A Place Called Midland

by Susan Orlean
The New Yorker
October 16 & 23, 2000

In Midland, Texas, it's not the heat; it's the lack of humidity. Almost total lack of it, or so it seems, especially when you first arrive and step out of the chilled Midland International Airport and into the dry-roasted air. Midland has the kind of air that hits you like a brick. After a few minutes, your throat burns. After a few days, your skin feels powdery, your eyelids stick, your hair feels dusty and rough. The longer you spend there, the more you become a little bit like the land--you dry out and cake and crack. Not until I spent time in Midland did I fully appreciate the fact that the earth has an actual crust, like bread that has been slowly baked. I became convinced that if I stayed for a while I would develop one, too.

Midland is a city of ninety-nine thousand, in the middle of the region known as the Permian Basin, a platform of sediment and salt capped with a wedge of rock which covers roughly a hundredand twenty-five thousand square miles of West Texas. Most people, if they know about Midland at all, know that it is where Baby Jessica McClure was rescued from a well thirteen years ago, and where George W. Bush grew up and later started his business career.("I don't know what percentage of me is Midland , " he once said in an interview, "but I would say people, if they want to understand me, need to understand Midland and the attitude of Midland.") Both associations suggest a city that is innocent, idyllic, congenial--the kind of place where people fish fallen babies out of wells and young men make fortunes in old-fashioned ways. But Midland struck me as weirder than that--its simplicity deceiving, its character harder to uncover and know.

Being inconspicuous is Midland's most conspicuous feature. It used to be called Midway, because it was half-way between Fort Worth and El Paso. When it was determined that there was already a Midway in Texas, it was re-named Midland, as if nothing else about it could inspire a name. A current city slogan is "Midland: In the Middle ofSomewhere." Previous slogans have included "Midland: Most Ambitious City Between the Oceans" and "Midland: Oil, Livestock, and Financial Center of the Permian Basin." Recently, the more buoyant seventies slogan "The Sky's the Limit" has been revived, since Bush has said that it embodies the Mid-land he knew.

Originally, Midland was a depot on the Texas & Pacific Railway. It outlived and outgrew the other flyspeck towns in the basin--now vanished cotton and cattle outposts like Boone and Slaughterand Toad Loop and Fighting Hollowand Bounce--by wooing oil companies to locate there after the first West Texasgusher, the Santa Rita, was tapped, in 1923. In the late twenties, a hopeful businessman built an ornate office tower to enhance Midland's prestige and named it the Petroleum Building. And in the thirties houses were literally picked up and moved from the neighboring town of McCamey to Midland in order to attract employees of Humble Oil. By the mid-fifties, Midland was where the oil-company engineers, geologists, lease-holders, and attorneys lived; its sister city, Odessa, was home to the tool-pushers and roughnecks.

The only measure of time that really matters in Midland is oil time. Recent history is divided into two periods. There was the mid-seventies through the early eighties, when OPEC was controlling the market and crude went up to an unimaginably high thirty-five dollars a barrel and was expected to go as high as a hundred: a Rolls-Royce dealership opened in town; Midland Airpark had a waiting list for private hangars; and powerboats were beached in nearly every driveway. And then there was 1986, and the years after that, when OPEC flooded the market, the price per barrel dropped to nine dollars, and the F.D.I.C. became the biggest employer in the county.

A popular local joke is to say that the city is in the middle of the finest fishing and hunting in the Southwest. The first person to try the joke on me was an engineer named Richard Witte. Like everyone else I met, he warned me that I'd never see the real Midland on my own and he offered to show me around. We took his pickup and rode out of the city on razor-straight roads to the oil fields--an ocean of gray dirt, unmarked, parched, spectacularly monotonous, not a ripple in it except for the occasional sunken spot of a former buffalo wallow, until you get to the edge of the Permian Basin caprock and fall off into the rest of the world. We skirted ranches on which little sprouted except for shrubby mesquite and rows of skeletal pump jacks bobbing for oil, and zigzagged across square miles so wide and empty that, even when we raced along, we seemed to be standing still. It looked like nothing, except that there were millions of dollars underneath us, sacks of money banked in stone.

