Sole Of Houston: Airline Drive, Complete

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The longest walk in the history of the Sole of Houston requires the longest piece. This being a blog and all, we have decided to break it up into three installments. Coming today, tomorrow and Thursday in this tale of 22-plus miles of concrete, mud, and fairly cold weather: The fending off a potential psycho killer and the drunkest crack dealer who ever lived, the most sinister strip mall in all of Greater Houston, a sprawling, festive Mexican mercado, a drink in a historic off-the-radar nightspot, a shot of fine tequila amid murals of Mexican TV stars in a bar called Recuerdos, and more wildlife than we've ever seen before. And before it was all over, one of us would be caked in the puke of a total stranger. Come with us as we hike from the land of 8-Liners and cockfighters to the northern edge of hipster Houston...

The latest installment of the Sole of Houston takes David Beebe and me way up north.

The plan was to go downtown and catch Metro's new Airport Direct express bus, turn around at IAH and make our way to Aldine Bender, where we would hang a right and slog over to Airline Drive. We would then walk the length of Airline to North Main. From there, Warren's would be just a short triumphant march away.

Sadly, owing to an epic clusterfail, we didn't quite make it to Warren's on foot. (Lesson learned: always carry a street map.) We did make it as far as Spanish Village, though.

Let's take it from the top. Beebe was supposed to have been at my house at 8:30 AM the Sunday morning just after Christmas. Owing to a Saturday night El Orbits gig and subsequent festivities that continued until six in the morning, Beebe didn't make it over until ten. And, it must be said, in sorry shape at that.

Nevertheless he didn't balk when I suggested that we hike the two miles from my house to the light rail instead of waiting for the #2 bus to come collect us. It was on its Sunday schedule and would take forever, I reasoned. Plus, we needed to walk the stretch of Bellaire between my house and South Main to complete our Bellaire hike of 2007.

We chose not to walk that stretch for a reason. The latest building boom has leeched almost all of the funkiness out of Bellaire / Holcombe between Auden and South Main. Today, it's a bleak procession of Walgreen's/CVS's, fitness centers, branch banks, sketchy alternative healing emporiums, gas stations, boring medical supply shops and other such uninviting tedium.

About all that redeems it is that odd Filipino restaurant/bakery, a Spec's, Southwell's burgers, Fred's Italian Corner and the old Sicilian joint in the converted two-story house, and the name of (if not the fare at) Happy All Chinese buffet. And then there's Gas Light Video, the West U's one and only X-Rated video store, if you are into that sort of thing...

What true gems it had have been obliterated.

That ramshackle flower shop down around Kirby?

Gone, replaced by a branch bank.

The Gallant Knight, the funk/R&B/jazz club where generations of white Houstonians reenacted that scene from Animal House where the frat boys cross the tracks to see Otis Day and the Knights?

Gone, replaced by a branch bank.

And of course even the mighty Shamrock Hotel was slowly, agonizingly pulverized decades ago, replaced by the Texas A&M Health Science Center and one of the oddest places in Houston - the little known Wortham Fountain.

Words fail me in describing one of the Med Center's two analogues to the Transco WaterWall, so I'll let the Houston Architectural Guide attempt to speak for me:

In expiation for demolishing the Shamrock Hotel, which occupied this site, the Texas Medical Center, Inc., built [this] curious mixture of events and spaces that combine columns of water that seem to anticipate a freeway overpass with a walled watercourt leading on axis to what was once the Shamrock's front door (now a parking lot.)"

Looks like words failed the Guide too...

Most people have seen the overpass-looking part, but not the walled watercourt, which is an inversion of the overpass section and also deeply weird.

It certainly agitated Beebe. First it reminded him of "Scientology." Then he said it was like a tomb, which in a way, it is - the Shamrock's watery grave. Then he said it reminded him of the Bellagio in Vegas. And then the capper: "This reminds me," he said, "of some place where Nixon would talk with Kissinger about how many more tons of bombs he needed to drop on Hanoi."

