No Promises

For eight years, I had a love affair with Houston. When the good times ended, we drifted apart. But while it lasted, we had the time of our lives.

January 1987By Comments

“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 building a new city and their fortunes simultaneously; the law firm was a conduit, linking Houston’s blue-collar past to its white-collar future. I summarized depositions for lawyers who were defending insurance companies against workers who had been injured at chemical plants and oil refineries, assisted on cases in which clients were suing to recover stolen building cranes and rustled bull semen, worked on a case in which I thought the plaintiff didn’t stand a chance because she had hired a lawyer with the ludicrous name of Richard “Racehorse” Haynes. I was told proudly that the firm’s attorneys had handled Robert and Pam Sakowitz’s divorce and represented the unknown heirs of Howard Hughes. Maybe I was helping the big law firms and the big oil companies get richer—betraying the social conscience I had spent the last four years nurturing—but that didn’t seem to matter so much just then.

When I look back, I wonder why I didn’t cut and run. I had a fancy title, and my time was billed to the client at $40 an hour, but I was never anything more than a file clerk: my co-worker and I spent months numbering and organizing thousands of pieces of paper for a patent infringement suit, chewing over his marriage or my college life, or watching the hooded Iranian demonstrators march down Travis Street chanting, “Down with imperialism. Down with the Shah.” The truth is, I was happy just to be. I loved leaving the office in lockstep with the secretaries and receptionists who, like me, had no stake in the action. I loved hearing the buses groan into traffic and feeling the hot, dirty exhaust on my face. But more important, I love knowing that I was living in a city bent on creating itself at the same time I was—I loved knowing that I didn’t have to be anywhere for anyone, that I could go home or not go home and not be missed. In those moments, when it was growing dark and I’d see the auto taillights lined up on Louisiana Street on the way to the freeways, Houston was mine more than any place had ever been. I would go to happy hour or become a famous writer—each had an equal value because I believed I could do either with the same amount of ease.

If the boom now seems the property of great men—of Mitchell Energy Corporation or Gerald D. Hines Interests, say—what people don’t recall is how caught up in it everyone was. There was a local litany in those days: we told each other that one thousand new residents were moving in every week, that we could get business cards in an hour, and that the median age was 28, as if this all proved that Houston belonged to the immigrants and the young, not to old-timers who liked to remember when the Galleria was pastureland. Here was proof that we were making something new, something that was ours. Even the national press was swept up in the good times—in 1977 Newsweek published a cover story on “Texas! The Superstate,” which named Houston the Supercity.

We believed we were doing the place a favor. Houston accepted us generously, and we were careless with its generous affection. I remember seeing a Rolls-Royce abandoned on a highway at night with its flashers off, and meeting an architect who smugly explained that the reason Houston’s apartment complexes tended to look like Spanish villas or French châteaus was because “shit sells.” Everyone wanted a piece of the action; every 25-year-old was the president of his own corporation, and everyone had a sideline. I knew lawyers who were developers and doctors who were developers and dentists who were developers. I knew a legal secretary who was also a disco star (she danced in a pair of shoes illuminated by twinkling lights, until she melted them on a radiator) and a model who cut silhouettes at AstroWorld as her true career. Two of my closest friends were graduate students in architecture at Rice University: one spent his time drumming up commissions to build mansions on the edge of golf courses (the status site in those days); the other, who drove a Mercedes he’d bought from a used-car dealer near River Oaks, was forever trying to set up a meeting with Kenneth Schnitzer or Gerald Hines to persuade them to put tennis courts in the parking lots of Greenway Plaza or the Galleria. We used to drink at a jazz club called Cody’s, on top of a Montrose high rise. Sometimes we would look out over the terrace at the view of downtown, the Galleria, and the medical center and talk about leaving town (“If you don’t like Houston, move someplace nice” was our motto), and sometimes we would joke that all Houston lacked was a mountain with a ski slope at the intersection of the 610 loop and the Southwest Freeway. About a year or so later, someone built one.

You see, we were all making it up as we went along. We wanted to believe that there wasn’t a plan and there weren’t any rules—like wildcatters, we could strike it rich tomorrow, lose it all the next day, and start over the day after. I would talk to friends back east and tell them I would be packing up in three months or six months, but I had no intention of leaving. I wanted to see what would happen next. It strikes me now that the good times didn’t create Houston’s passion for self-invention, but simply exaggerated it. That characteristic is a fundamental part of the city’s nature, and we were just following a tradition established by eccentric but canny dreamers like the Allen brothers, who invented a city in a swamp, or Judge Roy Hofheinz, who thought a hulking, covered stadium seemed like a good idea. To a shy girl from a self-conscious, socially correct family, the notion that a person could simply invent herself seemed nothing short of miraculous.

