Observer editor Bob Moser interviewed legendary author, journalist and wit Calvin Trillin recently in Austin. Read the introduction from Trillin’s new collection of stories about the Lone Star State, Trillin on Texas, below and watch a video of excerpts from his interview.
Yes, I do have a Texas connection, but, as we’d say in the Midwest, where I grew up, not so’s you’d know it. I come from an immigrant family. Although my father sounded like Harry Truman and freely used phrases like “Haven’t had so much fun since the hogs ate little sister,” he was brought to western Missouri as an infant from a spot in the Tsarist empire which my family always referred to as “near Kiev”—a term that led me to believe as a child that they had lived in the suburbs. As a schoolboy in Kansas City, I read inspiring stories about how new Americans from such places had sailed into New York Harbor, wept at the sight of the Statue of Liberty, and entered the Land of the Free at Ellis Island. I was always puzzled by these stories. In the first decade of the twentieth century, my paternal grandparents—in fact, my father himself—had embarked from Europe and disembarked three weeks later in Galveston, Texas.
By the time I happened upon an explanation for that odd migration pattern, I was an adult. The only one of the immigrant generation still alive was my Uncle Benny Daynofsky—who, in his eighties, was living in a little row house in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he’d gone directly from Galveston in 1907, and devoting much of his time to tending the tomatoes he grew in his backyard. I was lying on the beach, reading a book called The Provincials, and I had reached a chapter on the tense relations at the turn of the twentieth century between German Jews in New York—many of whom had established themselves as respectable and prosperous citizens—and the horde of impoverished Eastern European immigrants pouring into the Lower East Side. It said that the financier Jacob Schiff, concerned about the conditions on the Lower East Side “and embarrassed by the image it created for New York’s German Jews,” pledged half a million dollars in 1906 to the Galveston Movement, which diverted ten thousand immigrants to Galveston.
I sat upright. “Embarrassed!” I said to my wife. “Who is Jacob Schiff to be embarrassed by my Uncle Benny Daynofsky?” My Uncle Benny (actually, my great-uncle) had lived for decades in St. Joe without doing anything at all embarrassing, unless you count making pickled tomatoes too hot for anyone else to eat. Certainly, he’d done nothing as embarrassing as some of the schemes Jacob Schiff cooked up with robber barons like E. H. Harriman. When it comes to rapacious nineteenth-century capitalism, my family’s hands are clean. I immediately wrote an essay about discovering, belatedly, how my family got to this country. Its first line was “And who is Jacob Schiff to be embarrassed by my Uncle Benny Daynofsky?”
Any celebration of Uncle Benny’s arrival in Texas more than a century ago is, then, clouded a bit by the circumstances, in the way that any celebration of Australia’s founding settlers is clouded a bit by the fact that they were convicts. Like those settlers transported to Australia, my forebears were diverted to Texas because they were unwanted somewhere else. As a matter of fact, I later read that before Galveston Movement immigrants left the old country, they had to agree in writing not to remain in Galveston. They were unwanted there, too. It almost goes without saying that they were unwanted “near Kiev.” My people did not arrive in the Land of the Free riding waves of acclamation.
As it’s turned out, Galveston, where there is a museum devoted to the Galveston Movement, is about the only Texas city that I haven’t visited as a reporter. In traveling around the United States doing articles for The New Yorker—for fifteen years, I did a piece from somewhere in the country every three weeks—I’ve often found myself in Texas. This has not been by design. There has simply been a lot going on in Texas—a newspaper war in Dallas, a barbecue discovery in Lexington, a mysterious death in Bastrop County. In writing about other parts of the country, I have often referred to Texas. For instance, in a 1977 piece about the eviction of some poor Filipino residents from a building called the International Hotel in San Francisco—an eviction that had come after an eight and a half month struggle and had at the end required several hundred policemen—I suggested that American cities could be ranked on a left-to-right spectrum according to how long tenants whose eviction had become a cause managed to stay where they were. “Houston is on the far right of the spectrum, with an R.I.B. (Remain in Building) Index of from twenty minutes to an hour,” I wrote. “Houston’s most powerful citizens are known for a devotion to private property so intense that they see routine planning and zoning as acts of naked confiscation. Houston may also come to mind because at one point in its recent history both the mayor and the police chief conducted real estate businesses on the side.”
Wearing my other hat—the jester’s cap of someone who attempts to make snide and underhanded jokes about respectable public officials—I have often found myself writing about Texans. Again, this has not been by design. For the past few decades, Texas politicians have found a natural habitat on the national political stage in the way that Dominican shortstops have found a natural habitat in major league baseball. So, you might say that this book is accidental—or, to put it another way, the fault lies with Texas and not with me. I find that a complicated explanation when I’m asked why someone who grew up in Missouri and now lives in New York is publishing a book on Texas. So far, though, I have resisted the temptation to reply, “Well, I happen to come from an old Texas family.”
Excerpts from editor Bob Moser’s interview with Calvin Trillin