Sole of Houston: This One's for Rory Miggins

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This installment of the Sole of Houston takes us to the Southeast side of town.

There were a lot of firsts to this walk. For starters, it was the first that had a theme – since it took us through Rory Miggins’s old stomping grounds, we dedicated the walk to him. The temperature was cooler than on any other walk, and this Monday hike was the first I’d ever done on any day other than Friday or Saturday. And there was another big one, a huge psychological step, but I’ll get to that as it comes…

9 AM, the Pierce Elevated at Travis

The original plan was to take the Fuqua park and ride bus from Downtown Transit Center out to Fuqua, walk west on Fuqua to Telephone, and then head north on that storied road to the Leeland split. From there we would head west on Leeland downtown, and then on to Warren’s, one of the traditional termini for these trips.

But after an hour or so, we got tired of waiting for the bus. We decided to just take off on foot, so we walked up to Leeland and headed east. We would decide where to turn around and head back later.

After crossing HWY 59, we found ourselves in that neighborhood that is not quite Old Chinatown nor Third Ward. Turns out this ‘hood has a name – one of its denizens told Beebe it is called the Edmondson Addition. It’s old, too; I later found out it was already in existence before a 1917 map of Houston was printed.

Boarded-up hovels line some streets, awaiting inevitable transformation into the (mostly shoddy) condos that are springing up like dandelions here. Other streets reminded us of some of Galveston’s less opulent older districts – one and two-story wood frame houses standing on bricks, interspersed with brick warehouses and workshops.

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And then amid it all, there’s Sun Young (formerly Tien Hou) Temple, a gold and fire-engine red riot of incense, dragon columns, and altars to Buddha and a host of other deities. (I’ve seen it described as “Buddhist / Taoist.”) It’s infinitely surreal – it’s as if someone airlifted it here from Saigon or Taipei and dropped it here among the live oaks and asphalt of old Houston.

Nearby was 80-odd-year-old St. Nicholas church, the oldest African-American parish in Houston, and not far from that, the Chronicle lived up to the spirit of the saint himself. Their Goodfellows warehouse was a hive of activity – poor Houstonians streamed in the building empty-handed and came out with bags of groceries.

Noon, site of Local Charm, Lawndale at Telephone

After a stroll through Eastwood’s live oak splendor, picking up po’ boys to go at Mandola’s deli, and a shot of coffee at Bohemeo’s, we popped in a gas station and bought a six-pack and headed across the street to what was Local Charm, Rory Miggins’s ‘80s and ‘90s bar.

We sat on the front step – the restaurant that had opened here after Local Charm closed down had also bit the dust, and now the interior looks like a junk shop. (As does the back yard.) Just as he cracked open his first Miller High Life of the day, Beebe saw a cop stop his car at the red light not 20 feet away. The cop just waved.

I told Beebe my theory – that Miggins was like a reincarnation of Dick Dowling, the legendary Irish saloon keeper. Dowling once ran a bar called The Bank of Bacchus and staved off a Union naval invasion of Texas with a few dozen of his countrymen and a couple of cannons.

Beebe said he’d heard other people say the same thing. He told me a story about how Miggins always fought for what was right. Seems a certain bar owner also owned the property next door, on which a Mexican restaurant stood. When the restaurant closed down, the owners asked the tavernkeeper / landlord to let them take their neon sign with them. The bar owner said he would be happy to let them have it – for $10,000.

Miggins thought that wasn’t right. “He found out some information about the bar owner,” Beebe said. “And then he went and told him that if he didn’t let them have the sign, he would make that information public. The bar owner changed his mind quick after that. Rory never bragged about these things. You had to drag those stories out of him.”

2 PM, the Telephone Road Tenderloin

When I’m sad and blue, And I’m feeling all alone, There’s a place that I go to, That no one knows. Where no matter what I do, Won’t nobody put me down, That’s why I’m going to the other side of town. -- Steve Earle, “The Other Side of Town.”

South of I-45 and Brays Bayou, Telephone Road comes into its legend. Sort of.

Gone is the Mexican Catholic blue-collar neighborhood to the north around Queen of Peace church, its place taken by a string of hot sheet motels, clip joints, massage parlors and other such venues of vice. This is what’s left of the Telephone Road Mark May, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Culturcide and others have written songs about.

But it’s all impossibly sadder. The Telephone Road that Earle and Crowell sang about in the rollicking songs of that name is long gone. Crowell’s version is set in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, and Earle’s in the early ‘70s. Today’s Telephone Road far better fits Earle’s “The Other Side of Town.”

There’s a certain Web site journalistic enquiry has led me to, on which men review the prostitutes they frequent in every city in the world. They rate and discuss escorts from outcall services, happy-ending massage parlors, strippers, and streetwalkers and warn others of vice stings and so on, and the reading is infinitely and equally skanky and riveting.

Of all the tales I have read on there, one Telephone Road misadventure stands alone, towering above the rest. Even Charles Bukowski at his most depraved would have to shake his craggy head in wonder at the epic spun by a guy who signed his name “Greg’s Tab.”

