Hacking Houston–The Passengers (I)

"Suddenly, nervous and agitated, he indicated we should be in the far right lane, exiting the freeway now, at Main Street. There was no way I could get over there, so I kept going straight. He wailed in despair."

Author's map of Houston showing streets mentioned in "The Passengers"
HOUSTON 1973. SHOWS THE CITY’S MAIN ROADS, AS WELL AS STREETS MENTIONED IN “THE PASSENGERS.”

PEANUT

Denver Harbor was a lower-middle-class neighborhood with a large Hispanic population. Teetering uneasily between the blackest, most depressed part of Fifth Ward and the bleakest, most industrialized part of the East End, Denver Harbor was a residential enclave surrounded by switchyards, truck routes, and slums.

Early one morning, at the beginning of my shift, I was sent to 7100 Victoria—a typical Denver Harbor street, with small frame houses and occasional trees. I was heading west on Victoria, and thought I still had a block to go, when I noticed a man just ahead on the right, who seemed to be moving his trash can. But as I drove past, he made a funny motion with his hand, as though to signal me. I stopped and looked at the number on his house—7100.

When I got out, I saw that he was about forty years old and had cerebral palsy. Yet neither his severely impaired speech nor his jerky, constricted movements were as striking as his pants. They were sewn together from large diamond-shaped pieces of heavy, faded cloth—reds and greens and whites. A harlequin’s pants.

He pointed to a wire cart next to his trash can. I put the cart, along with two large grocery sacks, in the trunk. He got in the front seat, and after I got behind the wheel, he showed me a Harris County Sheriff’s Department emblem.

“You’re going to a sheriff’s station?” I asked.

He shook his head and pointed at the emblem. “Uh! Uh!”

“A police station?”

Same response.

“Well, do you know how to get there?” He looked out the windshield, confused. “If I start driving, can you show me the way?” He nodded.

“Keep going this way?” I asked, pointing straight ahead. He made some emphatic sounds and jerked his head about, but at first I wasn’t sure he meant yes, finally decided that he did. So we continued west on Victoria, and as we approached Lathrop, the first major cross street, he began grunting and gesturing. I pointed to the right, indicating a turn. His sounds and gestures continued unchanged, so I pointed to the left, and at this he started nodding.

Guided by this sort of exchange, I drove south on Lathrop to the East Freeway, I-10, then got on the freeway heading west. I pointed straight ahead to make sure we were okay. He nodded and seemed to relax.

In five or six miles, when the East Freeway hit downtown, it intersected Houston’s two major north-south freeways, US 59 and I-45, resulting in a tangle of ramps and interchanges. We were driving in one of the middle lanes of I-10 when suddenly, nervous and agitated, he indicated we should be in the far right lane, exiting now, at Main Street. There was no way I could get over there, so I kept going straight. He wailed in despair.

My mind was racing, and I realized that the next offramp on the right was several miles past downtown, but if I moved two quick lanes to the left, I could catch a downtown exit off Interstate 45. I darted over at the last possible moment, took the ramp to I-45 southbound, then immediately got off the freeway at Dallas Street. This put us at the eastern edge of Fourth Ward and the western edge of downtown. He motioned for me to turn left, toward downtown. While we waited at the light, he sighed with relief. “Whew!” he said, wiping his brow. I was pretty relieved myself, and we both laughed.

We were driving east on Dallas when it struck me. “301 San Jacinto—is that where you’re going?” I usually thought of that building as the county courthouse, but it also housed the county jail and sheriff’s offices.

He nodded. “Uh!”

By the time we got to the courthouse, in the northeast part of downtown, the fare was $4.05. He looked worried as he handed me what was in his pocket—$3.75. I said that was fine, knowing the roundabout route had jacked up the fare. He nodded, grateful and relieved.

I opened the trunk and handed him the cart. As he set it on the sidewalk, a man in a suit, walking into the courthouse, called out, “Hello, Peanut!”

“Uh!”

When I grabbed the grocery sacks, I noticed that each had a sign saying he was sorry, but he had to raise the price to 25¢ a bag. I gave him the sacks and went to close the trunk. He made a noise to get my attention, then waved me back. As I walked up to him, he opened one of the sacks. Inside were dozens of bags of peanuts. He gave me one.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Uh!”

Then we each took off for our day’s work.

WHEN YOU GET FORTY-NINE

She was middle-aged and probably always semi-drunk. Tough and angry, she charged out of her home in the Heights, clothed in a worn, baggy dress, and with red blotches on her face.

We drove to a house a few blocks away. “It’s a garage apartment on this street. Don’t worry, I’m gonna pay you. Ain’t nobody in this part of town who’ll say I don’t pay my debts. Go slowly so I can see. Is that the one? Yeah, maybe. Keep going. No, not that one. Back up, back up. Yeah, there it is.”

