By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
You are no doubt a savvy traveler. You have checked out the Web site of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, which contains these actual sentences: "The NBA-winning franchise, the Houston Rockets, moved to a new downtown arena -- the Toyota Center. The facility boasts the city's largest escalator."
So your Tuesday's pretty well planned, enjoying the large escalator and all. But what about the rest of the week? Sure, you could check out famous tourist places (NASA and ummmm .ummmm .). You could even visit the Officially Zany sites -- like the Orange Show or the Beer Can House -- that get trotted out whenever some publication hopes to point out the "offbeat side" of this very onbeat city.
But you have only so much time to spend in town, once you throw out the hours devoted to escalators and titty bars. You want to get a sense of the real Houston -- you want to leave a jar of urine and some fingernail clippings on Howard Hughes's grave (go to 2525 Washington Avenue); you want to be corrected on how to pronounce "San Felipe" (whichever way you choose is wrong); you want to get stuck in horrendous traffic (get in a car).
So put away all those other "Welcome to Houston" maps. Here are the real sites to consider as you try to fill up your Super Bowl days:
1. Most Expensive Jet-Ski Course Ever
Take Interstate 10, known as the Katy Freeway, west out of downtown. Pull over onto the shoulder between the exits for Shepherd Drive and Washington Avenue. There are two things to enjoy here: first, the instant traffic jam that will occur as Houstonians slam on their brakes and crane their necks in order to see that which fascinates them most, a stalled car.
The second novelty, though, requires a little imagination. As you stand on the asphalt, look skyward. Imagine 18-wheelers floating above you, gracefully hovering as pranksters on Jet-Skis dart between them.
For you are at the site of the Katy Freeway Lake, created in 2001 when Tropical Storm Allison dumped what meteorologists called "a shitload of rain" on an unsuspecting city. The water rose to the top of the 20-foot embankments on either side of the Katy, drawing crowds to the shores of the newly formed fun spot. If you ever wanted to see a Budweiser semi lying on its side in a lake, bringing heartfelt tears to scores of beer drinkers who could only imagine all those parties left unpartied, this was the place to be.
Allison caused more than $5 billion in damage to Houston, but none of that damage was caused by the fact that officials of this oh-so-flat city have let developers build whatever the hell they want wherever they want with only a vague promise that maybe they'll think a little about drainage issues if they get a chance.
No, sir. An official report decided that the extensive flooding was due to large amounts of rain (engineering degrees were used in the making of this particular report, by the way). No substantive changes have been made in the city's policy toward developers who pave over grasslands that formerly were handy for storm runoff.
With a little luck, then, the Katy Freeway Lake could happen again while you're in town! So you should probably stay on one of the higher floors of your hotel.
2. Honey, I Want a (Thump!) Divorce
If you're in town with kids, at some point you'll probably be dragged down to NASA, which has become a Disneyfied, overpriced attraction called Space Center Houston. Take time along the way to stop in at the parking lot of the Nassau Bay Hilton at 3000 NASA Road 1.
This hotel is where a dentist named Clara Harris found her husband with another woman in July 2002. She reacted like any Texas woman would, as long as it was a Texas woman determined to have some cheap made-for-TV movie written about her. Harris got into her $56,000 S-body Mercedes-Benz and ran her husband over in the parking lot. Several times.
With her screaming stepdaughter next to her in the front seat, Harris wheeled around the lot like she was playing Grand Theft Auto, running over her orthodontist spouse three or four times, according to prosecutors.
Harris testified that she was so shocked at seeing her husband with a mistress that she couldn't remember what happened after she started driving toward the mistress's Lincoln Navigator. (A Benz and a Navigator -- we don't do things cheap here in Texas.)
When she stopped the car and found her husband lying under it, she testified, "I couldn't understand why he was there." Neither could he, by that point.
Two days after her parking-lot rampage, Harris called the private detective she had hired to follow her husband -- she wanted a refund. She obviously didn't need the money to buy a bigger set of balls.
Harris is now serving a 20-year sentence. Her attorneys recently filed an appeal, arguing in part that the jury should have been allowed to convict her merely of reckless driving.
But how can it be reckless when your aim is so good?
