The United States is a very large country, and I have been there many times. Although like so many others who travel there, I have never ventured far from the coast.
For me, “America” is made up of three parts: a north-eastern bit running from New York to Chicago, a south-eastern bit covering Miami and Disneyworld, and over on the west coast, all of California (perhaps, at a stretch, gong as far inland as Vegas). Everything else – a vast expanse of territory and people between the Atlantic and the Pacific – is filler.
I was thus pretty excited to travel to Houston two weeks ago. This would be my first trip into the heartlands. Granted, I wasn’t going anywhere truly mid-west, like Des Moines, or St Louis, or Little Rock, say. But I would be getting deeper into America than ever before, and to Texas no less, a State famous for many things that have come to define the world’s image of America. Things like wide open spaces, gun-slinging cowboys, space shuttles and moon landings, JR Ewing, and mediocre Presidents.
I’ll cut right to the chase then. Houston was nothing at all like I expected it would be.
Familiar with the character and raw energy of the American cities I know best – New York, Los Angeles and San-Francisco – I had imagined the country’s fourth largest metropolis might be like this, too. I expected I’d find Houston to be a happening place, prosperous from oil-money yet at the same time steeped in Americana. I expected there would be streets crowded with people on the move, all saying things like “y’all” and “howdy ma’am”. I expected I’d be able to explore the city’s varied neighbourhoods, each different but all having the same unmistakably Texan flavour.
Instead, to my horror, what I got in Houston was an upsized order of Perth porridge – tasteless and bland and eminently forgettable (see my previous post Dullsville, Australia). In four short days the city managed to vault itself straight to the top of my “Most Boring Cities on the Planet” list. In fact, Houston is so utterly, monumentally, excruciatingly boring that I quickly figured out there are only four things you will ever need to know about it.
One: Vegetarians aren’t welcome in Houston.
I had skipped dinner, overslept, woken up in a flurry and made a mad dash to the airport to catch my morning flight to Houston. The airline had offered me an in-flight meal of sorts, but from the look of things it sat somewhere between stewed cockroach and fermented cabbage on the appetizing scale. Thus I arrived in Houston utterly famished, to the point that I had begun nibbling on the exposed skin of my own left arm.
Near the hotel I was staying at I had noticed a wooden shack, nestled in between concrete low-rise buildings and car parks. Its hoarding said this particular shack was home to “Papa Joe’s Authentic Texas Barbecue” and even though it was only mid-morning, a reasonable queue was already lined up out front. So after checking-in, and after establishing that the area surrounding the hotel was an otherwise food-free wasteland of office blocks and tarmac, a late breakfast at Papa Joe’s began to sound like a really good idea.
Outside, I joined the line, along with suited office workers, nurses and orderlies from a nearby hospital, workmen in overalls, and a group of mothers and daughters on a lunch outing. Hung above the front door was a rifle, mounted onto a prominent sign, warning that in Texas: “We don’t dial 911”.
Inside, I found myself in what looked a lot like a country barn converted into a canteen. There were exposed wooden beams, a dusty wooden floor, and seating was in booths. I picked up a tray, sliding it along a metal grating until I came to a serving counter, where a large lady in a sauce-smeared apron asked me: “what can I get y’all?”
The menu was printed on a large signboard above her, including a dish described as: “The Kitchen Sink”. I couldn’t resist, so I asked for that. On hearing my accent, the woman asked something that sounded a bit like: “Where all y’all from?”
I replied “Australia”, and immediately a brief commotion broke out around me. The woman, two other servers, and three people in the queue all began bombarding me with the usual “Oh My God, you’re from Australia!” questions that Aussies tend to get in America. Do you have a pet koala? Have you ever rode on / eaten / slept with a kangaroo? Do you know Crocodile Dundee? Your English is so good – what language do they speak Down Under? It is the sort of intelligent questioning that always makes me wonder how these can be the same people who invented the airplane, and then put a man on the moon.
In the course of the interrogation I happened to mention that this was my first time in Texas, and that this was therefore going to be my first ever taste of real Texas BBQ. The woman at the counter literally beamed with pride knowing that she would be taking my meat-cherry, so to speak. “Well, y’all have come to the right place then”, she smiled, piling my already heaped plate even higher.
