I’m standing in an overheated hotel reception room in downtown San Antonio, loosening a tie that feels like a noose and knocking back the free Merlot as if it’s water.
My setting combines the decor of a staid Victorian library and the kind of bristly, black-and-white cowhide chairs that only Texans find attractive. It’s as good a place as any for a media reception for a regional wine and food festival. Except I’m one of the only media here, which means I have to face the combined onslaught of several dozen beaming PR flacks, circling the room and looking for soft targets. Once they discover I’m from a Canadian publication, their laser-brightened smiles crank down a notch and they begin looking around for someone better to talk to. Relieved that I’m such a journalism nonentity, I stuff a few passing pastry treats in my mouth, drain my final glass of Texas wine – who knew? – and push through the crowd into the cool, early-evening air. Downtown San Antonio is cleaner and more ordered than Vancouver, without a squashed cigarette butt or rheumy panhandler in sight. For a city of 1.2 million, it’s suspiciously quiet. As a top convention town – complete with a forest of generic hotel towers – it works hard to keep its streets safe for the armies of golf-shirted middle managers that roll in every year. Musing over whether to tell people I’m with the big toilet-brush convention or the one-legged ballroom dancers meet, I cross the street and descend into one of the city’s main attractions. Originally a sewer canal, the River Walk (right) was transformed in the 1930s into a promenade of restaurant patios and fairy-lit trees. The river itself is quite narrow and a chuckling passerby, seeing me peering into its murky depths, informs me it’s only 1.2 metres deep. There are no railings, so I ask him how many dead drunks are pulled out every year. He backs away from the edge, mumbling a reply as he continues on his way. Lulled by the area’s soothing ambience – or perhaps the smiling greeter wearing a short black dress like a second skin – I nip into the Landing, an unassuming café-style club half-full of gently inebriated couples leaning into each other. Sipping a beer, I watch unenthusiastically as six fatherly old white guys – they look like retired schoolteachers – climb onstage, gingerly adjust their instruments, then swiftly launch into an ear-popping evocation of 1920s New Orleans jazz. The place is suddenly hopping and I spend the rest of the evening grinning like an idiot. Next morning, after the kind of breakfast – door-sized buttermilk biscuits drowned in thick sausage gravy – that will flash before my eyes if I ever have a stroke, I make for the Mexican-dominated Market Square. Dripping with Lycra wrestling masks, intriguing Day of the Dead artwork and glow-in-the-dark bakery treats that use every food dye ever concocted, it’s a colourful reminder that Texas was once part of Mexico. I find another reminder over at the Alamo, San Antonio’s most famous attraction. The site of a brutal Mexican massacre of Texian rebels fighting for regional independence, it’s a disappointingly squat mission building crawling with snap-happy tourists. Bereft of artifacts, the interior is like a bare old church hall while the adjoining gift shop is much bigger and more alluring. Tempted by a stuffed-armadillo beer-can holder and some orange ties with silhouettes of oil wells, I settle for some cookies baked into the shapes of lone stars, cowboy boots and the Alamo facade. Someone back home is going to be very lucky.