The Sole of Houston
I've read that you can see Westheimer from space. I've also read that it is the longest commercial thoroughfare in Texas. I've always thought of it as the soul of the west side of Houston. For all of these reasons and a few more, I thought it would be a good idea to walk it, all the way.
Not from the Loop to Midtown, nor from the Beltway either. By "all the way," I mean just that -- start from where the No. 53 "Westheimer Limited" Metro bus turns around at West Oaks Mall and Highway 6, and then pound the pavement of the entire 16-plus miles, eight zip codes and three U.S. congressional districts, all the way to where Westheimer gives way to Elgin in Midtown.
You might be asking yourself why someone would take on such a challenge. The day after the slog, awaking with blistered feet and sore to the bone, I was wondering the same thing myself. I doubted anyone else had done it, for starters. I also did it because I wanted the physical challenge. I have recently lost about 20 or 30 pounds, and while I'm still no Lance Armstrong -- I could probably stand to shed about 30 or 40 more pounds -- I felt my relatively svelte self needed a test. I just hoped my thighs wouldn't chafe, and thanks to Dr. Atkins, they didn't.
But above all else, I wanted to see if I would gain any insights into H-Town's soul. Westheimer, more than any other thoroughfare, embodies Houston's car-enamored, zoning-free ethos, a damn-near 20-mile phantasmagoria of strip malls, storage facilities, restaurants, big-box retail, office parks, apartment complexes, strip clubs, malls, supermarkets and the occasional church.
Everyone I told about my plan thought I was crazy, and the day before the hike, I realized that it would probably be wise to take some company. But who would be foolish enough to join me on such short notice? Geoffrey "Uncle Tick" Muller, that's who. Like me, Uncle Tick is a walker. One time I ran into him on Richmond on an August afternoon, and he said to me, "So, Mr. Lomax. I didn't know you were a pedestrian." And he was a musician without a real job, so I figured he might not be as encumbered as most. I was right. We arranged to meet on the Westheimer Limited at about 9:30 a.m. He would catch it in Montrose, and I would climb aboard in Greenway Plaza.
The fateful morning came and I packed a shoulder bag with a notebook, a camera and a tape recorder. My wife dropped me off at the bus stop, admonishing me to drink lots of fluids and laughing at my travails to come. I got aboard the bus, and no Uncle Tick. Shit, that boded ill, as did the trek out. It took about an hour to drive out there...How long would the walk back be? And there seemed to be lots of people getting on and off this bus quickly, people eager to pay a dollar rather than walk this monster even a quarter-mile. I was planning to go 64 times that far.
Just before the end of the line, the doors opened and someone in a parking lot next to the road shouted my name. It was Uncle Tick. He had missed the bus, but he'd persuaded his girlfriend to drive him out. It was on -- we started our long march at about 10:30 a.m.
Sex, Beer and Death on the Edge of Town
Immediately, a tragedy. Literally a hundred yards into our hike, we came upon a black Camry that had hit the median and overturned. A few gawkers lined the streets, bored cops stood around and a couple of wreckers idled nearby, all while a paramedic crawled into the crushed car to extract the passenger. Was this an omen of some sort? Time would tell.
The outer reaches of Westheimer are peculiar. There are no sidewalks, and plenty of vacant land, so Tick and I trekked down a series of faint trails through thigh-high grass. We made an odd pair -- I'm about six inches taller than Tick, who is as slight as I am beefy. We both carried shoulder bags, wore sensible shoes and repped H-Town with our headgear -- an orange vintage Astros hat in my case, a black gangsta cap that read "Houston" in Gothic-looking script in Tick's.
Way off in the distance, Williams Tower taunted us. At this remove, its 900-plus feet looked like about six inches. This was a daunting sight, especially since it marked only the three-quarter point of this death march. Tick told me about how all the friends he talked to thought he was crazy, too, and that he had been privy to some wagering. "I hate to say this, but somebody bet that you would only make it to the Beltway," he told me.
