I think it is fair to say that people living in the Tri-State area have a skewed view of the State of Texas. I was guilty of this same cultural slant, and I imagined that life there would resemble what was depicted in the 1973 film, entitled The Great American Cowboy. I told my friends and family that I was taking a trip to Houston, Texas, to see if I might want to move there in a few years and they all wrinkled their noses. Even if the shocked WHY did not escape their lips, I knew what they were thinking, because I was thinking exactly the same thing. Why would anyone from the Northeast consider relocating to a place known for rodeo, intense heat and floods?
I had intense curiosity about Texas in general, but specifically Houston, because of the unusual event of Hurricane Harvey in August of 2017. I had watched coverage of this on the news and sat inert and in horror as people filled buckets with water from their backyards in order to flush their own toilets, moved furniture to the second stories of their homes (if they had second floors), while their cars sat unmoving, filled past the windows from the kind of flooding this city had rarely witnessed before. What was even more remarkable than the oddity of this storm was the way that the city of Houston helped each other thereafter. There was a story of the owner of a furniture store who welcomed the residents whose homes had been flooded to stay in his showrooms. Who were these generous people? I just had to find out. I booked a ticket out of Newark and flew to Houston in the middle of June.
I decided to order a ribeye steak with macaroni and cheese and a side of Cajun roasted Brussels sprouts. The marbling of the meat was stupendous, the spicy vegetables were the perfect compliment to a local Texas craft beer. Everyone was gearing up for the next game, which would be Brazil versus Switzerland. Some Brazilians had come to the bar, sporting bright yellow jerseys in support of their team. The bar was filled with people of every culture imaginable.
The next day, I went for a Thai massage. It was my very first, and I was startled and delighted by having the masseur kneel on all fours, walk upon my back and then twist my neck and spine in such a way that I was certain might cause a stroke. Upon leaving this massage (through which I emerged without any neurological impairment), I felt rejuvenated and ready for a new adventure. The Thai owner of the massage studio told me to go visit a friend of hers. “His name is John Henry,” she told me. “He is a famous barbeque master and makes his own products and spices. His storefront is on Little York Road. Tell him I sent you. He has been my next-door neighbor for over thirty years.”
There was a torrential downpour of rain on the way there. The rain had not stopped in Houston since I had arrived. But I was determined to meet this John Henry, and to endure the infamous Houston traffic. When driving in New York and New Jersey, we expect traffic and lots of it. I had scoffed at the tales of traffic in Houston. There is no way the traffic here I worse than in New Jersey. Maybe these Southerners do not know what traffic really looks like. Another falsity proven wrong by my standards! Houston has pretty bad traffic. And this was in early afternoon on a Monday.
This was John Henry. He showed me all around his business, including a “Wall of Flame” which showcased his years as a barbeque master for the Bush-Quayle administration. John had pictures of his ancestors from the early 1900’s which were prominently displayed, and John gave them credit for everything he knows about grilling. There were framed articles about him in the store as well, and he was referred to as John Abercrombie in the news clippings.
“Why did you change your last name from Abercrombie to Henry?” I asked him.
“Because nobody is gonna buy barbeque from an Abercrombie,” John said, as he chuckled. “But they’ll buy it from a Henry.” I bought several different spice blends from John and he gave me many extra samples as well. When I left the store after our very warm connection and walked towards my rented sedan, John said, “We’d be happy to welcome you to Texas, should you decide to live here. But you are going to need a pickup truck if you do.”
Later that week, I went to the closest local beach I could find. It was the first day without rain during my trip and Galveston is a small town situated along the eastern coast of Texas, just under a one-hour drive from the City of Houston. Many Houstonians warned me not to go there. “The water is brown and ugly. This is where the Mississippi River dumps into the water which then goes into the Gulf of Mexico.” I went there on a day that was inordinately hot. I bought a bathing suit at a roadside shop, but never got in it. Parking was a challenge, but I found a good spot near a seafood restaurant. I ate a lunch of fresh shrimp and gazed at the water. Strangely, it looked blue, not the brown that had been described. I remarked upon this to my waitress, and she said, “As a matter of fact, the water does look blue. It never looks this way. I guess it is from all the rain we’ve had this week.” When I asked the waitress about her experience with Hurricane Harvey, she replied, “Usually Galveston gets hit from hurricanes far worse than the city does. I live around here and we were so relieved that our beach town was alright. But we are very nervous about what might happen in the future.”
