After a week in Houston I cannot really say that I have warmed to it that much. On my first evening here, I stepped out after checking into my hotel for an evening walk and to get my bearings. The hotel was very much in downtown Houston, only a few minutes walk from the office. They weren’t the nicest of minutes though. That evening the streets were deserted except for a few street corners were malingerers lingered under a cloud of cannibis. Come the morning, there were many more people to be seen, but they were not the nicest of crowds. Each morning I walked from the hotel to the office and each morning I was accosted by some vagrant or drunk or just generally aggressive man. Nothing physical, nothing violent, but intimidating all the same. Downtown Houston might look all glitzy with its steel and glass, but it is a far cry from a rich and bustling city centre. Beyond the environs of individual office blocks, the place assumes an unfriendly, wary air.
Houston is not a city with a geographical heart. There are many neighbourhoods, some lively, some not. Downtown is one of the latter. It exists only on weekdays from nine to five. Beyond that it has no pull. The restaurants are variable (and those open in the evening tending to the poor) and the bars and few, scattered and mostly on the outskirts. Houston does have great life, it does have excitement and human electricity, it is just bundled up in other places. With this being Texas, those other places are a car ride away.
The people, they do have a heart. Introduced to a friend of a friend, I was presented with a VIP ticket to Houston’s current top attraction: the Rodeo. Cowboys, tractors, country singers, bucking-broncos: the show had the works. Especially good shows included the cow-grappling competition, where young teenagers competed for scholarships by attempting to single-handedly bring down a calf, and a sheep race, where three and four year-olds clung to the backs of running sheep, scoring points for distance covered before falling off.
The generous spirits were not confined to my hosts. A shop-assistant at a cowboy boot stall took it upon himself to explain all about cowboy boots. He had me try on different styles and sizes to find the perfect one. It was a captivating performance, extremely interesting and enjoyable and he made one feel very special. All this after I had told him that his boots (price in the thousands of pounds) were well beyond my price range. That seemed to matter not a jot. He took pride in explaining to the visiting Britisher all about this most Texan of footwear. When he then asked after my most English of blazers, I could but return the courtesy.
So if I never quite found myself liking the tiny slither of Houston I got to see, and if I didn’t quite reconcile myself to it obvious big road-big car bias, I very much enjoyed the week. The perplexingly poor service from United Airlines, both at check-in and in the air, was probably rather unnecessary but beyond that the week made a very positive break from routine.