Whenever I fly to Latin America from Canada, I try to get the longest layovers that I can in the United States. I will strategically tweak my flight times on Google Flights so that I can stay in one city for as close as 24 hours as possible – but not more, because going over 24 hours will effectively make it count as two separate tickets and easily double the ticket price. There’s an art to it, but I’ve gotten quite good at squeezing in these little American mini-vacations on the way to my actual destination.
Now you may ask, how much can you really do in 23 hours? And if you ask this, you’ve probably never spent 23 hours in Houston. Hell, even a layover at the unfortunately named George Bush Intercontinental Airport(!!!) tends to be an experience: The airport is an incredible mix of different kinds of people, with a preponderance of gregarious Latinos traveling through this major gateway to Latin America. I also enjoy seeing how many Wendy’s I can find throughout the many terminals – I’d estimate there are about 4-5, though I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. One of my great American memories remains landing in Houston en route to my first trip to Mexico and having a Real American Breakfast at Wendy’s: a piece of fried chicken wedged between two biscuits, soaked in pancake syrup. Canadian Wendy’s is way too passive-aggressive to serve anything that awesome.
But if you can get into the city itself, Houston is really something else. I’ve tremendously enjoyed American friendliness and hospitality in comparatively sane cities like Seattle and Chicago, but each of my 23-hour stopovers in Houston has been an experience too intense and delirious to easily describe. In fact, my visits to Houston greatly strengthen my suspicions that I am actually living inside a simulation (more on that in another post).
Being a cheapass, I start my trips by hopping on the meandering airport bus into the city, the so called Bush Airport “Express” – a $1 ride, priced to meet the needs of the underclass in a city where anyone who hasn’t been ground under society’s boot drives. When I get on this bus, I eventually realize that I may be the only white person on the bus, most of the other people on the bus are black, and they’re pretty much all way cooler than me.
Now, I realize I’m on thin ice if I try to talk about the coolness of African-American people. This famed coolness has been appropriated, packaged, and sold right back to them by a society that has subjected them to untold injustices. And I definitely don’t want to fetishize the je ne sais quoi of a group of people who have been given a pretty raw deal. But from the first time that I found myself surrounded by African-Americans in Chicago, I was struck by the fact that this is a totally distinctive culture – unfortunate to the extent that it has allowed the majority to reinforce their other-ness, but pretty amazing in terms of how open, friendly, honest and passionate people are.
As a fairly nerdy white guy, what impresses me most is how comfortable African-Americans seem to be in their own skin. I always feel like my neurotic Caucasian psyche is on the verge of bursting out of my ears, so this is something I especially envy. And this sheer level of comfort means that the black people I’ve met in the US are perfectly comfortable striking up an immediate rapport with me without drawing any attention to the fact that I am about 1/1000 as cool as they are. And that certainly helps me feel better about being 1000 times less cool than them.
Being immersed in this distinctive and amazing culture is one of the things that defines Houston for me. Or the ubiquitous sound of Spanish on the bus. Houston touts itself as America’s most diverse city, and I find it easy to believe. And even the white people – and yes, Houston still has a few of those – seem to be cooler and crazier than anywhere else.
On August 23, 2017 – more on that date later – I stopped off in Houston on the way from Edmonton back to Canada. I checked into my usual hostel in the hipsterish Montrose area and began my newest Houston adventure. Based on the recommendations of the hostel receptionist, I ended up at Glitter, a slightly divey karaoke bar. Being an eager beaver (because I’m Canadian!), I arrived a little bit too early for the nighttime karaoke and passed the time by trying to get the bartender to make me a virgin Caesar. The bartender was extremely attractive in an unattractive way, like a woman who was too conventionally hot to be endearing or interesting. After my strained attempts to explain exactly what a Caesar is, she basically decided it was just a Bloody Mary with clamato – and so it was that yet another American shat upon my national pride and my flag. Nonetheless, she made up a decent simulacrum of a Caesar, and I paid $5 or $6 plus tip (and yes, you will see that this is relevant).
Eventually karaoke started, hosted by a personable black VJ. Whenever a white person would sing a song by a black artist, the VJ would joke that the white singer has lots of black friends. I, being extremely white, sang New York State of Mind by Billy Joel, and I can’t remember what else – probably best that I didn’t try to sing Beyoncé.
Eventually my singing prowess, or perhaps the pitiable sight of me sitting alone waiting for my next song, earned me an invitation to sit at the next table. At the table were two gregarious brunette women, their conventionally pretty blond friend Stephanie, who got way too into singing (and suggestively dancing) Ginuwine’s “Pony”, and their weed dealer. The dealer certainly looked the part – shaggy, long sandy blond hair, beard, and a relaxed and vaguely out-of-it demeanor. I attempted to flirt with Stephanie, to no particular avail, and eventually the two brunettes left to go dancing at a lounge nearby. A bit later, Stephanie received a text message that caused her great consternation, and ran off with no explanation. Soon it was just me and the weed dealer, and after he belted out a bit of alt-country, he left as well, leaving me all alone.