I stumbled over to a nearby booth, carting a platter of pit-smoked Texas BBQ that must have weighed at least two kilograms. On it was a mound of moist brisket; a rack of smoked ribs; a half roast chicken; some other beef, some pulled pork shoulder and two fat sausages of indeterminate origin. I think there might also have been a small pile of shaved turkey, although I can’t be entirely sure, because it was all smothered in a thick, smoky, tangy-sweet sauce, with a little vat of extra sauce on the side, just in case.
There were also onions, jalapeno peppers, and pickles as thick as my forearm. Plus, the woman serving had asked me if I wanted “salad and vegetables”, and in a self-deluding effort to maintain some vague sense of healthiness I had meekly nodded “yes”. So that was piled up on the plate, too, although I am not quite sure in which universe French fries covered in cheese sauce, deep-fried onion rings, jalapeno-spiked potatoes, BBQ beans and mayonnaise-drenched coleslaw is considered to be salad, or vegetables.
All around me, happy Texans were smacking their lips as they hoed into similar sized platters. They were like eating machines, stopping only to make frequent trips to the all-you-can-drink dispenser. There, coke and other sugary beverages filled cups that anywhere else in the world would be considered industrial-sized containers used to transport liquids in, not drink from.
And then, I ate. And ate, and ate. It was really, really delicious – I will give Texas BBQ that much. But it was also enough food to feed the crew of a mid-sized aircraft carrier, and somewhere around twenty minutes into the meal my stomach distended and my eyes glazed over, and in the haze of meat and stodge it became impossible to force anymore in.
At which point my Aussie-struck server ambled over. Thank goodness, I thought. She can see I’m struggling, so she will remove my plate and put an end to this cruel and inhuman form of Texan torture. But no – instead she plonked down another bowl, the free dessert that accompanies every Kitchen Sink, a huge mound of banana-Oreo-cookie pudding. And a slice of pecan pie – “on the house for the Australian”, she said.
I am not sure what happened next. I must have blanked out, because I woke up several hours later in a ditch, covered in BBQ sauce, calling out “no more, please dear God, no more”. Which is kind of ironic, seeing that Papa Joe’s tag-line promises meat so good it will “make vegans want to explore the other side”. In my case, I’d rephrase that into meat so grotesquely super-sized it will make a committed carnivore seriously consider vegetarianism. Not exactly something I was expecting would happen to me in Texas.
Two: Houston is a big, big place.
Prior to 1836, Houston didn’t exist. Then a couple of New York real estate guys bought the whole area, with a view to building “a great centre of government and commerce”. They named it after Sam Houston, a hero of the South who had single-handedly smashed the Mexican army at the battle of San Jacinta, and in the process won Texas its independence (I didn’t know that prior to joining the American Union there was an independent country known as the Republic of Texas).
For the first 125 years, Houston was a sleepy town on the Gulf of Mexico, poor cousin to its much flashier northern relative, Dallas. As late as 1950 Houston’s population was less than 600,000. But then offshore oil was discovered nearby, and President Johnson decided to stick the NASA space centre in the city as well (LBJ was a Texan, from the Houston area, although no pork-barrelling there, of course….).
The result is that in little more than thirty years, the town of Houston swelled into a city and then a metropolis, reaching a total population of over six million.
So how do you accommodate five million extra folks in less than thirty years? Surprisingly not hard to do when your town sits in the middle of a massive, flat plain. You simply expand outwards, not upwards. And by flat, I mean absolutely, unremittingly flat – downtown Houston is 15 metres above sea level, and the highest hill in the whole city reaches the lofty height of 38 metres. That’s less variance than your average sandcastle on the beach.
All in all it makes for a dead-boring cityscape. On the other hand, it is absolutely perfect if what you enjoy most is building sprawling housing estates laid out in uniform grids. And just to be sure, lest some crazy leftie-pinko object to all this unsightly urban expansion, you’d be well advised to do away with all zoning regulations. Indeed, Houston is the largest city in the world with no formal zoning system. Anything goes here: your land is your land, and you are free to do whatever you like with it and on it.
I am exaggerating of course. There is actually a building code of sorts in Houston, the main thrust of which is to ensure that whatever you choose to build must include adequate parking. This means you can put a brothel alongside a neighbourhood kindergarten, but only if the Johns and the mums taking toddlers to school both have somewhere convenient to park their oversized SUVs. Which I must admit sounds like a perfectly sensible way to get dads more involved in school drop-offs.
