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 cafĂ© 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.