One recent morning, just when Houston's jobless rate had reached 10.5 percent, an all-time high for a city that began this decade with an exclamation point -- as in Boomtown! -- accountant Al Woodbury drove to an employment guidance office on the south rim of downtown and signed up for the Job Club, where he learned how to project confidence during interviews and find job openings that never show up in the help-wanted ads.
The middle-aged accountant was one among thousands of Houstonians who lost their jobs this year and turned to agencies such as the Vocational Guidance Service for help finding new ones. But there was a special touch of poetic misfortune to Woodbury's appearance at the guidance center. He knows the place quite well. For several years he has been a member of its board of directors.
Woodbury never expected to be a client of the vocational agency he helps direct, but so it goes in Houston these days. The nation's fourth-largest city, energy capital of the world, only four years removed from a period when it was called the Golden Buckle on the Sun Belt, is full of people who cannot believe what has happened to them. During the boom years here, reality never quite coincided with expectations, and it is the same now with the bust. It is a city of surprises.
There is the Friday Afternoon Surprise, when midlevel managers at oil companies are summoned upstairs and told that they had better call their families for a ride home because it's over, their jobs are gone -- and so are their company cars.
There is the Nobody's Home Surprise of Phoenix Tower, 34 stories of shining glass and chrome, that has stood tall, but utterly empty, since its completion nearly two years ago, the largest of 72 vacant office buildings in Houston.
There is the Where Am I Surprise of commuters who this summer cannot believe that enough of their neighbors are either jobless or have moved so that, occasionally, they can drive home down the freeways, the Katy, the Gulf, the Southwest, and actually feel the car move.
There is the Who Am I Surprise of a city that once overflowed with job-seeking migrants, mostly from the Midwest, and now is losing population almost everywhere except in the Hispanic neighborhoods in East End and Montrose, which are gathering in so many newcomers from Mexico and Central America, many of them undocumented, that forecasters predict Hispanics will be a plurality of the city by the year 2000. Houston, the saying goes, used to be the second-largest city in Michigan, but now it is the second-largest city in Guatemala.
And there is the Empty Pockets Surprise of a city, long proud of its tradition of low taxes and minimum services, now acutely short of cash, its leaders talking about cutting back on park, library and health programs just when they are most needed by the poor and unemployed.
"The reason for all the surprises is that it's difficult for Houstonians to adjust to changed expectations," said Lance Lalor, the city controller, whose pessimistic budget forecasts brought him the nickname "Mr. Cheer." "Houston was conceived as a real estate scam, and it was a successful one, and people came here with wild schemes, some of which worked. And as they prospered they brought others up with them. During the boom years it was almost impossible to fail in Houston. What people have a hard time realizing is that changed expectations is not tantamount to failure," Lalor added.
When the Texas recession first hit, there were three optimistic presumptions in Houston. The first was that the hard times would be short-lived, that oil prices would return to profitable levels within a few months. The second was that layoffs largely would be confined to the oil industry. And the third was that many if not most of the people losing jobs would be those without roots here, migratory types who would just move on to the next boomtown -- Raleigh, N.C., perhaps, or Orlando, Fla., or even Ann Arbor, in Michigan of all places.
It has not worked out that way.
The oil economy is based on expectations, and the expectation now is that prices will be down for four to six years. The reason unemployment has hit record levels, and may reach 12 or 13 percent before autumn, is that people losing jobs are from a wide variety of income groups and professions, not just transitory oil-field workers, and most of them would like to remain in Houston.
For the most part, the ones who could pack up and move are long gone. They left during the 1983 recession. Those who remain are more likely to have families here and houses that are difficult to sell, and some measure of faith. They are filing for unemployment and trying to stick it out.
Some of them, like Woodbury, have come to the Vocational Guidance Service, where they learn job-search techniques and form support groups to prop up their spirits. They include Ed Thompson, a former auto worker from Michigan who found a job here as a car-leasing agent and was laid off last month, only a few days after he thought he was going to get his own office. And structural engineer Drahos Navratil, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia whose American odyssey has taken him from one regional recession to another, from Cleveland to Philadelphia to Chicago to Houston, a journey that finds him loving America but wondering, half-jokingly, whether it loves him.
