OVER AT THE HOUSTON ARBORETUM and Nature Center, in Memorial Park, I asked Ruth Milburn, the center’s executive director, what she liked best about the place. She looked at me indulgently and said, “Why, I’m here for the trees.” As I navigated the well-marked trails and boardwalks that weave through towering loblolly pines along Buffalo Bayou, I understood how stupid my question was.
WHILE EVERYONE ELSE AND THEIR short companions packed the flashier Wortham Imax Theatre and Cockrell Butterfly Center at the nearby Houston Museum of Natural Science, I was almost alone in the “Amazing Body” exhibit at the John P. McGovern Museum of Health and Medical Science, where I watched irresistibly disgusting video footage of a larynx, learned that Americans eat ninety acres of pizza a day and that you can’t catch a disease from a toilet seat, walked through a brain with firing electrodes, and sat on a tooth. This would be the place I’d come for a layman’s explanation after a diagnosis at the Texas Medical Center around the corner, the world’s largest medical complex.
AND WHAT HAPPENS WHEN ALL my amazing body parts cease to function? I found a few answers at the National Museum of Funeral History, a surprisingly cheerful collection tucked into an unassuming brick building way out north of George Bush Intercontinental Airport. The lion’s share of the exhibits is devoted to lovingly restored antique and vintage hearses, one dating back to 1832, and oddball coffins, like one made of pale green bottle glass that never captured the public’s fancy (it weighs a lot) and carved wooden fantasy caskets from Ghana—a colorful crab, a cow, a fish, and even an airplane (with removable wings for easier burial). I also came away with an appreciation for mourning traditions of the past (can you believe that crafting jewelry from the dear departed’s hair is making a comeback?) and even a souvenir: a bottle of Undertaker’s Root Beer, as yet untried.
EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL IN THE dim light at Kay’s Lounge, a hole-in-the-wall that’s been serving cold beer to thirsty locals since shortly after Prohibition was repealed. Happy hour is low-key, and you can pick a tune from the juke box (George Strait or early Dylan?); later, the crowd swells with college kids and blue-collar workers who vie for a spot at the one pool table.