And though I was living on fertile ground, it was also familiar territory: most of the people I was surrounded by held to a standard of propriety that seemed peculiarly Texan. Even when the population had soared to 2.5 million, Houston sometimes had a surprisingly small-town feel: you could still get a homemade egg salad sandwich wrapped in waxed paper at the courthouse. Manners counted for something: a secretary I worked with once sneaked out of the office in the middle of the day to buy a friend a bottle of perfume because, she explained, her friend was broke and “no woman should ever be without a bottle of perfume.” I used to get regular phone calls from an old woman named Hazel Deets, because her sister’s phone number was one digit different from mine. Since she called so often, she started taking the opportunity to ask about my life, my job, and my boyfriend (“Does he live at your house all the time? Are you two married?”). I felt looked after. Houston might have been the fifth largest city in the country, but I had the sense that I was home and that no harm could come to me.

I wasn’t safe, of course. “Houston is a mean town,” a neighbor told me the day I moved into my apartment. She was standing with her hands on her hips while her housedress billowed crazily under a blinding sun, and I remember smiling, as if I had just heard good news. I thought it was fascinating that the Houston police were a threat to the general populace, that the papers were full of grisly stories of children mauled by their parents’ pit bullterriers or pet lions. Even when I was in real danger, it struck me as just another adventure. One morning I awoke to a brilliant sunrise—the sky was shot with wild streaks of orange, fuchsia, and lavender. I went back to sleep only to find that the sky looked the same way two and then four hours later. It turned out I hadn’t seen a sunrise at all but the fire and fumes from a pipeline explosion southeast of town. Another day I raised my shade to see a man fleeing down the street naked, as if he were on fire. One night I was up late and suddenly became aware that someone was at the window, inches from my head on the pillow. We stayed that way for some time, head to head, listening to each other’s breathing, until finally I reached over and switched off the light and heard his footsteps as he fled down the driveway.

The perils weren’t real to me, partly because I was young and partly because I had made no promises to Houston. I remember the day I realized that promises or no, I was a part of life there in a way I might not have envisioned, that I might not like. I had been working on a personal-injury suit in which the plaintiff was a triple amputee who had been crushed between two rail cars while trying to separate some air brakes. As often happened, there was fault on each side, and it was our attorney’s job to settle or simply to hold down the damages for the railroad. The plaintiff’s lawyer had his client undress in front of the jury, removing first his jacket, then his shirt, then his slacks, and then one by one, his artificial limbs, until what was left of him stood leaning in front of the jury in his boxer shorts. “What’d you think of that?” my boss asked me later, adding, “He looked like Flipper!” He laughed and I laughed, and I knew it was time to find something else to do.

If it’s generally true that making a living as a writer is hard—most big cities have more than enough writers to go around, and few editors have the time or the inclination to help someone starting out—it wasn’t so in Houston in 1979. Being a journalist then was no different from being anything else—there were more stories to tell than there were people to tell them. The magazine editors I met as a young reporter were like most of the young developers and young attorneys—long on enthusiasm, short on experience. I wrote for magazines that started and folded within weeks, for a magazine with a Saudi publisher, for a magazine next to a whorehouse, and for a magazine where my tryout required an analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. The world was suddenly open in a way that I would never have quite believed. Writing about the boom proved over and over to me that people could do as they pleased in Houston and get paid for it, myself included. I traveled through the Third Ward with consumer watchdog Marvin Zindler, noting where he sniffed out potholes and when a concerned fan brushed dandruff from his shoulders. I stayed at Tony’s until closing time, watching columnist Maxine Mesinger hold court and apartment czar Harold Farb order chicken-fried steak. I interviewed entrepreneurs who lived in empty mansions, who created employment agencies made up solely of Vietnamese workers. When I interviewed Oveta Hobby while she was publisher of the Houston Post, I complimented her on the elegance of her paneled office—in the paper’s austere, contemporary headquarters, the oak floors and paneling looked like something out of another age. They were: her office had been moved board by board from the old Post building downtown.

