Face it, you're unique.
Sure, you nod sympathetically when far-flung friends and family sing the blues about whatever recession-battered metropolis they still find themselves trapped in. You listen without comment when they run through the whole hell-in-a-handcart drill, signal your complete understanding as they lament the inertia, the gridlock, the Sisyphean struggle that is daily life in other cities.
But you don’t really understand. You can’t. You live in Houston, where wallowing in despair is as unthinkable as pedestrians in August, and no problem’s so terrible it can’t be fixed with another idea, another lane on the freeway, another margarita. Sure, other cities have more natural beauty, more illustrious histories, or better weather. But if there’s one thing the last few years have taught us, it’s that Houston possesses one thing no other city does, something more precious than 200-year-old townhouses or year-round balmy temperatures: Houstonians.
That’s right. The charm of Houston and the secret to its appeal is—us. Are we really that special? We’d argue in the affirmative. Houstonians are exactly like everyone else in this great nation of ours, except in a few key respects. A unique combination of attributes—casts of mind, quirks, if you will—makes us US. Without them, we’d be just Philadelphians with humidity, Los Angelenos with mosquitos, Dallasites with sense. Also without them, we wouldn’t have these hundreds of reasons to love this town. (We counted 250, but math isn’t editorial’s strong point. See how many you can tally.)
Isn’t it high time we celebrated the great natural resource that is our people—in all their eccentric humanity? Shouldn’t we be proud of that peculiar mix of brash, brainy, ethnically omnivorous, cheap and more that appears to have made us uniquely qualified for life in the 21st century? Herewith, the secrets to our success, along with myriad treasures they’ve given rise to.
Sometimes, you only miss something once it’s gone. Take a Houstonian we know who had the gall to move to New York. She got an apartment so high in the sky she could no longer hear the rain; it made her desperate for the sound and oddly sad. She found herself dreaming about miles of open road swishing by her as she sped out of town to San Antonio, a few cattle her only witness. Such dreams filled her with a longing that surprised her. Then, one snowy night, she happened upon a bar, and while standing in line for the restroom, realized something. How had she not noticed it before? Nobody in New York smiles at you when she walks out of the restroom, no one chats you up while waiting in line with you. What the hell? It made her wonder—when was the last time she’d made eye contact with a stranger? Had a random conversation? Flashed an open grin for no reason? It had been ages. She didn’t move back home immediately. But it wouldn’t be long.
Why did George Ballas create the Weed Eater? Simple: when Houstonians can’t find the right tool for the job, they invent it. Thus, when Herbert Allen’s wife had trouble with a traditional corkscrew, he invented the Screwpull, which, three and a half decades later, remains the most elegant way to extract a cork from a wine bottle. Allen had already made a fortune inventing tools for the oil business, but it’s the Screwpull that’s in the Museum of Modern Art (and sold in their gift shop). In an earlier instance of visionary inspiration, Howard Hughes, Sr. invented the drill bit that punched the post-Spindletop oil boom into overdrive. And while most of our inventive brainpower has probably been directed at the oil patch, sometimes we’re more whimsical than practical. Howard Hughes, Jr.—best known as a movie producer, aviation pioneer, and eccentric—inherited his father’s talent for innovation. In order to better display Jane Russell’s assets in his film The Outlaw, Howard Jr. invented the cantilevered bra.
Houston owes its existence to Augustus and John Kirby Allen, a pair of land speculators with the temerity to reinvent a swamp as a city, which is to say a math professor and a bellhop with the temerity to reinvent themselves as land speculators. From that day to this, people who care about such things have consistently called us the best town in the country in which to start over (for all the familiar reasons: low cost of living, favorable climate for small businesses and job-seekers, etc.). But we like to think that Houston’s appeal to tabula rasa types comes from a deeper place: our faith in the notion that no dream’s too crazy, and that the only sin is quitting before you achieve it. All you have to do is look at the Orange Show to see that.
You’re sitting in a Bombay-style chaat shop, eating masala dosas and curried lentils while your kids pick out a new variety of milk fudge from the Indian candy counter. The latest Punjabi dance tune is blaring from the sound system. Everybody else in the place is speaking Hindi (or is it Urdu?) Suddenly your out-of-town guest exclaims, “Wow! I can’t believe we are in a strip center in the Houston suburbs!” You furrow your brow. You had forgotten that in most American cities, strip malls and highway access roads are devoted exclusively to homogenized big-box retail stores, fast food franchises, and grocery chains. Houston has no shortage of such establishments, but the allure of cheap rents has turned our urban sprawl into something vastly more interesting, a network of international bazaars that most of us take for granted. Try to imagine a world in which strip centers in the suburbs don’t contain exotic ethnic restaurants, sari shops, African CD and DVD outlets, yerberias, and immigrant-owned tire stores. Seems unfathomable, right? Where would you go to eat dosas?
World-class this, world-class that. Houston is forever being bombarded by such empty compliments. And like anything one hears again and again—the sounds of cars zipping by on the freeway, say—such hyperbole is quickly forgotten or ignored. It speaks to our particular character that the 2004 slogan “Houston. It’s Worth It.” and the books it inspired captured our collective imagination so completely. They mocked Houston for its heat, traffic, mosquitos, mountain-less landscape, etc. But here’s the thing: No one laughed harder than Houstonians themselves, and not only because we knew damn well it was all worth it. When it comes to a happy combination of self-deprecating, unpretentious, and straight-shooting, we’re second to none. World class, in fact.
