Downtown Houston: A Love Story Set to Music

There is literally music in the streets of downtown Houston.
There is literally music in the streets of downtown Houston.
Photos by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

Late last year, my day job moved its offices from Woodway to Downtown Houston. Even though it meant a 60-mile round-trip commute (no, I never get to work on time), I was excited to be leaving the sleepy boredom of Tanglewood for the thrill of life downtown.

I couldn't have been better matched if Tinder had hooked me up with these sometimes pensive and sometimes wild streets, dressed in their long, sexy shadows. OK Cupid couldn't have connected me quicker to these sauntering Houstonians and the rushing crowds of urban professionals they share the sidewalks with.

I'm smitten. And because any romance I've ever embarked upon that's been worth a damn has included music, I've begun to notice just how much courses through downtown's two square miles.

There is music in the streets of downtown Houston, and not just in some figurative, James Frey-fabricated kind of way, but in a real there's literally music in the streets of downtown Houston kind of way. Walking to lunch over on Texas and Main, I spy a poetic homage to rhythm and blues actually etched into the sidewalk. Just days ago, there were marching bands parading around for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. From my office window (yes, I was at work), I heard one try the Brothers Johnson's "I'll Be Good To You," which is an odd choice for this particular celebration or any celebration in 2015, but was rather welcomed at 10:15 on a slow Monday morning.

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There's also something lyrical about any conversation you might have on these streets, which is a practice I highly endorse. Engaging in a give-and-take can be something akin to the weirdest rap battle ever. One day, I was exiting the Fannin Corner Store with a bottled water in one hand and a fresh coffee in the other.

"You gonna drink that coffee?!" asked a homebum sitting on the curb across the street from the store.

"Yeah," I answered, "that's why I bought it."

He came back at me like I was Mute Spittah and he was Supa Hot Fire.

"Well, gonna drink that water?"

Beers, ballerinas, babes: downtown Tuesday night
Beers, ballerinas, babes: downtown Tuesday night

If that's too daunting for you, you've probably lived too sheltered a life too far from this grid of city blocks, this amalgam of historic buildings, this underbelly of underground tunnels, this heart and its beating arteries. For the most part, a brother-can-you-spare-a-dime dialogue is as confrontational as it's ever gotten for me for the many months I've been here.

My day inevitably begins with music in my head, switching from one station to the next like an impatient scroll. I passed a ballet dancer headed to practice one morning and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was in my head until lunchtime. Walking to Treebeard's for a midday meal, I spotted a guy with a Stradivarius case in hand and Mozart's "Symphony 40 in G Minor" (a favorite) sprung to life. After my red beans and rice, some shady characters hanging around Austin and Preston put Run the Jewels' "Lie, Cheat, Steal" on my mental juke.

People gotta move here -- to the office, to the METRORail, to Frank's Pizza for a slice, to a parking garage that's gouging them on a monthly rate (but not nearly as badly as the parking garages in New York City or L.A.) and they do it with earbuds firmly affixed. They walk in hypnotic ways to whatever they're listening to, guys bobbing up and down to their selections, girls swaying left and right to theirs. My own best personal earbud moment was probably the morning I was walking to the office listening to "Here Comes Your Man," and exchanged smiles with a toothless, down-on-her-luck woman, then minutes later walked into the office to Jay-Z's "Lucifer," which just makes a person insufferably confident for the rest of the workday.

Story continues on the next page.


Nick Gaitan & the Umbrella Man, MKT Bar
Nick Gaitan & the Umbrella Man, MKT Bar

Soon, there will be even more to love, since cranes and hard-hatted, hardworking fellows seem to inhabit every few corners of the current downtown Houston. You can hear their music from down the street, that choogah-choogah, ping-ping of a changing infrastructure.

Sometimes, the music isn't just the syncopation of progress, it's actual music. One day, exiting Minuti for an afternoon java, I'm charmed by the call of a saxophone in the distance. It's "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and I follow it to Milton Martin, a Houstonian by way of New Orleans. He busks at the corners of Main and Preston on Mondays and Fridays. Martin said he's rarely been asked to tone it down but when he is, he politely packs up and moves along. People do work out here, he reminds me.

He said he believes in busking the proper way. We talk about the rules and regulations for street musicians, here, in New Orleans, in Europe. I point out that one young passerby was seemingly entranced by his playing, show him the photo I snapped, and an appreciative grin opens up. That's nearly as good as any greenbacks being dropped into his music case today.

Downtown Houston: A Love Story Set to Music

Of course, there's music everywhere once you punch out, once the sun is down and the spirits are up. There's music in the grocery store (okay,..the bar next door) at MKT Bar. Tonight, it's Nick Gaitan & the Umbrella Man doing "I Got Loaded" and "Wasted Days, Wasted Nights" in a funky Cajun-conjunto ("Cajunto"?) style. Damn, they sound fucking fantastic. At Shay McElroy's, where the only thing stronger than the manager's work ethic is the scotch she recommends, the Killers' "Everything Will Be Alright" and Pearl Jam's "Elderly Woman..." set a comfortable vibe. At my favorite downtown drinking hole, Clutch City Squire, the music is set to Pandora's all-hipster station; The Strokes' "12:51," Arctic Monkeys' "Teddy Picker" and Imelda May's "Tainted Love." The songs take a back seat to the wonderful people serving up drinks there, like Shane, my vote for Houston's friendliest bartender.

Of all the live-music venues to choose from here and in neighboring Midtown or EaDo, I attend the Adam and the Ancient Gods show on a Tuesday night because it's Tuesday night. Punk shows are cheap, and money's gotta last till payday at the end of the week. The admission is a donation for the touring acts, and the beer at Notsuoh is cold and inexpensive.

The room is packed with back-patched, in-your-face kids whose notions on the world dismiss as "important" almost all of what goes on downtown from 9 to 5. I'm a means-to-an-end kinda guy, so they remind me in the best possible way that my day job is a way to afford every experience of life I find important -- which includes appreciating live music and the kinship it creates.

The next day, back at work, that feeling starts to wane, so I go for a walk. Far below the upper reaches of the skyscrapers, I'm streaming Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Let me say, the next time you feel like a chump instead of the total badass you are, wherever you are, take a walk through your downtown area listening to Nevermind.

You'll get your mojo back in a hurry, you beautiful bastard, you. I know I did. By the time I was on "Lithium," I was standing taller than the buildings.

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