Tag Archives: Essays

You are Here: A Journey on the Metro by Allyn West

Downtown mirrored in a train at UHD

“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.”

Building equipment near Buffalo Bayou

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.

Downtown Houston

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.

“No. Garrett.”

“Where’s that? Near Chicago?”

“No.”

“Isn’t Gary near Chicago?”

“Yes.”

“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.”)

"REAL CITY / FAKE DREAM"

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.

_____

Northbound train arriving at UHD

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.

Hermann Park a la Seurat

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.”

This unfinished 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.

A backhoe near UH and Cougar Village

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.

_____

Cartography or metaphysics?

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.

Near Main Street Square

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 city's ongoing proclamation

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.

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Urban Smoke Ring: Burn’s Barbecue By: Kurt Vrbas

I don’t remember eating barbecue growing up . We had no secret family sauce recipe, though I do not now deny trying to concoct one. I started reading books on the subject a few years ago searching for an authentic form of barbecue, if there is such a thing, or at least true to my Czech and German immigrant ancestry of central Texas. When my wife Caryn goes out of town, I go to barbecue joints. My affair with smoked beef. Not that she doesn’t like barbecue, she just doesn’t care to frequent these places as much as I do.

The search has taken me to the Houston Rodeo, to well-known restaurants like Pappas, Demeris, and Goode Company, and to gritty joints scattered along the edges of Houston between the city itself and the suburbs. This journey is more than culinary. It is geography. It is a study of architecture and urban form. It is material folklore. Foremost is the barbecue itself. The prime mover. And whatever ability I have to judge barbecue comes from my experiments on a small, round black Weber grill.

My first couple of tries at home didn’t turn out so well. On my second or third try, I decided to barbecue a three-pound cross rib roast for some friends who were staying with us the night before they were set to go on a cruise. The roast came out underdone and Caryn suggested we make burgers the next time someone visits, or at least until I get in a few more attempts.

My breakthrough came the weekend before the fall semester of 2009 at the University of Houston, where I am in the Master of Architecture program. We had some friends staying over for a fishing trip we were all to attend and they requested barbecue. The piece of meat was a six-pound choice cut brisket tip that smoked for nine hours with oak chunks that had soaked overnight. I placed a water pan over the coals with one white onion and three sliced cloves of garlic for added moisture and flavor. I basted and turned the brisket and refueled the fire every forty-five minutes. The end product was my best attempt yet and I had free reign from the wife to barbecue whenever I wanted.

What I like about barbecue is that it is remarkably casual, not pretentious at all, and even happily unrefined. It requires no on-plate decoration. It isn’t healthy by any means and it doesn’t ask forgiveness for polluting the air. In many cases, the process of barbecue starts early in the morning, burning small sections of logs down to glowing, smoking embers.

These coals are fed into a pit either below, often referred to as direct cooking, or adjacent, indirect cooking, to the surface where the meat resides. These pits can be as utilitarian as an old oven rack on a few bricks in a dirt pit over a bed of smoldering ash to the large pits made from 1,000 gallon residential propane tanks. While other barbecue regions and states prepare pork, Texas stakes its claim in brisket, which is the cow’s pectoral muscle. This piece of the animal actually does work, as opposed to something like the top loin. It is involved in every step the cow takes. Because of this, it is full of long muscle strands, whose collagen makes it difficult to cook. It is not filet mignon of even sirloin. Because of its toughness, brisket gets butchered with the layer of fat left on in an attempt to improve its flavor when cooked.

Temperatures for cooking range from 200 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, for time spans of four to as long as eighteen hours. The seasoning giving brisket its flavor can come from marinades or rubs applied before the meat touches the pit, variations of wood used for smoking, mops applied during cooking, and sauce added afterward. Rubs can be applied a few hours or a few days before the meat begins the cooking process. All these spices mix with the fat and water in the meat to create the black outer layer, often referred to as the bark, that is found on most prepared briskets. In the cross section of a well-prepared piece of meat is a bright red smoke ring.

The smoke ring results from the interaction of nitrogen dioxide in wood smoke with the water in the meat. But it signifies more than a chemical reaction to me. The circle is a strong form. Rings stand for marriage. They strangle cities or form the unscripted perimeter where unexpected beauty or relief can flourish.

Experimenting at Home

My wife and I were invited to attend the barbecue cookoff held every spring in Houston and I thought it would be a good chance to expand my understanding of barbecue. This event starts rodeo season and is quite the social scene. As for the barbecue, it is widely considered one of the big four yearly events in what participants affectionately call “The Circuit.”

The teams that take part in the cookoff have their own predetermined areas at the grounds that are covered by large plain white tents. Access to most of these places is only by invitation, although a few larger public access tents do dot the perimeter. The tent we have been invited to has a strict dress code: jeans and boots are a must. No T-shirts or baseball caps or sneakers allowed. I pull out my pair of old work boots that were hidden in the back of the closet and slip them on. “We will be back,” my wife claims as she pats the dog on the head and we exit the front door.

Our short drive to the West Loop Park and Eide takes us only a few minutes. We find a spot under a flyover exit from 610 with a bright light above. The canvas tensile structure that floats above this place has been somewhat of a curiosity to me. It always catches my attention as I’m getting onto 610 as I make my way to school during the week. A little architectural mark in a landscape of massive highway infrastructure and anonymous car culture.

We pay our $8 at the makeshift rodeo ticket kiosk and stand in line. A man wearing spurs affixed to his boots clanks by on his way to get a ticket. Caryn looks down at the man’s boots, looks up at me and grins. “We should have done this last year,” she says. She often finds pleasure in out of place, strange situations like this. We take our seats on the bus and patiently await our departure to the grounds.

Our fellow passengers are a cross section of Houston’s ethnic diversity. Four teenage boys with thick accents, Greek possibly, occupy the seats in front of us. A Hispanic family of five sits to our right. There are just as many blacks as whites and all on the bus seem to be cheerful and looking forward to a night of revelry. The bus pulls away from the curb and onto 610. Our driver takes the Almeda Road exit, turns left and then takes another left at Holly Hall. As we exit the bus the pitch-black Astrodome makes an eerie silhouette in front of the comparably new and brightly lit Reliant Stadium. We stand in line for another ticket and then make our way through the turnstiles. Naturally, the carnival midway is the first area we pass through. Like a gift shop, front and center at an art museum, the midway is the money pit of the rodeo.

The cookoff area is located in the south parking lot adjacent to Reliant, seeming the only place Texas-big enough to have such an event in this, the biggest of Texas cities. Three hundred and sixty tents, most covering the size of the average residential backyard, are stretched across the massive parking lot. These tents lay out like urban blocks in this barbecue city, back to back with a row of ten or so side by side. Plumes of mesquite smoke can be seen billowing out of $1000 barbecue rigs, rising above everything. Most of these pits were located in alleys behind the tents, out of sight to the public which was somewhat of a disappointment to me. The average cookoff attendee does not get to interact with the people making the barbecue.

We find our way through the maze of people and finally arrive at our destination. The “Chillin N Grillin” team sign can be seen hanging above the entry. We give the doorman our tickets and make our way inside. I’ve never seen so many new brown Carhartt jackets in one place. Cavender’s is surely out of stock this time of year. Bobby, a Vietnamese lacrosse-playing engineer I met during my undergraduate days at A&M, greets us at the bar in the back of the tent. “You guys want some jager bombs?” he asks. We politely decline his offer.

Two men wearing black Resistol cowboy hats and Lucchese boots pass us by, the tan canvas trail duster coats that hang from their shoulders sweep across the asphalt like two straw brooms. Their horses are undoubtedly tied up outside of the tent, most likely at the water trough trying to recover from their long trip down Kirby through River Oaks. These two men are the front runners for the “best costume” prize of the night.

My cynicism stems from what I believe to be a false alternate history of Houston. The closest major historic cattle trail, the Goodnight-Loving Trail, can be found some 150 miles away in Lockhart, which also happens to be a barbecue mecca. Houston’s trail ride history is somewhat of a recent development, starting in the mid 20th century. While this iconic image of the cowboy on horseback is genuinely historic to Texas, it takes a stretch of the imagination for Houston to claim such a heritage. Houston’s cattle legacy can be found in its railroads and its port. By 1860, Houston had emerged as a commercial and railroad hub for the export of cotton and cattle. By the late nineteenth century, Houston was the railroad center of Texas. During these “Texas western” years, Houston was full of railroad barons, not cowboys.

As for the food that evening at the cook off, the brisket was salty and the ribs were horribly tough. The burnt chewy sausage was actually quite tasty. Ah, carcinogens. But in the pit master’s defense, what was fed to the hoards of people in this tent wasn’t what was to be turned in for the competition. These articles of meat were located in a separate pit, where they were under constant supervision. Every aspect, from the amount of smoke to the internal temperature, was analyzed. Anything that could be done to gain an edge over the competition was executed. But to no avail: the team had come up short, not placing in any of the allotted events.

Bobby at the Cookoff

Although I do not doubt that good barbecue could have been found at the cookoff and I appreciate Houston’s need for an accepting if imagined community, I believe that the real barbecuers of Houston are located in establishments that are tucked away in the far-reaching corners of the city. Places that practice their art professionally every week. A good number of these places, like Harlon’s off Martin Luther King in Sunnyside and Burn’s in Acres Homes, are found in the historically black neighborhoods that circle the city’s urban core.

