Sole of Houston: Deep Harrisburg: Lomax and Beebe Take on the East Side Again

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Something about the east side of our fair city keeps drawing the Sole of Houston back. Even after already hiking Clinton / Navigation and Telephone / Griggs / OST, David Beebe and I decided we needed at least one more trek over there.

Houston’s east side brings to mind Nelson Algren’s famous quote on Chicago: “Once you've come to be a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real."

Here’s the east Houston equivalent: “…You may well find uglier uglies. But never an ugly so trill.”

And in truth, it’s not even as ugly as parts of the West Side. The Gulfton Ghetto is uglier than its Broadway equivalent, as we would find out. The far reaches of Westheimer have nothing on honky-tonking semi-rural Almeda-Genoa.

After the usual Internet planning session, Beebe and I decided to meet at the Med Center Transit Center, where we would catch the last Park and Ride bus of the morning out to South Point and hike in from there.

8:05-10 A.M. South Beltway 8 to the Windmill Ice House on Almeda-Genoa: South Point is a long way from town. I’d never heard of it before and probably never will again. I was a little apprehensive when the bus kept rolling out the Gulf Freeway, farther and farther past Hobby Airport all the way out to the very southeastern corner of the Beltway.

“Man, are you sure we haven’t bitten off more than we can chew this time?” I asked Beebe.

“No, it just seems far out here, just because we are a long way past the airport,” he answered. “Really, the airport is just close in.” (I Google-mapped the hike the next day, and it came out to 19.95 miles.)

The immediate environs of the South Point Park and Ride are dreary. We started the slog back to town on the Gulf Freeway feeder road, past an endless chain of giant flag-waving, balloon-festooned car dealerships, baroque strip clubs, and greasy spoon buffets. Seagulls laughed and wheeled in the air overhead -- we were that close to the bay complex.

The restaurants reminded me of the worst meal I had eaten in recent years. Pressed for time one day after work a couple of months ago, and tasked with both refueling the car and bringing home dinner, I bought a bucket of Church’s chicken from an outlet conveniently tucked in one of my local Valero stations. It was vile. My family loves fried chicken, but we ended up throwing most of that bucket in the trash.

Beebe spent much of high school working in a Popeye’s, and he laughed when I told him that story. “Popeye’s owns Church’s,” he told me. “They’ll put a Church’s where people can’t afford Popeye’s. When I was at Popeye’s, we took the ‘A’ chicken. KFC took ‘B.’ I don’t even want to know what ended up at Church’s. It’s like it’s all skin and fat, but the chicken seems too small even to have been fat.”

He laughed even harder when I told him it was from one of the gas station Church’s.

“Chicken and gasoline don’t mix,” he said. Words to live by…

By this time we were at Almeda-Genoa / Shaver. We took a left, walked under the freeway, and after passing Almeda Mall, found ourselves in a quasi-rural blue-collar white area. An icehouse appeared up ahead.

Although it was about 8:30, I told Beebe I bet it would be open. It was. It was called the Jukebox Lounge. The walls and ceilings were studded with old 45s; stuffed deer heads were the only other decoration. An old man in coveralls was nursing a beer at the bar. Like the other bars on Almeda-Genoa, it opened at the crack of dawn to accommodate night shift workers. Since this place was either out in the county or labeled as “open-air,” smoking was allowed.

It also seemed a family-friendly joint – it sat in a gravel parking lot well back from the road on what seemed like miles and miles of Texas prairie.

“This is the kind of place you could bring the kids,” I said.

“Yep,” Beebe said, taking a nip off one of his Lenten tipples – an O’Doul’s. “Just tell ‘em, ‘Y’all go play. We’ll come get you in a few hours.’”

I asked the fiftysomething barmaid how old the place was. “We’ve been here since 1989,” she said.

“Looks a lot older than that,” I said.

“That’s cause the owner never fixes the place up,” she laughed. She took a drag off a long cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke up toward a Billy Joe Royal single on the ceiling. “It’s fallin’ down around us.”

