GROWING UP IN HOUSTON IN the fifties now seems a magical, oblivious moment that shines through the traffic-clogged world of today and lingers like a love affair from one’s youth. As kids at Edgar Allan Poe Elementary School, my little friends and I quite possibly did not realize or appreciate that Houston was one of the hottest, most humid places in the civilized world, teeming with mosquitoes and oil-rich right-wingers, stunted by polio and segregation, blessed with banana splits and Christmas tree forts. We just thought of it as home. For some of us, it’s still home. For others, it is a place we once loved that has long since become a station on the way.
Yesterday Street for me was 2635 Nottingham, in West University Place, where my mother took me swimming at Shakespeare’s Pool, our maid made popcorn balls, and my dad taught me to play chess. He taught me well enough that in 1952, at the age of seven, I was a prodigy of sorts, though it has been rather downhill from there. That was the year when I, along with about fifty adults, took on the world grand master, Samuel Reshevsky, in a simultaneous marathon match in a hotel that I’m sure is now a Bennigan’s. In an hour and a half, Reshevsky beat all of us. I, by far his youngest opponent, wound up with my picture on page one of the Houston Chronicle. Afterward, Reshevsky told my dad that he was sorry to have beaten me, but he had to be especially careful with young kids. “To be beaten by anyone under eleven,” he said, “would be headlines.”
Not long after I lost to Reshevsky, Adlai Stevenson lost to Ike (except for my family, everybody in Houston liked Ike); Hank Williams died in the back seat of a Cadillac on his way to a gig in Canton, Ohio (some people will do anything to get out of a gig in Canton, Ohio); Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by our government as spies for the Soviet Union; and a ten-year-old boy named Ken Ford got a new BB gun for Christmas. Ken lived in a faraway galaxy at the other end of Nottingham. One afternoon, when my dad was at work, Ken came over to our house and began shooting birds in our front yard. I wanted him to stop, but he wouldn’t, and he was a bigger kid, so I couldn’t make him. By the time my dad got home, the lawn was littered with the tiny bodies of dead birds. My dad got out of his car wearing black pleated trousers, a white shirt open at the collar, and an unusually grim expression. He asked Ken if the gun was his and if he could see it. Ken said yes and proudly handed it to my father, who, with righteous fury, broke it over his knee into two pieces and, without saying a word, handed them to the boy.
Speaking of righteous fury, the principal of Edgar Allan Poe was a devoutly religious woman whom today we would probably call a fundamentalist. Back then, all we knew was that Mrs. Doty devoted a hugely inordinate amount of class time to rehearsing for the Christmas Pageant. I participated in this elaborate mandatory religious festival in the third grade, but by the fourth grade I was boycotting. While the rest of the school was busy rehearsing, I stayed in the classroom alone and wrote poems. One of them was about our librarian, an attractive young woman named Miss Barrett, who told us she couldn’t sleep at night because she could hear every little sound outside on the street. The poem went as follows:
The very best eyesight there ever was
Was accomplished by eating carrots.
But the very best hearing on earth by far
Is sure to be Miss Barrett’s.
Mrs. Doty did not find my work amusing, and I’m sure she believed I was going to hell. God eventually punished her by causing her to fall off the stage at the Christmas Pageant and break her leg.
God punished me by putting me through the absolute hell of adolescence. By age twelve, even private jitterbug lessons administered by our neighbor Susan Kaufman had failed to save me from teenage spiritual leprosy. At thirteen I was bar mitzvahed by Rabbi Robert I. Kahn at Temple Emanu El, and my Torah portion dealt with Jacob’s ladder. I only truly began to climb that ladder, I felt, the following year when I walked into the Bell School of Music on Edloe Street, canceled my accordion lessons, and traded in my accordion for a guitar. The first song I learned to play was “Fraulein,” by Bobby Helms. (I didn’t know it then, but there was another kid in Houston who was just picking up the guitar around that time, and the first song he learned was also “Fraulein.” I met him twenty years later. His name was Townes Van Zandt.) My girlfriend was Bunny Slipakoff, a fräulein I did not learn to play, thereby setting the pattern for all future relationships. My favorite restaurant was Prince’s Drive-In, where you called in your order on a telephone and it was delivered on roller skates.
A lot of years have rolled by since then. Upon reflection, I see that the Houston I grew up in was a vibrant city not without charm. It was a colorful, soulful, independent-minded place whose inhabitants, no doubt, could probably only dimly envision the big-city future into which they would inexorably be dragged, some of them kicking and screaming, some quite willingly. I don’t know what became of Susan Kaufman or Mrs. Doty or Ken Ford. Sometimes, when I visit briefly on book tours, I’m not even sure what became of Houston. It now seems like every other large American city—the same suburbs, the same stores, the same restaurants (like cancer or computer viruses, Starbucks is springing up everywhere).
But somewhere between the smog and the Southwest Freeway, I know old Buffalo Bayou is still there, flowing valiantly, the lifeblood of the city, through the veins of a dying junkie standing at the corner of youth and vermouth with a sign that reads “Need Fuel for Lear Jet.”