A newcomer on his first business appointment here was asked by a lumber company president how long he would be living in Houston. "Two or three years," the newcomer replied, to which the lumber man remarked:
"Well, that's long enough to get a piece of the action."
Whatever else the image of this city - pickup trucks with gun racks, corporate cathedrals where oil is worshiped, medical centers where miracles are performed - Houston in the final analysis is unabashedly and proudly a place for getting a piece of the action.
Here, a young woman casually talks with her date about the "entrepreneurial spirit" as though it were a movie. Here, a man takes $600 in savings and becomes a millionaire on valves. Here, a mortgage banker recites his first lesson in business: "Zero input equals infinite return." (Or, get rich on other people's money.)
In recognition of all the action to be had here, Gucci - in the form of shoes, clothes and luggage - arrived last week. The week before, a Palm restaurant opened with sawdust on the floor and caricatures of obscure people on the walls. The week before that it was a new nightspot, where you can rent any of 100 girls to converse, drink or shoot pool with you.
The Palm, though, puts Houston in the same league as New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and it will be interesting to see how Gucci and "Palm" steak make out in this city, where crepes are advertised on radio as "French enchiladas."
Nothing better measures the level of action in Houston than the fact that this has become the first city in the United States where the Yellow Pages are so big they are now being printed in two volumes - Abdominal supports to Lumber and Machine Shops to Zirconium.
More scientifically, Houston's retail sales have grown faster than those in any other major metropolitan area. From 1972 to 1977, retail sales rose 153 percent, to $12.5 billion. Last Tuesday, the city approved the billionth dollar in new construction for this year and said that by year's end $1.75 billion in new construction will have been authorized.
Last year's billion-dollar-plus in new construction was second only to Los Angeles, and it appears that this year will be Houston's turn as No. 1.
"We are not trying to grow," said J. L. Taylor of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, "we are trying to develop economically, and people are coming here to take advantage of that." Taylor notes that personal income is rising fater here than any other place, even as more and more people move in for a piece of the fiction.
One thing painfully obvious, however, is the number of people clearly not getting a peice of the action. Abject, sourthern-style rural poverty provides a sad and seedy forecourt to the towering successes of downtown Houston.
Canted railroad flat houses dirt and shell-covered streets, the houses separated from the street in many cases by drainage ditches holding standing pools of water. The intersection of Jensen and Lyons, once a bustling commercial area, today resembles an abandoned rural crossroad.
This economic bust for many is lost in the general economic boom for most people in Houston, where 4 percent (and sometimes less) unemployment masks pockets of joblessness reaching up to 40 percent among minority youth. There are traditional reasons, such as discrimination. With 15 percent of the population, for example, Hispanics hold 1 percent of the jobs in the city bus system.
Then, too, there is the nature of the growth here, a phenomenal job expansion that one city study concluded has largely been in skilled, technical or professional occupations, the type of jobs advertised on the Astrodome scoreboard between innings and not the kind open to undereducated and unskilled blacks and Hispanics.
Money magazine called Houston the fourth best place in the country to get a job in the 1980s, yet city officials see a "disturbing mismatch" that will put more than half of the new jobs here out of reach of the unskilled.
What service and laborer jobs will be created, the city says, will be in the outer reaches of the sprawling, transit-poor city, far away from the core poverty areas.
For many, the situation is so bleak that the city has designated a 73.3-square-mile area, withmore than 370,000 people, as a distress zone.
That is an area greater than the District of Columbia containing a population about half the District's size. In this "distressed" area, one out of four people lives below the poverty line, and one out 10 lives on less than half the poverty level income. Ill-maintained utilities provide little incentive to business, and even as corporations move to Houston, industries in the core city close and move elsewhere. Some roads as close to the money meccas as the Washington Monument is to the White House, are dirt, shell-covered or unimproved; more than half those roads have drainage ditches.
The city has asked the federal government for $11 million in grants to use as seed money for bringing private, profitable business into the barrios and ghettos. The city hopes that federal money will generate for greater amounts in private investment and this bring a piece of the action to those who have missed out on the gold rush they see around them.
Not all of the action here is legal, of course, and the incidence of crime in many major cotegories is reaching levels comparable to those in Washington a decade ago when Richard M. Nixon and George C. Wallace, elbowing for the presidency, branded the District as the Crime Capital of the World.
They were appalled then that tourists were not safe to visit their national capital, or that it wasn't safe for residents to just drive down the street. Recently here, a Louisiana visitor was fatally shot by a holdup man in front of his family in his motel room. They had come to Houston to see Astroworld.
Last weekend, a motorist was repeatedly and fatally shot by the driver of a hit-and-run car. The victim had tried to get the other motorist to stop after the accident on the city's main drag, Westheimer, on the affluent southwest side of town.
Murders here totaled 221 for the first six months of the year, up from 177 in the same period of 1977. All told, there were 376 homicides in Houston last year, and one-third of them will go unsolved. Nationally, about one-fifth of all homicides go unsolved.
So far this year, 26 banks and savings and loans have been held up, but it is unknown what increase that represents because historically there had been so few such holdups here that no one had bothered to count previously.
Houston led the nation last year with a 10.4 percent increase in reported serious crime - twice the rate of increase of any other major American city. And while crime was dropping nationwide, it grew here by 7 percent in the first three months of this year.
So severe are things getting that citizen patrols are being organized, patrolling residents tied to a base station with CB radios. And the police have mounted a major anticrime measure: mechanics are trying to reduce the vast number of police cars broken down on a given day.
The city prides itself on keeping taxes low, which helps keep the action going, and, as a result, has 2,917 police for 1.7 million people scattered over 540 square miles. Thus it has fewer than two police for every 1,000 people, compared to a nationally accepted ration of three policemen for every 1,000 people.
The results, police Chief Harry Caldwell once declared at a cocktail party, is that the average response time to a call for help is 11 minutes. The police radio reflects a reality that some calls take 90 minutes to answer, and one woman says she reported a burglary three years ago and the police have yet to take her report. CAPTION: Picture 1, Saulnier Street in downtown Houston: left behind in the rush for a piece of the action., By F. Carter Smith for The Washington Post; Picture 2, The city anticipates close to $2 billion in construction this year and leads the nation in new housing, such as this development adjacent to Astrodome., By F. Carter Smith for The Washington Post