The weird thing about this stretch was the hyper-abundance of sex shops. You'd think there would be more of these way down on the seedy Lower Westheimer strip, but there were at least as many out here on the Republican end, too. (One of them even boldly posted not one but several signs in its window for an anal lube called Moist.) One strip mall out there was anchored with a head shop/porn emporium at one end and a Christian bookstore called Rejoice at the other.
At Dairy Ashford we came upon a liquor store. I went in and bought a fifth of Taaka, a few Red Bulls, a pack of Camels, some cups and a big bottle of water. I told the Indian clerk we were walking down Westheimer.
"This is our fuel," I added.
"Yes, you go to West Oaks Mall, it's not far," he said.
"No, we're going the other way," Tick said.
"Why don't you take the bus?" the clerk said.
"Because we're walkers," I said. "Pedestrians."
"That's a long way -- the Galleria is very far. Good luck," the clerk said.
We didn't even bother to tell him we were going four miles past that. Hell, I don't believe he even knew Westheimer continued past the Galleria.
Across the street from the liquor store sprawls Forest Park Westheimer Cemetery, final resting place of both legendary defense attorney Percy Foreman and Joan Olive Hill, the pretty young River Oaks matron whose murder touched off the whole Blood and Money phenomenon. It's also heavy on baseball figures -- James "Salty" Parker, who managed the Astros for one game in 1972, slumbers here, as do above-average pitcher Turk Farrell and announcer Loel Passe, whose catch-phrase "hot ziggity dog and sassafras tea" was, I am made to understand by Find-a-Grave.com, "known to two generations of Houston Astros fans." Also, Bubble Puppy guitarist Michael Stephen Knust is here, and H-Town's Kevin "Dino" Conner is "Knockin' Da Boots" for eternity under the lush St. Augustine.
Tick and I hoped to find some of those graves, but we were taken aback by the Vietnamese and Chinese tombstones. East Asians spare no expense -- most of the graves are etched with fine calligraphy and pictures of dragons and butterflies and other totemic animals. There were a few statues of a figure we took to be Confucius, and on one of them someone had left an offering of plantains, incense, pears and papaya. Someone had taken a bite out of a couple of these donations.
We sat in the shade nearby and sipped ice water. After this serene interlude, we headed back out into the hurly-burly. At high noon the heat was getting a bit intense, and we were thirsting for something more substantial. We came upon the Fox and Hounds tavern, one of a surprising number of British-themed pubs near Westheimer's end. This one reminded me of the nicest pub at Heathrow Airport. There were TVs everywhere, some tuned to soccer, others to baseball, still more to a replay of the previous weekend's epic gridiron struggle between football powerhouses Syracuse and Illinois. The biggest screen of all -- the one over the bar -- played music videos. I ordered an enormous pint of Foster's, Tick got a tamer beer and we listened in on the two guys next to us as they sipped pints and took in the videos.
"So what's 'emo' again?" asked the older of the two, a spiky-haired redhead who looked about 32.
"It's that makeup-wearing, sad-bastardy crap," answered his companion, a mid-20s guy with black hair. "It's like Goth all over again. Most of it sucks."
"Yeah, just give me good ol'-fashioned rock and roll," said the redhaired guy.
A few minutes later, Tick and I joined the conversation. The redhead's name was Matt, and Mike was the younger guy. They worked as sound engineers for Grace Presbyterian Church -- they ran the board for the music at services and operated the church's in-house recording studio. As it turned out, Tick, among his many other gigs (Medicine Show and a host of satellite bands), also was a church musician, a member of the house band at The Woodlands Fellowship.
With Matt and Mike, Tick traded war stories from the trenches of Christian music -- the lavish spending, the mind-bogglingly high-tech gear, the excellent wages. And he told them about our hike.
"Why don't you get the bus?" Mike asked.
They didn't, and asked about what we'd seen so far. We told them about all the porn shops and how this one pawn shop we passed was offering a full barrel of deer antlers. Not mounted trophy heads, mind you -- someone had hocked a huge pile of plain old antlers.
