Archive for the ‘Coronavirus Diaries 2020’ Category

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.

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.

modernism near the River Oaks neighborhood

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?

Lyman in River Oaks on his Bike Friday
Tom in River Oaks

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.

The Astrodome is on the left, just above Tom’s head.

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.

Two chops each!
Desserts to split

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.

Twilight Epiphany Skyspace

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.

rolling out each tortilla individually by hand

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 and the downtown Houston skyline

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.

For my regular readers I have a couple of news items: Many of my blog posts feature the white 2005 Toyota Prius that I inherited from my late mother Eleanor. Thankfully just AFTER I recently finished driving the Prius 900 miles each way from North Carolina to New Orleans and back: the main battery failed. It needs to be replaced at a cost of thousands of dollars. We are examining our options; it might be time to replace the car.

The other item is that Tootie and I have purchased a second home, a one bedroom condo in a historic house in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans.

View of our condo building from the outside

By myself I drove the Prius down from Chapel Hill to New Orleans, one way twelve or thirteen hours, done over two days. My mission was to get the apartment down there set up, to have a bed and sofa brought in, to get the internet working. While there I had time to do some bike riding.

Most side streets of New Orleans are insanely bumpy from potholes and their slipdash repairs. I have kept a 1970’s fat tired Schwinn Typhoon down there for several years at my friend Kirk’s place. I really enjoy cycling through the New Orleans residential streets but even on that bomber bicycle one finds oneself looking not for the shortest route but the smoothest pavement. I used the Schwinn to bicycle back and forth to grocery stores and the Walmart and Harry’s Ace Hardware, picking up items to set up our new household.

My 1970’s Schwinn Typhoon in the stairwell of our new place
The Schwinn

I bought a cheap pot at Walmart and made some red beans; a New Orleans favorite. I don’t go all-health all the time, but on this day I chose brown rice and Beyond Meat sausage, with New Orleans’ own Crystal hot sauce, and (not pictured) some stir fried curly mustard greens.

I enjoyed biking around the city on the Schwinn. For longer rides I had brought along my Bike Friday. With tiny twenty inch wheels it is deceptively fast. Over three days on the Bike Friday I did three thirty plus mile bike rides.

Metro New Orleans is surrounded by levees. Governments have gotten it together in recent years and put paved paths on many or most of these levees, they make for perfect bike paths. On the first day I cycled about ten miles on New Orleans city streets before I reached the paved path that follows the levee fronting Lake Ponchartrain. The path starts in New Orleans before passing along the Metairie lakefront in neighboring Jefferson Parish.

The levee is so high you cannot see the houses in the city behind it.

lakefront bike path in Metairie, Jefferson Parish.

Suburban Metairie residents clearly pay extra for waterfront property fronting Lake Ponchartrain, but one cannot see the lake as the levee is too high!

Typical of the houses whose backyards front Lake Ponchartrain, just the other side of that grassy space.

There is a reason this coronavirus will not away, some people are not trying hard enough to beat it. Dining at restaurants works if people eat outdoors. It was a reasonably warm day with temperatures in the sixties. I had heard there were good oyster poor boy sandwiches at R&O’s in Bucktown, lakefront near the Metairie / New Orleans line. I passed by there about 11:00 AM and there was a huge outdoor seating area with lots of empty tables. Satisfied that this looked safe, I continued biking along the lakefront all the way to Kenner and back, returning to R&O’s about 1:00 PM, ready for a great outdoor lunch. These outdoor tables were now all filled, but filled with people waiting for a table at the INDOOR restaurant. Apparently R&O will not let you eat outdoors, which is insane. I biked on.

all masked up but not eating, waiting for an indoor table at R&O.

Dejected and hungry, I bicycled back the hourlong ride through the city back to my condo for leftover red beans and rice.

That night I bicycled around my new neighborhood, the Lower Garden District. Our condo is only one block from Urania Street, the first in of a row of nine streets in New Orleans all named after Greek muses. (Urania/Polymnia/Euterpe/Terpsichore/Melpomene/Thalia/Erato/Clio/Calliope.). Near where my friends Tom and Steve had lived in the 1980’s there is a statue of Terpsichore. It was a dicey neighborhood back then, it has gotten safer in the past thirty-something years.

Terpsichore Street

A couple of days later I cycled on a different levee. Starting in Uptown New Orleans near Audubon Park one can now cycle continuously on the Mississippi River levee about thirty miles upriver towards Baton Rouge. I first had to cycle on the streets through four or five miles of continuous older city, mostly nineteenth century wooden houses. Even poorer neighborhoods in New Orleans are stunning to look at.