Located on De Priest Street just to the West of where Veterans Memorial peels off I-45, a little white structure between two houses serves the best barbecue in Houston. Burn’s guards the east end of Acres Homes like the mother hens sometimes found in the area watch over their chicks. This part of Acres Homes is surprisingly rural, considering it is a few minutes from Downtown. University of Houston architecture professors Rafael Longoria and Susan Rogers refer to Acres Homes as part of a “Rurban Horseshoe” between city and suburbs in an article published in the Winter 2008 issue of Cite. The horshoe, or smoke ring if barbecue takes precedence over horses, arcs to the south east starting from Acres Homes through Independence Heights, Houston Gardens, Settegast, Clinton Park, and finally Sunnyside.

At Burn’s, a small concrete tube that provides storm water relief rests under the gravel bridge that makes way to the dirt parking lot. A white sign with red lettering adjacent to the gravel drive gives the hours of operation: Wednesday-Saturday, 10:30-7:30. I can smell the smoke as soon as I open the truck door. Burn’s is as vanilla as it gets, with its painted white Hardie Board siding. A collection of piecemeal buildings make up the establishment, with the customer entry closest to the street and the covered pit area in the back. A small front porch provides some protection for the swinging screen door that slams behind you as you enter.

Years of smoke have patinaed the once-white interior walls a light coffee color. Framed and autographed pictures of past athlete patrons are hung without concern. The menu board behind the counter was scribed in black Sharpie some time ago and little taped white notebook paper squares indicate past price changes. An old Pepsi machine to the left of the front door dispenses the only refreshments. Four long uncovered florescent tubes light the counter from above and two window A/C units, one at each end of the room, appear to have cooled the space in the distant past.

In the sea of western-y decorated barbecue joints that dot the culinary landscape of Houston, Burn’s stands out as an unadorned shrine. It doesn’t have to hide behind the fake authenticity that places like Goode Company and Pappas so desperately try to convey. Most of its business is attracted by word of mouth. Burn’s is quite content with its steady stream of local, loyal customers and if the occasional outsider decides to drop by, Burn’s welcomes you as one of its own.

My wait was surprisingly short. Only one other person was in line before me. I order my usual. “Three meat lunch plate with sausage, brisket, and beef ribs,” I say. Sides of potato salad and beans are included, although I could not really care less.

“Anything else?” the old black woman behind the counter asks without making eye contact, as if she has said those same words to countless numbers of patrons over the years. On top of her head rests a white mesh baseball cap, the type that comes to a point in front because of the inside seam. Bold red letters spell out BURN’S, just above the hat’s bill. She turns slightly to cough in her hand, perhaps a side effect from the smoke that fills the room.

“Sauce on the side, please,” I respond, handingher the exact amount: $10.50. Burn’s is a cash-only establishment. She gives me my ticket and I take a seat to the right of the counter. Some other customers sit patiently in a few off-colored chairs scattered about the tiny space and glance at their tickets every time the woman calls out a number. The phone rings a few times during my wait and the woman jots down to go orders; the Saturday lunch rush appears to be around the corner. “817,” she says. My food is ready in a matter of minutes. I take the unmarked brown paper bag from a younger black woman who appears from a dark, smokey doorway.

There are no tables inside the building and the only picnic table outside is currently occupied by a man hawking knickknacks. A blue hue from the canopy stretched across a tent frame suspended from above is cast over everything he sells. I decide to take my order home. As I walk out the front door and get into my truck, I notice the smell of smoke stuck to my clothes. I head south on De Priest, snake my way through the neighborhood and get back on the interstate. I feel my stomach turn from the smokey smell penetrating the sack that sits on my floorboard. My trip home takes about twenty five minutes.

I unlock the front door and shut it behind me. I pull the styrofoam clam-shell box out and place it on the table, retrieve a Coke from the refrigerator and sit down. Steam escapes as the box is opened. The ribs, sausage, and brisket are all stacked neatly, front and center in the biggest compartment. The beans and potato salad occupy the other two bays.

I try the ribs first. They have good flavor and a decent amount of smokiness, but they are a little firm. An hour or so more on the pit would have helped. Burn’s sauce is decent but I like to think that good barbecue doesn’t need to hide behind it, which is why I always ask for it on the side. It has some liquid smoke in the mixture which I tend to dislike. I could taste that artificial sting through a habanero.

The irony of my search for authenticity through written texts and research, through cookoffs and restaurant touring, and not from recipes passed down from generations before, is that I grew up in a small Texas town called “West.” I could copyright “Western” meats, slap my face on the packaging, and make millions off of authenticity if I only had recipes.

Sausage is the exception. I know sausage through an unbroken Czech tradition. And I can say that the pork sausage from Burn’s was good, definitely not store-bought. It reminded me of the sausage my family makes every February. A few flakes of pepper seed can be seen through the transparent casing, but it was not overly spicy. The texture of the sausage was perfect and the taste of garlic is noticed as soon as the sausage casing is broken. It is, by far, the best sausage I’ve had in Houston.

Finally I get to the brisket, which is amazingly moist. The pit boss has allowed the smoke to flavor the meat and the additional spices are minimal. It is sliced fairly thick which usually adds to the toughness, but that is not the case here. The collagen inside the meat has rendered down and it is pull-apart tender. The smoke ring glows red and the greasy smoke flavored bark is perfect.

Burn’s Bar BQ

Beall Village by Yan Zhang

I moved to Houston in August, 2009. Before I came to the United States, I learned that Chinese students have a nomadic moving routine during their time at the University of Houston. Initially they move into Beall Village, at the end of their first year of study they usually move to a nearly house on Wheeler Street. Eventually most Chinese students move to Lantern Village on the west side Houston. During the time that they live in Houston and they learn a lot from the American life and somehow change themselves as well.

N. Macgregor Way @ University Oaks Boulevard

A wooden “Beall Village” sign on the green island was surrounded by a “U”-shaped drive way welcomed visitors to the two “H”-shaped buildings. Colorful flags fluttered in the wind in front of the green and white building facade. In the lobby, two or three seniors sat around a fire place on comfortable old sofas with checked cloth coverings. Five yellow sparrows were singing in a cage. A couple of potted plants were growing in the corner. This is what I saw on my first day at Beall Village.

Many Chinese students at the University of Houston choose to live in this neighborhood for their first year in Houston. It is convenient in located and not too expensive. At first, I did not like it at all. The outside of the building seemed clean and new. But inside the building, I felt like I was living in a dormitory building in China. The interior seemed cramped and not well maintained. In the lobby, there was a strong almond cookie smell all the time. The paint in the hallway was half faded and dark. New Chinese students choose this building as a temporary living space before they find something more satisfying.

Most Chinese students lived in a high-rise before coming to United States. The high-rise I lived in is made of reinforced concrete. There are 10 apartments on every floor. My apartment is a 500-square-foot apartment of one bedroom and one living room on 14th floor facing east. The grey painted walls give the rooms the only color they have. There is other decoration. In summer, every morning I can see the Oriental Pearl Television Tower which is the symbol of Shanghai. The orange sun rises behind the high-rise complex beside the Yangzi River which divides Shanghai into two parts. Every night I can open the door of the balcony and enjoy the wind. Crowded and multicolored night scenes are the most memorable features of Shanghai although it is the evening breeze that I miss the most.

For most Chinese students living in Beall Village is their first time to live in such a low building, which in China always stands for an old building with a dirty interior. But when Chinese students open their apartment door in Beall Village, they are surprised to find a decent interior and a view into a green landscape. Other surprises await them outside. The Bayou comes by the Beall Village. Beside it there is bicycle path, with team cycling events when the weather is good. The riders fly through the space between the trees. Then they disappear into the woods. People take their dogs for a walk along the bayou. It is a huge surprise to Chinese students that such a soft landscape is such a dominant feature of Houston.

Wheeler Street @ University Oaks Boulevard

After one year of study, Chinese students want to widen their social circle. They want to make friends with more people. Hence, some choose to move to the University Oaks neighborhood which is adjacent to the university and not far from Beall Village.

My friend, Fang and I were invited once to the home of an old couple who live in University Oaks. The place matched exactly what I expected for the traditional American house. The living room was connected with the dining room, with a fireplace in the center. A chandelier hung from the ceiling. A typical open western kitchen was next to the dining room. Two ovens warmed soup and rice. The owner welcomed us. We felt a softness when we stepped on the wood floor without shoes. We talked about American life and American values.

“What is most important for an American?”

“Time?” “Religion?” Fang and I began to guess.

“Yes. But it is not the whole answer. For Americans, time, competition and the individual are the most important things. Americans do not like to be late. For them, time is money. They will go to a party ten minutes early. If you can be thirty minutes early and help host, they think you should. Chinese will arrive five minutes late and the host will not let guests help them at all. Americans like to compete, which matches our passions of sports. Because of the importance of competition, Americans adore their success in sports and business. They even judge the quality of a film or book according to its sales. But the most important thing for an American is the individual. This may be the most important difference between China and the United States. It is even expressed in difference between the way people are named in each society. Americans put the first name in front of the family name because they think the individual is more important than the whole family. Easterners put their family name first name because they think of themselves as members of a community first. It takes a long time but after moving to Houston foreign students begin to understand the differences between their home country and their new home.

