From little dogs to big wheels: seeking out the Hippy Heart of Houston
When talking about traveling to Houston, people respond in a bemused or incredulous way. Really?… Houston? Even a Texan I met before departing recommended every other place besides America’s fourth largest city, saying: Dallas is the place for tech jobs, San Antonio for food, and Austin for everything else. But, I was drawn in by food media, the likes of David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious” Netflix series, which revealed Houston’s mix of culture and seasonings; I was expecting Bollywood dance parties in Desi grocery stores and crawfish smothered in lemongrass butter fresh off the boat. I imagined colorful neighborhoods enriched by the smells of fresh cut grass and the salty ocean breeze. What I got was a landscape at once industrial and natural competing for attention.
Houston is a sprawling city built around the oil industry and the unfettered construction of highway. Coming into the city from the George (H.W.) Bush airport, I passed a bunch of office complexes that appeared to have turned off the lights after a series late nights of intense paper shredding, or maybe this is just the association I had with Enron where it turns out my host had worked. Yet, Houston is a booming city boasting one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Its medical industry is the largest in the world, I was told. I however, was seeking neither job nor pacemaker, just a taste of the south via Houston’s eclectic confluence of community, culture, and flavor.
The journey started off assumedly, wandering alongside the large villas and manicured hedges of a suburban neighborhood with the occasional palm tree. I was looking for a missing bus stop. Circling back and forth on the side of a highway, I finally spotted the sign for the “26” bus lying in the grass, presumably someone unfriendly to public transit had upended it. Waiting for the bus, a sound similar to the kerr-chunk of a coin falling into a jukebox nabbed my attention. I looked up, dumbfounded. It happened again, followed by a chirp, more of a winding up sound. This impossibly intriguing call belonged to a Great Tailed Grackle, a common black bird with purplish tint and stark yellow eyes. I listened, marveling at how this bird could produce a crackling sound until my bus arrived.
Despite its reputation, the hybrid buses were comfortable, running off a mix of electricity and gas, and for 3 bucks a day you can take unlimited rides. Just don’t miss your bus or your mark because you end up waiting 30 minutes without a tree in sight wondering if you’ll forever be stuck on the wrong side of the highway. On one of those occasions, I was rescued by a Lyft driver who informed me that Texas comes from an indigenous word “tay-has” meaning friend. This sounded like a watered down version of history, but I needed one to believe that Texas had my back. Traveling alone from bus to bus, unsure of where you’ll land can be an isolating experience. Even with google maps, the strip malls, gray skies, and bending highways begin to blend together. Thankfully, local Texans along the way were open to a conversation and offered directions, like Marina. I met her at the bus stop at the intersection of nowhere and a gasolinera. Originally from San Luis Potosi, she’d lived in Houston for the past 42 years and was on the way to drop off Lilies to her boss whose mom had passed. She tells me that the beaches on the gulf aren’t anything special but they’re still beaches, not too different than in the South of México. We ride past one of her favorite restaurants, “Rice Box,” and when I mention I’m looking for a coffee shop, she points me towards a parallel stretch of road a couple blocks off the route. I decided to hop off to peruse. An Elvis relic jamming silently on his guitar greets me at the corner, and an art car catches the corner of my eye like a scattered box of cray-pas — textbook entrance to a Bohemian barrio.
Now home to a class of transplants hailing from Austin, Houston Heights, or simply “The Heights” was Houston’s original downtown. In present time, it’s an artsy district with vintage fingerprints of the past. An outpost called Manready invokes the forlorn frontier with artisanal goods and scented candles sold at present-day, elevated prices. The upstairs ambiance practically grunts, huh huh huh ala Tim the Toolman in Home Improvement. If you go with feigned interest in their products, you can expect to be served a glass of whisky with a single ice cube, as the gentleman and his partner after me receive. I unfortunately go with sarcasm: “What brings you up here?” the clerk asks. “Just resisting gravity,” I respond. I learned after multiple unsuccessful attempts that sarcasm doesn’t translate in Texan.
If you like your books alongside whimsical trinkets check out the LIFT, a colorful store where I picked up a fresh pair of Frida socks. Further down the road’s the local vintage record store “Vinal Edge.” Walking in your immediately hit with the sweet must of a well-groomed shag carpet in a restored basement — aromatherapy for collectors. Across the street is Boomtown Coffee, a yuppie Houston franchise with lattes, tacos, and of course, small dogs. I crossed paws with El Capitán, a runt of a dog from Puebla, MX who aggressively barked, “Don’t mess with México” to every four-legged passerby panting, and “Yes, I am this cute,” to every two-legged ogling human.