I joined the Mississippi levee path near the Riverbend Carrollton area of Uptown New Orleans. I have been following this bike path for years and only recently has it been so complete. You can now bicycle on a smooth paved path along the Mississippi River for over thirty miles upriver, starting in Uptown’s Audubon Park, then into Jefferson Parish, past Kenner upriver all the way to Norco.

On this day I set my goal as the Luling/Destrehan Bridge, about twenty-five miles each way. In many areas the river is obviously at a higher level than the land surrounding it.

Just beyond the New Orleans/Jefferson Parish line, with Oshner Hospital on the right.
Ocean going ships on the river on the left

There were indeed a few places to eat and drink within sight of the path, but this one had no outdoor seating even on this sunny day. I did not stop, I had carried a peanut butter sandwich which I ate while cycling.,

Port Side Restaurant in St. Rose LA, upriver from Kenner LA, covers all the food groups.
The levee path went underneath facilities built for bulk loading ocean going ships on the Mississippi River.

Twenty something miles out I arrived at the Hale Boggs Bridge over the Mississippi. The bridge was completed in 1983.

Almost underneath the bridge and right next to the levee is Destrehan Plantation house, from 1790.

I turned around and cycled back towards New Orleans.

On the way back I passed back underneath that other Mississippi River bridge, the Huey Long Bridge, opened in 1935. The buzz is that Huey Long hated the big city of New Orleans so much that he insisted the bridge be built not in New Orleans but about ten miles upriver.

That night back in the apartment I had a to-go roast beef po-boy from Zara’s, a small supermarket Uptown.

I did one final ride the next day, this time on The West Bank. There has always been a ferry across the Mississippi from the foot of Canal Street near downtown and the French Quarter. The ferry is now smaller and faster than before as it now takes only pedestrians and bicyclists. The area across the river from downtown is called Algiers.

Biking from my new place to the Canal Street Ferry

View of the New Orleans central business district from Algiers, the other side of the river. The building in the center, the one with the round rooftop restaurant, was designed by Edward Durell Stone, the same architect who designed the North Carolina State Legislative Building. The New Orleans building, from 1962, formerly the World Trade Center, is being converted to a Four Seasons hotel.
View from the bike path on the West Bank

Most of the West Bank of metro New Orleans is suburban sprawl but a few areas of the West Bank mimic the “real” New Orleans, with 19th century wooden neighborhoods. This is especially true in the older part of Algiers, called Algiers Point.

neighborhood in Algiers Point

The West Bank of the Mississippi has a nice paved path along the levee, where you can watch the ships coming into New Orleans.

Algiers to Gretna

A few miles upriver from Algiers is Gretna, which developed back when there was the Jackson Street Ferry from Uptown New Orleans. Gretna also has a small 19th century residential neighborhood.

older part of Gretna LA

I found the River Shack in downtown Gretna, a bar / restaurant with outdoor seating during a pandemic. For once I was comfortably able to sit down and enjoy a restaurant lunch, in the breeze. I would have gotten the oyster po-boy, but they only had one size, large, and that kind of sandwich does not travel well. I instead got the small cheeseburger with fries, and a beer. It was all delicious.

I spent the rest of the afternoon biking around suburban areas of the West Bank before riding back to Algiers and taking the ferry back to central New Orleans, and then biking back to my new (second) home.

Is there too much traffic on a week day for safe bicycling on rural roads anywhere near I-85 in central North Carolina? The hundred and sixty miles of I-85 between Raleigh and Charlotte is rapidly becoming one big city, an I-85 megalopolis.

I parked our Prius in the U.S. Post office of Whitsett NC, less than a mile from Exit 138 of I-85, about halfway between Durham and Greensboro. I had driven over from my home in Chapel Hill NC in slightly less than an hour.

Whitsett NC (population 590) is not much of a town, really.

Here is the three hour bike ride I took on this sunny but cold Tuesday in February.

Gibsonville NC (population 6,400) is only about about three miles north of Whitsett, but for some weird reason does not show up on the map above. Gibsonville is the red dot just to the west of Elon and to the north of Whitsett. Gibsonville looks the quintessential American small town.

Gibsonville now has a locally owned coffee house! The Daisy May Cafe.
Like much of central North Carolina, Gibsonville was built as a factory town

The North Carolina Railroad, a state owned line running Charlotte / High Point / Greensboro / Durham / Raleigh / Morehead City runs right through the center of Gibsonville. There are three passenger trains a day speeding through Gibsonville; unfortunately none of them stop here; quoting Linda Ronstadt channeling Warren Zevon “Well the train don’t run by here no more, poor poor pitiful me.” Fortunately Gibsonville does have the Gibsonville Garden Railway, a miniature (toy) rail line for all to gaze at. It sits right next to the mostly unused but full size Gibsonville train station.

