Returning: The past can seep into the present when it's least expected A LETTER FROM DALLAS

November 25, 1990|By Diane Winston | Diane Winston,Diane Winston is a reporter for The Sun.

Dallas When a friend suggested lunch at a new Italian restaurant, how could I say no? Especially when she said it was her very favorite place and the spot she took all out-of-town friends.

To her, I was an out-of-town friend. To me, I was back home.

I left Dallas 13 months earlier but, whenever I located myself in space -- like Dorothy dreaming of Kansas -- that's where I'd be.

Missing Dallas made me an easy mark.

I know. I once disdained it, too.

On my first trip to the city, to cover a convention, I wondered how soon I could leave. The open spaces, thick accents and queasy sense this city killed President Kennedy made me want to take multiple showers. Later, when I was offered a job here, I marveled at destiny's cruel deal. Was I being punished? Tested? Paying for a past life? I could not imagine a destination where I had less desire to be.

What happened? Places are like people. You fall hardest when you least expect it. When you think you have nothing in common, each discovery feels richer and deeper, stronger and surer. In Dallas, I fell in love with the contradictions -- bankers and Baptists, blue laws and video bars, Stetsons and spandex.

Still, I'm not naive. Dallas can be a cruel place. The public's mean streak runs as wide as its piety runs deep -- and the mix isn't pretty.

But that's another story.

This story begins with a restaurant named "Pente," which in Italian means shade.

Pente is in Deep Ellum -- a cross-section of downtown streets which Dallusians like to think of as their version of Soho, Manhattan's past-hip art district. Years ago, Deep Ellum was peopled by Jewish merchants and African-American blues musicians. But, in the past decade, there's been a slow boom of art galleries, dance clubs, nouvelle cuisineries, and retro clothing stores.

Pente was a high-tech place with glossy floors and walls, exposed pipes and a black bar. You could see the chefs through a glass window in the back, and the waiters all looked foreign.

The sense I had been here before sneaked up on me. In fact, I had been undressed here before. Pente had been Pentimento -- a clothing store where I tried on chic dresses and narrow-cut blouses.

The realization I was eating where I once stood naked and vulnerable -- the clothes fitted very badly -- made me uncomfortable. The idea of one incarnation seeping out into another was jarring.

But what seemed jarring to me was not necessarily unusual for Dallas. In a place where newness and change are constant, history has an uneasy way of slipping into the frame.

I had a similar feeling when I visited the exhibit commemorating the Kennedy assassination. The memorial, located in the old Texas School Book Depository, took 26 years to build. The building's walls and floors are rough and unchanged, but the feel of the place is squeaky-new, spanky-clean.

The exhibition, which is the latest in movable panels, video installations, film presentation, almost feels as if it is about something which occurred long ago and far away.

Until you walk into the front room and look out a window.

Out there is the highway. The grassy knoll. Dealey Plaza. You can see the motorcade, hear the gunshots, smell the panic. The horror and fear of that November morning can still bleed into a clear summer day.

It's pentimento.

It's like that in politics here, too. Clayton Williams' gubernatorial campaign projected the image of a successful businessmen. Here was the modern corporate captain eager to run state government with the leanness and meanness which made him a West Texas millionaire.

But then other images began to ooze through.

Some were pleasant -- lulling idylls of a man on a horse, a frontiersman staking his claim.

Others were cruder -- startling revelations of a man who treated women like meat, a chiseler who could excuse himself from paying taxes.

The night I came to Dallas, the newscasts led with Mr. Williams' refusal to shake Ann Richards' hand. Mr. Williams believed he was playing the role of a tough, straight-shooting politician; voters saw something else.

They saw something of the past -- a mean-spiritedness, a contemptuousness, a seething hatred which even their sullied souls could not abide.

They saw the angry crowd which had spit on Lyndon Johnson, the hostile mob which knocked Adlai Stevenson on the head, the boldface newspaper headlines which excoriated John F. Kennedy.

They saw the ugly images which the new South was supposed to hide.

That day, when Clayton Williams refused to shake his opponents' hand, the past seeped into the present. Pentimento did him in.

It was several days later that I lunched at Pente. I guess I shouldn't have had wine. I spent too much time reminiscing about clothes which didn't fit. It wasn't until the sharp bite of coffee set me straight that I let it go. That I could see the images of the past had no more power.

Things change. The past need not obscure the present. I picked up the check.

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