I took a trip to West Texas for the first time chasing a ghost: whatever traces that could be found of the original Midnight Cowboy. After seeing the film and then reading the book, I became obsessed with the landscape, the people, the timeless quality I expected West Texas to have.
On a Friday evening in late November, the sun was in my eyes and my windshield was covered with the splattered bugs from a five-hour drive from Dallas. In that lunar landscape of the reddest state in the union, I found myself in something unexpected: a traffic jam on I-20 between Midland and Odessa. The sky looked as if it was filled with flames, between the sun setting ahead of me and the miles and miles of fiery refineries that hug the highway.
I’ve traveled through most of the country, but on that Friday evening, crawling through traffic and needing to pee, I realized I was somewhere I’d never been before. As far as my eye could see, the landscape was a mess of smoke, flickering brake lights, trucks and semis covered in dust. When I eventually found an exit and went into the gas station, it felt the same: the roughnecks dressed in overalls, slick with oil and grime, wearing baseball caps and cowboy boots, talking to each other over the candy aisle about the bars and the Hooters they’d visit later that night.
When I drove west looking for Midnight Cowboy I realized: even in Big Spring, where the film took place, population about 30,000, gentrification and urban renewal had prettied up the original locations until the buildings probably look newer today than they did the day they were built.
So I drove an hour farther west to the only gay bar for 100 miles, and there, at least, the midnight cowboys haven’t changed a whit.
It was there that I met Juan Carlos, who prefers “Carlos” because “Juan sounds so fucking Mexican.” He drives a Hummer and he’s an uncut top, two facts he revealed in stages. While putting on drag in front of us all in Mary Anne’s living room, he took everything off first, unabashed, and then, slowly, began to transform. In the photo he’s wearing faux belly skin, but we dissuaded him: He shaved his chest instead and Ladi Chimay helped him with his makeup.
The next day on Facebook he posted “so send me some pix, bois” as his new status and, later, showed me the 30-some-odd messages he received in his inbox, filled with "pix" of young men in various stages of bending over.
Later that evening at the bar, I spoke with Mary Anne about her life in Odessa:
"I was beat when pregnant with my third, and I tried so hard to forgive him, but I realized he was never going to be honest with me, and I finally decided to leave.
"When he came in, he hit me. Everything was pitch black. I remember I was holding Stephanie in my arms, and he swung at me and says, 'You don’t EVER do that,' and, well, I knocked out, I went unconscious, and then I felt like I was coming back. I remember he was on the phone, he was crying to his Dad, and he was telling his dad that he had killed me and the baby. I never filed charges on him. The one who filed charges on him was his dad. When the cops showed up, they did arrest him and his dad filed charges. They found the baby, Stephanie, she was on the opposite side of the bed, where the bassinet was flipped over her, protecting her.
"So when I did finally muster up the courage to leave him, I had a restraining order on him."
"And my gay friends? They’re family. I see people for who they are, not for what they are. I go to the heart. I went through a lot of hardship. I can understand when someone just needs someone to listen. I know what it’s like to struggle.
"God has given me the heart that I wanted, to be able to be out there for people. I’ve been where they are. I’ve struggled. It’s just that love of people that God has, that I pray every day that he will give me, and I think he’s giving me that love. God’s made us all in his image, the way I see it.
"There’s a purpose for your life. Who’s to say that because who we are, down the line, you’re not teaching somebody else. There’s always a purpose. You know the feeling when you love somebody. You know how it feels when you’re doing something right or wrong. It’s the same thing."
Waiting at the bar, I met “Uncle M.,” who would rather not have his name out in the open but was willing to tell me a few things here and there.
Performing on stage at that moment was Showtyme, whom he came out to support. Originally of Shawnee, Oklahoma, "Uncle M." has lived in Midland, Texas, for the last 20 years and has, he told me, slept with most of the drag queens in Odessa. Sometimes he would bail them out of jail or visit them in the hospital. Even take them home after the show, depending.
He’s bi, he said, and likes to “fuck everything that walks.” He insisted on buying me a drink too, and leaned into my shoulder at one point. I could see why, at his age, he still gets around. To look at him from a distance he’s just a regular guy: a paunch, not much hair, inviting smile.
The last person I spoke with on my journey was Pastor Jimmy Dennis of the Agape Dream Center.
He told me that he was following in the footsteps of David Wilkerson, a street preacher best known for his 1962 book The Cross and the Switchblade. His church on the south side of the train tracks is surrounded by empty lots, tumbleweeds, pawnshops, liquor stores, and a cemetery.
“I’m not looking for the people who already have a church. I don’t want churchgoers. I’m a street preacher — I’m on the street finding the people who don’t have anybody. I invite them in by saying, ‘Church is a place where you can find a home.’"
When asked if and how he ministers to gay people, he told me:
“I think they see on TV that it’s all right to be gay and so they come out, here, right here in West Texas, and, well, this is not a television. A lot of ‘em are kicked out right then and there, teenagers, high school kids, you know, they don’t have anywhere to go.
“If I find them I take them in. They’re part of what I’m called to do. They’re broken, but it’s the broken who are the apple of God’s eye.”