After living in Houston for six months, one begins to find that there are surprising differences between things that one imagines would be similar, for example buildings with similar functions have vastly different identities in China and the United States. Normally a house with backyard and a swimming-pool communicates luxury in China. Mention the word “house” and the first impression of Chinese people is the Baroque-style house with a gabled roof and closed fencing. They always think of housing for very wealthy people.

My friend Ray lives in a two-story house on Fiesta Street, which is two blocks away from Beall Village. I went to her house with several friends to celebrate the Chinese New Year. We began by putting some firewood into the fireplace and building a fire. It was 12:30 p.m. Yao took out the Hong Kong flour and water. We stirred and mixed it with yeast. Dough rose from palm size to basin size through Yao’s kneading. Andy minced the pork, cabbage and green onion. They were marinated for the whole morning in a source made from salt, Chinese pepper, mashed garlic, pepper, sesame-seed oil, chili oil, soy source and ginger juice when all these were ready. We began to make dumplings together. Such an occasion with a sense of family and community is popular among Chinese students. Walking inside this neighborhood, people can feel its kindness. Such houses in the United States which can offer a gathering space for Chinese students are nicer and make them to feel like their home, and they are not only for the very wealthy but also for middle class people.

Another example: in China, thousands of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants line the streets. Some people consider them a classic case of foreign cultural influence and homogenizing globalization. Yet these buildings and the presence of their façades on the street are different in different places. In Houston, a KFC is a real fast-food restaurant. The bread and meat are ready and employees just heat them in the microwave. The Drive-thru in KFCs is common but staying for a meal and a relaxing conversation is not. In contrast, KFCs in China are comfortable locations to relax and take your time while dining. The seats beside shop windows are full of people all the time. Most people eat and chat in an easy way. Because of the huge population of China, it is not normally easy to build a big restaurant. But many students choose KFC as the location of a party or discussion group in Shanghai. No doubt KFCs in China use the same logo and typical colors but they are not the same. The real fast-food restaurant in China is a narrow space without seats sometimes, selling dumplings. It is hot at summer night. Friends go to food stalls near the street for an icy beer. Such food stalls work like an outside bar with simply chairs and tables.

Renwick Street @ Gulfton Street

Driving on Bellaire Boulevard is a collage-like experience. Bellaire is the main street of Houston’s Asian district and Asian stores abound. Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese stores define the street. The street names on road sign changes from English into Chinese. Parking in one supermarket, there are three or four languages surrounding me. None of them is English. Many Asian dialects are spoken here. In the Dunhuang Supermarket I even heard of the Shanghai dialect, my own way of speaking with family. This supermarket is a place to meet friends. I met Yao and Andy in the supermarket. We are all students at the University of Houston. I went there after the Chinese New Year, which is on Feb. 14th. Dragon decorations were hung on the top of the supermarket. Daffodils, the traditional Chinese flower, were used inside. Lantern Village is next to Bellaire Street. Chinese students regard it as one of their final destinations for moving after obtaining their own cars.

Lantern Village is in a district where all the apartment buildings are exactly the same. The buildings are rigid boxes. The streets are narrow and gridded like military buildings. Compared with other parts of Houston, this residential area feels harsh and anonymous. However, there are a lot of amenities including swimming pool and casino game room. After a few semesters, in the United States Chinese students begin to think about things other than study and friends. They start to care about entertainment, convenient shopping and so on.

Lantern Village is designed for young wording men who are not interested in social interaction. After work they retreat into their apartments. I prefer an architecture which provides more successful places to gather and talk.
Next year I am going to stay in Beall Village or a house near Wheeler Street, where there is a possibility of getting together with other people. The gathering space for the University of Houston is the University center. A simple space with several chairs and a swing is the gathering space for Beall Village. A big tree surrounded with lawn chairs stretches itself in the backyard. In fall, one can sit under the tree, talk with neighbors and watch the sunset. At this time of year the flowers on the trees are in bloom filling the air with their perfume.

During the time I lived in Beall Village I began to see how people are nice there. After I finished signing a contract with the apartment manager, everybody present welcomed me. “Welcome to Beall Village!” A skinny, freckled old lady, Maria, took her cart and showed me around the building and my room as well. “You can get a clean towel in the laundry room next to the stair well. If you have questions or want to chat, I always stay in the lobby downstairs.” At the same time, I found that strong almond cookie smell is because Maria always puts cookie in the lobby to share. Whenever I get to the lobby, I can find cookies and candy.

Every morning when I leave this building and pass by the gate, the older residents greet me sweetly. At night, I leave the commuter bus and say goodnight to the uniformed driver with saggy stomach. He replies to me in a shrill but kind voice. As the iron gate of the parking lot moves slowly, an old man in a white T-shirt turns to me and waves his hand. I can see his grin though only three or four street lamps are flickering. There are always families gathering in the backyards between parking lots and buildings. Sometimes they do not really say anything. They just look at me and use eye contact to say hello. After I leave, they usually go back to their conversations again. It is my neighbors who make me feel that living in the Beall Village is similar to living at home. Although it is not usual, some Chinese students stay at Beal Village even four or five years after they graduate. Now I am wondering if I will be one of them someday.

A World Apart: University of Houston meet the Third Ward by Simone Ashby

The air smells like spring, a combination of an earthy smell, dog poop and freshly mown grass. My nose starts to tingle as my allergies set in. This is a small price to pay in order to be outdoors.

Often, in Houston, I feel completely disconnected from the elements. Every space I can think of is temperature controlled and insulated from the world. This is a completely new phenomenon for me, because there is not such a rigorous use of air conditioning in Trinidad, where I am originally from, even though our climates are similar.

I walk westward on Elgin Street, which runs along the northwestern border of the university. It is usually used as a traffic artery, ferrying students onto the campus as they zoom by in their cars on the way to class.

The bounds of campus are pleasant and provide what I expect from a university. Banners displaying students at play and work hang from rows of old fashioned street lamps in a Victorian/Edwardian style. The walking paths are well kept and the landscaping lush. There is even a whimsical art installation with chairs of varying sizes, some too tiny to sit on and some ten feet tall. Across the parking lots I can see the pristine lines of the rectilinear buildings that house the academics. The buildings are various shades of brown, from rust to tan.

Approaching the northeastern edge of campus, I see a sign carved in granite, announcing, “Welcome to the University of Houston Campus.” But this sign gives me a sense of foreboding because I am going in the opposite direction, and I can already see the sharp divide between what I am leaving and what I am going towards. I have never crossed this line before and might have turned if I did not have to write this essay.

My first difficulty comes when I try to cross at the intersection of Elgin Street and Scott Street at the border. I am now venturing into hostile territory for pedestrians. There is no crossing light. So I brave the traffic and cross at my own risk.

Safely on the other side now, the sidewalks immediately deteriorate. They are uneven, broken and in a few places nonexistent. As I correct my step after stumbling over the rough ground, the reduction in landscaping leaves my face vulnerable to the unmitigated rays of the sun.

Cars seem to slow and drivers give me puzzled looks as I walk around jotting notes in my bright blue notebook, snapping pictures feverishly. Then I look around to discover that I am the only person walking on this Sunday afternoon.

My curiosity is heightened by my sense of being out of place. I begin a studied observation of this section of Elgin Street. The houses that line the periphery are for the most part in a state of incredible disrepair. Dilapidated houses seemed to be the rule rather than the exception. Numerous houses have junk lying outside on their lawns, and scrap car parts piled into mountains in their front yards.

All of a sudden I hear the spinning wheels of bicycles behind me. Tu sh sh sh. Tu sh sh sh. Tu sh sh sh. This noise breaks my concentration. I turn around. Almost immediately I am filled with regret. I recognize the attire of the two men approaching me. They are dressed in black pants, white shirts, and ties, with backpacks sitting snugly on their shoulders.

“Hello, we are from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints!” They say.

“Hi,” I reply, trying to keep it terse so they will leave me alone.

“What religion are you?”

“Episcopalian.”

“Would you like to know more about Jesus?”

“No, I know enough about Jesus.” I reply, almost snickering to myself. This is sure to get rid of them.

They give me an incredulous look.

“So you do not want to learn more about Jesus from the book of Mormon?” They ask again, still looking puzzled.

“No, thanks, I’m good.” I reply as I turn away and quickly walk off.

They soon speed by me and I begin to feel a bit easier as they cycle so far into the distance I can no longer see them.

I slowly begin to get back into the rhythm of my walk. The uniformity of the dilapidation of the houses around me is strangely soothing. I look at them one after the next after the next trying to pick out the differences in their deteriorated conditions. One has wood rot, another has not seen a paint bucket in 20 years, the next has broken windows. To find a house that stood out as being worse than the rest is a hard feat but there is one that has stolen a place in my mind.

