The East End Trek

Last week John Nova Lomax and David Beebe took off on another cross-Houston adventure. Click here for a map. You can read about Lomax's previous urban hikes here and here and here.

David Beebe and I intended to start this hike in “downtown” Pearland and proceed forth on what is called North Main street there, then Highway 35, and at last Telephone Road. We would then walk that fabled street of song and sordid vice until its end in Eastwood, near the corner of Fashion Street.

Such, however, was not to be. There are no buses down Telephone much past the Loop, still less down to Hobby Airport or Pearland. (People in the southeastern ‘burbs seem to believe in the idea that crime follows bus routes; there are fewer lines in the direction than any other.)

After scrapping a couple of alternate routes, Beebe and I settled on a 5th Ward / East Side plan: we would ride the #30 Clinton bus to wherever it ended beyond the East Loop and walk back in.

That scheme would melt like Laffy Taffy in the tropical sun of that miasmic day.

Photos by David Beebe and John Nova Lomax
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It started off well enough. Beebe and I boarded the light rail at Bell and rode up to Preston. We knew the #30 bus came nearby, so we walked to the courthouse and then headed up San Jacinto a few blocks, only to discover that the 30 had already veered off to the east. Suddenly I was struck with a foolish idea, not the last the two of us would come up with.

“Why don’t we just walk out Clinton, and then walk back?”

“Sounds good to me,” Beebe answered. “It’s not as long as Bellaire or Shepherd. That’ll make it more of a challenge.”

By this time we were in the artists’ ghetto over by Last Concert. After taking in that district’s charms – random iron sculptures, amazing neon, and genuinely funky lofts – we crossed the freeway on McKee Street and entered the southern fringe of Fifth Ward.

There, on the corner of Lyons Avenue and McKee, a dry-heaving stray dog in its death throes welcomed us to central Houston’s Chernobyl, a cursed warren of rusty train tracks, crumbling warehouses, and whole blocks that have reverted to wild coastal prairie.

Ruins of an entire neighborhood molder back here – unpainted shotgun shacks collapsing in on themselves scattered around a blocky brick building that looked like it was once a bar or liquor store. It had been stripped of all metal fixtures by street urchins and cut off from the electrical grid, but a sign in the window indicated it was for sale. “Call Bob,” it said. And evidently it was not so long ago a place of some importance, as a street teamer for a rapper named Marcelo had plastered a few promo posters on its door.

We continued on Lyons past H.I.S.D.’s central cafeteria and a city car-impound yard. (Beebe and I each had our tales of woe about that place.) We came to Jensen and headed south towards Clinton. By now, the sun was high overhead and we were drenched in sweat. The forecasters had called for a coolish day – highs in the upper ‘80s, they all said. They lied. It would hit 94 degrees that day, we would later hear, with fierce humidity to match. And we were both wearing black shirts.

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Meanwhile, we had reached Clinton Drive. Lord have mercy on Clinton Drive. Save for a couple of islands of activity like the huge fenced-in KBR headquarters (which is rumored to be for sale), Clinton is now little more than a decrepit strip of ruined factories, warehouses fast crumbling into rubble, and decaying 1950s office buildings with broken windows and mold-stained walls.

It reminded me of 19th Century British gadfly William Cobbett’s description of the village of Deal, Sussex: “Deal is a most villainous place. It is full of filthy looking people. Great desolation of abomination has been going on here; tremendous barracks, partly pulled down and partly tumbling down and partly occupied by soldiers. Everything seems upon the perish. I was glad to hurry along through it…”

It wasn’t always such. From the Ship Channel’s opening until the advent of containerized shipping in the early ‘80s, Clinton and surrounding streets were bustling by day and by night, dotted with rice beer-soaked bars with names like the Cesspool, the Worker’s Bar, the Seafarer’s Retreat, the Mermaid Café, Tater’s Last Chance and Dottie’s Snug Harbor.

In those days, it could take a week to unload a cargo ship, and for much of that time, sailors were free to roam the port, dine in the restaurants, carouse in the bars, and find companionship where they may. The same went for the thousands of shore-based workers – the mechanics, channel pilots, stevedores, and tug boat crews.

Songwriter Rodney Crowell, who grew up nearby, remembered the area’s heyday in a fairly recent email interview with esteemed journalist Chet Flippo.

“Hallowed be The Houston Ship Channel…fifty miles of salt marsh bayou turned world’s longest deep water shipping lane, host waterway to the most sludge-pumping, poisonous gas-spewing paper mills, chemical plants and oil refineries in the Western Hemisphere. The Houston Ship Channel on whose creosote-soaked banks new-monied oil-boom tycoons rub chafed elbows with Mexican drag-line operators and Coonass pile-drivers in a payday Friday winner-takes-all beer and whiskey-chugging contest. Piss on Enron, Houston’s heart and soul is over on the East Side where New Orleans rhythm, Fort Worth blues and Nashville heartbreak once spilled out of it’s honkytonk and icehouse juke boxes onto an endless sea of oyster-shell parking lots. That’s right cat-daddy, Houston Texas, land of hot toddies, cold watermelon and lying sons-of-bitches who’d rather gut you with a Barlow knife than listen to a sappy song.”

