Impressions of Houston From Years Past

(A slight expansion on what I tweeted out last night)

When you grow up in south Louisiana, Houston was the place you went when you wanted to spend time in a city. It was more cosmopolitan and less urine-smelling than New Orleans. If New Orleans was for partying adults dragging their kids along, Houston was where the family could kick up its heels without going all the way to Orlando. We went to the beaches of Galveston many times, but Houston was where my young heart felt alive. Just some memories off the top of my head.

1. Astroworld as a kid, riding the Cyclone rollercoaster, followed by a visit to the Space Center with my Dad the year before he died. Dad, a Brooklyn-born Italian guy, embraced shit-kicker culture, fully immersing us in Willie and Waylon. He'd take Mom boot-scootin' at Gilley's even before the whole Urban Cowboy craze, and he loved discovering barbecue joints and divey little places around the town.

2. Seeing Nolan Ryan pitch a no-hitter in the Astrodome. I haven't been to a lot of major league ball games, but this was like every no-hitter: six innings of tedium followed by two innings of thrills followed by one inning of gasping and cheers on every pitch.

3. The breakdown of civilization at a Rush-headlined rock festival in the 'Dome. Ozzy was there, still on heroin. Bryan Adams, for some reason, played, as did .38 Special. I had gone only because a friend asked me to come along because no one else would. The weed smoke became a nearly impermeable curtain, the bathrooms flooded, and the stalls were taken up by filthy, fucking couples. By the end, the floor was slick with piss and puke, and I ended up sleeping in a friend's van in a parking lot after the show. Rush was pretty good though.

4. Alfred's with my family, searching for a taste of Jewish deli food far away from New York, always followed by shopping at the Galleria. Alfred's is gone, but his son opened Kahn's across the street. Now that's closed, too.

5. Coming to town to see a Simon and Garfunkel reunion show with two pals, only to have it canceled when Hurricane Alicia approached. We had rooms across from the Astrodome (which really was the center of much activity in town back then) and saw when the sign switched to "canceled." The hotel wanted to move us into room that overlooked the courtyard rather than the road to avoid broken glass. Instead, we checked out. Miserable about the whole experience, we drove home, only car on the road in most places, just ahead of the storm, which seemingly hit each town as we left it. The hotel's windows were blown out by Alicia.

6. Going to Astroworld with my first serious girlfriend. Staying the night at a hotel when she got sick from the rides. Or so we told her parents. Astroworld and the Astrodome are gone now, as was the girlfriend a long time ago.

7. Second row seats for Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, and Sammy Davis, Jr. in concert after dinner at Tony's with a limo taking us around. That was a night. I wasn't paying for any of it (who was is a much longer story), but I don't think I ever felt richer in my life.

8. The last time I was in Houston was in February 2011, also the last time I saw my mom alive. She had been there for weeks, awaiting a diagnosis for what we would finally be told was advanced T-cell lymphoma. I spent a weekend alone with her while she was staying at a hospital in the Texas Medical Center, overlooking Brays Bayou, which flooded this week. She also adored that city, and she went with my stepdad to a bunch of Astros games and meals at Pappasito's. She died in Houston a few days after I left, and her body was sent home.

Look, I'm not trying to idealize the place. Childhood and tourist memories don't often force you to confront the reality of a place. It's got its problems, and we're seeing them writ large now. But lots of good people live there. People who have made it a center for medical advancements. Artists who have pushed boundaries. Hell, NASA. And a whole bunch of Americans and non-Americans, hard-working people, a good majority of whom don't deserve what's happened (we'll carve out an exception for Nazis and pedophiles and other terrible people).

You have to choose where you donate your money unless you're Beyonce' or JJ Watt. I'm gonna donate to specific groups, like the Alley Theatre, a great institution that was devastated by Harvey. Think of what you love, like animals or arts, and find out how they were harmed by Harvey. They will need your help.

I've never lived there, but I've spent a lot of time in Houston. I hope it returns, as strong and contradictory as it ever was. And I hope there are lessons that are taken from this storm to lessen the impact of the next one.