The buckyball, that adorable 60-carbon-atom molecule shaped like a soccer ball, was first created in a Rice University lab in 1985, conferring upon two pioneering professors a Nobel Prize for their founding role in the history of nanotechnology. But you probably knew about buckyballs already—hell, you probably really knew them as buckminsterfullerenes—because this is a city of nerds. Nerd researchers at the Medical Center searching for a viral trigger to diabetes, nerd astronauts rocketing into space to examine ice in the mesosphere, nerd engineers conducting undersea inspections of offshore oil rigs. We may not always get credit for our superior brainpower, but the evidence is clear: you can’t throw a buckyball in this town without hitting a rocket scientist.
Austin treasures the delusion that it is the sole repository of all that is weird in Texas. But how weird is it really, compared to our own maniacal metropolis? Yes, Austin has a bat colony downtown, but we have one too, under the Waugh Drive Bridge. And while their colony’s bigger, our bats stay here year-round. (Their bats, desperate to flee Austin’s winters, you see, head for Mexico.) Austin loves to boast about its colorful street characters, but come on, are they really more inspirationally oddball than Allen Parkway’s Dancing Rollerblade Guy, or Luis Cruz, the Gulf Freeway’s elderly violinist? Where is Austin’s outrageously ornate La Luz del Mundo freeway church, or its serenely abandoned Chinese-American New Age temples á la Ashford Point’s “Palace of the Golden Orbs”? Are monumental president heads scattered randomly about Austin? Does that city have giant statues of the Beatles tucked away in a godforsaken warehouse district? Is there a Catholic church there that features a weekly mariachi mass, with a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe made out of beer cans down the street? We didn’t think so, Austin.
When last year’s “superstorm” and its 80 mph winds moved hysterical New Yorkers to declare that the Apocalypse was at hand, the inescapable conclusion was that Houstonians were made of tougher stuff, or at least more alive to the impermanence of life. Gazing at the corner of Main and Dallas, for instance, where the downtown Macy’s may soon be leveled by a storm (of redevelopment), it’s impossible not to think of the storm that once blew Foley’s from the very same spot, Foley’s having blown in a Joske’s at its former location, soon to be replaced by a Dillard’s, down the street from where Beall’s would later wipe out Battelstein’s, before being wiped out itself, just a stone’s throw from the Sakowitz-cum-parking garage across from Foley’s. Unsurprisingly, repeated battering of this sort has created a populace keenly fascinated by what’s coming and rather ignorant of what’s come before, a cast of mind about which there is some disagreement. Mayor Annise Parker, for instance, has said, “Houston is constantly changing, and that’s a blessing and a curse,” even as German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche saw no downside. “The advantage of a bad memory,” he once wrote, “is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.” In short, Western philosophy’s giants can’t quite agree on what our amnesia portends, though we can all agree that Houston forever looks to the future, and that when someone says Peppermint Park, no one knows what that is.
Houston is a paradise for scientists of every sort, what with the Johnson Space Center, the petrochemical complex, the Port of Houston, and the Texas Medical Center. But ours is as much a city of art as a city of science, especially that most mysterious of popular arts, songwriting. The Bayou City gave the world Rodney Crowell and his desperate tales of life along the Ship Channel, also Townes Van Zandt and his magical “sky songs” of love and leaving and death and depression (some of them harrowingly mined by hometown rappers Z-Ro and Scarface). The outlawry of Steve Earle and the master craftsmanship of Guy Clark were born here. So was the sly wordplay of Lyle Lovett and Devin the Dude, and the off-the-cuff blues and hard-won Third Ward juke-joint wisdom of Lightnin’ Hopkins. Oh, and the laconic good timin’ of Robert Earl Keen and Hayes Carll. Jerry Jeff Walker penned “Mr. Bojangles” in an apartment above the Sand Mountain coffeehouse on lower Richmond, and Willie Nelson cranked out three of the most enduring and astounding tunes in the American songbook during one week of commuting between his home in Pasadena and gigs on the Hempstead Highway. Those would be “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Nite Life” and the certified No. 1 jukebox tune of all time, “Crazy.” Remind us why Willie left town again?
Pay a visit to any locality near or far, from Baytown to Baku, Brussels to Beijing, and you’ll find indisputable evidence of Houstonians changing the world, mainly in areas like energy, finance, manufacturing, and law. But the world’s changed us even more. It’s not just the 92 consulates in this town or the fact that HISD students speak more than 85 languages, or that the caregiving staff at St. Luke’s is fluent in over 20 tongues and can reach translators for dozens more at the touch of a button. It’s not just that the Galleria so closely resembles the lobby of the U.N. you expect the shoppers to be wearing headsets. International isn’t something out there anymore, it’s something we are. When it comes to slogans, Houston Is ...is fine as far as it goes, but we’d prefer something a bit more pointed: Come to Houston, See the World.
