Friday, June 24, 2005

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.

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