By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
My editor fields a complaint that a downtown park is overrun by giant rats and homeless folks who are seen crapping and pissing on the bushes and sidewalks throughout the day.
For some reason -- is it the humidity? the hangover I'm nursing? -- I volunteer to investigate.
Be sure to take the camera, my editor tells me gleefully. Snap some pix of the rats -- if, in fact, they're there.
So one evening last week I drive to the park, which is rather large by Houston standards and sits in a prime location. It's divided into three sections that span several blocks and is surrounded by the George R. Brown Convention Center, Toyota Center, Houston Center and Minute Maid Park, as well as the upscale Four Seasons and Hilton hotels.
I walk the winding red-brick pathways, but see nothing out of the ordinary. Each parcel appears well manicured with neat flower beds and shrubs. The lawn needs mowing, but that's no big deal given the recent rains.
The sun's setting and it's cooling off some. An organ grinds the national anthem. Clemens is about to take the mound against the Phillies.
It's then that I see my first rat. I catch the critter out of the corner of my eye. He's small, fuzzy, kind of cute. I inch toward him, but he disappears in the tall grass.
I crouch by the grass, then snap my head. There goes another one. And another. And another.
Noses twitch. Tails whip. The lean and wiry ones are fast and panicky, neurotic. The long, plump ones are grotesque, less motivated and tend to sit still, staring, almost daring you to approach.
My heartbeat quickens. Palming a digital camera, I tiptoe toward a row of bushes.
A young couple walks by. The boy seizes his sweetheart by the wrist and swings her to the other side of him, shielding her from me. I'm not offended.
Again I snap my head. There goes another one. And another.
Two fat, burly rats lumber past. Nothing cute about these guys. They barrel down the brick path, fall over each other and vanish into the brush. Their long, spiny tails trail behind.
I start to hear them.
On all sides of me.
The grasses part.
The branches break.
Okay, now it's official: I'm freaked. All this creeping around is creeping me out.
I poke my head in some bushes, half-expecting a rat to pounce and gnaw at my face.
Taking a closer look, I see the shrubs aren't so tidy as they first appeared. They're strewn with garbage and feces. Empty liquor bottles, beer cans, food wrappers. Small broken pieces of furniture.
The rats keep scurrying past. But they're fast buggers, and all my pictures turn out dark and blurry.
I stop, stand up straight and look around. Sure enough, the benches are taken over by vagrants.
Mark Davis, a lanky 36-year-old from Detroit, says he sleeps in the park most nights. By nightfall, he says, some 15 to 20 people will be camped out here.
Does he see the rats?
"Rats be all around," Davis advises. "They be all around the grass, up around the bushes, they be all around."
Don't they bother him?
"I'm used to 'em," he says.
That's not the case for Juan, a native Puerto Rican who wears an oversize, dirty white tee and a single thick, gnarled dreadlock that reaches the small of his back.
Does he sleep here in the park?
"No way," Juan says. "Too many rats."
Juan sleeps under a bridge a couple of blocks north.
Aren't there rats under the bridge, too?
"Not like up in here," he says.
Juan points out more rats as he talks. There goes one. And another. And two more.
They dart in and out of the sewer grates, stealing from shadow to shadow, from bush to bush.
People continue to amble through the park. The men in suits, hands clasped behind their backs, moseying along. The hoochie-mamas in low-rider jeans and open-toed sandals, strutting with their boyfriends. All are oblivious to the rats cutting straight across their paths.
I approach a well-dressed African-American couple who take a seat on a weathered wooden bench.
Do they come to this park often?
"It's our first time here," the man says affably. They just moved into a nearby high-rise.
Reluctant to say anything more, I bid them a good evening. But they saw me earlier, crouched by the bushes. They won't let me off the hook.
"What are you doing here?" the man presses.
So I tell him: I'm with the Houston Press. We got a tip that this park is teeming with--
I don't even get the word out. They both shoot up and bolt to the street.
I call after them, offering my apologies. But they're already out of earshot.
The next morning, I meet Ron Guidry at the corner of Austin and Lamar. Guidry, who's 54 and lives on the west side, works for a marketing firm located directly north of the park at 5 Houston Center. He's the one with the rat report.