The Sole of Houston

Hi. I'm John Lomax, and I'm a pedestrian. My friend, Uncle Tick, and I walked down 16-plus miles of Westheimer. This is our story.

A few minutes later the barmaid claimed her lunch. A wiry guy with a couple of tats on his arm came in. He seemed to be a regular. We told him we were walking down Westheimer, and he liked the idea. He was an ex-Marine. A shoulder injury he concealed from them for two years was finally discovered, and he was honorably discharged before he got to go to Iraq -- "And now look at me -- I'm a drunk 30-year-old waiter," he said. He really wanted to be over in Iraq with his buddies, he said. I told him about the brother of a friend of mine who enlisted in the Navy to work his way through med school in the early '90s, only to be called to the front lines as a MASH-type combat surgeon 12 years later.

I told the marine about the horrific stuff this guy had to do -- patch up Iraqi kids who'd been mowed down in cross-fires and stuff like that. "See," said the marine. "That's the difference 'tween us and them. They would never do something like that. They would just let them die in the street. But we go over there and patch people up -- doesn't matter if it's one of ours or theirs. And then everybody says we're the bad guys."

Broad, Majestic Westheimer

Tick and new friends Memory Lane in the Gobi-like void that is central Westchase.
John Lomax
Tick and new friends Memory Lane in the Gobi-like void that is central Westchase.
Tick serves up a harmonica serenade in this River Oaks oasis.
John Lomax
Tick serves up a harmonica serenade in this River Oaks oasis.

At Fondren things got interesting again. The squalid bus stop at the corner of Fondren and Westheimer announced that we were crossing over into a more definably urban zone -- there was trash everywhere and a middle-aged black woman was sleeping on a blanket on the ground in the shade of a few trees.

Here's what Stephen Fox wrote in the Houston Architectural Guide about this stretch: "Nowhere is the 'anything goes' image that adheres to Houston more blatantly displayed than along the stretch of Westheimer Road between Chimney Rock and South Gessner Road. Middle-class subdivisions of the 1950s flank this strip, but they are hidden behind broad bands of commercial development that face Westheimer. Most of these date from the 1960s and early '70s, when Houston's suburbanizing ethos was at its least constrained. Not only do shopping centers, gas stations and fast-food restaurants line up along Westheimer -- each flashing signs or theme-style inducements to passersby -- but mega-garden apartment complexes compete for attention in a mixture of dimly recognizable 'traditional' styles. The order of the strip is economic, rather than visual or experiential. The biggest-grossing land gets the prime footage."

CVS has some prime footage. We stopped in and belatedly bought sunblock and the worst jam box in the history of the universe. Hell, it was only ten dollars, but we could barely tune it, and the only thing we could pick up at first was smooth jazz station The Wave, which was spinning Spandau Ballet's "True." "I feel like we have achieved the pinnacle of mediocrity," Tick announced. "The absolute summit of the average and mundane."

A friend of mine had warned me that this part of Westheimer was ten degrees hotter than the rest of Houston, and it seems he was right. We were really starting to sweat now, and the pain from our feet had spread to our ankles and shins. Rumbo's headline that day -- "El Cárcel del Sueño Americano" ("The Prison of the American Dream") -- taunted us from every newspaper rack and seemed all too appropriate. Only a couple of handfuls of trail mix cut the booze and fumes running through our veins, and we were starting to get a bit delirious.

Out of nowhere I started singing Steve Earle's "Down the Road": "Though the roaaad lays long behind you / you have still got miles to go / how's love eeee-ver gonna find you / it ain't here / it's down the road. " Tick walked up to a whole bus-stop full of people and defied them to walk with us. A teenaged Mexican guy told him he was crazy. "The only way I'll walk to Montrose with you is if you have weed," he said. I told him we had vodka, but he regarded that with about as much interest as we'd had for the sweet tea at Cane's.

The unconstrained suburbanizing ethos of the '60s and '70s took hold of our heads. Inspired, we started singing the greats from the local jingle canon. "There's 'On-lee at Mattress Giant'," I said to Tick, who countered with "We put the Yee-Haw back in your motor and transmission!" This is the most nostalgic stretch of Westheimer: There's also a House of Pies, and one of the last remnants of the once-burgeoning Christie's seafood empire. This stretch, in spite of its ugliness, was one of my favorites. It's the Houston only a native could love, the Houston of so-terrible-they're-sublime local TV ads. Even though Gallery Furniture and C&D Scrap Metal aren't on this stretch of Westheimer, it feels like they should be.

On we trudged. We could now see Philip Johnson's details glittering in the late afternoon sun on the Williams Tower. Between Hillcroft and Chimney Rock is Westheimer's testosterone zone -- one strip club after another. It was some of the only, um, notable architecture we saw -- lots of Greco-Roman statues, sensuous palm trees and mock-historical themes. One structure is done up to look like a Roman villa, another resembles a Persian harem, a third looks vaguely Taj Mahal-ish. Tick said they reminded him of words like "baroque" and "rococo." But jiggle joints aren't all there is out there to part men from their money -- there's also the hair-metalicious Evans Music City, where the Scorpions still rule the roost, and an army surplus store next door. We shopped at both places, and they confiscated our shoulder bags for safekeeping at each. We were starting to look suspicious.

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