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.

On a recent Saturday, a couple of firemen were washing a truck outside the fire station on downtown's western edge. It was a hot day and they were wet and shirtless, and glad to stop their work even to answer such a strange question as, "You guys ever heard of Vinegar Hill?"

They looked at me as if I had asked them to point out Dogpatch.
"No," they said. "There's no Vinegar Hill around here."
I moved on, once again consulting my guidebook as I strolled. Since it was a Saturday, downtown was empty and I didn't have to worry about bumping into people or being run over by a car as I walked and read. Yes, according to Sig Byrd's Houston, "South of the [Preston Avenue] bridge ... lies a wide grassy hollow called the Slab, where produce-truckers park their tandems and melon dealers operate in season. And overlooking the Slab from a steep, weedy bluff on the west is the beetling brow of Vinegar Hill." This was the place, all right.

Back in the late '40s and early '50, Vinegar Hill was one of Sig Byrd's best-loved beats. Once celebrated, yet now all but forgotten, Byrd wrote the Stroller column for the original, daily Houston Press. Byrd ranged for copy far and wide in the Houston of his day. He listened to the alcohol-treated stories of the merchant sailors in the bars on 75th Street, near the Ship Channel. He ate chicharrones and drank Jax beer with Don Antonio and the Laredo Bar regulars (who knew him as Don Segismundo) just off Navigation. He hung with the Fifth Ward's assorted cats. But it was downtown and its environs that Byrd had a particularly strong feeling for. It was possible to make a human connection with downtown then. The way Sig Byrd wrote it, at least, it was impossible not to, not if you had any feeling for raw, unadulterated humanity.

Vinegar Hill was particularly fertile ground for stories. Byrd said it was "a kind of arrogant slum ... scowling down on a good portion of the proud new city itself." Little did Byrd know that even this "new city," already considered thick with skyscrapers, would itself be leveled in a matter of years. In his eyes, and in his voice, Vinegar Hill appeared eternal.

Preston Avenue dies a natural death each sundown, and then, when the traffic dust has settled and the fetid smell of the bayou creeps up the dead-end streets, the avenue comes alive again. But in a curious way. The old pensioners from the walk-up hotels, the laborers from the Market, a few railroad men, the winos who live under the bridges and in the flophouses, the scufflers and hustlers, the dingoes, bums, punks and slobs, all the characters and squares of skid row, gather in the electric twilight before the bars and in the doorways of closed stores and watch the drab mystery of the downtown night unfold.

This is the kind of writing one used to find in a Houston daily. And this is the kind of writing that -- under the Sig Byrd byline, at any rate -- used to seem appropriate for a city that some claim has no heart, has no center. Byrd found that heart. But then again, maybe Byrd himself was that center.

I looked for Vinegar Hill a while longer, or at least for someone who remembered the name. But the bayou and the bridge itself are all that's left. Skid row has been replaced by the mighty Wortham Center's backside. A case-carrying musician exited its stage door, evidence of the irony and the passage of time. He was the sole person on the block. Nearby loomed the shadow of the Lyric Building's cellist. The triumph of kitsch over skid row is a particularly ambiguous one.

At the Heights Bailey Studio you can find photos that show we lost quite a downtown when Houston decided that the future lay in the suburbs. But they are empty pictures; Sig Byrd's Houston adds the stories to go with those evocative faces. Stories that go beyond the images, really. Byrd saw beneath the surfaces of things and people. Sig Byrd saw souls, and he gave this city one. Alone among Houston writers, Byrd made Houston exist whole and complete in a reader's mind, the way more thoroughly described cities such as San Francisco or New York or Paris do.

Sig Byrd's physical city has largely been destroyed, but it still lives and breathes in his book. It's sad that the book is long since out of print. It's sadder still that its author lies forgotten in his north Houston grave.

Sigman Byrd grew up all over Texas. East Texas. Fort Stockton. North Texas. According to his sister, Mary Chadick, who lives in a southwest side retirement home, the Byrds moved so often because their father, Virgil, a public school principal, was "old-fashioned." She says that in an early version of "no-pass, no-play," he insisted that athletes pass all their classes before participating in sports. He kept getting fired for taking this stand, and the family had to keep moving. Mary says she saw something of her father in her older brother. They both had "big IQs" And they both knew when they were right, and refused to compromise. And they generally believed they were right all the time.