In their stories is the essence of modern Houston. It Was Supposed to Last
When Al Woodbury arrived in Houston in the early 1960s to attend Rice University, there was one "downtown," the old one, and the only stores out by the Galleria-Post Oak center -- which today qualifies as the second-largest downtown in Houston -- were an ice cream parlor and one clothier. For several years after he was graduated, Woodbury worked as an accountant for firms that designed office buildings and shopping centers that reshaped the city's outer loop. Then he got into oil.
The president of Zephyr Oil and Trading persuaded Woodbury to work as one of his accountants. It was a small firm of about 12 employes that bought and sold petroleum products on the spot market. At the time, in the late 1970s, the East Coast was suffering terribly from an oil shortage, and Zephyr made the most of it, buying from all over the world and selling to firms in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Prices were going through the roof.
This was before crude oil was traded as a commodity on Wall Street, so it was a worldwide market, with calls going to the Middle East and South America every day. Woodbury remembers the activity as being so fast-paced that "you lost the concept of what money meant." Everything was first-class, the plane trips, the hotels, the Christmas parties. And everything, Woodbury said, was "based on the idea that this was supposed to continue ad infinitum."
For Zephyr Oil and Trading, ad infinitum was a couple of years. The company guessed wrong on the market and went out of business just before the energy economy turned sour in late 1982. Woodbury moved over to real estate. Houston, a city of 1.7 million, was growing by 1,000 people a week then, and Woodbury's firm helped accommodate them, building apartment complexes along the Southwest Freeway. When that market started to fade in 1984, Woodbury moved over to another developer who decided to keep his office in Houston but build in what seemed to be the next hot market -- Austin. WBH Development Co. constructed a large condominium project in Austin near where the Capital of Texas Highway crosses the Colorado River. This year, with the entire Texas economy slowing, with Austin even more overbuilt than Houston, relatively speaking, and the condos not yet opened, Woodbury was laid off.
He tried to free-lance as an accountant for a few months, but discovered that his talents were hardly in short supply. By conservative estimates, a few thousand accountants have been laid off by energy firms here in the last eight months. "The market is glutted with them," said Lalor, the city controller, who hired 15 former oil company accountants this year at salaries about 30 percent below what they had been making. Woodbury was not one of those lucky few, but remains confident.
"If what's happening in Houston were happening across the country, it would be called a great depression," he said. "But there is a can-do spirit here that never leaves. Houston will be back. We put a man on the moon. We'll be back. I'll be back. "The Word Was Houston
Ed Thompson, now a statistic in the record-high, double-digit unemployment rate here, is one of thousands of reasons that Houston was called the second-largest city in Michigan. Thompson grew up in Niles, Mich., writer Ring Lardner's hometown eight miles above the Indiana border. When he finished military service, he found a job on the assembly line in Kokomo, Ind., at Chrysler Plant No. 33. It was a 70-minute drive between Niles and Kokomo, and Thompson and four coworkers made the commute every weekday for seven years. His place on the line was door handles, 200 door handles an hour.
Thompson fastened his last handle on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 1981. It was a brutal season for the auto industry, especially Chrysler, and for most manufacturers in the industrial crescent between Milwaukee and Detroit, where the cost of energy, predominantly natural gas, was so high that plants were cutting back or closing. The men from Niles were laid off along with 1,800 others in Kokomo. It was the sort of thing that is an expectation and yet a surprise; unemployment is never real until the paycheck is gone.
Dazed, Thompson kicked around Niles for awhile, but realized there was nothing there for him, that he had to leave. The word on the street was Houston. In taverns and labor halls of the Midwest, Houston then had the same connotation as America often has to foreigners. To Thompson, Houston was gold. It meant people making millions of dollars for doing nothing. He went to a bookstore in Niles that carried recent editions of out-of-town newspapers, and his eyes bugged out at the sight of the Houston Chronicle's Sunday classifieds. The jobs were there, page after page.
In March 1982 he packed his life's possessions into a Volkswagen bug and headed southwest down the interstates until, 10 miles from downtown on I-45, he reached the Houston city limits sign.