“Gotta tell you this,” the tale begins, “and by the way, if I end up executed gangland style, please go looking for [name redacted], with dreadlocks and gold and diamonds on his teeth, who lives near [redacted] and drives a 93 Cadillac, or something 93 like that.”

After that preamble, our hero recounts his adventures, which started one summer Friday afternoon in a couple of the Korean bars on Telephone. He is drinking beer and working up his nerve to approach some of the “female patrons” of these joints when in walks trouble in the form of the aforementioned dreadlocked, iced-out, Cadillac-driving gentleman described above.

“He wanted to sell me gold chains,” GT writes. “I asked him for marijuana instead. He said he could find some and we went to score some.”

Dreads came back with the weed and told our hero he knew where some women were who would trade blow jobs for crack. All they needed was some crack. GT, who tells us later in his post that he has a Ph. D. and has never broken the law other than smoking weed and driving drunk, nevertheless thought this a smashing idea.

Here’s the condensed version of the rest of that evening. GT and Dreads would spend the next six hours smoking crack and getting blow-jobs from crack whores, one of them pregnant, in motels all over the east side. Things sour between them as the hours roll by. Here’s how the story ends: “I am now driving down the road at 2AM with a black guy with dreads clinging to the roof of my car and pot and crack inside my car. I'm fucking going 60 down the I-10 feeder road” – I think he means I-45 – “and he's screaming and begging. I'm shouting ‘Fuck you! I'll dump all the drugs. You wanna go for a 70 mile per hour ride, you motherfucker?!’”

Eventually he slows down and Dreads tumbles to the pavement. “I swear if I'd run over that fucker's head I wouldn't have cared, except to avoid getting caught,” GT writes. “He had clung to me for like ten hours and milked probably over a hundred dollars from me for crack and hoes--he got at least three blow jobs, plus all that crack, and I paid for it--and he still wouldn't let go… I hope the forces of the universe will allow him to be killed tonight.”

And here we were, in the flesh. After we killed a half-hour drinking and poking around in the ruins of a notoriously violent (and long-closed) cantina / cockfighting pit, Beebe decided that we should have a drink at the Happy Go Lucky bar, the very place where GT met Dreads.

If you’ve ever read Confederacy of Dunces, you’ll remember that the action in that classic culminates in a den of sin called The Night of Joy. The Happy Go Lucky Bar is the Night of Joy, Korean-style.

It’s intensely dark, and the whole place smells like sickly-sweet oatmeal. There’s lots of red leather both on the couches in a den-like setting and along the bar. Where many bars have TVs, the Happy Go Lucky Club has monitors wherein the staff can watch a four-way split-screens of what’s happening in the parking lot.

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A cage with a tiny green parakeet in it rested on the bar. Beebe stuck his finger in the cage and the bird attacked it. He did it again, and the bird doubled its tiny fury.

Behind the bar, a fiftysomething Korean lady exuded authority. On her bare shoulders was perched another parakeet. Judging from the little bruises on the lady’s arms, this bird had only a little better temper than his caged compatriot.

A few other, somewhat younger Korean women flitted about in the shadows. There were dozens of bottles of cheap champagne on a table behind the bar, and a buffet was on a table in the middle of the room, in tins loosely wrapped with foil.

“An old girlfriend of mine lived a block from here,” Beebe tells the mama-san. “She never would come in here with me.”

“What kind of girl you like?” the woman asks. “You like Asian girl? Wanna dance?”

I go over to the jukebox – it’s an assortment of Korean pop, Mexican workingman’s music and blue-collar country and classic rock. Patsy Cline has pride of place here, as she has always and will ever in all such places. It’s just one of those things. I paid for Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser,” Vicente Fernandez’s “Volver Volver” (the “Brown Eyed Girl” of South Texas and Mexico) and “The End” by the Doors. That last song really suited this place.

Back at the bar, Beebe was signing a card that will grant the mama-san plus one entry to the Continental Club any night she wants to come on up.

A clean-cut twentysomething Mexican kid in a leather jacket comes in and he’s a live wire. “I’ll have a Corona!” he beams. One of the shadow girls is immediately at his side, as the mama-san looks on approvingly.

She turns her attention back to us. “Where your car?” she asks. “I don’t see car on here,” she says, looking at her monitor.

We walked here, we tell her. We don’t elaborate. After a shot of Jack and a beer apiece, we walk back out in the afternoon, which damn near blinds us with its brilliance.

Another place down the street made the Happy Go Lucky Bar seem like a trendy Midtown lounge. There were only a few dusty bottles behind the bar, and the barmaid’s shaky motor skills made even pouring a shot of whiskey a time-consuming chore. Later, a blonde Korean with a perm and a hard face took over, and seemed not to like the look of us.

“The good cop poured us our drinks, and here’s the bad cop,” Beebe said.

As we left, deep in the back of my mind, I was still hearing Steve Earle:

“Well it isn't very far, And it's not that hard to find, You just follow all the other lonely souls. Take a walk down lonesome lane, ‘til you see the dead end sign, and your broken heart will tell you where to go.”

