The Seoul of Houston: The Weather Was Not the Strong Point on Long Point
In our most ill-advised jaunt yet, David Beebe and I chose to walk Long Point in from the Beltway to the Hempstead Highway, and then turn southeast there to Washington, and then trek the rapidly douchifying street of dreams in to Warren’s downtown.
On paper, it didn’t seem like such a bad plan. As the crow flies, it was only about 12 miles, and Spring Branch is not a particularly dangerous neighborhood. What’s more, I was raised in the Museum District and went to high school at Jesuit in Sharpstown, so my orientation has always been toward the Inner Loop, the southwest and the west. I know a little something about Memorial, but I had literally never even driven a block down any of The Branch’s main east-west arteries. After our walk, I am still unable to tell you what the southern equivalents of Bingle, Wirt and Campbell are. In a way, this was like an out-of-town trip for me.
This would be a milk run, a breeze, as the Brits put it, a piece of piss.
Hardly. Literally the first thing I heard on waking the morning of the walk was KUHF’s weatherman reading the forecast: “It’s currently 46 degrees, and that’s about as warm as it’s gonna get. Forecasters are calling for a 90 percent chance of rain, so it’s a good day to just stay inside.”
I looked at the window and took in the rain-slicked bricks of our patio, glistening in the pre-dawn gloom. Hell, not only did it look like pure misery out there, but I was on deadline for a feature story. Wouldn’t it just make more sense to take a rain check? Weren’t days like today the reason they were called rain checks, anyway?
Nope. Not a chance. The Sole of Houston is like the United States Postal Service: Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
10:00 AM: It proved impossible to ride a bus as far out Long Point as we wanted to go, so at the Northwest Transit Center, we chose to take another route that dumped us off at Memorial City Mall, from whence we would make our way first out to the Beltway, and then turn around and head home on Long Point.
At that point, it looked like the weatherman had been lying. It did seem to be warming up, ever so slightly, and though the skies were whale-belly grey, they were not heavy with rain.
As we were cutting through a shopping center, we came across a smallish big box store somewhat mysteriously called Komart. We wondered if it was yet another knock-off along the lines of the Palais Royal / Royal Palace we had seen on Bissonnet. On further investigation, we found it to be a former Kroger turned Korean supermarket, crammed with bulgogi, rice paper and sushi rolls, dried seaweed, kimche and a Korean beer called Hite.
And on an endcap, a new one for me: stacked above two shelves of canned tuna, there were two more shelves of canned silkworm pupae. Bon apetit!
After a winding slog through an Alief-like neighborhood of 1970s houses, and an industrial park that is home to the world headquarters of the increasingly ubiquitous Murphy’s Deli chain, we passed Roger Clemens’s old stomping grounds – the Spring Woods High School complex. When we reached Hammerly, we realized we’d walked clear past Long Point’s origins, so we looped back on Gessner and headed back down to Long Point. Which was about ten blocks from where we had lit off the bus, about 90 minutes before.
Noon-6 p.m.: At any rate, we were finally rollin’, and here was El Gallo Mexican Restaurant, a Tex-Mex joint of the same vintage as LBJ-era classics like Felix, Loma Linda, Spanish Village and the late Leo’s. Places like this are disappearing as their cilantro-hating, pickled jalapeno-loving clientele dies off, and Beebe and I both hate to see them go. (Beebe has an idea for Felix that sounds pretty strong, and you can read about it on his blog about this trip here.)
It would transpire that Spring Branch is full of such old-school ethnic eateries. In addition to El Gallo, there’s the 40-year-old Chinese joint Empress and a weatherbeaten Thai place apparently named “Thai Food.” Probably when those places opened they were considered quite daring cuisines; that continues on Long Point with a couple of examples of modern exotica in the Peruvian restaurant La Posa de la Inca (now apparently closed) and an Ethiopian butcher.
Long Point is also thrift store nirvana, and singularly free of chain stores and restaurants. Not only is there a scarcity of Starbucks, but also few if any Chase Banks, Walgreens / CVS stores, and all that other generic gunk you see on every H-Town road here that isn’t ghetto to the max.
But primarily Long Point is a binary street combining Mexico and Korea. In contrast to the multi-ethnic riot that is Bissonnet, or the Pan-Asian explosion that is Bellaire, Long Point is binary. Some businesses fuse into MexiKorea. The Koryo Bakery, right next door to the only Korean bookstore in Houston, touts its pan dulce y pastels, for example, and it seems that many of the Korean-owned businesses aim at Spanish-speakers more than Anglos. (Someone should open a restaurant out here called Jose Cho’s TaKorea.)
