All beautiful places are prone to natural disaster.
The old Yoni Wolf lyric keeps coming back to me, as I look out the windows of my home in the Houston suburbs, or walk along the banks of a creek that’s swollen into a river after 24 inches of rain in 24 hours, or sit for a while and watch the astounding rescues we’re all seeing on TV.
Nobody ever called Houston beautiful. Nobody ever came here for a visit and fell in love with its ramshackle strip malls and crumbling streets, its blight of ditches and culverts and telephone poles, or a climate so humid it seems to drain your very life, even as it reverses the effect for green things. We are a quasi-Amazonian outpost, which nature would reclaim in a few months if we ever took a break. But Houston is beautiful, in a way so normal it’s hard to explain.
That lyric first embedded itself in my head over the months I spent wandering the northern beaches of Brazil — all aquamarine water set against white sand and pink and orange cliffs. The wandering ended badly, as dissipation tends to, with a hard winter in Buenos Aires trying to… well, whatever the antonym of dissipate is.
There is, in the very idea of a paradise on earth, of a place most beautiful and pleasant, something wrong, disastrous. Stop by paradise in the offseason and you’ll meet spoiled trustafarians, assorted cocaine vampires and lechers, DJs taking a break from Ibiza and their ex-wives who bought a beachfront bar with the divorce settlement. You’ll meet pickpockets and armed robbers and cops willing to shoot them on sight. You meet the worst people — walking manifestations of our basest desires — and you befriend them.
No Eurotrash DJ’s ex-wife ever took a vacation in Houston and stayed to set up a bar. And despite the climate, you couldn’t set your take on Heart of Darkness here. It’s Southern, but Gothic it ain’t.
Here, you’ll meet a mechanic from New Jersey who realized moving here meant he could give his family a four-bedroom house near great schools. You’ll meet an immigrant from Ethiopia doing cancer research in the Medical Center. You’ll meet oil men and real estate developers who’ve built nine-figure fortunes, lost them, and then built them back again. You’ll meet black cowboys.
Houston is at the confluence of the South, the West, the Midwest, the Caribbean, and Mexico, and its institutions draw millions more from farther abroad. With a quarter of the population foreign-born, we’re more diverse than Los Angeles, but this is a better place because it’s a worse place. That is, nobody moves here to satisfy their senses; they come for the jobs. Nobody pays a premium to enjoy our earthly delights; they’re the type willing to forego them.
That’s true for folks born here, too. Black folks realized white flight didn’t have to be a white thing. Our suburbs are gloriously diverse and integrated, with the pathologies of the inner city left far away. The folks you get here are the sort willing to sacrifice their own gratification in order to take care of their loved ones. You get people who might be working too hard to enjoy that fishing boat they bought, but when the rains come, they know how to put it to good use rescuing neighbors. It’s true that natural disasters bring out the best in people, but a Houstonian’s best isn’t all that buried.
The old joke about Washington, D.C. is that it’s a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm. Remove the irony, and you’re talking about Houston, a city of Northern industry and Southern courtesy. It’s a city of hard workers, not layabouts and complainers. Think of Antifa and Berkeley rioters and every undergrad panicking at the thought of uncondemned privilege. The best thing I can say about Houston is that it’s basically the opposite of that. It’s a city where nobody assumes the worst about you, a city that takes it for granted that people should show one another some courtesy and respect.
I was talking to a friend the other day, a Democrat from the West Coast, who astounded me by saying that he figured most black people in America hated white people. Come to Houston, I told him. Be disabused and reassured. It’s not hard to figure out how he got such an idea. The media sells us conflict, and we buy in. And surely, there are cities in this country where black folks and white folks don’t even nod in the street. There are parts where folks don’t mingle, and others where simple numbers mean you might not meet too many folks that different from yourself. That means plenty of room for misunderstanding to breed.
Now, of course I don’t know what’s actually on anybody’s heart, but it doesn’t matter. When we treat each other with decency, it creates a warm fellow feeling that all the recursive self-examination in the world will never engender. Nobody ever thought their way to a pure heart.
I moved here just five years ago, and we all know how adults don’t go around forming lots of new friendships (and especially not writers locked in their studies all day). But the one thing that’s kept me from finishing this column, aside from the storm knocking out the internet, is the flood of text messages checking in on me, asking whether I need a dry place to stay. I assure you I’m not especially friendly or sociable. But folks here are lovely people, who tend to express a few simple virtues.