Friday, November 25, 2005

My Soul Laid Bare

La Poema de mi Vida


My first memory

is watching the refinery burn.

Amoco had blown up

And it wouldn’t be the first time

nor would it be the last.

There were many fires I watched

with the fear of a scared child

or like a wide-eyed pyromaniac.

Between the fires came the floods.

Lurking like a leviathan,

lapping at our livelihood.

Water in the house;

eroding away my sanity.

How I hate the water sometimes.

Water through the roof;

I don’t think

I’ll get over my first hurricane.

Big brother came to stay.

He broke my toys,

then he broke my spirit

before he had to go away.

Mom tried to blow on the wound,

to make it all better,

But it only hurt more.

I would carve my own niche.

Home sick from school,

I would write the words

that would take me away from it all.

High seas adventure

on a stormy sea,

I maneuver it well

in spite of hitting the rocks.

Then puberty hits me blind side.

Every girl looks good,

But they don’t see me.

I am invisible to them.

When I landed one,

it was all a sham.

Girls being cruel to me

for no reason at all.

Another niche was carved for me

when I met the clean side of the blues,

raising my junior high voice in praise.

Grandpa went to ride the chariot,

but I had Mahalia’s beautiful music

to sooth my shattered soul.

Then came high school

and a roller coaster of emotions.

I had a notion it would be tough,

but nothing prepared me

for the road ahead

no matter how ready I was.


I am a survivor,

But not the disco anthem kind.

I have survived things

That would turn your head inside out.

And I don’t mean floods, fires, or abuse

at the hands of someone I trusted.

I am talkin’ about gang wars, discrimination,

And the deaths of friends and enemies

who left this life too young.

Shit no high schooler should have to live through.

I heard the stories about

how they gunned down boys in cold blood.

‘Cause they looked like someone else.

‘Cause they picked the wrong fight to break up.

‘Cause they couldn’t choose the right side.

Bloods and Crips.

Stupid shit

this killin’ people over colors.

Yeah, that was years ago,

But it stays with you,

grows inside you like a cancer.

After I lost them,

I lost my cool.

Dumbasses tellin’ me,

‘Why you the only white boy in the choir?’

And I say, ‘I’m Hispanic’

And they say, ‘I’m 1/16 Native American.

And I think to myself Yeah right.

I would have run with the Hispanics,

But they’re too clannish,

And I’m too far removed

from their second-generation culture.

So don’t ask me again why we’re not friends.

I’m happy with my choir sisters and brothers.

They take me as I am, warts and all.

After I lost my cool,

I lost my friends.

Acquaintances and bullies alike,

their deaths a shock to me.


I experienced the death of many friendships;

the revolving door spun too fast and out of control.

How I wished it had rusted shut

before it was too late.

Of course, I’m never alone

when I think about it.

After I lost my friends,

I found myself

a stronger person

because of my trials,

But I live with the pain of yesterday

aleved with doses of therapeutic poetry

Because I’ve already swallowed enough bitter pills.


I wanna howl like Ginsberg.

I wanna go tell it on the mountain

and everywhere my story.

I said there wasn’t enough paper

to write down all the shit I’ve been through,

But stories were meant to be told.

When I started this gig,

I was young and scared

Having shit shoved down my throat

and people ridin’ my ass.

Until I grew brave and bold;

Lashing out against

what I couldn’t in high school.

Fighting urges I didn’t understand

being a naïve young man.

All through college I fight WASPS

with a sting as powerful as theirs.

I learned as I was unlearning,

that old things have to be done in new ways.

That the wheels of progress

can’t turn without the grease of change.

As I go along,

I re-invent myself to keep from getting old and rusty.

Then, there are those routines I can’t shake

Because I think I’m getting something

when it’s just a lot of empty feelings.

I am tired of having lost as much as I have loved.

I am fed up with back room bitches

who won’t give a hundred percent.

I am sick of bathroom ads that go nowhere.

I put this all behind me,

But the songs take me back

like little harpies that chase me everywhere.

They torture me with songs

that bring back suppressed memories.

Of relationships as sour

as a fruit that’s been picked before its time.

Now I’m at academia’s doorstep

ready to be unlearned again

for a turn at something different.

A chance to escape

the prison of small-town life.

No unwanted pregnancies for me.

No poor-paying military service.

Not prison time,

for stupid shit I know is wrong.

No funerals attended

by friends I don’t’ remember.

I’m not quittin’

until I rise above that which has held me down.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A clear crisp day in March is forever burned into my memory, and the collective memory of many in Texas City. Everyone will remember what they were doing and where they were when they heard, felt, or saw the explosion. I will always remember standing in my kitchen, clinging to my ailing grandmother as the pressure wave slammed into my parents’ house. Little did I know it at the time that very sound was the sound of 15 souls being taken. No amount of money will bring back those people who were lost, nor will it ease the pain of such a tremendous loss.
Last month, as Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration handed down its judgment to BP. They would have to pay $21.36 million in fines in addition to willful health and safety violations. A majority of the fine is related to egregious willful violations. That is, those things that were preventable, but were never remedied to begin with. The question remains now, can BP change?
The short answer is yes, but how? BP took its first steps toward saving face by moving all non-essential contract employees into a centralized location. No longer will contract workers have to labor in trailers where they are susceptible to the dangers of a pressure wave. Instead, they will now work in a building once occupied by K-Mart. BP has also taken other measures.
In May, shortly after the blast, BP’s Texas City refinery changed managers. Colin Maclean was brought in to turn the facility around in order to make it safer. Maclean was the man behind the turn around at BP’s troubled Grangemouth complex. While his plans look good on paper, it’s hard to say how well they’ll be implemented at the Texas City facility. It’s hard to implement change after things have been done the same way for so long.
The US Chemical Safety Board, the principal investigator, recommended that BP appoint a panel to review its safety procedures in August. The company has responded by appointing the panel. BP hired former secretary of state James Baker to head the panel. Joining him on the panel will be members of both the private and public sector. Hopefully, this help from the outside can solve some of the problems within BP.
The CSB is due to release its initial findings October 27th. I can only imagine what will be in this report, but the board will not be as lenient as OSHA has been in the past. The full extent of just what went wrong may not be known for a while, but at least they have made progress. The investigation could lead to possible criminal charges against those at BP. Maybe then those who lost loved ones will feel justice really has been served.
As for me, my sense of security has been forever shattered. Never can I go back home again without thinking about that fateful day. Each time I look at the skyline of my hometown, I will always ask myself, when will it happen again? I feel that while BP has taken small steps toward improvement, they have tarnished their image. People will never be able to trust BP again as they have demonstrated once again that the only thing that matters to them is their bottom line. Worker safety has always taken a back seat to company profits, but this tragedy may change that. Only time will tell for sure if it does.