“Houston is not a town for nightlife,” a cab driver told us the other day, “but if you’re an Eritrean with little kids, there is no place better.” We wondered whether the city’s family-friendly vibe only extended to Eritreans. “No,” he clarified, “all the Africans say this.” As do most other Bayou City parents, it must be admitted, whatever their continent of origin. Maybe it’s our 241 playground-dotted parks, our 38 city swimming pools, the Children’s Museum that’s quite possibly the best in the world, the restaurant devoted solely to macaroni and cheese, the butterfly habitat that’s three stories tall, or the Space Center’s summer camps for future astronauts. Whatever—when it comes to kids, we’re all Eritreans at heart.
When Foreign Policy magazine declared George P. Mitchell one of the world’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers” a couple of years back, no one in Houston was taken by surprise. We’d watched him apply his large-scale thinking to developing The Woodlands, redeveloping Galveston’s Strand, and running Mitchell Energy. What caught the attention of editors at Foreign Policy was the way Mitchell revolutionized the energy business by betting big on the idea “that breaking apart dense underground shale formations could release vast reserves of natural gas.” As a pioneering advocate of hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—Mitchell encountered stiff resistance from both engineers and board members at Mitchell Energy, who told him he was wasting both time and money. And of course the jury is still out on the long-term effects of fracking. But one thing’s for sure. Mitchell’s bet, as Foreign Policy put it, reordered the “global balance of energy and the political power that comes with it.” Thanks to Mitchell’s hard headed persistence, the United States today looks forward to an era of energy independence after decades of reliance on politically problematic producers.
How do organizations like the American Cancer Society, Texas Children’s Hospital, and Houston Grand Opera manage to raise a cool million in a single night? Parties, in a word. For Houstonians, a charity is almost unthinkable without a charity event, preferably one that involves donning your best gown and descending the stairs ever so slowly while making intense eye contact with someone across the room. And you don’t dare call something a gala in this town unless you can guarantee cachet, opulence, and, of course, swagger. After all, we like to show off a little as we sign those checks, and we’ve every right to. Why? Because they’re big checks. Really big.
Time was, not so very long ago, the children of our fair city said goodbye to their shoes at the end of May and didn’t see them again until September, the threat of fire ants, glass, sticker burs, and ringworm be damned. And though their descendants may never know the pain/pleasure of hotfooting it across a broiling asphalt parking lot, or of freezing soles in a Weingarten’s dairy section, they are all heirs to the city’s grand tradition of shoelessness. It’s still in evidence—on the back patio at the Last Concert Café, say, and the spongy playgrounds of Discovery Green, and the unshod horses of the HPD (whose barefoot program was the country’s first)—but also in the up-rolled cuffs, relaxed bull sessions, and overall unfussiness of a city forever looking to loosen its belt another notch.
A hamburger isn’t a hamburger around here unless the patty weighs half a pound and the fully dressed sandwich (mayo, mustard, onions, pickles, lettuce, and tomato) is perched on a mountain of French fries. If a chicken-fried steak wants to be taken seriously, it must overlap the plate (unlike the puny finger food on the plate above). Cheese enchiladas come three to an order, and free tortilla chips are considered part of every Houstonian’s birthright. It will come as news to no one, therefore, that we’ve been judged the hungriest city in the nation by a number of measures. Houstonians eat restaurant meals 4.1 times per week, more than any other city in America, says Zagat. (Evidently, the fact that the average Houston restaurant meal is about 10 percent cheaper than the national average makes dining out completely irresistible to us.) And then there’s the weather. Try to count how many times you picked up dinner to go instead of “standing over a hot stove” last summer. Of course, there’s a downside to our big appetites. Last year, we regained the title of “America’s Fattest City” in the annual Men’s Fitness survey, a championship Houston famously held for three years straight in the early aughts. Interestingly, the magazine didn’t actually weigh anybody—they relied on obesity statistics from the likes of the Centers for Disease Control and blamed Houston traffic and humid weather for our lack of exercise. The report also revealed that the Bayou City leads the nation in fast food restaurants with 1,034, which you have to agree is something of an achievement, however dubious.
Consider the Houston work of architect Philip Johnson. In the late ’40s, Johnson came to Texas to design a home for John and Dominique de Menil. That strikingly modern house in traditional River Oaks may have prompted raised eyebrows at the time, but we got over it. Over the next half century, Johnson peppered Houston’s terrain with modern and postmodern landmarks, among them Pennzoil Place, RepublicBank (now Bank of America), Transco (now Williams) Tower with its enchanting Waterwall (actually part of the tower’s air-conditioning system), and the master plan for the University of St. Thomas campus. Johnson’s best work was towering and playful, not unlike his ego, itself so towering and playful it might have belonged to a Houstonian. When asked whether the Transco Tower (then still on the drawing boards) would look anything like the Empire State Building, he impishly replied, “Much more handsome, thank you.”