Witte then took me to see the Clay-Desta Center, an office building with a fountain of silvery water and a life-size sculpture of a mother and baby giraffe in its atrium. It was a beastly day, and the gurgling sound of the water was so pleasant that we lingered for a bit; Witte said that people often came to the Clay-Desta Center just to be near the fountain. The idea of going to an office building to be near water seemed so peculiar that I asked whether there was a more natural source around. "Sure there is," Witte said. "In fact, we're in the middle of the finest fishing and hunting in the whole Southwest." Once Witte was satisfied by the look of shock on my face, he grinned. "Drive five hours in any direction and you'll find great fishing and hunting and boating," he said. "We're right in the middle of it. It's just that none of it's here." The second time I heard the joke--from a real estate broker, as I recall--I pretended to fall for it out of politeness; the third time someone--a lawyer--tried it on me, I delivered the punch line myself.

The first day I was in Midland, I stopped in an antique store to see what passed for an antique in West Texas, which had pretty much been unpopulated until the nineteen-twenties. I dug through old copies of Sunset magazine and empty Avon perfume bottles while the only other customer, a heavy, red-faced woman, talked to the store clerk. "The President made a lot of people mad," the customer was saying, and I turned to listen.

"A lot of Presidents do," the clerk replied.

"Well, he shouldn't have been in a convertible," the customer went on. "That was a big mistake. But, O.K., let's forget about the convertible, even. My feeling is that J.F.K. was a goner no matter what."

I had come to Midland expecting that everyone would be talking about the Presidential campaign, but it was the dead of summer and little was stirring; there were no local discussions of whether Midland might become the next Hope, Arkansas, or whether there would be house tours of Bush's former residences. It wasn't for lack of partisanship: another local joke is to say that you can name more than ten Democrats in town. It was just that the Bush candidacy seemed pre-destined and expected, a natural ascendancy. While I was in Midland, the big news stories were that one of the longest horizontal wells ever drilled in the area had been completed, reaching from its starting point, near Interstate 20, to a spot twelve thousand feet below the Midland K mart; that the Midland Rock Hounds had beat the Tulsa Drillers, 4-3, putting them back at the .500 mark for the season; and that oil prices were creeping up to thirty dollars a barrel.

Midland is such a small city and the Bushes are so woven into it that most people seem to have had some contact with them--lived down the street from them, or belonged to the same country club, or known Laura Bush when she was a girl. The Bush family first moved to Midland in 1950, when a lot of East Coast entrepreneurs were coming to Texas and looking for oil. It was a great moment to be punching holes in the Permian Basin: within nine years, George H. W. Bush had made his fortune and moved the family to Houston. In the mid-seventies, when George W. Bush came back to Midland and founded Arbusto Oil, it was still a good time to be in the business. But only half of Arbusto's wells hit oil or gas; eventually, the company faltered and merged with another dying company, which was then boughtout by Harken Energy, and Bush moved to Washington D. C. Virtually every oil-man I met remembered George W. from his Arbusto days. The comment I heard from most of them was, "George W. was the nicest young man you ever will meet. Just the nicest. But, you know, he never did earn a dime."

I was hot the whole time I was in Midland and dying to see anything green. When I could bear the heat, I walked around the deserted downtown, or through the neighborhood called Old Town Midland, or to the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Library, and Hall of Fame, over by the interstate. Everything seemed bleached and lifeless. Then, one afternoon, I drove out to the Racquet Club--which used to have George W. Bush as a member--to attend a party hosted by a local mortgage company. The clubhouse was cool and white-washed, the lawns were silken and lush, and when the kids did cannonballs into the swimming pool the water roared like applause. All the other guests at the party were in real estate, and they gathered in the shade of a live-oak tree, snacking on hors d'oeuvres and chat-ting about the annual performance ofSummer Mummers, the local vaudevilletroupe, and about the upcoming seasonof high-school football, which is by farthe biggest sport around.

It is a pretty nice time to be a real-estate broker in Midland. It is not as niceas it was in, say, 1980, when you couldshow people only two or three housesand know they would snap one up atany price. "This was not the real worldback then," Kay Sutton, who owns Century 21 in Midland, explained to me. "My daughter would shop and have lunch at the country club, and she didn't know that there was any other way people lived." Back then, so many new houses were going up that contractors were brought in from all over the country and had to camp out in R.V. s and tents.

These days are middling; still, the agents were feeling easy and the mortgage company was flush enough to have ordered shrimp. "It's the high price of oil," Kay Sutton said. "It makes people optimistic." When people are extremely optimistic, they want to live in a fancy development like Saddle Club North or Green Tree Country Club Estates, with maybe an attached three or four-car garage and a view of the golf course. The best houses have swimming pools and lawns that are as soft as lamb's wool--real luxury in a place where a gallon of drinking water can cost more thana gallon of gas. "Of course, everyone dreams of mature trees," Kay Sutton said. "But it's just a dream. You can't have both a new house and mature trees."

