Ramblin’ from the Deep South

People are really nice in Texas. The follow-up calls I make at work could be much worse if I lived up north. “Hi, I was just calling to see if maybe you guys were planning on putting Shrek the Musical in your calendar event listings? I sent you a press release last week? No? Okay. Um, bye.”

But people here always give reasons as to whether or not they’re going to put information about my event in their publications. They’re kind, they’re respectful, they’ve got that southern drawl. Many of the women I speak to on the phone are giggly and helpful. The men are cordial with their “yes m’ams,” which is appreciated when I have to nag them over and over to find out when said article is going to hit newsstands.

So I ride my bike to work- just picked up this little gem of a helmet yesterday. It’s a pretty flat, neighborhoody commute. There is one busy road I have to cross, comparable at some parts to Route 30, but it’s never too difficult. Last week, however, I noticed an eldery black man on the opposite side of West Gray, wearing a bright orange vest and holding a stop sign. He saw me from across the street and walked right into the middle of the road, waving his stop sign and blowing his whistle. School had started, and the man was back in business. He has learned to expect me every day around 3:30 and always lets me cross the road.

There are a lot of homeless people in Houston, just as with every major city. Though the baddies are on the crack corner that is Hyde Park, there are goodies that generally just hang out at highway intersections with signs and change jars. Last week Zack and I were biking the Buffalo Bayou and came to a resting point by the highway (the whole trail runs underneath). I saw a young professional open his car door and throw something at a homeless person. Trash? A rock? No. A packet of peanuts. I smiled at the guy and he smiled back. Good people do exist in this world.

Riding to and from work, with errands in between, is difficult in a pencil skirt and smiliar business casual attire, I’m not going to lie. I’ve tried different ways of hiking my clothes up and down and all around but it’s hard. Most of the time I just pretend I’m not flashing everyone but then I wonder why the loiterers on Hyde Park stalk me when I get home from work with compliments like, “Oh there she is, the best part of the day! I like your dresssss.” The other day in the Kroger parking lot, a woman called out after me. “You should wear some shorts under there, honey!” Thanks. In other unrelated Hyde Park news, our neighbor Brooke just informed us that she saw a man jump the fence and take a shit in our backyard last weekend. Hooray!

Driving and parking lots are weird here, too. There is a grocery store called Fiesta where we usually buy cheap produce and $16 Bota Boxes (but never, ever meat). Zack gets mad every time we pull into the lot. “The dumbest parking lot in Texas,” he mutters angrily under his breath. People really do not know how to drive in Houston. Turn signals here are a thing of the past, or the future, I don’t know. People don’t use them, and they’re constantly cutting you off at the red light, on the highway, or in the parking lot. I do not drive here often. It makes me kind of nervous- that and I feel like I’m sixteen and driving with my parents. Zack tends to clench his jaw or say things like “whoa, whoa, slow down.” Or “whoa, whoa, stay in your lane.” I’m not a bad driver, I’m really not.

My grandma and grandpa used to come visit us from New Jersey, where people aren’t exactly known for their road skills. They would slowly and carefully pull into the driveway and step out of their Lexus For Old People and always make the same remark. “That was such a nice trip. People in Pennsylvania are so nice. They always let you into their lanes and they never cut you off! Are Pennsylvanians nice? I never really noticed.

There are a few things I really miss about Pennsylvania summers. Jesse Hein wrote on my Facebook wall last night- I smelled bonfire driving around Berwyn and realized, again, what August was missing. I miss that. Firepits in the backyard. No one wants or needs a firepit for late summer nights in Houston. The temperature is still way above eighty after the sun goes down. The other evening we were hanging out with our neighbors in the yard. I was tightening my cardigan across my body. “You cold?” “No, I’m not cold. I’m hot as balls. I keep getting bitten by these fucking mosquitos.” Houston is a swamp.

The thing I missed the most about Pennsylvania this summer was the sound of the cicadas at night. Always calm and quiet, like a little murmur from the trees, mumbling last-minute thoughts into your bedroom. Windows open, brisk August wind through the curtains. Sounds like the end of summer, tossing and turning in bed before the first night of school. Sometimes I could hear the cicadas in State College, but I would always hear them in Devon. My mother told me she recently held the phone up to the trees so that my grandma, who once lived in New Jersey but now lives in Florida, could hear the sound.