I didn’t feel a particular responsibility to my subjects (I once dismissed a local newspaper columnist by stating that if he weren’t living in Houston he would be just another witty cocktail party guest). I knew only that the people I was writing about were different from other people in other cities, that I wanted to write about every possible variation of what was then the Houston story. To be young was to be excruciatingly self-absorbed: I interviewed Percy Foreman at the old Maxim’s downtown, where lights from the mirrored balls danced on the ceiling, and where the trial lawyer had not only his own table but also his own phone. When I complained that a freelance writer’s life lacked security, he reached into his vast pants pockets and pulled out several velvet jewelry boxes. He laid them on the table like a tarot card reader, opened them up so that the rings, brooches, and necklaces he had taken as collateral winked and sparkled in my direction, and then said something like, “Honey, this is security.” He saw my jaw drop, grinned, and took another call.

I did not decide to stay in Houston so much as I gave up the idea of leaving. My standard line was that I went to Houston to be a witness, that I would stay just long enough to land a better job elsewhere. But clearly by 1982, after three years of supporting myself as a writer, I could have left. I made frequent trips back east in those days, as if I couldn’t quite believe I could give up on the place. I was in love with a man in medical school in New York, and so I spent months at a time living in Brooklyn Heights. I went through the motions—made friends, wrote stories for national magazines, memorized the subway lines—but on nights when he was at the hospital I would walk out on the promenade and stare across the river at the lights of Manhattan, trying to conjure up a reason to stay. By then the old dreams didn’t apply, and I just wanted to go home to Houston, where I belonged.

What did not occur to me was that things could go sour, in Houston and in my own life. Outsiders like to say—with a tone that suggests they would have seen the end coming—that Houstonians thought the boom would last forever. But by 1983 the slowdown was apparent. The price of oil began to slip, and people began to complain about the weather and the traffic, and the next thing you’d hear was that they had moved on to San Antonio or Los Angeles. Success wasn’t a sure thing; suddenly there were bad deals and big divorces: a couple built a casino near the Galleria in which patrons never received cash for their winnings (it burned down mysteriously), and the Farb marriage collapsed (wife Carolyn got a $20 million settlement). During that time I had begun to feel becalmed. What I had built came apart: a five-year love affair ended, and at the same time I was receiving Christmas cards with photos of new husbands, wives, or children. I left the magazine where I had been an editor for three years when the management decided that it wanted a publication that was less irreverent and more respectful of Houston’s wealthy. I realized fairly abruptly that just as I had made no promises to Houston, it had made none to me.

During my last week at the magazine, I got a call from a woman who asked if I wanted to write about her divorce—Marvin Mitchelson was her attorney, she said. I hedged, and she invited me to her house. Out of habit I got in my car and drove to the edge of southwest Houston, where all the houses were new, expensive, and looked like ski lodges. The woman was younger than I, maybe 26, small and pretty but skinny and hard, like the girls who made trouble in high school. She took me through the house, showing me the pool and the living room’s cathedral ceiling and a framed write-up from the Chronicle’s homes section. After the tour she handed me what looked like a steel brick. “Take it,” she said. “It’s light.” This was her story: She and her husband had been very poor, until he got the idea to start a recycling business, compacting discarded aluminum into bricks. In the early days they had rummaged in dumpsters and scoured parking lots for the stuff, but eventually the business caught on, and the money started coming in, enough for the house, cars, and vacations in Vegas and Acapulco. “It’s called the high life?” she said, as if she were explaining her story to a dense child. “The fast lane?” Then she told me, things got nasty, even though, she explained with a triumphant smile, her husband still wanted her to get pregnant. A lawyer at Mitchelson’s office thought she had a case, she said. “Wasn’t that a good story?” she asked. “Would People magazine be interested?” The woman’s mother came in then, wearing blue jeans and a windbreaker, her face weathered from too much sun and cigarettes and not enough happy times. She put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder, and the girl flinched. I told her I would get back with her. I took what I thought was a shortcut home and got stuck on the freeway for hours in the heat and knew that a story that would have thrilled me once was really just a sad, seamy tale. I didn’t want to write it, and I couldn’t think of anyone who would want to read it.

It was a year or so later before I realized that like a lot of people in Houston, I had built a career more carefully than I built a personal life, an oversight easily ignored in good times. One day I had been sent by a magazine to write about a River Oaks house that had been done over completely in pink. The editors had told me that the owner, a very blond socialite, was skittish, that under no circumstances was I to speak to her directly—I was to deal only with her architect and decorator. They walked me through the house indulgently, pointing out the French provincial antiques, the Henry Moore sculptures, and the antique rugs (“It didn’t fit in the front hall, so she just cut it”), proudly noting that every room was a slightly different shade of pink. It was a hot day, and there was a Siamese kitten yowling on the patio and a parrot screeching somewhere near the kitchen. The owner wafted by in cowboy boots, jeans, and diamonds, nodded like a dignitary, and passed on, and it made me mad. I thought that she should let the kitten in, I thought that it was muggy and that I should have enough money to move out of my shabby apartment. It struck me that the Houston I had come to see had slipped away, that I was broke, and that I had better do something about it because I was looking at a future writing about rich women and large houses. When I was offered a job in Austin, it was remarkably easy to say yes.

