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GP 4 June 2008: Houston: The Last Picture Show

Ancient rules for ancient men
But this is now and that was then
Don't lay your heavy hand on me
And sink me in your poison sea
It's us and them
It's me and you
It's guessing games
It's what to do
Exactly like you said to me
Things ain't like they used to be

Duke Ellington, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”

Snarling Curmudgeons?  You don’t even have to be senile to snarl, “Oh, Lordy, that clothes washing machine wore out even before we got it into the house.  The guts are missing in these things ever since they started building them in Timbuktu!”  Even twenty-something professionals, old and cynical before their time, suspect that the quality has gone out of life, and taste has gone out of experience.  “They don’t make ’em like they used to.”

When Did the Wheels Come off the Car? Even so, when we consult with our inner selves, we wonder if the old days were really all they are cracked up to be.  Did the Chevy keep running back then, or, as in the present day, did the lights go out at home, the phones go dead at the office, and the car wheeze on the Freeway?  Was there more chocolate in the candy bar then?  Did you talk to a real person when you called the bank or the doctor?  Were things golden in the golden age or does our memory wear pink glasses and paint beautiful hues on events, people, and products of the past?  Cold cereal was just as crummy in 1950 as it is in 2008.  Back then housewives did not lightly cook vegetables: they killed them.

Ah, but we are here to report that a whole mess of things were better than good back then—they were great.  Last week we puddled into an olden hardware store on the skirts of a sleepy southern city.  There was lots of idle talk mixed with the flies; people were standing about, with huge shelves of everything inhabited by fasteners and screws and all manner of product not available elsewhere.  We wanted a wheelbarrow with some heft to it, not the Made In China from Lowe’s, Home Depot, or Sam’s that would rust through in a few years. 

The Cadillac model on the wheelerdealer front is a Jackson, which the warehouseman had to bring up from the subcellar.  It gave the clerks and other workers pleasure to see us buy it.  Such treasures can only be found at prehistoric 1950s type of places where employees actually know what the store has at hand.  The warehouseman blew up the tire, and then jawboned with us on how to fit it into the tail of the Roadmaster.  Not six blocks away was another throwback place—a compleat garden store with ample old bamboo on which to suspend our summer tropicals.  It was a far cry from the spindly green plastic rods people use to prop up their vines today.

When in Houston.  Look for pre 1969.  That’s in fact what you are looking for when you go to Houston these days.  Buried under the Gerald Hines skyscrapers, the Astrodome, and other attempts to keep up with the times is a Houston circa 1950 to 1970, which at its best is very good and embodies an extremely unsophisticated greatness and a generosity of spirit—counterpoint to what has come later.  This might take the form of the Shamrock Hotel, a homegrown wonder of the world, most reviled by Frank Lloyd Wright, created by the freewheeling wildcatter Glenn McCarthy in the 1940s.  It never made money, nor earned kudos, but it had a Hollywood opening in 1949, hosted a radio program for a while, and gave us a whole host of stories and a mountain of gossip.  It met a bitter end in 1987(a bad time for Houston and the oil industry), and today is just a memory and just one more plot under the Texas Medical Center.  We suppose it was sort of hick place, but it was also great. It was a big joint, said the writer Larry McMurtry, where “Men Swaggered, Women Warred,” and “Oil Flowed.”  In his mind, the hotel was inextricably linked with Edna Ferber’s Texas novel Giant.

We would guess that the same could be said for Gilley’s, the famed raucous parlor started in 1971 that formed the backdrop for the Urban Cowboy.  Off to one side in Pasadena, it had a famed mechanical bull, the strains of country singer Mickey Gilley and others, and a heap of shenanigans.  A number of us hopeless types did some skewed imitation of the Texas Two Step there.  Closed because of an argument between the owners, it re-opened in 2003 in Dallas- Fort Worth.  Like a great many things that have gotten their start in Houston, it wandered off somewhere else when it grew up.  It was another place that created legends.

Be Careful What You Eat.  Clearly Houston is not a town of great restaurants, one more sign that it’s  about the 3d quarter of the 20th century, and still not part of the 21st.  We recently had cause to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant on the edge of Rice University, easily the worst Saigon fare we have had in or out of the U.S.  There is a horde of other also-rans in and around Rice.  One could not even come by a Ba Moui Ba or ‘33’  beer there.  Rice is an engineering school, but we could easily see profit and glory for it if it were to open a culinary institute. 