Houston Architectural Guide: meet your new capsule writer.

It was almost noon by the time we made it to the TMC Transit Center MetroRail stop, and then on to the Downtown Transit Center, where Metro offers up its new Airport Direct Service.

Which is a fine service, but at $30/round trip, it really doesn't seem to make sense for anything other than fools' errands like ours or long vacations. For what its worth, the driver told us business had been slow. "Not many people know about it yet," he said. Indeed they don't - we were the only two riders on this bus, and the driver seemed to leave not because he had any schedule to obey, but because he had two riders.

At any rate, we were soon whizzing up the Eastex (to our consternation - we wanted to be on the west side of the airport) amid what is quite likely some of the ugliest roadside scenery this side of Detroit. Soon enough we were dropped off in the piney woods of Will Clayton Parkway, near the corner of Lee Road, just on the other side of the big "Welcome to Houston" sign in the esplanade. Humble, in other words.

We headed over to Lee Road and started the long walk south. For the first mile or two, as Lee Road winds through raw forest land owned by the airport, we might as well have been out by Cut and Shoot. It was isolated enough to feel a little creepy, and about 30 minutes in, a crappy white Japanese sedan slowed to a stop near us.

"Where y'all goin'?" asked the driver, who with his shaven head, a squashed nose, dead eyes, and tattooed fingers, looked like every artist's rendering of a north side psycho killer.

"Just headed down to Aldine Bender," I said.

"Y'all need a ride?" asked Police Sketch.

No thanks, we told him. Not only were we on a mission, but we could easily see that he wanted to take us to some Montgomery County motel and gimp-u-lize us.

As we crossed what I guess was Greens Bayou, we spied about four or five deer bounding from the water's edge into the woods, and hawks wheeled overhead. After an hour or so, we started to see the occasional house, and at last we came to the first convenience store, where we bought cans of beer from a clerk behind bulletproof glass while an old man sat listlessly nearby, frittering away a Sunday on one of several 8-Liner machines. Outside, a rooster crowed.

"Northern Harris County," pronounced Beebe, "the land of 8-Liners and cockfighters."

And it continued like that for a couple more miles - fortified convenience stores, mini-warehouses, dogs snarling behind chain link fences, the Boyz 2 Men Development Center, and an old Rolls Royce limo going sour in the sun. Save for three teenagers who looked up to no good, we saw no other pedestrians.

At last we reached the North Belt, where we made one of the worst strategic decisions in the history of the Sole of Houston project. We knew we needed to get to Aldine Bender, but we weren't sure if Lee Road intersected it. (Indeed it does, after changing names to Homestead.) Instead, we chose to walk the Beltway access road, and there followed a dreary slog of more than an hour. Beebe's internal Halliburton-detector went off, and minutes later we came upon a huge Halliburton complex, and other than some utterly dreary apartments, there was not much else out here beyond raggedy pine forest and white noise from the Beltway.

IAH-bound airplanes were still distressingly low and frequent overhead. We had walked about seven miles, and our feet were already sore, and we were still about a mile from IAH, albeit on the other side from where we had begun. Warren's and its glorious Martinis seemed a planet away.

We pretty much stopped talking to one another. I dialed up some Mississippi fife and drum music to keep us marching on, and we finally made it to Aldine Westfield, and a short jaunt later, we made it to the longed-for Aldine Bender. Never has that unglamorous name meant so much to two vagabonds.

Aldine Bender is cockfighters and 8-liners deluxe, an intensification of the sparse version of same way up north.

One of the prime attractions, for us, anyway, of its eastern stretches is one of the most foreboding strip malls in the city.

In one corner lurks a closed down bar called Sassy's. The doors of this place were open even though it was abandoned. Someone had pulled much of the furniture out of it and left it on the sidewalk out front. 