Not far down the road, we come across another bar, and it too was open. I told Beebe Almeda-Genoa looked like fertile ground for one of the Orange Show Foundation’s Eyeopener Tours, wherein they take a busload of upscale Houstonians to neglected areas of the city. An Almeda-Genoa morning pub crawl…an eye-opener in every sense of the word.

After passing a ramshackle flea market at the corner of Radio Street and Almeda-Genoa, where an old Mexican man was selling used bicycles, and a tacky graveyard rampant with plastic flowers and Mylar balloons waving in the breeze, we came to the Windmill Icehouse and went in for a beer.

A sign reading “Be Nice or Leave” hung behind the bar near some vintage Oilers neon. The jukebox offered a mix of classic and modern country, classic and modern rock, and a sprinkling of Malaco soul-blues. I punched in CCR’s “Suzie Q,” and a downhome divorce suite of Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” and Marvin Sease’s “Bitch Git It All.”

Beebe and I perused a tabloid entirely devoted to the goings-on at the strip clubs of the southeast side. Along with club ads, it featured editorial content consisting mainly of sub-junior high level dirty jokes.

The barmaid came over and asked us what we were up to. “Nothing much,” I said. “We’re walking.”

“Walking where?” she asked.

“Back to town,” I said.

“Why don’t y’all get the bus?”

“We get that a lot,” I said. I told her the deal – that I worked for a paper and took long walks that I wrote about.

“Which way are y’all going?” she asked.

I told her we planned on going up to Telephone, taking that up to Broadway, and then taking Harrisburg to town. She’d never heard of Broadway or Harrisburg.

“Those are Hispanic areas,” said a fortysomething man I took to be a customer. Out of nowhere, he launched into a joke.

“Know how Meskins get their family pictures done?” he asked. “They put the whole family in the back of their truck and then they run a red light.”

“A black guy told me that,” he added.

10:30 A.M.-2 p.m. Almeda-Genoa to the Mouth of Brays Bayou: After passing through a subdivision called Skyscraper Shadows, we arrived at Telephone and turned north. Out there beyond the airport and where the landscape abuts its western fringe, there are no sidewalks, nor much of anything else – a few abandoned gas stations and neglected houses on large lots. Sad but true to report: The only hubs of human activity out here were a labor pool and a repo yard, which hummed like Star Pizza on Super Bowl Sunday. In the minute or so it took to walk past, two repo trucks screeched carrying a total of three poor folks’ rides. The drivers frantically unloaded their quarry, the better to get back out there and find still more.

Still, this isn’t an ugly place. It is tabletop-flat, and there’s no shortage of mature oaks. No tall structures can be built here, as they are in Hobby’s flight path, a fact brought home to us when a Southwest jet passed a hundred feet over his head. We waved to the pilots – I even tried to get him to honk his horn.

After passing Airport Boulevard, we decided to take the backstreets east to Broadway. Morley Street is fairly typical of this part of Garden Villas – a mix of Sharpstownesque ranch houses and corrugated tin light industrial workshops. A glaring exception was housed in one such building – behind a razor wire fence there stood an artist’s studio surrounded by a whimsical riot of boldly painted iron sculptures.

“I bet this is the artist that did that weird spider web fence on the Art Car parking garage on Travis,” Beebe said, and the work here certainly looked like the same, creepy/funny style. (We walked all the way around the building and found no identification for the studio, though.)

At Broadway, we came upon some of the last remnants of the Harold Farb apartment empire. You have to give the man credit. Farb’s brick-and-wrought-iron, faux French Quarter-style complexes had aged gracefully and seemed fairly well-tended.

Further up the road, we came upon decrepit-looking Thai Xuan, the transplanted Vietnamese village Josh Harkinson wrote about in 2005. Thai Xuan was not aging so well. It did have a vigilant, if elderly security guard who shooed us off in non-existent English when we attempted to explore its interior.

