The grey miles

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
Trip End Jul 02, 2007

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Flag of United States  , Texas
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

I had originally deviated south from my classic east to west trajectory so i could experience Texas. New Orleans, Alabama - these had all been arranged around the grail of the south, which was Texas.

Greyhounding out of New Orleans and the verdure of Louisiana, i was tantalised by ideas of cowboys, Cadillacs, oil wells and rednecks. All that stuff that makes up the mythology of Texas. But the fecund green of the deep south didn't stop at the state line. and there were no broncos or stage coaches or tumbleweed to greet me. there was just more green, and bloated clouds roiling and boiling overhead.

Great grey strips of road had been raised up on tall legs over the fickle bayou waters. These strips merged with other strips, becoming wider and wider, carving greater chunks out of the green until eventually there was no green. Just endless lines of grey, intertwining and converging on Houston.

First came the greasey auto shops and shiny machinery dealerships. Then came the franchises, squatting over huge parking lots; burger king, mcdonalds, dairy queen, jack in the box, KFC, walmart, walgreens, home depot. Then came the planned, leafy nieghbourhoods, hidden from our greyhound behind high fences. Then came the first business district with its attendant hotels. then came more franchises. It was all Houston, but downtown, central Houston was still a long way away. Long grey miles intervened between it and me.

Alex, the gal kind enough to host me, lived in one of these well-planned, reclusive little neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Houston. The bus into town took well over an hour, and passed four separate Hooters franchises.

Downtown, when it finally emerged from the nest of highways over, under and bypassing each other and stacked three, four or five high, was an impressive skyline. Narrow skyscrapers gleamed in the leaden light, all glass and steel like mirrors. Smooth, shiny edifices that reflected endless repetitions of the other skyscrapers. A skyline communicating the brashness of new money and the high-gloss veneer of success and prosperity.

The downtown streets were quiet. An underground mall that connected many of the main buildings meant the majority of workers didn't need to take to the streets at all. From carpark to desk to food court to desk to carpark. Outside it started to rain. Grey clouds reflected in grey steel.

This was not the mythical Texas i had been desiring. This was the reality of oil and industry in the south, creating billions of dollars, but not yet the sophistication to know what to do with this money. Houston is a city that seems to be casting glances north to the impossibly big brothers of Chicago, New York and DC. It has the money to rival these cities, to put itself on the global map. It just hasn't quite figured out what that involves yet. The trappings of wealth, the glamour labels and names and brands have arrived, but they are everywhere and their prevalence here makes the city seem soulless and generic.

Caught between the greyness of the city and the greyness of the sky, i lapsed into apathy and discontent. The money of Houston has brought big name and big price tag art to the city. it, like the rest of America, is full of art plundered from the rest of the world. I saw none of it. I spent long hours wandering nondescript neighbourhoods looking for signs of life, but found few. I ended up walking the same streets over and over, and wondering, what am i doing here why did i come to houston to texas to the USofA? I reached my limit of bad American food and spent hungry hours unable to find fresh food or cheap food or even tasty food. Mind and stomach grumbled to one another.

In amidst the endlessly repeating blocks and unvisited galleries, though, i did find a few special places. Some of that idle money had found creative outlets. In close proximity: the Rothko Chapel, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, St. Basil's Chapel. Three quirky little havens against the grey, even if, in the case of the Rothko chapel, the walls of the space were lined with fourteen immense canvases painted entirely black. A different kind of grey, then; this was a meditative greyness. A carefully curated and designed greyness, built to house abstract expressionist canvases, or restored thirteenth century Cypriot art, or very contemporary Catholic icons. And in the stillness and the contemplative greyness, i pondered Houston and my trip.

I just wanted to see a few cowboys.

Alex had some consolation for me. She took me to see the Wild West. Which is a bar, in greater-Houston, its car park full of pick-ups, its neon sign sitting atop a barn of a building. Inside the waitresses called us darlin' and couples two-stepped around a dance floor. There were moustaches and there were patterned boots and there were big hats. It looked like the real Texas, that is, the imaginary Texas i had been craving. Couples of all ages were a-twirling and a-stomping. And they were laughing. And i was laughing.

I had wanted to see the ridiculous in Texas, and it was here. But it wasn't in the people enjoying themselves, it was in the fact that there have to be special bars, like museums, dedicated to this sort of thing. Places to preserve and perpetuate the old, time-honoured, empty myths about the exotic folk of Texas. I don't know whether Texas was ever like this, but it definitely isn't any more. There is a huge gap between the image of Texas and the reality of Houston.

I've been asked many times by the people I've met about the outside, international image of America and Americans. My snappy reply is that when people think of Americans, they picture Texans. Its partly the result of the jocular president, and partly the result of a deeper, ingrained racism that envisages yankees as cultural barbarians, as an upstart nation wielding too much power (this attitude is usually most fervently clung to by citizens of nations no longer at the height of their power. it looks a lot like jealousy), as a bunch of brash cowboys, dropping bombs, driving big cars and chasing dollars.

Houston was by no means the highlight of my trip, but it did shatter for me some of the illusions that should have shattered long ago. Texas isn't the romantic, western frontier i had hoped it would be. And its not a den of warmongers and oil barons. In amidst the bland concrete blocks of Houston are, for instance, some of the most advanced medical facilities in the world. Houston feels like a city undergoing a crisis of identity, seeking to reinvent itself outside of most of the stereotypes nurtured at home and abroad. It is the same ardent spirit seen all over the states, and especially throughout the middle cities. Cleveland, St Louis, Memphis - all have their demons and stereotypes to throw off. In Houston the money and the desire are there, the rest will come.

The grey miles knot themselves together and snake out in all directions. The greyhound follows an impossibly convoluted route out of the city and away. the sky clears and the immensity of Texas remains before me.
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