I lived in Houston, Texas for two years 1979 – 81, just after I had graduated from an international business school in the Phoenix area (Thunderbird) and I wanted a job in “international business,” whatever that meant. I had heard that Houston had a vibrant job market. I wanted to take on the world, to not go back to my hometown of Norfolk / Virginia Beach. After considerable looking I got a job in the air freight business (international!) near the Houston airport. After two years in Houston, in 1981 I moved from Houston to New Orleans. More than forty years later I am still working in air freight, having lived in North Carolina since 1988.
My friends and I had frequently called Houston by the name Boomtown, or BT for short, as a sort of private joke. In about 1980, before deciding to leave Houston for good I had spent time looking to buy a low cost house. All my house searches had been in The Heights, a large neighborhood in north central Houston. Most of the houses were and are small 1920’s bungalows. The Heights back then was populated by mostly working class whites and was only beginning to gentrify. Forty years after I moved away from Houston I knew only two people who still lived in Houston, two people who did not know each other. Both lived in The Heights! One of them, my cousin Susan, has recently moved to New Mexico after decades of living in The Heights but The Heights is still home for my old friend Jorgen.
Late in March of 2021 I met up in the Houston Heights with three friends originally from that late seventies / early eighties era. All four of us have been Covid vaccinated. Jorgen is a recently retired shipping executive who I met in New Orleans but has lived in Houston for at least thirty years. Tom is a just about retired lawyer from Jacksonville FL who previously lived in both Houston and New Orleans. Lyman, my frequent bicycle touring companion, is retired architect from New Orleans now living in Austin TX. It was Tom’s idea that we would spend a few days in Houston bicycling around from one central base. During the past forty years all four of us have dabbled in bicycle touring.
I was appointed to find a place to sleep for the three out of towners. Covid gave us a good excuse to NOT share hotel rooms. I chose a 1950-60’s motel on the edge of The Heights that is in the process of renovating itself into a modernist showcase. The rooms were low cost, a half-renovated motel is calling itself The Heights House Hotel.
Lyman, Tom, and I left our motel that first morning for a bike ride, Jorgen would be out of town until the afternoon. We chose as a destination the now-dead Astrodome, fifteen miles each way through solid city.
There are miles of 1920’s tract housing in The Heights, most quite gentrified but not all.
South of I-10 we cycled through various inner city neighborhoods on the prosperous west side. Houston has tall buildings in its proper downtown but has clumps of high-rise buildings elsewhere as well.
River Oaks is the most famous rich neighborhood in a city where trying to get rich is something people are said to do with brazen abandon. George H.W. Bush used to live in River Oaks. The pompous Ted Cruz lives somewhere in the neighborhood but we did not know his exact address. Ted where are you?
We cycled onward south, through the shaded residential areas of West University Place, the Montrose neighborhood, and the area around Rice University.
The Astrodome was about America’s first indoor domed stadium when it opened in 1965. The Astros baseball team played there until the year 2000, when the replacement NRG Stadium opened , built in the Astrodome parking lot. Now both stadiums sit side by side. Historic preservationists have wanted to save the Astrodome but all reuse schemes have failed and the old Astrodome is just sitting there, leaking. There is a fence around the whole compound so Tom, Lyman, and I could not bicycle as close as we would have liked.
We turned to cycle back north. We stopped for lunch at the Istanbul Grill and Deli. I had just come from New Orleans with its famous restaurant scene, and Houston shines admirably in comparison. We had about four full scale meals during our stay in Houston, and all four were excellent. All had most entree prices way under twenty dollars. All were “ethnic,” two Mexican, one Turkish, one Thai.
Also, New Orleans had disappointed me that during a pandemic few restaurants had decent outdoor seating. While the climates of New Orleans and Houston are about the same, Houston bars and restaurants we visited almost all had welcoming outdoor areas. I do not think it is Covid awareness as much as coincidence. Older parts of Houston seem to have a long tradition of eating and drinking outdoors. The spaces in New Orleans are more confined.
At the Istanbul Grill and Deli we sat outside and ate and ate and ate. It was all delicious.
After filling up on a variety of vegetable appetizers (accompanied by some yogurt based drink) we decided to go “all-in” and split one order of lamb chops. They went quickly.