The Plague

A plague has spread across the Asphalt Jungle. Nearly everyone I have run into has this disease. Even I’ve gotten it, but I’ve had it longer, and it isn’t easy to get rid of. Yes, once again baseball fever has spread across the Asphalt Jungle. Houston’s beloved Astros baseball team is in the post-season fray once again. Every year, die-hard Astros fans say, maybe next year. They’ve said it over and over again, but never have they made it.

The beginning of the Astros’ season was less than spectacular No one thought they’d make it this year. Last year’s run ended against St. Louis in a game 7 heartbreaker. This year looked like it would end in yet another disappointment with the Astros’ early exit However, they proved skeptics wrong once again.

Most baseball fans say the season really doesn’t start until after the all star break. See, most teams get comfortable in their first place standings and get lazy after the break. They figure they’ve got it made sitting atop their division. Major League Baseball has made the game more interesting in recent years with the wild card spot. This is for the also-rans. The teams that were good enough to stay in the running throughout the season. For the last two years, the Astros were the wild card winner.

Wild card teams in recent history have made their way as far as the World Series, and have even won. Many hoped that the Astros would be one of those teams last year, but alas, those hopes were dashed. Once again, die-hard fans, myself included, said maybe next year. I watched the scores, caught a game when I could. Even I had my doubts at first, but then things turned around.

The Astros started playing like their old selves again. They even threatened to get within spitting distance of their Central Division rivals the St. Louis Cardinals. The real season began and the Astros looked like they might make it. Then, they goofed and lost crucial games, putting them out of the running for the division title. So began the run for the Wild Card spot.

There were a few bumps along the road, including a near sweep by the Cubs at the end of the season. Once again, the baseball gods smiled upon Houston and they had their ticket punched for another shot at the title. Despite numerous personal setbacks among the team, including the loss of Roger Clemens’ mother, the Astros persevered.

As always, the road to the World Series went through Atlanta. In years past, the Braves sent Houston packing. Year after year, they were eliminated by Atlanta. Last year, Houston saw some chinks in the armor and took advantage of Atlanta. This year was no different, and it was on to St. Louis for a rematch of last year’s championship series. The Astros looked like they would falter once again after another heartbreaking loss in game four.

Then, in game five, they bounced back as if nothing had happened. All the mistakes of the past had been erased in one fell swoop. Those who’d called the Astros a team of destiny my have been right for once. Houston once again made sports history. One of the teams to go the longest without a World Series appearance at 44 years, not to mention the 18-inning nail biter against Atlanta that catapulted them into the NLCS.

So the Astros are once again in a familiar place. Down three games in the best of seven in the World Series. Everyone in Houston “bee-lieves” the Astros can do it; a reference to the Astros’ lineup of what’s become known as the Killer B’s. I “bee-lieve” they will make it, and I’m behind my team all the way win or lose. Hopefully I won’t find myself saying maybe next year at the end of this series.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Return to the Asphalt Jungle

I have returned once again to the Asphalt Jungle. This time, I have come to stay though. It was a blind leap of faith, but I don’t regret it one bit. I have settled into the Montrose, Houston’s gay enclave. An interesting battle is setting up here, and I am looking forward to see how it shapes up. The young upward professional species of the breeder class has increasingly migrated into Houston’s Inner Loop. Once a group that had settled mostly in suburbia, or the furthest reaches of the Houston Metropolitan area, the young upward professional wishes to be closer to the center of everything.

However, this desire to be close to everything comes with its drawbacks. The Montrose had long been a haven for among others, artists, runaway teens, hustlers, prostitutes, drug dealers, and the homeless. The young upward professional, empty nester, and other species of the breeder class have continued their march into the Inner Loop. Increasingly, their tolerance for those who were here before them has grown thin.

As nearby Midtown and Downtown erupt with development, the young upward professionals there have relegated the homeless and other so-called undesirables westward into the Montrose an area that stands as a dam to all that other neighborhoods do not want. To the north is the Heights, to the west is River Oaks/Uptown, and to the south sits the Museum District. Many of these areas do not wish to deal with the problems they have corralled into the Montrose.

City leaders have met with many of the young upward professionals and the so-called NIMBYs, or Not in My Back Yard crowd. I believe that once the NIMBYs and the young upward professionals come to accept that those who were here before them are not budging, maybe peace will come to Montrose. Until such time, these battles could get worse, and threaten to get nasty. Transvestite and transsexual prostitutes are not necessarily welcome in other areas of Houston.

Hustlers are Montrose’s stock in trade. Male prostitutes are rare in many areas of Houston, and this has become their stomping ground. While drugs have always been a problem, I do see the need to clean up the streets of Montrose. However, this may take some time, as it is hard to figure out what kind of refuge there is for the element that Montrose is so notorious for. Moving them to the Sharpstown area of Houston will only make a bad situation worse.

For the better part of 20 years, Sharpstown, once a white middle class neighborhood, has been in steady decline. Property managers promise no deposit or free rent to entice indigent and sometimes gullible apartment seekers to sign leases with their companies. What it has done is breed the kind of crime and social problems Montrose was once known for.

The solution is not in shifting the bad element to yet another neighborhood, but to confront it where it is. Could prostitutes, drug dealers, and runaway teens be reformed to become respectable members of society? The possibility is there, but human nature is hard to gauge. There are many who, once they have been reformed, feel the urge to return to their former lives, and many times do. However, there are the hand full that can be reformed who bring true hope to Montrose and Sharpstown’s problems.

