Sole of Houston: Bissonnet, from Synott Road to Montrose
In this episode of the Sole of Houston, David Beebe and I selected Bissonnet. We would catch the #65 bus at Bellaire transit center, ride it out to Synott Road, about 14.5 miles southwest of our intended terminus – Ernie’s on Banks, a few blocks north of Bissonnet off Montrose. After gathering provisions at the downtown Bellaire Walgreen’s, we rode the 65 an hour to the southwest.
10:06 AM, 14000 Bissonnet: Out here near Synott, only a couple of miles due north of Sugar Land, Bissonnet reminded me of Westheimer’s outer reaches -- scattered apartment complexes amid brushy vacant lots. A sign in one such announced the future home of “Timmy Chan’s Retail Center” – the late ghetto grub kingpin’s heirs are evidently continuing the march of his empire.
10:34 AM, 12715 Bissonnet, Stumpy’s Bar : Despite the time, Stumpy’s was open. Despite the fact that we had walked only about a mile, it was time for a beer.
As we walked in, I could hear an old guy saying to his friends “If stupidity had o’ been a crime, that place woulda been a penitentiary,” to general guffaws. The median age of the three codgers at the bar – the only customers -- had to be about 70, while the barmaid was probably in her mid 50s.
A silence fell over the men as we took our place at the bar. We each ordered Busch tall boys. Despite prominent “No Smoking” signs in Spanish and English, each stool at the bar had a ripped-in-half beer can stuffed with butts in front of it.
There were three tables in Stumpy’s, each salvaged from a Wendy’s circa 1979. (You remember those tables with the Victorian newspapers on them, right?) A TV beamed the bed-hopping shenanigans of The Young and the Restless to Stumpy’s regulars, while a snack machine in the corner offered not just Cheez-Its and Snickers but also condoms, rolling papers and Alka-Seltzer. The men’s room was the final resting place of a couple of gutted Golden Age video games.
While I was in the bathroom, Beebe found out the weirdest thing about Stumpy’s. The barmaid told him it’s open from ten to eight, every day.
11-noon, 12000-10000 Bissonnet: Between Dairy Ashford and the Beltway, you see a lot of things like Protestant Vietnamese churches, the Millennium African Video Center, the Royal Halal Meat Market, and storefront churches with names like The Prophetic Word of Faith. There’s also a noticeable Filipino presence, as well as another from the Mexican state of Michoacan.
At another decaying strip mall, a recognizable concrete storefront advertised itself as a “Royal Palace.” And you could still see where the new owners had yanked the word “Palais” out of the concrete, re-arranged a few of the letters, swapped out a couple more, and then slapped the whole thing to the right of the word “Royal,” which had been left intact.
By this time it was about noon. The weather was glorious, about ten degrees cooler than our tortuous East Side trek a month or so ago. As we crossed under the Beltway, the pedestrian traffic started picking up.
Noon-1 pm, 10000-8000 Bissonnet: Bissonnet is likely the most densely populated street we’d ever walked, as well as the most crime-ridden, as evidenced by the numerous emergency vehicles that hurtled through sirens wailing, lights ablaze.
We were now in the ghetto stretch, teeming with sprawling Section 8 apartment complexes, drug dealers and prostitution, all seasoned with the post-Katrina cayenne of some of the roughest customers New Orleans had to offer.
Houston Fire Station 68 operates a Web site that gives a pretty detailed account of the area’s history.
“Neighborhoods like Clubcreek, Westwood, and Forum Park were created over night as large apartment complexes were built in fields where nothing once stood,” the site informs us. “These complexes were the place to see and be seen all throughout the mid to late 1970’s. Unfortunately this would all change with the oil bust in the early 1980’s. Almost as fast as these apartment complexes had been built, they were nearly abandoned. Apartment managers had no choice but to lower the rent in an effort to fill its occupancies.”