I drove back to Houston that afternoon. The legendary traffic was the same as what I would have expected when driving to or from the Jersey Shore at home. I arrived back at my rental apartment to process it all. After a nap by the pool, I met some friends on Bellaire Boulevard. This was about 13 miles away from my rental condo, in the Vietnamese section of town. I found a great Vietnamese restaurant and tasted seven courses of beef that evening. This was authentic Asian fare, and the neighborhood seemed like a little Saigon. I was urged by the waiter to go across the street for some shaved ice cream for dessert. The Vietnamese cashier talked me into a particular flavor of ice cream with which I was unfamiliar. He was only a teenager, but he was very convincing. His English was heavily accented. “You must try durian ice cream. Durian is delicious fruit that smell like natural gas. Smell very bad, you must get over smell and enjoy the flavor of ice cream. Very popular in my country.”
I had only one day left to spend in Houston. I walked the perimeter of Memorial Park in the morning and then returned to the very first place I had visited in the city. The Doberman’s Bar and Grill. It was going to be very hard for me to go home to the Northeast. I needed some good food, craft beer and the chatter of the local people to overcome the sound of my heart breaking. The truth of the matter was that I had fallen in love with Houston. I loved his vibration, I loved his diversity, I loved his very soul. While most ships and cities are referred to in the female sense, I found Houston to be a man. A very strong and enduring man, a person who would invite, but never beg or demand.
Much like a true gentleman, Houston protects and cares for his people. Many people who live there are transplants of New Orleans, in large part because of Hurricane Katrina. Houstonians welcomed those from this tragedy without reservation. These states of Texas and Louisiana are neighbors and they share that body of water where the Mississippi River releases into the Gulf of Mexico. Their propinquity may account for their kinship, because anything can go wrong with a large body of water, with land so close to sea level. Last September, Hurricane Harvey showed the City of Houston just how quickly everything could go wrong. Neighborhoods which were never classified as being in flood zones were covered in water. And what happened next was an outpouring of generosity and unity, as everyone in this area of Texas took care of each other. In speaking with the people of Houston, I learned that this surprised no one who resides there.
Doberman’s Bar closes at 11 p.m. But they stay open when patrons are there after hours. It was getting late, and I knew I had to get on a plane very early the next morning. I was talking to Chris, the owner of the joint, and I asked him why he had opened his restaurant just five months ago. Why had he chosen to take this impossible risk, in an area that could flood at any time?
“I believe in this city,” Chris said. His chin was strong and unwavering. “We love having visitors here in Houston. And don’t get me wrong, I love that people like you and others come around to taste this food and be with us. But I really want to take care of the people in my zip code, you know?”
That was the answer to my question all along. I really want to take care of the people in my zip code. This is the protection that makes the people in the City of Houston so friendly and alive. They know that their city flooded and it will likely flood again. But no matter how severe the next natural disaster will be, these people have each other’s backs. This is how people forge comfort and a sense of community. They may lose everything they have ever known, but they still have each other.
I had come all of this way to discover a place far more variegated than I had expected. The journey started by eating steak and watching soccer, to getting an authentic Thai massage, to meeting a famous barbeque master, then followed by a trip to the beach with water that has miraculously turned blue for a day, to being served a dish of malodorous ice cream by an enthusiastic Vietnamese teenager, with the finale of why I had come here in the first place. I had come to feel protected. Not by rogue cowboys with lassos and steers, but by people from all over the globe, who were intent on caring for each other.
When the flood comes, the people of Houston have something beautiful, strong and very masculine to rely on. May we all have that when the waters break into our own homes. May we carry that same message into our own locales. May we care for the people in our own zip codes. Thank you, Houston.
Sincerely, A Northern girl who loves you still
In working with the elderly, there are many times wherein I witness a violation of the idea of Energy Conservation. I am not talking about leaving on too many lights or televisions to drive up the electricity bill, using too much water to feed the garden or buying more food than could possibly be consumed and then throwing it out days later. No, that type of energy waste is usually seen in the young.
Older people consistently forget one thing: that their energy is limited, and there are only so many activities they can fit into a given day. For example, a woman in her eighties who lives alone and needs a walker to get from room to room might awaken at 5 am to take a shower, dress herself, pour cereal and milk into a bowl, only to find that she is so exhausted by noon that she cannot prepare lunch or change back into her pajamas when the sun goes down.
When I meet such a person and treat them at home for physical therapy, I am forced to ask them the following question: If you have only $20 allotted to your bank account for this entire day, how will you spend it? That $20 equals the person’s energy capacity. How much of their daily routine is using this finite amount of $20? This woman who was mentioned previously probably spent about $12 on her morning activities. There were only $8 left in her bank for the rest of the day.
This is what Energy Conservation is all about. If energy is measured in dollars, how are we as people choosing to spend them? I have found that overestimating our energy dollars is not a finding unique to the elderly. It is just more obvious in people with limited physical stores of energy. Yet even the younger set of society is at the mercy of this energy theory. All of us have limits to what we can accomplish, but we have been thrust into a society driven by production and energy expenditure as the markers of our success.