Flanking Sassy's were a donut shop and not one, but two different Spanish-language chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous. And the piece de resistance was an abandoned Pontiac, complete with flat tire and faceprint in the windshield. A faceprint that went inward toward the dash, not outward from the driver's seat. Perhaps the rival AA chapters got into a parking lot fracas...

And on we walked, past horses, more chickens, a scattering of tame ducks, more bulletproof mini-marts, garages, barbed wire and tin-sided car lots, and occasional packs of wild dogs. We also walked past Aldine ISD's well-tended Thorne Stadium and a far sadder sports venue: a forlorn, weed-choked little league baseball diamond that looked like it echoed with its last "Hey-batta-batta-swing!" in 1982.  

Just before crossing the bridge over the Hardy Toll Road, we stopped in a barn-like tavern called the Northside Saloon, where a few old farts sat shelling peanuts, smoking (we were outside the city limits), throwing a scrap or two to a couple of dogs that had free rein of the place, and glumly watching the Eagles crush the Cowboys. One bearded, Kenny Rogers-looking man sat ordering one generic Sprite after another, which he mixed with a generous pours from a handle of cheap vodka. Helluva way to go... 

In an abandoned strip-mall parking lot, we came upon a taco truck and for $5, got dynamite tacos al pastor and were restored to something like normalcy. We never could figure out why the proprietor chose to park where she did, though. What went on in that abandoned strip mall -- a big one that once housed a bowling alley, among other things -- later in the evening that would attract the sort of crowd to support her? (She was also next to a defunct gas station, whose sign offered regular unleaded for over $3 a gallon. How often do you see a closed gas station offer gas for three times as much as its going for now?)  

Some mock it as "Gunspoint," but from a mile or so away, in the humid gloom of a chilly winter's evening, Greenspoint Mall looked like a shining city on the hill, a thousand points of light blinking over frowzy grackle-pastures and cracked asphalt. 

Meanwhile, back on Aldine-Bender, a pair of friendly pups followed us for a block or two, and then we came across another of Houston's far-flung folk art Muffler Men. 

By and by we came to Airline's headwaters and finally, as the sun fizzled pinkly in the gray clouds out west and my iPod blared Tex-Mex tunes, turned south.  

Ahead of us awaited historic music venues, drunken crack dealers, a desperate damsel in distress, and a steep in the puke of a total stranger.  

Airline's furthest reaches are lined by sprawling and run-down '70s apartment complexes. And yet there's a weirdly rural feel in patches. The 281 area code hangs on for a longer time than you would expect, and there are plenty of fireworks stands, as a swath of unincorporated Harris County extends far toward town. The few houses we saw looked like they had once been out in the middle of fields.

The entire area is also pretty much 100 percent Mexican, with a couple of Salvadoran businesses for variety, and one gringo barbecue -- the Hungry Farmer -- holding out. 

Even on a Sunday, the street is livelier than most in Houston - in fact, it reminded Beebe and I of nothing so much as lower Westheimer circa 1986, albeit en español.

Teenagers still cruise the northern stretches of Airline in their cars, many of which sport speakers mounted in their grills, the better to share their norteño tunes with all those around them. (It's loud, but since norteño is pretty much devoid of resonant bass frequencies, it doesn't bulge glass or rattle your fillings.) There's near gridlock at some intersections and the same sort of fleeting, duration-of-a-stoplight sexual tension (and thus its traveling partner -- potential violence) 'Theimer was known for back in its teenage hormone-drenched alleged heyday.

Other than that Westheimer aspect, Airline reminded me of the north side's exact, albeit inverted, replica of Telephone Road. Both thoroughfares can get you to (or at least very near) airports, for example, and both have rich, though mostly bygone, musical histories. But whereas Telephone segues from solidly blue-collar Mexican neighborhood to sleazy red light district as you head out from town, Airline gets sketchier the closer you are to the skyline. Also, the Mexicans on Airline's upper reaches seem less assimilated than those on lower Telephone Road. Telephone's barrio conjures the Tejano vibe of San Antonio; Airline seems as puro Mexicano as San Luis Potosí or Torreón.