A you might have guessed from this last comment, Houston’s endless sprawl (and abundant oil) means that everyone drives everywhere. The only pedestrians you will see are people seeking hand-outs at traffic lights. To sustain this automobile culture, the city boasts a “hub-and-spoke” freeway system that was clearly designed by someone who believed the city would be a much better place without any people in it.
At the centre is “downtown”, an odd collection of skyscrapers that look as if they have been dropped into place without all that much thought. At least, however, these break up the monotony of what is otherwise a pancake-flat city. Six lane highways radiate out in all directions from this core. In turn they bisect two elevated freeways that encircle the whole city: the Interstate, which makes a complete loop around central Houston, and the Beltway, which does the same thing just further out. Other freeways are currently being built, to accommodate this ever-expanding city as it moves further and further outwards.
So how vast is vast? Well, after Papa Joe’s I hopped into a cab, heading to a particular address where I had a scheduled meeting. Within minutes we were on a freeway, and hurtled along it at high speed for half an hour. Eventually, we turned off the freeway, sped down another wide road for another fifteen minutes, and hey presto, we were at my final destination.
So all up it was a forty-five minute journey, mainly along a freeway, at speed. In most other places this would get you clear across town. Except in Houston it meant I had barely moved – according to my map I made a small trip across the north-west quadrant of the city, and that was about it.
Like I said at the start, Houston is a seriously big, big place. If visiting, pack your car.
Three: People are bigger in Texas.
Texans are fond of saying: “Everything’s Bigger in Texas”. These words are emblazoned everywhere, from tourist souvenir t-shirts to bumper stickers. It is almost the unofficial State motto. Although I wonder whether Texans realise that the biggest thing in Texas is, in all likelihood, them.
I guess given the aforementioned love of smoked meats in portions designed to feed Godzilla, it should come as little surprise that Texans are often, well, how best to put this…. gravitationally challenged, largish, robust, rotund, solid, portly. OK – fat.
This really hit home my first evening in Houston. On the advice of a friend who had previously lived there, I had gone to a popular Tex-Mex restaurant for dinner. My friend had told me the restaurant had a good vibe, a bar I could sit and eat at, and TV screens broadcasting sport to keep me occupied, as I would be there alone.
I sat at the bar, and noticed that on either side of me were some of the biggest people I have ever seen in my life. I am not a small guy by any means, but here amongst these giants I looked like an anorexic midget. Certainly, I was the only person who fit wholly onto the bar stool. Everyone else’s arse flab was drooping down around the edges. And in case you have jumped to any stereotype conclusions, let me say that on my left was a middle-aged African-American couple, on my right two youngish white business men, and further down the bar a Hispanic fellow and his date. Black, white, men, women – they were all similarly enormous. Houston, it seems, is an equal-opportunity paradise for fatsos.
I wasn’t overly hungry given the brunch I had eaten earlier (see above, re: Vegetarians aren’t welcome in Houston). So I ordered a starter sized version of the mixed Tex-Mex sampler plate (although not without some confusion, mind you: Americans call a main-course an entree, whereas we colonials call a main-course a main-course and a starter an entree, which in American is not an entree but an appetiser or starter. Capisch?)
That said, it may as well have been a main-course. What arrived was a wooden plank, topped with guacamole, ceviche, fajitas, and other assorted goodies, accompanied by a small barrel of warmed tortilla chips. At a minimum it was big enough to feed four. I nibbled for a while, and by the time I was ready to leave, I had made only a small dent into the platter.
So here’s the thing. While I was picking at my ogre-sized starter, I kept glancing up and down the bar at my fellow diners, who for their part did not seem to be experiencing any of the difficulties I was. They had each ordered similarly large starters, polished them off, and then moved on to even more monstrously sized mains, which all somehow got polished off as well. The couple at the far end of the bar even ordered dessert. And, all the while, everyone was downing margaritas, one after the other, that were being dispensed in glasses the size of goldfish bowls.
I was staggered. I like my food, and I have been known to like lots of food. But never before have I seen such a comprehensive display of pure gluttony. If I wasn’t so grossed out by it all I would have stood up and applauded.
Four: There is absolutely fuck-all to do in Houston.