Here, according to Harkinson, is what we missed beyond the gates, where Thai Xuan “unfolds like a lotus flower”:

“Any sidewalk between any two buildings leads into a valley of microfarms crammed with herbs and vegetables that would confound most American botanists. Entire front yards are given over to choy greens. Mature papaya trees dangle green fruit overhead, and vines sagging with wrinkled or spiky melons climb trellises up second-story balconies. Perfumed night jasmine stretches for light alongside trees heavy with satsumas, limes and calamondins. Where the soil ends, Vietnamese mints and peppers sprout out of anything that will contain roots: an old U.S. Mail bin, an ice chest, two clawfoot bathtubs.”

There would be more choy or calamondins where we going. Just past the Gulf Freeway, Broadway abruptly becomes totalmente Mexicano.

We lunched crammed into a tiny corner booth at Taqueria del Sol, which reminded me of San Antonio, and walked out into a rainy afternoon.

The Park Place neighborhood is old, but not as tired as it looked a few years ago. New strip malls are going up, and they are both built to last and constructed in attractive Mexican-looking styles. Recently crumbling old bungalows are getting fresh coats of paint and sturdy new wrought-iron fences.

No, Broadway isn’t what you’d call a garden spot. There are plenty of car lots, muffler shops and tire barns over here. The difference is that even those are made to look nicer than those on the West Side of town. Invariably, the tire places are decorated with a few tires painted red, yellow and green, while most of the muffler and transmission joints featured funny little welded sculptures of animals made by the mechanics in their slack hours.

Here also was the last remnant of the Chuck Wagon burger chain – it still looked like a prairie Conestoga, but now it peddled pupusas. Harrisburg Opticians had a briskly efficient, cursive-lettered sign that looked as old as the business – 1937.

And then we came to an underpass and were suddenly brushed up hard against the Ship Channel. We took a detour over a bridge on to the little island that is home to Brady’s Landing, the once-hopping restaurant with the panoramic view of Houston’s economic engine.

To get there you have to cross a bridge over a little tributary, where several barges were moored, along with some poor soul’s sailboat, which had sunk into the murk here. On Beebe’s orders, I dialed up “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on my iPod in its honor.

We both almost ran afoul of officialdom on this island – Beebe when he snapped a picture of a Harrisburg Rotary Club sign that was too near the Port’s entry for a sentry’s liking, and me moments later when I swilled some wine near the smoke-breaking manager of the restaurant.

The air is foul here, and the eastern view is little more than a forest of tall crackers and satanic fume-belching smokestacks, sending clouds of roasted-cabbage-smelling incense skyward to Mammon, all bisected by the amazingly tall East Loop Ship Channel Bridge, its pillars standing in the toxic bilge where Brays Bayou dumps its effluent into the great pot of greenish-brown petro-gumbo.

While Brady’s Landing today seems to survive as a function room – a sort of Rainbow Lodge for the Ship Channel, with manicured grounds that reminded Beebe of Astroworld -- decades ago, people came here to eat and to take in the view. This was progress to them, this horrifically awesome vista showed how we beat the Nazis and Japanese and how we were gonna stave off them godless Commies. As for me, it made me think of Beebe’s maxim: “Chicken and gasoline don’t mix.”

We headed back over to Broadway and hiked a bridge over Brays Bayou’s mouth, where a sign in the water warned pleasure-boaters to turn back on the Coast Guard’s orders. Ahead of us lurked a foothill of crushed cars, which were being hoisted into the hold of a freighter bound for China, where they would be melted down, re-shaped, and sold back to us at a premium.

“Welcome to Gary, Indiana,” said Beebe of the view. An ugly so trill indeed.

We decided to cut through a miserable alley en route back to Harrisburg, and behind a wretched hovel there, some shaved-headed, fucked-up looking gangbanger types were pacing around the yard. “Meth,” Beebe said. “This is not good.” (“Meth” is a Beebe-ese expletive meaning generalized trouble. He once told me that the entire American economy was boiling down into warring camps of “meth versus rich.”)

I kept them in the corner of my eye as we walked past but resolutely refused to make eye contact with any of them. Congolese rumba was billowing from my iPod, it’s cheeriness at odds with both our surroundings and the people in them. This was the longest hundred feet of the entire 100-plus miles of the Sole’s travel’s, but we made it out safe.