If the young upward professionals and the NIMBYs were to put their heads together, Montrose’s problems are solved. However, rather than come up with a solution, they have put the responsibility solely on city leaders. While there are those that will gladly take up the fight, city leaders can only do so much. The solution lies within the community to combat the bad element, but it is hard for a community to come together when it is so sharply divided.

The bad element, the homosexuals, the young upward professional breeders, and the NIMBYs first need to set aside their differences. This is easier said than done unfortunately. I believe the solution lies in letting go of the fear of the unknown. If the NIMBYs and the breeders went to sit down with the homosexuals at their hangouts, this would be a step in the right direction. Opening up a dialogue among the two factions would be a start in the right direction for sure.

In the mean time, it is easy to see where the battle lines have been drawn so far. The NIMBYs and the breeders would prefer to settle into an area and make it their own. I feel that the Montrose should stay as it is now minus a few of the drug dealers and some of the other bad element.

If the area were to change, older married gentlemen would not be able to find prostitutes to keep them company. Runaway teens might end up getting even more lost in the shuffle. Homosexuals would have to find other places to set up their clubs and bars. Without this eclectic mix of people, Montrose would be as bland as the rest of Houston, and I don’t wish to see that happen.

Friday, June 24, 2005

March 31, 2004 Welcome Home

I have returned to my native habitat upon quitting my job. Texas City is a far cry from Houston. No public transportation system, no fancy shopping malls, no nightlife. Nothing. Being back home again, I have a few adjustments to make. One is getting to know the alarm schedule at the nearby refineries. Mondays at noon is the British Petroleum alarm test, Tuesday morning is Dow Chemical, and then Wednesday are the civil defense alarms. There are also certain noises to get used to again.
Ambulance sirens, traffic noises, and storms are mundane city sounds. Here in Texas City, it’s a different animal. Living a little more than a half mile from the refineries, there’s the sound of steam being released that’s so loud, it’s sometimes almost impossible to hear the television. The one that always keeps me on my toes is the rumbling noises. Sometimes, it’s enough to rattle doors and windows, but other times, it’s enough to feel like the house is going to fall in on itself. I usually get some kind of welcome home when I return, and not necessarily from my family.
Most of the times that I have come home, it has flooded. Mother Nature’s little way of saying, this is why you left home in the first place .The first time, it was Tropical Storm Allison. We only got two or three inches compared to the two or three feet some people received. Another time it was a mezzo low that formed over us, and then around Christmas last year, it was a drenching wet cold front. There are other times I’ve come home and there’s been a mishap at one of the refineries.
Most of the time it’s a power outage, causing black smoke to belch forth from the flare stacks. One evening back in March, I was at my computer getting ready to start some revising and editing. To kill some time, I had decided to play solitaire in hopes of loosening up the ol’ gray matter. As I sat there, the British Petroleum refinery began rumbling louder and louder until there was a dull thud like something crashing into the house.
I thought at first it might be the neighbors running their lawn mower into our house, but impossible. There’s no way a little bitty push mower could make that much noise. My mother asked me what that sound was, and my stomach lurched, making me feel queasy all over. I had known exactly what that was. Some ten summers ago, I remembered the same dull thud and seeing that nothing had crashed into the house. That time it was a small explosion and fire at the Amoco refinery.
Rushing to the window, I could see through our trees that yes indeed, there was a fire. Something had gone terribly wrong at British Petroleum. Fire and smoke shot more than a hundred feet in the air. Not panicking right away, I calmly asked my mother to get my niece and nephew out of the house. I decided to stay behind to make sure my house and my neighboring grandmother’s house hadn’t sustained any damage.
Back in 1981, a similar mishap at the same refinery in almost the same location shattered windows and blew open the back door of my parents’ house. This time, we were luckier. No windows were broken, no doors had been blown open. I stood outside taking pictures of the fire. What a spectacle this would be. I could show all my friends and family and relate the story of how I’d lived through yet another one of these accidents.
As I stood there taking pictures, the civil defense alarms crackled to life. Normally, in this kind of situation, it means to go inside and not come out until an all clear alarm has sounded. Like many of my neighbors, I was standing outside watching the fire, not thinking anything of my personal safety. Hydrocarbons, the substance burning, doesn’t have that adverse of an affect on anyone.
As I joined my neighbors to watch the fire across the street from my parents’ house, the fire shot another two hundred feet or so into the air, sending sparks and debris flying. Luckily, nothing landed in our backyard this time. During a fire in 1996, our backyard was littered with foam and little bits of black debris from a tank fire. So, I traipsed back inside to wait and see what would happen next There was a steady stream of traffic in and out of our neighborhood , and there was nothing I or the police could do about it. It wouldn’t be until two hours later that the police would close off roads around the refineries.
I would think that people would have learned from the 1947 SS Grandcamp explosion that running to see a fire can have deadly consequences. Eventually, the fire died down and the traffic thinned to only a few stragglers. The fire didn’t kill or maim anyone. Only minor exposure to the fumes. What was a cataclysmic looking fire turned out to be a flare lighting that went horribly wrong.
Now, as ever before, every time that refinery rumbles, I can only wonder when the next one’s going to be. When will it happen again? I ask myself. By then, it’s already months, sometimes years down the road. When it does happen, I can only stand there helplessly watching another refinery accident and pray that it isn’t as serious as it looks.