Not having anything better to do, I eventually wandered over to the lounge, and received an overwhelmingly warm welcome from the two brunettes. Although the night technically did nothing to alter my record of generally poor luck with white women, the events of the next few hours were still too bizarre and warped for me to comfortably write about them in this squeaky-clean, family-friendly blog.
The next day I visited a couple of museums, left for the airport with plenty of time to spare for the milk run bus, and flew away. Two days later, Houston was fucked.
Hurricane Harvey had hit. During my visit I had been dimly aware that there was an imminent storm, and the karaoke VJ had made an offhanded, jokey-sounding comment about how not many people had come out because they were afraid of the hurricane. A few days later, I couldn’t mentally reconcile the images of sheer devastation that I saw on the Internet with the place where I had just spent that unforgettable night. My cognitive dissonance and dissociation were so severe that I even sent Stephanie a few friendly text messages over the weekend before realizing that she might be totally fucked, too – maybe hanging out on her rooftop at the moment I was texting her. I felt really bad, and never heard from her again.
That wasn’t the only disaster that I narrowly avoided that year. A few weeks later, on September 19, a 7.1-magnitude struck central Mexico, doing tremendous damage in Mexico City. Narcissistically, I wondered if I was somehow jinxing the places I visited – Perhaps not, as no place that I’ve visited since has immediately suffered a natural disaster. But less narcissistically, the fact that these places where I had enjoyed so much human warmth and kindness would end up so horribly devastated just proves what a heartless bitch life is.
It was with these memories weighing on my mind that I returned, a few weeks ago, to Houston for another 23-hour pit stop. My visit got off to a bad start: I had a work emergency at the Seattle airport that I couldn’t resolve before I got on my plane to Houston, I couldn’t register for the inflight wifi because the payment page didn’t work, and I spent a good hour sitting at the baggage claim in Houston, trying to resolve this professional disaster before my fading laptop battery gave up the ghost completely.
The first totally awesome incident of Houston 2018 involved a super cool black lady working at the baggage claim. I asked her if I really had to drag my suitcase into town for my 23 hour layover, even though I was technically on one ticket all the way to Mexico. She conspiratorially informed me that if I simply didn’t claim my baggage, it would be stored until I picked it up the next day. I thanked her for her super cool life hack, wondering, in spite of her friendliness and confidence, whether I’d ever actually see my suitcase again.
By the time I reached downtown on the Slowpoke Bus, it was already dark. I ended up walking through a rather dystopian area that seemed to be full of homeless black people. I wondered if this was the effect of Harvey, or just of hundreds of years of institutionalized racism. I stopped off for dinner in an ostensibly Cajun (and for some reason, also Halal) restaurant that mostly specialized in fried stuff. Not wanting to limit myself to only one or two kinds of fried stuff, I purchased a platter of fried fish and chicken and shrimp. It was pretty amazing in a horrible kind of way, and I don’t think I ate again for about 20 hours.
Instead of my usual hostel dorm I decided to get a room in an Airbnb for only slightly more money. I managed to break about half of the house rules within a couple of hours of checking in, and I am grateful that the review period has now ended with no hostile reviews from my handsome race car-driving host. (I never actually met him, but his home decorations did prominently feature some photos of him looking handsome with race cars.) I wandered off to the local dive bar to start my night, expecting some gregarious American craziness, and was not disappointed.
After awkwardly mulling about on my own for a bit, I soon started meeting the motley cast of characters that populate your local Houston dive bar. There was the drunk, flirtatious-but-not-with-me, vaguely hostile hot blond who was dressed to impress, and who gave my belly a rather aggressive, un-flirtatious squeeze on her way out of the bar. There was the cool-but-slightly-weird black guy who kept half-jokingly encouraging me to talk to the blond while constantly (constantly!) repeating that classic Dr. Dre nugget of wisdom, “you can’t turn a ho into a housewife”. There was the the cool black bartender who didn’t bother to charge me when I ordered a Diet Coke – although, in retrospect, I really should have tipped him on my free soft drink. And there was the cute, friendly parole officer from Philadelphia who was on vacation in Houston with her friends. She was having fun playing bartender behind the bar, and she really, really wanted me to be properly introduced to the cool black bartender, who was apparently named Rhino (or at least, that’s what she called him). Man, I love Rhino.
Stupidly, I decided to cut a good thing short and try to recapture my past glory by moving on to Glitter for my own personal Houston Karaokefest 2018. Without an imminent megastorm, the bar was packed, but the vibes were good. Most of the customers weren’t there to sing, and I quickly got my song into the queue. The VJ was the same as last year, but now with a thick coating of stubble – Perhaps a suitable metaphor for all that the city had been through since my last visit. While waiting for my turn I ordered another virgin Caesar (or something like it) and started chatting with friendly American girls. There was a gorgeous Latina lawyer who, I quickly found out, had a boyfriend who was also a lawyer, and whom she had met at that very bar. He came up to us, we shook hands and introduced ourselves, there was no drama over me approaching an attractive and spoken-for woman, and the good vibes continued. I then spoke to another strikingly attractive woman who seemed weirdly fascinated by everything I had to say, in spite of the fact that, to quote my fellow Canadian in Knocked Up, she was “prettier than I am”. I suspect this due to the fact that America is one gigantic bug in the great computer simulation that is life.
