The Shepherd Stroll
Although I was more or less familiar with every stretch of Shepherd Drive, I didn't know its headwaters up by I-45 and Veterans Memorial very well at all. I had a vague idea that there were a bunch of junkyards up there — but the farthest north I tend to venture up in that direction is the Sears at W. 34th. I knew there was a long stretch of used car lots north of the Katy Freeway and south of the Loop, but it's not all that often that I am called to cross the Katy. I knew the stretch south of Washington even better than that. As for the area south of Westheimer and north of Rice — it's my native 'hood, pretty much hard-wired in my DNA. (I grew up a few blocks east of Shepherd's mouth down by Rice Stadium.) So I at least had a rough knowledge of every one of the 10.56 miles of this road. I wanted to appreciate each of the 669,081.6 inches.
So, last Friday, as I did with Westheimer last year, I decided I had to walk it from beginning to end.
I would, of course, need company. I sent out a mass email to a couple dozen friends and acquaintances on a few days' notice, and only one could (and was willing) to make the trek — local musician/man-about-town David Beebe of El Orbits/ Aqua Velva / Banana Blender Surprise / Continental Club fame. As was the case with Uncle Tick on my Westheimer hike, Beebe proved to be an ideal traveling companion.
John Lomax and David Beebe start their journey after the jump...
We planned to start the hike at the North Shepherd Metro Park and Ride, which is conveniently located at the Shepherd's insane northern terminus -- it peters out where I-45 lolls lazily to the west. Veterans Memorial also veers off northwest-bound from Shepherd and the Interstate.
Without a car, getting up there is not easy. I hopped on the Bellaire bus near my house at Academy and Bellaire, changed to the train at the Texas Medical Center Transit Center and glided north to Beebe's home above the Continental Club at the Ensemble light rail stop. We then rode the train together to the Downtown Transit Center at about ten a.m. and then hoofed it over to San Jacinto Street, where Northside-bound buses gather. We caught the #8 Yale and were away.
It took about an hour on the bus to get all the way up there. We got stuck behind a train in the Second Ward, and somewhere just inside the North Loop, there was a delay as the bus picked up a wheelchair-bound passenger, and another when he was let off somewhere on Yale Street in Acres Homes. Along the way, Beebe and I exchanged scurrilous local music gossip, none of which can be printed here.
At last the bus pulled into the North Shepherd Park and Ride. It was on like Donkey Kong.
The very first thing you come across on this walk, at least if you are on the west side of North Shepherd, is the last thing you expect: a huge meadow full of wildflowers. Once that is past, though, we are in the junkyard zone of North Shepherd. There are literally miles of car boneyards up here, and Beebe seemed to have a story about all of them. This one here is where he picked up a U-Joint for the Banana Blender Surprise van, that one over there furnished him a bumper for the El Orbits Suburban and so on.
Crushed cars loom in great stacks on all sides. Who says Houston doesn't have hills — North Shepherd is a veritable Himalayan range of dead rides. There's nothing like a scintilla of man-made beauty up here. In fact, the whole thing is so ugly an old-but-immaculately maintained Shipley's Donuts up that way stands out like Chartres Cathedral.
The sight of it fills Beebe with Houston Pride."Those guys ran Krispy Kreme right out of town, and they did it by not changing a thing," he says.
In two walks down Westheimer, I never feared for my safety. On this first trip down Shepherd, I did, but only briefly. Just past the glorious Shipley's, a drunk Hispanic guy leaned out of a passing car with handicapped license plates and shouted something — words to the effect that we should leave his neighborhood forthwith, if I am not mistaken. I thought for a second they might zip back around and have a go at us, but with one of them drunk and the other crippled, I liked our chances.
We found the first two abandoned shopping carts we would find on the trip up here — one a Walgreen's model with the now-rare blue plastic child seating and handle, another from a place called Pricebuster.