Peppered throughout the downtown and surrounding boroughs are rentable bikes. They’re $3 for a 30 minute ride, or you can get a monthly membership for $9, granting you unlimited 60 minute rides — use #MetroBikes30 for a 2 dollar discount. The Bison Bayou boasts biking and walking trails that snake along its sides. Stop along the way to discover radical public art, i.e. the “New Monuments for New Cities” installment that features pieces by politically subersive artists. Don’t bike on the walking trails less you enjoy getting hassled by retired white men — whoops! And if you’re needing to get those post-work jitters out, consider a workout with Bombshell Boot Camp. My feet were sore from walking, so I admired the women’s resolve from afar as they did burpies on yoga matts with a smile.
After leaving the Bayou I had landed in the theater district, walking alongside an unending line of teeny-boppers in baggy jeans waiting for a hip-hop concert. I didn’t have a ticket, and it was time to get home. As several busses passed me by, I felt swallowed up by the skyscrapers overlooking this part of the city. I was like a hungry dog waiting for its master until the 212 finally came by. On the bus, I was tense and looking down at my phone like every other rider. Unfortunately, I mistook the transit station as a highway road stop, and before I knew it, we were speeding down the highway with no stops in site. At the next “Park and Ride,” a Dalí-esque lot where professionals park and catch the bus, I was stranded with google maps showing that the ride home would take two hours. A kind but overbearing, middle-aged, blond repeatedly told me where and how I should wait for the bust. Shiiittt. I decided to splurge and catch a Lyft. Shortly, Luis, a kitchen manager at a “middle-eastern” chain named Zoe’s came and scooped me up.
“Have you ever been on tv before,” he asked.
“Umm, no, not really. Well once or twice I was accidentally on the news… Not like my mug shot or anything.”
“You mean you were arrested?”
“Naw, naw, nothing like that, ha-ha. Have you — been on t.v.?
“No, I haven’t.” He laughs a bit.
“Have you been arrested?” I asked feeling like he wanted to share.
“Yeah. I had weed in the car, and he said he was taking me in.”
“Damn, that musta been awful.”
“Yeah it was. I was like I’m done with this! I’m never smoking weed again.”
The next morning I woke up early and anxious about what I’d be doing in Texas that day, nervous that I didn’t have a plan. I still hadn’t had crawfish, due to a botched attempt earlier in the day at B.B.’s Tex-Orleans restaurant, a chain seafood spot, which Luis had actually recommended. But, I’d been on the search for the infamous “viet-cajun” combination of Vietnamese spices and New Orleans-style boiled crawfish. I found a place called Crawfish and Noodles, and I started to head there but realized it was only 11:30, and they didn’t open till 3pm. Nevertheless, I was headed to Chinatown.
To get to Houston’s Chinatown requires traversing the highways, barren of nature but rich with taquerías and pupuserías. I get restless on the bus, as the nerves from earlier in the day haven’t relented, so I get off when I get to a place where all the businesses have signs with red trim and characters. I’m a bit surprised that everything’s in Chinese, given that this C-town is home to a variety of East and South Asian cultures. Korean, Indian, and Malaysian food and shopping abound. I’m not sure if I made it all the way into the heart, because what I found was just a series of retail centers. I did make it into a restaurant called Yuan Ten. Wanting to step outside my comfort zone but also with a taste of home, I ordered mussels with black bean sauce, braised tofu, and pork blood. The profiles of familiar gravies lifted by garlic, green scallion, and fermented black bean warmed the belly. The pork blood was ‘aight. It had the texture of a dense marshmallow and was mainly a flavor vessel for the sweet green onion in cut in large chunks. While I thought the food was done well, my waitress, Michelle, thought it lousy compared to her home province of GuangZhou. I left on that note, with a tinge of disappointment, unsure of my own palate and questioning if I’d arrived in Chinatown or just the outskirts.
Houston’s territory is sprawling, and it’s difficult, near impossible if you don’t have a car, to jump from neighborhood to neighborhood. It takes a whole day or to get to know one section. Despite being given this advice, I kept moving forward and after a quick pause back home, I headed downtown to Rice University and nearby Hermann Park where the Houston Zoo is located. After munching on some broccoli flowers at a small garden, I wandered and came across what appeared to be a staircase leading to a square space ship. The mysteriously beckoning saucer was James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace. Beneath the Identified Flying Object, there were no gadgets or warp speed accelerators, just empty space with stone seats coming off the walls. Looking up, a window leads the gaze unto a wide sky. Unable to sit still and a bit hungry, I let light rain sprinkle onto my shoulders before hopping on my rent-a-bici.
