Make me love Houston.
That was the pungent advice my writing mentor gave me after reading the latest chapters in the book I was writing. I was in graduate school at the University of Tampa, and as I struggled with the draft that was to become my second novel, Winning Texas, his prescription became my guiding principle.
I quickly realized the truth of his gentle criticism. I was so busy juggling a plot where reporters, politicians, strippers, gamblers and secessionists were competing for the spotlight that I’d mostly neglected to set the stage. I was shortchanging the wondrous place that inspired my book.
Treat Houston as your most compelling character, my mentor said. As a writer, you’re lucky. Think of the overload of books set in Los Angeles, New York, Paris and London. Houston is still an exotic mystery to many readers.
So I thought back to the city I loved, the city I missed.
Not love at first sight
In the summer of 1978, my husband and I left California for Houston. He’d accepted a job with a Houston bank, and I was trying for a job with one of the two big-city newspapers. We’d loved living in Palo Alto, but even after two years, it didn’t feel like home. We’d grown up in Virginia and North Carolina, and though the people we met in California were usually charming, it was daunting to get past their friendly, facile surfaces.
Our relationship with Houston was hardly love at first sight. We arrived in a July heat wave, with smoggy skies and traffic far worse than the Bay area’s. Our Toyota Corolla wasn’t air-conditioned. We used the last of our savings to install A/C in it, and to put money down on an apartment off Richmond Avenue.
I remember calling my mother one night from a phone booth nearby where the biggest roach I’d ever seen skittered too close to my sandaled feet. The apartment complex sheltered a rowdy bunch whose loud comings and goings beneath our windows mingled with sirens that disrupted our sleep. On alcohol-fueled nights, pickup trucks regularly mowed down slender trees planted in the road’s median.
Life improved substantially after I got a job with the Houston Chronicle and began to see the city through the eyes of a reporter. I drank it all in — the high life, the lowlifes and the lives in between. I went to rodeos, country clubs, barge christenings, dance halls, rooftop bars, and ice-house dives.
Fast-forward through the birth of our son, the buying and selling of two houses, and many wonderful trips across Texas. A few years had stretched into fifteen, and it was time to leave. Jobs and family exigencies beckoned, and we moved to North Carolina. But Houston had wound its tendrils around our hearts forever.
Both glitter and grime
When I started my first book, Saving Texas, I was shivering in London in 2010, writing at the kitchen table dressed in layers and listening to the windows rattle. I thought about Houston’s sultry summer evenings, feeling the warmth of the sidewalks on my bare feet.
So in Winning Texas, set mostly in Houston, I channeled my memories to write how Houston sounded, tasted and smelled. I described neighborhoods I loved (Montrose, the Heights), restaurants I enjoyed (Ninfa’s on Navigation, Treebeards, Pappadeaux), and roads I traveled (you know them).
But I didn’t shy away from the city’s underside. I described a seedy strip club off Richmond Ave., the industrial areas around the Houston Ship Channel, and hardscrabble areas on the east side. (I enjoyed describing the east side’s particular odor: “acrid and earthy at the same time, the corky burnt smell of the refineries in nearby Pasadena and the funk of heat and humidity with the faint aroma of overripe bananas.”) The Houston I remembered had both glitter and grime.
That’s one thing I value most about Houston, during the years I lived there and on many trips back. Houston feels genuine. Though it has wonderful cultural offerings and many other amenities, no one who lives there pretends that it’s a perfect place or the world’s greatest garden spot. Its denizens accept it for what it is. They don’t seem to care what the world thinks about the city.
Which brings me to the other thing I cherish about the city: its people. I’ve never lived anywhere where people were more themselves — for good or ill. In Houston, I’ve experienced heaping helpings of friendliness, kindness and clear-eyed intelligence. I’ve also run across a few people who were as mean as snakes. Houstonians mostly don’t hide their personalities or temperaments. It’s all there, on parade.
Now that I write books instead of working as a journalist, my husband and I have often thought of moving back. But maybe we’ll just treasure the memories.
Stancill was an investigative reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a reporter and editor for the Charlotte Observer. She wrote this for the Chronicle in 2016. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org