How many times have you heard an out-of-towner say, “Where’s the tumbleweed? Where’s the cactus?” It’s always such a pleasure to drive these folks down a cathedral-like street of live oaks and watch them come to grips with the fact that we’re not brown but green. Houston’s lush tree canopy remains one of its most beloved assets, although the damage wrought by 2011’s severe drought still haunts. The devastation’s most visible in Memorial Park, which lost as many as half its trees. But the city’s still exceptionally woodsy, and one of the best places from which to appreciate that fact is right close to Memorial Park. Find a perch in or on one of the tall buildings along West Loop 610 (an east-facing room on the top floor of the Omni Hotel will do wonderfully), gaze across the treetops and prepare to have your breath taken away. Off in the distance, arising from the verdant, rolling waves, downtown seems an enchanted, emerald city. Oz never looked so good.
Go ahead, try and imagine Houston without the energy—or rather, energy industry—that built it. All it took was the discovery of oil in Beaumont in 1901, combined with the imminent arrival of the Port of Houston, opened by President Wilson in 1914, for an unruly gang of would-be oil barons to descend upon the area and begin prospecting for that sweet, sweet liquid gold. Soon enough the city became the country’s oil and gas capital, which in turn led to a massive boom in tourists seeking a little reflected glamour from the sparkling refineries ...Okay, that last part didn’t happen. But no one minded, thanks to the city’s vanguards in oil, gas, and energy-related services. Courtesy of the foundations created from the fortunes of Lyndall and Gus Wortham, Alice and George Brown, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cullen, the Menils, and others, Houston got a massive Medical Center, universities, and superior arts institutions like the Alley Theatre, The Menil Collection, Houston Grand Opera, and the Museum of Fine Arts. In other words, thanks to the energy that energy unleashed, we’ve all become rich beyond our wildest dreams.
Head over to a bar on the Wakefield strip just north of 610, pull up a stool beside a leathery-faced greaser, and prepare to be amazed. Your Rice liberal arts degree prepared you to explicate Chaucer, but the guy with the cold stare and the neck tattoo can explicate hydrotreating, as well as school you in the finer points of hydrocracking (something about hydrogen). Hell, after a few more beers, he might even use his wizard-like skills to turn air into fire, if you’re lucky. And he’s not alone. Houston boasts one of the most skilled workforces in the country, thanks to high energy prices, advances in drilling technology and a manufacturing sector for whom robust is hardly the word. It all makes for a lively meeting of the minds, not to mention some of the nation’s strangest bar talk.
Houston’s a great place to be, but it’s even better when you’re on your way somewhere else. That sounds like the feeblest of compliments, we know, but it’s really a testament to a city that’s an acknowledged leader in regional, domestic and international transport. Centered between the east and west coasts, a few hours’ drive from the Mexican border, the Bayou City is equally convenient to Latin America and the Midwest (hell, we’re even convenient to outer space, thanks to NASA). And for the cargo load that likes to leave its travel options open, we’ve got 10 deep-sea ports in the region and more miles of HOV lanes than any other U.S. city. Combined, the Hobby and Bush Intercontinental airports handle almost 50 million passengers a year, while the Port of Houston and the hundred-plus shipping lines that serve it connect Houston to more than a thousand ports worldwide. Whatever your final destination, we’ve got you coming and going.
Breakfast in Houstonia means sausage kolaches, chorizo and egg breakfast tacos, saag paneer omelets, powdered sugar beignets, goat curry beignets, yeasty light doughnuts with coffee, or Chinese doughnuts with sweetened soy milk. Lunch and dinner mean gorditas, Tex-Mex enchiladas, pho, falafels, pupusas, biryani, sushi, xiu mai dumplings or Korean bulgogi barbecue. Ethnic dishes all, and yet we barely think to call them such. Why? Maybe because the average Houstonian’s refrigerator door is stocked with such staples as Rooster-brand Sriracha sauce, Cholula, Doña Maria Mole, Thai Kitchen red curry paste, Patak’s Lime Pickle, and Lee Kum Kee Hoisin.
From the massive freeways that get our cars from one place to another, to the vast sea of parking lots where they come to rest, Houston is nothing if not concrete. How could things be otherwise in a city of engineers and other practical types, whose first instinct when solving problems is to build their way out of them? Which is not to say our concreteness doesn’t, at times, veer from the practical to the problematic. There’s an old joke: How do you know when a freeway’s finished in Houston? When they tear it up and start over. Would that it were only a joke. Sometimes it seems like this city’s running a full-employment plan for concrete contractors.
Consider the lowly, devious, diabolical, imported-from-South-America red fire ant. During floods, an entire colony of Solenopsis invicta will surround the queen on all sides, encasing her in a protective, if horrific-looking, ball of ants that keeps her safe until the time is right to re-infest your lawn. But while this uninvited immigrant has a rap sheet a mile long—from ruining picnics to the alleged mass-murder of cute, defenseless creatures like the firefly and horned toad—ask yourself this: when was the last time you found a tick on your dog? Or worse, on you? It has probably been a good long while, and we have the fire ants to thank for that. (They chomped up most of those bloodsuckers years ago.) Also on the ants’ menu: fleas, scorpions, caterpillars, cockroaches, mosquitos—both eggs and larvae—and a host of agricultural pests. We can certainly understand cursing the wee beasties when they bite, but you might have a little sympathy for the red devils too.
