Another month, another long-ass Houston street to conquer. This month, David Beebe joined me again, and the river of concrete we decided to take on was Bellaire Boulevard. We would commence at the Mission Bend Park and Ride just west of Highway 6 and head back down to Little Woodrow’s IceHouse, a stone’s throw from my house where Houston, Bellaire, South Side Place and West U converge in a mad jumble of sprouting McMansions and hypervigilant police jurisdictions. After all, east of Little Woodrow’s, Bellaire/Holcombe is pretty tedious, so there would be no point in walking past the last beer just so we could get to the Med Center.
The bus ride out was one of the trippiest either Beebe or I – both grizzled vets of Metro – have ever had. It started getting weird at the Bellaire Transit Center. A young, heavily tattooed brunette woman got on the bus. We kept locking eyes, and then somewhat to my astonishment she blurted out “John?” “Yeah,” I said. “How’ve you been?” I didn’t really recognize her, but that happens to me a lot. I spend a lot of time in bars. Probably too much. “Pretty good,” she said. “Have you been to Leon’s lately? I heard they fixed it all up?”
Suddenly it all came back to me. Last summer she was one of the rare sane barmaids to have worked in the as-yet-unrehabilitated Leon’s Lounge. Her tats were covered there. I didn’t remember her name, but I did recall that she told me that she was from Austin, where her dad owned a small chain of gentlemen’s clubs. She had grown up in them; she was a titty bar brat. And despite that she didn’t seem to hate men, stayed far more sober on her shifts than all of her Leon’s co-workers, and seemed like a genuinely nice person on top of all of that. Best of all, it didn’t take her 16 minutes to hand you a Busch tall boy.
We chatted for awhile about Leon’s and local music, and just before her stop I asked where she was working now. “Nowhere,” she said, a mischievous look in her eye. She looked like she wanted to tell me more, but all she added was “I’m just slacking.” And with that, she stepped off the bus and headed into one of the dozens of tired Sharpstown apartment complexes that line Bellaire Boulevard.
Meanwhile, a fortysomething guy had heard Beebe, the angel of Leon’s and me talking about rock. He was sitting in front of Beebe and across the aisle from me, and he wanted in the conversation in the worst way. His name was Warren and he launched into a litany of praise for various gee-tar icons of the ‘70s and ‘80s – the technical wizardry Eric Johnson, the fat tone of Stevie Ray, the all around boogie genius of Billy Gibbons. “Billy was just in Rockin’ Robin the other day,” he said. “He’s been sober for ten years. His only vice is Diet Coke.”
Behind him, Beebe was on the verge of losing it completely, hunched over, head in hands. It was infectious, but the guy was facing me, so I couldn’t just bust out laughing. I literally bit my lip and as we passed that battered mid-rise apartment building across from Sharpstown Mall, said “Man, they sure have fixed up The Conquistador.” Beebe was still having a fit and the Rawk Guy was still waffling on about Billy Gibbons’s humilty and Boy Scout-like behavior, so I kept at my mindless prattle. “Do either of y’all know why the Arena Theatre closed?” I asked.
But it turns out Warren wasn’t just an addled long-term subscriber to Guitar World. He had actually played in some thrash-punk Houston bands, once, long ago in the old Axiom days. He said the band he was a part of that we might have heard of was called the Candidates. We hadn’t, but we had heard of some of the other bands he played with or hung out with, such as Sick Mentality, which featured Beebe’s cousin Sean Reilly on drums.
Turns out Warren was somewhat retired. His efforts to get back in the guitar game were not aided by a recent injury he sustained. “They just about had to chop of my finger a few months ago,” he said, indicating his left index finger. “It got infected, and I waited around too long to get it looked at. By the time I got to the hospital, it was black and cold.” The docs had told him they had no choice but to chop it off, but, Warren said, his parents intervened, and now he was about back to normal. Beebe asked how he had hurt his finger in the first place. “Puncture wound,” was all Warren would say. After that tale of woe, Warren disembarked, somewhere out past the Beltway.