It was fun, too, on this same trip to go to Tony’s, a storied restaurant that enjoys a reputation with fat cats.  It is in new quarters, which are attractive, but the food is mediocre and the help is untutored (we were served by a stolid fellow with a ponytail).  Years ago a transplanted Houstonian lady in Connecticut told us that when she went out to eat with her family as a youngster, her parents would often remark that they saw a goodly number of fathers and daughters (i.e, courtesans) in attendance.  That day the party beside our table at Tony’s—10 or 12 in number—consisted entirely of ‘fathers and daughters.’  Our host, an accounting partner specializing in oil matters, did not notice what was going on beside him, so we assume that he is a man who sticks to business.

You are better served to patronize family restaurants that are a throwback to another era. For instance, Jim Goode has put together a whole string of barbecue and fish places that we call the Goode Collection.  We put in a couple of hours at his Goode Seafood on the Katy Freeway.  It was friendly, decorous, soothing, and family-like.  We ate well without a whole lot of commotion.  The waiter offered better than good service.  As well, there is a lot of good barbecue around town.  We sort of get a boot out of Central Texas Bar-B-Q, out near Hobby, which offers both Texas and Carolina style cue for the true fancier.

As we will comment later, Houston has huge established Mexican and South Asian populations.  When we have a moment, we and our colleagues plan to find the new eateries set up by these new Houstonians which will clearly offer good taste at bargain prices.  For instance, we have yet to get to Irma’s, about which Corby Kummer is so passionate.  In general the best in town both in food and other matters is hidden from view.  So far, for better and worse, the ultra chefs have not taken over.

Oil Slick.  Most recently, a flock of us were in town for the Offshore Technology Conference 2008, basically a show of oilfield equipment and service suppliers to which is appended seminars of nebulous worth.  The attendance was 75,092, which means oil is back, which means Houston is sort of back.  Sort of back because the U.S. is no longer the center of the petroleum universe.  More than 2,000 companies presented, though they would not look to be getting their money’s worth.  It’s hard to find your way around, the exhibits are not very sophisticated, and the organizers do not provide enough infrastructure to make sure vendors really sell their wares.  Smarter companies hold events outside the Conference that are fun and informative, avoiding all the costs and hubbub.  Interestingly, OTC headquarters is over near Dallas, yet another sign that a good part of Houston’s action has moved elsewhere.

Not just this show, but the oil industry itself looks like it is stuck in the past.  Exxon, also headquartered in Dallas, got out of New Jersey, New York, and Houston (remember the proud Humble Oil).  Its leaders have forgotten their economic mission and responsibilities, thinking their chore is to generate cash flow rather than energy.  It is a terrible irony that the Rockefeller family has had to take on its offspring, Exxon, trying to get it to do the right thing which means taking up the cudgels for alternate energy.  But Exxon, all the other oil majors, and even the oil industry equipment and service suppliers, have even lagged badly on their investments in oil exploration and development technology, not equipping themselves properly, for instance, for exotic offsea exploration and recovery, their bread and butter these days.  The challenges offsea are as perplexing as all our adventures in outer space.  The industry’s lack of leading edge R & D places it in the past—not the future.

Space Center.  Space is another pillar of the Houston economy, put there by LBJ when he was ladling favors on Texas.  It is rather ironic that the Houston Space Center, as well as the nation’s deepsea exploration capital, are located in Houston which is really stuck in the last century.  The mindset here is not exactly the firmament in which the future will happen. 

Back in 1978 a snobby writer for The Atlantic Monthly said, “New Orleans: I Have Seen the Future, and It’s Houston.”  He was warning us all that wonderful New Orleans could turn into a Houston, an odd thought, because Houston does not reek of the future, but the past.  Moreover, it was Houston that generously provided a refuge for a huge outpouring of folks from New Orleans when Katrina struck.  The fact is, that as a whole, a large and remarkable number of Houstonians showed a generosity of spirit in crisis that is not evident in other parts of Texas, or in other parts of the nation.  Both this greatness of spirit as well as Houston’s quest for grand theater, even when hokey, should be remembered by all Americans.  The generosity, and the urge to do the monumental, may revive a Houston that does seem a little forlorn today.

