You Never Leave Houston
by Aboubacar Ndiaye
Houston, the fourth-largest city in America, has a self-esteem problem. Our local boosters are continuously looking for new branding approaches, commissioning expensive ads and websites extolling our municipal virtues. There was “Houston, It’s worth it;” “Houston is hip/tasty/inspired,” and the latest “Houston, the city without limits.” The city’s younger residents are partial to the more profane “Fuck You, Houston’s Awesome,” in response to criticisms of the city. There are many reasons for this insecurity. For Houstonians, who know of our parks, our museums, our bars, our restaurants, our people, it can feel like the rest of the country has settled on an idea of the city that’s still stuck on fading memories of Urban Cowboy. There is also the nagging sense that perhaps they’re right; that Houston, for all of its diversity, for all of its affordability, for all of its expansiveness, maybe isn’t that awesome, and that better pastures lie just a plane ride away.
The anxiety around living here, the need for outside validation, is at odds with the demographic changes in the city. Each day, dozens of people move here, the city has grown more than any other metro area in the country from 2000–2010, and Fort Bend County, on the southwestern side of the metro area, recently passed Queens County, New York as the most diverse in the country. The source of the anxiety is that we don’t like the reasons why people are coming: good jobs, cheap housing, safe neighborhoods. We hate how practical it is. We are not drawing in Patti Smiths and Joan Didions. There are no mass arrivals of Portland and San Francisco expatriates in skinny jeans and vintage dresses stepping off planes at Bush International Airport. We attract engineers from Midwestern state schools and school teachers from Florida — people who want to make a good income, and maybe get married, buy a house, and have a couple of kids. But that’s not enough. We don’t want to just be safe, and rich, and comfortable. We want to be cool.
I ended up in Houston almost by accident, the result of the vagaries of my mother’s marriages, college admissions, and bus routes. My life here began on September 7, 2002, the day I stepped off a Greyhound bus at the age of 15, having just left a pungent, Post-9/11 New York, and walked eye-deep into the hellish conditions of late summer in Houston. By the time I got to Houston, I had moved 20-odd times in my life including from one continent to another, from suburb to megalopolis, from quaint medieval town to sun-drenched California sprawl. I thought that the city that lay before me that day, with an endless supply of strip-malls, big box stores, and gargantuan trucks, was just another pitstop, that my next city awaited me, just like Los Angeles, New York, Paris, and Atlanta had before it.
If you were a third-culture kid or a military kid or any kind of child for whom “home” was more metaphysical than physical, more concept than place, you learn to not get too sentimental about the city you are moving to. There is no point in making very many good friends, in learning all of the street names, in learning too much about its history. For a long time, I imagined that my answer for the dreaded “you look/sound vaguely foreign so I must therefore interrogate your origins until you give me a satisfactory answer which matches my assumptions about you” would always be that I am from Orleans, a small city about an hour south of Paris, but I have now lived in Houston longer than I lived in Orleans, and saying that I am not from here now feels like mendacity.
It’s my hometown at this point because it was the backdrop of the experiences that have made me who I am. I first discovered love and sex and heartache here. It’s where I first heard my words spoken on a stage and first saw my name in newspaper ink. It’s where I forged my best friendships, the merry gaggle of people who listen to my confused ideas and tortured pleas for attention. It’s where I formed a political identity, aligning myself with the interest of those who did not draw a royal flush at birth. Some of this is might sound cloying, but when I think of Houston, I don’t see the majesty of the Williams Tower, or the winding cobblestone streets of Hyde Park, or the Victorian mansions along Heights Boulevard. I see myself entwined in sinuous conversations with women I have loved, or wanted to love, over bahn mi sandwiches in Little Saigon; or blitzed out of my mind dancing with abandon to Whitney Houston in a Montrose club; or laying out on the green expanse of Menil Park surrounded by wine and friends and mosquitoes, my legs folded, slightly drunk from the possibilities of youth, completely sure that I would never die.
Understanding Houston means understanding summer. It’s hard for out-of-towners to grasp how central an organizing principle summer is to life in Houston. It lasts, almost like the seasons in Game of Thrones, an interminable amount of time, beginning around mid April and abetting in the beginning of October, a six-month period of full blast air-conditioning and socially acceptable sweat stains.
In the summer, we drink beer on patios, or in the cool apartments of friends, or in the too-short time between work and home. In the summer we avoid touch, or, sometimes, seek out touch, hungering for the tactile sensation of each other, going out to the dankiest bar, the most crowded dance floors, to partake in the transcendence of being hot and sweaty and horny together. But even summer, the most trying time in the city, the period when even the most ardent H-towner will pledge to go live in a place with actual seasons, isn’t enough to mitigate the livability of the city. We find ways to avoid the outdoors or we gather around bodies of water, usually with animal carcasses on grills not far away, seeking not just relief from the heat but communion with others who have decided to be here with us in the dog days of August.
Apart from the heat, the city, even in the summer, offers simple, hearty treasures, like a carne torta from a food truck parked outside a bar you paid $1 for whiskey sours in, or some dhosa masala from the ubiquitous Indian restaurants dotting the city. There are apartments available in beautiful neighborhoods, with coffee shops and terraces on every corner for less than what New Yorkers pay for closets. Our streets are congested and our traffic can drive a Jesuit to madness, but when all the suburbanites have gone home, on evenings or on weekends, you can navigate the far reaches of the city at 70 miles per hour, like a character from Mario Kart that has just activated rainbow speed. There are jobs aplenty too, especially in our twin economic engines, the Energy and Medical sectors, or in the industries that support them. The people are friendly and welcoming and accepting of each other’s foibles. The city is full of social ills too, including worsening schools, wider economic stratification, and crumbling infrastructure, but these are made small by the bounty available.
The stickiness of Houston, living in the city for longer than planned, is borne out of this ease. Unlike New York or D.C. or San Francisco, Houston is not a layover city, a place to play out one’s youth and eventually settle into more comfortable circumstances. People who are here came for college or for jobs or to escape their small towns. They came to Houston to stay. Some of the young who grew up here grumble about moving to Austin, our popular sibling with its great music and coolness oozing out of its hippie streets, or to some other supposedly better city. Some of them left, to try their lucks in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, but a lot came back, finding that while Houston does not have the cultural friction of those glittering cities, it has friends and money and time and hope. Those who come back, especially those with artistic inclinations, are embraced with open hearts and fatted tacos, because those of us who live here are aware of this inescapable truth: we’ve got it pretty good here, not great, but good. Instead of throwing ourselves face first into the whetstones of New York and L.A., a lot of us stay in Houston and make enough working at desk jobs or part-time to have to time for artistic endeavors. Half the baristas and bartenders in Houston are artists or designers or musicians or writers, all of them living lives of mediocre content, rising at the most to local celebrity and local adoration. I sometimes, half-seriously, call Houston the Land of the Lotus Eaters, full of people who are continually high from a cocktail of affluence, affability, and comfort.
You never leave Houston. Even if you live out your days in Brooklyn or Belize, you never really forget the grid of the highways. You never stop thinking of the first time you had tamales. You never leave behind the feeling that you once lived in a place where the prices were right and the living was easy. I type this as I prepare to move soon to one of these glitzy cities, and I know that I cannot escape the slight worry that I am making a mistake. I type this while sitting on a coffee shop patio, in 90-degree weather, trying to smack down the ‘skeetas that hover around me, and I feel like I could never truly leave this swamp. See, Houston’s not awesome, it’s real.
Aboubacar Ndiaye is a writer living in Houston. He has written for the Atlantic, McSweeney’s, and NPR.
Photo: Bill Jacobus