Entering from the SW corner of Hermann Park, there’s a statue of the white guy (not Hermann) who made all of this possible — a good ol’ chap according to family who commissioned the monument and emblematic of the other shining pioneers to whom the park is dedicated. An old mini-trolley runs through the park, and despite its sluggish pace, I can’t quite catch up before it leaves the mini-dock. Further into the park is a reflecting pool made in the image of Lincoln’s swimming pool where the March on Washington took place in ’63. Just like DC, there’s an erect obelisk, a mini-one, standing at the head of the pool. A young girl is dressed in a poofy white dress, and leans back towards the water while a photographer takes shots while the mom looks on unsatisfied — seems like a quinceañera. The feeling of gentility, innocence embodied by a white swan on a muddy pond carries across time and cultures. As I depart the park, I say my salutations to busts of dude revolutionaries including Benito Juarez, first president of the Mexican republic of indigenous, Zapotec heritage and a handsome, young Philipino brother I never learned about: José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Realonda, one of the nation’s greatest heroes. He spoke 22 languages(!!!), wrote poetry, and took care of peoples’ eyes, among other gifts. Yet, as a declared an enemy of the state he was executed by the Spanish crown, accused of supporting the revolution through his writings.
A light-rail train with classy artwork runs down Main St and stands out from the rest of Houston’s transportation infrastructure. Hop on and you’ll go past fancy bars and museums of all kinds: African American culture, Contemporary Arts, and Czech culture, for example. As my tummy continues to growl, I hop off and pop into a bar where I had my first experience with a “bowl.” You may know a bowl as a.) a pipe full of weed or more commonly b.) a receptacle for soups, rice, and everything nice employed across the world. It has a sensuous shape that you can hold in your hands (it’s round) and conjures notions of warmth and comfort. Modern day “bowls” are a food trend, wherein a noodle or rice base is covered with a smattering of ingredients like pickles, edamame, or kim chi, a protein option, and some kind of sauce with a bit of herbage on top. You’ve seen them at Chipotle, your co-op, and at that one Poké spot with two inconsistent hipster customers that somehow stays open. While most of these bowls taste the same, the one I had in Midtown — Houston’s nightlife district — hit the spot. It featured sushi rice as the base, marinated ribeye as the protein, green onion pickled cauliflower for the color and crunch, a pickled chutney called fukujinzuke for the tangy punch, and an egg yolk to glue it all together. There was also ikura, caviar, at the bowl’s side, which added saltiness and texture in the form of pink, little bubbles. This would be my most memorable meal along with a lobster roll I’d relish in Austin.
You see a lot of undesirable aspects of a city wandering in parts unknown. Homelessness was common and prominently afflicted Black bodies. I passed one man, white, on the way to the Greyhound bus that was sleeping on the sidewalk resting his head on his shoes. The neighborhood and lifestyle surrounding the Greyhound station didn’t offer much in the way of redemption, and even walking into the building I noticed a distinct funk of mold after a rainy day. But, I was on my way to Austin for a change of scenery.
Austin has grown rapidly within the past 5 years, one resident shared with me, pointing to the office towers that appeared to have popped up overnight. This means more of the three b’s: Bird scooters, boutiques, and bike lanes. Austin is decidedly cozier and easier on the eyes due to the nature that courses through it, i.e. the Colorado River and its many lakes. A gaggle of Googlers coming to the city have added to the young money moving in. I happened to be staying with one, who gave me a tour of the campus, which didn’t disappoint. The facilities are set up for maximum chill time, so everybody can be more efficient. Every floor had a side-room stocked with healthy snacks and flavored water. If that wasn’t enough, floor 27 had its own barrista and leather chairs. In addition to the swanky facilities, Google also offers experiences to help cope with the stress of conquering the world as a 20 something. I got to taste the remnants of an Indian cooking class offered to employees. Google is quite particular about who’s allowed to access their “search bar” of resources, and my host was careful to stay by my side wherever I wondered. Don’t let the watermelon-mint water fool you, an intense corporate culture still pervades. And as I went out for drinks attempting to decipher a host of acronyms the sales team was communicating in, I sat alongside the lone woman at the table who bemoaned her sales campaign while hinting at the gender imbalance.
On the way back to the forsaken station where the Hounds stay, I got a call informing me my bus was running at least 4 hours late. I grew incensed trying to get updates about when the bus would actually be arriving, concerned about my flight leaving later in the night/early morning. Unfortunately, the customer team in Manila saw no delays on their system and couldn’t get in touch with the Austin station, which had no direct number. As time dragged on, my options more limited: drink more, or walk around with my backpack and a paper bag carrying my extra clothes, I grew more withdrawn, eventually hopping a metro bus to catch a Megabus back to Houston. While I had imagined a bright future with Google, I was soon back near the Greyhound station in downtown Houston where I began. And sitting next to man, clutching his bloodied, bandaged head, I once again used my disposable income to hop into a Lyft, half awake.
Before I could add it all up, I was being berated by a Nigerian math teacher-Uber+Lyft driver, who was taking his shame about being the only non-engineer in the family out on me? “How come you not driving Über? You could be making 6 figures. I earned 60,000 last year, and I didn’t have to file an income tax return. I learned that from the President. The last statement may have been true, given that Texas doesn’t impose a state income tax. He continued, “You should get a state job; there’s plenty of state jobs. Why aren’t you using your degree?” Careening down the highway having not slept throughout the night, I wondered — maybe I should get a government job, but not in fucking Houston.