They Walk Among Us
My editor fields a complaint that a downtown park is overrun by giant rats and homeless folks who are seen crapping and pissing on the bushes and sidewalks throughout the day.
For some reason -- is it the humidity? the hangover I'm nursing? -- I volunteer to investigate.
Be sure to take the camera, my editor tells me gleefully. Snap some pix of the rats -- if, in fact, they're there.
So one evening last week I drive to the park, which is rather large by Houston standards and sits in a prime location. It's divided into three sections that span several blocks and is surrounded by the George R. Brown Convention Center, Toyota Center, Houston Center and Minute Maid Park, as well as the upscale Four Seasons and Hilton hotels.
I walk the winding red-brick pathways, but see nothing out of the ordinary. Each parcel appears well manicured with neat flower beds and shrubs. The lawn needs mowing, but that's no big deal given the recent rains.
The sun's setting and it's cooling off some. An organ grinds the national anthem. Clemens is about to take the mound against the Phillies.
It's then that I see my first rat. I catch the critter out of the corner of my eye. He's small, fuzzy, kind of cute. I inch toward him, but he disappears in the tall grass.
I crouch by the grass, then snap my head. There goes another one. And another. And another.
Noses twitch. Tails whip. The lean and wiry ones are fast and panicky, neurotic. The long, plump ones are grotesque, less motivated and tend to sit still, staring, almost daring you to approach.
My heartbeat quickens. Palming a digital camera, I tiptoe toward a row of bushes.
A young couple walks by. The boy seizes his sweetheart by the wrist and swings her to the other side of him, shielding her from me. I'm not offended.
Again I snap my head. There goes another one. And another.
Two fat, burly rats lumber past. Nothing cute about these guys. They barrel down the brick path, fall over each other and vanish into the brush. Their long, spiny tails trail behind.
I start to hear them.
On all sides of me.
The grasses part.
The branches break.
Okay, now it's official: I'm freaked. All this creeping around is creeping me out.
I poke my head in some bushes, half-expecting a rat to pounce and gnaw at my face.
Taking a closer look, I see the shrubs aren't so tidy as they first appeared. They're strewn with garbage and feces. Empty liquor bottles, beer cans, food wrappers. Small broken pieces of furniture.
The rats keep scurrying past. But they're fast buggers, and all my pictures turn out dark and blurry.
I stop, stand up straight and look around. Sure enough, the benches are taken over by vagrants.
Mark Davis, a lanky 36-year-old from Detroit, says he sleeps in the park most nights. By nightfall, he says, some 15 to 20 people will be camped out here.
Does he see the rats?
"Rats be all around," Davis advises. "They be all around the grass, up around the bushes, they be all around."
Don't they bother him?
"I'm used to 'em," he says.
That's not the case for Juan, a native Puerto Rican who wears an oversize, dirty white tee and a single thick, gnarled dreadlock that reaches the small of his back.
Does he sleep here in the park?
"No way," Juan says. "Too many rats."
Juan sleeps under a bridge a couple of blocks north.
Aren't there rats under the bridge, too?
"Not like up in here," he says.
Juan points out more rats as he talks. There goes one. And another. And two more.
They dart in and out of the sewer grates, stealing from shadow to shadow, from bush to bush.
People continue to amble through the park. The men in suits, hands clasped behind their backs, moseying along. The hoochie-mamas in low-rider jeans and open-toed sandals, strutting with their boyfriends. All are oblivious to the rats cutting straight across their paths.
I approach a well-dressed African-American couple who take a seat on a weathered wooden bench.
Do they come to this park often?
"It's our first time here," the man says affably. They just moved into a nearby high-rise.
Reluctant to say anything more, I bid them a good evening. But they saw me earlier, crouched by the bushes. They won't let me off the hook.
"What are you doing here?" the man presses.
So I tell him: I'm with the Houston Press. We got a tip that this park is teeming with--
I don't even get the word out. They both shoot up and bolt to the street.
