Man, there has been a lot of water under the bridge since David Beebe and I last undertook a Sole of Houston stroll in December of 2008.
For my part, there was a divorce, massive weight loss, and the ditching of pretty much all my vices. As for Beebe, the super-picky confirmed playa was madly in love with his new girlfriend, as I was with mine.
We barely recognized each other. Sure, Beebe looked the same -- he's still that same Buddy Holly look-alike, Doug Sahm sound-alike he always was -- but he now was kitted out with both an iPhone and a camera that probably cost more than the trailer he lived in for months out in Marfa. Gifts from his girlfriend, he sheepishly explained.
"Man, I've totally sold out," he said with a smile a mile wide. So had I. How else could I explain the helmet on my head, the absence of the Marlboro between my teeth and the backpack that did not contain a pint of cheap tequila?
And I guess you could say the entire Sole of Houston concept has been sold out too, because this time we went mobile.
Given all that change, this time around, we decided to ride bikes instead of walk.
Our tentative plan was an expansion of the Tour de Hood, local cycling evangelist Dr. Veon McReynolds's annual circuit of all six of Houston's Wards. Beebe and I would mount up on the two battered beach cruisers I owned and start at my house near the corner of Shepherd and West 11th and head north to Acres Homes. From there we would head east of I-45 and come back to town through Northline and then Fifth Ward, cross the bayou into Second Ward, continue south through Third Ward, and then hit First, Fourth and Sixth on the way back to the Heights.
The day was hot, but that was predictable. Unless it pours, we knew it would be 90-plus. The ride began on the TC Jester / White Oak Bayou bike trail, a placid stretch that is uncannily reminiscent of Brays Bayou due south. You've got the same bike trail, the same mid-century mod houses, and the same concrete chute of a bayou.
We passed under the North Loop with so little fanfare that Beebe didn't even notice until we were about a mile or so away.
At about the same time, I spotted some colorful flowers on what looked like two gravestones, which were set in a little grove a short distance from the trail. This turned out to be the memorial for Elizabeth Pena and Jennifer Ertman, the two teenaged girls who were gang-raped and murdered in 1993 when they stumbled upon a gang initiation ceremony.
Eventually, five of the attackers were sentenced to death; two of those sentences have been carried out, and a third is running out of appeals. The other two had their sentences commuted to life.
Well away from the road, mockingbird-serenaded, and freshly-tended with colorful offerings, this was a dignified, somber reminder of a tense period in Houston history. Having grown up here at that time, the late '80s and early '90s were downright scary. Acts of senseless violence -- of which the Pena-Ertman case was among the worst -- seemed to have been much more common in the waning days of the Oil Bust. Things were not always better in the good old days.
On we rode past Spanish Moss-draped oaks, and at last we reached Acres Homes. We headed east on Victory Drive and stumbled on a strange compound in the heart of the 'hood.
I mean, seriously, the heart of the 'hood: the grounds of the apartment complex on the corner were littered with burned couches and smashed TVs, the grocery store modestly called itself "OK Food Store," the hair salon proudly reveled in the name "Hood Barbershop." A lady in a head-scarf and floral-print muu-muu stood in front of the OK Food Store drinking a pre-noon brown-bag beer; during our ten-minute stop here, I saw her go in both there and an adjacent Valero twice to buy scratch cards.
And across from all that there stands this.
We had no clue what it was. We knew from a sign out front that it was Vietnamese, and bas-relief sculptures of the Stations of the Cross along one perimeter of the acreage this building stands on indicated a Catholic theme. And at last we found the English sign: turns out this is Saint Clement's Monastery and Our Mother of Perpetual Help Shrine. Looks like the could use plenty of the latter right across the street.
Onward to the east, past Sylvester Turner Park and the Astros' Urban Youth Baseball Academy, another cause that could use some TLC from Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
While we lunched on amazing $1 tacos from a Puro Jalisco truck near I-45 and Little York, an amusing scene unfolded in the gas station quickie mart next door. Beebe saw the whole thing when he went in to buy a beer: A tubby middle-aged guy, shirtless but wearing a cowboy hat, walked up to the clerk and asked if he could clean out the car wash for $3, "I'll do a good job, just like last time," he added.
"You are drunk again," said the South Asian clerk. "How many beers have you had today?"
"Only one," said cowboy man.
"How big was this one beer?" asked the clerk.
"It wasn't a 40," said the man. "Come on, lemme clean the carwash."
The clerk refused, but the man was still hanging around when we rolled on, on past a strip-mall pill mill or five and the ramshackle American Legion Post 586 on Parker, which is guarded by a huge tank in forest camo, its turret swiveled toward the trailer park across the street.
We pedaled east down Parker to the headwaters of Fulton, which we joined and headed south across Tidwell and Berry to what used to be that fearsome shopping precinct known as Northline Mall.
Which is now gone; it is now a Meyerland-style open-air market featuring slightly downscale big-box retail on the order of Palais Royal, Beall's, GNC and a generic Chinese buffet. (My dad believes all cheap Chinese food is prepared in one subterranean central kitchen and dispatched to various outlets via secret couriers.)
Northline's shopping experience comes complete with music piped in to the breezeways outside the stores, and this being the Northside barrio, the jams were way cooler than what you would hear in the Land of Meyer; think the James Gang, War and Rare Earth.
Across Crosstimbers, there's a riotous, awesomely retro and quintessentially Ghetto-Houstonian strip mall, starring a Hungry Farmer barbecue, Long John's House of Spinach Kolaches, and a place where you can actually rent a boomin' car stereo.
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And there is also one of the last bastions of the once-mighty Soundwaves music store empire. Unlike the Montrose locale, this one actually puts a priority on music; in fact, there was nary a surfboard to be seen. If you're looking for local hip-hop, gospel, zydeco, modern-day blues or soul/R&B, this Soundwaves will hit the spot.
We headed east along Crosstimbers passed the Ice Cream Castles strip club and the T.H.U.G. church (True Heros [Sic] Under God ministry) and then across Hardy, where a shaven-headed mook in a orange candy-painted slab took enough in an interest in us to swerve to the left and swerve to the right and welcome us to that awesomely ghetto-fantabulous northeast side of town. Beebe and I pedaled on to Jensen, a street we had long been dreading but knew we had to scratch off the list.
We turned right on Jensen and headed south towards the Bloody Nickel as a line of dark clouds rolled in off the Gulf.
Check back later for part two.