A huge oak tree tilts over the front of this house. That was what it reminds me of. Like the tree, the house looks as though it has been uprooted from its foundation, shaken and carelessly placed back onto the land. By some miracle it is still standing. The whole building is askew; it is as if some otherworldly force is keeping it from collapsing on itself. The structure is a humble single-story bungalow covered in wood shingles with flaking paint and rusted corrugated metal sheets where one would expect to find windows. At first I thought that this must be one of the many abandoned houses that I had seen in the neighborhood. On closer inspection, and much to my surprise, an old but fairly well maintained bicycle with fresh mud and grass on the tires is perched on the side of this precarious house, suggesting that it is occupied.

I continue down the street in a daze, astonished by the condition of the houses. Suddenly I am wrenched from my thoughts by a man’s voice calling to me.

“Hey! Hey!” he calls.

I ignore him, more than a bit put off. I hate when strangers talk to me on the street, especially since I had fended off the cycling Mormons not more than a few blocks before. Also, the look of this man is disconcerting. He is a shabbily dressed, severely overweight black man with a T-shirt that was once white but now looks a few washes short of its original condition.

“Why don’t you check out the hospital over there?” he continues, in broken English.

I decide to fight my instincts to ignore the man and listen to what he has to say.

“Are you taking pictures for school?” he asks.

“Yes,” I reply. “I am an architecture student at UH.”

“Look over there!” He then points to the Riverside General Hospital and, with pride, shows me the hospital’s campus.

“That building is the Houston Negro Hospital College of Nursing,” he goes on. He then proceeds to go through all of the hospital’s iterations and the uses of the different buildings on the hospital’s campus.

There are two buildings of note on the Riverside General Campus. These buildings stand apart from the majority of the other buildings that I have seen on Elgin Street because of their age and the permanence of their construction. The Negro Hospital College of Nursing is the oldest building on the lot, built in the 1920s when buildings were not the ephemeral constructions of today. The College of Nursing is constructed out of brick and rendered in white plaster. The windows on the building’s front façade seem as though they have been carved out of a solid form, giving it a durable look that is associated with much of 18th- and 19th-century European architecture. The second building is the new Riverside General Hospital, an unremarkable but well maintained single-story red brick building with a green canopy announcing “Emergency Room.”

These buildings are the prize at the end of what had been an emotionally and physically exhausting journey for me. I can see they are something special. Not knowing much about Houston’s history, since I am not from Texas or even the U.S., I did some research. I found out that the Negro Hospital, or Riverside Medical as it is now called, provided healthcare to the poor black residents who have lived in this area for the last 90 years, beginning in the time of segregated healthcare.

As I begin my return to campus it is almost as if my gaze is refocused. I start to notice something more than the shabby houses. I notice the spirit of the people. Many of the older people are sitting on their patios with age-worn faces that, strangely enough, bear looks of contentment. I realize I am judging a community by its houses rather than its people.

The walk back to campus seems to go quicker than my walk down the street because I am caught up in thought.

I think about how due to my sheer snobbishness I almost missed out on an education. Just because someone does not speak standard English does not mean that he does not have anything valuable to say.

I think about the sharp decline in the quality of the buildings on Elgin Street, west of the University of Houston campus.

I think how happy the people looked even though they are living in deplorable housing.

I think that although I share the same skin color with the residents of this historically black neighborhood, we share little else. My seemingly privileged upbringing in the Caribbean — weekend beach trips, well kept homes, summer vacations and mass consumerism — have made me more than a bit naïve to the reality of life as a poor black person in the U.S., and in some respects unable to relate.

By the end of my walk Elgin Street represents more than a physical boundary between extremes but a psychological one; it is a world apart from anything I have ever experienced.

Two Tales, One City: Houston Inside and Outside the Loop by Chudi Abajue

Childhood home

Houston is a city I have called home all my life. I grew up on the southeast side of town in a small neighborhood called Southbelt, moving from one apartment complex to another. I watched as my parents tried to give me and my siblings a decent life. They encouraged us to be whatever we wanted and taught us no one was better than us. The neighborhood was predominantly white and the encouragement was necessary because I didn’t always fit in. When I turned 12, my parents were able to buy a two-story tan home with a Hardie Board and brick exterior that matched all the other homes on the block. I became more involved in the community by helping the local church and taking part in extracurricular activities at school but still did not fit in to the neighborhood. Something was missing. I needed to get out and explore. It was this feeling that helped me decide to move to Arlington, Texas.

Five years later, I graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington and I found that, aside from a few good friends, I had no real attachments. The 250-mile drives to visit Houston were over. I decided to move back. It was time to get back to my little neighborhood and at the same time become an outcast again.

Only two flags fly in Southbelt—the American and Texan. Three megachurches spread the gospel only minutes from each other and each house has a couple of cars in the driveway adjacent to a St. Augustine lawn. People never really speak about politics or religion in public, unless there is a good joke involved. Life runs at a slow pace. On the weekends high school students watch Friday football and have house parties. Middle- to upper-income couples settle and raise a family. Seniors come to retire. It’s a small, God-fearing community. There is even a 100-foot plus cross to prove it. While I was aware of other pockets of Houston, such as the renovated Mexican flea markets with poor, uneven streets in South Houston or the glass and steel towers of Downtown or the small dilapidated black barber shops near Scott Street, Southbelt was the Houston that I grew up knowing and I stuck to it.

After graduation and a few months job-hunting, I started my career in a small office in the Montrose area called Cisneros Design Studio. This job introduced me to the people who call themselves “Inner Loopers.” The environment was different from my upbringing along the Gulf Freeway corridor. I was accustomed to Ford F-10 trucks that had bumper stickers that read “W The President” in support of George W. Bush. Now I was coming across those same trucks that said “F The President.” The landscape was also different. In place of a Starbucks here, a Super Target over there, and a Home Depot next door, I saw “Mom and Pop” stores or chains with a significantly smaller footprint. I gathered from all these observations that this city was divided in its culture, people, and lifestyles.

Cisneros Design Studio

For the past five years, I bounced back and forth from inside to outside the Loop. In that timeframe I have worked for two different architectural firms and gone back to school at the University of Houston. In this short time, I have noted different incidents that give me a sense of my fellow Houstonians just minutes north of me. The majority of those incidents occur while I’m in or with my car.
My vehicle is something that is a necessity in Houston so it only makes sense that I would do most of my observation behind its glass. One of the first encounters was on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose. I knew Montrose was home to the the gay, lesbian, and transgender community when I first began working in town. I got so many puzzled looks from people in and around Southbelt when I mentioned I worked in the Montrose area that I started to say that I worked near Downtown and when they started to ask for specifics I just said around the Museum District. This little white lie ended follow-up questions such as “Is your boss gay?” or “Are you not telling me something, Chudi?”

At the corner of Westheimer and Montrose, I was wrapping up my lunch break and heading over to a Valero gas station. As I got out of my gray 1988 Mazda 626, breathing in some “fresh” air and escaping some humidity that had accumulated in the car due to the lack of air conditioning, I wiped my brow and dug into my pocket for my credit card. As I swiped the card at the pump I notice an older woman pumping her tank in front of me wearing a white Sunday dress with a large church hat, as if coming from a church meeting.

As I watched the numbers of gallons at the pump flicker before me, I could not help noticing something odd about the Church Lady. She had a boxy and weathered face and the stout figure of a construction worker. As I continued to take careful and casual glances, she turned towards me and gave me a stare as if she was going to give me a beating. Then I realized I was in the presence of a cross dresser. This was my first such experience and the person appeared to want to beat me up, inching closer to me. I ended all eye contact and abruptly stopped pumping my gas. I dug for my keys in my pocket while frantically trying to get back into my car and sped away from the station, while at the same time trying to avoid getting hit by oncoming traffic.
My next experience in the area occurred several weeks later. It was around 5:40 in the evening and I was ready to go home. The streets were busy and vibrant with cars and pedestrians. I proceeded south on Montrose past the Mecom fountain and waited at the stop light on the corner of Main and McGregor. Once the light turned green horns sounded off for the first car to move. I was thinking to myself, “It hasn’t even been a full second yet and people are blaring their horns for the front car to move. Where’s the patience? Where are the southern manners that we Texans brag about? My God, everybody calm down!” As the first car moved forward all the cars behind, including my own, followed, moving as quickly as we could before the light turned red again. I wondered are all people very confrontational down here. Would the people inside the Loop make up the inhabitants of yet another geographic area that I’m going to want to flee from?

A few days later, on a warm January afternoon I was at the office of Cisneros Design Studio at my area working on the latest sketch that Mr. Cisneros had designed. It was just after lunch and I was not in the mood to work anymore. As my eyes bounced back and forth from his sketch back to monitor, my neighbor Jeff strolls back into the office and mentions to me some guy that could be the next President of the United States. Knowing Jeff, I realized this could be another crazy story he has to tell me, but they are always interesting, whether it’s about his ex stalking him or what he saw at the bars the night before. Jeff is a white guy with a very “laissez-faire” attitude. He was in his early 30s but at times it seemed like he was 21. He had long hair and he seemed to be a product of the Inner Loop.

He goes on to tell me that there is this guy named Barack Obama planning to run for president. I look at him as if he just lost his mind. He continued to say that this Obama character is black, as if that was going to excite me about his new findings. My first thought was “Oh great, another black man running for President.” I smiled politely and told him I was skeptical. Basing my judgment on the neighborhood I grew up in, I countered with, “Who in Iowa or Florida would vote for a guy who’s name sounds like Osama?” I know from experience that your name does play a factor in how people perceive you. My second doubt stemmed from my being generally unsure about black candidates. They usually make the campaign about race and they always try to rhyme like they went to the University of Dr. Seuss.