"The worst thing I have ever seen in a pawn shop was two Rascals," said Mike. "You just know that whatever story was behind those carts being in a pawn shop could not be happy. You just know the owners of those Rascals aren't walking around healed or something. Nope, some crackhead beat his own grandfather and hocked his Rascal."
Leaving the Fox and Hounds was tough. It was now about one in the afternoon, and getting seriously hot. The sun was blinding, and the exhaust fumes had started me hocking up some interesting loogies. We were entering Westchase, the dreariest expanse of the whole trek. And it was disheartening to see a Dairy Queen this far east. I had thought we had left such rustic eateries behind us out in the semirural porn zone.
But off in the distance, I saw a welcome sight. "Look, Tick, there's the Beltway!" I said. "Looks like you can collect on that bet."
Tick was silent for a moment and surprisingly glum. In fact, he looked downright pained. "Uhh, well not exactly," he said. "I was the one who bet you wouldn't make it."
The Westchase Blues
There was a story in the Chronicle a couple of weeks ago about how Westchase has a plan -- hike-and-bike trails and even canals for pleasure boating are on the agenda. That's good, 'cause it needs one. It lacks the sleaze of the Highway 6 area and the tacky exuberance of mid-Westheimer, the area between Chimney Rock and Fondren. And Westchase is huge -- it runs all the way from west of Wilcrest damn near to Fondren. It's virtually all chains -- a Geography of Nowhere wasteland of Boston Market, Borders, Kroger, Randalls, Taco Bell, Citgo and Sonic. Several of the six CVS outlets we passed are there, as are a few of the uncountable Starbucks.
There's a tall, blue-glass office building that curves around an impossibly blue pool -- that was one of the few beauty spots in all of Westchase, and hell, all of Westheimer. (It's the cover shot on the Westchase District's official Web site.) Our feet were starting to hurt, and Tick said "My Prerogative" was stuck in his head. A couple of blocks down the road, Tick clambered atop a man-made mound, behind which was another beauty spot, an oasis in the corporate concrete desert. Some office building had an Edenic campus with a little lake shaded by cypress trees. Tiny fish lived in the lake. Tick and I ripped off our shoes and socks and dipped our tired and sore dogs in the cold water. Bliss, even though I could feel the minnows nipping my toes. Tick whipped out his harmonica and played "John Henry." We tore into a bag of trail mix, and I whipped up a warm Red Bull and vodka. We needed this little Huckleberry Finn idyll, for Westchase was a ghastly trudge.
There's a long stretch out there in which only the south side of Westheimer is developed. On the north side of the street, there's a tall brick wall. We were just about to cross over to the south side after about a half mile of walking beside the wall when we came upon a couple of teenaged kids, seemingly airlifted to that isolated spot by helicopter. They looked like band kids -- one of them had dyed a purple streak in his black hair.
Tick asked them what was up. "Dude, we're just hanging out. We got the munchies, man," Purple Streak said. Tick told them we were walking down Westheimer.
"Dude, why don't you get the bus?"
"We're pedestrians," Tick said. "We're writing a story about it for the Press."
"Dude, you work for the Press?" Purple Streak said. "You should come to our show. We're called Memory Lane, and our first gig is at the Roof Bar. It's gonna rock. You need to write about us, man. Hey man, can I bum one of those Camels?"
They were the only pedestrians we saw in that whole stretch.
We finally passed the Beltway around three o'clock and had a ceremonial swig of vodka to celebrate. To chase it, we headed into the Little Italy coffee bar for a double espresso. Inside, a few solitary men sat at tables, tapping away at laptops. The twentysomething girl behind the counter assessed our grubby, sweaty condition and asked us if we were walking. We told her the deal.
"Are y'all okay?" she asked. "Why don't y'all get the bus?"
"We're pedestrians," I said. I asked her if she could steer us to some points of interest on down the line.
"Well, it's back the other way, but y'all really should go to Cane's. Well, it's called Raisin' Canes, but it's this chicken place, and it has the best sweet tea. I'm from southeast Louisiana and I love sweet tea. I used to go Chick-fil-A for the tea, but Cane's is a lot better. They brew it just right there."
