“You can go in there and sit down,” a Metro employee told me, as I paced beside a stopped train looking to scan my Q Card. “But this one’s out of service. Another one’s coming soon.”
“Do you know how long it’ll be?” I asked.
“You just have to wait.”
We were at UH-Downtown, the northernmost stop along Houston’s 7.5-mile light rail line. I had slathered on sunscreen and pedaled my Peugeot along Harrisburg here from the Greater East End, where I live with my wife, Sara.
Tomorrow was Easter. All spring the grass in our backyard has been furious, bursting through the mowed chaff from the week before and overwhelming even the poison ivy and sumac. We had spent a perfect morning there, barefoot—but by noon the sun had been focused into one concentrated beam, and I was simmering.
I headed in to pack a bag and gear up my bike. “I’m leaving now,” I said.
“When will you be home?”
I was not sure, I told her, and kissed her cheek and pushed into the street. Then it was three quick turns, Lawndale to Wayside to Harrisburg, a forsaken boulevard of lavanderias, taco trucks, and dollar stores. Then it was through the East End past a rust-eaten factory and rescue mission toward Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center downtown. On Harrisburg I saw a Metro sign for the East End Corridor, a new line “coming soon.”
Twenty minutes later I was at UHD squinting at Main Street, a viaduct that slopes up and over the bayou below. The sky was free of clouds and blue as a flame. Concrete pipes and bales of lumber were reined in by temporary fences. Backhoes were parked at dangerous angles against the banks. Curled above a trash barrel, a man rummaging seemed dry and forgotten as a fingernail clipping.
Then the metallic cry of wheels on rail and a happy ding like a department-store elevator’s snapped me back to reality.
One morning when we were dating I drove Sara through my hometown in rural Indiana. She had only ever heard stories. “I can’t believe you’re from here,” she said, as we turned onto Randolph Street—“the main drag,” as my mother says.
I showed Sara our one-screen movie theater, derelict train depot, Handy Andy, pro-life memorial, the government-subsidized apartment complex my mother, brother, and I lived in. “I can’t believe a person could actually be from here,” she said—though less to me this time and more in stunned wonder, like an anthropologist.
In 2004, I moved from Indiana to New Mexico for graduate school—where Sara and I met—and then in 2008, I was accepted by a Ph.D. program at the University of Houston, where the enrollment is nearing 40,000 students. Houston proper has more than 4.5 million people, though some estimate it is closer to 7 million.
Garrett is home to about 5,000. It is a quaint speck tucked away between lonely acres of corn and soybeans and hemmed in by underused county roads. It covers 3.1 square miles. It has three stop lights. About as many people of color.
It is celebrated locally for once being headquarters to the Creek Chub Bait Company, whose lure (I hear) was used to catch “The World Record Bass” in 1932. Todd, our mustachioed barber, has one of those candy-cane poles outside his shop. It could have been painted by Rockwell.
It was named for the first president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, John W. Garrett, and was founded as a stop on a line to Chicago when the B&O expanded to include passenger service. Maybe that was our fate: my home has never been more than a stop on the way to somewhere else, somewhere better. Growing up I had no place in mind—but I knew I could not stand to be here. When I was asked where I was from, I would mumble “Indiana,” and then eke out two more sounds too meek to be heard.
“Gary?” my interlocutor would ask.
“Where’s that? Near Chicago?”
“Isn’t Gary near Chicago?”
“What’s the town?”
“Garrett,” I would say, landing heavy on the t. “You’ve never heard of it.”
“Yeah. I’ve never heard of it.”
(I go through this same routine whenever I have to tell someone my name. “Allyn,” I say. “Al?” “No. Al-lyn.”)
So, I’ve never been burdened with pride, civic or otherwise. But I was determined to make Houston my home. I wanted it to feel the way I thought a real city would. I wanted to use it the way I thought a real city could be used. That first August I embarked on Houston Adventure Saturdays, when I would brave the late-summer swelter to attend museums and professional soccer games and taste ceviche and sushi.