On the wall outside a convenience store, we spotted a Korean poster advertising the Houston appearance of a female choir called The Russian Singing Angels – about 15 Slavic lasses pictured in front of St. Basil’s cathedral in Red Square. I couldn’t give you the details since the name of the group was the only non-Korean script on the poster.
In fact, many of the most interesting places don’t bother with western signage, as this excellent post from a Houston Koreatown native will show you. You better believe Beebe and I would have checked out Thinga Thinga Noraebang had we known it was a Korean karaoke bar.
As Houston roads go, Long Point is about as pleasant as they come. The trees are mature and there are plenty of them, so there’s lots of shade (not that we needed it in this foul weather). The apartment complexes – and there are plenty -- are of the same vintage as those on Bissonnet, but unlike them, the pleasant-if-drab facades don’t conceal squalor and mayhem behind them.
Abandoned shopping carts were far outnumbered by hopping taco trucks, and we never felt in any danger, or even felt like we were in a place where sketchiness could develop. I did see “Fuck Da Branch” scrawled on on a men’s room wall, so I guess even Long Point has its wannabe gangstas, though.
This time, the threat came from the heavens and not earth. As we eased out of the 10000s and into four-digit addresses, the rain and wind started picking up. We cranked up the transistor radio and tuned into KCOH, and were treated to a song with this memorable chorus: “I cheated on her, and she cheated on me / the bad thing about it was she cheated better than me.”
The rain was now coming down in icy, wind-whipped sheets. Our fingers stung. Beebe and I decided we would have to take shelter somewhere – it wouldn’t do to get soaked now, with ten miles to go. Minutes later, we came upon a 1950s apartment complex called MacArthur Park.
“Someone left the cake out in the rain,” Beebe said
“Yeah,” I said. “The cake is us.”
We walked on and came upon another complex with a large awning. This would be a common pattern for the rest of the afternoon and evening – an hour or so of walking followed by half an hour of standing around behind a check-cashing joint, amid the ruins of a gutted TxDot office, under the roof over the pumps at a Valero.
My efforts were hindered by my footwear. I love Crocs. I have wide feet which they accommodate with ease, and they feel as if you are not wearing shoes at all, most times. However, they are not much for traction – I almost ate it at least a dozen times. What’s more, they are not the most water-resistant shoes, so I spent the whole day with wet-sock encased blue feet.
Our next stop came at Robbie’s Lounge, a classic Old Spring Branch strip mall dive bar. The windows are blacked out, so we had no clue what we were walking into when we went in. On the other side of the blacked-out window, the owners had hung flags in memory of two lost causes: the Oilers and the Confederate States of America. Poker chips were stacked on a green felt table near the door.
The clientele – a woman and a man with a very effeminate voice and another guy – were all on their fifties, as was the barmaid. Behind the bar, plastic statuettes of Hank Jr and Waylon Jennings stood guard in perpetual honky-tonk bad-assery. On another wall, a plaque read “Sexual harassment is tolerated in this area. However, it will be graded.”
Just a week ago, I wrote that the redneck was extinct inside the Beltway. I was wrong, and Robbie’s Lounge was exhibit A against me. And minutes after leaving, I would see a truck adorned with NASCAR emblems and bumper stickers touting Hank III and declaring that “Happiness is a northbound Yankee.”
Still, I saw as many Salvadoran and Honduran businesses as that, so it’s not like Spring Branch is Cut N’ Shoot or something.
Actually, Spring Branch was settled by German farmers whose names live on in streets like Conrad Sauer, Hillendahl, Wirt, and Moritz. Their legacy also lives on in the astonishingly still-existent, white clapboard 160-year-old St Peter’s Church and the graveyard behind it. (This was the hub of Spring Branch’s official history – you can read the whole thing here.)
That church is a reminder of the fact that at one time, Houston and Harris County were two distinct entities in reality as well as law. Yes, today there are unincorporated swaths of Harris County, and numerous municipalities not named Houston, but the fact remains that they have been swallowed by the behemoth. Even such enclaves as Bellaire and West U, with their own city halls and police forces, are little more than glorified neighborhoods.
A hundred to 150 years ago, Harris County was dotted with actual rural towns, such as Alief, Harrisburg, San Jacinto, Frost-town and even one called Lomax. (No relation.) Some of those towns were fairly substantial places – for a couple of decades, Harrisburg rivaled Houston as the most important town in the area. Today, they have all been absorbed utterly or ceased to exist by other means.
We tend to think of what little remains standing that is over 50 years old as being inside the Loop, but there are tiny pockets of it all over the county, like here at St Peter’s. The parishioners there had built a stone chapel at some point after the original church was built, and had the foresight to keep the old chapel too. Today, they hire it out for weddings and lease it to a Spanish-language congregation on Sundays.
