The Big O

No country for fragile people.
by Published on
Odessa's Billiard Palace.

Second in a series on recession-era Texas.

ODESSA-Oh, sure. You can laugh about this flat, dry part of the world, where the streets are broad and peppered with pickup trucks and SUVs. But it grows on you. Who needs trees and hills and water when the sky is this big and you can see forever?

Stay here long enough, see enough incandescent sunsets, talk to enough people, and you begin to understand some eternal West Texas truths that flourish in a land where nothing ever came easy except wind and dust and heat:

Triple-digit heat is bearable as long as it’s a dry heat.

No other form of entertainment or passion can compete with watching a winning high-school football team on a crisp, cool autumn night.

The price of oil rises and falls. Good times never last-but neither do bad times.

West Texas and the Permian Basin, which produces about one-seventh of this country’s oil, don’t attract people who break easily. Talk to anyone here over 45, and you’ll hear the same sentiments again and again.

“When it’s good times, most of our customers say they know it isn’t going to last,” says Gail Adkins, who cuts and colors hair at Salon 52 in Odessa. “They’ve been through it before. Bad times always show up eventually.”

“I’ve been here since ’56 and I’ve seen it happen over and over again,” says Lenora Mancha. She owns Ben’s Little Mexico, the kind of place that serves solid, spicy Tex-Mex food that has nourished generations of West Texans through wars, spiraling oil prices, droughts, and dust storms. “It will all go back up eventually. My husband and I used to spend everything we made. We traveled everywhere. I don’t regret it. But I’m older and wiser now. I save my money.”

Odessa’s reliance on oil makes its economy-not to mention its people-strikingly different from the rest of the state and country, says economist and part-time Odessa resident Ray Perryman.

“Odessa was late entering this recession because of the strength in its energy sector,” he says. “Even now, it is less affected than many areas. Nonetheless, we are seeing a slowdown in the energy sector. It’s not an ‘oil bust’ by any means, but prices are a little below the levels needed. The housing market has remained relatively healthy, though, and the local community banks are among the healthiest in the country.”

Still, when you visit local businesses, you hear plenty of talk about the human toll when oil surges to a record $147 a barrel, as it did last summer, then nosedives to the middle double digits.

Lindsey Rhoads, co-owner of Salon 52, says her business is doing fairly well. But her husband, who worked in the oil industry, lost his job after crude prices fell. Since he has multiple sclerosis, they worry about the medical costs, now being covered by a multiple sclerosis foundation. “He’s getting free shots that would have cost $2,000 a month,” Rhoads says. “Praise the Lord.”

Nicole Cameron, a stay-at-home mother, sighs as she places her 4-month-old son into a stroller in a Walmart parking lot. “Last year, my husband made bonuses,” she says. “Now everything’s kind of topsy-turvy. They’re putting a lot of pressure on the store managers where he works. We’re also saving for a house, so we’ve really had to tighten our belts.”

Hairdresser Gail Adkins, whose husband is a pastor at the Circle J Cowboy Church, has seen members of their small congregation laid off from good oil field jobs. “I had a guy tell me,” she says, “he’d do anything-it didn’t matter what it was-to support his family.”

“Guys who were making $20 to $40 an hour in the oil fields get laid off,” says D. Kirk Edwards, president of MacLondon Royalty Co. in Odessa. “They make a lot less when they have to come back into government jobs or teaching.”

There are jobs in Odessa. Edwards and Odessa Mayor Larry L. Melton say their city is doing well compared with the rest of the country, noting that Forbes magazine ranked Odessa as the top metropolitan area in the country for jobs. Unemployment is less than 6 percent. Perryman credits the city with doing an “excellent” job of diversifying its economy away from reliance on petroleum since the 1980s. “They’ve made major strides in distribution, marketing, health care, alternative energy and other areas,” he says.

The city also has dodged some economic bullets hitting folks elsewhere. “Odessa never overbuilt and never got into the subprime loan business,” Edwards says. “Our bankers are very conservative and wouldn’t lend without collateral.” Besides, “Odessa and Midland could never attract the kind of big builders who would come in and build 50 to 100 homes at a time. We wanted them, but they were too busy in bigger cities like Lubbock and Dallas. That was just good luck for us.”

Meanwhile, city leaders pursue new industries. “We’re actively trying to recruit a fourth-generation nuclear reactor-which would be phenomenal for us,” Edwards says. “You hear about other cities that say Not In My Backyard? Well, here, we say Build It In My Backyard-and we’ll pay you to do it.”

Says Mayor Melton: “We don’t want to end up a dried-up nothing in West Texas.”

Odessa and its harsh, empty landscape are an acquired taste. City leaders joke that nobody ever wants to come here; once people come, they don’t want to leave. The climate is dry. The nearby airport between Odessa and Midland connects to the East and West coasts. Traffic is light. Prices are low. Ruidoso, New Mexico, with its mountains, hiking and skiing, is a few hours away by car.

“Odessa is made up of working-class people,” says lawyer Ray Stoker. “But we have a junior college and four-year university at UTPB [University of Texas of the Permian Basin]. We’re getting ready to open a $40 million center for the performing arts between Midland and Odessa.

“We’re not,” he adds pointedly, “just a bunch of country bumpkins.”

In this part of the world, where nothing but tough, gnarled mesquite trees grow naturally, Stoker sees evidence of qualities he values in Odessans when he looks at a green lawn or a mature tree.

“I know that every tree in this town was planted by some human being,” he says. “People here have a can-do attitude about themselves. We know we can get it done. People here in West Texas are basically optimistic by nature.”

Lenora Mancha at Ben’s Little Mexico, for example. “People will always have to go out to eat,” she says. “There’s not too much to do in Odessa. Eating out is a big deal here.”

Business has slowed just a little. “I have customers who used to make $25 an hour in the oil fields,” she says, “and now they’re working at a car wash for minimum wage.

“They say it could be worse, though. They could still be living in California. At least the cost of living is low in Odessa.”

“Am I optimistic?” asks Samorn Moore, 60, the Thai-born co-owner and operator of the Billiard Palace in a nearby strip shopping center. She laughs. “I’ve lived here for almost 40 years. I’m always optimistic about everything.”

The business of billiards and drinking is more affected by daylight savings time than the economy, says Moore’s husband, William Weir. He sits at the bar in a giant, low-ceilinged room of pool tables and ashtrays every few feet. At a nearby table, a group of younger people talks and drinks and laughs. Through the distant windows, you can see bright daylight-almost as if sunlight is only a rumor in this cool, dim place.

“It’s a drinking town,” Weir says. “My clientele like to drink. I don’t see any sense in calling somebody an alcoholic or a drug addict. They’re just doing what they love-and they like to drink or do drugs.

“It’s like pool. They play a lot of pool here. They’re not addicted. They just love to play pool.”

Listening, you begin to think about what it takes to survive in a hard, unforgiving land, and about Nietzsche’s reminder that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Odessans are a strong, flinty, outrageously optimistic people, with a tough, sharp-tongued sense of humor. Those who are softer and more timorous and pessimistic can change-or leave. Economic dips mean little to people who learned long ago that life isn’t fair or easy, that the price of oil will break your heart and your bank account, and that the only thing you can count on is that the wind will always blow. n

Commentator and author Ruth Pennebaker lives in Austin and blogs at www.geezersisters.com.