Proud (Very Proud)
By the way, we have a gay mayor. Did you know about our gay mayor? She’s a lesbian, Annise Parker, and we elected her. We really want you to know this—especially if you live in New York, L.A., or Chicago. You know, those places that are supposedly cooler than Houston, although—huh—come to think of it, haven’t all of their mayors been, you know, not openly gay? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. Still, in our opinion, an edgy city can never be truly edgy until it’s elected a not particularly edgy lesbian mayor to run it. Or so we would like you to think. Actually, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to us what a mayor does when she’s not mayoring. But then, we’re sort of blasé about the whole gay thing in general. Just look at our family-friendly, corporate-sponsored, more-culture-than-counterculture Pride Parade. It’s a textbook example of Houstonians taking an issue that polarizes other communities and dismissing it with a resounding No Big Deal, an attitude which, when you think about it, is a bigger deal than having a gay mayor. But you do know we have one, right?
Let’s talk about funky for a moment. First off, it has several meanings, some laudatory, some not. Second, all those meanings somehow manage to suit Houston to a tee. Consider the olfactory funkiness of “having a strong, offensive odor.” Here, we’re thinking not so much of the air over Pasadena as Houston after a soaking rain, when the smell of the mud has something powerfully, unmistakably—well—maternal about it. Moving on to musical funkiness, we have “of or relating to music that has an earthy quality reminiscent of the blues,” which is a bull’s-eye assessment of the Houston sound, as heard in the music of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Roy Head, Joe Sample, Esther Phillips, Joe Tex, ZZ Top, Johnny “Guitar Watson, Jesse Dayton, Carolyn Wonderland, UGK, Destiny’s Child, Grandfather Child, and many others. Then there’s funky as in “outlandishly vulgar or eccentric in a humorous manner.” Which reminds us, isn’t the Art Car Parade next month?
These days, pho and banh mi are as much a part of the Houstonian lexicon as enchilada and queso (is Vietnamese the new Tex-Mex? We say yes!), and no wonder. We’ve a wealth of Vietnamese Houstonians, Filipino Houstonians, Pakistani Houstonians, Everywhere Else in Asia Houstonians—communities with deep multi-generational Texas roots—and we’re all beneficiaries of their pride in tradition. In 1979, Barbara Bush and Roy Huffington founded the Asia Society Texas Center, which would join forces with the city’s Asian community and start a long history of cultural largesse. In 1995, the center decided to put its offerings under one roof, and in 2011, after years of dogged fundraising, its elegant, modern, $48.4 million home finally made its debut. The city was, in a word, wowed—by Yoshio Taniguchi's architecture, by lectures and performances in the center’s fancy theater, by spectacular exhibitions of ancient and contemporary Asian art, and yes, by a killer opening night party. All hailed Asia Society as a dazzling gift to Texans, by Texans, and the cheering hasn’t stopped since.
Ask someone who’s not from here about Houston and religion, and ten-to-one they’ll mention everyone’s favorite mega-pastor, Joel Osteen. Having Summit-ed the highest peaks of televangelism, the minister with a million-dollar smile (not to mention a $10 million manse) has garnered a national following, but he’s not the only spiritual leader Houstonians turn to for guidance. We seek counsel from swamis, monks, imams, priests, rabbis, and barbecue pit masters (kidding ...we think). In fact, whatever your Creator-of-choice, we’ve got something for you, from a Buddhist temple in Sugar Land, to a Hindu temple in Pearland, a Jewish temple in Missouri City, a Hare Krishna temple in Oak Forest, a Quaker Meeting House in the Heights, a 147-year-old African-American church right downtown, and more. And you thought all our appetites were of the fleshly sort.
If, as they say, everything’s big in Texas, then everything big in Texas is even bigger in Houston. And when we say bigger, we’re not talking about our bigger skyline, much less our waistline. We don’t mean bigger like our Museum District or Theater District, our skate park or rodeo, our economic recovery or average wages. And we certainly don’t mean our roaches, humidity, egos, propensity for plastic surgery, or Medicare fraud scandals. No, when we say big, we mean all those things and more, all our achievements, both famous and in-. And while we prefer to win big, when we lose, we don’t point accusatory fingers or go crying into our beer. We try to be, well, big about it.
In 1996, the Houston Oilers, after failing to persuade the city to build them a new stadium, left town for Nashville. It was a low moment in Houston professional sports history, and we were determined not to let it happen again. In less than a decade, the Astros were batting at Minute Maid Park, the Texans were bruising at Reliant Stadium, and the Rockets ballin’ at the Toyota Center. Close to a billion dollars of stadia were built (nearly all of it raised by taxes on tourists), and Houston proved its lemons-into-lemonade mettle once again, turning the unthinkable—a mass exodus of sports teams—into an opportunity for urban renewal. It took quick action to prevent such impossibilities as the Virginia Astros, the Louisville Rockets and the, uh, Los Angeles Texans (although we think we’ve seen the latter congregating around the Galleria of late). But this is Houston. We know how to make a damn fine chicken salad out of, well, you know. And what with the new Dynamo stadium and Sugar Land Skeeters ballpark having opened, and a new home on the way for the Cougars of U of H, well, let’s just say that sports fans in Houston have nothing to complain about. Off the field, that is.
