an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
On the way back from Manor Downs, on Route 290, down 35, and then to the Statesman building just across the river, I used to think of my lead, the beginning of a journalism story, for the horse racing I just covered.
It seemed to me the 20 minutes it took to drive was the perfect amount of time to come up with the way I was going to begin the story, often with some pithy description of the race or some quirk about the winning horse (I remember one horse that liked to sleep before racing). Most horses were “honest,” according to the trainers, so I had learned that I needed to ask more about the horse’s personality or the story behind his or her purchase, in order to get something I could use.
Journalism was work I had done before I came to graduate school, and it was largely separate from my graduate school work, though it wouldn’t be for long—my experience in Manor led me to my current project, a cultural explanation of horse racing. (And somehow, I ended up teaching journalism. But that’s another story.)
I don’t remember thinking exactly that there was a point where Austin ended and not-Austin began, because if the Austin American-Statesman was covering something, it was by coverage definition part of Austin. But thinking about it in the context of my experiences before, during, and since my life in Austin as a graduate student, of course, there was a divide.
Some of that divide was language. Some of it was geography. Some of it was subject matter. A lot of it was my own perceptions of authenticity and my place in the world.
But I felt it then and I feel it now, somewhere between Manor Downs and the Austin American-Statesman, Austin ends.
* * *
I worked there at Manor Downs at first because of the money. I came to graduate school without funding, and though I located a good gig my second semester there, and then had part-time work (20 hours was the magic number to get in-state tuition and health care) for the rest of my time, I really needed the money during the period I started working.
I had left journalism for graduate school, with no intention of ever going back to journalism. But I sent out my resume to The Austin American Statesman and got a gig recording football scores at the paper on Friday night.
One Friday, the Statesman’s sports editor approached me. “You’re from New York, right?”
“Actually, Connecticut,” I said.
“Close enough. Anyway, would you like to cover horse racing for the paper?” he asked.
I hesitated a second, simply because I had come to graduate school to get out of newspaper work.
But I said yes and started soon after.
* * *
So for the next two years or so, I went to the racetrack three times a week during the track’s two racing seasons, sitting on the bleachers in an Hawaiian or polo shirt, alternately handicapping (picking who would win) and reading books from my graduate program. Manor raced quarter horses, which meant the races were as short as 220 yards and lasted as few as 20 seconds. There was a lot of sitting and reading and sometimes staring at the landscape. I had always lived in places with lots of trees and hills, and I looked at the flatness as a novelty for much of my time there.
I had been a reporter for two and half years before school and wrote for the college paper before that. So I was able to get used to the rhythm of racetrack journalism fairly easily. You learn the expectations of your editors and then set out to fulfill them. All the desk wanted from me was 500 words or so about the race and perhaps a preview of the next day’s race. As someone who often had to condense a 2 1/2 hour meeting into the same length in 30 minutes, the racetrack writing was the easiest 50 bucks I ever made.
But even after I took a teaching assistantship with the School of Nursing at UT (they were desperate for writing instructors—all the graduate students there wanted to do clinical work), I kept the horse racing gig simply because it was interesting, an experience like I never had before.
The daily life of being somewhere you initially perceive as exotic is a weird one; you know that what you are doing is different, and it certainly was for me. But it also becomes completely normal. I sat there day after day, learning to understand this particular style of racing, the people who attended it, and to some degree Texas.
At the same time, I recognized how much I loved graduate school, particularly my field of American Studies. I had never been around people I felt so comfortable with, who shared the same passions as I did. Conversations could go on for hours, even days, and I learned so much about the world through my reading and discussion that I became one of those professors who does not discourage students from going to graduate school, even though job prospects can be shaky. I found the experience so valuable that I would recommend it to any like-minded person.
The two sides of my life sometimes melded together. I would bring fellow graduate students out to the racetrack, and I met a smart, beautiful woman at the track, who became my companion in seeing and doing Austin things. I ended up writing about the racetrack’s design for a class and then a master’s thesis.