6/6/04 The Mating Game

Another Friday night has fallen on the city once again. Normally, I reserve my going out for Saturday nights, but I made an exception this time. A new concert venue has opened up downtown, and I must check it out. A local band made good has returned to Houston to entertain the hometown crowds. I got dressed in my normal club going garb and hit the streets.
The bus lets off at the edge of downtown’s eastern edge, a virtual no man’s land at this time of night. I walked the empty street in search of the new venue and found it An old garage has been converted into a nightclub. Yet again, Houston ingenuity strikes again. It’s amazing how a gas station can become a restaurant or a movie theater can become a video rental place or a bookstore. Waiting in line, I see I’m among the anxious local music fans hoping to get a glimpse inside.
After a bit of waiting, the doors fly open, and we filed in. Inside the venue it’s cavernous. Spotting a bar, I go directly there and wait around for the show to begin. Standing there, a woman got my attention. She’s tall, skinny, skimpy clothing. Offering to buy me a beer, she has unlocked the secret to picking up a man. The best way to a man’s heart is not through his stomach, but his liver.
Returning the favor for buying me a beer, I engage her in conversation. We make idol chitchat, but then she’s made her first fatal mistake. Her opening line was do you come here often? Oh, the agony of pickup lines. I didn’t hesitate to tell her that it was opening night. She looked like a poor woodland creature caught in the headlights of an oncoming 18-wheeler. Her only response is oh, before moving on to the next lone wolf.
She placates him with niceties, and plies him with beer. I hate to tell her that there’s not enough alcohol in the world to make her look good. Later on, the show started with local bands to warm up the crowd for the headliner. She’s kicking her duffel bag, er, purse across the floor in order to get a better glimpse of the band.
The girl’s had enough. I can tell by her enthusiasm in joining a small mosh pit made up of about three guys. It’s time for the headliner, but not many patrons in sight. She’s struck out with all the other guys, so she’s pinned her hopes on the lead singer recognizing her. I headed out into the street and wandered aimlessly, shaking off the frightening prospect of having actually gotten drunk enough to go home with her.
Once again , I've returned home empty handed. As always, there's next week. No telling where the night will take me then. One thing I will remember is to watch out for her, and women like her.

'Tis the Season

Shopping season has opened once again Texas. Herds of females roam shopping malls in search of the perfect bargain. Once a year, those bargains come tax free. Many herds roam shopping malls and department stores with their weary companions and restless children. Next week, many of their young will return to school, much to the relief of their parents. However, shopping season will continue well into Christmas until tax season begins.
Shopping the malls, the female’s savage instinct kicks in at the sign of a good deal. They will push, kick, and fight to be the first or the last to get their hands on items that are essential to their survival. Among them are dresses, shoes, and clothes for their young. Seeing the way some children behave on these shopping trips reminds me why certain species eat their young.
The young females wish to wear clothes that will make them attractive to the males, while their mothers remind them that this is school shopping season. With many schools reverting to stricter dress codes and even uniforms, skimpy halter tops and tight pants have no place in the schools. Browsing through the many racks of bargains, I can never find one satisfying enough.
I have been dragged on yet another fruitless shopping expedition in suburbia. Last week’s haul was better, but nothing could top last year’s hunt. Shoes and jeans were at their lowest prices, and tax free to boot. Texas has begun a tax free holiday as a break for its overworked and under paid residents.
Many shoppers come across Texas’ borders hoping to snare a few good bargains. However, the tax free hunt has its limits. Items over one hundred dollars are not exempt. Most clothing items, school uniforms, shoes, and even undergarments come tax free, but that flat screen plasma television will not.
As the tax free weekend ends, the shopping season reaches a lull. Many retailers are planning their holiday shopping strategies. Many begin early by displaying Christmas items before Halloween in hopes of getting shoppers to look ahead. I have seen long lay away lines snake through discount department stores as families prepare for Christmas.
Holiday shopping season opens after many have gorged themselves on turkey and trimmings. Shopping malls are packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. The females become more savage in the holiday season as they hunt for the elusive bargain. Many will push, trample, even fist fight to get their hands hot holiday items. Males tend to hesitate and avoid the fray until the last possible minute. While it is a smart strategy, many of the sale racks have been picked over by vigilant shoppers.
As the shopping expedition comes to a close, I hear the rustle of plastic bags. Glancing behind me, I see a herd of females rushing toward the exit. I narrowly avoid being trampled as they stampede by me. The lead female explains that they are in a rush. Apparently, there is another bigger and better bargain somewhere else. Let the shopping season begin.