One day two large, sunny movers named Leo and Carl arrived at my apartment and packed up eight years in about three hours. I kept expecting the morning to be rich with meaning, but instead I went to lunch with a friend, chatted with a neighbor in the eager, abstracted way of people facing monumental change, swept out the apartment, and answered one last phone call. I drove out of town down the Southwest Freeway, out the loop to the Katy Freeway, the reverse of the way I had come in from San Antonio eight years before, when the directions—take I-10 to 610 West to 59 North—had seemed so strangely promising and so impossibly complex.

“People live here,” is the way an acquaintance once described New York to me. It was her way of explaining that New York wasn’t really Xanadu, that I could move there, find a job and an apartment, even a husband, just like millions of other people. I never quite believed her about New York, and I don’t think I really believed it about Houston either. That wasn’t what I was after.

Sometimes I feel guilty about leaving Houston, like someone who ran out on a lover just as he hit a hard patch. There’s an element of penance to the rituals I perform when I return. I usually arrive happily and spend the day inspecting old haunts until I am seized by a powerful desire to go back to my apartment. When I realize that I can’t, I drive around until I am tired and grouchy and it is time to catch the last plane back to Austin. Much of what I knew is gone: most of my friends, many of the businesses—the law firm has suffered numerous defections, and the magazine I worked longest for is, at this writing, for sale. Even the Esperson Building was facing foreclosure for a time. Sometimes when I look back I find myself wondering if the place was ever really mine, if it was just my own youth that I was feeling, that any place would have done. Then again, if the boom was ultimately a short period in the life of Houston—it really lasted only six years at most—my stay there spanned what was then my entire adult life. I was in the right place at the right time, and I invented a life for myself there, the one I wanted at the time. I left Houston to create a different kind of life—I have become a cautious believer in marriage and mortgages—but the city taught me nothing less than that it was mine to shape, regardless of time or place. That is what people who have never lived in Houston—who see only that the place is unrelentingly flat, unceasingly humid, subject to assault by cockroaches, mosquitoes, and hurricanes—can never understand, and that is why Houstonians love the place with such passionate and unwavering gratitude.

The last time I was in Houston, I went to the Shamrock Hotel liquidation sale. I felt disconsolate when I saw the huge orange banner announcing the sale fluttering from the upper windows, and I wandered through the lobby, working myself into an exquisite depression by telling myself that soon there would be nothing left of the Houston I had known. I rode the elevator to the top floor and explored the cavernous suites with a cheerful, chubby woman and her teenage son. Aside from the view, there wasn’t much to see. The rooms were empty save for a few tacky chandeliers, the carpet was soiled, and the wallpaper was peeling. I asked the woman where she was from, and she told me Houston. “It’s sad,” I said to her, assuming that I had found someone with a capacity for nostalgia equal to mine. She shrugged her shoulders and pressed the elevator button. “It’s not that old,” she said, looking around. “The hotel’s really only lasted thirty to thirty-five years, and it’s really gone downhill.” The woman had a point. The Shamrock’s glorious past was long gone. Even the plastic shoehorns that the liquidators were giving away carried only the Hilton logo. Cafe society had been replaced by conventioneers long ago; all that was left to mourn were the Air France pilots who used to sun themselves in tiny bathing suits by the pool. So maybe it was time to let go of the past and start again. After all, Houston had always been about looking forward rather than looking back, and the time had certainly come to take stock and grow a little.

And I didn’t think everything I loved about Houston is gone. Leaving the hotel, I remembered a story I had heard a few days before about a florist named Leonard Tharp, who had bought a condominium in an old eight-story apartment building downtown. He wanted to put pots of wisteria on the roof and let the vines grow until they covered the building and touched the ground. Then he planned to swag them, so the building could emerge from behind a curtain of tangled flowers. It sounded like a good idea to me, and I was sorry I wouldn’t be there to see it.

But my memories serve me well. Whenever I hit town, three things about Houston come back to me. I remember that it always feels like rain, that the afternoon freeway traffic generally starts around three-forty-five, and that I once knew that anything was possible.

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