Whenever I go somewhere new, I always try to set aside some extra time for exploring and sightseeing. Even if I can only squeeze in a few hours, that is so much better than not experiencing anything of a place apart from the inside of taxis, hotel lobbies and office towers.
With this in mind, I approached the concierge at the hotel I was staying in. He was a gigantic man-mountain (refer above re: People are bigger in Texas), smartly-dressed, with a beaming smile that showed off impossibly straight and white teeth.
“This is my first time in Houston, and I have a half day free”, I said, “so are you able to recommend a bit of sightseeing?”
“Sure Sir”, he replied without hesitation: “The Houston Space Centre is probably the Number One attraction in Houston, well worth a visit”.
Houston, as anyone who has ever watched a space-shuttle launch should know, is the world capital for space exploration, given the presence in the city of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Centre. Part of it is open to the public, a hybrid museum and space theme-park where you can take a guided tour, see some exhibits, check out a few old rockets and a lunar rover, hold a moon rock, experience a virtual blast-off, and generally get up close and personal with the whole miracle of manned space flight.
It sounded like every little boy’s fantasy come to life, and I decided to go. But then I learned from the helpful concierge that whilst technically both I and the Space Centre were in Houston, I was in the north-west of town, and the Space Centre was in the south-east, more than an hour’s cab ride away, even on the freeway, and assuming no traffic (refer above re: Houston is a big, big place).
That didn’t quite do it for me, so I tried again. “Thanks, but that sounds like a bit of an expedition, and anyway I wanted to see something of Houston itself. Is there anywhere I can go where people hang out? A pedestrian street perhaps where I can get a coffee, walk around, that sort of thing?”
The concierge blinked, his eyes now squinting slightly, in a way that suggested this was a slightly more unusual question than it might at first appear. He paused for a few seconds, before offering the following: “Well, there is the Galleria. It is not too far from here, and a lot of people go there and walk around …” Sounded good, but before I could get excited, he finished the sentence: “…. and it is after all the largest mall in Texas”.
Come again? A shopping centre? Seriously – that’s the best you can do?
Houston, we have a problem.
So I told the concierge as much, and suggested that it would feel a bit bizarre to have flown halfway round the world, come all the way to Texas, and then go sightseeing in a shopping centre where the best I could hope for would be to spot a native Gap or Dunkin Donut store.
He smiled, again, although now I was clearly beginning to irritate him. He paused for a few more seconds, scrunched up his face so that it looked like he was thinking super-extra hard, and then in a broad Texan drawl said: “Sir, here in Texas we drill oil, we shoot things, we eat and we shop”.
OK then, wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that one, but I got the message loud and clear, especially the part about shooting things. Things like varmint-out-of-towners who keep asking annoying questions, for example. So I smiled politely, thanked the good gentleman for his time, slipped him a fiver for his troubles (it wasn’t just being generous – at the same time I got to ensure that his hands remained above the table), and skedaddled.
By the way, the Galleria Mall was just lovely. I’d highly recommend it next time you are in Houston. It is a thriving hub of big people, mostly dressed in track-suits, waddling around happily, munching on fried-pretzels the size of your head and drinking soda from litre-sized vats. I can even confirm from first-hand observation that the Gap store in the Galleria is exactly the same as the Gap store in New York, London and Singapore. What would be the point of travelling if you couldn’t find out important stuff like that?
If I continue working in the oil and gas industry, I will almost certainly need to go to Houston again someday. So before I sign off, let me say that while Houston may be big and boring from a visitor’s perspective, I suspect it would actually be a really, really nice place to live.
Certainly, every person I met who lives there loves the place. They point to the fact that it is easy to get around and relatively clean and safe compared to other major US cities. They mention the prosperous economy and the thriving arts and cultural scene this supports; the many world-class restaurants; and the city’s 337 parks, making it one of the greenest cities in the United States.
Those who live in Houston regard the soul of their city as a secret of sorts: alive and kicking but hiding in and amongst the featureless sprawl, to be shared only with those in the know. To its citizens, the city of Houston, once you get to know it, offers a rich and diverse landscape and a very high quality of life.
I might leave it at that then. Hopefully this rather belated, slightly sycophantic attempt at saying something nice about Houston will mean that on my next trip there I am not summarily tarred, feathered and carried out of town on a railway sleeper. Although I doubt it. I was warned very clearly that first morning at Papa Joe’s: in Texas they don’t dial 911.