Nowhere more so than just south of Gulf Bank at one of the North Side's true glories: The Sunny Flea Market, or "Los Garages," as Beebe calls it.

Uptown has the Galleria. New Chinatown has Hong Kong City Mall. The Southwest Side 'hood has Sharpstown Mall. The North Side barrio has Los Garages, where at any one of literally 1,000 market stalls you can buy a Chivas jersey, a coctel del mar, a used drill, elotes, one of those electronic jungle-scene signs, a tamarind licuado, customized belt buckles and other charro wear, or a car stereo. A norteño band in matching suits was playing in the on-site cantina, and Beebe and I got beers and watched for a few minutes, before taking our beers and walking around the grounds as the last of the tens of thousands of shoppers, stallholders and partiers wrapped it up for the week.

As for us, we still had miles to go, and on down around the intersection with Little York, there's plenty of musical history, some of it still alive.

Namely in the form of the 47-year-old Cedar Lounge, one of Houston's most storied North Side nightspots. As the home club of Joey Long, one of Houston's great unsung musical legends, the joint has a rich heritage, as attested by this segment of "The Road, the Radio, and the Full Moon," an award-winning reminiscence by eccentric steel-guitar ace (and former Houstonian) Susan Alcorn:

People who used to go whip dancing to white Houston bluesman Joey Long now talk about how he died. The heroin king of white Texas blues, always with a lit cigarette stuck between the tuning keys of his guitar. Playing a lick, taking a puff, and then blowing out the smoke in ringlets while he sustained and bent the note. He was playing at the Cedar Lounge one night, and during break time, he went outside and sat on the curb and closed his eyes. It was twenty minutes before anyone realized that he was dead. And they talk about Tommy Williams the drummer who used to have a bowl of goldfish in his bass drum, but by the end of the night the fish were always floating belly up at the top.

(For the record, Long's musician son Jimmy Joe Long disputes that his dad passed away on a set-break, but it's a great legend. Jimmy Joe says Joey passed away while walking to the store.)

The multi-talented Joey Long rose to fame alongside Sonny Fisher in a rockabilly duo, later played lead guitar on smash hits like Frogman Henry's "Ain't Got No Home" and sax on Ivory Joe Hunter's iconic "Since I Got You Baby." During a sojourn in the French Quarter in the early '60s, Long was in a band with two recent parolees from Angola prison: the pre-fame Mac Rebennack (later known as Dr John) and Freddy Fender.

After moving to Houston in the early '60s, he became the first white musician to play in Houston's black blues bands. A rare recording of a song called "Nobody Loves Me," with Long playing hellacious lead guitar for Big Walter the Thunderbird, is one of the most gutbucket, hard-hitting blues ever to have come from Houston. It was originally the B-Side to Big Walter's regional hit "Get to Gettin'."

Later still Long and his hornet-sting guitar tone became something like the house guitarist at Huey Meaux's Crazy Cajun label, and served as a mentor, father figure and influence on music legends like Doug Sahm, Billy Gibbons, Keith Ferguson (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) and Johnny Winter. Late blues drummer Uncle John Turner once called Long "the godfather" of white Texas blues performers.

Long ruled the Cedar's small stage for much of the '70s and '80s, often performing what were known as "pressure cooker" gigs. They were called that because they were weekday matinee affairs -- housewives would put dinner in the crockpot and paint the town red before hubby got home around sundown. And if he came home early, there would often be hell to pay if he made his way over to the Cedar...

And here we were. The sign out front advertised "Tejano Night, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays." Since this was Sunday, the crowd was mixed. Press correspondent William Michael Smith told me a few years ago that the Cedar had a weird door policy. All comers, he said, were charged two dollars at the door, after which they were given a free beer at the bar. He was told by an employee that this policy was designed to foil penniless customers from coming in and cadging drinks. I was a little disappointed that this policy was not in effect when we went.

