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
When I was just 13 years old, I sang in the Middle School choir. One of the songs that was featured in our final spring concert was Jamaica Farewell. This choice was made by the choral director, and she knew exactly what she was doing. We were a gaggle of girls ready for entry into High School. And this particular song promised the thrill of travel to foreign lands, of trying new things, of adventure and intrigue. The lyrics are as follows: “Down the way where the nights are gay and the sun shines daily on the mountain top, I took a trip on a sailing ship and when I reached Jamaica I made a stop.”
Years later I would visit this very island. It did not bear the resemblance to the song. I did not come in on a sailing ship; rather, I flew into Montego Bay. During a trip on a van through the island towards the resort, it became apparent that the people of this country were not living in an idyllic paradise. The lives of Jamaicans were marked by very hard work, toiling under scorching sun to support the island’s two primary industries, agriculture and hospitality.
I was dropped off at a luxurious hotel with my boyfriend of many years. The Caribbean Sea could be seen from the open hotel lobby and the breezes off the water eased my worries. I told myself that this was going to be a Harry Belafonte experience. Surely, I could allow myself to relax here. My boyfriend had counseled me on the plane beforehand: “You help a lot of people at home,” he told me. “This week, it is time to help yourself.”
We got in our bathing suits and eased into lounge chairs by the ocean. We sipped rum punch. The water off the ocean was kind and warm, so lovely after the harsh winter we had endured back in the Northeast of America. Things were going so smoothly.
On the second day of the Jamaican vacation, a lifeguard approached me. His name was Ricardo. Ricardo’s job was to set up lounge chairs, hand out towels, rake the beach of seaweed and pick up empty cups from the rum punch. Ricardo greeted me and my boyfriend in the traditional style of Jamaica: with a fist pump and the word Respect. After our introduction, Ricardo turned and asked me, “Madam, are you okay? You look unwell and worried about something.”
Oh no, I thought. A virtual stranger can see right through me. The truth of the matter was that I had been staring out at the ocean with my heart beating out of chest. What was I worried about? Well, I am a homecare physical therapist. My job is to make sure that people can walk safely in their homes, that they do not fall and fracture a hip. What was happening to my patients back home? Were any of them alone on the floor, screaming for help, while I was sitting and relaxing? What about my parents, who are thankfully still healthy? Did they know how much I love them?
My boyfriend smirked. He had warned me to try and let go of all of these cares. Yet I had not listened to him. Instead, I had allowed the swirl of cortisol to occupy my body at a time specifically designed for rest. This chemical of cortisol is naturally produced within our bodies and facilitates the daily anxiety which thrusts us out of bed to show up at work, raise children and ensures our very survival on this planet. But what happens when the daily tasks of our jobs and scrubbing floors are removed? The anxiety has no outlet whatsoever. So, it finds us in a lounge chair by the Caribbean Sea.
Ricardo has two boys, named Renaldo and Nicardo. Renaldo is the eldest. He has now turned the very tricky age of 13. While he used to sit at the dinner table and talk to his parents, Renaldo has taken to nodding at his father when he comes home from work. “Evening, Dad,” he says, before quickly retreating into his room. It is just the age, my boyfriend told Ricardo. I have two grown boys and have been through this. They will come back to you one day. Just have patience. We were all teenagers once.
The days passed in Jamaica, with Ricardo meeting our every need. I found myself napping quite a bit in the lounge chair, and marveled at the unusual fish in the ocean. The anxiety did not magically slip away in the wind, though. I had been forced to face it head-on. My mantra that week became what Ricardo told me. “Madam, this is not a good way to spend your vacation.” Until one afternoon, when I felt the anxiety leave. Like an angry but resigned beast who could not attack me anymore.
Teenagers are known for craving independence. They do not want to be cared for, just as I loathed the thought of my boyfriend, Ricardo and the island of Jamaica taking care of me. I have fashioned my entire life around taking care of people, not the other way around. But teenagers like Ricardo’s son Renaldo still need a father to cook for and look after them, even though they do not know it. I had become ignorant to the fact that I needed somebody to look after me.
When it was time to finally leave the island, I had reached a place of deep calm. The food from the land, the sun and the kindness of the native people had worked their magic. Yet I was dismayed to go back home. I recalled the final words of Jamaica Farewell. “But I’m sad to say I’m on my way, won’t be back for many a day, my heart is down, my head is turning around…”
I made a few mistakes that week. The first mistake had been not listening to my boyfriend’s heeding to let go of my troubles. Why is it that we do not listen to those closest to us? Our best friends and confidants witness our every move. They know when we take the right job, buy the wrong house, or speak too harshly to our parents. Our best friends see our deepest selves. But how often do we listen to them, really?
Instead, it had taken Ricardo, a virtual stranger until this point, to show me the way back to sanity. This man was so much more than his image of a lifeguard where the sea meets the sand. Ricardo was a father of teenagers. There is no task more daunting than raising them in this fearsome world. My bigger mistake was being blind to Ricardo’s most heroic act of caretaking; to love a creature so well, knowing all the while that you must let them go one day. Loving babies and young children is so easy. Loving teenagers as they walk away from you is another thing altogether.
Ricardo hugged me on our last day and we simultaneously said Respect to each other. He also told me that when I return next year he is going to cook me some homemade Jamaican food. That I can even put in a food request, just like his kids do. I am thinking it may be curried goat. “Not a problem, Madam,” Ricardo said as he grinned. “I will be waiting for you and your boyfriend right here.” He pointed to his feet on the sand.
This is the beauty of foreign travel. We are given a window into the lives of others, we see the world through the lenses of their eyes. We see the struggles of others, which puts our own woes in a category further way. And through all of this, we grow up. I am no longer a 13-year old girl in a choir singing about Jamaica. I am an adult who knows how hard my own parents worked to give me the life I know today. In the words of Ricardo, “Respect goes two ways. I take care of the visitors from other places, and they allow me to support my family when they come to Jamaica.”
Indeed, respect goes two ways. I imagine the teenaged Renaldo someday sitting down to talk to his father over supper, years from now. He will have come back to Ricardo after a very long wait. Ricardo has taught me patience. To wait for relaxation to come after the toil of many months of work. For children to grow past the uncertainty of adolescence. I anticipate the day when I can see Ricardo again, with his feet on the sand and his soul shining through his dark eyes. His eyes will ask, “Respect, Madam. Didn’t I tell you that it was all worth the wait?”
Teenagers…they are worth the wait.