“It looks like Riyadh.” This is what my mother said to me in 1976, her way of persuading me to move to Houston. My mother had never been to the Middle Eastern oil capital, and I know now that she was standing in a room downtown at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, looking across Polk Street into the tiered glass lobby of the 1100 Milam Building, not a very inspiring sight by today’s standards. My vision of Houston at that time was based on one trip I’d made as a nine-year-old, when the family headed from San Antonio to the Astrodome and the car broke down on the old Katy Highway. I remember being impressed with the mechanic who gave us a ride to the stadium and refused my father’s $10 tip, and I remember being more intrigued by the lavish sky boxes than with the Astros or the city. My mother hadn’t been to Houston in years and had never been particularly impressed by the place. Now she was captivated. As she saw it, Houston had been transformed. She began breathlessly describing Arab shoppers stripping the couture salons clean, New York galleries opening on suburban streets, and Philip Johnson’s ebony twin towers rising regally in the middle of downtown. If I couldn’t see it, I could feel it; something new was happening in Houston, something my mother wanted me to see before it was over.
When she called I was 21, living in Boston and just finished with four years at a small experimental college in New England. I lived in an apartment where my bedroom faced an air shaft, and I was involved with someone I wasn’t in love with. Like thousands of other recent graduates, I had been looking for a job in publishing with vague ambitions of becoming a writer. A more willful person might have felt confused by my mother’s advice; my parents had long indulged my artistic aspirations and my insistence that any major East Coast city was better—smarter, prettier, faster—than any place in Texas. Suddenly I was being treated to a discourse on the advantages of a legal career, financial security, and returning home. My mother pointed out that thanks to a family friend, I had a $750-a-month job as a legal assistant waiting in Houston—twice what I was being offered to be a receptionist in Boston. I could be a writer anytime; I should go to Houston now.
It was an unseasonably warm winter day, and after I got off the phone I walked out onto the terrace. The sky was a clear and unforgiving blue, and snow was packed in grubby banks on the ground. An apartment building was on fire down the street, and I sat in a metal chair, burrowed into my bathrobe, and watched the firemen. I thought that somehow I had landed somewhere I’d never intended and that if I stayed, I would never amount to anything. Later that day, I told my boyfriend I was leaving. “You didn’t even try to live here,” he said, and he was right.
As you can see, I wasn’t drawn to Houston by some overpowering need to be a part of a major event in modern Texas history—I ended up there because of a lack of alternatives and because my parents wanted me to. It surprises me that I could have seen such a profound difference between being a secretary at a publishing house in Boston and being a paralegal in Houston, and that I never cared that Houston was unrelentingly flat, unceasingly humid, subject to assault by cockroaches, mosquitoes, and hurricanes. Houston just seemed more promising, and I was naive enough to believe that the East Coast was done for. Besides, I wasn’t intending to stay for long. I would ride out the boom and then move back to New York or Washington or Boston, picking up where I’d left off. It certainly never occurred to me that I might stay for almost ten years or that the place would show me a version of myself that I hadn’t known existed, but that is what happened.
I arrived in Houston in March, when the better neighborhoods were blooming with the sultry nods of pink and white azalea blossoms. I had expected the city to look something like the brush country near Victoria but found the Piney Woods instead, a small yet important reminder that I was not in the Central Texas of my childhood but in East Texas, a place at once more menacing and more intoxicating. The air was powerfully close; the first few weeks I carried a raincoat and an umbrella to work, expecting the rain to bring a break in the heat. It was a while before I realized that the humidity and the rain had nothing to do with each other—that the heat wouldn’t break until October—but that was before the nuances of the place had begun to work on me, before I understood that waiting for something to happen was not the way things were done in Houston.
I worked downtown in one of the big law firms that was swelling with the boom. The Esperson Building is now and was then one of the few old structures left downtown. It’s actually two buildings in one: a grand side with looming columns and a jaunty cupola built in the twenties and named for Niels Esperson, and the art deco, streamlined side built in the thirties by his wife, Mellie. If the building represented a more gracious past—it was still populated by courtly, elderly men who shuffled to work in string ties and cowboy hats—it was rapidly filling up with ambitious young lawyers just out of SMU and UT and Yale and Harvard. They had the kind of expansive natures that came with unchallenged confidence; watching them striding across the parquet, running their fingers along the carpeted walls, and joking about their sailboats and their billable hours, I saw them as being remarkably free. They were