I have since learned that Houston’s mass transit requires a knack that eludes me. I am too giddy and too obsessive, continually checking the directions scrawled in my notebook against the LED screens while I daydream like a Disney prince. I pester other patrons about trip duration. I recite my route as though it were my locker combination on the first day of school. Two years here, and I am not sure how to transfer. I have taken to waving my Q Card around the way some Houstonians must their American Expresses at the Galleria.
But the rail was the central element of Houston Adventure Saturdays. It was what I bragged about when I called my brother and mother in Indiana. Using it, I thought, lent me a kind of sophistication—as though commuting near people unlike me could change me, make me that much less provincial. I even used my tickets as bookmarks, hoping at a coffee shop someone might notice them peeking from the pages.
One night last year Sara and I walked from my apartment in Montrose toward Wheeler Station, where we would take the rail downtown to the Angelika Film Center. We were not yet married, and she was visiting from New Mexico. This adventure was part of my case to persuade her to move here. She had grown up in Phoenix and lived as a student in Swansea, Wales, and Guanajuato, Mexico, so she is no stranger to mass transit or public spaces.
“Isn’t this exciting!,” I said, squeezing her forearm and widening my eyes as we braced for the train’s forward lurch. I grabbed the pole and held on tight. She glanced at me and blinked, then looked out the window.
At UHD I followed the few other riders onto the train. Dressed like an undertaker’s apprentice, a young man with a bowl cut and rumpled black tie sat across the aisle. A woman and her two daughters—their hair styled in precise rows, pinched down with pink barrettes—scooted onto the bench facing me. She had a tiger’s paw inked in above her breasts.
As we slipped south the younger of her girls was pointing at Houstonians on the passing platforms. “I like her!,” she said about a shopaholic Latina. The girl pedaled her feet and kicked my shins. Her sister snuck Easter candy. “No more of that,” their mother said, almost winking at me. “You need to give those teeth a break.”
Soon the train was louder, busier. An elderly woman in a church skirt and navy hose boarded at Ensemble/HCC. The older of the girls clutched her bag of candy and rose to give away her seat. “You are a real lady,” the woman told her, laughing, and the girl blushed, leaning into her mother to touch her forehead to her knee.
We passed this way through Downtown, through Midtown, and at Wheeler Station they stood to leave. The last time I was here I saw a congregation of homeless at Peggy’s Point Plaza Park, a chip of concrete across from a Shipley Do-Nuts. I saw that what were once display windows at the Sears had been replaced and covered over by bricks, forced into the façade. I saw a grocery cart from the Fiesta abandoned in the bushes, one wheel hanging useless in the air.
The abrupt transition at Wheeler Station feels as though the light rail were caught in a custody battle, handed off from a conscientious mother to her bad-news ex.
Then we passed into the Museum District, near Hermann Park and Rice University, where Midtown blight gives way to bright banners announcing new exhibits of famous painters and multistory rectilinear complexes now open for “urban living.” A family of four, each with a grocery sack straining with their picnic, led me into Hermann Park.
A young woman read a novel in the shade of a live oak. An Asian family was rounding up pastel plastic eggs from their Easter hunt. Rice students made fun of each other during a game of kickball. Two Muslim women in burkas sat on a bench, their hands rocking their baby strollers.
It could have been painted by Seurat. The horn of the Hermann Park Train hooted unseen. Boats with crisp sails slipped across McGovern Lake. A woman in a wedding gown tiptoed through cedar mulch on her way to be photographed in the Japanese Garden. Three strong-armed mothers panted by on mountain bikes. A brown-and-white Saint Bernard the size of a wine barrel slept against the belly of a man in an Astros cap. It was a kind of dream. The city as it could be.
Last month I went to a party—it was a catered gala in a River Oaks townhouse, a puppy shower to welcome Sara’s aunt’s new labrador to Houston. I sat on a microfiber sofa beside a couple in their 50s who grew up here. I asked them about the rail.
“It needs to expand,” he told me.
“We like it,” she told me. “We park downtown where it’s cheaper and ride it to the rodeo.”
“Yeah, but it needs to expand,” he said, interrupting her.
