Sole Of Houston: East Side Story -- Trains, Tequila, Dogs & Grief
Photos by Jay Lee
I just can't get enough of Houston's East End/Second Ward/Ship Channel area, so that is where the latest installment of the Sole of Houston took us. I don't think I can recreate the route with anything more than about 90 percent accuracy, but my best guess is that it looked something like this.
David Beebe couldn't make this one, so I took a couple of Sole rookies along. Jay Lee, the high-tech renaissance man and Flying Fish Sailor was invited along for both his conversation and his downright frightening photography skills. (His most humdrum shots are better than the best I have ever taken on these walks.) Chris Henderson, a former Nightfly contributor, had wanted me to reserve him a spot on the next one a while back.
That Beebe was unable to come also explains the route somewhat. I didn't want my brave companion of some 200 miles of asphalt marches to be cheated of virgin territory elsewhere, so this one was selected to very nearly, but not quite, follow in the footsteps of our hikes on East Side thoroughfares like Leeland/Telephone, Navigation, and Harrisburg. The plan was to just sort of meander out to 75th Street and then head north to Canal and thence back to town.
The trek began a little before ten in the Press parking lot and carried us up Travis. After a short-cut through the very quiet Houston Pavilions, we emerged near the Convention Center, where a knot of African cabbies were squabbling as two of Houston's Finest tried to sort them out. Good luck with that -- I'll bet that feud had its roots in the Eritrean Revolution or something like that.
Once you round the corner of the Geo. R. Brown on Rusk and cross under the overpass, you are in another world. There's a gangland L.A. body-dump vista, a welter of disused train tracks, tall weeds, crumbling warehouses, and a general abomination of desolation, with the former Maxwell House plant looming over it all and enveloping it in the aroma of parched coffee. I loved it.
And it turns out not all of the train tracks are out of commission, because as with every other time I have walked this way, a long-ass freight train rumbled past before we could get across. We traded swigs out of a fifth of Sauza silver as we watched the big KC Southern locomotives tug about 300 boxcars north from the Port of Houston to the Great Midwest.
Moments like that make you feel glad to be who you are and to be alive. When I do the Sole strolls on a weekday, it's as liberating a feeling as playing hooky. Here you are walking past office buildings full of cubicle jockeys, warehouses and their sweaty loading-dock dudes, cops on their beat and the drug dealers on theirs, and you've just got the key to the city, the freedom to go wherever you want to go and most of the time in the world to do it in. You're on no firm timetable or itinerary most of the time. It's like the best part of being a hobo, but with none of the drawbacks. (I heartily thank my wife for allowing me to do these hikes, because just as sure as it's a sort of hooky from my job, it's also hooky from my family.)
But anyway, there were the three of us swigging tequila and watching that mighty freight ca-chunk-a-whump past while a steady Gulf breeze kissed us with a mother's love. Like the old beer commercials used to say, it don't get much better 'n 'at.
And yet it did, when across the train tracks we spied an old white clapboard building on Milby Street with a painting of Uncle Sam on the front. Since Uncle Sam was saying "I want you at karaoke" I figured it was a bar, from the looks of it, one that would be open before noon, which is my favorite kind.
And it was. In fact, to cater to the third shift at the coffee plant, the D&W Lounge opens at 7 AM. The interior is done up with pictures of Marilyn Monroe, statues of the Buddha, and a super-cool tin man hand-fashioned out of school cafeteria cans.
Debbie Carson, the 60something barmaid, told us the place had been here when she was a little girl, although back then, it doubled as a hardware store and beer joint. "And now I work here!" she laughed. "Isn't life funny?" Carson told us that in addition to the coffee-plant folks, their other regulars included homicide detectives and DAs. Indeed, it reminds me of a Houston version of a place where Bunk, McNulty and Lester Freamon would drunkenly scheme their next move in their quantum chess game against both their bosses and Marlo.
"This is a friendly place," Carson said. "You should come back at night." The three of us adjourned to the pleasant, potted-plant dotted smoking porch and decided that finding this place would probably be the highlight of our day.
Just then Keith Weyel, the D&W's new owner, rolled up. Like Carson, Weyel grew up in the neighborhood. His father had a vending-machine company, and long ago had opened the famous Harrisburg Country Club a few blocks away, although that bar was no longer in the family's ownership. Weyel told us that he was somewhat disappointed that the kids in the nearby new condos had yet to discover his bar. Honestly, I kind of hoped they wouldn't, because as it is right now, this is probably my favorite bar in Houston.
But we had a walk to take, so off we went into the heart of Eastwood, which was a revelation to Lee. "This reminds me of The Heights," he said, as we passed a line of refurbished bungalows in the live-oak canopy of Polk Street. Some even had sprouted those goofy seasonal flags -- you know, those pastel rags with bunnies and butterflies on them so favored by suburban housewives of a certain ilk.
At the corner of Polk and Dumble stood another bar, this one closed. Lee and I had a simultaneous brainwave - that went something like this:
1.) Buy this bar.
2) Deck it out in Harry Potter décor and rename it the Dumble Door.
East of Eastwood is not as gentrified. Chain link fences enclosed yards that contained some of the most extraordinarily pedigreed mutts mine eyes have yet seen since I moved out of the hillbilly ghetto that was East Nashville in the early '90s.
By and by we came to Evergreen Cemetery, according to Findagrave.com the final resting place of nobody famous. All of us were puzzled by the grave in the picture below, though. What is going on there? A very popular person died, we guessed. Or maybe a child. That is a lot of grief there.
At 75th Street we turned north and headed north towards Canal. But that story will have to wait for a future installment of the Sole of Houston. We'll close with some random shots from the camera of the inestimably talented Mr Lee.