Today, most of the people are gone, while only the paper mills, chemical plants and oil refineries remain, along with their attendant sludge and poisonous gases. And even those are a ways out of town.

The Press’s Josh Harkinson explored the area’s economic demise in a 2004 article. He talked to Hoa Tran, the owner of Clinton Drive’s Hong Kong Restaurant Seamen Nightclub, who remembered that at one time her dance floor would be packed nightly with hundreds of Chinese, Filipino and Scandinavian sailors.

There was also plenty of action to be found on McCarty, one of Clinton’s busiest cross streets. “An incessant queue of 300 tractor-trailers snaked out of the port past gas stations and burger joints and a mile down McCarty Street,” Harkinson wrote. “Two souvenir shops sold T-shirts and Texas ashtrays to crowds of sailors with time and cash to burn. Every night, the Harbor Lights Night Club offered some of the best live country-western music in town. Ship captains mingled with visitors like Yogi Berra, Howard Hughes and Elvis. ‘When you go to Westheimer now, the Port of Houston used to be like that,’ says club owner John Kontominas. "’And they changed it.’"

“They” being whoever it was who invented the concept of containerization. Nowadays, merchandise is driven via forklift into mobile home-sized boxes, which are then lifted on to ships with huge cranes. Work that once took many people days to complete now can be accomplished by a few people in a matter of hours.

No more would Creole and redneck stevedores blow off steam on Clinton, and the sailors from every port from Liverpool to Manila that once flocked to Clinton’s many fleshpots would now stay confined to their ships – especially after September 11, 2001, when the Feds handed down stringent, some would argue paranoid, new regulations that Harkinson explored fully in his article.

The upshot of all of this was that the belly dancers at the Athens Bar and Grill, who once entertained entire crews of horny, ouzo-soaked Greeks a month a-sea from Piraeus, would have to find another place to shake their tail-feathers. And so on, all up and down Clinton. The street was put upon the perish, and all that remains is great desolation of abomination.

Close in to town, it’s not so bad. There’s the folk-art whimsy of the Proler Iron Works, a junkyard dotted by memorial gardens and pretty hand-painted signs urging you to get along with people and to steer clear of booze, drugs and dice. In its quirk and peppy evangelism, it comes across as the Orange Show of local junkyards.

Just across from Proler is Japhet Creek, a hidden gem of a neighborhood. A colony of hippies has settled in a cluster of 100-year-old wood houses tucked amid warehouses and jungle-like vegetation. The little colony seem prepared for Armageddon.

But that’s about it for five miles. A few little office buildings survive – businesses with names like Il Dong Marine Supply and Chemtrusion, Inc. -- but it seems like twice as many are defunct. Save for a couple of gas stations on the corner of Lockwood, there’s no retail or restaurants all the way to Wayside, or at least none open on Friday afternoon. We saw no other pedestrians, and only one woman waiting for the bus. As the West Side gets more and more crowded, it’s puzzling just how empty the near east side is.

Or maybe not, because what Clinton does have is one king-hell bastard of a sewage treatment plant. I first caught a whiff of this 16-vat monstrosity about a mile away, a rank stench that combined shit, piss and sickly-sweet chemicals. Unluckily, the wind was blowing from the east, and thus we walked straight into this foul vapor for a solid 20 minutes.

This is the 69th Street Wastewater Treatment Plant, according to City of Houston press release, the most expensive project the Public Works Department has ever engaged in. “Wastewater is received from a 53,500 acre area encompassing the central business district and major shopping centers, industrial and commercial districts to the north,” the release continued. “One-third of the City's existing and projected population lives in the area… The 69th St. Sludge plant will be able to process all of the waste sludge from the Complex's wastewater units…The plant's dried sludge will be shipped to buyers who market it as an organic fertilizer. The selling of dried sludge as a fertilizer has been carried on by the City since 1930. Through conversion into a valuable product, Houston disposes of its sludge by recycling in an evironmentally sound manner.”

“This is the worst thing I have ever smelled,” I told Beebe.

“It’s not that bad,” he said. Beebe is a man of relentless good cheer. When we walked up alongside the swirling vats of foul sludge, he said they reminded him of Six Flags. And he kind of had a point – all that was needed to complete the illusion was for the soufflé-like brown fluid in the vats to be dyed that unearthly electric blue color so beloved of ‘70s-era amusement parks. But even Astroworld in its last days never smelled as bad as this.

