Editor's Note

An Instinct for Surprise

Never underestimate Houston’s ability to confound first impressions and belie expectations.

By John Wilburn June 1, 2013 Published in the June 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

 Although it didn’t make it into our list of 250 reasons to love this town (April’s cover story), reason No. 251 might well have been—endlessly surprising. I was reminded of this, and our town’s chameleon-like ability to belie first impressions, after one of the entries that did make our list came back to haunt us. “Blue-collar Brilliant,” we had called it. 

Under that heading, as you may recall, we counted among Houston’s charms the ability of a “leathery-faced greaser” to amaze a Rice liberal arts grad with “wizard-like” technical prowess. Then, for good measure, we illustrated the point with a photograph of a guy in a hardhat and protective goggles working with a very technical-looking piece of heavy equipment.  

You can see what’s coming, can’t you? Not long after the piece was published an email arrived from the hard-hatted gentleman himself, a man by the name of Dan Smallwood. A friend had alerted him to the picture, in addition to congratulating him on being the “poster boy for blue-collar brilliance.” 

Smallwood informed us that when that particular picture was taken, he was the chief operating officer of Marine Well Containment Company, or as he put it, “about as far from a leather-faced greaser with a neck tattoo” as you can get.

In fact, Smallwood is a petroleum engineer by training, with 29 years under his belt at ConocoPhillips. Marine Well Containment, meanwhile, is the emergency response outfit created by ConocoPhillips and three other majors to deal with the sort of disaster inflicted on the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon explosion. 

Wanting to apologize for our misperception, we called Smallwood, who couldn’t have been more gracious. “I got a good laugh out of it,” he told us.

And we learned a good lesson. 

More welcome lessons can be found in Houstonia’s June cover story, in which Peter Holley and John Nova Lomax identify and explore the town’s 25 hottest neighborhoods (page 50). The piece offers its own set of surprises and harpoons a few misconceptions along the way.  

Of course, not all the surprises this city offers are so pleasant. Take the AIDS epidemic, for instance. If you think it’s over, you’re in for yet another surprise. In “Epidemic of Silence” (page 74), Michael Hardy explores Houston’s ongoing struggle to stop the spread of the virus, a task that is proving to be mammoth indeed. Along the way, Hardy raises a number of troubling questions, among them this: “With one out of every 250 Harris County residents HIV-positive, is the epidemic over or have we just stopped paying attention?” 

The answer may surprise you.  

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