3. Scent of a (Bad-Smelling) Woman
On your way back from NASA, take the scenic route: up State 146 to State 225. It's the backdoor way to return to Houston. And Christ, does it smell like it.
State 225 takes you through the heart of Pasadena's refinery district, a pleasant, idyllic Elysium of a place, if you're into sulfur. Or odors that make you wish you were smelling sulfur.
It's the smell of money, someone will no doubt tell you. It's the smell of cancer, too, but it's doubtful someone will tell you that.
This is where John Travolta and Debra Winger set Houston's reputation back 20 years in Urban Cowboy. This is what pays for much of the sophisticated stuff you see downtown. Opera, museums, symphony? They owe their existence to the foul-fumed ugly relative stuck out there on 225.
Midtown Manhattan has its Perfume District; this is as close as Houston gets. And really, you're only imagining that some sales clerk is spraying samples at you as you drive through.
If you want to do the jaunt up right, break out your old CD and put on Phil Collins's "Something in the Air Tonight." But don't feel bad if you give up and just hold your breath halfway down the road.
We won't think you're a wimp. We're just used to it here.
4. Basketball Jones, Pastor
If you're looking for a cheap way to sum up Houston -- and if you're a visiting journalist, God knows you are -- look no further than Compaq Center, at the Southwest Freeway and Edloe.
That's where the Houston Rockets won two NBA championships; it's where the career of Ralph Sampson took full flight, in the "Spruce Goose" sense of taking full flight; it's where L.A. Laker James Worthy dialed up and ordered two pregame hookers who turned out to be Houston cops. (Worthy was actually in a neighboring hotel, but what the hey.) Oh, and political correctness demands that we mention that the WNBA Comets won some championships there -- and are apparently still in existence! Good seats available!
Compaq Center, which had been known for years as the Summit, will serve all your Cheap Houston Symbolism needs in several ways. Although perfectly usable, the 25-year-old building was declared unfit for current NBA needs because of a crushing lack of superboxes. So taxpayers built a palatial new facility downtown. (By taxpayers, we mean you visitors. Those outrageously high rental car and hotel room taxes you're paying this week? Rockets fans say "Thanks!")
As for Compaq Center? It is being transformed into a church. A church with 85,000 square feet for a children's area, a new five-story administrative wing, a choir loft that fits 250 singers -- and a food court. The $75 million renovation will provide seats for 16,000 worshipers.
Wretched excess? Churches indulging in tasteless, flamboyant luxury while piously professing to do the Lord's work? Gentlemen and ladies of the press, start your cheap symbolism!
5. A God Among Us
Maybe you'll happen to drive out from downtown on Allen Parkway. It's advisable, since that is the only road that almost never has traffic.
You'll see a large construction project going up near the site of the old Allen Parkway Village, a former housing project that endured years of controversy before being torn down a few years ago.
The new 280,000-square-foot building is massive enough to overwhelm its neighbors. City officials will tell you it's a new facility for the Houston branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, but that's just a cover story.
What is actually being built is a combination monument-museum to the most famous resident of Allen Parkway Village: the one and only Kenny Rogers.
The Gambler got his start at APV. In fact, a significant school of thought among Rogers scholars claims that the project is where he first learned to hold 'em. (The hard-learned lessons of when to fold 'em came later, in Matamoros.)
The Kenny Rogers Project will feature a diagnostic center where you can drop in to find out what condition your condition is in; it will have a gallery dedicated to the people shown on the actual Web page www.MenWhoLookLikeKennyRogers.com; and of course the Verizon Wireless wing will be available for those who were inspired by Rogers's 1994 phone-sex scandal.
6. Tits "R" Us
Team practices are closed to the public, but perhaps you want to visit Rice Stadium anyway. We suggest you take a brief detour to the nearby Texas Medical Center, specifically Baylor College of Medicine, off M.D. Anderson Drive.
For it is here that two fearless, dedicated doctors created something that has come to say "Houston" as much as Pasadena's refineries. It is here that was invented the silicone breast implant.
Just over 40 years ago doctors from Baylor -- and if you know Baylor, and the definition of "irony," you're permitted a smile -- first put a silicone breast implant into a local woman. Houston has never been the same.
