There is this story I tell people about when I arrived, in 1995, at the 32-story headquarters of a large oil company for my first day of work. A new concealed weapons law had just been passed by the voters, and, in the lobby, a worker was putting up a sign that said, “Please check your handguns at the front desk.” I thought to myself, “What kind of a crazy Wild West am I getting myself into?”
Another story I tell is about how our many pickup truck and SUV drivers don’t exit the highway through the state-mandated ramps but dig their own convenient paths off the shoulder through gravel and vegetation.
A confession: neither of these stories is correct in the strict sense of the word.
I am sure that there was a sign of sorts at the lobby of my company but it was, in all probability, of the Per-regulation-blah-dash-blah-point-blah variety. And, despite the occasional off-roader, most Houstonian drivers behave as the rest of the nation and fume and curse in the traffic jam until we get to the proper exit.
But those corrections are just boring. No self-respecting Texan would ever tell a story without some embellishment.
Here in Texas, we’re nothing if not tellers of tall tales and harborers of larger-than-life characters. But, for this article, I will try to curb some of those excesses.
Perhaps this is where I should tell you that I am not from Texas at all. I am an Iranian-born Jew who, as people in Houston like to say, “came here as quickly as I could.” (A bad, overused joke but, in the tradition of Dostoevsky’s underground man, I will keep it to punish myself for using it.) Most Houstonians seem to be from elsewhere and, often quite delightfully, bring the elsewhere with them.
A 15-minute drive west of downtown and you can be in “the largest Chinatown in the world” (probably true) where you are reduced to ordering your meal (still swimming in an aquarium) by hand gestures and guttural noises and using xièxiè a lot because it happens to be the only Chinese word you know.
A 15-minute drive north and you are in a Latin America so full of life and color that you feel like some sort of a pasty-faced Yankee invader straight from a Kerouac poem.
Slightly west, and you are in the Hillcroft Middle East and Indian subcontinent area—helpfully christened the Mahatma Gandhi District by our always-optimistic real estate sector. And a few miles further in the Katy corridor and there is the cacophony of engineers seemingly from every non-English speaking country in the world who have, somehow, gathered here to design the planet’s petrochemical plants and oil refineries.
Frankly, we all seem to delight in the heterogeneity of the place. We love the fact that the city does not have a majority, that we, all of us, are some sort of a minority, with Latinos being the largest, at just over 35 percent.
The diversity is not just ethnic. We have not only the largest mega-congregation in the world—I think—in Joel and Victoria Osteen’s Lakewood Church, which grew so big that they moved into our old basketball arena, but also a thriving non-believer scene. The annual convention of the Atheist Alliance of America was held in Houston during the same year (2011) that governor Rick “In times like these, our place is on our knees” Perry issued a Proclamation for Days of Prayer for Rain and held a 30,000-person supplication rally on the city’s Major League baseball field.
We elected our first female mayor in the 1980s—something L.A. has never done. And our first African-American mayor in the 1990s. And our first lesbian mayor a few years ago. I was not here for the first two elections but followed the 2010 election of Mayor Annise Parker closely. What I am most proud of is not that she was elected but that it was done with so little fanfare. I caught a bit of the mayoral debate on television, and it was exactly as it should have been: boring—all potholes and traffic lights and budget items and, God help us, light rail. No grandstanding on the status of Jerusalem. No discussion of which major international companies or foreign academics to boycott or whether to declare the city a nuclear-free zone. No discussion of her sexual orientation.
We are, as a city in the “flyover country,” insecure enough to brag about ourselves. I believe there’s a law requiring all city documents to note that the first word spoken on the moon was “Houston.”
And all of us must regularly point out that our Chinatown is huge (see above).
And that the Sam Houston monument is the tallest statue of an American in the world. (Probably true.)
And that we have the largest number of oil moguls who believe J.R. Ewing was based on them. (I worked for one of them, a rotund man who came to work with his two German shepherds and, once, unhappy with the work of a senior subordinate, had the subordinate make a presentation to one of the dogs.)
And that we consume the largest number of meals in restaurants in the country. (Heck, just look at us. Of course true.)
And that we are blessed with one of the great medical centers in the world as well as several fine universities, a world-renowned symphony orchestra, and a literary scene supported by great writers and large readership.
And that we have amazing museums that include—aside from those dedicated to the fine arts—ones devoted to railroads, bicycles, funeral history, air travel, the military, art cars, firefighting, printing, maritime travel, war, police, the Black Madonna, health, Czechs, and the weather. Oh, and the Beer Can House.
