Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart: Austin born and Houston raised, a love letter to Clutch City

The Statesman put a call out to staff and readers for their love letters to our beleaguered neighbor to the southeast. You can read them all online here. This is mine …  

Houston, I love you. And I owe you an apology.

I claim on my professional bio that I’m a native Austinite. It’s not a lie. I was born at St. David’s in Austin, and I got back here as soon as I could. But, you raised me. I shouldn’t act like you’re not my gal or that I’m too cool to dance with her who brung me.

While it’s fun to claim this once-laid-back Bohemian home to hippies and rednecks as my birthplace, an increasingly rare bona fide for the city’s residents these days, Houston formed me. And right now I wish I could wrap my small arms around your sprawling breadth.

Photo courtesy Greater Houston CVB.

As I grew older, I wanted to disavow you, Houston. I looked back on your sprawl, concrete cowboys and conspicuous consumption and smirked. But, now, I see you with clearer eyes and a more full heart, one that breaks when I see what you and your people are enduring.

Besides the amazing times with friends and family, my greatest memories from living in Houston come from sports. And the context of sports is now the best way for me to publicly appreciate and celebrate you.

Copyright 2003 by Malcolm Emmons/US Presswire ORG

Consider the diversity of the city’s three most beloved professional athletes, and you have a microcosm of Houston. There’s former Houston Astro Nolan Ryan, a country-strong hoss from Alvin who threw heat and had the swagger of John Wayne. There’s Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, a Muslim immigrant from Africa with a fierce heart and gentle smile who made his adopted hometown his own while carrying the Rockets on his back and the entire city to its only professional sports title(s). And, of course, the Tyler Rose, Earl Campbell, a quiet warrior who turned grown men into ragdolls and each time he entered the end zone, often with a tattered jersey dangling from his shoulder pads, acted like he’d been there before. None of them were born in Houston, but they all came to help define it.

The titles and near-misses those men delivered elicited what was great about you, Houston: the ease with which people of all ages and races can come together to celebrate, and the resiliency of community in bouncing back, all done with humor, heart and a humility belied by a cocky underdog mentality. I’ll never forget taking to the streets of Richmond Avenue as a teenager when the Rockets reached the mountaintop in 1994, and I’ll always remember cramming into the aisles for a seat as the defeated but undeterred Houston Oilers returned to the Astrodome in the middle of a January night in 1980, the late great cowboy sage Bum Phillips consoling and rallying the city with his wisdom and wit.

Photo by Kevin Virobik-Adams AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In the intervening years between that heartache and joy, I experienced a unique metropolitan area that stretched from a towering concrete center to the Gulf Coast and Piney Woods. Sure, there were probably too many fur coats, and a few too many closed minds, but Houston was still a place for everyone and all tastes, and I got to see much of the best of her, traveling with my former politician father from union halls to African-American churches, from wrestling matches at the Houston Coliseum to ballet at the Wortham Center. I got to eat fried squirrel hunted by my grandfather, celebrate a Little League wins at James Coney Island, and dine at Tony’s on the most special of occasions. I could listen to ZZ Top, Robert Earl Keen or the Geto Boys and feel equally at home. You had it all, Houston.

What I disliked about you as an adolescent and a 20-something looking in his rearview mirror eventually turned out to not be about you at all, Houston. It was about me. And, fortunately, I grew up. Not only do I look back with more fondness now, I visit you anew each time, admiring your multiculturalism, your world-class dining and arts scene, your pockets of weirdness, and even appreciating the kind of big-city stereotypes I once mocked. There are some odd birds in Houston, but they’re our odd birds.

It turns out, I spent too many years thinking I was too cool for Houston. But, it was probably too cool for me. Fortunately, it never really cared about being cool. And it was big enough to forgive me.

RELATED

What follows is a love letter submitted (past deadline, go figure) by my good friend, native Houstonian and former Austinist colleague Craig McCullough aka TrueCraig. I love this man and his writing. 