About noon, what looked like a mirage hove into view – a mauve wood-frame building, with a tall privacy fence enclosing a good-sized back yard. We were speculating about its purpose all the way up to the door. Was it a modeling studio? A Mexican gay bar?

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A hand-painted sign in the oyster shell parking lot proclaimed that “Parkin” here was $2, which should have been a clue. The sign over the door said it was a tavern. “We’ve got to soak up some of this culture,” Beebe said. “First round’s on me.”

I was thirsty and nervous in more or less equal measure. In we went, me with vastly more misgivings than Beebe.

It was a tiny joint. A TV on the bar beamed a telenovela at the denizens of the place, which included a plump, thirtysomething barmaid, an older Mexican man, two younger guys, and a table of girls who looked to be in their teens. A Mexican flag was festooned on a wall behind the bar, and several posters on another were from the State Department of Health. In Spanish, they dwelled on the theme of “Are you sure she’s 18?”

Beebe ordered two Buds and slapped a ten on the bar. The barmaid pushed a mere two bucks back. Beebe laughed and told her to keep it. The two young guys left the bar, looking sheepish.

“Four bucks for a Bud?” Beebe laughed. “Something tells me there’s more to this place than meets the eye.”

Nobody talked to us. We drank our beers fast and left. The two young guys were still in the parking lot, and they went back in the bar before the door had even closed behind us.

Just across the street, there it was -- Hoa Tran’s Hong Kong Restaurant Seamen Nightclub, still hanging in there three years after Harkinson’s article. In its salad days, the bar had been open from 9 A.M. until two in the morning. Today, it opens around happy hour time. (Although it was encouraging to see it there at all – Tran told Harkinson she would close by 2005 if business didn’t pick up some.)

So much for Clinton. We decided not to take it to its terminus at Fidelity, the most ironic intersection in Houston.

Instead, we veered north on McCarty. The plan was to hook back on a cross street to Wayside, where “Tequila Shot,” a Roller Derby Girl of Beebe’s acquaintance, operated a head shop. We would visit Tequila Shot in the head shop, continue south on Wayside, cross the Ship Channel, head down through the alphabetized streets of Magnolia Park to Navigation, turn right and make for original Ninfa’s in the heart of Second Ward / Segundo Barrio. From there, we would continue to what we only now decided would be journey’s end – Warren’s Inn in Market Square.

The sun had gone to our heads, you see.

*******

Compared to the desolation on Clinton, McCarty was bustling. There was Port Houston Elementary School, where at one time there was an international shipping magnet program.
And while most of the humanity is gone from the docks, all that freight still needs to be picked up by somebody – namely, truckers, whose every whim can be met on McCarty. There were gas stations, truck stops, mechanic shops, and even a few franchised fast food joints, not to mention a couple of hot-sheet motels.

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There were also plenty of bars over here, though none of them were open in the early afternoon. One had lurid paintings of scantily clad women on the exterior and a Spanglish marquee that promised “Shows de teibol.” Hand-painted signs promised “Chicas” at Los Amigos Lounge while Los Esorpiones Club enticed with “Hermo Sas Mujeres y Mas.”

While these weren’t quite up to Larry McMurtry’s 1960’s description of McCarty Street – “the most extraordinary example of Mexican saloon-and-whorehouse architecture north of the border” – they were lively little structures that backed up another of his claims. Namely, that Latins “almost always improve Anglo-Saxon towns.” Were it not for these colorful, cheerful-looking oases, McCarty would look like nothing so much as North Shepherd at its most dreary.

Some of the oldest continuously operating bars in town are also in the area, though in the case of the Golden Eagle Ice House, the “operating” part seems in doubt.

Harbor Lights, the once-famous honky-tonk where Elvis rubbed elbows with Yogi Berra, did look as if would be opening later that day. Maybe famous isn’t exactly the right word for this place – Texas country legend Johnny Bush would probably call it notorious. In his new autobiography Whiskey River (Take My Mind), Bush recalled witnessing a savage brawl there decades ago between two stevedores that ended decisively when one of them beheaded his antagonist with a meat cleaver.

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Sadly, Beebe and I were unable to soak up any of that culture, so we trudged up to Market Street and hung a left. And uneventful jaunt down Market led us to our shadiest interlude of the day, wending our way through the residential backstreets of Port Houston, a blue-collar Mexican neighborhood of wrought-iron fences and wood-framed houses. As we approached a rail-yard, the houses got progressively smaller and more unkempt until we were eventually in a slum, where dusty roses clung to life in patchy yards. In the last house before the rail yard, a couple of thuggish looking youths loitered about as a pit bull tugged at his chain near his ramshackle dog house, on which was painted the beast’s name: Chuckie.