The legacy is on display among the second wives of River Oaks businessmen. And you, the humble traveler, can also peruse it in the best entertainment places Houston has to offer. As long as you have the cover charge.
Even if you instead limit yourself to hotel-room porn, you're reaping the benefits of what these visionaries created. They came, they saw, they improved! And then you came!
Of course, what Houston giveth, Houston taketh away. The city hosts one of the most flamboyant groups of plaintiff's lawyers in the nation. They tend to be familiar with breast-implanted women, but where the average joe saw melons, they saw dollar signs.
They sued the hell out of the silicone-implant companies. Where science was unsure just how dangerous the implants might be, these gladiators of the contingency fee knew. And they convinced enough juries, so that the defendants came begging to pay big bucks to settle.
Bucks that mostly went to the plaintiff's lawyers, some of whom no doubt spent them, one way or the other, on enjoying the very thing they fought against.
7. I'm Dying Here
Don't forget -- we kill lots of people here. And by "we," we mean the government.
Ninety minutes up Interstate 45 is Huntsville, home to the gosh-darn busiest death row this side of Stalin. Sure, the kids'll bitch that they don't use the electric chair anymore, but when are kids ever not bitching on vacation? Just tell 'em that lethal injection is now the "hip" way to kill people.
For 35 years, death row was located near Huntsville, in the Ellis Unit of the state prison system; now it's a few miles east in the Polunsky Unit. And we're sure Ma Polunsky couldn't be prouder of her little boy.
The killin' still gets done in Huntsville, though. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the hardworking team there has killed 314 folks. "That's only about one a month," you might say. "What kind of slackers are lazing around on government time up there?"
To which we say, Whoa. The head count might not seem impressive at first blush, but in that same time span the other 49 states combined have killed only 573 people! And England hasn't executed anyone! So don't be dissin' our death row, thank you very much.
8. God, Give Us Strength -- to Put Up with Nut Jobs
On your way to Huntsville, you'll pass through Montgomery County. We advise you to think pure thoughts.
Montgomery County's Republican Leadership Council is extremely aware of the danger posed by a mind that isn't properly closed. When one developer wanted to liven up his property by including a replica of Michelangelo's David over a sporting-goods store, the RLC leaped into action.
Sure, you say -- who wouldn't protest the atrocious taste of a shopping-mall David? But it wasn't aesthetics that had the RLC pissed. Instead, one brave researcher determined that whoever the hell this Michelangelo guy was, he had sculpted someone who was nude.
The David now sports a fig leaf.
Ungodly Montgomery County perverts can still go to the local franchise of the Buca di Beppo restaurant. It features replicas of ancient Greek murals that don't meet the high moral standards of the RLC, but the owners have yet to be convinced that they are leading diners toward Satan.
And don't think the RLC is concerned only with ancient art. They're also busy trying to ban books in the county library and, as their mission statement says, fulfilling their "moral obligation to fully participate in our God-given political process."
So if you're driving through Montgomery County, best keep your mind on the road. And bring a fig leaf.
9. Girls Gone Wild -- Houston-Style
Up north is also where you'll find Kingwood, a planned community of expensive houses, manicured lawns and sweet young high school girls who go on robbery sprees.
The plucky gals who gave themselves the clunky name of "The Queens of Armed Robbery" stole a nation's heart, along with some petty cash and cigs, when they decided to fight their teen boredom by robbing convenience stores in 1999.
They had the lingo down: "You have two seconds or I'll shoot, bitch!" said one of the budding prom queens during one of their first jobs. When the clerk handed over the wrong brand of cigarettes, she heard, "Marlboros, bitch! Marlboros!"
The story of the well-off girls from the very white uptight suburb who decided to become the James Gang was irresistible to the media, and for a while Kingwood High School students were all well practiced with their sound bites.
The story was sad and dismal, of course -- broken homes, drug use. Three of the girls are serving prison sentences; one is on probation.
Kingwood strives mightily to change the subject whenever it comes up. The pricey burb lucked out when the Hollywood extravaganza based on the case, the Mena Suvari vehicle Sugar and Spice, bombed.
The film did have the line "If the O.J. trial taught us anything, it taught us that in America, you can cut somebody's head off and still be innocent if you have enough money."
