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.

Once in the neighborhood, Father Moss had no trouble identifying the Byrd house. The other homes on the street were nice, solidly middle-class structures with well-kept yards. But Byrd's home "needed paint, and there was hardly any grass in the yard."

Moss approached the house, knocked, then finally pushed at the unlocked door. It opened to the living room, which Moss saw was lacquered in dust. Sig Byrd lay right there, on the threadbare carpet.

"Poor Mr. Byrd," Father Moss thought. "He died of a broken heart."
There was one consolation. Lying there on his back, Byrd looked very peaceful. That was likely the first time that word had been ever applied to Sig Byrd.

When Father Moss said Byrd's funeral service in December 1987, only Byrd's two sons attended. Understand that the service was not held in a small chapel, but in a church, with just the three living men, and the dead one present. Ruth was in the nursing home. Father Moss can no longer remember the words he used that day.

A slightly larger crowd, including Mary Chadick, gathered at the Morales Funeral Home for the burial service.

"Poppa always wanted Felix Morales to bury him," Stephen says. Morales was one of the ongoing personages from Byrd's column. In Sig Byrd's Houston, Byrd recalled driving the Morales Packard out to the Morales cemetery off Hardy Road. A young unmarried Hispanic woman had lost her baby, and had only $20, a gift from her brother, to pay for the funeral. "I don't know what kind of funeral you can get elsewhere for $20, but Felix Morales is kind of an easy touch." The baby's tiny casket, "as light as a jewelry case," rode in the Packard's trunk, and her relatives in the car with Sig. They buried the baby, then drove to the Morales ranch house where Lupita, the 80-year-old maid, "brought us cold beer, a plate of freshly made tortillas and a big bowl of country butter. We didn't talk about little Benicia anymore. We listened to Lupita's girlish chatter about her new pedal pushers ...." and called Radio Morales, which Felix owned along with the funeral service.

They made song requests of "Maria del Carmen Aleman, Radio Morales' glamorous girl disc jockey, who allegedly gets a thousand fan letters each week .... I'll never forget little Benicia. Hers was about the happiest funeral I ever attended."

Sig Byrd's Houston was buried with him. Certainly it doesn't physically exist anymore. Nearly all of Byrd's old haunts have been leveled, and Houston itself is now so far-flung and diverse that perhaps no single writer could ever claim it.

But many of the same people are still here. Strolling through downtown you can step into Warren's from the afternoon glare and in the bar's darkness see an eagle-faced old Hispanic man sitting at the bar and leaning with his eyes closed against the wall, his drink forgotten beside him. Around the bar a Turkish man whispers into a beautiful black woman's ear as "I Shot the Sheriff" plays on the jukebox.

Speaking just above the level of music (now "Let's Get It On"), the woman murmurs back to him, "Do you or don't you?" He answers, "Probably," and she says, "Yes or no?"

He leans closer then and sings "I Love You For Sentimental Reasons" into her ear. "That answer your question?" he says. "Can I go to the bathroom now?"

Yeah, the people are still here. They just need their Sig Byrd.

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