The Lost Houston of Sig Byrd

Forty years ago, one writer captured our city better than any before or since. Now he's forgotten. And the Houston he saw? All but gone.

Byrd's "fourth-estate" (a favorite phrase of his) colleagues saw this side of his character often. After Byrd had done tours in the merchant marine, studied creative writing at Columbia University and published two novels, he, his beloved wife Ruth and their three sons settled in Houston after World War II. It was the beginning of an era that would see massive changes not only in Houston, but Texas and the entire South. Over the decade that Byrd stalked the back streets and alleys of the city, a way of life was disappearing. It wasn't the disappearance that Byrd noticed, though; rather, it was the life that was still there.

During his time in Houston, Byrd wrote for all three dailies, the Post, the Chronicle and the Press. Like his father, he had to keep on the move. A point would always come when his colleagues could no longer abide him.

He was greatly respected for his abilities, but "no one was sorry to see him go," says one local newsroom vet, recalling one of his departures. "Eccentric," say a handful of others. "Crazy," recalls one. "He was barely civil," says another retired newsman. "But you had to respect him if you loved the language."

In the early '50s, when Byrd left the Press for the Houston Chronicle, his star began to fade. One newsman says, "Sig was in the spotlight with the Press, but he didn't hit that peak again with the Chronicle. The wraps were on." Byrd's oldest son, Houston banker Sig Byrd Jr., also recalls that the Chronicle was a little put off by Byrd's underdog beat and assigned him to state and farm coverage, where he often crossed paths with Leon Hale.

Hale is one of the few newsmen who won't say a bad word about Byrd. Hale just laughs when he recalls Byrd's "eccentricities," and dwells instead on his writing. "He was able to do this Damon Runyon stuff about the underworld. Nobody else has been able to do it," he says. "He wasn't afraid to go to 75th Street at 11 p.m. and sit and drink in a sleazy bar and get those stories."

Mary Chadick knows her brother was a difficult man, and to make sure his "good side" get its due, she relates how Sig helped her write her high school valedictory speech. Sitting in her neat but impersonal retirement home apartment, Chadick breaks into the old lines without any prompting.

"I too refuse to accept your boundaries, oh wise men," she declaims, as if she were back in her old high school gymnasium. "I refuse to believe that time and space are finite ... I precipitate myself towards the remotest Thule of the all in all." Mary laughs at that last. "Isn't that something? I never did find out what a 'Thule' was."

As it happens, to the Greeks, Thule was the edge of the habitable world. And in a way, that valedictory statement could stand as Sig Byrd's own guiding principal. He didn't accept many boundaries, and it was the Thule of Houston that Sig Byrd liked to wander. Indeed, it's that Thule that Sig Byrd's Houston, essentially a re-edited collection of his columns, captures. In 1955, when it was published, Sig Byrd's Houston was no doubt considered by author and audience alike to be a portrait of a vibrant community. As Byrd noted on an early page, "The persons, places and incidents in this book are real persons, places and incidents. Any resemblance between this book and a work of fiction is either coincidental or, what is more likely, is entirely in the reader's imagination. He probably has been reading too many novels and has neglected to cultivate the acquaintance of his neighbors."

It's only in retrospect, and with full knowledge of the wrenching changes that took place from the mid '50s on through the 1960s, that we can see Sig Byrd's Houston for what it really was: a monument to an era that would soon be gone.

Catfish Reef is gone, too. You've never heard of it? Well, you might know it as lower Milam, and you've likely parked across from Market Square in one of the garages and lots that have replaced the old joints so beloved of Sig Byrd.

According to Byrd, a bootblack named Gafftop once worked here in Martin Nelson's "photo, recording and shoeshine parlor." By night, Gafftop "slaves as an eccentric dancer at the Club de Lisa, in the Bloody Fifth Ward, where the cats say he is very lagoon in the shake-dance number." Lagoon, maybe, but Gafftop never became a dancer on television the way he dreamed.

And nothing much came of the Green brothers' Nelson studio recording session, even though they were "young men with eight beats to the measure of every breath they draw." They were dispirited when Mr. Nelson charged them "a rag and a half" for the session.

Things didn't turn out as expected for Inocente, either. A young pachuco who carried HATE tattooed across his knuckles, Inocente fell in love with a woman who had not use for hoodlums and their tattoos. So Inocente tried to carve the message from his hand, but gave up in pain after erasing just one letter. The woman still didn't want him, and his hand now read HAT.

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