You have to know where to look, but deep in the Third Ward, Donald Barthelme’s prodigious literary legacy lives on. Amble through the halls of the University of Houston’s Cullen building on a spring afternoon and you’re liable to run into such writerly demigods as poet Tony Hoagland, short story writer Antonya Nelson, novelist Chitra Divakaruni, and memoirist Nick Flynn. They might be flipping through the latest issue of the much-celebrated Gulf Goast or an essay collection picked up from our beloved Brazos Bookstore. And the writers with the misfortune to be elsewhere? Inprint flies them to us. “I’ve been to readings where it was just my best friend and his girlfriend,” joked Junot Diaz last year when more than a thousand people showed up to see him read from his latest collection of short stories at the Wortham Theater. Sorry, Junot, in this town, it doesn’t matter how little the magazine or how short the short story. We go big.
A Mexican term of Aztec origin, rasquachismo is the process of making the most from the least. It’s something we do well here: Houston wasn’t blessed with much in the way of interesting topography, many of our buildings had the misfortune to be born during architecture’s most dismal eras, and a lot of our streets were constructed for cars, not the people who drive them. But look at what we do with the hand we’ve been dealt: Boring homes get transformed into livable art (the Beer Can House), mere vehicles into drivable art (art cars, low-riders, and slabs). And what about the little statues made out of mufflers and transmissions that stand guard over many a mechanic’s shop from Telephone Road to North Shepherd? Some might say that rasquache means ghetto, but the better translation is genius.
“There’s book sense,” as Grandma used to say on the porch swing, “and then there’s street sense.” You could tell by the way she said it which one mattered more, and all your life you’ve tried to choose the sensible over the absurd, as per her instructions. Then again, here you are sitting in dead-stop traffic on I-45 (because one bozo forgetting to change his oil means 5,000 folks have to be late for work), looking up at the skyscraper with the corny mock-Aztec temple atop it and thinking, gee, I’m glad Grandma didn’t live to see all this. You look down at the breakfast sandwich in your lap. Grandma wouldn’t have approved of that either, much less how much eating out you do in general. But Grandma—you argue as if she’s still here—I do it for some of the cheapest prices in the country, according to Zagat. In your mind’s eye, this mollifies her, but only temporarily. You imagine her feigning a heart attack when you tell her how much Houstonians pay for houses these days, whereupon you explain how much cheaper they are here than the rest of America. Grandma stares at you for a long moment, then looks away, nodding her head slowly, never saying a word, which is the closest she ever comes to conceding that you’re right.
Every Houstonian is a bona fide barbecue expert, something he or she will typically demonstrate by comparing the pathetic plate of dry brisket, chewy ribs, and greasy sausage at the establishment where you are currently dining to the smoked meats they had once upon a time at the best barbecue joint in Texas—a little shack out near Fredericksburg, or was it Lufkin? (Here’s a tip: if you want to sound like a local when opining about a Houston barbecue joint, just say it isn’t as good as it used to be.) We live in a region where the Mexican barbacoa, East Texas African-American, and Hill Country German barbecue styles overlap. No pitmaster can ever satisfy us, because we can’t ever agree on what barbecue is supposed to be. Is Texas barbecue properly served with sauce or without? Are ribs just as important as brisket? Are African-American beef links or Hill Country German wursts the ultimate barbecue sausages? What do cow heads, cabrito al pastor and seasoned lamb wrapped in maguey leaves have to do with barbecue? Is jalapeño cheese bread a suitable substitute for Wonder Bread—or heresy? What about flour tortillas? What kind of fool eats barbecue sausage without crackers and hot sauce? Are you going to tell me that pinto beans, baked beans, refried beans or red beans are a proper side? Who the hell made the potato salad, and is it mashed or chunky, mustard or no? And all that’s just a prelude to the meatiest, most divisive query of all: Who’s got the best barbecue in town? There’s no good answer to any of these questions, and be advised that any opinion you utter may well lead to gunfire.
“Where do you go to church?”—That’s the first question a stranger gets in some southern cities. Down here south of Dixie, however, that’s not even in the top ten. “Where did you go to high school?”—That’s what we want to know. You see, high school is how we place one another, shorthand each other, stereotype each other. Sometimes it’s St. Thomas and its Catholic old money good ol’ boys versus Strake Jesuit’s new money preppies; others it’s the bohemian flair of HSPVA versus the jolly, hard-partying ways of Clear Lake High. St. John’s thinks it’s the local Harvard, Kinkaid the Yale... You get the idea. And then there’s football. Loyalties to high school gridiron squads extend deep into adulthood here, so much so that on one local radio show, an expert actually sets betting lines on whether the Yates Lions can defeat the Kashmere Rams, and if so, by precisely how much. Nowhere else but H-Town.
There is a place for those who want to postpone adulthood, kick back a while, maybe slap on a tattoo and call it originality. It’s called Austin. But if you’ve a taste for work, why not come to a town where the American Dream’s still fully operational, maybe the last one? To Houston. To a place where the hours are long and there’s no shame in sweating, if only because—this being Houston—everyone else is sweating too. To a town where no business proposal’s so hare-brained it can’t get seed money, if only because—again, this being Houston—you’ve almost 100,000 millionaires to shop it to.
