I came from the west, in search of a place that felt like home. I was a highwayman, putting distance between myself and Phoenix with each sun-bleached mile. I’d spent the first eight months of my professional career in Arizona working for an alt-weekly newspaper, Phoenix New Times, writing stories I loved in a place I’d grown to hate. Too hot, too unceasingly scorched. In the long year of 2003, Phoenix revealed itself to me as the parched brown landscape of death. I missed the four seasons of my Midwestern youth, the verdant green of spring and summer, even as I knew I didn’t want to return to the worn familiarity of my Iowa childhood. I wanted to see other parts of the U.S. and live in places more inviting than the one I was fleeing.
So, I moved to Dallas. (Yes, I know: still hot.)
It was just me and my 20-foot U-Haul van and the 1988 Cadillac I’d hitched behind it. The Caddy was massive, the Brougham d’Elegance line, the last full-size model Cadillac made. Altogether I had 40 feet of vehicle behind me, way too much for a 23-year-old kid. I’d asked the guy at the U-Haul rental shop in Phoenix if I would need a special permit or something to put that much hossin’ metal on the road.
He’d laughed. I wasn’t joking, not exactly.
It wasn’t until I reached the point on Interstate 10 where it intersects with Interstate 20 and I moved northeast toward Odessa—about 170 miles east of El Paso and 600 miles into my trip—that I learned how to drive my cargo. The side mirrors’ blind spots were in fact massive voids that concealed from view even midsize cars. Better to stay in the freeway’s far-right lane. Better to accelerate slowly, too, so I didn’t drag the Caddy’s bumper against the road. All this infuriated the drivers around me, none more than the ones I encountered three days into my trek in the city I’d hoped would feel like home.
I hit Dallas at rush hour.
Two decades later and well into middle age, my wandering through the desert to Dallas at peak traffic seems almost comical. I tell the story to my kids to lighten their moods, but it did not feel light in the moment.
It felt terrible. Horns blasting, vehicles darting and weaving to my right, my left, up ahead, me signaling from Interstate 30 onto Central Expressway, no one giving an inch in downtown Dallas, screaming, swearing, but somehow making it onto the highway and then somehow getting off it at Mockingbird Lane, only to navigate the equally treacherous and more confusing surface streets of East Dallas, my printed-out MapQuest directions my only guide until, at last, panting, I found my apartment complex on Live Oak Street.
Some of my colleagues at my new employer, the alt-weekly Dallas Observer, had offered to help me unpack, and while I appreciated the extra hands that night, I was most concerned with what remained outside the apartment, on the street: my Caddy.
I’d bought it for 3,500 bucks from the aging son of a recently deceased little old lady in Des Moines the summer before my senior year at Iowa State. She had mostly just driven it to church and back. The 15-year-old Caddy had only 40,000 miles. I smiled as I drove it back to campus. It was, above all, a gag purchase—a car so anachronistic to a college setting and the early digital age that its huge berth and long hood, stretching way out before me, became the ultimate ironic statement. At a public university, it is hard to be known for anything unless you are the quarterback of the football team. For a not insubstantial number of people, though, I became the guy who drove the ’88 Caddy.
At a public university, it is hard to be known for anything unless you are the quarterback of the football team. For a not insubstantial number of people, though, I became the guy who drove the ’88 Caddy.
I drove it after graduation to an internship in New York, and from there back across the country to that first job in Phoenix. By the time I drove to Dallas, my Caddy was no longer my inside joke. I loved it openly, earnestly. The leather upholstery felt like a comfortable couch, the suspension still absorbed every bump. The truth was I’d never been in a car as luxurious. The Caddy had eased not only each voyage but also my trek from youth to young adulthood. It was my one constant, my one friend.
I wanted Dallas to feel as warm and inviting as the interior of the Caddy.
I drove it everywhere. I had to. Reporting in-depth stories for the Observer meant meeting lots of people. Phone interviews wouldn’t get me what I needed. I met proper white ladies in Highland Park and Black men in dashikis in South Dallas. I’d park and the response was always the same: Now that’s a nice car. The Caddy was my icebreaker. I drove it to see up-and-coming bands in Deep Ellum and Willie Nelson at Fair Park. I drove it to the moneyed high-rises of Turtle Creek, where I sipped Scotch whiskies with corporate lawyers, and then drove it back to East Dallas to indulge in the kind stuff with marginally employed bohemians. I saw a city mature before my eyes in the Caddy: developers refurbishing abandoned hotels downtown, and artisans and small business owners building new shops in Oak Cliff. The vibe was funky and so much fun.