The following is a tale of a woman named Donna. Donna was born in 1952, in the suburbs of New Jersey. Donna had a fairly unremarkable childhood, her parents were married, her father was a little distant and drank too much (but whose father didn’t, Donna asks), and she had two younger sisters. Donna graduated from High School in 1970 and became a manicurist. She then met a man at a social mixer named Mark. Donna and Mark married in 1974 at a local VFW.
Donna and Mark had one son, Peter. Peter was a good kid, they lived together in a Cape Cod in Cranford, which they owned. One day, in 1989, Donna got a phone call at the nail salon that her husband was dead. Mark died of a massive heart attack at work, and Donna was forced to continue to raise a teenaged son and decide her own future. There are three journeys of Donna’s choice in how she might spend the rest of her life’s energy. None of them are good or bad. They are simply forks in the road of Donna’s life, potentialities that exist for her and all of us. Read on to discover them…
Adventure Number One: Donna continues to work as a manicurist. Her colleagues go to her husband’s funeral. Donna’s boss promotes her to Lead Nail Technician and manager of the nail salon. Donna’s son graduates from high school and secures his MBA from the Wharton School of Business. Donna helped Peter do this because she was left a life insurance policy on her deceased husband worth $173,000. As the years wear on, Donna develops osteoarthritis in her knees, from crouching down on a stool, giving pedicures to women far younger than she. She cannot exercise, because the pain and stiffness in her knees has become so severe. Donna spends her evenings at home, alone. She admits to being a Reality TV Junkie, saying, “I guess we all have problems. Mine are no worse than most.”
Adventure Number Two: Upon the death of her husband, Donna takes the $173,000 and pays off her house. She then gets her real estate license. Donna begins as an average realtor, but quickly joins the ranks of the top real estate brokers in New Jersey. At age 57, Donna opens up her own real estate firm. She has over $3 million in the bank and looks forward to sending her grandson, Petey Junior, to whatever college he chooses. Donna rarely sleeps and forgets to eat regular meals. All of her friends tell her that she has a fabulous figure. Yet somehow, those compliments fall short when Donna sustains a small stroke. It does not have outward manifestations, this stroke, no one can tell. But Donna stares at her ceiling at night and wonders if she can exceed the sales figures that she hit during the last calendar year.
Adventure Number Three: Donna is crushed by the loss of her husband. She spends three entire months in bed in 1989, until her 15-year old son Pete nudges her one morning and asks for pancakes. Donna makes those pancakes and the sun shines through her kitchen window. Donna looks for the paperwork for the $173,000 Life Insurance Policy. She enrolls herself in night classes to become a paralegal. She gets a job at a local law firm and meets friends. These friends are women who invite her out dancing, to trips to Mexico, and they giggle over white wine after work. Donna takes Zumba classes and walks in local parks. As she looks forward to every spring and watches Petey Junior play Little League, she marvels at her own leg strength when climbing to the top of the bleachers to see him play ball.
So, there you have it. Donna had three possible versions of her future and how she was going to spend it. These three different tales of Donna’s life remind me of my favorite series of books as a child. They were entitled Choose Your Own Adventure. There were usually three destinations to where the reader (YOU) could travel. No decision was right or wrong, it was simply left unto the reader to choose where she or he wanted to go.
But let us go back to the notion of Energy Conservation, because that is the basis of this narrative. In Adventure Number One, Donna stays within her job and gives her son an excellent education. She isn’t really fulfilled, and she is not physically healthy, but that choice worked in the moment she made it. In Adventure Number Two, Donna becomes wildly successful in her real estate business. She has the assets to retire and money to help successive generations. But she also has a stroke that she does not like to talk about and has little sense of peace. Even then, we know that Donna has made her decision on how to live and she is sticking with it!
Finally, we have Adventure Number Three. Donna has chosen a new career path as a paralegal with the proceeds from her husband’s passing. It isn’t sexy and she will never make a huge financial splash. But it is a solid path, one wherein she will not breathe in acetone from nail polish remover, and in this new job, Donna finds meaningful relationships. She stays close to her son and grandson; while she may not have paid for college education for them, she made certain to invest in her own. And that money that she paid for paralegal school bought her far more than a job. It bought her health which lasts over decades. Donna found all kinds of health: financial stability, physical engagement in exercise, and life-sustaining connections with others.
This all boils down to Energy Conservation. How much money do you have for this day, to get you through all that you must? You are going to spend it on traffic jams, resentment towards your boss, and waiting on line for your turkey sandwich at lunch. There are no limitations to how easy it is to spend this money. It will leave you before you have time to count it. But remember…the opposite is also true! You have ways to add to your bank account. And you already know what they are. So, the next time your colleague asks you to go to a baseball game, your best friend calls you from the West Coast and asks you to pour some wine remotely to talk, or a small child walks up to you and smiles no reason, just say yes. Because that is filling up your bank.
Forty years from now, when you are making breakfast, this older and wiser version of yourself will thank you.