This is Bayou Diaries, a column by Bryan Washington chronicling his life and history in diverse, expansive Houston.
For a while, my truck in the Third Ward broke down every couple of days. If I didn’t need a car, I absolutely wouldn’t own one. But in Houston, the public transit’s negligible, unless you’re living downtown, or you’ve sold your soul to the ride-sharing services–or if you, like me, are always in the process of convincing yourself that the benefits of an automobile outweigh the obvious taxes. It’s shameful, honestly. But for the time being, that’s what it is.
The city’s interconnected in a way that can be difficult to grasp the scope of, so car problems are as debilitating as any other social ailment. There are 19 running highways, including the Katy Freeway, which, at 26 lanes, is among the widest in the country. And for all of Houston’s multiplicities and amenities, the lack of reliable shared transportation unites folks across race lines, class barriers, religious beliefs, and bank accounts. Houston is 310 miles long. It’s larger than Jersey. Given that expanse, depending on where you’re headed, it’s entirely possible to spend three or four hours a day stuck in traffic. And while that might be an immediate deal-breaker for anyone from anywhere else, Houstonians lament the inconvenience, too, but we do it in the middle of traffic. Under a lake’s worth of humidity. And the AC notched past 10.
But that truck. It was mostly paid off. My father liked to remind me whenever I mumbled something about selling it. It was my parents’ car for a few years, their second after they made it to Texas, and one of the few major purchases they allowed themselves to make after moving back to the States from Germany. My mother drove it around for a while, and she could never get over the size, until one day she stopped trying to battle it altogether and told me that I’d be getting lessons. It was time to pass it off. For her sake, if no one else’s. And my initial reaction was: nah. I’d been perfectly content catching rides from the neighborhood boys. But after the two of us nearly broke down on a back-alley road one afternoon, the gears were in place for wheels to enter my life.
Not that I had a choice. I passed the exam on the second try. For a minute, that truck reliably ferried me to school and work and back. When I started giving rides to the guys I’d been crushing on, the car became a tool, or a means to conversation. It was, it turned out, not so bad after all. Did you need a ride? No problem at all. Houston is big, I’ve got a full tank. No worries, no worries. Being stuck on the road by yourself is one thing, but wasting the time with your beloved is another. So, eventually, the crippling breakdown of movement on 610 had its own unique benefits.
Except it was around that time that the car went to shit. The brakes were the first thing go. Then the odometer turned all but useless, until I stopped using it altogether, tracking the miles I had left in my head, ticking them off at every other stoplight. After that fell through too, I turned from miles to minutes. Fifteen minutes to Dirk’s Coffee. Ten to the Disco Kroger’s on Montrose. Twenty-five to Star Pizza, and five to the Shell, until one day I ran out of gas about two arms’ lengths away from the pump.
It wasn’t a good look. I hit up that station pretty often. So after twenty minutes of loitering, the owner’s son, a Turkish guy, came outside to help me push. I thanked him profusely and he said it wasn’t a problem, of course he understood, and we loitered as I tried to pump only to find that, naturally, I had no money on the card.
We blinked at each other. I smiled like an idiot. When I stepped inside to talk to his father, the owner, he shrugged, like What could you do?
Your truck, he said, laughing. Too expensive. Too much gas.
Then he laughed again, slapping my shoulder, looking past me and very obviously thinking of some other time.
There’s a motif in Texas that your car is a part of yourself—it’s a coming of age. Where you learn what you’re made of and all that. The ads for pick-ups here market father-son bonding (never mothers), or hunting trips, or family growth, or some other marker fit for a bildungsroman.
But the thing about Houston is that its drivers mostly don’t fit those narratives. The refugee buys the truck on loan that’s nearest to her, for whatever’s cheapest, at whatever the cost. The six med students living in a garage apartment share the Camry that gets them around town. The tamale vendor shares I-59 with the engineer, the doctor changes the second-generation grocery clerk’s tire on the 10, and I don’t know what it says when the fantasies being pushed—of privilege, of access—hardly resemble the folks you’ll actually find on the pavement. But when your city runs on highways, and those highways have no central demographic, you make up new narratives. You mold the old ones until they fit you.
My folks know how to drive. They both taught me, half and half. My first few lessons were in this old red stick shift, and those ventures were wildly different.