After our two hour lunch we climbed back on the bicycles and head north again. This time we bicycled through the Rice University campus. Even more than Duke University, near where I live, every building and plant and piece of art at Rice looks practically gilded, as if the university has unlimited funds. Lyman (the architect) wanted to see James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace, a campus “building” that has no real function other than as a work of art and to serve as an outdoor music performance space. We leaned up the bikes against The Skyspace. It was not the time of day where we could not see the play of the light that supposedly accompanies each sunset.
Soon after we cycled all the way back to the hotel in The Heights. We chilled at the motel. Afterward our friend Jorgen met us across the street from the hotel at a place called the D&T.
Later that evening we went to a barbecue place nearby, it had the typical Houston outdoor seating arrangements.
The next morning at 8:00 AM all of us bicycled over to a strip mall just underneath the Interstate Highway from our motel.
Indoors there was a long line of Mexican looking people masked and waiting patiently for what appeared to be sausage and egg tacos, starting with tortillas rolled out from scratch, then a selection of fillings. Whatever the filling, they started with a smear of refried beans.
Because of Covid we chose to stand outside and eat our delicious breakfast in the parking lot.
Jorgen took us for a bicycle tour of inner Houston, first cycling through The Heights, then onto Houston’s extensive network of paved trails. This being Houston, the trails intersect and follow not only the natural areas along the bayous, but the freeways as well.
Jorgen wanted to show us parts of prosperous River Oaks so we cycled over there as well. On a flat residential street with virtually no cars the four of us just relaxed while gently cycling and making conversation. The street had a speed bump in it. In a maneuver that all of us bicyclists have done many times, Tom cycling into the paved gutter so as to avoid the speed bump. The gutter had a few wet leaves in it, but they must have been decomposing as they turned out to be incredibly slippery. Tom’s bicycle suddenly slipped and fell over, him landing on his side perpendicular to the street.
Lyman, following close behind on the Bike Friday, ran into Tom’s prone body, Lyman’s small front wheel going directing into Tom’s midsection. Lyman’s front wheel stopped and his bicycle and seat vaulted, flipping directly over end to end, depositing Lyman from above on his helmeted head and his shoulder. I was bicycling right behind them and saw it all.
Immediately it became apparent that Lyman was in worse shape than Tom. Lyman lay on the street with his eyes open. We tried to talk to him but he did not answer. Only after about three or four minutes of lying in the road did Lyman slowly get up and sit with us on on the curb. Tom had been walking around and did not appear to have any obvious serious injury.
We asked Lyman to say something; we asked him over and over “what is your name.” Although I did not hear it, the others swear that his first words after three minutes were a quote from a movie Lyman loves :The Right Stuff, where an astronaut makes an ethnic joke he comes to regret: “My name: Jose Jimenez.”
We did not know what to do. Lyman was clearly not dead but certainly very dazed. I came up with a typical solution; call George, that is my affable brother-in-law in New Jersey who is a doctor. George talked to Tom and me for about twenty minutes but his solution was obvious, we needed to take Lyman to an emergency room to have him checked out.
I called an Uber. Tom accompanied Lyman in the Uber to the Memorial Herman Greater Heights Hospital, Jorgen cycled the several miles to his house to get his pickup truck, and I sat on the grass and Watched The Bikes. After about an hour Jorgen came with the truck and picked up me and the bicycles. After dropping the bicycles off at the motel Jorgen and I hung two blocks away from the hospital another outdoor restaurant King’s BierHaus, and split some sausages. Tom learned from George that saying that you have had a head injury (which was true) puts you in front of the line at the hospital. Tom called me after it had been about two hours and he and Lyman were ready to leave. Verdict: Lyman had a concussion and a badly bruised shoulder.
Lyman felt good enough to go out to lunch, and then again for dinner that night at a non-fancy looking place that Jorgen knew about near our motel. Street Food Thai Market specializes in a certain region of Thailand and Laos. The food was spectacular. This was my noodle soup entree, I wish I could remember its name.
Lyman was not in any shape to ride a bike or even drive a car. The next morning we left Lyman in the motel while Tom, Jorgen, and I took another bike ride through more of those Houston bike trails.
Tom and I that afternoon made an unscheduled car trip; we drove Lyman and his truck and Tom’s car three hours northwest to Lyman’s house in Austin. (Two weeks later Lyman is feeling much better.) Tom and I then drove three hours back to Houston the same day. We got to the Houston motel at about 8:00 PM and went to a Mexican seafood place, Jorgen meeting us there.
The next morning Tom and I drove back east, him dropping me off to Tootie and her sister Kathryn at our new place in New Orleans.