When the aforementioned Allen brothers arrived in 1836 and decided to create a town out of nothing, they realized that Houston might be a tough sell, what with the heat, mosquitos, lawlessness, and disease. Never ones to kowtow to cold, hard reality, though, Allen and Allen’s advertisements for the city boasted not bayous but waterfalls. Thus did those two truth-stretchers get the job done, creating a bustling, business-friendly metropolis whose own subsequent fibs included dredging parts of Buffalo and White Oak Bayous and declaring the hole a Port of Houston. (It was too shallow for heavy use—today it’s known as Allen’s Landing.) There, as in so many other places, however, faith was father of fact. The modern Port of Houston is one of the world’s busiest, handling millions of tons of cargo each year, along with untold numbers of would-be Allen types for whom making money is an unabashed goal. They may not find waterfalls, but the frequent windfalls more than make up for them.
It seems that finding humor in rage is the peculiar genius of Houstonians, at least on the evidence of two legendary local stand-ups, one Houston-trained, the other Houston-bred. Schooled in Old Testament wisdom as children, both Sam Kinison—a transplanted, former Pentecostal preacher—and Stratford High School grad Bill Hicks dumped the dogma but retained all the fury of the Hebrew sages. These profane prophets, excoriators of hypocrisy and revilers of worldly authority, hard-partying hedonists with deeply embedded moral codes, were torch-bearers for the fearless and savagely secular sermons of the Houston school of comedy, one that could pin you to your chair with rock and roll intensity and make you laugh till your face hurt. As Kinison and Hicks approached their tragic and untimely deaths, their material diverged, Sam growing more crass, Bill becoming more political, even cerebral, finally embracing a black-yet-hopeful philosophy not seen since early George Carlin. And then the laughter died. Kinison was just 38 when he died in a car wreck in 1992; a couple of years later, Hicks, a chain-smoker, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at 32. The latter’s brand of comedy lives on in his acolytes David Cross and fellow Houstonian Ron White, while Kinison has inspired a whole generation of stand-ups looking to pair comedy with hard-rocking Pentecostal intensity. (Joke. Get it?)
Despite being 50 miles from the Gulf, Houston is forever kissed by salty sea breezes. This explains a whole host of predilections. For instance, many of our favorite beverages—dirty martinis, micheladas, margaritas, Vietnamese lemonade—would be unthinkable without salt, and isn’t it the briny essence of crabs, oysters, shrimp, trout, redfish, and flounder that make them perpetual favorites? But of all the sublime salinity in our midst, there’s none we appreciate more than the salt on the eastern rim (of Houston, not your glass). We’re talking about those legendary folk the true East Siders, whose salty talk and plain-spokenness, though profane, never fails to entertain, and lives on in every dive bar from Eastwood down to the Seawall, although it’s in sunny San Leon that the Platonic form of Saltiness is to be found. In that unincorporated community on Galveston Bay (which boasts of being “a small drinking community with a large fishing problem”), residents stroll along the waterfront, red Solo cups in hand, while wild parakeets squawk from atop palm trees at the Railean Rum distillery, even as boat mechanics blare the blues and cuss up storms at the boatyard next door. Avast, me hearties—in San Leon, you can channel your inner sea-dog seven days a week.
Hard as it might be for Houstonians to imagine, there are still towns in America where fast food is the only thing one can purchase while seated in one’s car. It’s true. In other places—sad, benighted places—you have to physically stand at an ATM. Really. Getting a prescription means actually going inside a pharmacy. Worse yet—and most illogically of all—they make you get out of your car to get coffee, completely ignoring the fact that no one has the energy to get out of the car until they’ve had coffee. We get it, Seattle—you’re not into our brand of multitasking. But don’t pretend you’re not jealous of our drive-thru beer barns. And spare us the whole mixed messages speech. This is not about drinking and driving. This is about our God-given right to pull up to a W Grill, snag a margarita in a Styrofoam cup with Scotch tape obscuring the straw hole, and cup-hold the hermetically sealed beverage until the moment we pull into the driveway. Or don’t you like drinking in the garage?
It’s not that we don’t think we need mass transit. It’s not that we love traffic jams. But face it, having your own ride is deeply ingrained in our culture. No cowboy worth his spurs would have given up his horse for a ride in the stagecoach. Never know when you’ll need to make a quick getaway. Being able to git at the drop of a hat remains a precious prerogative. Among our rules to live by: Always take your own car. And if you must carpool, insist on driving.
During last fall’s presidential election, Houston’s most-watched TV news programs weren’t on Fox, CNN, or the three networks. They were Noticias Univision 45 a las 5 (News 45 at 5) and Noticias 45 Edición Nocturna (News 45 Evening Edition). In fact, for the first time ever, KXLN Univision 45 outpaced all English-language competitors, becoming Houston’s No. 1 broadcast station in all demographics and at all times of the day. Tex-Mexicano Houston doesn’t fit neatly into the national Hispanic-programming mold. While upscale Latino types in Miami (Tejanos call them fresas) might consider our tejano and norteño music to be lowbrow styles associated with drug-smuggling cowboys, the music is still selling, um, gangbusters. People there are still trying to recover from Houston rapper Chingo Bling’s northern Florida tour in 2010. An emerging norteño hip-hop style threatens to rankle Miami even more.