"Well, that's in the other direction," I said. "We can't backtrack. We're on a mission."
"But it really is the best sweet tea," she said. "I'm a Southern girl, and I really love sweet tea. And they use that little bitty ice. It is so good. You can even get it with the lemon brewed in it if you want"
And so on. She kept coming back to the tea at Cane's. That was the pinnacle of her Westheimer, if not the cultural and artistic apex of the entire Greater Houston area. Tick and I were unswayed.
Just before we hit Fondren, we came upon the Westheimer Pub, a place that served up a brew more to our liking. The generic name fit the bar -- it was a classic strip mall-type place. At a little before four, we were the only customers. The tall barmaid served us a couple of pints and then turned her attention to Dr. Phil on the tube. During a commercial break, she vanished into a back room. A Korean lady came in the bar carrying bags of food, looking for the bartender. Tick told her about our trek. "Great! Walk! Super!" she said. Or as Loel Passe might have said, "Hot ziggity dog and sassafras tea!"
A few minutes later the barmaid claimed her lunch. A wiry guy with a couple of tats on his arm came in. He seemed to be a regular. We told him we were walking down Westheimer, and he liked the idea. He was an ex-Marine. A shoulder injury he concealed from them for two years was finally discovered, and he was honorably discharged before he got to go to Iraq -- "And now look at me -- I'm a drunk 30-year-old waiter," he said. He really wanted to be over in Iraq with his buddies, he said. I told him about the brother of a friend of mine who enlisted in the Navy to work his way through med school in the early '90s, only to be called to the front lines as a MASH-type combat surgeon 12 years later.
I told the marine about the horrific stuff this guy had to do -- patch up Iraqi kids who'd been mowed down in cross-fires and stuff like that. "See," said the marine. "That's the difference 'tween us and them. They would never do something like that. They would just let them die in the street. But we go over there and patch people up -- doesn't matter if it's one of ours or theirs. And then everybody says we're the bad guys."
Broad, Majestic Westheimer
At Fondren things got interesting again. The squalid bus stop at the corner of Fondren and Westheimer announced that we were crossing over into a more definably urban zone -- there was trash everywhere and a middle-aged black woman was sleeping on a blanket on the ground in the shade of a few trees.
Here's what Stephen Fox wrote in the Houston Architectural Guide about this stretch: "Nowhere is the 'anything goes' image that adheres to Houston more blatantly displayed than along the stretch of Westheimer Road between Chimney Rock and South Gessner Road. Middle-class subdivisions of the 1950s flank this strip, but they are hidden behind broad bands of commercial development that face Westheimer. Most of these date from the 1960s and early '70s, when Houston's suburbanizing ethos was at its least constrained. Not only do shopping centers, gas stations and fast-food restaurants line up along Westheimer -- each flashing signs or theme-style inducements to passersby -- but mega-garden apartment complexes compete for attention in a mixture of dimly recognizable 'traditional' styles. The order of the strip is economic, rather than visual or experiential. The biggest-grossing land gets the prime footage."
CVS has some prime footage. We stopped in and belatedly bought sunblock and the worst jam box in the history of the universe. Hell, it was only ten dollars, but we could barely tune it, and the only thing we could pick up at first was smooth jazz station The Wave, which was spinning Spandau Ballet's "True." "I feel like we have achieved the pinnacle of mediocrity," Tick announced. "The absolute summit of the average and mundane."
A friend of mine had warned me that this part of Westheimer was ten degrees hotter than the rest of Houston, and it seems he was right. We were really starting to sweat now, and the pain from our feet had spread to our ankles and shins. Rumbo's headline that day -- "El Crcel del Sueo Americano" ("The Prison of the American Dream") -- taunted us from every newspaper rack and seemed all too appropriate. Only a couple of handfuls of trail mix cut the booze and fumes running through our veins, and we were starting to get a bit delirious.