Heart of Darkness er Houston

I have returned to the asphalt jungle once again to get a glimpse of the nests the giant metal cranes have built. Bumping along in the back of a bus, I watch as we squeeze through construction. Houston is a constant work in progress. Aging downtown streets and infrastructure are finally being replaced after twenty-five years. Passing under the circular walkway between Enron 1 and 2, I think of the promise this once great corporation once held for the future of Houston. At night, it looks like a glowing abstract halo.
My destination this particular afternoon is a hair appointment in River Oaks, home to Houston’s rich. On the way there, the bus passes through the Montrose, Houston’s gay enclave. Little has changed since my last visit. Finally, my bus has reached my destination. I got caught up on the latest with my hairstylist and then returned to the Montrose for dinner. For some reason, I’m craving Greek this evening.
Gyro Gyro’s, my alternative to the more popular Niko Niko’s is now an empty lot. A homeless man looking to keep warm started a fire on the porch of the little house and it burned to the ground. Along Montrose Boulevard sits Niko Niko’s inside a converted gas station. I’ve arrived just in time because the after work crowd has started to wander in. After I placed my order, a long line had already formed. Amid the noise and cramped comfort, I relaxed a little.
I’m back in my element once again. After a hearty serving of down home Greek food, I visited a near by café for ice cream. While I was there, I ran into old friends and chatted them up briefly before I left. The next day, I returned to attempt an expedition that was cut short by one of Houston’s notorious monsoon-like downpours.
When I attempted this the last time, I wanted to go from the Galleria to Memorial City Mall, lunch, then Northwest Mall and the Park Shops downtown. I made it as far as the restaurant I wanted to have lunch at when the sky opened up and rained out my trip. Today, not a cloud in the sky and only a slight chance of rain.
As I walked to the Park Shops, city crews took down banners announcing the Major League Baseball All Star Game. They were replaced with banners touting Houston’s Main Street. Just four years ago, it bore the traces of a boom that went bust at the wrong time. Many buildings that were empty are now occupied again or in the process of being replaced.
A train stalks silently along the street now. Fifty cars and two pedestrians have had the misfortune of having a run in with the train. Somewhere I’m sure the drivers are keeping tabs with diagrams of their victims. Arriving at the Park Shops, I realize that it is no more. It’s now known as Houston Center. Its purpose appears to be as a hub for all the surrounding Houston Center office buildings. On a mid Saturday morning, the place is eerily quiet.
Many of the shops are closed save for a few that might be hoping to catch a few stragglers. Finding that there isn’t much to see, I moved on to my next destination. Northwest Mall sits on a patch of land where I-610 and US 290 converge. My only business here is the Dollar Tree in the Foley’s court. Then, I walked around. In a clearance shoe store, I heard the familiar sound of tissue paper being rattled.
With my curiosity piqued, I looked inside. Much to my disappointment, there would be no great bargains for people with Sasquatch feet like mine. Moving on, I lunched at a nearby pizzeria and went to Memorial City Mall. Other than the Galleria, it’s the only other mall I’ve watched go through a total transformation. A majority of it was razed to make way for new stores. I was thoroughly pleased to see the final product.
There were many great places to sit and relax during a day of shopping. My favorites are under the geodesic dome where one can enjoy Starbucks, and the one situated around a faux fireplace near the ice rink. Best of all, I didn’t have to play Frogger to get across the street this time. A new pedestrian crossing had been put in place near the Mervyns store. As I left the mall, I looked skyward to see if I would make it to the last stop on my expedition. It was a scorching hot July afternoon, and the only storm that might break might be a dust storm.
Maneuvering Houston traffic on the Katy Freeway is a job best left to the professionals, and today was no exception. I watched as the bus turned left onto a narrow bridge over the freeway. It took me a minute to realize that this had been the inbound side of the bridge. Crawling through traffic, I transferred to another bus.
The Galleria is Houston’s shopping Mecca. Never mind that Six Flags Astroworld is just a short trip away. This is Houston’s number one tourist destination. It’s the only other place that I’ve been, aside from Disney World, where I can hear people speaking in different languages. One might need a Sherpa to guide them through the many shops and department stores. In Houston’s oppressive heat, it serves as a giant cooling center.
I hated to leave the comfortable air conditioning for the sticky heat outside, but I had somewhere else to be. Leaving the asphalt jungle I love so much is tough, but I know I’ll be back again.

The Asphalt Jungle

I have seen many sleepless nights trying to ignore the call of the jungle. The asphalt jungle, where busy drivers pass like ants and ambulance and fire truck sirens peal through the night like the call of an incessant song bird. I have seen the best and worst of this asphalt jungle. I have watched men pummel each other because one guy’s fat ugly girlfriend can’t keep her mouth shut. There are restaurants where animals are splayed over an open spit and cooked. I have watched store closings where people pick and choose insignificant items the way a vulture or hyena would pick at a carcass.
I have watched the landscape of this asphalt jungle change. Sparkling urban shopping centers that once were in decay are now in renewal. Some harder to tame lands have become gentrified and unrecognizable. So, I have finally decided to answer the call of the asphalt jungle. With my most comfortable outfit on, I boarded a bus to visit some renewal projects in progress. One of them that I passed looks as though it is near completion. The next one I went to is still in progress. It’s odd to watch the new style clash with the old. Satisfied at what I have seen, I moved deeper into the heart of the asphalt jungle.
Giant metal cranes have come to Houston once again to build giant nests from concrete, steel, and glass for corporate fat cats and their underlings. On the edge of the jungle thicket I spotted something unusual. I decided to get off the trail and see what exactly it was. As I walked by a warren of nightclubs, restaurants, and theaters. The flocks of people grew thicker as I approached. Every jungle has its smelly flower, and I just found this one’s. It’s a Ferris Wheel, part of what appears to be an aquarium according to the screaming blue letters on the sign outside a large building.
As I crossed Buffalo Bayou, I had to wonder what the Allen Brothers had in mind when they docked their steam ship on the banks of this muddy swamp. I wondered the same thing about this business man who decided to turn the site of a former fire station and water plant into this monstrosity before me. The flock grew thicker as I walked onto the grounds of the aquarium complex. Many are in line to get a glimpse of the new concept where one can eat seafood while surrounded by large tanks of fish. To kill a little time, I looked at all the other offerings of the aquarium.
Games and rides here have nautical themes. Ride a train while passing through an aquarium full of sharks. I have to wonder if the sharks hate to see all that great food pass them by every day. There’s a carousel where kids can ride fiberglass alligators. Let’s see them try that in a real swamp. Then, there’s that mammoth Ferris wheel. Houston’s skyline pictures are going to like a family portrait with he black sheep of the family in it making rabbit ears behind Grandma’s head.
I finally decided to go into the belly of the beast and see the aquarium exhibit. The first tank was full of striped bass, a very peculiar thing until I enter the themed areas of the exhibit. First off was the swamp where alligators and turtles live together in perfect harmony. Overhead were fake trees covered in fake moss and mawkish sound effects. Looking at the alligators, I read that they grow to be eight feet long and up to one ton. There’s obviously not enough room for something that big in here. No, they won’t be dumped into Buffalo Bayou. Instead, they’ll be sent to alligator retirement homes.
There’s also crawfish, bullfrogs, and catfish, a veritable Cajun smorgasbord. Next up was a shipwreck. No flash photography, the sign above the octopus tank says. No sooner did I read the sign did I see someone’s camera flash go off at another tank. It makes me wonder if that octopus tank were open if it would reach up and snatch the camera. They’re very intelligent creatures according to the information on the plaque near by. They’re also incredibly shy because this one never came out of its hole. I went the Amazon area where I was met with more mawkish sound effects. Some yokel behind me asks why the hell they got them birds in here.
Let’s see, the gold macaw is native to the Amazon rainforests. This is why I hate coming to these exhibits when they’re crowded like this because there’s always one ignoramus who makes an ass of themselves by asking stupid questions. In the Mayan ruin is a room full of friendly jungle critters like the Goliath tarantula, also known as the bird eater. He’s as big as a dinner plate and has been known to bite humans. The discovery area is the last leg of the journey through this exhibit. It’s a fish petting zoo. No kids, you can’t touch the stingray. I’d like to see them try that with its deadlier cousin that I saw back in the Amazon exhibit.
And so my short but educational trip was over. Please exit through the gift shop and buy stuff you don’t need. It was dark when I got outside and the place was busier still. Children splashed around in the dancing fountain while harried adults waited in a growing line of people wanting to eat seafood with the fishes. There was also another restaurant where they served dinner while sitting in a boat in front of a movie screen where previews of sea movies played.