There are a few pool tables to one side of the bar in the L-shaped room, while the stage and dance floor are around the corner. The walls are done up in red dimpled leatherette, and the place feels as old as it is.

Beebe was also starting to feel his age, not to mention the effects of the walk, the cold, the lack of sleep from the night before. He dialed up a mix of Al Green and Doug Sahm tunes on the juke while I called Mike Haaga to see if he wanted to come meet us. (He lives relatively close to the Cedar.) Haaga arrived about 15 minutes later and laughed about how much farther we had to go and how miserable we both looked.

Haaga and Beebe were objects of great curiosity to the barmaid.

She wanted to know where they were from. They told her, and she relayed the information to her girlfriend on the other side of the circular bar. After a short conference, she was back again a few minutes later.

"What do y'all do for a living?" she asked. They told her they were musicians. Off she went for another confab, only to return in a flash.

"What do y'all play?" They told her, and away she went. And so on. I guess I looked more like a run of the mill denizen of the Cedar Lounge 'cause she paid me no mind whatsoever.

Anyway, the Cedar's a great bar - only a little too far out Airline for the sort of hipster reclamation project that has taken place at funky joints like the Shiloh Club, the Shady Tavern, the Rose Garden, and the Tall Texan.

After a round or two, it was time to hit the bricks again. Haaga headed off in his car while Beebe and I put one tired dog in front of the other for the long-ass homestretch. 

Across the street from the Cedar, in a run-down strip mall, there's a huge bingo parlor called Dance Town USA. It doesn't look like much today, and we didn't know it at the time, but it was even more of a hot spot than the Cedar Lounge back in its prime. 

Founded in 1962 by Larry Butler, a.k.a. "The Country Gentleman from Cut and Shoot, Texas," a singer who once had Nelson in his backing band, Dance Town USA was the site of shows by Bob Wills, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Charlie Pride, Faron Young, Webb Pierce and Johnny Paycheck, most of which are only recorded in the memories of the dwindling number of people who attended them.

Dance Town USA was country before country was cool. Through the '60s and early '70s, the Post and the Chronicle regarded the hillbilly goings-on at places like Dance Town as tacky and beneath their contempt, and as Houston-born music business veteran Bill Bentley told me last summer, no matter how much they might have enjoyed the music, it was downright dangerous for hippie kids to attend honky-tonk shows until the advent of Willie Nelson in Austin in the early '70s. Bentley says that he was made far more welcome at clubs in Third and Fifth Ward, at least until the assassination of Martin Luther King.

And so few documents of the era remain. One is a highly sought-after 1965 live recording of George Jones -- one of the few live 1960s honky-tonk records in existence. Johnny Bush later recorded a live album there, and Dance Town figures prominently in his recent autobiography Whiskey River (Take My Mind): The True Story of Texas Honky-Tonk. It was there that Bush realized that something was starting to go terribly wrong with his voice. (He lost most of his singing voice and all of his ability to speak shortly thereafter, though he has regained much of both since then.)

The show was sold out. Both parking lots were full, and cars were lined up down the block on both sides of Airline Drive.

"Whiskey River," my first release on RCA Records, was the No. 1 record in Houston and all across Texas. It looked to be the biggest hit I'd ever had.

I'd previously enjoyed a successful five-year recording career with such hits as "What a Way to Live," Undo the Right," "You Gave Me a Mountain," "My Cup Runneth Over," and "I'll Be There." Most of these songs had reached No. 1 in the Texas market and gone Top 10 or Top 20 nationally.

In 1969, I'd been voted the Most Promising Male Vocalist in country music by Record World magazine -- the equivalent to today's Country Music Association Horizon Award. Bob Claypool, the music critic at the Houston Post, had proclaimed me "the Country Caruso."