Out of nowhere I started singing Steve Earle's "Down the Road": "Though the roaaad lays long behind you / you have still got miles to go / how's love eeee-ver gonna find you / it ain't here / it's down the road. " Tick walked up to a whole bus-stop full of people and defied them to walk with us. A teenaged Mexican guy told him he was crazy. "The only way I'll walk to Montrose with you is if you have weed," he said. I told him we had vodka, but he regarded that with about as much interest as we'd had for the sweet tea at Cane's.
The unconstrained suburbanizing ethos of the '60s and '70s took hold of our heads. Inspired, we started singing the greats from the local jingle canon. "There's 'On-lee at Mattress Giant'," I said to Tick, who countered with "We put the Yee-Haw back in your motor and transmission!" This is the most nostalgic stretch of Westheimer: There's also a House of Pies, and one of the last remnants of the once-burgeoning Christie's seafood empire. This stretch, in spite of its ugliness, was one of my favorites. It's the Houston only a native could love, the Houston of so-terrible-they're-sublime local TV ads. Even though Gallery Furniture and C&D Scrap Metal aren't on this stretch of Westheimer, it feels like they should be.
On we trudged. We could now see Philip Johnson's details glittering in the late afternoon sun on the Williams Tower. Between Hillcroft and Chimney Rock is Westheimer's testosterone zone -- one strip club after another. It was some of the only, um, notable architecture we saw -- lots of Greco-Roman statues, sensuous palm trees and mock-historical themes. One structure is done up to look like a Roman villa, another resembles a Persian harem, a third looks vaguely Taj Mahal-ish. Tick said they reminded him of words like "baroque" and "rococo." But jiggle joints aren't all there is out there to part men from their money -- there's also the hair-metalicious Evans Music City, where the Scorpions still rule the roost, and an army surplus store next door. We shopped at both places, and they confiscated our shoulder bags for safekeeping at each. We were starting to look suspicious.
The Homeless Take Us For Two of Their Own
The mood abruptly shifted at Chimney Rock. Gone was the tacky, in was the chic, Houston's sweltering stab at Rodeo Drive, complete with chrome bus stops and street signs and the first plentiful greenery we'd seen since the Beltway. We tanked up on excellent shawarma at Caf Lili Lebanese restaurant, where we were the only Anglos amid a crowd of Arabic women in headscarves and their bareheaded husbands. Presiding over the room was Lili herself, a middle-aged, bespectacled woman who, in blatant disregard of Houston's smoking ordinances, occasionally fired up a hookah and took a hit. Above her was a portrait taken in her younger days, next to a near-life-size picture of a wrestler -- presumably Lili's husband -- wearing the uniform of the Lebanese national team. There was also a huge picture of some grand boulevards in Beirut, back when people called it the Paris of the Middle East. Like Lili, Beirut has seen better days.
But the art of shawarma cooking has not. Restored by the meat, we slogged past the Galleria. There, just west of the Loop, a wild-eyed, skinny thirtysomething woman with a deep, bag-lady tan walked up to Tick.
"Hey, are you Irish?" she asked.
"What?" Tick asked, thunderstruck.
"I said, are you Irish?" the woman repeated.
"No, I'm Cajun," he said.
"Well, you look like a leprechaun," she said, and toddled off west. She didn't ask us for anything -- Tick reckoned she thought we were homeless, too. He said that happened to him a lot in Montrose -- people came up to him and assumed he was a denizen of Covenant House.
We headed east. At last we made the Loop. In the underpass, there was one of those proclamations from the mayor that announced how he was putting our tax dollars to use. Someone had scrawled "Fuck Mayor White" on it. I took out my pen and wrote "We made it" on there.
But we hadn't yet. Highland Village lay ahead. As male-oriented and tacky as the jiggle joint/army surplus strip is, so Highland Village is highfalutin and female. There's nothing to interest a straight male here, save for a restaurant or two and the palm trees, which are indeed pretty cool. And I guess you have to admit that it is the prettiest stretch of Westheimer after Shepherd, but it just seems so redundant. Virtually all the shops there are also in the Galleria or River Oaks Plaza -- why do we need all these Banana Republics? And where exactly are these "highlands"?