I decided to get back on the trail and go home where my fish comes in a can. I figured I wanted seafood bad enough, I could always go to Long John Silver’s. I still heard the call of the asphalt jungle even as I tried to sleep that night. It is loud no matter how much I try to ignore it. There are still more journeys for me to take through this jungle. Each following will be more unique than the next. I will wait until next weekend to run the asphalt jungle in search of new experiences, new places to explore, and new places to see.


I noticed I really hadn't been saying much lately having been busy with the new job and all. So, as a gift to my readers, I thought I would include some of my Asphalt Jungle essays from the last few years. These run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime. Enjoy my goofy rantings. If you want to comment, please feel free to. I'd love to hear some feedback.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Asphalt Jungle Blues

It's summer time in the asphalt jungle once again. The city groans under the pressure of another hot summer. Air conditioners work double time to keep cool the throngs of refugees from the heat. Many flock to movie theaters, shopping malls, and watering holes to keep cool. The humidity hangs heavy in the air like an electric blanket left on too long.
Brave commuters travail through the snaking freeways of Houston. Crowded into a downtown-bound bus, I watch as commuters crawl by us as we cruise in air-conditoned comfort. The slow pace allows time to read, observe, and sometimes commune with my fellow bus riders. Many bemoan the long passage between Suburbia and downtown. When I see one person driving by themselves, I think of how much gas I'm saving by not driving. By not contributing to our environmental woes by taking the bus. Some day, I'll move back to my native asphalt jungle, but in the mean time, I'll enjoy the commute.
For eight long hours, I languish in the confines of a mall kiosk hawking sunglasses. Despite my doubts, the job is easy. There are customers who need to be educated on sunglasses, those who are educated, and those who just point at style they like. I'm constantly on my toese though because of these so-called mystery shoppers. Of course, there's no real mystery. Some just give themselves away without realizing it.
I also get requests for the strangest things. Someone once asked if we carried knock-offs. I don't believe he saw the endless array of designer labels. Nope, not a single fake in the bunch. Anyone willing to spend less than $50 is kindly pointed in the direction of the nearest department store rather than the 7th Circle of Hell where some of them belong.
Most of the time a wayward shopper needs to be pointed in the right direction. Somehow, my kiosk is information central. A co-worker once noted that I sell more because I'm friendly. I just grinned at her and politely thanked her. Honestly, I am friendly, but some people just get under my skin. My biggest gripe is people not doing their job correctly, or worse, not at all.
The least my co-worker could have said is I didn't notice the big brown cardboard box sitting on the floor the whole time I was reading my magazine and sitting on the counter. No, instead, I got the short version. She just didn't feel like doing it. It's people like this that ironically enough, make me look good, but yet bring down sale numbers. My job is to serve the customers and educate them on sunglasses, but what I realize as I work more and more is that it's all about the bottom line.
If my store doesn't make enough money, it closes, and I'm shipped off to another location. Most likely in that 7th Circle of Hell, or Suburbia. It's the lesser of two evils honestly. My only problem is I have no mode of transporation. Anything outside the Beltway, hell, even The Loop may as well be No Man's Land. I'd have better luck riding a blind jackass backwards than finding my way around some of these suburbs.
So once again, I find myself in the midst of summer in the asphalt jungle. Most days are better than others. I find my refuge in a mall kiosk while others labor in the summer heat. Soon, my summer transformation will begin. My hair will turn from brown to reddish brown, and my skin will go from pasty beige to a slightly darker shade. I live for summers like these, especially when spent in the asphalt jungle.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Defending the Faith

Yesterday, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the position of Pope much to the disappointment of liberal Catholics. While I myself am not a practicing member of the Catholic faith, I was educated in a Catholic university. I embrace the new pope although I had my doubts at first. Many people speculated on what kind of pope he would be. If the fact that he was John Paul II's closest advisor, that should have been a clue.
Yes, there is a need for change within the Church, but there are some policies that should be left well enough alone. The Church will not and should not change its stance on birth control. While I would advocate contraception, I understand the Church's position on birth control. I also understand where the church is coming from on the issue of abortion.
Contraception is not a natural means of preventing pregnancy. Abstinence for if you're not married, and if you are, there is something known as natural family planning that couples can look into. Abortion is not a natural means of terminating a pregnancy, plain and simple.
The Church does not outright ostracize homosexuals. Church policy clearly states that the act of homosexuality is sinful. The act, not the person. The Church obviously has an understanding that people are human and they are not perfect. It is too bad some Protestant faiths can't take a cue from the Catholics.
Pope Benedict XVI was not necessarily elected by a panel of cardinals. The Holy Spirit had a hand in the selection process. Through prayer, meditation, and reflection, these cardinals let in the Holy Spirit and bent to God's will. If you look at the facts, Ratzinger was the right choice.
He had served as an advisor to John Paul II for the better part of 25 years, so he was famliar with the Pope's philsophical and theological stances. Ratzinger has vowed to carry on John Paul II's work by continuing to fight for peace and to try and reunify Christians around the world.
As for the Church's position on women in the priesthood and married priests, they are passing on the tradition of the Apostles. The Church interprets the Gospels for context of the time in which it was written. They do not interpret them literally, as some other religions do. So, if the Church feels that priests should not be married, and women should not be in the priesthood, that is God's will as they see it. It is not the will of the people.
The priest sex abuse scandal may or may not be addressed, something that has yet to be seen. However, rather than waiting for the Church to take a stance on the sex scandal, lay people should start the healing process.
I went to hear Bishop Wilton Gregory speak when he was president of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops. He addressed the issue saying that the healing should start with the lay people. I interpret this as meaning that we should start by forgiving what happened and then opening a dialogue about the issue to see how it should be handled.
The problem is many lay Catholics don't even know their own religion. I was baptized a Catholic as a baby, but I never received any sacraments beyond that. It wasn't until I went to college that I really understood more about the Church. Believe me, when I watch TV and watch lay people speculate about the new pope, I take it with a grain of salt. They know about as much as I do.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