There we cut across some turpentine-reeking train tracks and looped around some freight cars parked on a siding. After scrambling deep into a thorny thicket in the false hope of a short cut, we backtracked through spider-choked brambles until we wound up back at Wayside at Clinton.

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This is one of the most pedestrian-unfriendly intersections in the world. There are train tracks everywhere, and the only way to cross the ship channel is to slog it on Wayside’s tallish, sidewalk-free highway bridge. (Wayside is also old Highway 90.)

By this point, the trek was starting to suck. We were footsore, blistered, sunburned and dehydrated. Neither of us had drunk anything since a tall boy apiece we had bought on McCarty. I had quit sweating, and was starting to get mild chills. My nose was running.

To make matters worse, Beebe was now unsure of how to get to Tequila Shot’s head shop. Though he knew the street number, he couldn’t recall if it was on Wayside, South Wayside, or North Wayside.

That uncertainty was the worst part of this, the nadir of this trip. I wanted to know that we were at least starting to head for home. The thought of walking over that bridge and then backtracking to get to some stoner emporium was too much for me to bear.

It didn’t matter to Beebe. “It’ll be fun!” he said.

We limped over the bridge, bathing all the way in the diesel-belches of gear-grinding heavy trucks crawling up the incline. To the east, we had a lovely view of the full glory of all 16 vats of swirling feces at the 69th Street Wastewater Treatment Plant and not much else.

Ahead, though, lay what looked very much like Shangri-La to us – the hardcore barrio Magnolia Park. There would be cold drinks there, and shade, and it would be flat.

We walked into a ramshackle old food store, in which the proprietor had to buzz us in through an iron gate just inside the front door. Beebe stuck with his trademark drink – RC Cola, while I quaffed both a Welch’s Grape soda and some fierce thirst sports drink.

We rested outside under the awning. I called my wife at home, and compared our plight to that of Lawrence of Arabia. She laughed. “John, you’re so melodramatic,” she said. For the record, Beebe thought I was spot-on. By this point, we had come about 12 miles, and it was the hottest time of day.

And the rest of the trip was somewhat anti-climactic. We called off the hunt for Tequila Shot’s head shop. Navigation, at least the stretch between Wayside and the skyscrapers’ shadows, is fairly uneventful, lacking the decay of Clinton as well as much of the interest. It was just a trudge, an East End Death March. I had pretty much stopped speaking by this point, while Beebe kept up a relentless, good-humored chatter.

At a Mexican gift shop close to Ninfa’s, I stopped to take a picture of a mural of Dora the Explorer, my toddler daughter’s favorite fictional character, but just before I snapped the shot, I noticed a graffiti “artist” had scrawled a penis next to her head. This was an outrage!

A salvage store proclaimed that it was both “Houston’s most interesting store!” and “Open to the general public.” The second claim is not open for debate, though the first is definitely so, as it was a notch below the freaky stores of a similar nature on Harwin. It was somewhat air-conditioned, though.

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And at last, Ninfa’s came into view. You could tell our appearance and aroma strained every fiber of the host’s politeness, and Beebe and I heard him tell a waiter not to seat anybody near us. A table of young lawyers in love across the room craned their necks at us, shooting us the kinds of glances lepers must be well-accustomed with.

But the Ninfaritas were worth it. I’m not a sports medicine expert by any means, but I can assure you that marathon runners should knock back a Ninfarita or three as they get up to the 20-mile mark. Salt, sugar, alcohol, vitamin C...this is what a body under extreme duress needs.

As I would soon find out. As Beebe and I awaited our first, we were playing a parlor game pitting which of two crap bands of our youth was the lesser of two evils. Styx vs Kansas, Dan Fogelberg vs Jackson Browne, stuff like that. I think I had just thrown REO Speedwagon vs Foreigner out there when Beebe said suddenly went quiet. “I haven’t had one of these in a while,” he mumbled, as the color of his face drained from tomato-red to a ghastly pallor in seconds. “Take a picture of me,” he said.

I did as I was told. “Are you all right?” I asked. “You want me to call somebody?”

“No.” And this went on for what seemed like a half-hour, but probably only a good three minutes. I seriously thought he was going to collapse. I worried that the staff and the lawyers were staring at us.

Suddenly Beebe snapped out of it. “That has happened to me since I ran cross country in high school,” he said. “I thought I was gonna faint there for a second.”

And with that, he put a good dent in his Margarita and said “Foreigner, just for ‘Juke Box Hero.’”

A brace of margaritas later, we arrived re-invigorated at Warren’s. This had been the hardest of my walks since the original Highway 6-to-Bagby on Westheimer hike, and this was easily the longest one Beebe had gone on. We were giddy and elated and making very little sense. But we were alive, which is more than you can say for some of the streets we had conquered. – John Nova Lomax
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