3:30 PM, Sheffield’s Ice House and the turn toward home

One of the oldest bars in Houston, the 65-year-old Sheffield’s is a bastion of proud redneckery. The juke is stuffed with the likes of David Allen Coe, the Allmans, and Stevie Ray. A tray of ribs sits on a table in the middle of the room, ignored by all the patrons, who are riveted by today’s episode of Jeopardy! It’s a bit of a time warp to 1984, and it has the feel of the late Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo.

After a beer at Sheffield’s, we cut through Golfcrest, a neighborhood with streets with names like Golfway and Fairway, but no golf course. And here, on a street that abutted Barnett Stadium, I finally broke down and traveled to an other side of town of the mind.

I’d been lugging a shoulder bag full of wine, beer, a good-sized transistor radio and my cheapo iPod speakers, for about ten miles by that point. The last few of the twelve abandoned shopping carts we’d passed had seemed more and more tempting. And here was the 13th, a small blue Marshall’s model, ideal as a starter cart, just sitting there in the street. All four wheels were in place, there was no broken wheel-lock apparatus. It was road-ready and tested.

“Should I do it?” I asked Beebe. “This is a big step. Once you start pushing a shopping cart around, there’s no going back to the person you were before.”

“Do it,” Beebe said.

“What if somebody we know sees us?” I said.

“Trust me, nobody over here knows us. And if they did see us, it would be hilarious.”

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True enough. I tossed my bag in there, and we trundled off towards Long Boulevard. I quickly learned a few tricks of the trade. Sometimes it’s easier to pull it behind you, for example. And if you hit a stretch of bad road, just abandon it. There will be another one on the other side. I was able to trade up in this manner until I eventually had the Escalade of shopping carts – a sleek HEB model with twin cup holders and a little compartment to prop up my transistor radio facing us.

Long is a depressing street, lined by hurricane fences topped by razor wire and ramshackle tin-sided workshops crumbling into ruin. It reminds me of what Clinton Drive looked like about ten years ago, had Clinton been shabbier to begin with.

“My mother always said to stay away from Long,” Beebe said. I didn’t get a dangerous vibe from it, but it sure was ugly and bleak.

Nightfall: A Foray Through South Park and Third Ward

Just after the train crossing where Long merges with and changes names to Griggs, we came upon an abandoned, burned-out brick and timber crack-shack. We went in and had a drink. Behind the house, in a tangled wood, no fewer than three shopping carts were strewn about, a couple of them spilling mildewed clothes. Under the charred beams of the blackened room that looked out on this sad spectacle, about ten 60-ounce go-cups were scattered.

“Lean party,” Beebe speculated.

We were now in South Park. As the sun sank, we headed towards the beacon of Transco Tower, which looks magnificent from Griggs. I ditched my last shopping cart of the day, and after passing King Leo’s Club -- we wanted to go in but it wasn’t open until eight – we followed Old Spanish Trail towards Almeda.

Around 288, OST is as lively as any nightlife area in the city. There’s the Turning Point Club, the TK Sports Bar, Diallo’s of Houston and a couple more. We went in one – I think it was TK. A fortysomething lady was giving soul-blues dance lessons to an older couple, while TVs beamed the Bears-Vikings game from all corners. There were no monitors beaming exterior shots all over the place, and this felt like our return to civilization after many hours in the wilds.

A man had set up a grill in the parking lot and was cooking smothered pork chops and burgers. I ordered a burger, and Beebe, who now lives in Marfa, went in the adjacent restaurant and ordered a mess of fiery, orangish boudin. “You can’t get this west of Brookshire,” he said. “I don’t think they even know what boudin is in Marfa.”

After this repast, we headed over to Lil’ James Reminisce Club, where the DJ brought down the house by spinning a 45 of a very old Johnnie Taylor blues.

By now, in the home stretch, we were pretty overserved. We staggered up Almeda to KCOH, where DJ Stevie Good Time T was good enough to let a couple of drunk white boys in out of the cold and tell us the story of his life, and the threatened existence of KCOH.

That very morning, the station had started running an ad basically saying that the local black community had two weeks to come up with cash enough to save the station or the owners would be selling it to radio brokers.

“That would mean a conglomerate would get it,” says Beebe. “That would just be terrible. More right-wing crap. Man it sucks. And why is Radio Disney on AM? Why did KYOK have to die for that? Radio Disney should be on FM. When Swingin’ 650 went that was bad enough, but if KCOH guys everything will just suck here.”

Beebe’s old-fashioned. “There's nothing more Southern than still caring about radio,” Village Voice music editor Rob Harvilla recently declared, and that applies to Texas as well.

At any rate, Beebe seemed more upset by the prospect of a sale than Stevie Good Time T himself. After all, rumors of KCOH’s demise have swirled for years. Maybe this is just more of the same. Let’s hope so.

After a nightcap at the Libra Lounge, Beebe and I split up at Wheeler Station. -- John Nova Lomax

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