Recently, there was a mental health forum here in town for those who were in the refinery at the time of the blast. UTMB hosted it and it targeted mostly those who were injured by the blast, or people who knew victims. It was nice that UTMB would extend this service to refinery employees even though only one person showed up.
I would have liked it better if they had done something like that for the entire community. There's no telling how many people in Texas City are still affected by the blast almost a month later. I know I'm among those who find it difficult to move on, mostly because it was literally so close to home. Of course, even more than 20 years after the first one in 1981, it's still hard to get over that. After all, I was five, and I really coudln't make sense of what was happening.
To be five years old and jolted out of bed by some unknown force was traumatic. I can see that now that I'm almost 30. What I remember of that night back in 1981 is that it was late, the sky was orange, and it was foggy. We ended up at a neighbor's house for some unknown reason. Dad explained later it was because he wanted to hear what the police were saying on the scanner. Of course, this was in the days before cellular phones and the internet and the rapid dissemination of information.
That's one of those things that has stuck with me all my life. Even going back and researching it, I realized that it was maybe a good thing I was young and couldn't quite understand what was happening. Ironically enough, the unit that exploded in 1981 was the same unit that blew up last month. They were both octane boosting units, and the blast pattern was the same. The only difference is in '81, it happened late at night, and this year's happened in the middle of the afternoon.
As I get older, I find it hard to take on too much at once emotionally. I used to be a stronger person, but something's just changed inside me. The first time I noticed it was when I was 25. That summer, we had Tropical Storm Allison, and our house was once again devastated by flooding, but not as bad as others in the Houston area. My aunt was sick, and she died. Then, I had to be moved out of my dorm into a hotel because our dorm had been condemned.
Things like that I was able to handle, but I had finally reached my breaking point. I went to a counselor, and it helped a little. It was enough to get me through the rest of the school year. This time, it startd whenI got laid off my temporary job.
I thought, well, I'd been out of work a year already, I can get back on my feet again. Of course, that's always easier said than done. My local state employment office has been useless in helping me fnid a job. The worst part about being out of a job was the frustration from not having enough experience in one filed to get hired somewhere.
I was doing okay, and then the blast happened. It was a week before the one-year anniversary of the fire last year, and I didn't think that there'd be another one so soon.
What was most unsettling for me was the loss of life, and the fact that it was the same old story. There was a lag in safety violations because once again, the government was too leniant on another big corporation. So now, I'm here telling mysself, I can get over thiis. I always did in the past, but something was different about this one. Instead of being a 5 year old sleepily wondering what was going on, I'm a wide awake 28 year old watching the tragedy unfold. The one thing that remains the same throughout is I'm still trying to make sense of it.
There's other things in my past that I've had to reconcile on my own. Things most people would have just given up hope on. This will just be one of those deep emotional scars that will never quite heal correctly. Every time something like this happens, it just reminds me how precious life is.
So, on April 23, at 1:20pm central time, observe a moment of silence. Say a prayer for the dead and the injured. People died in the process of refining the gasoline that runs our vehicles. And remember that until standards improve not just here, but across the board, incidents like this will continue to happen.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Piled higher and deeper

The media is not helping me in getting over the hump much. Every day new details come out that just make it that much harder to accept. Today, I read where JE Merritt, the contractor, had placed its trailers too close to a danger zone in a fatal plant explosion in Pennsylvania. Then, come to find out, the standard industry wide is that trailers shouldn't even be near dangerous work zones. Are we not learning something people?
Anyhow, I've begun my crusade for tougher OSHA regulations. I wrote a letter to the House and Senate Energy commitees, and a letter to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. My advice to anyone reading this blog is to write to your represenatives, your senators, anyone who will listen, and ask them to give OSHA some teeth because if not, you will be at risk too no matter where you live. Think about it. Every time there's an accident at a refinery, it means a loss in production, which costs the company and it is then passed on to the consumer. Think about it the next time you pay almost $3 a gallon for gasoline. All right, off my soap box.
There's my thought for the day.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Living under the volcano