“Have you heard of the Southeast Corridor?,” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” he said, as though it had been his idea. “But that would only be a start. You need lines that go up to Katy and to Hobby and all over the city.”
That is the plan, according to a 2009 Metro press release. The city wants to build five new lines. Right now, the line begins at Fannin South, a homely Park and Ride, an empty space squatting behind a Sam’s Club off the 610 Loop. It passes Reliant Center—home to two cash cows, the rodeo and the NFL’s Texans—a shiny complex that makes the once-famous Astrodome next door look less like a wonder of the world and more like a swollen whitehead. Then it passes through the Texas Medical Center, the city’s largest employer, to UHD and ends not far from Allen’s Landing, where this unfinished city began.
Mayor Annise Parker said in a recent interview, “I want [it] to be part of my legacy, that we actually revamp our mass transit system [and] have a first-class bus system and a good light rail system.” The Federal Transit Administration has approved the Southeast Corridor line to move into a “preliminary engineering phase”—which engineering seems to involve dinosaur-sized backhoes and men with shovels churning up lots along Wheeler Avenue where one-family houses used to be. Meanwhile, across the street a separate crew and architectural firm is building Cougar Village, a housing complex for next year’s freshmen at the University of Houston.
Each morning on my way to work at UH I see one of Metro’s sleek signs announcing the line is “coming soon.” I feel—jealous, covetous, somehow, wanting to go back in time and enroll here as an undergraduate, daydreaming about riding an elevator down from my room and being delivered into the city’s possibilities.
Sometimes, I look at the skyscrapers on the horizon and shake my head that this is my home. There seem to be more floors in one of those than in all the buildings in Garrett. How can that be? Sometimes, I walk downtown between those same skyscrapers and shiver in their shadows. How can anyone call this place home? Maybe Houston—the city we desire, the real city—is always coming soon. But how disappointed we are now as we wait here while it resists the dream.
At Hermann Park, not ready to turn back, I sat on a bench and took a lap around the gazing pool. I worked my way around the running path and then rode the rail to Bell Station in Midtown. We passed desperate commercial property, a Christian Science Reading Room, a Starbucks. A map of landmarks was displayed in an information kiosk. You are here, I read.
From Bell Station I walked north along Main Street to retrieve my bike at UHD. Brick inlays adorned each of the platforms, demarcating the boundaries of Houston’s rebirth. Across from the Starbucks, fashionable mannequins were contorted in unnatural poses in the display windows of Forever XXI, a two-story clothier at Houston Pavilions.
When a southbound train sped through Main Street Square a flurry of pigeons flapped into the air and out of the way. Across the street underneath the awning of an unoccupied building a man lay in a heap like a dirty coat.
Then I heard angry voices. A barrel-chested man in black slacks burst from his corner grocery and screamed at the other homeless loitering against the wall. “Get away from my door!,” he said, driving his finger like a hammer. “You cannot be here!” He advanced toward the men, shooing them as though they were pigeons.
“That’s weak,” one man said, turning around to glare.
“I told you not to go in there,” another told him.
“But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t even go into the guy’s store.”
“You knew what was going to happen,” he said, and they moved on, looking for somewhere else to be for now.
Mechanized jets were shooting from the decorative fountain that spans Main Street Square. The jets thumped out and sprinkled back harmlessly into the water, like fingers drummed on a table. I was the only one there.
Across the fountain a steel-and-glass structure the shape of a goal post loomed overhead. As we build our city let us think that we are building forever, I read. Are we being encouraged to construct our eternity? Are we being warned we will always have more to do?
Is this a utopian dream or a Sisyphean curse?
The sun was sliding behind the skyscrapers, the light coming in slanted, changing from noon’s pure white to evening’s fading orange. The banner was obscured in shadow. Building forever was all that was lit, as though this were the secret subject, the real emphasis. A man leaned on the fountain’s marble frame and read a magazine. “Hey,” I said.
He must not have heard me. I looked back, but no train was coming. I didn’t want to wait. It was already too late, and I was a long way from home.