The Statesman put a call out to staff and readers for their love letters to our beleaguered neighbor to the southeast. You can read them all online here. This is mine …
Houston, I love. And I owe you an apology.
I claim on my professional bio that I’m a native Austinite. It’s not a lie. I was born at St. David’s in Austin, and I got back here as soon as I could. But, you raised me. I shouldn’t act like you’re not my gal or that I’m too cool to dance with she who brung me.
While it’s fun to claim this once-laid-back Bohemian home to hippies and rednecks as my birthplace, an increasingly rare bona fide for the city’s residents these days, Houston formed me. And right now I wish I could wrap my small arms around your sprawling breadth.
As I grew older, I wanted to disavow you, Houston. I looked back on your sprawl, concrete cowboys and conspicuous consumption and smirked. But, now, I see you with clearer eyes and a more full heart, one that breaks when I see what you and your people are enduring.
Besides the amazing times with friends and families, my greatest memories from living in Houston come from sports. And the context of sports is now the best way for me to publicly appreciate and celebrate you.
Consider the diversity of the city’s three most beloved professional athletes, and you have Houston in a microcosm. There’s former Houston Astro Nolan Ryan, a country-strong hoss from Alvin who threw heat and had the swagger of John Wayne. There’s Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, a Muslim immigrant with a fierce heart and gentle smile who made his adopted hometown his own, while carrying the Rockets on his back and the entire city to its only professional sports title. And, of course, the Tyler Rose, Earl Campbell, a quiet warrior who turned grown men into ragdolls and each time he entered the end zone, often with a ragged jersey dangling from his shoulder pads, acted like he’d been there before. None of them were born in Houston, but they all came to help define it.
The titles and near-misses those men delivered displayed what was great about you, Houston: the ease with which people of all ages and races can come together to celebrate, and the resiliency of community in bouncing back, all done with humor, heart and a humility belied by a cocky underdog mentality. I’ll never forget taking to the streets of Richmond Avenue as a teenager when the Rockets reached the mountaintop in 1994, and I’ll always remember cramming into the aisles for a seat as the defeated but undeterred Houston Oilers returned to the Astrodome in the middle of a January night in 1980, as the late great cowboy sage Bum Phillips consoled and rallied the city with his wisdom and wit.
In the intervening years between that heartache and joy, I experienced a unique metropolitan area that stretched from a towering concrete center to the Gulf Coast and Piney Woods. Sure, there were probably too many fur coats, and a few too many closed minds, but Houston was still a place for everyone and all tastes, and I got to see much of the best of her, traveling with my former politician father from union halls to African-American churches, from wrestling matches at the Houston Coliseum to ballet at the Wortham Center. I got to eat fried squirrel hunted by my grandfather one day, celebrate a Little League wins at James Coney Island, and dine at Tony’s on the most special of occasions. I could listen to ZZ Top, Robert Earl Keen or the Geto Boys and feel equally at home. You had it all, Houston.
What I disliked about you as an adolescent and 20-something looking in his rearview mirror eventually turned out to not be about you at all, Houston. It was about me. And, fortunately, I grew up. Not only do I look back with more fondness now, I visit you anew each time, admiring your multiculturalism, your world-class dining and arts scene, your pockets of weirdness, and even appreciating the kind of big-city stereotypes I once mocked. There are some odd birds in Houston, but they’re our odd birds.
It turns out, I spent too many years thinking I was too cool for Houston. But, it was probably too cool for me. Fortunately, it never really cared about being cool. And it was big enough to forgive me.