The Caddy showed me Dallas’ ugliness, too. A white guy—a then-employee in the city’s water and utilities department—once hopped in the car, riding shotgun, and as he pointed out the particulars of his work, he also repeatedly, and cavalierly, dropped the N-word. I was too shocked to raise anything above a mild objection. I’m still ashamed I didn’t kick him out on the spot. I covered cops and courts a bit in those days, when Dallas was the crime capital of the U.S.—most of it the result of feuds over drugs that rushed up Interstate 35 from cartels in Mexico. I’d parked the Caddy before enough yellow-taped crime scenes to know I didn’t want to be a crime reporter forever.
She was seven years older than me and originally from Houston, specifically the Fifth Ward neighborhood that produced the rap group Geto Boys. Our differences in age, race, and experience only drew us closer.
Dallas was an education in that way, a city perpetually teaching itself what it wanted to be just as it instructed me in who I might become. The biggest lesson started on the night the Caddy and I fought the North Tollway rush hour to find a wine bar in suburban Addison. It was a meet-and-greet happy hour for the media, and the first person I saw was a gorgeous Black woman with glasses drooping down her nose. We glanced at each other just long enough to eventually work our way to a corner of the packed room.
Her name was Sonya, she said over the din. She was also a writer. Among other projects, she wrote the nightlife column for the Observer, “The Guest List.” I wanted something terrible to impress her, so I trotted out the line that had worked everywhere else in Dallas.
“I drive an ’88 Cadillac.”
Her eyes, those beautiful eyes, went wide. “You do?!”
“Yes! It’s outside, if you want to see it.”
We walked outside, and then Sonya walked a circle around the beast, all 20 glorious feet of it.
We became inseparable. I mean that quite literally. I began spending so much time at Sonya’s downtown studio loft that one month the electricity bill for my own apartment back in East Dallas totaled 33 cents. She was seven years older than me and originally from Houston, specifically the Fifth Ward neighborhood that produced the rap group Geto Boys. Our differences in age, race, and experience only drew us closer. We had that much more to learn about each other.
Sonya is a former model who’d worked at Neiman’s after graduating from UT. She took me to fashion shows at the FIG, near the Dallas Museum of Art, to see the beautiful people. We went to gay bars on Cedar Springs Road with her best friend, Brian. We ate, with her connections, at restaurants whose long waitlists didn’t apply to us.
Sonya’s studio was one-and-a-half blocks from my office, which meant I increasingly left the Caddy for the night in the Observer’s outdoor parking lot. It was there when I needed it, though I needed it less and less. A few months into our relationship, Sonya wanted to take me to meet her family in Houston. It’d be a weekend trip, and we both knew what it signified: Her mom and dad had never met any of her past boyfriends. I offered to drive the Caddy, but the beast guzzled gas at a surreal clip; I burned half a tank driving to Fort Worth and back. Sonya said we should take her Honda Accord instead.
When we got back to Dallas Sunday night, we stopped by the Observer to pick up the Caddy.
I didn’t see it.
Had I forgotten I’d parked it somewhere else, maybe in one of the free street-side spots along the block?
I turned to Sonya; we both knew. I got out of her car and walked into the paper’s parking lot. I saw broken glass where the Caddy had been. The whole crime came to me: the car thief circling the lot, one night, maybe two, maybe more, noticing how nobody came out of the office to claim the car and how no guard stood watch over the lot. From there the job was easy: busting open the driver-side window, unlocking the door, hot-wiring the engine, using the key fob I kept attached to the driver-side sun visor to lift the white barricade at the lot’s exit, which served as the Caddy’s only protection from thieves.
Sonya came over to hug me, but it was no use. I shook with rage.
We filed a police report that night over the phone. I begged the officer to find the Caddy, to return it to me, and unharmed. It was magical thinking.
I failed to stay calm as I spoke, realizing the odds were not in my favor. Dallas had a lot of desperate people—drug users short on cash, lost souls short on sense. I’d written about them. They would do most anything in the law or outside it to get by, get money.
A few days later I got a call from the Dallas Police Department.
They’d found the Caddy.
I’ll never forget the drive. I rode shotgun in a pickup, past acres upon acres of commandeered and battered vehicles, in a massive lot the city owned in the far reaches of West Dallas. The guy with the potbelly who worked at the lot remained quiet, perhaps out of respect but more likely out of boredom. He chauffeured a lot of people to the recovered cars that ended up here. The grounds extended beyond a hill, a bend, reaching into distant treelines, and everywhere were cars and trucks and SUVs, some smashed something good and others barely damaged. It felt like we drove for miles.