The sun was setting by this point. Just east of Highland Village, we popped into a parking garage for the Inner Loop vodka-and-Red Bull celebration. Which, it must be said, was a pretty muted affair. By this time, we had about 13 miles behind us. The pain was now well up into our thighs, and we were both suffering from bone-deep fatigue.
We were now in the River Oaks area, and Westheimer had turned boringly pleasant. We saw some of the first domiciles we'd seen since long before the Galleria, and there was an abundance of trees and churches with green, well-kept lawns. We came upon a high-rise luxury apartment building with a fountain in front of it. Once again we bathed our feet to the strains of Tick's harmonica -- and I noticed three quarter-sized blisters studding my right foot. A man came to pick up his school-age son in a BMW convertible and did a double-take when he saw us soaking in his fountain. Across the street, rich, pretty people were playing leisurely games of tennis and volleyball, as if to the strains of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." But not us -- we had to get up and start walking again, and Tick had managed to dial up The Box, which was spinning that Slim Thug-Beyonc hit. "Slim Thugga muthafucka," I muttered to nobody in particular.
It had been way too long since we'd seen a bar, and this was, for me, low ebb. I was jumpy now, paranoid. My nerves were shot. Every time a bus would come roaring up behind me I would whirl around, convinced it was going to kill me. Maybe I was subconsciously longing for a welcome end to my misery. I was hoarse from all the gas fumes and a little drunk from the vodka and beer. Tick was getting worried about me, which pissed me off, but I was very glad he was there, because I was severely tempted to end this madness. West of Kirby, I hallucinated that I saw the yellow Caf Adobe sign, which was still over half a mile away. We finally dragged our carcasses into Poison Girl around eight. After an hour there, and a tall cocktail called The Jones (Jim Beam and spicy ginger beer -- a steal at $5), I was much restored, even cocky. I took in the people around me, and I was sure that none of them had ever walked this far down Westheimer.
Helios was next. There, we sat on the porch and steeled our resolve for the final onslaught. It was poetry night -- old-line Montrose was out in force, if not in numbers. Legendary street poet, raconteur and indestructible force of nature Malcolm MacDonald was in the house. Malcolm is perhaps Houston's all-time leader in getting 86'ed from bars -- back in the Catal Huyuk days, he once cleared out the joint by pissing on every customer in his radius. He's like the Pope of Lower Westheimer.
Out in the parking lot, I told him about our trip, and for the first time in 16 miles, somebody got it. No talk of buses from Malcolm, who looked like he was working on his second fifth of the day.
"Ah, yes, you've made a Hajj," he said instantly, in his quasi-British accent. I offered him the chance to walk the last few blocks with us.
"I am sorry, but I am rather indisposed," he said. "And I don't want to steal your thunder."
"But I've got some vodka in my bag," I said.
"I am afraid that I have some, too, and it is closer at hand," he said, reaching into someone's car for a fifth. "But I wish you well!"
Minutes later, at about 11, we made it. Tick told me to destroy the worst boom box in the history of the universe, so I spiked it football-style on the sidewalk, and it exploded with satisfying force. Then we howled out that the Hajj was over, and that the crappy little pocket park near the entrance to the spur was our Mecca. There we had one last swig of vodka to toast our success.
So, had we found the soul of Houston? Yes, I would have to say that we did, such as it is. It's ugly, preposterous and inhuman, interspersed with all-too-rare pockets of serenity and beauty. It smells like roasting corn, raw sewage, fish sauce, frying hamburgers and exhaust. (Heavy on the exhaust.) There's sex and God at one end of it and plain old sex at the other. It's chic and tacky, humble and proud. It's Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, black, white, Muslim and Christian, macho and effete, alive and dead, Red State and Blue. It sounds like the whooshing of cars, and if you close your eyes, you can delude yourself into believing they're waves lapping at a beach. It's the American dream, and it's a prison. And it's got the best sweet tea. Great! Walk! Super! Indeed.
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