Sometimes Houston’s appearance atop a magazine’s top-10 list seems less a function of who we are than the desire of list-happy editors to sound contrarian (present company excluded, of course!). But it’s true what Forbes and a host of other publications have said: Houston really is the city where a paycheck stretches furthest. Experts have attributed this happy state of affairs to everything from devil-may-care zoning regulations to cheap real estate, to three-buck banh mi, to our merciful lack of an income tax. But we didn’t just come by such perks by accident. You’d never be living in America’s most inexpensive big city if it weren’t for the generations of Gold C-coupon-clipping, Traders Village-scavenging, Miller Outdoor Theatre-going cheapskates who paved the way for you. Offer a prayer of thanks to them every time you visit the Rothko Chapel.
You’ve heard about the laconic Westerner. We’re more in the Southern storytelling tradition. Looking for proof of our longwinded ways? Just take a look at this cover story. Or simply try getting simple directions from a Houstonian without enduring a meandering, shaggy-dog narration about the guy who built the weird-looking house at your first turn or what happened when a brother-in-law drove into the pothole that lies in your path. And unless you plan to sneak out, don’t even contemplate leaving a party without hearing a colorful yarn or long-winded bit of gossip on the doorstep (we call it the “Galveston goodbye” in these parts). Newcomers may think we’ve got some regional form of ADHD, but the fact is, we just talk a lot, and we can’t help illustrating a point with an anecdote. Which reminds us of the time that Aunt Betty went out to the privy one cold night, and that chicken pecked her on the butt...
In the 11 years between striking oil in 1919 and his death in 1930, Will Hogg (elder brother of Ima) built or had a huge part in swinging the deals that left Houston with Bayou Bend, River Oaks, Memorial Park, and what eventually became the Theater District. He planted hundreds of crape myrtles around town, as well as magnolias to honor Houston’s fallen World War I dead. He built a home for poor boys and was a leader in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. He put hundreds of young men through college, anonymously whenever possible. In fact, he tried to keep everything he did on the QT. Once, the Museum of Fine Arts wanted to honor his contributions with a banquet. Hogg fled town. Another time, when some leading citizens tried to give him a medal, Hogg feigned illness until the clamor died down. No one, it seems, not even the press, was safe from his humility. (Hogg had this to say when a Houston Post reporter tried to write an article honoring him: “If you put my name in your column of tripe, I’ll kick you so hard you’ll taste the shoe leather for the rest of your life.”) The last decade of Hogg’s life saw him trying to spend every penny of his oil wealth on things that would benefit Houston and Texas for centuries to come. To him, anything short of that was rank selfishness. “The government made a mistake in not reserving for its own use all the wealth below the soil,” he once said. “What I don’t pay back in taxes on the oil which should not have been mine, I’m glad to give back away for the public welfare.”
The Houston area has a population of more than 6 million—people. Many more souls inhabit our area, of course, and while we’re not fans of all creatures great and small (e.g., the raccoon family that dines on our trash, the grackles at Café Adobe so brazen they’ll steal tortilla chips from your hands), the sight of a red-tailed hawk will stop us in our tracks. So will a school of catfish swimming in the bayou, or a gator eyeing us warily from the mud in Brazos Bend. We live to hear about the South American monk parakeets for whom Houston is home, thrill to coyote and bobcat sightings outside of town. They’re a reminder that—at least where this city’s concerned—the untamed life holds appeal for both man and beast, although neither is especially fond of feral hogs.
Kolache Shop Creole
Oxford American magazine recently gave Houston the nickname “Mutt City” in recognition of what they declared the new creole city of the South. We can’t be certain that such multicultural treats as boudin kolaches, masala fajitas, jalapeño falafels, Sriracha remoulade, Sloppy Joe banh mi sandwiches, and double-meat, double-cheese tortaburgers were all invented here, but it’s a good bet that Houston contains more of these ethnic food mash-ups than anywhere else.
Consider the clash of cultures responsible for the boudin kolache, available at the Shipley’s on Main Street on Saturday and Sunday mornings only. A Texas kolache is a creolized form of an old-world pastry from what once was Czechoslovakia, and Cajun boudin is the creolized version of the blood sausage of France. And who is responsible for this Saturday morning treat? Typically a Mexican-American baker at an Anglo bakery. What kind of mentality does it take to create such a concoction? A kolache shop creole mentality, that’s what.
Build a port 50 miles from the ocean? Hand us that shovel. Put a man on the moon? Been there, done that. Construct an opera hall during a crushing economic bust? Check. Perfect an artificial heart? We’re working on it...
Which is to say that no list of virtues, be it of 250 or 2,500, could ever get to the essence of Houstonianism. (Yes, we’re copping out.) Is this why you’ll never spy a stranger across a crowded room and instantly conclude “She must be from Houston”? Perhaps. It’s certainly the case that we’re nowhere near as easy to spot as New Yorkers or Los Angelenos, not to mention Portlanders or Austinites (who, let’s be honest, are forever accessorizing the weirdness that we come by naturally). But that’s no surprise. Just as our city’s virtues aren’t instantly identifiable, neither are its people’s. Which may well be a virtue in disguise.