Unfortunately, my conversation with this woman was cut short by a screaming bartender. You see, I got charged a whopping $9.50 US for my virgin (as in, non-alcoholic) Caesar, which had cost me a little over half as much a year before. From my perspective, I was just getting a glorified tomato juice of the sort that you can find at any middle-of-the-road Canadian pizza restaurant, with the most expensive ingredient (alcohol) removed. From the bartender’s perspective, I suppose it was a custom craft cocktail further customized by the extra-special request of no alcohol. I wasn’t amused by the $9.50 US ($12 CAD) price tag for a slightly fancy tomato juice, even if he had to shake it a bit in a jigger, and so I passive-aggressively showed my displeasure by writing a big fat $0.00 as a tip on the payment slip.
I assumed I might get the stink-eye at worst, but I had forgotten that I was in Houston, and not in Canada. The bartender interrupted my conversation with the hottie by bellowing, “You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding me!” He then approached me and proceeded to reframe my act of silent consumer protest as a form of class warfare. “What’s your professon (sic)?”, he asked in his slurred voice. He berated me for my “gentrifying” drink. I don’t remember the entirety of his Marxist spiel, but I believe the general tenor of it was that I, as a member of the privileged class, should always tip my hard-working bartender. In principle I understand that American bartenders are often horribly underpaid and are forced to live off tips – in Texas, the base wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour. But in the heat of the moment, when I was expecting a $6 tomato juice (with seasoning) and would have tipped decently for one, and found myself temporarily gobsmacked by the ugly surprise of a $9.50 tomato juice (with seasoning).
In retrospect, I don’t even know if he knew that I was from a foreign country, with a different set of expectations. Perhaps he didn’t know, or perhaps he knew but just didn’t care. People in places like Seattle will pick out my adorkable Canadian accent in a minute, but Houston is so far from Canada that he may have just assumed I was some fancy college boy from Minnesota who had come to work for ExxonMobil, gentrify his city, and push up his rent. I have no idea if him knowing the truth would have calmed his rage, but I didn’t have time to find out. Pretty soon an older woman with some sort of vague connection with the bar came up to berate me even more loudly – I don’t remember any of her words, only her yelling. After that I was approached by another staff member, a shaggy gentleman who was kind of like a dick version of the weed dealer from the year before. He told me that I’d have to finish my drink and leave, and after I took about two more flippant sips he changed his mind and grabbed it out of my hand. I suspect that the way I reacted to their wild show of rage with nonplussed bemusement didn’t do anything to improve their reactions.
Dick Weed Dealer then grabbed me by the arm and told me that I could leave the easy way or the hard way – apparently not realizing that being in a simulation isn’t the same thing as being in a movie. As I shot back with more smart-alecky responses, he lectured me about how I had given up my freedom of speech at the moment when I offended a female(?!), and God only knows what else. He asked if I had a tab, and after I said I had already paid on my credit card, he claimed I wouldn’t be charged – even though I was pretty sure I already had been charged. After he led me outside we discussed the legal minutiae of how the property lines of a bar with a sidewalk patio are demarcated. He warned me that he knew all of the local sheriffs, and if they tested me they would find alcohol on my breath. He was unperturbed by my insistence that I was drinking a virgin cocktail, although if that hadn’t been the case I would have at least felt better about the $9.50 price tag. After deciding that the only way I could be on firm legal footing was if I stood on the road, I decided I’d be better off just going home. I never did get to sing my first song, which would’ve been Tell Her About It by Billy Joel. (I guess I don’t have enough black friends.)
A few days later, I checked my credit card statement and confirmed that I had indeed been charged for a tomato juice which I didn’t even get to finish. I contemplated how exactly I would try to explain this to the credit card company – that I did sign for my drink and did receive it, but that I got banned from the bar for not tipping before I could actually finish it – and I finally decided that $12 CAD was a reasonable price to pay for a pretty amazing story.
I returned to the airport the next day and approached the Found Luggage counter. Apparently my suitcase had been migrated to the deepest bowels of storage in the preceding 23 hours, because it was a few tense minutes before the staffperson showed up with my unmolested baggage. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a pretty awesome life hack – Thanks, cool black lady! A few hours later, I was happily back in the greatest country in the world, Mexico, where I am now very happily spending three months.
I’ve already planned another stopoff in the US for my trip back to Mexico after my next home visit – this time, a whopping 3 days in Los Angeles. I fully expect that half a year’s worth of crazy adventures will be packed into these three days. If I really am stuck inside a video game – and it’s kinda starting to feel like I am – I just hope they never get around to fixing all the wacky bugs in the America level.