Houston 101: Sig Byrd, Houston's King of True-Life Noir
Of all the columnists in the history of Houston journalism, Sigman Byrd was easily the darkest and the most literary. From the late 1940s to the early '60s, Byrd wrote a column called The Stroller for the old daily Houston Press and later, briefly for the Chronicle. He always much favored the city's dark shadows, scruffy neighborhoods, and forgotten, often wrecked people over the big affairs of the day and Houston's high and mighty.
As David Theis put it in his 1994 remembrance :
Byrd ranged for copy far and wide in the Houston of his day. He listened to the alcohol-treated stories of the merchant sailors in the bars on 75th Street, near the Ship Channel. He ate chicharrones and drank Jax beer with Don Antonio and the Laredo Bar regulars (who knew him as Don Segismundo) just off Navigation. He hung with the Fifth Ward's assorted cats. But it was downtown and its environs that Byrd had a particularly strong feeling for. It was possible to make a human connection with downtown then. The way Sig Byrd wrote it, at least, it was impossible not to, not if you had any feeling for raw, unadulterated humanity.
Byrd's was the pre-Interstate Houston, a Houston of strongly distinct neighborhoods and districts with poetic names like Catfish Reef (the 400 block of lower Milam), Pearl Harbor (the corner of Hill and Lyons), Vinegar Hill (the eastern terminus of Washington Avenue) and the corner of Six-Bit Street (75th) and Canine Street, as one local wag designated Canal, because it was "dog-eat-dog."
Here, from his long out-of-print Viking Press collection Sig Byrd's Houston, is Byrd's report of the action in Catfish Reef, written in typically Byrd-ish noir style:
The Reef is bi-racial. The light and the dark meet here. Generally speaking, the odd numbers, on the east side, are dark, the even numbers light; but the exception proves the rule.
You can buy practically anything here. Whiskey, gin. wine, beer, a one hundred and fifty dollar suit, firearms, a four bit flop, a diamond bracelet that will look equally good on the arm of a chaste woman or a fun-gal. You can buy fried catfish in Catfish Reef. You can buy reefers on the Reef.
Or you can, get faded, get your picture made, your shoes shined, your hair cut, your teeth pulled. You can get your teeth knocked out for free. You can buy lewd pictures, and in the honkytonks you can arrange for the real thing. The reef is a quietly cruel street, where rents are high and laughter comes easy, where violence flares quickly and briefly in the neon twilight, and if a dream ever comes true it's apt to be a nightmare.
The gun dealers, reefer men, fun-gals, flophouses, and catfish dealers are gone from the Reef ,and today you can't buy literally anything in Catfish Reef except a parking spot:
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Virtually every building and person Byrd wrote about in his book is now gone. Nick Gaitan, the local bass player, recently communed with some of the ghosts of Sig Byrd's Houston when he visited a vacant lot at 29 St. Charles Street, the site of the Laredo Bar.
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"It's just a vacant lot with a tiny concrete slab on it now," says Gaitan. "But my grandfather built a house right around the corner from there in 1950, which was just about the time Byrd wrote those stories. We don't own that house any more, but I did grow up in Segundo (Segundo Barrio is Second Ward, one of Byrd's favorite haunts). For somebody who loves Houston and its history, it's great to read. The stories, the people, the characters...he wrote about real people."
You could say Gaitan communes with Byrd's ghost nightly -- he lives above Sig's Lagoon; Thomas and Jennifer Escalante's Houston-themed gift shop and record store is named in honor of Byrd.
Sig Byrd's Houston is flat-out one of the finest books, fiction or non-fiction, this city has ever spawned. That it has been out of print since its initial release in 1955 is both tragic and typically Houstonian. The dead and gone are seldom lamented or remembered in perpetual boomtowns.
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