LIFE IN A NORMAL TOWN

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[Wichita Falls, Texas] Summer in North Central Texas, and the highway's a two-lane black typewriter ribbon bisecting long flat parched fields of dry grass and dust, and both go so far into infinity that the sky curves down, domelike, to greet them at the horizon. It is the 13th straight day of 100-plus temperatures.Distances shimmer. This is the heat from which mirages appear. So when you're perched at a stoplight on the outskirts of Wichita Falls--the first town of size in two hours--you may be inclined to ignore the sheik-like figure trundling toward you pushing a grocery cart. But he doesn't disappear. Closer--a bare-chested man, deeply tanned, yellow goggles, a towel thrown over his head. Closer still--the grocery cart is festooned with hubcaps, filled with recyclables and sports a jaunty orange plastic jack-o'-lantern. Stoic in the searing heat, the man passes, steering his cart towards the Taylor Foundry Recycling Center ("Since 1925"). Only then do you see the battered license plate dangling off the front: Oklahoma.

Because nothing that humble could be Texan, and because Texas shows its outsized pride even in the smallest ways--even in the more rundown parts of Wichita Falls, the town with the demographic grace to be America's Most Average City, according to an analysis of the 2000 U.S. Census by Advertising Age. Wichita Falls, metro-area population 140,518, hits nearest the national norm for ethnic balance (9.6% African-American, 11.8% Hispanic and 1.7% Asian), household size (2.5) and median age (33.6). As such, a close look at the market and its residents is a window on the forces shaping American consumers. Marketers: This is the new epicenter for the mainstream. Pay attention.

For the town, "most average" is a step up. In 1978, Texas Monthly listed the Worst Jobs in Texas, one of which was Full-Time Resident of Wichita Falls.

Not surprisingly, few residents reference that honor. "People are just good, hardworking, everyday people who go to church on Sunday morning, and sometimes Sunday night and Wednesday night," says Jim Marks, station manager for local CBS affiliate KAUZ. Mr. Marks describes his hometown as "Middle American, conservative."

"Back 20 years ago, we were just a good-ol'-boy community," says Sharon Bankhead, a marketing consultant for local ad and marketing firm Harris ProMedia. "Still are, somewhat."

Still, this is America, and an unruly heart beats behind it all. "I became a journalist," says Texas Monthly Executive Editor and native Wichitan Skip Hollandsworth, "because I grew up in this city full of such amazing, comical, tragic, scandalous figures. Everyone was larger than life. And there were so many events, from natural disasters like a tornado, to a mayor who lives in a dirt home."

Welcome to Wichita Falls, America's new Peoria, smack in the middle of the Sun, Bible, and tornado belts. A place where crickets still couple on the cement floors of steel-shed bathrooms. A place that's something of a punch line in its home state for any number of reasons--oil wildcatters, bad weather, tornadoes. Statistics work in strange and lovely ways.

Just don't expect all of its citizens to buy the numbers. "We're just a bunch of white people!" says one in disbelief. "We're not very cultural."

Not exactly, but it often seems like that. Latinos, the largest minority, remain largely invisible from the town's elite and government. "I hope the rest of the country is not so far behind as we are," sighs Miriam Mas, a Latino education specialist who narrowly lost a recent City Council race.

Wichita Falls is big enough to have an Air Force base (Sheppard), a university (Midwestern State) and an orchestra. Downtown--faded, low-slung, and brick--is so abandoned you half expect to see hot winds chasing tumbleweeds down its high-lonesome streets. Sometimes at night the Wichita Theater's lovely neon sign lights up--red, orange, green, blue, a ghostly reminder of days gone by. There is one gay bar. There's no Starbucks within 120 miles. The drive-up Bar L will bring ice-cold longnecks to your front seat.

"The texture of Wichita Falls" resembles "a slimmed-down" Dallas, says Bob Payton, VP-market manager for Clear Channel Communications' four local radio stations. "You have your Texas feel--a little of the Southwest feel, but you also have a large category of old oil money." Which supports institutions one doesn't usually find in smaller Texas markets--like an orchestra--and once built grand old manses. Much of the prairie outside town is still speckled with Texas' equivalent of the rural Midwest's giant-spider irrigation rigs--oil pumps, but they're mostly rusted and still. The local economy's diversified significantly since its fortunes crested and crashed with those of Big Oil, when that and agriculture made for an almost entirely land-based economy.