Jeff seemed perplexed at my reaction, but I decided to look at this candidate a little more closely anyway. As the weeks followed I started to see why Jeff was so excited. He was intelligent and spoke well and talked about issues that interested me. This was an eye-opening moment for me that I truly believe stemmed from working inside the Loop. I began to see how cynical I had become due to the environment in the suburbs, but even more importantly, I saw that Jeff was more open minded and optimistic than I ever have been. Although this senator from Illinois was black and had a funny name, it was Jeff, not I, who thought he could be the next president.

Commute to Cisneros Design Studio

I observed other traits around the new geographic area where I worked. The community was much more diverse in its economics and population than the suburbs. Because of the closeness of buildings, you can see Maseratis and Lamborghinis in the driveway of Hotel Zaza and a few blocks north Interfaith Ministries caters to the poor and runaways. I lunched at the Jack and the Box on the corner of Montrose and Yoakum observing runaway teenagers while peacefully finishing my sandwich and fries.
I came across some thought-provoking liberal ideologies, people and bumper stickers that I assumed could only be found in New York or California. It was a place where conforming was not acceptable. Originality was the norm. I felt I had found a place I could finally connect with.

As my one-year anniversary at Cisneros neared, I was offered a job near my original neighborhood. This new opportunity paid more, had benefits, and the best part was that I didn’t have to drive 30-45 minutes every day to work. I felt that this was going to be the best move for me and my early career. During the first few months at the new office people were courteous and nice. But the conversations with my new employees left me disconnected.Most of the people were already married with children, and most of their conversations were about golfing, fishing, or their kids — all things I could not relate to. For lunch, the different restaurants were limited to the typical food chains that can be found anywhere in the city. The people and the environment of the neighborhood I grew up calling home all of a sudden had this feeling of being sterile. I started to feel that sensation of displacement once again.

After a year at my new office, I was set to begin my first school design, all the way from schematic design to the finished product. I was excited; this is exactly what I waited for — until I saw the final rendering. It was a symmetrical building with a tower in the front and brown and tan brick all around. I was highly disappointed. What upset me even more was that this is really what the educational client had requested. Within the Loop you could use different material like corrugated steel, stone, and maybe a little plaster here and there. Things could be asymmetrical; the norm was to break from normal. Outside the loop projects had to coordinate with deed restrictions and conservative voters ranting and hollering about the color of a brick on a new school or the geometry of the building. And the last thing any school district wants to do is upset its voters. Therefore, they play it safe and make everything vanilla or tan. After a while I noticed that everything is tan around my home neighborhood and office. The majority of the schools are tan, most of the shopping centers are tan, and just about every house is tan. I felt the suburbs were trying to kill originality.

A few months later, I was driving to work, and as I was coming over the overpass of El Dorado at Interstate 45, I noticed someone walking over the overpass. I reached the stoplight on the other end of the overpass and waited for the light to turn green, I thought to myself, “Why is that person walking over the bridge? Is his car broken? Does he even have a car?” I stopped myself. What is so bad with walking from one location to another? Is this what living outside the Loop has done to me? My experience inside the Loop was fighting my current environment. Instead of being so critical of people walking, I thought maybe this guy has the right idea and those of us in our cars need a reality check about our environment. I recalled the old Taco Cabana at the corner of Westheimer and Montrose, watching people walk constantly through that intersection.

As I got off the elevator and entered into my cubicle space in the office, I noticed my neighbor to the right of me is searching online about buying a scooter. Since gas prices are now $4.00 a gallon, he’s rethinking the idea of buying a truck and is considering a scooter. He asks me what I think about the scooter he has selected and I politely tell him I think it looks nice. But since I am one who can’t learn to keep my opinions to myself I continue to tell him he may want to wait out this gas price spike or at least buy an electric car like a Prius. He smiles and looks as if he takes my suggestion into consideration and goes back to work.
I am not sure to what extent I will always remain a product of the suburbs and how much my exposure to the Inner Loop changed me.
As I logged onto my desktop, I remember walking to my car from a Half-Price Bookstore on the corner of Montrose and Yoakum, and noticing a scooter going by with a long lanky gentleman wearing a white helmet. As I left the store and headed to my old, worn-out 1988 Mazda 626, I realized how many people in the Montrose area owned scooters. After a while I thought that maybe a scooter would be pretty cool to have if I lived down here.
I tried to snap out of my flashback but couldn’t help my reveries.
Not too far from the Beltway and Beamer intersection, minutes from my old home, I saw a large man riding on a bike. “Foolish,” I thought. This is not Montrose. Drive a car or stay inside.

From Goats to Gaskets: Learning to Live by Aatique Shaikh

My uncle was convinced that I was hired because I am Muslim. Really, I don’t think so. But maybe. My boss, Jamal, who was also one of the men who interviewed me, is Muslim. An Iranian born Shia. Via Louisiana.

“Maybe he saw on your résumé that you were part of the Muslim Student Association!”

“I don’t think that has anything to do with it.”

“Well, you never know. And now you have a job offer. In Houston.”

“Oh my God!” my aunt interjected. “We lived in Houston for two years. There were cockroaches in our apartment! It was a nice complex too, but with the weather … .You know how it is?”

I didn’t.

“I went down to the leasing office to find out about exterminators for the apartment, and the guy there said that water bugs just came with the territory,” my uncle replied inexpressively.

“Water bugs! Can you believe they call them water bugs? That’s when I knew I was in Texas! When the words all changed!” my aunt intoned. She is from Connecticut.

I felt really sullen about the job offer. It was the best one of the three I’d received, but I didn’t want to leave Dallas. Everyone there told me Houston sucked. Houston was also the city in which I had my first meal at Taco Bell. Since then, I swore I’d never eat there again. Regardless, it was between Houston and moving back home to my parents’ house in Gaborone, Botswana, going through the entire process of trying to find a job — again. And I wasn’t ready to move back, so, in spite of all the cursory affirmations against Houston from my friends, and the great proliferation of fast-food restaurants, I took the job.

I had visited Houston exactly three times prior to moving here. The first visit was with my parents and brother to visit my sister’s sister-in-law and her family for two or three days during my first trip to the States. On my sister’s recommendation, we went to Taco Bell. Since I only eat meat and chicken that’s Halaal (which means that it has been slaughtered in a manner acceptable by Islamic law), I couldn’t eat anything on the menu except what looked like blobs of brown-grey mashed up beans wrapped tightly in a soft tortilla shell. I ate it thinking I would never feel cheerful again. My relationship with my sister has been strained ever since.

The second time I came to Houston, I drove down from Dallas, merged from Highway 45 to the 610 Loop and immediately got lost. I was driving to Deer Park for my interview. The instructions said to go from 610 East to 610 South. Somehow I ended up on Interstate 10 oblivious to the mistake I had made until I saw a sign telling me I was a certain number of miles away from Beaumont! I hadn’t actually paid attention to the fact that the collection of 610 highways was in fact a loop, as I know now, and if I stayed on it, I would always be on it.

I came to Houston a third time to find an apartment. I didn’t know my way around, so I looked up an apartment finding service that got me in touch with one of their Houston agents. We arranged a meeting at the first of many apartment complexes we would look at that day. Greg, an African-American, showed up wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I had expected someone who was dressed professionally, as I assumed professionals would be in Dallas. I concluded that people in Houston do business differently. Greg did all the driving. I was dumbfounded by the sudden realization of the scale of this new city and it’s immense stock of cars all seemingly frozen on the highways like dinosaurs in a tar pit.

We looked at a number of apartments before I finally settled on one in a complex called Meyer Park in Meyerland. It was an unexceptional beige and stucco apartment. Green wood siding was added along the ground floor for a decorative touch. Next to the Meyer Park entrance, a large pond had been installed at which a group of ducks flourished. Around the pond was a lush, undulating lawn. A romantic fairy tale bridge crossed between two of the banks. My apartment, however, didn’t face this pond. It faced the back of a Wal-Mart. Did these people never hear of zoning?

I should have been used to this sort of view, having grown up in a city where zoning policies have never been enforced. My parent’s house is in a gated community in Gaborone. This new community is in a suburb, just to the west of Gaborone, inventively called Gaborone West. Outside of the main entrance to my parents’ complex, at the corner of one of the streets, on what would normally be the sidewalk or space occupied by the set back requirements, is a shipping container in which some budding entrepreneur is running a neighborhood tuck shop. Tuck shops are common in Gaborone. They sell basic goods from individual fruits and bread to chocolates and cigarettes and soft drinks with the most minimum mark-up, as far as I know. They are usually positioned on small pieces of unclaimed land in residential areas so that there’s always one within a five-minute walk from one’s house.

The Gaborone city planners have also overlooked city beautification and have no apparent interest in building roads that don’t fall apart the moment a light shower hits the ground. When this happens, swirling eddy currents gouge giant holes into roads rendering them into a dystopian vision of asphaltic Swiss cheese. A friend of mine once told me she had to drive over the potholes with her eyes closed, foot to the pedal, and hands clenching the steering wheel, ignoring any damage her car might incur if she wanted to go anywhere. Road edges are also not immune to degradation. Very few roads have curbs and as a result crumble off into the gravel and sand that is meant to be a sidewalk. However, the sidewalk, being one of sand and gravel, gives in instantly to tall, wild grasses that colonize all unpaved land. All the streets around my parents’ house that lead to the main roads are like this. They have actually become a refuge to a small herd of goats.