Right next to my hotel was a cafe called the Ground Floor, the unofficial clubhouse of a different Midland. The Ground Floor was opened in 1996 by a real estate investor from Seattle named John Nute; he put in free Internet access, sponsored live music and poetry readings, and made the restrooms available to anyone who walked in the door. The Ground Floor is across the street from Centennial Plaza, one of those sterile brick-and-concrete urban parks, and, once the cafe opened, the two places quickly filled with kids. "A lot of us misfits sort of found each other by hanging out at Centennial Plaza and the Ground Floor, " a seventeen-year-old named Barbara Lawhon explained to me one afternoon. "We'd sit around writing poetry and playing music. It was a really big deal."

By 1997, Nute says, Friday night crowds at Centennial Plaza had grown to two hundred teenagers. Some of them were skateboarders and rollerbladers, who began doing a move on the park benches called grinding, which tears the benches to shreds. By the next summer, a city ordinance forbidding skateboarding and rollerblading in Centennial Plaza was being strongly enforced, and Nute's business dropped off by more than two-thirds.

The year before the ordinance was enforced was one of the only times Barbara liked living in Midland. " Growing up here sort of sucked for me," she explained. "We were basically poor. Midland is all about money. All the rich kids get into upper-level classes, even though they can't spell. In the first day of honors English in eighth grade, our teacher made us stand up and say our names and why we wanted to be in an honors class, and then say what our parents did for a living. And your parents' occupation is listed on the roster for band and for some of the other clubs, too. It's gross." In Midland, the nickname for spoiled preppies is "whitehats," because of the fashion for wearing white painter hats with college logos. I told her I'd gone to the Midland Park Mall earlier in the week and had overheard a young guy in a white hat talking to two girls who were working at The Athlete's Foot. "Midland has a lot, a lot, o f money, " the young guy was saying, as the girls nodded enthusiastically. "There are more Mercedeses here than anywhere in the country. In other places, when kids get cars it's something like, you know, a Toyota."

"There are all these rich kids here," Barbara said. "They're doing coke, drinking, partying. They're totally into football and cheerleading and into trashing cars--just trashing them, for no reason. Everything here is about being trendy. There's even a trendy church, Kelview Heights Baptist Church, which is trendy because the pastor is on TV." Barbara said that her mother was a housecleaner. For a while, she had worked at a private club in the Clay Desta Center and she told Barbara that many of the younger rich men who were members behaved in a disgusting way. I was lucky to have met Barbara at all, because it turned out that she was planning to move to Austin in a couple of days, and she thought she would be a lot happier there. "It'd be great to live in Midland if you were rich," she said.

After a few minutes, Barbara and I were joined by Midge Erskine, one of the few environmental activists in town. Midge is an elegant, silver-haired woman who grew up in the East but came to Midland thirty years ago with her husband, a geologist. In the late seventies, she became unpopular with local oil companies when she protested their practices of dumping contaminated water and keeping their oil tanks uncovered--both of which killed thousands of birds and other wildlife. Recently, Midge began videotaping city council meetings and set up a Web site, Truthmidlandtx.com, raising questions about local power. In general, the cafe seemed to be the place where people's dark suspicions about their home town surfaced: Why was the Midland Airpark, which has no control tower, still operating? Who was so eager to come in and out of Midland sight unseen? Were police reporting the real crime statistics? How did So-and-So get his money, make his deals, and avoid getting busted? But, if the Ground Floor is the meeting place for Midland's local hippies, poets, folksingers, and Democrats, there may not be enough of them to keep it afloat; these days, the establishment is barely breaking even. Nute blames the city, for having scared away teenagers, and the economy, for having failed to bring a spark back to the city's downtown. To keep the cafe going, he was forced to liquidate his investments, and now he has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I went to Midland expecting to find an ordinary small city, but nothing about it was ordinary: not its weather or its topography or its history or its economy. People in Midland take in huge amounts of money, they lose huge amounts of money--then they move on to the next day. It's a manic depressive city, spending lavishly and then desperately suffering. One afternoon, I was out with Richard Witte, looking at the fanciest neighborhoods in town. "Here's a fella who lost millions, "he said, passing one sprawling Italianate ranch. "And see that house over there?" He pointed to a white brick confection with skylights and Palladian windows. "They lost all their money, had to sell every single piece of furniture, the TV, everything. You drive past these houses and you see a big, expensive home, but you don't know how the people might be living inside."