2 – 6 p.m. Brays Bayou to Leon’s Lounge: Just north of Brays Bayou, Harrisburg is hopping. There’s a purple, bright blue or yellow cantina on every corner, sometimes several. Farther south, the Hispanic presence seems more assimilated, second- and third-generation. Up here, you just felt like you were in a border town.

It’s always been a two-fisted, hard-drinking riot of beer joints interspersed with marine trade union halls. Back in Sig Byrd’s day, 75th Street was known as “Six-Bit Street,” and Canal Street (just to our north) was known as “Canine Street,” because, one barfly explained, this area was a dog-eat-dog world.

It certainly had seemed so back in that alley… Best to have some protection then. We came upon a yerberia where lurid murals of the grim reaper and a huge brown owl stared us down. Beebe insisted we go in. In broken Spanglish, he told the lady behind the counter he wanted some tea for his stomach. I found an acrylic pyramid in which was encased rice grains, a Buddha suspended in fluid, and a multi-crossarmed Eastern crucifix, all amid gold and red psychedelic designs. At ten bucks it was a steal, as I would find out later. I also left 50 cents in the offering plate for the Grim Reaper inside.

Our next stop was El Torito Bar, a friendly little dive. The jukebox blared ranchera in the dark room. A naked woman was painted over the door. Two careworn women (fully clothed) talked quietly and spooned hot chocolate in their mouths at the other end of the bar. A picture of the late owner --“El Torito” himself -- gazed down on the customers in perpetuity. Beebe went over to the jukebox and played some songs and sat back down. A woman to his left nudged him.

“I like your music,” she said. “How do you know about these songs?”

“I listen to Radio Ranchito every day,” Beebe said. He told me later he knew artists’ names and then just punched up the first songs on their CDs.

One of his selections – a dramatic Vicente Fernandez number – had a familiar melody. I could have sworn it was a cover of the Beatles “I’ve Just Seen A Face.”

But “I Can’t Stand the Rain” would have been a better song for us by this point. We’d come about 15 miles by now, and it was raining just hard enough to be annoying. It took forever to get past the vast (former) Maxwell House coffee factory. We grabbed a quick beer at the Harrisburg Country Club, which was abuzz over the news of Chuck Rosenthal’s resignation, and with that, we had reached the end of Harrisburg Blvd.

We decided to officially end the trek at Leon’s Lounge, so we headed south on Dowling and St Emanuel, where H-Town’s Queensryche fans were waiting to be let in for the band’s show.

Leon’s is all fancy now. I can remember when the bar was full of cigarette smoke and only the crackheads went outside to light up. Now the shuffleboard and stuffed animal heads are all gone, as is the Greyhound riding clientele. There’s a fancy new sign hanging over the door, replacing the gangsta looking one that had hung there for years. Leon’s is now Nü-Leon’s.

I mean, Blues Traveler was playing when we walked in, and not just a song but the whole goddamn album. Beebe laughed uproariously at every insane, interminable John Popper harmonica solo. And he laughed at me, because one of the only other customers in the joint was a woman we will call Susan, possibly my least favorite person on Earth. She’s a Michael Savage fan and a blatant, loudmouthed racist, who often spouted hate speech in front of our children. She was intensely ignorant and very proud of it.

And one night at one of our deck parties, during my favorite part of one of my favorite songs of all time, she took my CD out and replaced it with Journey’s Escape. Without asking, mind you. I ripped that sucker out and hurled it into the night. It has been on between us ever since.

I didn’t exactly rush over to exchange pleasantries. Luckily, she was draped all over some guy down at the end of the bar and she didn’t see me. I hoped she wouldn’t, but Leon’s is small. I wanted her to get out, so I decided to take action. I knew that she disliked Mexicans even more than most other non-white people, so I harnessed brown power. I took the Mexican Voodoo Pyramid from the Harrisburg yerberia out of my bag and placed it on the bar, and let the talisman work its magic. And I’ll be an hijo de la gran puta if it didn’t work. She picked up her stuff and left almost instantly.

Sadly, it wasn’t able to rid the joint of Blues Traveler, so we left Nü-Leon’s. And with that the walk was over. – John Nova Lomax

For plenty more images from the trek, click here.

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