Today, according to state figures supplied by the local chamber of commerce, the service sector leads with 27% of non-farm employment. (Agriculture still produces the biggest chunk of the region's dollars, according to Tim Chase, president of Wichita Falls Board of Commerce and Industry.) Manufacturing's at 14%; oil is just 2%, though oil these days, says Mr. Chase, is not terribly labor-intensive. Per capita income for 1999, according to U.S Department of Commerce figures quoted by a chamber of commerce-related Web site, was $22,586.

The real economic bedrock of Wichita Falls--ironically, for a town deeply steeped in Texan conservatism, is its huge government-related workforce. It's second only to service in non-farm employment, thanks largely to the 13,000-plus jobs at Sheppard. With its steady influx of young men and women, Sheppard's an age brake on the town's demographics. It also draws, thanks to a NATO training program, a stream of European pilots. Town boosters cite them as a cultural boon, but their influence and visibility are negligible. The military base itself is a self-contained world, with is own shops, bowling alleys and cinema. Uniformed personnel are a relatively common sight in town, but hardly predominate.

The downside of diversification is Wichita Falls is no more a boomtown. (Decades ago, the town was said to have more millionaires per capita than anywhere in America.) The upside is, despite wild oil price gyrations, unemployment for the last few years has hovered below 5%. The dot-com boom and bust also left Wichita Falls largely untouched.

Like other small cities, it's been shielded from the worst of the current downturn. Its citizens and businesses report, like everywhere else, suffering through the shock of Sept. 11, and come to the grim conclusion of life irretrievably altered. Mr. Payton says his radio business sagged about 20% immediately after the attacks, though business has since partially bounced back. At the same time, in one of the worst retail months in decades, local sales tax receipts were up 3.8% in September over the prior year.

There's one major distinction between Mr. Payton's "Little Dallas" and the real one. The latter's a major ad world outpost; in Wichita Falls, the messages hew to the homespun. A popular radio commercial form, for instance, features a low-key local proprietor talking up his cars or carpets, gently prodded on by an "interviewer."

"It's recognition. They want people to recognize who they are," said Ms. Bankhead. "People seem to respond to that here."

BEST BUYS AND BAD-ASS BARS

Other small-town signifiers: Wichita Falls hospitality is damn near boundless. The East side--traditionally black--lies, literally, on the other side of the railroad tracks that run along the edge downtown. The youth say they're bored, get tattoos, dream up DJ names. The secular religion is still high school football. Wichita Falls is Dr Pepper, not Coke or Pepsi.

The eponymous Falls are manmade. In the countryside surrounding the town, it seems like meth labs are busted weekly, at least. The strip malls along main drag Kemp Boulevard could just as easily be in Paramus, N.J., or Orange County, Calif., with its bevies of big-box Best Buys and Office Depots.

There are Crips but no Bloods. There is a low-level crack trade. There are local gangs like Kemp Edition Players and 112 Hoova--say it like "eleven-deuce hoova." There was a serial killer and a local detective who got famous for fingering him.

There are more tattoo parlors than you'd expect. Two are located just outside Sheppard. One of them prominently advertises body piercing. There are nine pages of churches in the local yellow pages--Baptist being the most common denomination. Moves are made to pull controversial books off the shelves of local libraries, but the town shares the South's understanding of the after-hours kinship between sin and salvation--there are adult bookstores, the odd gentleman's club and windowless, cinderblocked bad-ass bars for serious drinking.

Mayor Jerry Lueck--he of the turf-covered house--is a wheat and cattle farmer embodying old-line values some of the town would sooner forget. A thirtysomething African-American runs one of downtown's few thriving small businesses, a coffee kiosk, alternately feeling the pull of elsewheres and bubbling over with ideas for reviving downtown. Also downtown, a green market's proprietor and shoeshine parlor manager stand sentry, relics and witnesses of boom times come and gone. A young lawyer couple two-step with their baby daughter Meadow--as in "The Sopranos" character--on an outdoor bar's dusty dance floor. An ex-model just old enough to drink opens a store selling hipster togs that wouldn't look out of place in Manhattan or San Francisco. An Asian-American store manager returns to Wichita Falls, wanting open spaces, friendly faces, and less onerous traffic. A beefy, Tiparillo-smoking tattooist with multiple piercings rushes home to his kids every night.

So it goes, small-city life bumping up against the writ-large changes a hyper-connected America brings.

BOOM AND BUST

The eight-story Holt Hotel is Wichita Falls' case-study argument for what outlying malls do to downtown. Built in 1910, it now stands abandoned and pockmarked by broken windows--despite numerous attempts to redevelop it--at the old oil industry's main crossroads, the intersection of Ohio and Indiana streets. In its shadow, Ulyss Johnson tends to the dim, narrow shoeshine parlor he's worked at for 30 years.