And there’s another still more astonishing manifestation of this phenomenon on Long Point: the Hillendahl cemetery. Nineteen members of the Hillendahl family, including one interred in 1854, slumber in this 1400-square foot plot on the corner of Long Point and Pech, where it literally forms the corner of a Bridgestone tire barn’s parking lot. (A descendant of the family sold all the land around the cemetery, but stubbornly refused to allow his ancestors to be moved.
If there’s a municipal hub to Spring Branch, it’s at the area around Spring Branch hospital. Long Point bends here, and there’s a ramshackle two-story Mexican ice-house / apartment building called La Curva, where the stuffed heads of a ram and a buck gaze down on three live chickens scratching about in the litter amid dozens of crushed Bud Lite cans. (It was hard to tell if the place was still in business or not, but someone was still putting away plenty of beer there.)
Apropos of nothing, I asked Beebe if he knew what the official motto of Houston was.
“Su trabajo es su credito,” he said without missing a beat.
That was not the correct answer, but it was the one I was looking for.
In a nearby park, across the street from a garbage-strewn outlet of the Weasel Wash carwash chain, there’s a little plaza – a few benches ringing a moribund rock garden / fountain. We rested there a minute. I sat my cup of wine on a fake rock, only to watch in dismay as an icy wet breeze sent it spilling into a crevice below.
Before moving to River Oaks as a kid, Beebe had lived in this area, and reminisced about buying his first 45-rpm record at the Ring branch of the library and the agony of mowing huge Spring Branch lawns. (As punishment for a youthful transgression, he was forced to mow an uncle’s yard weekly – all five acres of it.)
By now, the Korean stuff had petered out, but the time warp continued. At a VFW hall, dozens of sailors in dress blues stood outside smoking cigarettes outside a door you half-expected to open and let the strains of Glenn Miller’s “Tuxedo Junction” escape. Beebe ate a late lunch at a barbecue joint that looked straight out of 1973 – all wood paneling and shades of brown and yellow, only this being the Houston of today, this brisket house was owned and operated by a Vietnamese woman.
On KCOH, Friday’s traditional solid gold soul musical battle royale was a coed tag-team match pitting Mary Wilson and Jackie Wilson vs Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. That was a no-brainer for me (Otis/Carla), so we revved up the iPod for the rest of the trip. It was in rare form. “Further on Up the Road” never sounded so appropriate.
Somewhere around Wirt we came upon Polly Pawn shop. There was a gaudy primary-colored parrot on the sign, which also informed the public “Se habla español.”
“Man, is that really necessary?” Beebe asked. “If you put a parrot on your sign, there’s no need to tell people you speak Spanish.”
I told him that I once considered getting a tattoo of the Fiesta grocery parrot on my arm.
“What, you mean Pepe?” Beebe asked.
Beebe’s quite the expert on H-Town parrot symbolism…
6:00-11:00 p.m.: The crumbling ruins of an abandoned rice mill signaled Long Point’s end. At the Hempstead Highway junction, a wooden sign with a snarling crimson razorback painted on it welcomed us to the Red Hog Saloon, an Arkansas-themed bar. It’s in a converted motel office and it opens at seven A.M. every day except Sundays. They even serve breakfast tacos, just like the ones mamacita used to make back in Hot Springs. We had a Lone Star or two as a few fiftysomething men earnestly shoveled quarters into poker machines. Beebe slid a few dollars into the Internet juke and came back to the table decrying the shittiness of such disappointing contraptions, a view I will co-sign with alacrity.
The Hempstead Highway to Washington stretch of this walk should have been pure unadulterated misery, but it wasn’t really, even though we were walking against traffic into a sea of headlights, occasionally getting splashed by waist-high puddle spray, the pouring rain and barely 40 degree temps. What’s more the scenery is as depressing as any in Houston. Dying malls are utterly forlorn places, and Northwest Mall is a prime example.
At last we made Washington. Beebe pulled me out of the path of an oncoming bus I had failed to see while I was pontificating about, I dunno, Leo Sayer or something. After a tipple in the ruined TxDot building, we pushed on to Christian’s Tailgate and a burger, and then on to Washington.
Which, like Christian’s, is getting alarmingly douchified fast. We peered in at all the rich and pretty, warm and dry young couples in the Corkscrew Wine Bar and thought about going in just to stink up the joint with our funk, but we couldn’t be bothered. The former Rhythm Room was now called Pandora and had a doorman and a velvet rope out front. The Drake was around here somewhere. What hath The Social wrought?
Under a bridge down by Buffalo Bayou we killed the last bottle of wine, perhaps the very first Argentine merlot to be consumed there. And at last, we were at Warren’s. Two martinis apiece later, we boarded the train, homeward bound. And still it rained. – John Nova Lomax