Then to a liquor store. Afterwards: “Like I said, I didn’t have no money when I got in your car. But those people in the store are friends, so now I got my liquor and your money. I always pay people I owe, ’specially people like cab drivers, ’cause that’s how they make a living.”

And back home. She spoke of her son murdered four weeks before in Mississippi—“his face was beaten so badly you couldn’t touch it ’cause it’d fall off”—and of another dead son. “No, you can’t get the best of me; I know what I’m doing. I’m no fool but I been hurt.”

Getting out. “I’m forty-nine, you know that? That’s pretty good, isn’t it? A person lives to forty-nine these days he’s lucky. When you get forty-nine, you remember me.”

TRACKS

One weekday afternoon I dropped a passenger off at the Greyhound bus station. I was about to drive off when someone knocked on my back windshield. I opened my door to a thin black woman, around thirty. She asked if I was free. There wasn’t a cab at the stand, so I said “Yeah, I can take you.” She had a boy with her, five or six years old. I put their bags in the trunk, and after we got in the car she told me they were going to 1300 Spring Street. I didn’t know where that was and neither did she, so I checked my map book. There were three listings for Spring, but two were far away.

“Is it near Katy Freeway?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

I thought I should check another map, and as I did this I asked if she’d been there before.

“Yeah, I been there.”

“Do you know any other streets that it’s near?”

“No, I don’t know where it is.”

The second map didn’t help, and I was looking again at the first when she remembered, “It’s next to some tracks.”

“Yeah, that’s the one,” I said, and we took off.

Driving north on Houston Avenue, just northwest of downtown, I was confused by the street numbers, and when I reached Spring Street I mistakenly turned left. By this time, though, she recognized where we were, and told me to go back the other way. I turned around, and after crossing Houston Avenue we entered an out-of-the-way black neighborhood nestled in the shadows of the Katy Freeway/North Freeway interchange. A set of abandoned railroad tracks ran down the left side of the narrow, rutted street. Slowly we drove past identical white houses to 1300 Spring, just before the street dead-ended near the breakneck activity and interminable whooshing of the freeway overpass. She paid me and we got out.

While I gathered their things from the trunk, two people came out of the house to greet them. As I set the bags by the screen door, the four of them were hugging and talking, while the next-door neighbors watched from their porch. I got back in the cab, swung across the tracks to get turned around, then crept back down this bumpy, forgotten street to Houston Avenue, where I gave it a little gas.

TRAINS

The Rice Hotel, opened in 1913, was the oldest hotel in Houston. Before that, other hotels stood on the same spot. Earlier still, it was the site of the capitol of the Republic of Texas. Six presidents, including FDR, stayed at the Rice. On the evening of November 21, 1963, John and Jacqueline Kennedy had dinner in a hotel suite there before going downstairs to the Grand Ballroom to speak to a Latino group. Later that night they flew to Fort Worth, and the next morning, Dallas.

The Rice was Houston’s second largest hotel, its maximum occupancy being slightly less than that of the Hyatt Regency. Unlike the Hyatt, however, it was neither new nor fashionable. It was located in the older, northern section of downtown, at Texas and Main. Its lobby was adorned by the plush carpets and massive chandelier of a bygone era, and nearby were the Sam Houston Room, the Flag Room, and the Old Capitol Club, for members only. All of this was a world away from the revolving restaurant and vertiginous lobby of the Hyatt Regency, whose aura of money and dynamism mirrored the self-image of contemporary Houston. So while the massive Homebuilders’ Convention was headquartered at the Hyatt, the Rice Hotel hosted the more modest Veterans of Foreign Wars, Texas chapter.

In and around the Hyatt Regency almost all you’d see were fast-walking businessmen and secretaries. Patrons of the Rice Hotel were more diverse, including blacks, foreigners, and old couples. The pedestrian traffic in front of the Rice was equally varied. At the cab stand there I picked up, at different times, two black girls who were downtown shopping for shoes, a Hispanic family that lived on the Near Northside near the Pan-America Nite Club, and a sailor who had to get back to his ship.

At the Rice I also picked up a number of fares who had luggage, but not a single one wanted a ride to the airport. Instead, they would go to the more economical airport limousine terminal, or the bus or train station. At the Hyatt, on the other hand, departing guests often took cabs directly to the airport.

The doorman at the Hyatt Regency was energetic, well-dressed, and authoritative—especially when summoning cab drivers and bellboys—and served his guests with alacrity. The doorman at the Rice Hotel sat on a wooden stool all day, talking to the legless newspaper hawker. In the lobby of the Rice, old men read their newspapers with zeal.

I was parked in front of the Rice one sunny morning when a gentleman in his sixties, with gray hair, came out of the hotel carrying a suitcase.

“Union Station, please,” he said, after I put his suitcase in the trunk.

