Monday, April 19, 2010

Big City Weekend

I hate Houston traffic, and in summertime the air feels like a lineman's armpit and smells like his butt crack. But on a weekend in April, it ain't a bad place to be. When your time is your own, you can avoid the worst of the traffic snarls, although you still have to deal with the layout of their freeway intersections, where you get on one freeway, merge into another, and then have only a short distance in which to traverse six or eight lanes in order to exit from the left onto another freeway. But that's a minor problem for an experienced driver.

This past weekend I drove over for a rally organized by the local car club; my friend Rick came along as my navigator. My regular navigator was otherwise spoken for, it being the weekend of the Fiesta Soccer Tournament. The rally was on Sunday, but I'm not the sort of person who will get in the car, drive three hours, run a two-hour rally, then drive three hours home. Hey, if I'm going out past the Loop, I want a suitcase in the trunk. So we made a weekend of it. Went to the gym on Friday, then took off for the Big City.

It was pouring rain in San Antonio, but it let up about half way to Houston, and eventually the top came down. Traffic on the outbound side of the Katy was in its usual rush-hour state when we got into the metro area. Not that it was rush hour; it was only mid-afternoon, but the people flooding out of Houston were bumper-to-bumper, a condition generally described as "normal traffic." On the inbound side, the traffic was light; that is, there were car-sized gaps between the bumpers. We get that kind of traffic at home sometimes, but usually during an actual rush hour, and only in one direction. I consider myself blessed, in that I am able to avoid it almost entirely, by staying home or going where others don't go.

Getting to our hotel involved changing freeways twice in the space of a mile, requiring one of those lane-changing maneuvers that often results in disaster: the touch of a bumper, the uncontrollable spinout, the curses of the people stuck in the traffic jam you've created. But luckily for us, someone else had already faced disaster, and traffic was already at a stop, giving me, oh, fifteen minutes to negotiate that one mile and those eight lanes. After unloading the car and checking on line for show-times and diversions, we headed off to sample the Big City.

The first two restaurants we tried had only valet parking. We were both dressed in t-shirts and jeans, coming as we do from a town where black jeans are considered formal wear, and there are few places where cut-off shorts are out of place. But dress codes notwithstanding, I'm not often in a mood to pay some guy $15 to move my precious car a hundred feet, so that I can eat an overpriced hamburger with sashimi and montini cheese.

After driving back and forth through Montrose, we ended up at Katz's. (See my recent post on the Curmudgeon-About-Town, about familiar restaurants.) This New-York-style deli opened in Austin back in the '70s, and quickly became the preferred all-night nosh pit in a land littered with all-night nosh pits, and all-night noshers. The Houston incarnation shares its exotic Yankee-invader ambience, but as we were there early in the evening, the crowd of nasal voices and its attendant inconveniences had yet to arrive. There was only one nasal accent, and its owner was reading the paper (the New York Times, of course) and so was largely silent, except when responding briefly to some mumble from her table-mate. For an appetizer, we treated ourselves to a sampler of fried foods (hey, we were, like, on vacation!), followed up by the house-specialty Reuben for Rick, and the open-faced meatball sandwich for me. Just like my grandmother would have made. My Jewish grandmother, not the Italian one. And (diet) creme soda, to add that special taste of Noo Yawk. Way too much food, and we decided we'd have to come back later for one of the fabulous-looking desserts. (We talked about it all weekend, but never did go back. Fattening food is like all other sinful things: easier to resist if it's not right to hand.)
Katz's Deli and Bar on Urbanspoon

We cruised Westheimer and River Oaks for a while, killing time until the second seating at a well-known local comedy club that we'd decided on going to. Neither of us had ever heard of the comedian who was performing, but his bio on the club's web site showed him to have all the right credentials, and we expected an entertaining performance. We had initially decided against a comedy club because of the cost -- $20 for a ticket, plus a $5 "service charge" -- RIP OFF! -- plus a two-drink minimum. But an on-line coupon made the cost seem slightly more curmudgeon-friendly.

You'll notice I don't say the name of the performer. I don't want to give him even that much promotional publicity. It was funny in places, though oriented toward a younger (I should say, immature) crowd. It was vulgar in the extreme, though in his defense he did avoid long discussions of a scatological nature -- the defining portion of what is undoubtedly the worst comedy routine I've ever sat through -- preferring to express himself simply, through the use of short Anglo-Saxon interjections. So I suppose it could have been worse. As it was, even with the coupon, we felt very much ripped off.

Saturday we devoted to Culture and History. I actually dragged the camera along, so I have some pictures to remember the day by. We started with a trip to the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, which was featuring an exhibit on forged and wrought iron. This was the sop I used to get Rick to come on the trip; he's into that stuff. I liked it, too, as well as the other exhibits, and even gave some thought to buying a wrought-iron spoon. But the $950 price tag eventually overwhelmed my rasher impulses, and I settled for a carved cooking utensil for about $22. This one sits on the edge of a pot, and since I haven't been able to find a spoon rest I like....