Gibsonville’s population has been increasing, being near I-85. I bicycled past multiple newer subdivisions.

I bicycled for more than two hours north of Gibsonville. A bicyclist is constantly looking for roads free of car traffic. While most rural roads this close to I-85 are busy and dangerous feeling, if one just meanders on whatever road looks empty, one can bicycle out here quite peacefully. It is still a pandemic, I do not feel comfortable in indoor restaurants. I ate my peanut butter sandwich while cycling.

I cycled a total of about thirty miles, bicycling back to the car that had been sitting in the dirt parking lot of the post office in Whitsett. With the bicycle in the back I drove the car back over to the Daisy May Cafe in Gibsonville, to get an almond milk latte to drink on the drive home.

It is about seventy miles and an hour and a half drive from my home in Chapel Hill NC to Biscoe NC. I had guessed the area was likely to be free of car traffic. I had never been here before. Biscoe (population 1,700) and the surrounding Montgomery County (population 28,000) are in a remote part of the North Carolina Piedmont, about halfway between Raleigh and Charlotte but NOT on the busy I-85 corridor.

Tractor Supply is a national chain that seems to target rural areas. Country music plays on the sound system inside the stores. I parked our Prius in a Tractor Supply just off the big highway on the edge of Biscoe NC and pulled out my Bike Friday.

Here is the twenty-nine mile loop I bicycled on this Monday, with temperatures in the forties and low fifties.

North Carolina transportation policy is to build wide highways, all else be damned. Downtown Biscoe NC as an urban space hardly exists. The downtown’s center is where two four to six lane roads combine.

At that same intersection, the one to-the-street urban looking building I saw in all of Biscoe NC

Biscoe is a factory town that I am sure has seen a lot of closings in the past fifteen years.

I bicycled out of Biscoe NC towards the county seat of Troy NC; eleven miles away if one takes the back roads through mostly pine forests on gentle hills. There was hardly any car traffic.

After miles of piney woods, just before Troy the road passed over NC state route 27, apparently now upgraded to freeway status but there were hardly any cars.

Troy NC (population 3,100) seems more prosperous than Biscoe. The carpet manufacturer Capel Rugs is headquartered here, as well as a large lumber mill.

It was 12:40 so the courthouse clock is 19 minutes off. Or is it permanently stopped at 12:21? The building is from 1921.
Hotel Troy is a nice building but according to Wikipedia it has not had guests since 1970!

I admit I have a weakness for certain types of gas stations.

Pine trees at the sawmill stacked like matchsticks

It was too cold to stop for lunch outdoors and it is a pandemic, so while I noodled by bicycle around Troy NC I ate the peanut butter sandwich I had brought. I then headed out of town on empty state roads through more piney woods.

The “town” of Okeewemee seemed to me to be just a few houses along the highway; the state sign having been defaced with a Trump sticker and then the sticker spray painted over.

It was six miles further to Star NC through the Little River basin.

I cycled into the town of Star NC (population 876).

I found Star NC fascinating. Planes, Trains and Automobiles! I love all those things and Star NC checks the boxes.

Automobiles: There is a shop here that apparently restores older British cars.

Their yard is filled with ghosts of MG’s and Jaguars; it revealed to me a sad truth: when a shop restores an old car to like-new condition, frequently others must die.

1960’s Jaguar sedan and early 1970’s Triumph TR-6
1960’s MG Midget and MG-B
More MG-B’s
1960’s Austin Mini, the very small car that the current larger Mini on our American roads is stylistically copied from
1950’s-early 1960’s Jaguar XK
1960’s Triumph TR
More 1950’s-60’s Jaguars
1960’s-early 70’s Volvo P1800
late 1960’s Chevrolet Corvairs

Star NC has trains! Within walking distance to the old 1960’s cars is an independent repair shop apparently working on railroad short line locomotives and rolling stock.

Line of locomotives, presumably for repair
A 1950’s dome car is stored here.

It is not that far a walk in Star NC (if you were walking) to airplanes! One can bicycle right onto the runway at the Montgomery County Airport.

I scoured the internet to try and find what kind of plane here was slowing devolving into the pines. Is this a Twin Beech, manufactured from 1937 to 1962?

Rear view, same aircraft

Also in Star NC; an old school building converted what I take to be an art studio that focuses on this region’s strong tradition of ceramics with the addition of glassblowing.

Leaving Star NC is was only six miles back to Biscoe NC and my car in the Tractor Supply parking lot. I was home in Chapel Hill by late afternoon.