Not too long ago, I passed through Nashville, Tenn. I was only there long enough to eat, drink, sleep and have breakfast, but hell, those are most of the important things right? So it was sad to leave town with this thought: I should have gone to Memphis.
It's a bit of a toss up between the two if you're on the lookout for some kind of quintessential cool in a southern music town. I had rationalized that Nashville would have some kind of comparable vibe to Santa Fe, that the people would be an inexplicable mélange of Podunk dorks and urban sophisticate dropouts, that whatever passed for hip would be cut with a provincial sweetness, that people there would be-through some loose confederation of civic style-my people. So, at the crossroads, I went left.
I confess to arriving late in the evening with no idea of what to do or where to go. I had overestimated my own instinct to seek out the best part of the city and I had completely fabricated an idea that the city itself would guide me, would suck me into its storied heart, soften my lips with whiskey and tattoo the nerves below my skin with guitar twang and a rolling, Cumberland River bass shiver. But I could do no better than a satay and wine bar, where the crowd could have been teleported in from Hollywood's Sunset Strip, the décor was bland-international code for the kind of marginal aesthetic pretension that rides the cusp of both adulthood and wealth. If there was a twang, it was hidden far below the camouflage mini-skirts and designer jeans that casually swayed to the generic beat-uhnts-uhnts-uhnts-that came from the speakers with all the individual vibrancy of the photo that comes with the frame. Where was the wink from the old BBQ grillman as he licked a spicy sauce off his fingers and entreated me to dig in? Where was the battle-scarred bartender who'd lie about shifts spent with Red Grooms and Bettie Page, and would try to convince me that Shania Twain had more heart than Ben Folds? Where was the Nashville of my dreams?
It was in the same place, I realized, where Santa Fe lives for a lot of people. I find it frustratingly common to encounter people who have passed through Santa Fe and were so unimpressed they were unable to spare a second glance. No, I want to say, there's another Santa Fe below that hazy, cement-stuccoed membrane, a soulful earth-plastered underworld of real ideas, incredible beauty and inspired emotion. I also meet a lot of people who love Santa Fe for everything on its surface. They love the Coyote Café and the Inn of the Anasazi and sheepskin jackets and low-quality turquoise in half-assed silver settings. I keep my mouth shut then. I don't want those people to find my Santa Fe.
Sometimes, mostly in the summer, when this town is non-stop, when anything goes and everything happens, I get confused about which city is winning, which personality is dominant. Visitors arrive for the art scene. This week it's ART Santa Fe (5-8 pm Thursday, July 12. $75; 11 am-7 pm, Friday, July 13 and 11 am-6 pm Saturday and Sunday, July 14 and 15. $8. El Museo Cultural, 1615 Paseo de Peralta, 988-8883) and Photo Arts Santa Fe (Friday, July 13-Sunday, July 20. Events held at various times throughout Albuquerque and Santa Fe. See
for a full schedule of events). If somebody asks, do I send them to Rio Chama or the Matador? Hotel Santa Fe or the El Rey Inn? Whose side are they on? Can one place be more real than another?
I love the construction site that the Railyard (where ART Santa Fe this week is hosted) is right now. From Baca Street to Montezuma Avenue, there are piles of earth, fresh cement pours, huge culvert sections. Things are happening, process is everywhere, and it keeps my eyes happy, my bones buzzing. It's the finished product that I'm afraid of; when it's a place with identity instead of a place in transition. Is it possible that permanent instability is the best condition for a city? It's no good if people arrive here expecting silver or BBQ, coyotes or twang-identity is a prison. Santa Fe is still looking for a way out of the Alcatraz we built for ourselves over the last century.
But it's a prison that visitors sustain as much as residents allow. I couldn't find Nashville because I knew what I wanted and it was only a stolen idea of someone else's romance. If I'd stuck around long enough to let go of it, I might have found it. Santa Fe is even harder to find because we try to give everyone what we think they're expecting. When Mayor David Coss gives his state of the city address this week, he's really expounding on the state of his city, and each of us will receive it from the perspective of our own private Santa Fe. It is as mutable and personal as Venice in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. So, welcome to town. Don't believe the hype. Go ahead and sample a meal at Tomasita's, but find El Tesoro, too. Go to SITE Santa Fe, but don't leave out the Folk Art Museum. Go the O'Keeffe Museum, but don't skip Las Golondrinas. Go to Gebert Contemporary, but head to Dwight Hackett Projects as well. Do Santacafé but don't avoid the fajita cart on the Plaza or the burrito truck by the tire store. In other words, if you want to find Santa Fe, and its proving elusive, forget anything that looks like something, don't stop for anything that looks like everything else, don't stop anywhere, in fact, until you get to a place that feels like somewhere. When there's a where there, you're probably here.