By far the most interesting part of an interesting visit was the time we spent talking to one of the artists-in-residence, a creative young woman named Kelley Eggert. She was working in her office when we passed by, and I saw two fascinating large sculptures that drew us into conversation with her. If I'd had $4,000 on me I probably would have bought them, and then tried to figure out how to get them home in a small car with two fat guys. Luckily, I hadn't brought that much cash, and instead got away with a small sconce, courtesy of the artist, that will look fantastic anywhere in my house. Rick, who is also a creative fabric artist, and had been invited to display his work at the Center -- an opportunity lost that I will remind him of from time to time as I think of it -- spent some time with students of that craft before we left to explore the garden outside, where plants used in various crafts from dyeing to papermaking are grown.

From there we went to Hermann Park, not far away, to see an exhibit of monumental sculptures by a Frenchman named Bernar Venet. These consist largely of welded steel arcs grouped together in various ways, and while some of them look nice in the context of an already-beautiful park, they soon cease to intrigue the senses. They become boring, and notable only for their bulk and the difficulty of producing, transporting and assembling them. If they speak, they speak not to my soul. They are art only in the word's most expansive sense: if all the world is divided into art and vegetables, they are not vegetables and so they are art.

Weary of culture, we took the opportunity for a little history, and drove out to San Jacinto Battlefield. On my last few visits there, the observation deck was closed, but I had read somewhere that the tempermental elevator servicing the 570-foot-tall obelisk was operational again, after many years, and since the sky was clear I saw the chance to enjoy the vistas available to people way high up on the incredibly flat Texas Gulf Coast. (We learned from the waitress at Besaw's Barbecue, near the entrance to the battleground park, and where we had good barbecue obscured by too much of a thick sauce, that the elevator is still tempermental, and had been out of service four of the last six days. Today, though was our lucky day: it had been repaired that very morning.)

I would guess that the State of Texas has spent some money fixing up the monument and its grounds, and not just on elevator repairs. The thing looks cleaner than I remember it, the grass and bushes are neatly trimmed, and the approach roads and parking lots are in good repair. Much work has been done to counter the subsidence that was evident on my last visit, at least a dozen years ago. Art Deco details have been polished and even the water fountains work. The exhibits inside remain unreconstructed: Texans still fought fiercely for liberty from a corrupt Mexican régime, and Santa Anna is still an evil dictator. The view from the top is still impressive, but even on this clearest of clear days the skyline of Houston, barely 20 miles away, was all but invisible through the smaze of a hundred refineries and the Port.

The grounds have proven less resistant to efforts at social reconstruction and political correction. I could find not a single marker to describe the brief, but vastly important, battle that took place here 174 years ago. All the signage was devoted to flora, fauna, and the extensive efforts under way to restore the environment to what it was when Santa Anna took his famous nap. Two sign boards, exactly the same ("before framing," and "after framing," I guess), stand side by side at the entrance to a boardwalk, showing three or four animals that live in these parts. The signs talk a lot about grass and birds. All very nice, but where were the Mexicans camped? Where was the Texan line? Where did the artillery stand, and how much distance did the victorious charge cover? Where was the bridge that the Texan army destroyed, preventing the Mexican army's escape? (If the painting in the monument's museum is accurate, Mexican soldiers were so fatigued after chasing the rebels across Texas in the Runaway Scrape that they couldn't wade a five-foot-wide stream.)

Full now of history, we were ready for another course of Culture, and the City was ready: we were there, as luck would have it, during Worldfest, and the Houston International Film Festival was in progress at a 30-screen theater. That entailed a drive of about 50 miles -- hey, it's a big city; didn't I mention that? -- but we were there in plenty of time to relax with a nice cool drink. I had a green apple creme mix with tapioca, while Rick went for a strawberry creme mix. These were two of about a hundred various concoctions served up at the Happy Tea House and Café. They were immensely satisfying, and in fact we went back after our movie to sample other, weirder offerings -- for me, the peanut creme; for Rick, the watermelon slurry. And we split an order of egg rolls that were all we wanted for dinner. (I don't know about Rick, but I was still full from Katz's the night before.)

The movie we saw was Saluun, an Indian film about an enterprising young man whose hair salon is carted away by local municipal authorities. In the first half of the film, in between suggestions of a romantic interest in a very pretty school teacher, the hero, Asok, deals with the bureaucracy on its terms: paying bribes, filling out papers, and getting nowhere. Definitely a downer of a film. In the second half, though, he's had enough of playing it their way, and takes matters into his own hands in a way that I thought was absolutely ingenious. I doubt that any of you will ever see this film; it surely will never play in my home town, and unless you live in New York or L.A. and are hot for films in Hindi with poorly-written English subtitles, you're going to go see something else when it comes time to pick a movie. But I'm still not going to tell you what happens. All I'm going to give away is what I've already said: it was billed as a comedy.

On Sunday our luck ran out: it rained. The rally that had brought us to Houston was a washout, although we did make the drive in a caravan with a dozen or so other Jaguars, out to Washington-on-the-Brazos for another barbecue lunch (this time with only as much sauce as each person wanted). And on the way home we stopped to see one of the famous Painted Churches, Catholic sanctuaries for eastern-European immigrant communities that are reknowned for their intricate decorations, including faux finishes and skillful pictures. I've heard of these places many times, but never before actually seen one. Now I have. You should, too, if you get the chance.

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