"This was the main part of town," he recalls, smearing polish on a customer's shoes with huge, weathered bare hands that resemble old baseball gloves. "You had to get off the sidewalk to pass people."

Today, just after lunch, almost no one walks by. "That changed after they put the mall in," he says, referring to the home of Dillard's and J.C. Penney, the Sykes Center Mall, which is universally referred to generically.

Redevelopment efforts have largely lured little-trafficked antique stores downtown. "It just started coming back," Mr. Johnson says, voicing vague hopes of many Wichitans. Downtown "is not a retail center for the consumer," concedes the Commerce Board's Mr. Chase, who added "I think the future is really quite bright."

"We've got to turn it into an attraction," says Shirley Craft, who heads a local downtown-revival organization. "People have gotten used to not going downtown."

Tim Carter--Tim the Coffee Guy--gets a more complex view of it from the cramped interior of his downtown drive-up coffee hut. (Picture a converted drive-through bank painted bright yellow.)

"What will happen is that you'll get one or two businesses that will open up downtown, but you'll also get two that close," Mr. Carter says. "So when you get people saying, `Yeah, there are a lot of new businesses coming in,' they're not seeing the whole picture."

Which makes Mr. Carter, a compact, bespectacled, and hyperkinetic 37-year old, feel the pull of faraway places. "You hear a lot of people saying how it's a great place to raise a family?" Mr. Carter asks. "I'm single. For me, it's a real slow pace.

"I haven't left Wichita Falls because I do think there's potential. I'd like to be part of that growth. But right now, it's just slow."

THE KIDS

Which is a problem for the younger generations. "It's typical," says Larry McMurtry, author of "Lonesome Dove" and "Terms of Endearment" and the town's most famous export. "There's not much for the youth to do. They ride around in cars. They race cars, and you'll find that all the way up to Canada." (Near the northern city limits of Wichita Falls is Red River Speedway, located behind a gravel pit, where there's a division specifically for teen racers. Red River draws a tough, country crowd--which is a polite way of saying some female attendees chew tobacco.)

Thirty-five years ago Mr. McMurtry hit literary paydirt with his debut novel "The Last Picture Show," which still typifies the last stand of sorts for postwar small-town America, when the youths got restless and the bigger cities beckoned.

Since "The Last Picture Show," Wichita Falls moved away from oil. More Latinos and Asians moved in, and so did the Best Buys of the world. (Some dispute this. Asked if he's seen change since his childhood in Wichita Falls, Texas Monthly's Mr. Hollandsworth insists, "No.")

One thing's still the same: The inchoate restlessness of the next generations casting impatient glances beyond Wichita Falls' borders--to Dallas, to Oklahoma City, to California. Wichita Falls can't be the most average town in America, a significant chunk of its younger set insist. The average town can't be this boring, they say, or hope.

"It's kind of monotonous at times," says Chris Franks, a recent University of Texas grad, as he waited for his girlfriend to finish getting a new tattoo on a Friday afternoon. "I don't have anything going on this weekend. Probably get some beers."

And yet the dance-music underground--the hot youth subculture of the changing millennium--claims a small but significant beachhead in Wichita Falls, improbably drawing a couple hundred kids to underground parties featuring local DJs. Samantha Harris, a 21-year old ex-model, aka DJ Aphrodisia, just opened Hullaballoo, a store selling hip urban wear and dance-related 12-inch records, complete with turntables to audition them.

So, Ms. Harris, what do hip kids of Wichita Falls do? "Go to Dallas for the weekend."

EXIT RAMP

A stoplight at 7 p.m. A slow plains sunset; a dusty, fiery sky. The last night in Wichita Falls. And the sheik reappears. Same determined walk. Same towel. Same goggles, same shirtless sunbrowned chest, same cart. Same license plate?

When the light goes green you screech around the corners--right, right, right. He is nowhere he could have gone.

This is silly, you think. What could he have told you? A secret history? The key to the town's inferiority complex, or the wise-ass write-ups in places like Texas Monthly?

Local boosters like Mr. Chase offer a sort of tense hope that the 2000 census represents a chance for Wichita Falls to rewrite some of its history. "In order to be in the middle," he says, "it appears to me as though a community has to be really moving rapidly on a course of improvement."

But maybe not quickly enough for some. On the way out the door of Hullaballoo, there's one question left for Ms. Harris: Is Wichita Falls changing?

"I hope so," she says from the door of her new, lightly trafficked store, and her visitor's car rolled out of the gravel parking lot, turned right, and merged into all the other traffic heading toward the mall.

Contributing: Abbey Klaassen

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