Over all this ugliness there waves scads and scads of flags, usually American, Mexican and Texan, but in at least one case, Confederate too. Why are there always a million flags waving over the ugliest parts of town? This is bad branding — we're saying that junkyards, lube shops, transmission repair shacks and used car lots are what America is really all about. And while all that might be true, can't we at least pretend that it's not? Doesn't associating the flag with all that tat tend to erode Old Glory's image?
The junkyard zone peters out around Tidwell, and the mechanic shops, brake repair palaces and transmission hospitals begin. Again, Beebe was a stranger to almost none of them. He had a C.V. joint welded here, an alternator installed there, a rebuilt transmission — complete with nationwide warranty! -- across the street. (We also found the third shopping cart here — this one from Food City.)
Somewhere around here we come across a broken down airport shuttle.
"I heard a bunch of bands have started buying those for tours," I say.
"Yeah, and that's a big mistake," Beebe says. "They aren't made for long-distance driving — they are for driving around in airports and nothing else. It was one of those that destroyed Soulhat. They bought one for five grand, put another $2500 into it, it broke down on the way to the first show, they spent another five grand replacing it, and then they spent the next couple of years blaming each other. They never did figure out whose fault buying that thing was, so they just broke up."
Still outside the loop, we came across the quirkiest business we would see all day — a combination plumbing supplies store / trailer park. The trailer park, full of tall pines amid lush lawns, was (along with the grounds of St. Pius High School) one of the most Arcadian spots between the wildflower field and Buffalo Bayou, and the homemade mascot (see picture) for the plumbing supplies store was the only sign we saw on the whole trip that there was such a thing as a sense of humor.
Around 34th, you start to get some inkling that there is an economy that revolved around objects other than automobiles. Sears is here, for one thing, and there is an old movie theater (since converted into a church), and a few flea markets. There were many examples of that Houston institution — the recycled fast food restaurant. Way up by the park and ride we had seen a Del Taco (with its characteristic Alamo-like arched pediment) that had gone through a few later iterations before being left to rot on its foundations, while down here we came across a Church's that was now a "You buy, we fry" place and a couple others. At one point I thought I saw a blue-and-red Spec's sign in the distance. It used to be a Spec's, but it wasn't anymore. Beebe knew the place well. "Some independent operators bought it when Spec's closed all their small stores" he explains. "They renamed it Speedy Liquor and they just painted over the Spec's with the word 'Speedy' and left the sign up."
Shepherd and Durham split into one-way streets shortly thereafter, and a few minutes later we made the Loop. It was around two or three in the afternoon. We had seen only one bar since leaving the Park and Ride, and it was out of business, so we were getting pretty thirsty. Buffalo Fred's, just inside the Loop, hit the spot. It's the sort of place you could only find in Houston — a Vietnamese-owned authentic icehouse (complete with pull-down door), with a clientele of Spanglish-speaking bikers. On the walls were stuffed buffalo heads and signs announcing things like "If it has tits or wheels it's gonna 'cause you trouble some day," and out back there was a huge patio studded with real-live palm trees.
I ordered a Lone Star and a glass of ice water while Beebe opted for an O'Doul's. (Although not particularly religious, he abstains from alcohol during Lent.) The Vietnamese barmaid brought Beebe a green long-necked bottle with no label that contained a substance that might have been O'Doul's, but could just has easily been Dos Equis green. Whatever it was, Beebe had two, while we made selections from a jukebox of mixed ranchera, rock (both classic and modern), old-school soul and (oddly) Brazilian classics like "Girl From Ipanema." After half an hour we were on our way.
And soon we came upon what for Beebe was the discovery of the day — a huge freestanding Prince's Hamburgers sign. The actual Prince's was long since transformed into a used car lot's office, and the south side of the marquis advertises that business. On the north side of the sign, which you never see from your car (since Shepherd is one-way), you can still clearly read the Prince's lettering.
I also found a dead rat (smashed flat and desiccated) and we came across two more stolen shopping carts here — these from Kroger, with their anti-theft wheel-lock devices broken. - John Nova Lomax
End of The Shepherd Stroll, Part One. For the big finish, come back tomorrow.