America’s Exotic City.   To enter the airport and then to go on to the center city is to view a town that sometimes appears ramshackle, and often looks banal.  But then you start mixing it up with the people.  Your cab driver will often be Nigerian, Houston sporting the largest Nigerian population in the world, after London and Nigeria itself. One expects a large Hispanic population, but not the third largest Vietnamese aggregation in the United States.  Houston has a very diverse population base, and, in particular, its South Asian population, if unleashed and encouraged, could bring it new economic vitality:

The remarkable fact about Houston is not its Texas glitter, its NASA space-age image, or its huge Southern Baptist churches, but its substantial Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu populations.  Houston is the only city in the country with a comprehensive Islamic plan for the zones and neighborhoods of the city. The Islamic Society of Greater Houston has divided the city into eight zones, with a main mosque and satellite mosques in the various regions of this sprawling city.  The southwest zone has dedicated a new mosque, which is the showpiece of Islamic Houston, accommodating 900 for Friday prayers.  Not all the mosques in Houston are part of the I.S.G.H. regional plan, for there are about two dozen mosques in all—Sunni, Shi'a, Ismaili, African-American.  Over 10,000 Muslims crowd into the George Brown Convention center for prayers on the Id festival days.  In 1970 there were fewer than 1000 Muslims in Houston; today there are estimated to be 60,000.

The Buddhist population of Houston is almost as large, with an estimated 50,000 Buddhists and 19 Buddhist temples at last count, nine of them Vietnamese.  There are 14 Hindu temples and organizations including the spectacular Meenakshi Temple in the southern suburb of Pearland. The Hindu population of Houston is estimated to be 40,000, with an annual summer camp sponsored by the Vishva Hindu Parishad and a city-wide celebration of the birthday of Krishna in the George Brown Convention Center attracting 6,000 to 10,000 people.  (See the Pluralism Project, Harvard University.)

But it is not easy for all of Houston’s considerable population to move around.  Twenty-five years ago we had breakfast with a chief executive serving on a local transportation commission.  As he then said, “We have looked at everything.  We have learned there’s nothing that will solve our transportation problems.”  Indeed, parting from the lecture we were giving that week in West Loop, we found that the only way to make our plane was to drive in the wrong direction to get to George Bush Intercontinental, the most direct route subject to endless delays.

Things have not improved.  Symbolic is the MetroRail Light Rail system, a 7.5-mile line that begins out there and ends nowhere.  Some longtime Houstonians laugh at the ineptness surrounding it.  Like the Space Program, also anchored in Houston, it’s a grand idea poorly conceived.  For this reason, the ever cheery, very fine 70-year-old shoe shine boy at the otherwise undistinguished Medical Center Marriott has to spend 3 hours a day getting back and forth from his home, even though the Metro is right outside the Marriott doors.  This logistical nightmare makes it hard for Houstonians to do their best.

The Medicine Works.  One part of the Houston economy that truly works and that redounds to the credit of the whole of Texas is the Texas Medical Center.  It’s said to be the largest medical district in the world, consisting of some 45 institutions.  In Washington, that would be a recipe for disaster, but this Center renders quality, even compassionate care.  It vastly overshadows the various medical facilities in Dallas, a city that likes to think it is in the first rank, but is a mixed bag of tricks medically.  While the Center is not well integrated, with institutional jealousies and territoriality overcoming financial commonsense, it offers very good care that, as it goes in this country, is surprisingly error free.  We can cite many tales of healthcare workers going an extra mile for patients befuddled by the bureaucracy.  And we know of cancer patients returned to health who had luckily escaped error-prone treatment in other parts of the country.

The Last Picture Show.  Houston is the 4th most populous city in the United States, even today adding more denizens, and yet it feels like it is at the margins.  Somebody has stolen its action.  There’s lots of cars, but the town is a little empty.  The Archer City phenomenon has set in.  Larry McMurtry, the novelist who had chronicled many of the moods of Texas, wrote a novel in 1966, later made into a movie, closely patterned on his hometown of Archer City.  As Julia Robb has remarked, it was about a “small town’s passage to nowhere.” 

Most recently a giant sinkhole opened up just outside of Houston in Daisetta, Texas, as if to swallow up this city of oil.  People speculate that a salt dome structure collapsed because of the injection of drilling wastes into the ground.  Houston, it turns out, is home to the Museum of Funeral History, making one wonder if it is to become a ghost town.  But it will always be good for more than a few whopper stories and tall drinks, there being more natural merriment here than in preening, striving Dallas.

P.S.  The University of Houston, the most interesting educational institution in town, has a topflight writing program.  It’s a matter of some interest that some pretty fair writers, the short story writers are best, have made Houston home.

P.P.S.  We will be posting data about oilfield equipment and services as well as emerging technology in oil and gas deepsea exploration on Schilling’s Business Diary, as we probe the future of energy.


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