Houston 101: Cruising Westheimer: The Favorite Teenage Pastime of Reagan-Era Houston
For such a big city, '80s Houston was in some ways still a small town. Case in point: the teenage ritual of cruising Westheimer, in which the fourth largest city in America did its best to impersonate a one-Dairy Queen town, one where all you can do is drive down the strip and then turn back around.
While cruising Westheimer has multiple connotations, especially as you approach Bagby, back in the Reagan Era, to most it meant getting in your car and driving aimlessly east from west Houston, gawking at the freakshow in the Montrose area, and turning around on Elgin and heading back out.
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Numbers: One of the few buildings that still has the same purpose today that it had back in the golden age of cruising Westheimer. They are also still playing the same songs and still using the same bottle of bathroom cleaner they had back then. (Much the same could be said for Mary's.)
This was Oil Bust Houston, and it looked then like Montrose might become a full-on slum. There were no condos along 'Theimer (as it was often called by the mullet set) and few fancy restaurants. From Montrose Boulevard all the way to what is now called Midtown, Westheimer was lined with little more than one "modeling studio" after another, and it seems like there were even more tattoo shops than there are now. The denizens and visitors to these businesses (not to mention the street hustlers, drag queens, punks and Guardian Angels that still lurk in the area) provided plenty for the hordes of suburbanites -- getting their first taste of freedom and big city life -- to gawk at from the safety of their Blazers and Cutlasses.
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I was a frequent Westheimer cruiser, albeit a conflicted one. I was brought up near the corner of Mandell and Bissonnet, and I had a severe case of Inner Loop snobbery, which put me in the minority at Strake Jesuit. Back then, most Strake kids lived in places like Memorial, Alief and Sugar Land, so the whole Montrose scene was a novelty to my classmates.
It wasn't to me. My uncle Joseph, who died of AIDS in 1988, lived a block or two north of the Daiquiri Factory, and I spent many of my Saturdays walking to and from Lower Westheimer record stores like the old Sound Exchange and Infinite. Part of me regarded the freaks that my more straight-laced and sheltered classmates gawked at as my people.
At any rate, on weekend nights, Westheimer would be bumper-to-bumper from Bagby to well past Buffalo Speedway, and sometimes all the way out to the Galleria, a phantasmagoria of teenage hormones and sound-collisions: car-horns, engines revving, and squealing girls, the hiss-and-almost-subsonic bass rumble of "Paul Revere" booming from a Jeep Cherokee interlocking with a Honda CRX chirping out that inane "Two of Hearts" pop ditty or the root canal Teutonic skronk of that "Warm Leatherette" monstrosity.
It was mostly harmless. As they were passing by at five miles an hour in the other direction, it was hard to do anything but flirt with the opposite sex, and it was literally impossible to drag race, at least on this part of Westheimer.
This seems as appropriate a time as ever to bring up this legend that somehow attached itself to me in high school: Apparently, I was in the passenger seat of a friend's car, and as we cruised Westheimer one night, we pulled up alongside some girls. I was told that I looked over at them and excitedly rolled the car window down, and they did too. "Oh," I was alleged to have said. "Did someone fart in y'all's car too?"
Here's the thing -- as much as I would have liked to have claimed that stunningly Churchillian repartee as a high school sophomore, I never uttered any such thing. I remember people telling me I did that in high school as if they were there and saw me, and I didn't remember it then and I damn sure don't now. (Maybe there was no appropriate time to remember that story. The whole thing seems silly now, but hell, so does the idea of aimlessly cruising Westheimer.)
I did see one scary incident in the golden age of cruising Westheimer. After my uncle died, my friends and I used his house a sort of party palace. One night my buddy Kirk and I were seated on the curb at the corner of Yupon, watching Westheimer slide past, when some guy in a convertible evidently looked the wrong way at a roving pack of street toughs. They pulled him out of his car and beat the shit out of him while his girlfriend looked on in terror, kicked the crap out of his car doors, and smashed his windshield, before just carrying on up the street as if nothing had ever happened. (Kirk and I literally turtled our heads into our knees, praying these guys wouldn't see us.)
In about 1986, the City decided enough was enough and cracked down on the pastime by setting up roadblocks and banning turning off of side-streets, and the whole phenomenon vanished in about a month. Today, the era lives on in a Cruising Westheimer Facebook Group and some seemingly random no left turn signs on streets like Lovett and Avondale. The cruising scene migrated on to the Richmond Strip for a time, and then Shepherd Plaza, downtown, Midtown and now Washington Avenue. And the beat goes on...
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