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.

In his best work Byrd wrote about character and fate, so you have to wonder if he ever recognized himself in his writing, or if he ever realized that in some stories he was predicting his own destiny. That he was becoming, in effect, a Sig Byrd character. Probably not. Of course, if Byrd were writing the tale, the way fate exposes a man's limitations would be an essential element to the story.

Byrd returned to the old Houston Press in 1964, just weeks before it was bought out by the Chronicle. As one newsman remembers it, Byrd had by then already burned his bridges with the Chronicle and couldn't go back to work for them. So he first went to work for NASA in a public relations post, and then finally left his beloved Houston for Cincinnati and its Scripps-Howard (the same chain that owned the Press) paper, taking with him his wife, Ruth. His middle son, Arthur, the only of the three to follow him into the newspaper business, died in Vietnam in 1967. From that point Byrd's life was never the same. In a manuscript he was working on near the end, almost 20 years later, Byrd wrote, "Some essential part of me died, too, and lies buried beside him in the Veteran's Cemetery on Bear Creek."

By this point Byrd was distanced from his other sons. The oldest, Sig Jr., kept his emotional distance; he would still rather talk about him as a writer than as a father. On the other hand, Byrd's youngest son, Stephen, still refers to him "Poppa" and cries when he talks about his father for too long. "It's only been seven years since I lost him," he says now. But Stephen moved to Omaha after his own military service, so he was geographically separated from the old man when the end came.

After he retired from the news business in 1974, Byrd isolated himself even further. Instead of returning to Houston, he and Ruth moved to Austin. He was working on a novel about the Texas Revolution (along with a science fiction novel about a manned trip to Mars, and a newsman's memoir), and wanted to be near the state archives. By this point Byrd had become a brooding, bitter and downright paranoid man. According to that final manuscript, he and his neighbors never hit it off. He saw himself as tormented by them and their cats, and he wound up shooting one of the felines with his dead son's old .22-caliber "plinking rifle."

He described the killing in some detail. A pack of cats apparently got inside their house and divvied up a roast Byrd had prepared for himself and his wife, who was by then an invalid. According to his manuscript, when he ran the cats off, one reacted as if rabid, then hid under their bed. "I took careful aim and fired a round that I expected would enter the brain and range through the length of the body without exiting. The shot was successful."

According to Stephen Byrd, "Poppa couldn't just shoot the cat. He had to go tell its owners he had shot it." Byrd was arrested, charged with cruelty to animals and placed in the Austin State Hospital. "A snake pit," Stephen says. His father called it "the madhouse." He spent ten days there. According to his manuscript, and to the recollections of Stephen, he kept his sanity in Bedlam only because he met one other sane man, a black Louisianan who was "the greatest domino player I ever encountered."

An unjustly committed black man who was also a domino king; this would have once been the stuff of a Sig Byrd column, and even in this final manuscript you can feel Byrd's old juices bubble a little, but not quite flow. He had other things on his mind.

While Sig languished in the state hospital, Stephen flew from Omaha to Austin and tried to both get his father out, and his mother, who suffered from osteoporosis and whose mind was beginning to weaken, into a nursing home. He succeeded at both, even though Stephen remembers now that the state tried "to get me to help commit him to Rusk [the state hospital for the criminally insane]. But they couldn't get me to testify against him."

In the nursing home, though, the staff discovered that Ruth Byrd was dehydrated and that her skin was bruised in various places. The state combined that knowledge with Byrd's cat hunting, and decided he was abusing his wife.

No one who knew him well believes this is so. Father Don Moss, an Austin Catholic priest who became one of Byrd's few friends, says, "She was his one connection to life. He loved her and was devoted to her. He would never have hurt her." Stephen agrees, and says that his mother has very thin skin, and bruises easily. "She can get a bruise getting in and out of her wheelchair."

Sig was finally allowed to go home, but Ruth wasn't. Not surprisingly, Byrd came to loath everyone connected with the home. In an act that got Sig Byrd's name into the papers one final time, he took Ruth out of the nursing home without authorization and brought her back to their house.

