Sunday, September 3, 2017

in memory of Houston

I see some bloggers are memorializing the flooding of Houston, since it's not likely to fully recover for quite some time, with their own memories of the place. So why not: I've only been to Houston once, ten-and-a-half years ago (that long, really?), and here's what I wrote about it at the time:

I was so glad that Corflu was scheduled for February. The last time I'd visited Texas was in August, and the heat was memorable. I wasn't going to do that again. But as long as I was to be in Austin again, I wanted to see some more of Texas. On my one previous visit, I'd gone into the Hill Country, and though I would have been happy to return, I preferred to try somewhere else within driving distance where I'd never been before.

Houston. Houston sounded good, especially in February. That meant I would be going east, and I determined to go far enough east to find good Cajun food, which was said to leak over on to the Texas side of the Louisiana border. And I could visit the one tourist attraction that any red-blooded science-fiction fan would want to see in Houston, the NASA Space Center.

The more caustic tourist guides told me that the visitor center there had been turned into more of a NASA theme park, but I didn't find it all that bad. It's a large functional museum with such interesting material as a walk-through mockup of the space shuttle crew area, which is much smaller than you might expect. My only complaint, besides the appalling cafeteria, was that all the relics of past glories - one of the original Mercury capsules, the original Skylab mockup used for crew training, a moon rock display - are tucked into a dark back room with no sign telling you how to get there. A 90-minute shuttle trip took us onto the main campus, with stops at the original Mission Control (into which the original 1965 equipment - complete with dial phones - was reinstalled when the room was decommissioned a decade ago), the crew training facility (from a mezzanine catwalk we could look down onto the huge main floor filled with mockups of everything that currently flies, including pieces of the space shuttle in various different orientations), and one of the original spare Saturn V rockets, lying on its side in a shed built around it to protect it from the elements (with an excellent docent lecture on the rocket's function and role - not that any of this was new to me, but it was a pleasure to hear it well told).

I'd picked a motel on the edge of Houston for ease in getting around, which put me in the most desolate suburban sprawl imaginable. Within three blocks (though they were big blocks) of the motel were two different Chuck E Cheeses. I didn't eat there. On the day I ventured into central Houston I did find a genuine Cajun diner of the kind I'd seen in Louisiana. It's called Zydeco. At lunchtime you join a line of hungry businessfolk stretching out the door. The line moves quickly and you pass a menu board that does not do justice to the variety of unidentifiably brown things in the steam table trays. On reaching the server, shout over the noise at him the same unintelligible syllables that the guy before you said. This will get you a bowl of what looks like watery mud. As you sit down at one of the cafeteria tables and dig in, the first couple spoonfuls will make you think "What the hell is this?" but after that it tastes really good. Yep, that's the genuine Cajun diner experience all right.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is worth a visit. It has a big walk-through butterfly cage, where large quantities of impossibly colored wings flit before your face or settle down on little birdbath-like stands where their bodies gorge on honeycombs or fruit pieces. It has dinosaur skeletons. It has displays with everything you could possibly have wanted to know about oil drilling. It has a gem room, a hushed chamber with huge uncut stones still attached to hunks of the living rock from which they were wrenched, all reverently lit behind glass. And when you've finished looking at those, you notice a corner around which there's another whole room of them. And another beyond that. And all the time you are there, the sound system is discreetly emitting Pachelbel's Canon.

On the other hand, I have never seen a bigger ripoff than the Rothko Chapel on the University of St. Thomas campus, this despite the fact that they don't charge anything to see it. I knew that Rothko was a minimalist painter, but I hadn't realized that even he would decorate an uninspiring and otherwise empty concrete octagonal chamber with 14 paintings every one of which was in flat undifferentiated black. I sat on a plain bench for a couple of minutes to act respectful-like while the docent read a book in the corner, and then walked out shaking my head, any desire to visit the modern art museum a couple blocks away completely squelched.

I found a far better, and positively fannish, work of art in a neighborhood not far away. You've heard of the Tower of Bheer Cans to the Moon; well, in Houston there is a beer can house, a house covered in aluminum siding made entirely of beer cars. The owner made a decades-long project of removing the tops and bottoms of beer cans, flattening out the rest, and attaching them to his house with the various brands arranged in pleasing color patterns. He also made a low front fence out of intact beer cans. There was nothing to do but admire this from the street, so I didn't find out if he drank all that beer, or what.

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