DAY ONE, HOUSTON: 20 JULY 2013 - I did not sleep Thursday night, so by the time I arrived at Houston's George Bush Airport (IAH) at 10 p.m. Friday night I was painfully exhausted. While texting with a friend in Illinois I was (a) trying to figure out where to catch a bus, then (b) waiting for the bus, and then (c) riding the bus (full fare is $1.25).
I loathe texting conversations to begin with, and my friend was attempting an in-depth one. Despite my texting him that I was exhausted and hate texting, he kept going. I finally had to turn off my phone. Literally: I was required to by law. There is a strict rule down here against using cell phones on buses because it's feared that the sounds they make will distract the driver. The bus dropped me at the Greyhound Bus station downtown just past midnight.
Very rough neighborhoods, worse than anything in downtown Chicago as far as I can tell. It's reminiscent of the old Greyhound station in Chicago's Loop, which was closed many years ago and was a hot spot for criminal activity. In fact, the Greyhound station is just blocks from Sauer Street/McGowen Street, one of America's highest-crime neighborhoods. "The violent crime rate is 75.89 per 1,000 residents — far greater than the city average of 9.78," says CultureMap Houston. "Residents have a one in 13 annual chance of becoming a victim (compare that to a chance of one in 102 in Houston overall)." The Sauer/McGowen neighborhood is tucked in right next to Houston's central business district. Moving away from downtown, I must watch my step to avoid other danger zones.
I took advantage of the fact that my baggage made me look like a customer and napped in their waiting area. I was awakened twice by arrests being made within 10 feet of me. I felt like I was in an episode of "Cops: Houston." Even so, it was still far safer than being outside, where psychotic weirdoes were milling about with a desire to harm or kill in their eyes. I have street smarts, and I know what I saw. In all my years in Chicago I have seen that look only a handful of times, but saw it multiple times last night.
I left the Greyhound station at sunrise, around 6:30 a.m. (it's an hour later in Houston because the city is so much farther west than Chicago). I was groggy and blurry-eyed as I walked away from the station.
Houston is a weird city. I'm used to seeing a 7-Eleven or something equivalent every couple of blocks in Chicago. Not here. Downtown Houston is ugly, boring, with many homeless people begging or sleeping on the sidewalks. People here seem afraid of strangers.
As I walked along Main Street's tram tracks this morning, I chatted with a guy who was begging for quarters so he could buy a bus ticket back to Long Beach, CA. He came to Houston only three days ago, he said, because he'd heard and read that it was booming and full of opportunity. Same reason I came here, I told him. We were standing in front of a little independent food mart on Main Street. An elderly white bum sat on the sidewalk a few yard from us, pigeons milling about him.
"I don't like it here," he said, "I got beat up last night." He showed me the blue, dissolvable stitches in his right hand and wrist. He was attacked right outside of the same Greyhound Bus station in which I napped, probably while I was there. He got the stitches at a hospital somewhere nearby. "I'm three dollars short of a bus ticket back to Long Beach," he said. Moments after he said that, someone came out of the food mart and handed him three dollars.
"There's your miracle," I said. He smiled and said, "I'm outa here. Good luck, man."
Less than nine hours in Houston and I'm wondering if I didn't make a mistake in coming here. Too early to know, I suppose. It is Saturday, after all, so it shouldn't be surprising that the business district is not bustling.
It took me another hour of walking around to find a coffee shop with wifi and an outlet for my laptop. I'm at Minuti Coffee as I write this, located at 909 Texas Street. Outside of the entrance is a placard that tells anyone who's interested that this was once the site of the capitol of the Republic of Texas, when it was an independent nation. The Texas Congress met here from April 1837 until September 1839.
Time has passed since I began writing this entry; now 10:55 a.m., the city is coming alive with traffic and pedestrians. I don't want to pass judgment on Houston - and my decision to come here - too quickly. I'll trying contacting businesses during the coming weekdays to get a better feel for things.
I want sleep. And food. Since Friday noon, I've eaten four small bags of honey roasted peanuts. I don't know which I want more, though, food or sleep. Both are delicious, essential and hard to come by when you're homeless and broke. Perhaps I'll find a shady tree in a park and nap for an hour or two. I think I'll do better with that. It's easier to function with a grumbling stomach while full awake than it is to stumble around so tired that you feel - and appear - to be drunk or stoned. It's easier to find food when you're rested well enough to think clearly, and already my eyes feel heavy from writing this entry. With luck and God's mercy, I will write more tomorrow.