At last, he slowed and pointed 30 feet ahead of him.
“There,” he said.
The Caddy’s front tires were flat, and all four rims were gone. The car thief, or thieves, had ripped the ornament off the hood. They’d banged the Caddy’s body like it’d placed runner-up in a demolition derby. They’d stripped the hood of its vinyl finish. They’d stripped the interior of any copper—copper being big on the black market. And, as if they were furious at them, they’d sliced up and ripped out fragments of the leather seats.
My car had been desecrated. It didn’t even look like my car.
I walked to the pickup and refused to turn around. If I turned around, I’d sob. It was only when we approached the lot’s office that I realized, for all my attempts at stoicism, I was gasping for breath.
Sonya came with me that day. She’d waited in the office, and when I’d returned from the lot, she took one look at me and knew what shape the Caddy was in. She quickly got us out of there and back to her car.
Once we closed the doors to her Honda, she turned to me.
We hugged, and I fought back tears.
I loved her. We had started to try out the L-word, its dimensions, the comfort of its implications. That afternoon in her car, holding Sonya closer still, letting the tears that welled in my eyes drip onto my cheeks, and then hers, I understood something. I understood the moment’s significance even as I lived it, an insight that would last well beyond the hug.
The Caddy had served its purpose.
It had been the symbol of my youth and bachelorhood, and as much as I’d loved it, I loved Sonya, whom it had led me to, even more. The Caddy could not take up space in my new life with her. For all the journeys we’d been on, its final destination had to be here.
My life with Sonya felt as warm and inviting as the interior of the Caddy, and my life in Dallas acquired a similar glow and hearth. I loved the way the city could surprise you.
My life with Sonya felt as warm and inviting as the interior of the Caddy, and my life in Dallas acquired a similar glow and hearth. I loved the way the city could surprise you. A few months after the Caddy was stolen, Sonya and I voted for a gay Hispanic woman, Lupe Valdez, to be sheriff. Not only did she win, but nobody thought her winning was a big deal. Dallas was expanding into something truly cosmopolitan, international even. Cranes began to dot the skyline, promising more office towers and luxury condos, more downtown foot traffic, more shops and live music, more vibrancy.
The city had so much to love already. I loved the afternoons on the patio of The Old Monk—how the first sip of a cocktail at happy hour softened the day and eased it into night, as my colleagues and I looked out on a shaded Henderson Avenue. I loved the back nine of Cedar Crest on a Sunday morning, hitting a tee shot on a par 3 right into the Dallas skyline, and listening for gospel music wafting above the course from the nearby South Dallas churches. I loved the food: as many cuisines for the taking as my summer in New York, but cheaper, and better.
Fourteen months after the Caddy was stolen in Dallas, I showed the city just how much I loved it: Sonya and I got married there. We exchanged vows in our friends’ backyard in Oak Lawn, a United Church of Christ pastor whose church I attended officiating the ceremony, a chef whose Italian restaurant we loved serving our families. Two hundred of our friends came to the reception the following night, every one of them fellow Dallasites.
We began to imagine a future in Dallas as we honeymooned on Cape Cod. While there, we heard from one of Sonya’s friends in Boston about a job opening at a local magazine. I knew I had a good life in Dallas, maybe the best life, but my wanderlust and ambition led me to apply.
Four months later, Sonya and I moved to Boston. Sonya, forever a Texan, cried as we crossed the border into Arkansas. I was not much better to comfort her.
We live in Connecticut now, with our three kids and Sonya’s mother, who drove up from Houston after divorcing Sonya’s dad and retiring. We have a good life, maybe even a great life, on a shaded street in a quiet suburb. But it’s not what we had in Texas. When I published my first book a few years ago, the promotional tour kicked off in Dallas. We held a reading at The Wild Detectives bookstore in Oak Cliff. The neighborhood amazed us: coffee shops, boutique restaurants, and funky artisan storefronts, everything walkable, everything fulfilling the potential of a decade earlier.
The whole of the city was like that: dense, diverse, developed. Dallas had matured alongside Sonya and me. It was wonderful and wistful. A decade and a half had passed and within it a whole lifetime of experience. But seeing old friends in familiar haunts, and some new ones, still felt inviting.
It still felt like home.