During the summer months when Gaborone is inundated with water courtesy of a few, but frequently powerful, thunderstorms, many animal herders bring their flocks from the countryside to the city. They do this because most of the available agricultural land in the ‘countryside’ is instantly sowed with plants for harvest with very little left over for animals. Also, the goats, and sometimes even cows, tend to all the feral grass that explodes in length the moment it rains.

My little herd has lost its shepherd. The goats roam freely around their selected area. I see them every time I go home, nervously shuffling one after the other. They’re true city goats, too. They know how to cross the street! I know, have watched them look to the right, then the left, right again and then make a quick dash to the safety of the other side. Whenever one of them gets stranded on the middle of a road, motorists simply slow down, allow them to pass or drive around them. They’re pretty much like the potholes. Inconspicuous, but present.

In Gaborone, stately homes cluster across the street from small dwellings with concrete block walls and corrugated metal roofs held down with more brick; small office buildings are nestled in predominantly residential neighborhoods; giant, ugly black-and-white cube edifices ten stories tall accommodate government offices; and parks are rarely used except as a thoroughfare. Everything in Botswana is flat. Wide roads separate buildings with the occasional pretense of providing sidewalks. However, since Gaborone is only an eighth the size of Houston, its disappointments seem easier to manage.

Tired of continuing my search for the perfect yuppie apartment, I decided Meyer Park was good enough despite the view. I signed a year-long lease, the same length as my temporary work visa. When Jamal offered me the entry-level engineering position at Flexitallic, he mentioned that they would make every effort to sponsor my work permit after the temporary one ran out. He was hopeful they would not encounter any obstacles.

The drive from my apartment to the Flexitallic office was about 25 minutes long. From my apartment, after a quick Starbucks jaunt, I would get onto 610 East and head toward Highway 225. Since I was leaving the Loop I was always driving opposite to the flow of traffic. Regardless, I was usually about ten minutes late every day due to my propensity to hit the snooze button for as long as I could tolerate the annoying alarm call.

Traffic usually wasn’t a problem, but sometimes I wasn’t so lucky. On one memorable occasion a thunderstorm flooded Deer Park. Heading home after work I was looking forward to break my fast for Ramadan. My 25-minute trek turned into a two and a half hour ordeal. One of 225’s underpasses was flooded because someone forgot to clear debris from the highway. All traffic was directed to the service road. Traffic only exaggerated my hunger as I watched the clock tick by, slowly passing the time at which I was supposed to break my fast. I didn’t even have a snack in my car for such an emergency. Furious with Houston, I called my aunt to complain, but she quickly reminded me that fasting meant sacrifice and discipline. Deciding I would never be tolerable of this traffic, I decided to dwell on happier thoughts of food. As the traffic inched by, it gave me time to think about what I wanted for dinner. I ended up going to Fadi’s where I ordered the red snapper with a side of hummus and a puffy naan. Another crisis delectably saved.

Flexitallic is located in Deer Park, a name that conjures up images of verdant, rolling fields populated with its namesake, deer, and swaths of gargantuan evergreen trees. In reality, it is scarred by highways, a deep ship channel, and writhing masses of steel topped by little yellow and blue flames that scorch the air with their soot.

Most of the refineries in Deer Park are located to the north of 225 so they have direct access to the ship channel. Most of their supporting infrastructure lies south of 225 including Flexitallic, a gasket manufacturer. My job entailed the design of specialized components for petrochemical and aeronautical use. Jamal and I worked in an office with Brian, a very rotund and jolly engineer. Our desks were all separated by rows of filing cabinets. Thankfully, my desk was closest to the only window in the office. Perched high atop the wall it provided light to the only plant we had. A guy would come in to water the plant every so often, but he wasn’t very chatty. When I would say hello, he would mumble some response back, water the plant and quickly leave.

Our office, on the second floor, was at the end of a long and narrow sunless corridor. It connected us to two sets of stairs leading to the factory and the lobby, respectively. A conference room and offices for some of the higher-ups in the company were also lined up along this corridor. If the higher-ups were in their offices, their doors were always open. I imagined they shot me looks of dismay as I strode in late every morning.

The sales and logistics offices were on the ground floor and were always well stocked with delicious home-baked treats placed on a table near the receptionists’ desks. It seemed at least once a week someone’s wife would send some brownies or the like to the office. Everyone was invited downstairs to graze on the goodies.

Unfortunately, during my first month working there, I couldn’t eat anything. Ramadan had started on the first day of my tenure at Flexitallic. I spent my lunches digesting marketing materials about the various products the company sold. Jamal also had me visit the different departments in the office and factory in order to gain firsthand experience about the production of gaskets and related products.

The factory is a lofty space with uncertain boundaries. It is divided into separate areas of production. Divisions are based on the size of the machines doing the work and the area needed to store raw materials and finished goods. It is an old factory that has been repaired and fitted as needed, but its age is showing. Near the top of the ceiling, some of the insulation was starting to come away from the wall. It resembled the stuffing of a teddy bear whose seams had started to unfasten with age, but no one seemed to care so long as the roof kept the water out and work could go on.

The factory is a grim place. The only natural light entered the space through two large roller doors near the front end. Dispatch trucks would idle there as they were being filled and prepped for delivery. The machinery and the entire floor are constantly steeped in graphite, a common staple used in the production of many gaskets.

During my rounds in other departments, I met Dee, the woman in charge of logistics. She dealt with everything from arranging transportation of all products to and from the factory as well making sure the offices were stocked with the most basic stationery supplies. During the first few days I had spent there, I hadn’t noticed any recycling bins. I decided to ask her where they were located, thinking there was probably some oversight on my part.

Dee was a petite, stern-looking woman. Her blond hair was always pulled back tightly leaving just enough in the front for a bouncy fringe that danced shadows over her eyes, making her seem more foreboding than she really was.

“We don’t recycle here.” She pursed her lips at me and for a second she looked younger as her wrinkles disappeared. Her eyes gave me a quizzical look. “Are you from California?” Dee asked.

My rounds complete, I finally settled into our engineering office, AutoCAD always at the ready on my computer screen. My work in designing components involved looking over drawings and specifications provided by the refineries. When those weren’t available I was expected to make site visits to look at and measure the pieces to which my components would fit.

About seven months into my year at Flexitallic, I got called into Jeff’s office, one of the higher-ups and director of something or the other. He wanted to talk to me about my visa.

“I’ve talked with the lawyer, and all the paperwork for the work permit has been filed and submitted. We’ve been very pleased with your performance, and would like to offer you a raise pending the approval of your permit,” he seemed to recite. I couldn’t tell if the expression he constantly wore on his face was one of sadness or kindness, but I like to think it was the latter. I was delighted by the news. Everything seemed to be going according to plan and I was expecting a long career as an engineer.

My first site visit was with Jamal. Even though he was so lean, he always wore clothes that were a size or two too large, but tightly cinched at the waist. He was also very tan, a result of the many Houston mini-marathons he ran. He would always freely dispense advice on the many benefits of running. He had a very bushy moustache that mostly obscured his top lip. He spoke with a slow, deep, crackling drawl, a combination of his Iranian accent and his time spent in Louisiana and Texas. When he first moved to the States some 30 years ago, he enrolled in an engineering Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University. However, he quickly left to pursue work at an engineering firm with the impending birth of his first child. He has been at Flexitallic ever since.

Jamal drove us both in his blue Accord to the Shell Refinery. Instead of taking the highway, he stayed on the service road, which at 11 a.m. was deliriously empty. We were driving west and 225 loomed tall above us on our left. On our right, tall chain link fences protected the petrochemical compounds and heavy concrete barricaded their entrances. The refinery towers lay farther inward for safety reasons. Between the towers and fences was open land, stripped bare by the constant movement of large vehicles and people, revealing a light coffee-colored gravel that harshly reflected the sunlight.

In certain places, the gravel lots also doubled as visitor parking. The dust left trails on my clothes as I walked from the car to the air-conditioned entrance office. It was set on top of a small concrete plinth and clad in beige corrugated metal with dark tinted windows breaking up the monotony. Inside, the walls were also a shade of beige and a portly attendant sat behind a thick piece of security glass in which a small two-way communication device was imbedded. After we announced our arrival and waited to get a ride into the compound we sat down on a pair of mismatched chairs. The cushion of mine had withered and the fabric looked to be pulling away from the backrest.

“So, you’re Sunni?” Jamal randomly asked.

“I am. And you’re Shia?” I already knew the answer.

“Yup.”

We sat in silence for the next few minutes, I occasionally tapping the hand rest. I mulled over the question Jamal asked me. Maybe my uncle was right.

Fred shortly escorted us to the refinery tower. I thought he kept licking his lips and chewing on his lower lip, but I realized later he had a wad of chewing tobacco pressed firmly against his gum that he seemed to play with between conversation. He also toted around in his vehicle a white polystyrene cup that he would occasionally spit saliva into. At first this horrified me, but as those white polystyrene cups became part of the scenery, I became desensitized to his habit. He wore a set of blue overalls, gnarly old steel-toe boots and a sticker-emblazoned white hardhat.