There's a saying in Midland that whenever you strike oil you go out and get a boat, a plane, and a mistress, and when you lose your money you get rid of them one by one, starting with the mistress. No one mentioned anything to me about mistresses, but several people I met in Midland had been forced to sell their boats and planes. No one seemed ashamed about having lost money: it was like catching a cold--common and widespread and out of your control. According to Texas law, it used to be slanderous to say someone was bankrupt, but then, in the late eighties, it became part of the vernacular, so the law was changed. One day, I was talking to a local lawyer, Warren Heagy, who himself had owned and then had to sell a couple of planes. On the way out of his office, he introduced me to a colleague, who said, "I don't understand all these Internet people whining about losing money. My husband and I lost seven million dollars and you don't see us in the newspaper complaining!"

Now oil prices are cresting again, but the buzz that always follows -- "Like being near a beehive on a spring day," Richard Witte says--is missing. There are still thirteen pages of oil listings in the Yellow Pages--Oil Marketers, Oil Well Casing Pullings, Oil Well Log Libraries, Oil Refiners, Oil & Gas Lawyers--and there is still a special oil-and-gas section in the newspaper every week, and every day I saw pickup trucks downtown with pieces of pump riggings bouncing around in the back. But the bust in 1986 was something no one had ever seen before, and Midland has not been the same since. When oil prices dropped from twenty-seven dollars to nine dollars a barrel, as many as seventy-five percent of the rigs were shut down, and roughly ten thousand people left Midland and never returned. Mobil, Texaco, Chevron, Conoco, and other companies scaled back their Midland operations and consolidated elsewhere, taking hundreds of administrative and executive jobs out oftown.

More important, there is little exploration left to do in the Permian Basin . Most of the entrepreneurial gamble is gone: all you can do these days is work on how to draw every last drop of oil out of the ground. Some scientists speculate that in the next half-century or so the Permian Basin will actually run out of oil and gas. The phrase "economic diversification" -- probably unheard of in town twenty years ago--was on the front page of the Midland Reporter-Telegram nearly every day I was in Texas. Midland may not become one of those forgotten towns that popped up on the caprock, never took hold, and then simply vanished, as if a high dry wind had blown it away, but these days the city is trying to market itself as a retirement haven and a convention site, just in case.

It's not hard to imagine that in Midland you are seeing the end of something. The pump jacks dipping up and down in the distance look prehistoric, and the hot wind bangs on the empty windows of the now defunct Midlander Athletic Club and the long gone Rockin' Rodeo. You even sense it in the Petroleum Club, an exclusive organization that caters to local oil executives. It must have been a great place to make an entrance in the days when oil was big and Big Oil was invincible: the club has an enormous open staircase, and when you walk up to the dining room you feel as if you were rising to the top of the world. The day I visited, though, the club was a little vacant; the empty stairway seemed to stretch forever, and half the dining room had been sectioned off and filled with artificial palm trees. It was my last day in Midland: I was having lunch with John Paul Pitts, the oil-and-gas editor at the Reporter-Telegram, and he seemed to know everyone in the room. This one had been worth millions, and that one worth billions, and that one was the founder or the president of this or that oil concern. But the dining room was subdued, and many of the fellow diners who walked by were ancient, skinny men wearing string ties.

The Petroleum Club has always been for the money people in the oil business, and the money people have almost always been white. Early on, even the oil field workers were white, but, after 1986, many of them left Midland or left the industry, and in the last fifteen years or so a majority of the people digging and servicing and repairing the rigs have been Hispanic. The population of Midland has changed as well: now only sixty-five percent of the residents are white, and nearly all the rest are Hispanic. There are very few Hispanics at the upper reaches of the oil industry--and few Hispanic geologists or engineers--and none were inevidence in the quiet dining room at the Petroleum Club. Pitts said that he expects the next generation of Hispanics in the business to end up in the offices downtown, rather than out on the oil patch; and some Midlanders believe that in twenty years the city may be mostly Hispanic. The question is how much longer there will be oil for them to tap.

George W. Bush has said that he would like to be buried in Midland. This will not necessarily be easy to do. When you first see it, the soil here looks loose and crumbly, and you'd think digging a hole in it would be as easy as sticking a knife in a cake. But nothing in Midland, not even burial, is as simple as it first seems. The tender soil conceals a calcium deposit called caliche which is as thick and hard as bone, and it takes a tempered steel drill bit to break through.

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