We had driven about a block when I asked him where he was traveling to.

“Los Angeles. I’m going to Los Angeles on the Amtrak. That’s supposed to be a lovely train, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I’ve heard it’s nice. It hasn’t been around very long.”

“Well, you see, the route I’m taking is a little roundabout. First we go up into Iowa, and then we turn west. But you get to see a little more country that way, and I’m not in any big hurry. The trip really should be wonderful.”

“Do you always travel by train?”

“Oh yes, yes, the train—that’s the only way. I flew once but didn’t like it: here one minute, there the next. You don’t get to see anything when you fly. You really might as well not travel at all.”

“Yeah, I like trains myself. Twice I took the train from LA to Baltimore, and once from LA to Lansing, Michigan.”

“Then you must have taken the Super Chief to Chicago.”

“That’s right, the Chief to Chicago and then the B&O to Baltimore.”

“Ah yes, well, the Chief is a wonderful train, really marvelous, but the B&O has been going down in recent years, I’m afraid.”

“Yeah, the second time I was on it the passenger car was really hot. People were sleeping in the dining car because it was the only cool place on the train.”

“Even so, it beats flying. I’ve taken trains through every part of the country and into almost every state, and I still love it. I wouldn’t go any other way.”

By this time we were pulling up to Union Station, located in the northeast part of downtown, near the bus station. Like the Rice Hotel, Union Station was an old, stately structure, its entrance marked by tall white columns and a spacious portico. My passenger paid the fare and gave me a tip, and I handed his bag to the porter. Together they walked inside the nearly empty station, conferring animatedly.

THE STAR

It was about 6:30 in the morning, a little before sunrise, when I pulled up to some old brick apartment buildings on Austin, just south of downtown. A woman was standing by the front door, and after a few seconds she walked up to the car and got in.

“You my cab?” she snapped.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Well, your top light isn’t working,” she said, obviously irritated. “I didn’t know if you were for me or not.”

She said she was going to Texas Avenue, across the street from the Houston Chronicle building. This was in the older part of downtown.

“The Texas Cafe?” I asked.

“No, the place next door,” she replied brusquely.

We drove silently for a few blocks, when suddenly she shouted, “Look at that!” I looked out my side window where she was pointing, but didn’t see anything. “Higher, higher, up in the sky,” she said. “Look—you can still see a star!”

Finally I spotted it. “Oh, yeah!”

We drove the rest of the way without saying anything. I dropped her off at a small lounge. She walked to the door, unlocked it, stepped into the darkness, and closed the door behind her.

MAN WITH A PLANK

I was waiting for the light at Almeda and Southmore, in Third Ward, when I saw him waving at me from across the street. I was a little wary: in the past I’d gotten stiffed a few times on street pickups; besides, what the hell did he have in his hand? So I hoped the light would change quickly and I could take off. No such luck. He swooped across the street, opened the front passenger door, and pointed at the seat. I told him to hop in and asked him where he was going.

He was a thin, agile black man, very lightly colored, with a smooth, lean face. He wore dark blue work pants and a faded shirt. He carried with him a rough, weathered plank, which he treated the way a traveler treats his backpack, not delicately but with care. His legs were too long for the front seat, but he maneuvered them gracefully, and held the plank between them, with one end resting on the floor.

He pointed behind us, indicating the opposite direction on Almeda. When I asked him how far, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his coins. He held them out, offering them to me, but the light changed then, so I made a quick left into Mrs. Baker’s Donuts. I stopped the car and again asked him where he was going. Again he held out the change, this time putting it in my hand. I counted it—78¢. “Is that all you have?” He looked at me and held his hands far apart, palms up: that’s it. I hesitated for a moment, then said okay.

I headed up Almeda toward downtown. I turned the timer off, but the mileage part of the meter had to be on whenever there was a passenger. He didn’t pay any attention to it, though, keeping his eyes on the road all the way.

65¢. 75¢. 85¢. 95¢. I was wondering how long this would go on when he directed me to the side of the road. I pulled over and he nodded at me vigorously, appreciatively. In one smooth motion, he and his plank exited the cab. He closed the door, and with long, bouncy strides, walked off.

MAN WITH A GUITAR

From the outside, the Pink Elephant—located in the shabby, southeast part of downtown—looked like just another blue-collar bar, but management described it as “a Montrose alternative,” and for years its primary clientele had been older gay men, but “no hustlers allowed.” Hanging above the doorway was an old, faded sign in the shape of an elephant, illuminated at night by a pink light.

One sweltering weekday afternoon I got a call there, and after honking the horn a few times I saw the wooden door swing open. A man about forty-five, tall but stooped, came out. He was carrying a guitar, and with a little effort he and the instrument found a place for themselves in the back seat. He told me where he was going, but it didn’t mean anything to me.

“Where’s that?”