While the world made a public spectacle of the Schiavo family's private struggle, and as the Pope teetered on the brink of death, my world stopped at 1:20pm on March 23. A loud boom followed by a rush of wind slamming into my house shook me to my core. I thought, not again, as I walked outside to see what the noise was. Just as I feared, there had been an explosion at the BP refinery.
A plume of bluish gray, black, and white smoke rose more than 500 feet above the refinery as flames shot into the air. I stood in my grandmother's front yard two doors down on the corner and watched the fire burn. While I stood there, I heard alarms at the Dow refinery, and then the all clear as it was determined that it was a the BP refinery.
Probably the one thing that has stuck with me are those images, and then the sounds of the police cars rushing to the scene two at a time. That was soon followed by news helicopters hovering overhead.
Two weeks later, I keep telling myself I'm over it. I'm fine, but I realize I'm not. My grandmother, who was with me when the blast hit the house, is the same way. Just the slightest noise startles her. Of course, this was her first major explosion since 1947, when the SS Grandcamp exploded in Texas City. She was at home in Galveston, but she told me that how it felt at our house is how it felt then at her home.
For many hours after the blast, the sounds of ambulance sirens and medical helicopters filled the air. It looked and sounded like a war zone. Watching the news that afternoon, a worst case scenario unfolded. Hundreds were injured and people were dead. I had not heard of anyone dying in a refinery explosion in Texas City since May 30, 1978, when seven people died in a Texas City Refining explosion.
The hardest thing to accept was 15 people were dead, and no one knew why. All the investigations pointed to the fact that they were in trailers close to the blast site. The medical examiner confirmed that all injuries were blast injuries. Of course, reading message boards on the internet, a different story tends to unfold. People were trapped in the blast zone until rescuers could get the fire out, and then dig through the debris to find them. I mourned the loss of those 15 people, regardless of whether or not they were from here. They were human just like me. They left behind children, grandchildren, wives, husbands, fiances, mothers, fathers, and grieving families.
Worst of all, it was close to the Easter holiday, a time when families come together. I read a story on the AP wire about a woman headed to Texas City from Louisiana to see her parents for the holiday when she heard the news. Naturally, she feared the worst, and sadly, those fears were confirmed when she was told to go to the civic center instead of the hospital. She lost both her parents.
As my grief subsides, it's replaced by anger. Anger that this was a preventable tragedy in so many ways. The people that died should not have been placed in trailers so close to such a dangerous work site. When my mom told me the turnaround period had started at the refinery, I braced myself for noisy nights as units were shut down.
This was a period of maintenance in order to prepare the refinery for the busy summer season. As an isomerization unit was being brought online, there was a release of hydrocarbon out of a vent stack which appered to be water to most people.
The investigation reveals that maybe an idling diesel truck had been parked nearby, and that was what sparked it. However, since a diesel engine does not use spark plugs, it is possible that it pulled the vapor into its intake, or the heat from its exhaust could have set off the explosion.
What's most upsetting is that this was preventable. Those trailers could have been placed somewhere else. That unit could have had a flare attached to it instead of venting into the atmosphere as it was designed. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, OSHA, the government's safety enforcement officer, had warned the company when it was Amoco in '92 to add a flare to the isom unit, but OSHA eventually dropped the issue.
BP has now moved the trailers, but to me it's too little too late. OSHA has been aware of violations in the past, but they have shown weakness in settling too quickly in order to bring the unit back online to continue production.
Living near these refineries for nearly 30 years has been a lot like living near a volcano. It's dangerous, it's going to erupt, but no one knows when.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Words cannot begin to describe the immense tragedy I witnessed on the afternoon of March 23, 2005. It seemed almost unfathomable that less than a year later, lightning would strike again almost in the same place. I had just entered the kitchen with my grandmother to prepare lunch. She cried out my name as though something had happened to her. I held on to her to make sure everything was okay. As I held her tightly against me, something massive struck our house.

What sounded a bomb going off was in reality another refinery accident a week before the anniversary of last year’s fire. I looked out my back door, but did not see anything yet. My grandmother called me to the backyard as a column of white, black, and bluish gray smoke rose above the refinery half mile or so away. Police cars raced to the scene, lights and sirens going.

Something had gone horribly wrong at the British Petroleum refinery. Black smoke swirled away from the neighborhoods and over the other refineries as flames shot up from the fire. Dow Chemical, next door to BP, quickly sounded an alert at their refinery and then sounded an all clear as they realized it was not their refinery ablaze.

Within fifteen minutes of the explosion, as I stood in front of my grandmother’s house on the corner, the community alarms sounded. That meant that anyone, like myself, standing outside should go in their houses. Not me though. What others were watching on TV I was watching live. News helicopters circled overhead to get a better vantage point of the drama unfolding in Texas City. The sounds of rescue vehicle sirens filled the streets en route to render aid to those in need.

A quick check of my parents’ house and the neighbor’s houses revealed that our windows were intact. Only one at my parents’ house had shattered, but it paled in comparison to the lives that would be shattered by the tragedy. I watched an ambulance tend to a neighbor up the road. Apparently that person’s nerves got the better of them.

A frantic wife stopped at my grandmother’s house to use the phone to see if she could find out anything about her husband, who was working in the refinery at the time of the accident. Even as she sat there, she still had no word on what had happened to him. I never thought to ask her to call us if she found out anything. Apparently she had been working in a clinic in Dickinson, about 15 miles away, when she felt the explosion.

In speaking with a TV news reporter, he had unconfirmed reports of injuries, but then he told me something I wasn’t expecting. He had been told by an official that there had been four fatalities. It didn’t seem possible that in all the years that these accidents had happened someone would actually die. The last time I had heard of anyone dying in an explosion was in May of 1978 at Texas City Refining. That time it was only seven fatalities, but still tragic nonetheless.

I returned to my home and finally decided to take a rest. The fire was out, and the only thing left to do was wait. News helicopters were joined by rescue helicopters airlifting the injured to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. I watched on TV as reports of injuries steadily flowed into news rooms across Houston. The most seriously injured went to Galveston. Those with less severe injuries went to Texas City and Clear Lake. Then, my worst fears were confirmed during a news conference. There were fatalities, but officials didn’t know until later there were at least 14 dead and one missing.

By that night, the only helicopters overhead were news choppers surveying the debris field. What were later confirmed to be office trailers were obliterated by the blast concussion. That’s where helicopters focused their cameras as rescuers sifted through debris in search of bodies. I went to bed emotionally drained and prayed that that 15th person would be found alive.

By noon Wednesday, when Lord John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum, addressed the public, a company spokesman had confirmed 15 fatalities. The thing that came to my mind immediately is that for 15 families, the Easter holiday would never be the same.

Within 48 hours of the accident, 15 families’ worst fears were confirmed. Their husbands, mothers, wives, daughters, or sons would not be coming home again. Even in the face of tragedy, many of these families showed resilience. They clung tightly to their faith, their family, and their friends in the community for support. Congregations gathered to pray for the dead and the injured. This community came together to begin the healing process.

Never mind the speculation about rising oil and gasoline prices. Fifteen people were dead, 100 people were injured, at least 20 of them very seriously. I did not take pictures of the fire as I have in the past. That image of the smoke rising above the refinery is forever etched into my mind. The sound and the fury with which the explosion slammed into our house will live with me forever. My thoughts and my prayers are with the families of the victims.

Even days later, it’s hard to sit here and not get up every time I hear an ambulance. It’s hard not to wonder if that rumbling coming from the refinery is something more than just a flare or an upset. And then, as time goes on, my mind is lulled back into that sense of complacency. That thought that this tragedy will occur again is stored at the back of my mind and forgotten until it happens again.