This rising star, a hometown boy made good, was the one the crowd had come to see and hear perform. I loved playing to the Houston crowd. This was special. This was home, the city where I'd been born and raised.

The familiar pre-show adrenaline rush began. But on this night it was different. This wasn't the natural high of anticipation and excitement I usually welcomed before a performance.

What I felt on this night was fear.

By now, what Beebe and I were feeling on this night, all these years later, was pain. And since the Dance Town USA Bingo Parlor wasn't even open, we kept on walking, unaware of its glorious past as the top honky-tonk in Texas. We managed to alleviate some of our discomfort in Recuerdos, a Mexican piano bar on the corner of Parker. Murals of bygone Mexican film stars looked on as we filled ourselves with the warm glow of Cazadores tequila, though I must confess my blood chilled when I got the check. 

By and by we passed the shuttered Canino Farmer's Market and then I-45, which is where things started getting sleazy. I went in a Valero to get a couple of beers, and wound up impulse-buying an extremely ghetto Obama t-shirt. The president-elect's head doesn't really fit on the Muhammad Ali's body, but at $12.99, it was still a steal: 

Beebe stayed outside, and he had company when I came back out. A fiftysomething man in a flannel shirt and baseball camp was talking to him.

"John, this dude wants to sell me some crack!" Beebe said.

The guy slowly turned to appraise me. I've seen drunker men in my 38 years, but only because I once traveled extensively in Eastern Europe.

As I was wearing dark blue clothes from head to toe, I think he took me for an undercover po-po. I could see his mind grinding through several gears at once and practically smell the burning transmission grease coming out his ears.

Finally, he decided to throw the dice. "Twenndolla frtheezrocks?" he managed to stammer. I told him to get lost, which he did, slowly at first, and then faster if just as unsteadily when he saw a police cruiser driving up Airline.

Minutes later, while Beebe and I were discussing the glories of the Isley Brothers and taking in a selection of same on the iPod, an ashen-faced teenaged girl with dishwater blonde hair materialized abruptly out of the shadows.

"Hey man lemme use your cellphone I need your cellphone can I use your cellphone you gotta let me have your cellphone!" I told her no. I didn't want her pimp having my digits. "Awww, come on. Please, I need your cellphone..."

I told her no. I didn't want her pimp having my digits.

"Awww, come on. Please, I need your cellphone..."

Even though it looked like she might cry, I remained unswayed. She melted away into the night as swiftly as she had appeared.

If I had 50 cents on me I would have given it to her, honest.

We debated halting the walk at Cavalcade, but decided to press on to Spanish Flowers. We figured that people would confuse Cavalcade with Crosstimbers and think we were wusses. What's more, Spanish Flowers is sort of the psychic end of Houston for many Montrosians and other South and West Siders, and as such, seemed to have more value as a terminus. Saying we walked from Intercontinental to Cavalcade sounds way less impressive than Intercontinental to Spanish Flowers.

It was around eleven o'clock - not too late to catch a bus downtown and save on cab fare. Or so we thought: somehow, while farting around mere feet from the bus stop, we missed not just one but the last two buses of the night.

And so we called a cab, which finally arrived around Midnight. And with that, a disbelieving cabbie was the first to hear of our complete adventure. We were at Warren's in minutes.

On the way in, Beebe spoke what we both had been thinking in the taxi.

"Man, that cab really stank," he said. "It smelled like puke."

I agreed. In fact, we could still smell it. Instinctively, like two people who know that one of them has stepped in dogshit, Beebe and I both started checking our clothes.

It was me. While seated in the cab, I had been steeping in some stranger's vomit all the way from Spanish Flowers, and I had the chunk-encrusted pullover to prove it. That's what I get for not walking all the way, I guess. I gingerly removed the pullover, dropped it on the floor, and kicked it into a corner of Warren's. I ordered my martini extra dry. 

-- John Nova Lomax

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