What we don’t tell you is that we are a city of misdirection. We talk about the big this and big that and how we’re all cowboys here but won’t speak much about the simple stuff: that Houston is a great place to just live. It is a big city with a small-town sensibility.
If you are sitting with a visitor from Boston at an outdoor café trying to decide where to go for dinner, a total stranger passing by will overhear you and stop to give suggestions. A visiting Anglican minister is given a stranger’s cell phone so he can call his wife in the U.K. and let her know what he’s arrived safely. (Tall tales aside, both of these acts of hospitality actually happened.)
This is the large city where one makes eye contact with the total stranger.
This is, also, the city of truly great restaurants where you don’t have to book tables at six months in advance, of reasonably priced houses that neither take off to the moon in good times nor collapse when some bi-coastal bubble collapses, and of an educated and diverse workforce and relatively steady employment growth.
At the same time, we hold onto the cowboy and wildcatter image. These are our creation myths—less about who we are and more about how we would like to see ourselves, perhaps a way of motivating ourselves as we find our way through the daily grind of life. Those of us who can afford to do it buy parcels of land an hour or two from the city. We like to call them ranches, visit them on weekends, and chop wood and clear brush and reroute brooks through the property, then come back to work on Monday in our suits and dresses, daydreaming about next weekend.
Our politicians also play at being ranchers and cowboys. Senators park their sensible cars out of sight and go to rallies in beaten pickup trucks, and representatives and other dignitaries march through downtown on horseback on the opening day of the Houston Rodeo. It’s the “largest rodeo in the world,” by the way.
You really don’t have to be originally from here to join the fun. I, for one, had not been long here—after living for 17 years in California, New York, and New Jersey—before I was y’all y’all-ing at everyone while holding onto my imaginary oversized belt buckle and moseying down the street wearing my alligator cowboy boots.
We play up the Texan even more when out of town. Even the vegetarians among us get our backs up when some Kansan or Carolinian claims—falsely, of course—that their barbeque is the best. Some years ago I stayed in a hotel in Kuwait City that has, of all things, a Texas steakhouse where the waitresses are Filipinas wearing boots and jeans and checkered shirts and neck scarves and cowboy hats. Being from Texas, I spent most of dinnertime teaching them the art of moseying and the proper pronunciation of key words (it’s not “oil” but “o’el” with two syllables) as well as some syntax (y’alls is the plural of y’all) and the rules of square dancing.
Never mind that I have square danced only once in my life, and that was in New Hampshire.
What is wrong with Houston? Well, our public school system is underfunded and has very low graduation rates. There is poverty—much of it hidden out of sight on the east side of town—and the poor receive inadequate medical care. Our public transportation is not equal to what the fourth-largest city in the country needs.
We also don’t have hills or mountains. It’s flatter than Kansas here. A Houston joke: If you stand on a chair, you can see the entire city. That becomes a real problem when we get serious rain, as parts of the city end up as shallow lakes. My old neighborhood was flooded when Tropical Storm Allison came through in 2001. One friend who was canoeing from his home later told me he saw a snake swimming in the opposite direction.
The rain and greens sustain a robust wildlife—snakes and alligators, opossums (which look, from behind, disturbingly like cats with rattails) and armadillos—but insects take the prize: roaches, water bugs, fire ants, carpenter ants, a variety of bees and wasps, love bugs and stinkbugs and mosquitoes and spiders everywhere.
And last, of course, is what we politely refer to as our subtropical humid climate. A joke: Houston winters? Those two days in February.
I confess to a certain discomfort over the discovery of Houston by the rest of the country. There are now regular features in outlets such as The New York Times and The Atlantic on how Houston is a great restaurant destination, or on how the city is the most powerful job engine in the country. Topping it all, Forbes has pronounced Houston the coolest city in America. (Forbes the arbiter of cool?)
Houston was built, like much of the New World, I suppose, on a lie. It was an uninhabitable swampland crawling with insects and reptiles that was made into the fourth-largest city in the country through will and greed and fear and desire, the usual motivators of our species. Our story is as old as the story of human migration itself, escaping the undesirable towards the imaginary and, then, trying to remake the reality of our new home into something better. And so we have created a global headquarters of the energy industry, a center of medical innovation and care, and a major port of commerce. In the process, the city has taken new migrants in waves large and small: from Vietnam and New Orleans, from Europe and Latin America, from the Middle East and the Northeast. And, somehow, they have all managed to find their place among others.
With all the new people moving in, there is a bumper sticker you see from time to time that says, “Welcome to Texas—Now Go Home.”
A confession: we really don’t mean the go-home part.