“He probably lives with his parents,” Beebe said. “It makes me wonder how many casualties of the bar scene are littered out here in the burbs,” I added.
By this time, the #2 Bellaire bus was coming to its western terminus. We eased right off of Bellaire and up a dreary street through a dismal development of tract homes called Eldridge View. “Hey, these houses have a great view – of Eldridge,” Beebe said.
We got out and walked back to Bellaire. There is still plenty of open space out here past the city limits, and even some unusual wildlife -- I saw a red-winged blackbird in one swampy field. Just east of 6, Chinatown, or Asiatown, or Big Little Saigon or whatever it is called these days still is not yet in full flower. We spotted a gaudy defunct satellite installation van, which reminded both of us of the long lost Terminix roach trucks. Its stickers hadn’t been renewed since 2003, so it had been put out to pasture here, to live out its days as a ghetto billboard.
At Dairy Ashford, there’s a surprise. Surrounded by the usual suburban Houston gunk of strip malls and prefab 1980s apartments there repose the founders of Alief, Texas, beneath dignified granite tombstones. Some of these graves date back over 100 years, back when Alief was still a little farm hamlet called Dairy, Texas.
And if you’re wondering how the name came to be Alief, you’re in the right spot. Alief Ozelda Magee, the town’s namesake, is buried right there, under a slate-gray monument with a touching epitaph: “She did what she could.” And hell, maybe she still is. The adjoining apartment complex, which is rumored to cover some of the graves here, is said to suffer from a poltergeist infestation.
The East Asian factor kicks up several notches immediately thereafter. Some of the strip malls out here are easily the nicest in town. There’s one with not one but two large to immense memorials to the Vietnam War, and another whose entrance is guarded by a giant concrete turtle, which put both Beebe and I in mind of all the giant animals that used to stalk South Main back when it was Houston’s answer to the Vegas Strip.
But the crown jewel of all of the Bellaire Boulevard strip malls is Hong Kong City, the Galleria of Big Little Saigon.
From Bellaire itself, it looks like any other Texas-sized strip mall, but go closer and you’ll see it’s anything but. For one thing, the grounds are ringed with a water garden, full of lily pads, fountains and live turtles you can feed. For another thing, the strip mall façade conceals an entire enclosed mall behind it.
We made our entrance in an Asian liquor store, where we eyed a few fifths of mainland Chinese sorghum whiskey without relish, before exiting through the back door and into the mall proper. It’s got everything a mall should – as long as you are looking for Vietnamese or Chinese items -- and a few things it shouldn’t, like a huge supermarket that also does a fair trade in Asian knick-knacks, and a kiosk where you can buy Vietnamese versions of computer programs like Word and Excel.
The whole mall smells like fish and has a food court, where you can buy spring rolls, crawdads, pho, and even beer. There, old men sit and play some head-to-head board game I thought of as “Vietnamese checkers,” which, as it later transpired, turned out to be its name. Beebe and I feasted heartily for under $20 between us, and moved on.
Just east of the mall there’s a last remnant of Alief’s days as a bedroom community for good ol’boys – Sally Jo’s Old Houston Barbecue, and then we were inside the Beltway, where Anglo businesses become virtually non-existent until you hit the Southwest Freeway.
This area was one of my old stomping grounds. I graduated from Strake Jesuit in 1988, and I saw this area transform year-by-year, storefront-by-storefront, and right now, it is booming as never before. Tall bank buildings are sprouting, with glass fronts festooned in Mandarin. Strip malls fill with Vietnamese crawfish joints, Shaolin Temples, and acupuncture clinics. As we crossed Brays Bayou, a huge temple loomed in the distance, and it didn’t take much imagining to pretend you were gazing across a rice paddy toward a Vietnamese village. A Zen center abuts one of the last businesses in town to carry the all-but-forgotten A.J. Foyt’s once-omnipresent name. A couple of ratty old apartment complexes have changed into commercial buildings, each unit housing its own business.