Then came the expansion of city bus lines and waves of immigrants, both legal and illegal. Residents of Third Ward and Fifth Ward, eager to enjoy the benefits of glamorous suburban living and enticed by cheap rents, moved into the once-swanky complexes. Landlords shoehorned illegals into two-bedroom apartments a dozen at a time. And then came Katrina.
“Fast forward to present day and the apartments that were once grandiose and home to the young ‘up and coming’ professional - are now run-down, dilapidated, and home to either the poor, displaced, illegal, or criminal,” the fire station site continues. “Because almost all of these complexes are month to month rentals, there is no ‘pride in ownership’ to be found like what is commonly found in residential subdivisions where deed restrictions and neighborhood associations keep affairs in check.”
The account goes on to add that the area does not look very intimidating at first glance, and that too is correct. And never did Beebe and I feel threatened.
The devil is in both the sky-high crime stats and the details. Beebe and I walked around the back of what looked like an abandoned Subway near Beltway 8. A couple of windows were cracked, the walls were tagged, and there was trash strewn all over the place. And yet it was open. Also, at several points during the day we could see past the facades of the infamous apartment complexes and catch glimpses of sights that wouldn’t look out of place in Chicago’s Cabrini Green or the New Orleans projects.
And then if you read the little stories in section B of the Chron, just about every day you’ll find tales of mayhem like “Man shot, killed in Southwest drive-by” and “Shootout in Southwest Complex Leaves Two Dead, One Hurt.” Is it any wonder that “plex” is H-Town slang for strife?
We dialed up KCOH on my radio to catch the beginning of Wash Allen’s Confessions show. Today’s caller was a 30-year-old woman who had caught her 40-year-old boyfriend cheating with a 50-year-old woman. And then he had had the huevos to try to book both women on a cruise, in cabins on either side of his… Wash turned the phone lines over to “the soothsayers,” as the Confessions caller-advice givers are called.
“Older women have more experience,” said one woman. “They know what men like.”
“She probably can cook real good,” said a man. “Young women don’t know how to cook. You get to a man’s heart through his stomach.”
“She’s just mad ‘cause she can’t understand how she lost her man to an old woman,” opined a man calling from his mechanic shop.
“Maybe he just wants to have sex once a week or something like that,” said a woman. “Young women want it three, four nights a week. He’s getting’ too old for that.”
“He can’t roosta like he useta,” I said to Beebe.
We explored an unfinished strip mall near the Beltway that looked like it had been only half-built in 1987. Nevertheless, it had a full complement of tenants, including a restaurant called “Shenae’s, formerly Kenny’s.”
Later, I read about the place on B4-U-Eat.com. Here are some sample comments:
Mink32 writes: “Although the food is good, and the environment is good ... I have been there on 3 occasions and I have heard a lot of noise (by the lady manager) from the kitchen yelling at her staff. I did not feel comfortable and did not think that it was proper.”
“Rob Johnson” wrote: “It is well worth trying if you like spicy African cuisine, from various regions of Western Africa - Nigeria, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, etc. The head chef is a lady would demands excellence from her staff, so on occasion, you may hear some management vocals…”
Maybe Kenny just got tired of the management vocals…
2:30 pm, a side trip to the Shamrock Inn on Gessner: After crossing under the Southwest Freeway, where we had a shot a half-pint of Sauza, we made a slight detour to go check out the Shamrock Inn. I’d heard a rumor that it was the proud owner of one of the old Shamrock Hotel’s bars. Beebe knew the place all too well.
“Years ago we got booked to play there some Saturday night,” he said. “We showed up to play the show, and in the mean time the bar had been sold and the girl that had booked us had been fired. So anyway, the new owner told us we wouldn’t be playing. That sucked, but the worst part was this redneck woman who was sitting at the bar. She said ‘Just ‘cause some man-a-ger tells you y’all can play here doesn’t mean you get to play here. You got ta talk to the owner. Y’all must be new to the music business if y’all don’t know that.’ Henkel was about to kill her. And we had a $200 guarantee.”
But Beebe was able to put that behind him, and so we headed a block or two north on Gessner, passed a burned-out taqueria and a few aimless crackheads, one of whom tried to bum a smoke from us.
