Life in a Mahogany Bubble

HOUSTON — The remote outskirts of this city stretch forever across featureless land under gray skies, endless parking lots mostly empty, nasty malls, elevated highways roaring and almost uncrossable by pedestrians, of whom there are almost none. It reminded me of hell designed by a concrete manufacturer. Highrise office buildings erupt like square thumbs, one like another, home to god knows who or what. It is chilly.

For embarrassing reasons we needn’t explore, I have just spent five nights in an isolated hotel in this cement waste. Nice enough place, friendly people — Texas being Texas — on one side of a parking lot. Everything in these parts is on one side of a parking lot, or in the middle of one. Across the asphalt in an undistinguished building, beneath the howl and blatt of the elevated highway, preposterously, was a gorgeous Italian restaurant, all lovely dark wood and good design. I could never figure out what it was doing there. For five days I oscillated between wretched television in my room and this improbable elegance.

Business was slow, as the restaurant had just opened. On long empty afternoons I was usually the only customer. At night things picked up.

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When trapped in a small world, you get to know people. A couple of waitresses in their early twenties, white, high-school grads I’d guess, waited. Customers would appear later. We chatted. They reminded me of people I had grown up with in the rural South. Their grammar ran to “If he don’t come by three….” They are not bad people, nor bad citizens. None descends to the moral level of a congressman. But they are not polished.

Lives at the low end of things run to the complex. One had two children by an earlier husband, now in the slam for assault and robbery, and a third by a boyfriend whom she planned to marry. She spoke with pride of her sprats. Her three-year-old knew her letters and colors and could count to twenty and learned her story books by heart in nothing flat — indicating that her mother was reading to her. Strange as it may seem, intelligence exists outside of Swarthmore, unschooled mothers are not necessarily bad mothers, schooled ones frequently are, and grammar does not always cohabit with responsibility. These girls were not the shiftless reprehensibles beloved of conservative politicians. They were pulling their weight as best they might. It was just hard going.

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Hour after hour of nursing a Bud at the empty bar, watching the drizzle on the parking lot. Back to the room and the television. You learn a lot about professional wrestling under these circumstances. The notion that we evolved from great apes gains plausibility, although one comes to suspect that it was not a large step. Apparently there is a new form of this athletic soap opera involving folding chairs and metal ladders in the ring. Large primates in Halloween masks hit each other with the chairs and climb up the ladder to jump on each other. The purpose of this is not clear. I don’t think I’m making it up, unless the waitresses were adding mushroom juice to the Bud.

Being dropped into the bubble was strange after a week in Washington. In our nation’s curious capital, people know nothing of uneducated young waitresses who juggle long hours and children, without having even one illegal nanny. DC is a world of secure jobs and money, where everyone has been to university, often to a Calvin Klein universities like Harvard, and brains in the ninety-ninth percentile seem unremarkable. We are making three hundred grand a year; why can’t they? This otherworldliness accounts I think for a certain surreal quality to Washington’s debates. For people with high-end Blue Cross, health care has something to do with Keynes and free enterprise and ideological catfights. For a young mother with a sick kid and no money, it doesn’t. But Washington doesn’t know this. Let them eat cake, but is there cake?

Twice I went by public bus to Houston’s center. To reach the bus stop I walked and walked and walked across bleak parking lots with few cars and occasional chain burger chutes. I almost never saw a human. The bus then ran along a highway through this blasted heath to a region of towering blocky office buildings downtown. Architectural gigantism seemed to rule. People were few, traffic light. I wondered whether the citizens were abandoning Houston. Such people as I found were extraordinarily agreeable and helpful, Texas being Texas. Civility and concrete, with wet snow.

On a weekend night there occurred in the restaurant what I believe to have been the convention of a black scholarship fund. The crowd grew, starting in late afternoon. I wasn’t the only paleface, but it was a near thing.

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In Texas, as in the South in general, relations between the races are greatly more amiable than in the North. Certainly in the Yankee Capital there exists a self-consciousness, a sort of invisible glass wall between the colors. At a reception on the Hill you see black columnists and such, be-suited and be-tied and practicing white manners. It doesn’t look right, somehow. I don’t think their hearts are in it.

In the bubble it was “Whuzzup, bro?” Socially, when you get away from the Crips and the Bloods, blacks are warm and funny and idiosyncratic, and splendid company. A friend says, “They burn at a higher emotional temperature than we do.” I think so. When they apply to whites words like “stiff” and “uptight,” it is description, not vituperation.

The bands showed up. There were three of them, the musicians being as far as I could tell entirely black, and all jazz. The third seemed (I couldn’t see that well in the dimness) to have twelve or fifteen instruments, thirty of them being horns, and was just flat dynamite. I ingested shrimp from the buffet amid explosions of horns and a great keyboard and wished that there were more of it in the country. American music lost something when it went so heavily to small-band stuff. The big bands croaked, blues became museum music like harpsichords, and, well, it wasn’t a good thing.

Back to the room. More professional wrestling, hulking beeves pirouetting in a sordid ballet, thump, wham, whack. The quality of television would be much improved if they succeeded in killing each other, but they never quite manage it.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest book is Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit his blog.

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