Houston, You Are My Favorite Screw’d Mixtape

Knowing who you are depends on you knowing where you came from.  Your origin story.  Some people are “from Brooklyn”, “raised in Alabama”, or “grew up in the Bay area”, and them telling you as much is intended to convey a sense of who they are.  Where they’re from is, in large part, what they’re about.

While I’ve been there, I don’t know what it’s like to be from any of those other places, because I was born in the best place on the planet for me:  H-town.  Clutch City.  House-town.  Specifically, I was born in a hospital off Bellaire, just on the other side of 59/69 from what was then named Sharpstown Mall.  It was not only the first indoor air-conditioned mall in Houston, it was also where my grandmother worked at Foley’s. It’s also the mall where I may have committed multiple acts of petty theft as a teen, as well as a place where anyone may have been able to buy crack from a stranger with relative ease, and the same mall where a classmate of mine was definitely arrested for attempted murder after a parking lot shootout in broad daylight.  The mall has since been renamed and rebranded to be more of a community center for the long-suffering neighborhood it shared a name with, and my hospital of birth has since been revised into an office park of some kind.  And it’s these revisions which reveal the most relevant Houston truism in the wake of Harvey:  change is always coming, and life is both short and precious, so don’t get too attached to anything that doesn’t actually matter.  That’s what I love so much about Houston: it teaches you to cut through the aesthetic bullshit and get to what’s substantively real.  It’s not only what I love so much about the city I’m from because it has safely guided me through my tumultuous adult life, but it’s also what will guarantee that Houston will eventually rise triumphantly out of this tragedy like the goddamned flood phoenix that it is.  Houston will, as it has since after the hurricane took out Galveston in 1900, pick up only the pieces that matter most, slow down the crazy tempo of the current tragedy, blend that all back together in a pot, and the result will be something so fresh and clean that everyone will stand at attention and say:  Houston, you are my new favorite Screw’d mixtape.  And you deserve to hear that from someone who has, on many occasions, unfairly bashed you.

Houston taught me to spot a hustle when I was working at the Baskin Robbins at Northwest Mall.  And even when I couldn’t out-hustle it, Houston taught me how to fit inside the hustle set without getting took. Houston put some guns in my face and taught me that if I just keep my cool, no one can take anything from me that I can’t replace.  Houston taught me how to take a punch without giving away my dignity. Houston broke my first heart. It stole my first bike. It broke my first nose, cracked my first rib, and provided ample crazy intersections that guaranteed multiple car accidents.

But Houston also gave me my love for a wide variety of music. Westheimer Arts Festival, Rap-a-lot Records, Jones Hall, Club 6400, Numbers, Wax Museum, Orange Show, and the Mixed Media series at MFAH – just to scratch the surface.  Houston gave me lifelong friends.  Houston guided me through my idiot youth.  And Houston taught me that any specific culture is mere chance of fate to enter into, but it’s a responsibility and duty to maintain once inside.  It also taught me that no culture worth having would ever deny respect to another culture, and that’s something that I often forget while sitting here in Austin, looking back with a side-eye at my Houston past.  I won’t forget again. How could I?  You’re my new favorite Screw’d mixtape.

We don’t get to pick where we’re from, but if I had the option, I would be from Houston just like Clutch City won it: again, and again, and again. It’s a city that suffers no fools, and lays out no red carpets for anyone, yet always has an open door to anyone willing bust their ass. It’s the empty HOV lane.  It’s the irony of an indoor putt-putt course.  It’s the conversations happening during the movie.  It’s the best pho on earth in a poorly marked spot that’s sandwiched between a burner phone outlet and an unlicensed chiropractor.  It’s all those things and beyond.  But to me specifically, it will always be the most amazing hustlers’ paradise, three-wheeling with 15s bumping in the trunk, every walk of life on earth walking forward together, after-hours club in an abandoned downtown loft full of women’s shoes, Art Car parade full of so much soul and grit that its brilliant colors would take a million Harveys to fade it out. Houston, you have always been my favorite Screw’d mixtape, and I love you more than a mountain of Ninfa’s buttery tortillas. See you soon.

 

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