Which proved prophetic enough last year in Galveston when Robert Durst, the cross-dresser who dismembered a body, was found not guilty of anything other than hiring a very good, very high-priced defense team.
10. Family Togetherness
Headed down to Galveston to see just where 12 jurors believed Durst to be unjustly accused? Be sure to take Ferry Road, which, as the name implies, leads you to the Bolivar Ferry.
On the way you'll pass through "Fish Village," a part of town where the streets have such names as Dolphin, Tarpon and Trout. Turn in at Marlin. And see if there's still a smell.
That's where David Sidney Hisey, a 55- year-old unemployed shrimper, killed his parents. And then lived with their decaying bodies for up to a year, according to prosecutors.
He spent their life savings and retirement income to the tune of about $8,000 a month, which we assume bought a helluva lot of room freshener.
Hisey was sentenced to 43 years in prison in 2002, but this month a state appeals court overturned the conviction. Appeals courts in Texas overturn convictions about as often as they get together to burn the flag, but they found cause to do so here.
Jurors determined that Hisey had killed at least one of his parents, but they weren't specific on which one, the appellate court ruled. "Some of the jurors could have been talking about the mother and some could have been talking about the father, so the verdict may not have been unanimous," Hisey's lawyer told the Houston Chronicle.
Jurors were unanimous, however, that Hisey was one creepy dude.
11. Don't Mind the Bright Lights, Just Confess
When it comes to creepy killers, however, Hisey can't hold a candle to Elmer Wayne Henley and Dean Corll. They are simply the crème de la creep -- and from the top of Reliant Stadium, you can see where they buried their victims!
If you insist on going by car, look for Silver Bell Street near South Main and South Post Oak. A boat-storage shed there ultimately revealed 17 of the 26 victims killed by the pair. Most of them were teenage boys who were lured by drugs and tortured before they were killed.
The boat shed is home to a famous moment in Houston criminal history. As the exhumation of bodies was going on that August day in 1973, Henley used a newsman's phone to call his mother -- on camera. "Momma, I killed Dean," he said, providing a Houston quote that in some circles is as famous as that one from Tranquillity Base.
(The newsman who lent the phone -- and then grabbed his camera -- has moved on to bigger things: Jack Cato is now Harris County treasurer.)
Somehow, the chamber of commerce doesn't push "Momma, I killed Dean" as much as it does "Houston The Eagle has landed." And they really blew it by failing to capitalize a few years ago when Henley's paintings of delicate nature scenes -- some painted on emu eggs -- were displayed by a gallery here.
No wonder Houston isn't a tourist mecca. We don't brag enough.
12. The Palace of "Kenny Boy"
Not all crime in Houston is gory and sensationalistic. Sometimes it's white-collar and sensationalistic.
You can't visit Houston without stopping by the Enron building at 1400 Smith Street. The "crooked E" is gone, depriving you of one of the must-have photo ops of any Houston trip. In fact, anything indicating that the building might have been occupied by Enron is pretty well erased. Commercial real estate agents treat the building's history as gingerly as Galveston realtors do when talking about "the old Hisey place."
The whiff of greed is not exactly in the air, but the bold, aggressive credo of Enron is still evident. You'll see a circular walkway that connects with a new skyscraper that was supposed to hold the future Enron headquarters, with a giant trading floor ready-made for strippers and blow. The day-care center for the more responsible employees -- the ones who lost their life savings -- is still there, on street level.
The edifice is now known by its owner as the 1400 Smith building, which is about as close as you can get to the "Enron? Never Heard of It" building.
Really, it's not much of a thing to see, but come on -- you know when you get home everyone's going to ask something about Enron.
And while chances are pretty good you'll run into former company honcho Lou Pai at The Men's Club or Rick's Cabaret, it's probably safer for your marriage if you just take a photo in front of the building.
13. No Accounting for Taste
A few blocks from the former Enron building -- sorry, the 1400 Smith building -- lies Buffalo Bayou. You may see nothing but a greasy-looking, sluggish strip of water designed to hold empty liquor bottles. What you don't realize is that you're looking at the equivalent of the Seine in Paris.
