The Goode Son

Houston's First Family of Barbecue has anointed an heir apparent to its expanding empire. And his name is Levi.

Through a window, we spot the contractor's pickup. Luke Feild, of Signtex, wears a cowboy hat, a Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo ring, and a belt buckle that looks like something you'd win for riding and roping. Levi greets him with a hey-how-ya-doin' handshake.

Luke has brought a bucket truck, the kind that boosts repairmen to work on power lines. One of his workers will stand in the bucket; his helmet will be 42 feet from the ground, the top height of the new sign. The bucket truck will move around the lot, so we can test different sites, see how the sign will look from I-10 and the access road.

Signs are always supposed to be visible, but this one's high profile is especially important since the restaurant itself is hard to spot from the freeway. It's hidden behind a little freestanding building, once a Champs restaurant, now about to be reincarnated as the ritzy Jared Galleria of Jewelry. The new Seafood's impressive facade -- think the Alamo, only with a giant tarpon over the door -- won't even face the freeway. Instead, it faces the side parking lot; as diners enter, they'll see only the restaurant, and not its strip-mall neighbors.

The family - Joe, Liz, Levi, Jim and Jana - stares Blankly into the camera, all seriousness and purpose, like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.
Courtesy of Jim Goode
The family - Joe, Liz, Levi, Jim and Jana - stares Blankly into the camera, all seriousness and purpose, like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.

Luke and Levi worry that the sign will get lost in a sea of competitors. Nearby signs tout Service Merchandise, Office Depot and Boot Town, and two billboards also clamor for attention. As Luke and Levi discuss the "cluster" problem, Tom Dayton, Goode Co.'s director of operations, appears, and Jim Goode pulls up in his shiny black van. Jim is wearing jeans and a faded Eddie Bauer T-shirt; judging from his clothes, he could be the guy who cleans Levi's pool. But the center of gravity shifts with Jim's arrival; while talking to Levi, Luke glances occasionally toward Jim.

We pile into Levi's truck -- Levi driving, Jim riding shotgun, me in the back, sandwiched between Tom and Luke -- and for the next half hour or so, drive in circles, Uturning at Memorial City Mall and heading west, then U-turning at Town & Country Mall and heading back, always looking for the spot, about halfway in between, where the Signtex guy is standing in the bucket. Levi, Jim and Luke discuss the pros and cons of each spot, then Luke uses a walkie-talkie to direct the bucket truck to the spot the Goodes want to try next.

The talk turns to hunting. Jim has seen an awful lot of game lately: An 11-point buck walked into his yard over the weekend, and he saw 20 pigs while he was driving into Houston this morning. Luke talks about a pig he shot two years ago, one that was tearing up his pastures bad. He was on a four-wheeler when he saw the pig, and he shot it with his .44 pistol. The pig fell over but got up, and it ran off faster than Luke could follow on the four-wheeler. Yeah, says Levi, those big ones have a plate in their shoulder, makes 'em hard to killŠ

We U-turn for the umpteenth time, getting ready to head west. I'm still taking notes, writing about pigs' shoulder plates, when I realize that the truck has stopped and Levi and Jim have bailed out. Tom is a half-second behind them; Luke, a half-second behind him. A station wagon has stalled ahead of us, blocking the U-turn lane. By the time I figure out what's happening, the four men have pushed the car to the side of the access road. Wordlessly, they jog back like a Marine unit, boots clomping in unison.

Back in the truck, the hunting stories resume without a hitch: an ostrich that Luke ran across out in the country; a giant alligator gar that Jim saw some kids catch in the Brazos, a monster that looked like something from an Alien movie. The men seem exhilarated by their minor adventure, but nobody mentions the station wagon. It was an obstacle; it has been removed; case closed. In the Goodes' world, it's obvious that obstacles must be removed, and that you don't waste breath congratulating yourself. The satisfaction is silent, and shared.

E-mail Lisa Gray at lisagray@alumni.rice.edu.

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