There are crickets and cicadas, mosquitos and roaches in Houston, that’s for sure. Only the sound of the crickets here is not low-key or calming. It’s just the opposite. The sound here is loud and scary and painful, like bad sex or an anxiety attack. A fearful heartbeat, as if the end of the world is coming and the cicadas found out about it first. The air conditioning drowns them out but as soon as you open the front door the sound will startle you. Lucky for us, I guess, we never get to sleep with the windows open.

The Real Hyde Park

You know when you live in a certain area, and that area is known for a specific place or thing but you’ve never experienced those things for yourself? It would be like living in King of Prussia and never shopping at the mall.  Zack lived in State College for eight semesters and one summer session and never once went to the Creamery. Blasphemy, I know.

Saturday night we hung out with our new friend Nick, who took us to two bars I’d never been to, all within a block and a half of our house. First, TC’s. A bar where guys sit outside, parked in a circle of fenced-in chairs. A bar that kind of looks like a rest stop. A bar where you can get $1 well vodka drinks, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. EVERYDAY. A bar where there are scheduled drag shows four nights a week.

We heard clapping coming from inside and rushed into the doorway. It was like everything I had learned in WMST 250 (Sexual Identity Through the Lifespan) had come straight off the Powerpoints and breathed itself into life. The room was comprised of mostly two types of people. Straight women (bachelorette party) and transwomen (some single, some with dates), with the occasional sprinkle of a man. It’s not like I’ve never seen a drag queen or been in a gay bar before. I’ve spent time in Provincetown, Massachusetts, almost every summer since I was born and I did live in Manhattan for a short period of my life. This was different though. The show was small scale, in an intimate setting. There was no cover.

The queens came down from the stage and walked around the audience, lip-syncing to Pink,  Tina Turner and Destiny’s Child. At one point I asked no one, “Is this Beyonce?” The host heard me and replied into the microphone, “Yes honey, yes it is.” I saw one bridesmaid say to the bride, “Oh my god, I’m having so much fun!” as she slipped a dollar bill into the hand of “Ashley Houston”, who knew every breath, sigh and stammer of lady Madonna herself.  Nick, Zack and I were the only people dancing. $1 vodka specials? That’s like…that’s like college, dude.

I saw one transwoman eyeing up Zack. I looked at her.

“What, bitch?”

No, just kidding. I looked at her, then looked at Zack again.

“Is he your boyfriend?” She asked.

“Yes, he is,” I said.

“He’s real cute.”

“Thank you.”

“Y’all make a gorgeous couple.”

And with that, we took the party to the Ripcord, the leather bar next to our apartment. I’m not exaggerating when I saw it’s next to our apartment. We share a parking lot. The only thing dividing our yards is a wooden fence.

I got ID’d for the second time since arriving in Houston. We walked past the dark and mysterious indoor bar, through the movie-watching room (no kidding) and onto the back patio, where there were men of all shapes, sizes and age (some dressed in nothing but two strips of leather). Nick introduced us to some people he knew, and I immediately got the twice-over from the only two women in the bar, who were from an organization called the National Leather Association.

One of the girls pulled me started giving me the shtick about the history, or rather herstory (shades of WMST 250) of leather. “It started getting popular around World War II…”

I nodded along. Fascinating. Another woman told me how nice it was to see another female at the Ripcord, then went on to ask me if I’ve ever had an interest in bondage. She started listing the pros of leather in the bedroom and its place in a healthy sexual relationship. The assless-chapped man behind the bar looked at me and shook his head. I was wearing grey skinny jeans, a black tank top and gold hoops. I thought I looked cool, but apparently not cool. Can’t please everyone, I suppose.

To  be honest, I was under the impression that a leather bar in Texas meant gruff, scary men bearing lots of skin and guns. That wasn’t the case at all. All the people I met were fun and friendly. One even guarded the door when I went to the bathroom. There was no lock.