My graduate school friends were often surprised by how easily I got along at the racetrack, how comfortable I was talking to racing officials, trainers, and jockeys, who were so much different than I was. My only explanation was that we shared the same passion for horse racing.
* * *
When I think of Manor Downs, I think real Texas, even though I shouldn’t. I feel as if my experience there was my glimpse into what people in Texas might have been really like as opposed to my fellow graduate students, most of whom had no Texas ties. And that strikes me now as a bit dangerous.
In Manor, I sat for hours at a time on an air-cooled bench, in other words with no air-conditioning, unlike my endless hours at the PCL, the graduate-oriented library at UT. The seasons were spring and fall, so that was okay. It was dusty. People wore cowboy hats, not ironically, but to protect themselves from the sun. People wore big belts with their names on it or for their triumphs on horses without irony. There was no self-consciousness at the track, nothing to make someone think that one was playing at Texan. At Manor, I was in a Texas of Texans, unlike Austin, which was its own Texas thing.
But there were definitely divides at the track. Don, a trainer who was born in Missouri but had lived in Texas for 25 years, was still not considered Texan. And then there was race (though not class).
For example, it seemed to me that Hispanic trainers and jockeys were underbet, which means given their success, they attracted less money than they should have, a not infrequent occurrence in general. My friend Michael tells me that women trainers in Europe are also routinely underbet.
More disturbingly, I was privy to the infrequent but regular expression of racial epithets. It made me recall the trip I made to Texas in college, when I was spirited around by two friends of a friend, who seemed funny and nice, until they rolled down the window and yelled a racial epithet at a walking African American. I said nothing then, and nothing at the racetrack, something I still regret. I also didn’t respond when the racing secretary made a Jewish joke at my expense after I complained about losing a race I feel I should have won.
In Austin, I was not witness to the same type of racial outspokenness, though I know from my close friend of mine who is African American that whites uttered racial epithets regularly at her in Austin itself or refused to hand change directly to her (more than once).
We used to argue about Austin’s liberalism, and I argued with her that a place that voted overwhelmingly to restrict development (the Save Our Springs initiative) and voted for a green city council (this was in the 1990s) was by definition liberal. She argued that no place could liberal that wasn’t racially progressive, and I now agree with her.
* * *
The racism expressed at Manor Downs poisoned my experience there and in Texas. I tell this story not to indict Texans or even the racetrack (and even if it were an indictment, the statute of limitations would long be over—it was more than 20 years ago). Still when trying to tell the story of this racetrack, I found it impossible to ignore the racism, though it was a very small portion of my experience. It’s now taken over this essay, and I wonder whether that’s always true, that racial incidents tend to implant themselves in a locale like invasive weeds.
At the same time, the end of Austin, the edge of Austin, and the beginning of Manor do not lie solely or perhaps at all among racial lines. Austin was more self-conscious than Manor. For all of Austin’s pleasure, it was always worried about its maintenance. Manor Downs too was worried about staying open, but it had no doubts about the function of its track. It was open for racing. Austin was just open, for possibilities, for change, for business, for the environment, for weirdness. And yet, when I think of Austin, I don’t think of weirdness. I think of my absolute context there. Manor seems the weird place to me, which is why I am writing about it.
Now, Manor Downs has closed, likely due to the same problems that plagued it when I worked there, the small crowds except for an occasional day that coincided with an important race either there or broadcast from far away. But like all memories, the races still run in my mind.
 I was told if a game score did not come in, I was supposed to call the local community’s Dairy Queen.
 I first lived in the Enfield neighborhood of Austin when I moved to Texas—many of the streets in that neighborhood are named after Connecticut towns and cities: Hartford, Wethersfield, Winsted, Poquonock, Sharon, Enfield, Woodlawn are all cities in CT.
 Often when I came into the newspaper, someone on the sports desk would ask to see my wallet, to see how I did.
 As long as you don’t look at graduate school as a vocational school. It is, but only for conducting your own research, and even that…
Jonathan Silverman is an Associate Professor of English and Co-Director of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the author of Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) and the co-author of The World Is a Text (Pearson, 2012), now in its fourth edition.