When you’re from Houston, you find yourself explaining it to people who’ve never really been there.
They have some flip opinion from the one time they visited for a conference: Too hot. Too ugly. Too slow. Ohhhh, the humidity.
Not so when you’re from New Orleans, home of jazz, Mardi Gras and the second line. N’awlins is a place that people brag about knowing and loving, and when the waters rose during Hurricane Katrina — along with images of the souls stranded in the storm — there was an immediate outpouring of odes to the sacred culture that must be preserved.
Houston deserves its odes.
My home town is not the kind of place that strangers immediately fall in love with. But I know its secret treasures. I know what is being lost under the rushing waters.
The people who don’t love it just don’t know how to read it.
The maze of highways confuses because they haven’t learned to follow it to Mama Ninfa’s, where the soft flour tortillas and margaritas taste as they should.
Its loveliness is not in the landscape. Houston’s famous resistance to the zoning laws that give other cities a neat municipal grid leave Texas’s biggest metropolis looking like a gangly series of misshapen trapezoids. There are no scenic mountains or breathtaking cityscapes.
But find your way to Rice Village, South Park, Third Ward — historic neighborhoods that each have their own story to tell. Or newer communities, such as Pearland, where my sister threw me the perfect bridal shower in a tea shop with the daintiest little cookies and lovely sweet tea.
On the television screen, more and more street signs I recognize flash past. Braeswood Boulevard, where the helicopters are filming a rescue, is where my mom used to take us to get our hair done.
I moved away 20 years ago, but I had already been shaped by the spirit of the place. Watching the waters rise these past few days has gripped me with the kind of helplessness that had only ever filled my chest while waiting for a loved one to come out of surgery. I pray. I hope. I wait.
Some people run from their home towns with an intentionality, but it was not that way for me. Life took me elsewhere, but I hold the city close the way I’ve held on to my best girlfriend from high school. We don’t talk every day, but we share the kind of understanding built only by growing up together. We may tease each other, but don’t come for her.
Houston is the sort of place where you run into greatness on the cheap, while you’re just going on about your business, living your life.
Listen, I’m so Houston that when my little sister competed in the Miss Black Teen Houston pageant, the entertainment was an unknown local group that hadn’t debuted its first single. Beyoncé and the rest of Destiny’s Child sang their hearts out that day.
We grew up going to the rodeo one year and the circus the next. I’ve never ridden a horse anywhere, but I have cousins who go on trail rides honoring the legacy of the legendary black cowboy Bill Pickett.
The big hair, cowboy boots and other displays of Go Texan flair are there, but so are the magnificent quinceañeras and epic Punjabi weddings I attended over the course of my childhood. My friends and I listened to both Selena and the Geto Boys.
Houston is the nation’s fourth-largest city and, by some measures, is its most diverse. Bigness and diversity have their challenges, and Houston has scraped with those. Some of the families most in need as the waters rise are poor people of color. Yet the water has not swept over just one swath of the city. The need is as wide and vast as the floodwaters that have turned streets into rivers.
“I’ve NEVER had to evacuate but when they opened the dams and the water began to rise . . . we chose to survive,” wrote one of my Facebook friends Tuesday after she and her family had to leave her home in Northeast Houston. They waded through 3½ feet of water with her daughter in a floaty, then caught a speedboat and two trucks to a school bus to a church in Humble. “Shout out to the mutha lovin country people [with boats] . . . salute to the good Samaritans that came to Houston JUST to help,” she wrote in a post filled with praise-hands emoji and hearts.
I call my parents in Alief, a suburb straddling the city limits, one more time. I’m relieved to hear that the water in their back yard has begun to recede. I text my sister in Katy, and she is busy helping a friend of a friend contact a man with a boat. My best friend, who lives in Cypress, sends a photo. Now that the tornadoes have subsided, she has pulled out her flour, sugar and baking powder to turn them into cakes and pies that she will deliver to a nearby shelter.
I call my cousin Tish, who tells me that she and our Big Mama have made it safely from Bay City, where the Colorado River is cresting, to a Best Western suite on the outskirts of San Antonio.
Big Mama is 91 and lives in a house that my late grandfather built. It is mauve with a matching fence. The three bedrooms are tight but have been home over the years to a host of relatives in need of shelter. The pecan tree in the back yard and crepe myrtle in the side yard have always been tended with care.
Does her house still stand? It is built on higher ground, up from the road with a gently sloping driveway. I remind Big Mama of this.
I am once again stunned by the size of the storm, which is flooding places that never flood. The many lives lost and the many others touched. What will be left when the rain lets up and the mean waters slowly return to the sea?
You can’t wrap your arms easily around Houston. We must remember that in the months to come.
When the rebuilding starts, it will be impossible to manufacture the spirit of the place. It came together organically, a city without a master plan.
I pray that the slow and steady rebuilding that will follow this disaster can honor this. May those of us who know this place still find our way to its treasures.