Next time we’re in State College I’m taking Zack for ice cream.

Monday Monday Monday

Monday is trash day in Houston. Never, ever in your life have you smelled such a stench. Riding my bike on the back roads is torture- in the morning, around ten, after the trash has been picked up and the cans are left open at the foot of each driveway- that’s when the humidity lifts the stank up into the air and lets it sit there, and I have to hold my breath for blocks at a time.

Gross.

This weekend we did CRAFTS. I had a small pile of things I wanted to frame- mostly pictures I’ve collected from dorm room to dorm room. Pictures I couldn’t just tack up onto the wall because, you know, I’m a real person now and everything. Maddie inspired me to make a photo wall- she created one for her apartment in Park Slope. On Saturday, Zack took me to the junk shop where we shuffled through boxes and boxes of frames. Then we went to Home Depot and got sheets of glass. Sunday I matted all the pictures, Zack cut the glass and attached picture hooks. Here’s the final product:

Center: Jim Dine print I bought at the Bryn Mawr College book store during writing camp, summer 2005.

Top and going clockwise: Sketch of two flappers, from a card Lisa Goochee sent me; the cover of “Betsy, Tacy, & Tib”, one of my favorite childhood books (my mother snagged it for me from the New Eagle library); a print of The Hague, which was given to me by my Dutch poetry teacher at the end of my semester abroad in Amsterdam; a drawing of a tree surrounded my all types of birds, another present from Lisa; a neat little mirror with a plant etched on it, which I found at the junk shop; the second stanza of a Louise Gluck poem that summarizes the Summer of Women, again sent by Lisa; the mixed CD cover that Maddie designed before I left for Texas (it says, “I miss you already” with a heart drawn from Brooklyn to Houston on a map of the US); a black & white photograph of a train and its tracks taken by Zack when he spent summer 2008 in China.

Here, listen to this:

Nothing New

Sunday I left the apartment at 2 p.m. to attend a Bollywood Aerobics class that was being held at my yoga studio. Yoga is hard- really hard. Especially Hot Hatha, which is slow moving in a room that is roughly 100 degrees. Vinyasa Flow is faster and more temperate, but it is really intense. I pulled two muscles chattarunga-ing today. I’ve been doing this shit for six days now…when is that flexibility thing supposed to kick in? I should be going twice a day with all the free time I have, but yogis like to charge a lot of money for their practices. That is the conundrum of being unemployed. All the free time in the world, but no money to do things. “Bollywood aerobics?” Zack laughed at me. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m gonna get all Slumdog Millionaire on yer ass.”

I got dressed, hopped on my bike, pedaled twenty feet to my left and- what? What is that? A homeless man sleeping on our side stoop? It was easily 85 degrees which feels like 100 in the humidity, and the man was fully dressed in long-sleeved clothing. A duffel bag laid comfortably under his head. A man in a tie and dress pants walked over from across the street, peered at the sleeping man as if to check for signs of life, and shook his head. He did not nudge him, budge him, or call the police. I kept riding along. Apparently the police came by and picked him up shortly after. Gotta get used to these things on Hyde Park Boulevard.

Bollywood aerobics is not something I plan on doing again…Which song did we learn a choreographed dance to? “Jai ho.” I was so, so right.

Earlier in the weekend we had a drink at Griff’s, Houston’s oldest sports bar which offers $1 Lonestars (the shittier version of Pennsylvania’s Yeungling) on Fridays. No complaints, only that I wish I had more friends to drink with. It was towards the end of the night. Zack was spacing out. I was getting sad.  I was falling into my half-drunken womp-fest about not knowing anyone, about not having any friends here and missing my favorite people from school.

“Wait,” Zack said suddenly. “Was that kid wearing a Diner shirt?”

I jumped up to get a get a glance of the boy leaving the bar. Black t-shirt with maroon and white detailing.

“THE DINER!!” I yelled. The kid turned around.

“Hey,” he smiled. “Did you go to Penn State?”

“Yes,” we said. “Did you you?”

“Yes,” he said. We introduced ourselves. “I graduated last year. I live right around the corner from here. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you guys around.”

WE ARE. No, we really are.