I call after them, offering my apologies. But they're already out of earshot.
The next morning, I meet Ron Guidry at the corner of Austin and Lamar. Guidry, who's 54 and lives on the west side, works for a marketing firm located directly north of the park at 5 Houston Center. He's the one with the rat report.
"It's reached a point where the people who work in these buildings don't come to the park anymore -- especially the women," says Guidry, who recently filed a complaint with the city's Health and Human Services Department regarding the park's sanitation issues.
We walk the winding pathways together. Most benches are occupied by homeless people, lying on their backs with their shoes kicked off. During the course of a few minutes, we see a half-dozen rats scurry past. Along the sidewalk a large cloud of flies hovers over a pile of shit.
Is that from an animal?
"Oh, no," Guidry says. "That's human."
Guidry has a grab bag of horror stories regarding the park. He tells one particularly bizarre tale that involves a penis, a groundskeeper and a shovel.
It's midday a couple of weeks ago, the story goes. Guidry steps outside his building for a break. He watches as a groundskeeper pushes a lawn mower past a homeless man who's asleep on a bench. Apparently angered by the intrusion, the homeless man "all of a sudden pulls out his penis and chases the groundskeeper over the hill." The groundskeeper's supervisor fast approaches holding a shovel over his head and cussing out the homeless man, who yells right back.
"Here it is," Guidry says, "three in the afternoon, and this guy is standing in the middle of the park, for like two minutes, shouting and holding out his penis and shaking it."
It wasn't always this way.
Guidry says the problems began at the park only within the last six months. For years, the park was privately owned and maintained by Crescent Real Estate Equities Limited Partnership, which owns Houston Center. In those halcyon days, Guidry says, the park was clean and peaceful, brimming with strollers and picnickers.
In August 2004, Crescent sold the westernmost parcel to an "undisclosed buyer," according to Crescent spokeswoman Jennifer Terrell. This parcel, which sits adjacent to the Four Seasons, is clearly the most poorly managed of the three and is home to perhaps hundreds of rodents.
Crescent sold the remaining two parcels, which total 5.3 acres, to the City of Houston in a somewhat complicated deal. A group of private foundations ponied up most of the $27 million for the property. About $8 million came from city coffers. The city then transferred the land to the nonprofit Houston Downtown Park Corporation, which holds the titles on the properties, according to the mayor's deputy chief of staff, Richard Lapin.
This fall, Lapin says, the city will unveil design plans to combine these parcels with two nearby city-owned parking lots to create a 12-acre park -- downtown's largest. Meanwhile, before construction begins on the new park, the two parcels are being managed by the city's Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department. Both Dawn Ullrich, the department's director, and Lapin say they've received no complaints about rats and trash and human feces on the properties.
City health department spokeswoman Kathy Barton says she received Guidry's complaint, but did nothing with it.
"This is not something that we have any purview over," Barton says.
Did she pass the complaint on to the right department?
The city can expect to receive a complaint from the park's former owner.
"We're in the process of contacting the city and downtown management company," says Terrell. "It's not our responsibility any longer. We've had to increase pest control on our property as a result."
Guidry insists he has no bias against homeless people, but says they shouldn't be able to overrun what for years has been a downtown treasure. Before returning to work, Guidry looks around and points to all the major tourist destinations that encircle the park.
"These are the crown jewels of the city, and right in the center of that you have Houston's free bed and bath," he says. "And think, if we're seeing this many rats in the heat of the day, imagine what it's like at night."
Taking this as a kind of dare, I return to the park the following night. It's almost nine and the sky is darkening.
The lawn's been mowed, making the rats even more visible. Now there's nothing there to hide them. There's no avoiding them. The fat ones seem to be grazing in the grass, like livestock.
By now, I've learned an important lesson about photographing these creatures. Don't chase them. Instead, stay perfectly still.
Pick your spot. It can be by a sewer grate, a trash pile or even just a random patch of grass.
Click the camera on. Adjust the frame. And wait.
Patience is key.
The rats will come to you.
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