"This is how that happened," Stephen says. "He was bringing her a beer -- they always drank beer together -- and the staff said he couldn't bring it in. 'Well goddamn it,' he said. 'I'm taking her home.'"

The breakout was short-lived, of course. The state put Ruth back into the nursing home, and Byrd was then allowed only short, supervised visits with his wife of nearly 50 years.

The loss of his wife devastated Byrd. The bulk of his final manuscript alternates between descriptions of his ongoing love for her -- "And I must tell you that," he wrote with some of the tenderness and insistence of a young Andrew Marvell, "although my Ruthie is 74, her hair is still mostly light-brown" -- and the perfidy of the state. "Only since she has become a hostage of the Texas terrorists has the gray begun to show."

He searched desperately for help and revenge. Now Father Moss chuckles wryly when he recalls Byrd's explosive manner; the cantankerous man in his late 70s "spent most of his time yelling at me. His [telephone] style was to shout and then hang up." On his visits to Father Moss' parish office, Byrd "was like a hail storm coming in. The staff would say, 'Uh, oh. Here comes Mr. Byrd.' "

But Father Moss says, "I liked Sig Byrd," and, though he agrees that Ruth Byrd was probably better off in the nursing home, where she could receive professional care and where she could get some rest from Byrd's intense emotional demands, he says, "I loved the man, because I could see how deeply he loved his family, and especially his wife."

Sig Byrd obviously knew about devotion. All you have to do is flip the pages of Sig Byrd's Houston to find it. One citizen of Byrd's Houston was Jake Berman, who owned "a little one-man dry-goods store ... on one of the drearier reaches of Congress Avenue." Over the years Byrd spent prowling downtown, he never saw Mr. Berman do any business, so he began to seek out his story. He finally hit pay dirt with the barber, H.D. Lawrence (no relation to the writer, wrote Byrd). It happened that Berman had been living and working happily in his store, "one of the best places on the avenue to save money on clothes...," when a roving son called home after several years' absence. Mrs. Berman answered the phone, and the shock of her son's voice gave her a fatal heart attack.

"Just before she died, she made Jake promise he'd never close the store," Byrd reported that the barber told him. "Her death almost killed Jake. For two solid weeks he came to work every day in his sock feet, no shoes. And the only time he ever closes the store on a business day is on the anniversary of Sarah's death .... No, sir. Jake never buys or sells. He just keeps his promise to the woman he loves."

Byrd approached the lonely storekeeper, repeated the barber's story, asked if it were true and if he might tell it in his column.

"You a married man?" Mr. Berman wanted to know. "There is a woman you love?"
"I said there was, that I understood how he loved Sarah."
"Then write your story! Go ahead!
I don't care!"

Byrd's own act of love, or his own way of finding a continued purpose in life, was to continue his war against the state. He lost custody of his wife, and a nursing home staffer was appointed her legal guardian. As Stephen recalls, Byrd didn't do his cause any good when he began calling the presiding judge at home to harangue him. He continued to work on his final manuscript, which he titled Everything Will Turn Out All Right, and in the spring of 1987 he approached an Austin publisher, Ed Eakin, about publishing it and a revised edition of Sig Byrd's Houston.

Eakin declined both books. He recognized the paranoid bitterness of the final manuscript, in which Byrd described the entire city of Austin as being in league against him. And while he loved Sig Byrd's Houston, he didn't think he could sell it. Byrd then turned to his old competitor, Leon Hale, and asked for his help in getting his Houston book back into print. Hale approached his own publisher, but couldn't convince him. In a 1987 column he wrote following Byrd's death, Hale said, "A century from now it will sell, as Houston folk history, but not now."

With no broader public to reach, Byrd wrote his sister Mary two and three times a week. "I became his final audience," she says now. Asked to show the letters, she declines. "They are too painful," she says.

Byrd also enclosed the occasional poem. One, a lively attack on modern poetry, ends thus, "Read me sonnets by the Bard / But screw the so-called avant-garde." Another, "Of the Poet's Mother," recalled his mother's Saturday baking rituals, in which she "would make dainty fists and attack / White mounds of floured dough / Like Dempsey pounding Firpo's midriff."

But in spite of the poems, Byrd was in deep decline. After Father Moss had not heard from the old man in some time, he had "the feeling that something had happened," and made his first trip out to Byrd's north Austin home.

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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