the end and the franchise became a model for the N.B.A., with a multi-cultural cast and a military head coach that perfectly represented the city.
Most of all, one of the houses where I tossed those papers was home to the love of my life, in all her high-school twirler glory. Our first date took us to one of the best miniature golf courses in the world and we never looked back.
Cities get a bad rap in the hometown discussion. The word hometown conjures the image that Bruce brings to life in his song. I am sure that for many, their feelings for smaller places are just as strong. For me, I cannot imagine a better port in which to drop anchor.