As he drove us to the tower, he chatted amicably with Jamal about the parts needed and when. I struggled to take it all in as I was amazed at the sheer size of all these plants. Shimmering steel towers of every size and shape captivated my attention. Pipes coiled inexplicably from the ground appealing to the heavens, and were supported by the thinnest of structures. Thin metal gratings, connected by equally transparent staircases, hovered around the pipes and formed the different levels. An army of people dressed in red and blue overalls constantly floated between these levels tending to the pipes that deconstructed their precious cargo of ebony, glossy-slick.

When we got out of the car, Jamal went to survey the component he needed. Fred escorted me to a porta-camp where his office was temporarily being held to look over drawings that might prove useful.

“I’ve never seen you here,” Fred said.

“I just started working with Flexitallic recently, and Jamal is showing me the ropes,” I responded.

Seemingly pleased with this reply, Fred launched into a spiel about the nature of his work assembling refinery towers and its nomadic nature that made him have to go where he was needed. Unforeseen to me, the point of his story was that he was never able to maintain a steady relationship with a woman.

“However, the pay’s good and during my breaks I can head on over to Shreveport to play the slots and pick up some ladies!”

Fred did not seem afraid to plunder his soul and provide details of his caddishness for the sake of casual conversation. When he spun tales of his trips to Shreveport his red, splotchy, sunburned face seemed to get redder and the delicate varicose veins beneath his eyes flushed deeper shades of blue. Over time, I got used to the character of the stories Fred would tell and felt a little boring for not having ones of my own to recall. As the shock subsided, I began wondering if Fred ever contemplated using sunscreen to avoid the leathering of his skin under the Texan sun and the spread of those veins.

As the expiry date of my work visa drew closer, I spoke again with Jeff about it.

“Unfortunately, due to a cap on the number of permit applicants by the government, your visa application was denied.” This time I decided his expression was one of sadness, especially since that was how I felt. I didn’t have any control over the situation.

I had two months left on my temporary visa and decided I would go to Gaborone for a year, possibly work and consider applying to grad school. What is it again that I wanted to do with my life? Be an engineer? Maybe not. After learning to live in Houston for a year, I was now freed from the constraints of having to follow the traditional trajectory of having my entire career path defined by my undergraduate degree.

On my last day of work at Flexitallic, I drove back to my apartment with the evening on my tail. The sky put on a dazzling performance of various shades of oranges, reds, and purples reflected onto strings of grey clouds. The tectonic towers in the refinery fields silhouetted into black veins and seemed to frolic against the color of the sky.

“It’s actually really beautiful, the refineries at sunset,” I said to my friend, Candice, over dinner when she was visiting Houston. “Pollution is the best thing that ever happened to sunsets!”

“How charming!” she quipped.

Exodus From Chaos to Tranquility: The Demise of the Original Vietnamese Enclave in Southwest Houston by Mai Phan

It was a clear, cool winter day in Houston. The sun extended its rays to land that yearned for its touch of warmth. I lay out on the naked concrete floor of my apartment’s balcony, gazing into the ocean-blue sky and the swaying arms of tall palm trees. I could hear the breeze cutting through the trees’ screen-like fingers. Far southeast of the city and adjacent to the bay, my neighborhood was free of the sounds of city chaos. I arrived in this place I call home, a suburb of Houston called Clear Lake, after moving sixteen times in thirteen years. The environment in which I was raised and to which I was accustomed for half of my life, Southwest Houston-Alief, was altogether different.

“Mom! What are you doing?” The shouts of my oldest son tunneled through space and broke the wholesome peace. A bit disturbed by not ever being able to meditate because of the constant calls of my children, I rose up in silence and strolled back into our home.

Surveying the situation, I began to give directions to my two sons and my daughter. “Boys, hurry. Get your shoes on, and also help your sister to put on her shoes.”

As they scurried through the pile of shoes at the entrance to our home, my youngest son asked, “Where are we going?”

“To Ba va Ong Ngoai house.” In translation that meant Grandfather’s and Grandmother’s house, in a mix of Vietnamese and English.

From where we lived in Clear Lake, we hopped onto racetrack-like I-45 North, and then exited on the Sam Houston Tollway West towards 288 East. The long and fast-paced drive took us to my parents’ home in Fresno, a suburb on the southwest edge of Houston. I planned to ask why my parents left the Chinatown environment of Southwest Houston-Alief and moved here. Full of culture and festivities, Chinatown seemed the best place for our family while I was growing up. But then recollections of troubled times arrived like a ghostly apparition into my thoughts, startling me to a harsh reality and reminding me how I came to despise the area myself. Perhaps my parents decided to leave because of these same disappointing experiences. That was soon to be revealed.

After we pulled into the pits at my parents’ house, the kids sped through the door to greet their grandmother. My mother sat patiently alone on the living room couch awaiting the greetings of her grandchildren. The kids then ran upstairs to play, respectfully leaving the elders to their business. Not wasting time and always avoiding personal pleasantries, my mother and I got straight to the interview.

“So, Mom, how did you end up choosing Southwest Houston to raise our family?”

My mother started by discussing her desperate passage from Vietnam in 1976 in the aftermath of the horrors and violence of the Vietnam War and the despotic Communist rule in the country. Thirteen terror-stricken yet brave members of her family defiantly huddled together in the cramped, dark bottom of a tiny shrimp boat to escape from the tyrant government.

“There was Ong Ngoai, Ba Ngoai, Di Huong, Chu Hung, Di Lan, Di Thuy,” my mother said, listing the surviving family members who escaped with her.

“No, Mom. Stop! I got the point. Just give me the numbers.” Too impatient to give the emotional and heart-wrenching memory its proper due, I rudely and abruptly interrupted her without thinking considerately. As if to slap me for interrupting her, my mom glared at me angrily with eyes like fiery lasers and continued with her story. At that moment, we experienced a tension much like the tense feelings of her harrowing escape from her beloved homeland.

The Japanese government rescued my mom and her family, and then transferred them to the United States as refugees. After being transported to Colorado, my mother and her family found the area to be too cold for their nature and migrated to Port Arthur, Texas, on the basis of local Vietnamese newspaper reports of the warm Gulf weather and growing Vietnamese community. It was there in Port Arthur in 1978 that my mother was introduced to my father. After they were married, they moved from Port Arthur to their new home in Gulfgate, the southeast area of Houston. I was born in 1980, and then after my younger brother was born, my father and mother made their decision to buy a home in Alief, a quiet rural area known to have a good school district.

“Was Alief like a Chinatown then? Was there an Asian community?”

“Don’t call it Chinatown. Call it Vietnamese town. It’s half and half there!”

“Uh, if it’s half and half, that doesn’t make it a Vietnamese town, so may we just call it Southwest Bellaire?” Completely thrown off by my mother’s rejection of the naming of Chinatown, I was sure not to get that wrong again. I never understood why the Vietnamese and Chinese were like enemies. They worked so closely with each other yet they banned each other from their personal affairs. Later in the discussion, my mother responded that Southwest Bellaire was completely empty.

In the midst of my mother’s interview, we heard a sound of rustling against the front door, and my father entered after a day’s hard work. The kids slowly and cautiously walked down to pay their respects to their grandfather, never knowing for sure if he was willing to speak. Standing militarily by the entrance door with his navy blue uniform marked with black oil stains that crept to our noses in the living room, my dad hunched over to remove his shoes. As he did this, he carefully lifted his head to the kids halfway down on the stairs, and gave them a hint of a smile as an acceptable greeting.

He was never an easy person with whom to converse, but when he learned he was going to speak of his past, he swiftly sprung into action, cleaned up and, trailing the scent of Irish Spring, quickly took his seat in his black leather chair. Transformed now from the military to the domestic, he sat seven feet across from me for his interview in his worn beige pajamas with his body leaning towards me leaving the back of his chair untouched. It was an odd and delightful opportunity being able to pursue a conversation longer than five minutes with him for a change.

I asked him the same question. “How did you end up living in Alief?” My father’s eyebrows raised in confusion.

My mother interrupted and stated, “Speak in Vietnamese, or he won’t understand thoroughly.” The rest of the interview was conducted in Vietnamese with my crooked English accent thrown into it.

In 1968 my father joined the Vietnamese Air Force and later studied to be a pilot in the U.S. He flew the C-47 training aircraft and fought during the Vietnam War against the Communists. After the 1975 Communist government takeover of the country, he and his fellow airmen fled to Thailand without their families. He was taken in by family sponsors in the U.S. and moved to Houston to find a job after graduating from college.

“Nho Ong ma o trong thang pho Victoria?” My father asked me if I remembered the man we visited in Victoria. I nodded, and he explained that this man was the gentleman who sponsored him and his other airmen in Texas. I remembered the man standing in an oil field on his ranch — an elderly man who stood about six feet tall and looked like Santa Claus on Slim Fast. Even after all the intervening years, I still remembered the snowy complexion of his skin, how his cheeks turned rosy when he chuckled.