That's according to the Houston Chronicle, which has been eagerly promoting development of the bayou for decades. As a result Houstonians are regularly asked to cough up tax dollars to fund yet another study showing how our unprepossessing stream can one day be turned into a riverwalk of shops, museums and bum-free shores.
The latest plan was announced a little over a year ago, on the front page of the Chron. One impartial observer was quoted as saying the plan was a "fabulous, visionary catalog of opportunities," which was kind of like one of those quotes from some obscure television station praising Legally Blonde 2.
The plan costs only about $800 million, so in these days of free-wheeling governmental budgets, expect ground to break soon.
We're sorry we couldn't have it ready for your Super Bowl visit, but if Houston gets another Super Bowl in, say, 2015 or so, be sure to check it out. We're certain you'll be able to see yet another study showing what a winner this creek could be.
14. Another Famous (Would-Be) Killer
Hey, you're here for the Super Bowl -- what you want to hear about is sports, right? Just to show how much we love football, we offer a mother who was willing to see people die if it would get her daughter on the cheering squad.
The "Cheerleader Mom" is famous, of course; if you want to see her stomping grounds, just head out I-10 East to Channelview. It's a beguiling little burg that looks just like you'd expect a town that spawned a killer mom to look like.
Wanda Holloway is on probation after a brief prison term. She was arrested in 1991 for trying to hire a hit man to murder the mother of a girl who was competing with Holloway's daughter for a cheerleader spot. Everyone in the Houston area enjoyed the hell out of being labeled yet again as living in a redneck, football-crazy place where guns are toys and the women are not to be messed with. The Museum of Fine Arts rushed out a fund-raising plea to capitalize on the publicity. ("Medea's got nothing on Houston women! Give now!")
Not one but two TV movies were made out of the Channelview case. One, starring Holly Hunter, was very good; the other, a forgotten ABC piece of crap called Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story, wasn't.
The only good thing about the ABC movie was Holloway's reaction: "It's one-sided fiction," she told the Houston Chronicle. "Despite what this movie projects, not everyone from Channelview is an illiterate hick with an accent."
Channelview Chamber of Commerce, you have your winning slogan. And the spokeswoman to deliver it.
15. You're Not on the List
You want to see athletes while you're in town? You can go to bars downtown or in the Galleria area, and get shunted to the side while you whine, "But I have VIP tickets!"
Or you can visit where Houston's athletes live: Fort Bend County. Just be sure to bring along four forms of ID and a DNA sample. And a letter of recommendation from a resident. And a professional athlete as a passenger, just to be safe.
Houston's pro players live in the great southwest that is Fort Bend, in subdivisions that are called "gated communities" but which are only slightly less open than Dick Cheney's fabled undisclosed location.
In places like Quail Valley, the athletes cluster together near golf courses in expansive homes. They're a part of the community, as long as "community" is defined as "fellow pro athletes and bothersome jock-sniffers whose kids go to school with mine."
If by some chance you talk yourself into one of these places, our best advice is not to drive aimlessly around. Unless you like talking with rent-a-cops whose inherent sense of being big-time is magnified by the fact that they actually know an Astro, and you don't.
Should you ever sign with the Texans, however, expect a warm, friendly welcome.
16. A Super Bowl Tale
No Super Bowl fan should leave town without stopping by Delmar Stadium, near the intersection of Loop 610 and U.S. 290.
"But why?" you ask. "It's only a dumpy high school stadium that looks like it has three working showers." And you're right.
But that dumpy place is where the Minnesota Vikings were made to practice before they took on the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VIII.
A biography of Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton, excerpted on the Web site of The Sporting News, described the facilities as "apparently designed for the East Dry Gulch Groundhogs. It was the first record-breaking statistic of Super Bowl week, the first locker room in Super Bowl history without a locker."
Vikings coach Bud Grant wasn't happy. "This is a Super Bowl game, not a pickup game I don't think our players have seen something like this since junior high school," he told reporters. For which he was fined $1,500 by the league.
The Vikings went on to lose to the Dolphins, who practiced at Rice. Houston didn't get to host another Super Bowl for 30 years.
Which brings us to the present, and all you happy travelers eager to discover the highlights of Houston.