As we passed Corporate Drive, I reminisced about how less than 20 years ago, the street was nothing but empty fields. Back then, it was the site of a place called “Shotgun,” the hang-out where Strake and St. Agnes kids went to drink beer, smoke pot, and get hunted for sport by the vicious rednecks who then were in ascendance at Sharpstown High. Now, it’s the site of several banks and a huge Chinese Baptist church. I have no idea where my Jebbie brethren go to misbehave today.
And all that remains the same from the corner of Bellaire and Gessner is the Jesuit sign, and the huge High Times. To think, the head shop would be the place that endured.
But residential Sharpstown never changes. I was telling Beebe how I remembered how every street out there had that one guy on it who ran a car lot out of his front yard, and minutes later we came up one just like I described right there facing Bellaire. It’s still streaked with fetid concrete drainage ditches. The houses are still decent and the apartments still rotten.
Soon enough we were in Sharpstown Mall, which the Chronicle has just noticed seems to have a fair amount of hip-hop related paraphernalia on sale. Man, that place has been Trilltown Mall, fools. I’ve been going out there to buy lids for a few years now, ‘cause it’s the only place I can always find a size 8. We didn’t linger there all that long – the place was dead in the early afternoon, and Beebe was already wearing a shirt that said “Purple Drank,” so his shopping options were limited. East we headed, by now footsore with still a longish way to go.
Just after the freeway there’s a stretch of churches and suddenly it hit me. Bellaire from Highway 6 clear over to this stretch is almost completely shadeless. Somebody desperately needs to do like John Denver said and plant a tree for our tomorrow out there.
Anyway, we hit Jane Long Middle School just as the bell rang, and the streets filled with teenagers in blue and khaki uniforms. They were Hispanic to the last one, it seemed. We watched as a couple of dozen of them tried to pile into a convenience store, only to be turned away by a Constable at the door. We followed a pack of them past the Value Village and then headed into the mega-Fiesta on Hillcroft, where we rooted through the concert tees in the $2 bins. This time, the selection was terrible. Lots of Clay Aiken and Ashlee Simpson crap. One time I got a Dr Dre shirt there that I still rock in my weekly rotation, but lately, all I’ve ever seen there is stuff I wouldn’t even wear ironically if I was the kind of person that did that kind of thing. Beebe did score a pack of Mad Croc, a Houston-made citrus-ginseng gum that actually gets you high. (It even has warnings on it against children and pregnant women partaking of its power.)
East of Hillcroft, Bellaire marks the southern edge of the Gulfton Ghetto, Houston’s most densely populated and statistically most dangerous ‘hood. I pointed out what landmarks I knew – Devin the Dude’s recording studio is about all that comes to mind. We popped in Pollo Campero, where the chicken blew former Popeye’s employee Beebe’s mind. This time of day, with most of the adults at work, this stretch of Bellaire is pretty dull, but we did find a great hand-painted pick-up truck here, with a picture of Jesus on the tailgate and Calvin pissing on La Migra in the back window.
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SHOW ME HOW
And after that, it’s anti-climactic. Parts of Bellaire city’s downtown have a certain raffish 1950s charm – the Bellaire Broiler Burger, for example – but it’s boring. Just west of the Loop, we sat on one of the benches in the verdant esplanade near the town bandshell and, contravening Bellaire’s very ethos, I drank a tiny bottle of Gallo red, just say I could say I drank in Bellaire. Minutes later we were on the deck at Little Woodrow’s, a pitcher of cold Lone Star in front of us, and a freight train rumbling past a few feet away.
So that’s Bellaire Boulevard. We didn’t see a single abandoned shopping cart, unlike Shepherd, which seems to use them as mile markers. There’s not enough trees. (Or bars. There are virtually no places to drink a beer on this street.) The closer in you are, the more boring it is. There are almost no pedestrians. It has one of the strangest bus-riding clienteles in town. If Westheimer is mainly about the fetishes, broken dreams and vanities of Anglo whites, and Shepherd is all about the needs of cars, Bellaire is a world market of a street, a bazaar where Mexicans, Anglos, Salvadorans, African Americans, Hondurans, stoners, Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans and Thais go to shop and eat. - John Nova Lomax