One lesson: On 10-East one morning, during our first venture past 50 MPH, my mother told me a story about walking all over Jamaica. She didn’t have her own car or anything like that. So she walked just about everywhere (to school, uphill, in the freezing cold). She learned that, if you leave early enough, you’ll get nearly anywhere you need to go. And just as we’d settled into silence, an eighteen-wheeler beside us signaled to switch into our lane. The lights blinked for a while, but the vehicle didn’t make a move. This hadn’t happened before. I asked my mother if I should pass, and she hesitated a moment, but agreed, and then I accelerated just a bit, and that’s when the truck finally decided to switch, right in front of us, and then she screamed, and then I screamed, and that burst was nearly the last one I ever made because the freight truck nearly ran us off the road.
We pulled over. Switched seats. After she’d taken the wheel back, my mother looked me over. Said, You didn’t leave early enough.
Second lesson: Once, after a failed bout with parallel parking in a high school garage, my father reclaimed the wheel. He was driving us back from the post office when this car, with a white guy at the wheel, slammed into our bumper. He came out of nowhere. I’d never been in an accident before. It felt like someone had shaken the hell out of me. Afterwards, we both sat there, sort of blinking at the rear window. My father asked if I was OK. I said I was OK. Then he took a breath, stepped out of the car, and walked over to the white guy, who hadn’t even moved. From the passenger window, this guy looked pissed, like he’d gotten hit, gesturing all over the place and yelling at someone beside him.
They spoke through the window. My father walked around our truck. He squinted deeply at his bumper, shouted something at the white guy. Then, a few minutes later, the guy started his car, pulled out, and sped off.
When my father got back to the car, he sat down and smiled. He said sometimes it wasn’t worth it. The trick was knowing when it was.
And of course, he was right. Learning to drive, in any environment, is its own event. Hitting up your grocery store in Tokyo is not driving to the market in Lahore is not navigating anywhere in Mexico City, or Milwaukee, or Portland. But when Houston’s limits were originally conceived, it would’ve been hard to imagine just how reliant Houstonians would find themselves on what folks bring from those places, changing the ways that they lived their lives to accommodate one another, engaging in the collective battle of making it through the day. On our roadways, everyone brings a part of themselves with them. In doing so, we make a brand new thing. And that we all haven’t killed one another in the process is a marvel, a modern miracle, to say nothing of our continuing to do it every day.
Another lesson: The first week after Harvey, the city instituted a self-imposed curfew, and I, entirely irresponsibly, cruised the roads downtown until the last possible second.
The city’s lights were on, but the buildings were mostly empty. Cars were scarce and we moved through the city like our own loose constellation. I’d never seen the road so bare, like some kind of variant of a still life, and it was nearly ten minutes past the limit when I pulled up beside a police cruiser.
But the cops beside me didn’t budge. One was Asian. One was Latino. They both waved my way, and then I waved back. They motioned for me to roll down my window. They asked where I was from. When I told them, they asked how we’d done during the storm.
But your place, they said. Is that OK? Is everyone OK?
I told them it was. I asked if they were alright.
Yeah, said the Latino guy, we’re good. We’re OK.
When the light turned, we both waved again. Then we took off to our own homes. I wasn’t stopped for the rest of the night, didn’t have any trouble getting back.
As long as I stay in Houston—and I think I’ll be here for a minute—the traffic is something I’ll just need to get over. But maybe it’s also a privilege: In order to contain all of its layers, and the things that comprise the city, Houston “needs” to be as large as it is. That’s how it shapes its identities. And in order to connect those pieces, you get a fuck ton of traffic. You get all of the highways. They’ll always be a pain in the ass. But they’ll get you where you need to go, to a place you couldn’t find yourself anywhere else.
Rather than looking for a way out of the problem, I think I’ll just need to accept that the inconvenience comes with the territory.
But, then again, maybe I can’t: Not even two month ago, I was pulling out of the grocery store when my car battery yelped, sputtered, and died. I’m well-versed enough by now to know that only so much can be done. So I called AAA and smoked a cigarette on the hood. A few minutes later, this guy pulled out of the lot to ask if he could help.
I told him I had it handled. Told him it was the car.
But it could be worse, I said, and this guy shook his head.
No, he said, I think you’re actually wrong.
It couldn’t, he said. Not in this city. Absolutely not.