The Shamrock is in a strip mall across the street from the middle-class enclave of Braeburn Valley. A couple of doors down from the Shamrock there stands the saddest daycare center in the world – the play area for the tykes incarcerated there is a roped-off, Astro-turfed parcel of concrete in the parking lot.
And yet somehow, the Shamrock is a welcoming bar. The light is very home-y and warm, there’s plenty of wood accents, it’s clean. To go along with the standard deco of these outer-loop strip mall joints, there is a touch-screen jukebox and plenty of cheesy Texans posters, but this place has some unusual touches.
First, there’s a trophy case full of memorabilia from the Shamrock Hotel. What’s more, there’s even a paperback library. Sure, virtually all of the books were pulp romances, but still…You don’t often come across even trashy literary impulses in any Houston bars, still less one out here on South Gessner in the heart of Bissonnet’s Bermuda Triangle.
Beebe and I ordered draft Shiner Blondes and I slid a few wrinkled dollars into the touchscreen juke. It’s my belief that every bar has its very own perfect song, and for the Shamrock Inn I believed that tune to be 10CC’s “I’m Not in Love.” I dialed that one up and paired with a few simpatico tunes by the Alan Parsons Project.
Beebe hipped me to the idea that this was the perfect music for the Anglo’s last stand in Southwest Houston. He has this idea for a play about a guy in the early 1980s who heeded the siren song of disco king / apartment mogul Michael Pollack’s briefly ubiquitous TV pitches and moved into Gulfton’s Colonial House apartments. There, Beebe’s sad-sack protagonist expected to find Pollack’s promised luxury lifestyle, swingin’ poolside boogie par-tays, and bevies of luscious foxes who looked just like Farrah Fawcett or Jaclyn Smith.
Instead, he finds a sprawling slum, chock-full of Guatemalan and Salvadoran laborers, embezzlers and gambling addicts spiraling toward the gutter, and dancers at D-list strip bars and their thuggish boyfriends strung out on cheap cocaine.
Every night he ends up coming down from his bad blow alone in his apartment, soothing himself with the sounds of 10CC and the Alan Parsons Project. Maybe a little Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Atlanta Rhythm Section too. The only time he ever feels good is when he gets hold of some of that new ecstasy stuff, but the hangovers are even more depressing.
All along, he wonders when the hottie in the bikini is gonna rise like Botticelli’s Venus out of the Colonial House pool bearing him the free VCR he was promised for signing his one-year lease. It’s a shame IBP isn’t around to help Beebe out with this idea.
3-5 pm, Braeburn Valley to Bellaire: Back on the road…By now Confessions had ended, and today’s KCOH musical combat had been announced – a very special showdown: a tag-team match pitting Lou Rawls and Jerry Butler in the smoove corner versus Tyrone Davis and Gene Chandler in the fonky corner.
On we walked, past La Raza Cantina / taqueria / used car lot and into a damn-near sylvan stretch. Here it hit me that despite Bissonnet’s rep for havoc, it really is one of the more pleasant streets to walk in Houston. And that’s not just because of the novelty that the immigrants bring, nor false warmth from the tequila and beer that was coursing through our veins.
By now, I’ve walked damn near the entire lengths of Bellaire, Westheimer, Clinton, Navigation, and Shepherd, and Bissonnet is nicer than all of them, for the simple reason that its sidewalks have far more shade. Westheimer has none between 6 and the Loop, save for a few landscaping fantasias at scattered corporate campuses; there’s none to be had on most of Shepherd unless you duck under a bridge (where you might sit on human turds); sun-baked Bellaire has none from Eldridge central Sharpstown, and the East Side streets are only a little better. Bissonnet, on the other hand, seems like a stroll through Yosemite.
Around Hillcroft, the streets were crowded with kids heading home from Sharpstown High. After crossing Beechnut, we headed into Gianotti’s Italian / Argentine deli for lunch – and man, that place makes a mean sandwich. I had the ham and provolone “classic,” while Beebe opted for the Milanesa Napolitano – in Texan, that marriage of Italian north and south would be the “chicken-fried steak with spaghetti sauce and cheese.”