My father stated that Alief was close to major thoroughfares such as I-59, I-10, and I-45. Bellaire and Beechnut also existed back in 1981, reaching from the inner city all the way out to Mission Bend (West Houston). Some of today’s large streets did not exist at that time: Highway 6, Synott, and Eldridge. My parents resided at 11616 Corona Lane, a one-story white brick home with green wood cladding. I asked my mother about her memories of the physical structure of the home.

“It’s a box. A closed box in a hot city,” she said. “Nothing like Vietnam where homes have boundaries that are transparent to the exterior.”

I was not satisfied and asked for more specific details of the home, but she immediately scolded me. “Don’t ask me, then, ask your father!”

Their home sat on a main thoroughfare in the neighborhood, with cars zipping by constantly. Different species of trees — pecan, magnolia, pine, and oak — sat on the front and back lawns on the generous land plots in the neighborhood. Mailboxes sat at the end of the driveways waiting everyday on stilts for the momentary visit from the friendly mailman.

Both of them said they had to drive into downtown where there was actually a Chinatown and they did most of their shopping weekly. They cooked at home and finally saw a few Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants and markets open up in the 1990s in the easternmost section of present-day Southwest Bellaire. Not recalling the specifics of each store that became part of the growing Asian community, they did recollect the rapid rise of the Vietnamese-Chinese commercial and residential area in Bellaire in 1997 when the British left Hong Kong.

My parents were delighted with the grand presentation of big parking lots in newly created Asian plazas and malls topped with ornaments painted green and red — the traditional celebrated colors in Asia. One of the first plazas was the predominantly Chinese-owned Diho Plaza — a place filled with a supermarket, restaurants, small retail shops, a bakery, movie theatre, arcade room and hair salon. The plaza was like a long orthogonal dragon that sat u-shaped, possessively hugging the parking lot with its menacing head and long dragging tail facing the streets. Three-foot-thick red concrete legs were set near the parking area to hold up the canopy walkway so that customers would not get wet while strolling shop to shop. I remembered that after leaving my parents’ home I had once lived in the Louisville apartments located directly behind the Diho Plaza. The red-bricked apartment building had white trimming and tall exterior white ionic columns. There were many Asian elders as occupants in these apartments.

“No smoking in unit! I don’t want building to burn down!” my female elderly neighbor from above shouted at me with a Chinese accent while I was moving my furnishings into the unit. I respectfully nodded and looked down to avoid eye contact. I thought, “Man, woman! I don’t even smoke! Pass the message to some other young person who actually got a cig in their mouth. What a nice welcome.”

The complex was connected to the Diho Plaza by a gate, making it easy to access for dining and shopping. I never cooked at home during those days. I ate lunch at One Dragon, and then usually a late dinner almost everyday at Sinh Sinh or Tan Do in the Plaza.

In the early 1990s, the Dynasty Mall was built adjacent to Diho Plaza off the intersection of Bellaire and Corporate. Though predominantly owned by Chinese, many Vietnamese owned shops and were consumers there. The two-story building had some lightness to it, using steel, brick, and concrete. Glass was used extensively for window advertisement, and its colors were beige and dark red. The main difference from the neighboring plaza was its indoor sitting area. As beautiful and unique as this building was when it first opened, it never reached full occupancy. I recalled walking through the mall and seeing dead silent tunnels devoid of signage.

Later, the Diho apartment building across the street from the Dynasty Mall became a home to many and also a commercial place for them. Before long, neon lights flickered from across the street shouting “Kung Fu!” with a red-and-yellow lit jump-kicking man. Many businesses have opened in the apartments, providing the convenience to live and run businesses all in one place.

Soon the first Vietnamese-Chinese Mall opened — the Hong Kong City Mall located at Bellaire and Boone. My family was overjoyed during its construction in the mid-1990s. We saw the huge size of the site and anticipated the variety of shops it would offer. This new construction was an opportunity for more convenience and lower prices for imports. Also this was an opportunity to have larger cultural festivities instead of limiting the Dragon Dance during Lunar New Year to a small community. The mall was L-shaped with its ends facing Boone and Bellaire. The green overlapping tiled roof imitated the traditional Chinese clay roof. Similar to Diho Plaza, columns sat at the edge of the building creating an outdoor walkway. The exterior of the mall was colored in ivory, green and red. It also had an entry somewhat like a city gate for the parking lot nearest to Bellaire.

As the population increased in this area, so did the concerns of a typical growing inner-city area. The concrete roads were filled with the constant honking and reckless driving of congested city traffic. The stifling Houston summer heat created a suffocating oven-like atmosphere especially with the increase of building footprints and automobile car exhaust. The school district dropped in performance and experienced an increase in violence. While I was in eighth grade at Killough Middle School, there were two stabbings there. Every morning the students had to enter the building through metal detectors with bag checks. Every student was presumed a criminal in this prairie-like, brown-bricked, one-story building.

Crime became the greatest issue in the Chinese-Vietnamese community of Southwest Bellaire. When there was trouble, the police were not called because of the belief that law enforcement would not protect the minorities, and the fear that the suspects would return. Home burglaries were common. It was customary to hide gold jewelry and hard-earned money inside the home. Having immigrated from a Communist country, some found that the U.S. government was unreliable, and some did not understand how the banking system worked. Our home was robbed twice by Vietnamese criminals.

Lying in shock and horror on the bed with my brother in my parents’ room, I heard my mother cry desperately in the adjacent room, pleading profusely to two burglars not to shoot her and to leave my brother and me alone.

“Com no! (“Shut her up”),” the thief demanded of his accomplice. The accomplice wrapped my mom’s mouth, and I heard her voice dissipate but felt her heartbeat racing through mine. I lay falsely asleep and heard the thief call out to his father. “Ba!” From that day I have grown to hate the community in which countrymen would dare to terrorize their own people like wayward pirates. My grandmother’s home and the homes of other relatives were also targeted. These malicious acts have created fear in the community, but still no one reported them to the authorities. Many people, including my family, decided to relocate farther away from Alief. In a last-chance effort to avoid leaving, many chose to install ”Gua Sach,” the gated bars at the entry of the home. The gated bars were common in Vietnam. My mother described that the gates were more elaborately designed in Vietnam. After yet another act of vandalism at his home, my father purchased a guard dog hoping to discourage criminals. Unfortunately, that did not work as the dog ran away after being neglected in the backyard.

By the time my brother and I had reached our teen years in the 1990s, my parents were in desperate search for a new home in another rural area outside of Houston, far from the Asian community. Finally after two years of searching for a home nearly every single weekend, they found a two-story home in Fresno. It was not like the box of my mother’s memory in Alief. There was more room for growing gigantic trees, and more room in the garage to build a small outdoor kitchen area. Back yards were large enough to grow herbs and fruit trees like guava, orange, and persimmon. Since the buildings were not built like the ones in Vietnam, my mother accessorized the home to make it feel like home back in Vietnam. For my parents, the only drawback of this location was that they had to drive one hour back to their accustomed Vietnamese food and culture in Bellaire.

During high school, I left my parents’ home. I found myself moving to many different areas of Bellaire. It was the allure of the vibrant and unique cultural environment that brought me back to the Asian town of my youth. But then I too had the disturbing experience of being burglarized. The burglary occurred at the Encore apartments located on Corporate and Bellaire. The Encore apartment complex is bordered in evergreen paint, and disfigured with creaking, rusty steel stairs.

My home in the Encore apartments was broken into and my cash stolen. When I found my door forced open, I ran through the skeleton-like shadows of the trees with a swarming horde of bats veering through the veins of the branches. I knocked on my neighbors’ door, assuming he would have a clue about what had happened to my place. When my neighbor Jose opened the door, amidst the acrid smell of marijuana fumes, I found a friend I thought I knew well curled in the corner of the living room, incoherent on the ground. Tuan looked at me desperately, his eyes apologizing for the disrespect. Without a word exchanged, it was understood the drug influenced him to take what was not his. His friend John, his accomplice, yelled at me to go away. He aimed a 9-millimeter pistol at my face as he moved toward the door. My boyfriend, Girbaud, who had followed me throughout the scene, demanded he drop the gun.

Crime was growing more and more horrendous and the traffic worsened. Apartment parking lots were filled with cars during the daytime after a night’s worth of roaming the streets. Illegal deals were being made during business hours as if it were regular business. Trees and greenery slowly disappeared with the arrival of more box buildings of the kind my mother did not like.

As my recollections of the past grew within me, I became enraged and my emotions sunk down getting the best of me. I stayed there until I gave birth to my first child in 2000. Like my mother when she was expecting her next child with a growing family, I searched for a place to make a safe home for my family.

“That’s it, Ba Ma.” I concluded my discussion with my parents, struggling to maintain my composure. After gathering my children and giving our respect for departure, I became dead silent and headed out the door into the dark night to my black sedan.

I finally have settled even farther than my parents from the urban chaos of Bellaire. While speeding on the road to home, I watched the odometer increase: 156,876, 156,877, 156,878. As I am speeding on the I-45 race track and anticipating our arrival at home, I am calmed and pleased knowing the finish line is farther this time from that crime-ridden place. My three children and I have made our home close to the edge of the serene waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where the tensions and undesirable aspects of the Chinese-Vietnamese neighborhoods of Southwest Houston have yet to reach.