Thompson traveled alone (his four friends didn't want to leave Niles), but he was part of a great migration from the cities of cars and steel to the capital of oil and gas. He got here at about the time that Jan Morris, noted chronicler of world-class cities, was commissioned by Texas Monthly to write an essay on Boomtown! Wrote Morris:
The world converges upon Houston, Texas. The unemployed pour into town in their hopeful thousands, clutching the Want Ads; the migrants illicit and respectable swell in like a rising tide . . . the myriad ships tread up the Ship Channel, the scientists beyond number swarm to NASA; hour by hour the freeways get fuller, the downtown towers taller, the River Oaks residents richer, the suburbs gnaw their way deeper into the countryside, and what was just a blob on the map a couple of decades ago becomes more than just a city, but an idea, a vision, the Future Here and Now!
The immediate future for Thompson was a job landscaping some of the new buildings that were sprouting everywhere. He got the job so fast that employment came before shelter. For the first two weeks, he spent the night in his VW in a supermarket parking lot. Soon he found a room, and then a girlfriend, a transplant from Youngstown, Ohio, who later became his wife. Next he landed a better job as a salesman for one of the region's thriving car-leasing companies.
For Thompson the idea, the vision, was to manage a car-leasing office. His bosses, he said, were "Go, Go, Go" until two months ago, when suddenly they were "Stop!" The business wasn't there anymore, and they had to contract rather than expand.
Ed Thompson lost his job, and thus became part of another great migration, this one to the unemployment offices in Texas. There are now more people out of work in Texas than in any state in the union, more than 800,000. With his paychecks no longer coming in, Thompson turned to a consumer credit counseling service to help him with his debts, and it in turn directed him to the Vocational Guidance Service. Is he sorry he came to Houston?
"No, no, no. The thing is, even now, there's nothing for me up in Niles. Houston will get worse before it gets better, but I don't think it'll ever get as bad as Michigan. I plan to stick it out for a while at least. I won't stay here forever, but I don't think we'll go back north. We're going to the coast. California. Washington. Oregon. That's where we'll go," he said. "Oh No, Not Again"
It is fitting that Drahos Navratil finds himself in Houston as the economy heads down the tubes. The U.S. odyssey of this Czech emigre is a primer in the economic theory that what goes around comes around. Navratil is always there when it comes around.
In the late 1960s, as the Soviets occupied his home country, Navratil, a structural engineer, got a temporary assignment in Switzerland and never returned. A U.S. sponsor brought him to Youngstown, Ohio. After adjusting to his new nation, Navratil struck out on his own, heading to Cleveland, which had a large Slovak population and the promise of work. Months after he arrived the steel industry, overtaken by foreign competitors, hit hard times, and there was nothing there for a structural engineer who wanted to design mills.
Navratil heard from friends that Chicago was the place to go. They were supposed to be building a crosstown expressway then, and there were also federal plans to inspect the bridges of northern Illinois. So Navratil headed to Chicago and got a job with C.F. Murphy, an engineering firm. He went to work on the crosstown. Then the expressway became an issue in local and state politics, and it was scrubbed. The bridge inspections were delayed for another decade. The Czech headed east in the promised land, to Philadelphia, in time for the nation's bicentennial.
He worked there for three years, designing roads and bridges. Then there was a state scandal concerning Pennsylvania roadwork, and Navratil, through no fault of his own, was laid off when the company he worked for lost some of its contracts. It was 1979, the year of the oil shortage, and Navratil was off to the oil mecca, Houston.
He was awed by Boomtown! -- "the very thing that we as foreigners imagined of an American city."
The jobs in Houston were easy to find. First he worked for Dresser Industries, designing pollution-control devices. When the manufacturing plant hit hard times, he moved to Houston Transit Consultants, where he helped design what was supposed to be the city's mass transit system. That lasted two years, until the economy slumped and the city became less interested in a multimillion-dollar transit system.
"Oh no, not again," Navratil thought. But this time he decided to stay. He had a family now, a wife from Chicago, a 10-year-old son and a Sharpstown home. For a few months he took a consulting job in Colorado, but he returned this summer to hunt full-time work.
"The optimism is still there, but one observes stress," Navratil said. "Sometimes it is overpowering. But I like Texas. It is the only state I've been in that doesn't pick on minorities, on Slovaks. They have their own to pick on, the Aggies. I like that. And I love the vistas of this city . . . . I've seen these troubles before. I saw them with steel, with transportation . . . . It goes in cycles and this is Houston's turn."