“Down on Milby, Milby Street.”

“Do you know how to get there?”

“Yeah, go on, go straight, I’ll show you. My God, it’s hot today. Just go straight.”

We continued east on Leeland, leaving downtown and passing briefly through Third Ward before hitting the industrial East End.

“God, don’t you have any air in here? Let’s open the windows.”

The air conditioner had been on all along, but admittedly it wasn’t much, so we rolled down the windows. Soon he started strumming his guitar, and after a few bars he bayed, “Oh my girl, she’s so lovely, she’s standing by the river. Oh my girl, she’s so lovely, so lovely tonight.”

Traffic was crawling, and as his voice wafted through the open windows of surrounding cars, we got some stares. He continued undaunted. “Oh my girl, she’s so lovely, so very very lovely, and she’s mine.”

I’m not sure whether the song reached its proper conclusion, or whether it had to be terminated prematurely as we approached our destination, but whichever it was, the serenade eventually came to an end. When we got to Milby Street we went north, and soon afterward pulled into a gravel parking lot. It belonged to a tiny bar that wasn’t much more than a weathered wooden shack, and was dwarfed by the sprawling Maxwell House plant across the street on Harrisburg. He paid the fare and got out. Then he and his guitar went into the bar, where he would, no doubt, entertain others and himself.

MAN WITH A CHAIR

Located in the Westheimer-Montrose art district, the area around Fairview Street was lined with tiny grocery stores, along with taverns that catered to distinct clienteles. There was Louise’s, patronized by Hispanics living in the low-rent bungalows nearby; and Carnaby’s, where braless women met mellow men; and Blarney Stone, haven for the middle-aged working class holdouts who had seen their neighborhood transformed.

One morning about five o’clock I got a call for the convenience store at Fairview and Montrose. A man inside waved at me and, a minute later, came out. He was wearing dress slacks, a brown sport coat, and a white shirt, but he had taken off his tie, his hair was unkempt, and his shirt was just barely tucked in. He was about twenty-five years old.

We drove around the corner to a small apartment building. He went inside for a minute, and when he came out he was carrying a simple wooden chair, which we put in the trunk. He asked me if I knew any hotels nearby, especially one that was close to a 24-hour grocery store. I couldn’t think of any offhand, but I said there was a motel with a 24-hour restaurant a few miles away.

“What motel?”

“Gulf Coast Motor Inn. Charlie Brown’s is right next door.”

“Oh God no, not Charlie Brown’s. I hate their greasy food. Any other hotels you know of?”

“There’s a Holiday Inn not far from here.”

“Oh, Holiday Inn, yeah, that sounds too expensive. I just want a place to sleep, you know.”

We went south on Montrose, then east on Westheimer, then north on Main, in search of a cheap hotel, but didn’t find one. By this time we were downtown. “You know any newsstands around here that are open now?” he asked.

“Yeah, Big City News is open all night.”

“Let’s try there. Maybe they’d know some place to stay.”

When we got near the newsstand I said, “There’s a YMCA over there if you want to try that.”

“Where is it?”

I pointed at a big brick building off to our left. He squinted in that direction. “Oh yeah, I see it. Let’s try there.”

As we got closer, he had second thoughts. “Do you think they’ll let me in? I don’t know, I been up all night. I don’t think they want somebody that looks like a drunk.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it. Just try to look dignified.”

He laughed. “Dignified. Try to look dignified. Yeah, that’s a good one. I’m still half-drunk and I haven’t had any sleep and my clothes are a mess, but I gotta look dignified.”

We pulled up to the Y and he got out. He brushed his hair back with his hands, then walked with determination into the building.

A few minutes later he was back in the cab. “No room,” he said.

At that point another man came out of the Y and approached us. He said there was a hotel nearby that would probably have some vacancies. I asked where it was but didn’t understand his directions, so he said he’d go with us. The three of us drove about a half mile, stopping at a weary-looking place called the Roosevelt Hotel. The man from the Y left us, while my passenger went inside. He came back a minute later. Same story.

“Well, why don’t you drive me back to that newsstand and drop me off there.”

“Okay.”

He was silent for a bit, then said, “This is really ridiculous. Won’t let me into a sleazy little hotel for winos! Man, that’s something. And a Y! God, it’s getting pretty goddamn bad when a guy can’t even stay in a fuckin’ Y!”

I drove for a couple of blocks, then asked if he’d like to try anyplace else.

“Nah, that’s okay, I’ve wasted enough of your time. It’d be the same thing at all of them, anyway. I’ll just go to the newsstand and call a friend to come get me. He’ll be able to put me up.”

I drove to Big City News and got his chair out of the trunk. It took him a while to sort through his money, but eventually he paid the fare and left me a tip. As I pulled away, he was still fumbling with his money, standing beside the newsstand with his chair.

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