H-Town Diary

The Moving Story of a Houston Nomad

The only relationship that matters is the one with your town.

By Katharine Shilcutt September 1, 2014 Published in the September 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Dan Page

My first home was on a street called Elm Grove, which sounds like the kind of street that you live on forever and never leave. Not me. In the 30 or so years since, I have moved 19 times, first to a home on Augusta Dr. in Tanglewood, then a second one on the very same street. My mother has a photo of me in my third yard gazing at a plane overhead, one small pudgy arm outstretched toward the sky, reaching for transport.

The first place I remember moving from was a beautiful, peach-colored rancher in Kingwood. I was five when we traded that two-story suburban gem for a small apartment complex that was, yes, down the street. My parents were in the process of divorcing; I was in the process of discovering the joys of a loft bedroom with a small window overlooking the living room, utterly distracted from divorce ugliness by the aesthetic pleasures of unpacking and redecorating. I carefully placed a line of stuffed animals on the ledge; my mother took them down a few hours later, calling my tableau tacky. I cried, my latent interior decorating talents rebuffed.

One short year later, my mother and I moved back into the city proper, and into the woods of west Houston in a neighborhood called Georgetown, just west of what is now CityCentre (then the stately Town & Country Mall). My mother leased the cheapest apartment she could find in the best school district she could find, and then begged the landlady for rent extensions each month. We lived on tuna-mac; I lived in hand-me-down glasses. There, I spent endless summer days exploring the bayou behind our apartment or daringly riding my bike east across oak-shaded streets to the Beltway, then darting back before my mother wondered where I’d been so long.

She eventually remarried, and with the new marriage came another new address—this one also in Georgetown—and something else new: a collection of stepbrothers. A year later, our comparatively giant family moved into a comparatively giant brick home. I mostly ignored the stepbrothers—much older than me—and concentrated on my new neighborhood, Sherwood Oaks: the best times to arrive at the community pool (just after lunch), the best spot for Cokes and burgers by bike (Sam’s Deli Diner), the best route to breach the Addicks Dam wildlife area that lay behind our neighborhood, beckoning like the Serengeti. I lived there happily until graduating from high school.

Four addresses marked my four years at Baylor University, the only ones outside Houston, the only ones spent enduring the indignities of living in a hopelessly small town. Or so it seemed to a girl for whom a dreary Waco weekend meant dreaming of the Houston she left behind—of Houston Symphony rehearsals my mother and I used to attend (free, as opposed to the performances we couldn’t afford); of the Menil and its cool, quiet, inviting halls; of the colorful buffet at Dimassi’s and the boudin at Ragin Cajun. I vowed to move into the city when I returned to Houston; to be closer to the heart of the home I loved.

That didn’t happen. After college, I moved straight back to Georgetown, where the neighborhood pools looked much smaller through adult eyes and Houston seemed even farther away than it had in Waco. And being an adult, I got married, to a man with a slightly different view of Georgetown. He loved the sleepy streets and close proximity to his office, while I was readier than ever to leave.

Verdict? We bought a townhome only a few doors down from the apartment I’d just vacated. Previously owned by a hoarder, the house’s subflooring had been stained a ghoulish tar-yellow thanks to tobacco juice spat directly onto the carpet. But hey, we got it for a song, fixed it up, and soon were living the American Dream—a dream, incidentally, which makes few allowances for women who take salary cuts so they can pursue a career in journalism. My husband was furious. Suburban dreams clashed with urban urges, which drove a wedge between us, one of many. We even fought about decorating, of all things—my favorite part of moving into a new space. I favored antique store finds and family heirlooms; my husband favored whatever was least expensive at Target or The Dump.

Divorce forced a move, which once more found me seeking familiarity and comfort in the act of moving itself. I shacked up in the first place I could find in Montrose, a neighborhood I’d fallen in love with at Westheimer street festivals when I was a tween (though that word didn’t exist yet) and over meals at Baba Yega with my father, and had romanticized ever since. Moreover, I was living in Clark Gable’s old house—a 1921 bungalow the actor had lived in while performing with the Laskin Brothers Stock Company. It had a library loft, a clawfoot tub, and a fireplace that seemed to take up the entire, massive living room. I decorated this space of my own with manic glee and set about learning my new neighborhood on foot and by bike.

My romantic vision of Montrose didn’t last too long. Bar fights from the 611 club down the street often spilled over onto my block. In the mornings, the occasional used condom greeted me on my front lawn. In winter, the house had no heat, forcing me to drag a space heater from room to drafty room in a futile attempt to stay warm. I got into a fight with my neighbors over their cat, a relative stray named Noam Chompsky [sic] whom they never seemed to feed, though the fight was as much about their cat’s stupid name as it was about its rail-thin body. I didn’t have cable or Internet, though Ziggy’s (now Gratifi) graciously allowed me to surf their Wi-Fi, and I got plenty of writing done there over bowls of carrot-ginger soup.

The final Montrose straw came when a family of raccoons moved into the walls and attic above my bedroom. They screeched and clawed at night, and all my landlord offered by way of help was to say, “Try and coax them out with your voice.” I left and moved into a Midtown high-rise that overlooked the Greyhound bus terminal, where I awoke each morning to the bleating sound of buses backing up and fell asleep each evening to the wonky sound of a not-terribly-good saxophonist at the corner of Main and West Gray. This sounds like living in a real city, I would think, consciousness fading. The pool overlooked the Pierce Elevated and I swam with Houston’s dramatic skyline as a backdrop, closing my eyes till the sound of traffic became the roar of an ocean. I walked to work every day, and took the light rail to my beloved Museum District, to the Rodeo, to the Continental Club, and to visit friends in the Medical Center. The city I dreamed of back in Waco had become a reality.

Soon, I found myself moving again, though—once again for a man. And once again, it didn’t last. Which I might have regretted, except that the breakup meant of course another move, which always brings me closer to the city I love. Thanks to my stint in the Warehouse District, I learned that Poppa Burger serves the best Flamin’ Hot Cheeto pies (24 hours a day), where to see the best Mexican drag shows (at Fiesta en Guadalajara on Irvington), and how to find the best up-and-coming local musicians (the dirt-cheap shows at the House of Creeps). As a bonus, my landlord indulged my whims, never blinking when I painted an accent wall crimson red or filled the huge warehouse walls with nails to fully display my art collection—one of the few things that follows me wherever I go. 

Which brings me to my newest address, in the First Ward, where I’ve acquired yet more Houston wisdom: the best times to hit the hike-and-bike trails that wind along Buffalo Bayou, and where to take one’s neighbors for moules-frites (Cafe Brussels). Here, I walk to comedy shows at Station Theater, and watch as tall, fragile-looking townhomes devour the few cottages left on tiny streets, streets so quiet you hardly know that downtown is looming overhead.

My friends and family stopped helping me move a long time ago, not surprisingly. My credit report looks like I’m evading a stalker. I’ve long since given up having a landline, cable, or Internet (too expensive and difficult to transfer). My possessions have been pared down, monk-like, to only the barest necessities. But my life has never been fuller, or richer. I don’t live in Houston. I am a part of Houston, carving my way through it like a bayou after a long, heavy rain. 

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