We spent the next hour trying to remember which of the pupuseria-studded strip malls once contained Coaches Driving School, where we had both attended driver’s ed in the mid-‘80s. It was hard to tell – they all looked the same now, each home to Salvadoran tenants as well as a few from the Mexican state of Jalisco. (We had left the Michoacan zone behind.) There’s also a declining Cuban presence here – where once were three restaurants, today only Café Piquet remains -- and a few thrift stores. Sadly, African Sound and Video, the Cote D’Ivoirian-run record store that once stood across from sprawling Bayland Park, has recently closed.
At the Moo Hive honey ice cream shop, I bought a coconut milk shake to wash down half my Gianotti’s classic, and we oozed back into Bellaire city about four. At a rambling 1950’s open-air mall that houses a rare rock / jewelry store, an old barber shop and a classical music academy, we discovered a hidden breezeway, complete with lush plants and benches. For some reason, it reminded me vaguely of San Antonio’s tourist Mercado.
We took a seat and passed the tequila bottle and listened to some of the Butler / Rawls vs Chandler / Davis combat, which was by now drawing to a close. Beebe wanted to phone in his vote (Chandler / Davis), so we headed to a pay phone outside a CVS, which robbed $1 from Beebe because of two busy signals.
Dusk, West U to the Museum District : At the train tracks that separate Bellaire and West U we sat on the rails and had another ceremonial pull from the tequila bottle, before trudging down to the Marquis II. At this hour, long before the frat hordes descend, it’s a far from unpleasant place to be. The only customers are codgers, or former frat / sorority types in their 30s fast becoming codgers, and a pitcher of beer is about $4. And since it’s in West U, you can still smoke. We watched Josh Beckett mow down a few Cleveland Indians and rolled on to our next stop – Under the Volcano. There Beebe and I had a frozen rum n’ coke – or a “Brown Dragon,” as they are known to Volcano staff. (They are called so because they are as addictive as opium – devotees are said to be “chasing the brown dragon.”)
And the walk continued, past Kirby, past Greenbriar, past Shepherd. At Hazard, right in front of the Raven Grill, a frat boy leaned out of the passenger window of a passing old-school Blazer and hollered “Faggots!” at us. Must have been my man-purse. Or maybe it was our transistor radio…
Now we were in my old neighborhood, the streets where my grandparents lived that functioned as the only constant in my childhood of frequent divorce-driven moves.
I can remember when Picnic was Butera’s and exactly how the po’ boys there tasted. (Not that much different from my Giannotti’s classic, as it happened. My first bite into that sucker was damn near Proustian, and how appropriate that it happened on Bissonnet.)
I remember when Maryland Manor got a face-lift and wasn’t rumored to be demolished to make way for a skyscraper. I can remember when those condos down by Ashby were the site of a U-Tote-Em, where I showed my fake ID once to the Vietnamese clerk in 1984 – when I was 14 -- and enjoyed three years of uncarded beer purchases after that. (Thanks, Chau!) I remember the weird brown metal building that was next door with the huge dogs out back – it claimed to be some kind of art gallery, but my grandmother just knew they were up to something . I can point out a live oak from which Coral Eugene Watts left a woman’s body hanging, and another where a criminal and a policeman both met their doom at the end of a long car chase.
This ‘hood is in my very marrow, so I am biased, but I think Bissonnet east of Cherokee and west of the museums is one of the most beautiful and downright majestic half-miles in all of Houston.
We headed north at Montrose, went into Ernie’s and got a pitcher. We went out to the deck and looked at the skyline, now very near, and the spires of the high-dollar churches nearby, and reminisced about high school shenanigans in Banks, Dunlavy and Fleming Parks. Stevie Good Time T of KCOH hit us with “It’s Your Thing” and “Respect Yourself” back to back out of the transistor. We’d come a long way from Stumpy’s. – John Nova Lomax
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