Elsewhere Note:
Houston Long Ago
1 October 2019

¶ As regular readers are aware, I lived in Houston for most of the Seventies. My father’s company had moved its headquarters there in 1968, and when I graduated from Notre Dame two years later, I had nowhere else to go. I soon got a job, at the classical radio station, where I stayed until early summer 1977, when I began to get ready to leave Houston for law school. After 1980, I don’t think that I made as many as ten short trips to the city; the last time I was there, it was for my daughter’s high-school graduation, in 1991.

So the Houston that I remember is forty to fifty years old. The house that my parents bought in Tanglewood was torn down years ago; now, I see, a new place, quite different and much more to my taste, is rising on the property. Although I lived on my own most of the time that I spent in Houston (or with my first wife), the Tanglewood house, which we all referred to by its street number, was pretty much the center of my world, where it was by far the most solid thing going.

How curious it is that Bryan Washington’s new collection of stories, Lot, makes me feel not that I was in Houston last week but that I am there right now. Reading the book, I have been living in an extended flashback. On the surface, connections between the world Washington writes about and the one I inhabited might seem slim to none. It would be easy to attribute my sense of dislocation to Washington’s conceit of giving most of his titles the names of streets. Houston’s streets can be like Texas itself, and go on forever and ever. Many streets that I associate with the rather small, intensely curated-looking block of fin de siècle highrises that constitutes Houston’s “downtown” run for miles, to the south and east, mostly. Although only one of these, Fannin, appears on the table of contents, many others are mentioned throughout Lot. You can’t tell just which segment of the street Washington has in mind, but pretty soon you grasp that it is not going to be one of the nicer stretches. Of course I had to open up Google Maps and track everything down. It was an intensely geographical read. 

But it was more than that. Even though the people that I knew were almost all white, with a black or two but no Latinos (Chicano was the word), most of us shared something with Washington’s characters: an aimlessness that I have never otherwise known. Like quite a few of his young men, I landed in Houston without much intention, and instead of trying to leave — because (and this was during New York City’s very worst years) there seemed to be nowhere else worth the effort of moving to — I made the best of things for as long as I could. Sometimes, Houston seemed like hell, but most of the time it was too odd for summary description. Most of the city — an immense suburb, actually — was of course visibly bland, just like any other part of the United States. Most people had regular jobs and sent their children to regular schools. But the older, more faded area that I lived in (in something like eight different places, changing on average more than once a year), bounded by 59 (now 69) and Memorial Drive, 610 and the plug end of Westheimer, in neighborhoods that sometimes had a name (Montrose) but mostly didn’t, I met and got to know a loose crowd of people who didn’t know where they were going any more than I did.

Outwardly, I was rejecting my parents’ glossy bourgeois life. Inwardly, I was rebuilding it on more congenial foundations. Beneath the apparent cluelessness, I was very busy. I was teaching myself to cook. I was learning about different ways to live (so that I could respect them even when I didn’t adopt them). I was learning enormous amounts not just about music but about cultural history generally. I even made use of the Public Library, a sweet, Spanish building on the edge of downtown; it was there that I did the exploring, wandering the stacks, that I never had time for in college. And then, toward the end, I did the oddest thing of all: I buckled down and studied books of LSAT practice tests, night after night. That, and a little legacy action, got me back into Notre Dame, and out of Houston forever. In Houston, I mastered the preliminaries of living my life of the mind. But the day-to-day atmosphere, for most of those seven years, was that of an old French movie. “Nothing much happening” was the air we breathed, the color of the sky, the grass in the front yard.

Of course, we could have been anywhere. Lost people fill dodgy neighborhoods in every city in the country. Houston’s environment was probably relatively benign. It was growing too fast and too easily to tear down what it no longer wanted, and it was too obsessed with its strangely featureless success to give dissidents a thought. For those of us who weren’t trying, it had the benefit of rarely being actually cold or otherwise hostile. It was not terribly hard to get by. 

But that aimlessness: the recollection of it is nightmarish. 

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