[Note: The following is not a travelogue or a critique of Houston. It's a subjective mood piece, a personal experience. It is not really about Houston; it is about America, or certain aspects of America. It is not meant to be a slight of Houston. I like Houston, and I know some good people who live there.]

Houston Absurd

By David Cogswell

Fall 2001

It furthers one to have somewhere to go.

An orange traffic light projects an icon of a hand held up to warn me that crossing is prohibited. I stand at a fast-moving intersection in Houston, a four-lane suburban highway that stands between my hotel and a Walgreen's store where I'm headed to pick up some hair gel. I wait while the lights take the traffic through all the changes, allowing each stream of traffic to move in turn, including special times for left turns. It's quite an elaborate formation. But the orange hand signal never changes. Next to it is the walk signal -- an icon of an inclined pedestrian -- but it never lights up. Then I realize that crossing is only permitted at the crosswalk on the other side of the street. But I'll be damned if I'm now going to cross the street in the direction I came from and wait for the lights to go through another entire round. So I go ahead and cross against the light when it's clear.

I'm in alien territory. I don't know exactly what the rules are. Will a cop spring out of nowhere and nail me for crossing against the light, like in L.A.? Apparently not, I find as I reach the other side. I wasn't sure how much of a police state it would be in Houston. I wasn't encouraged when I realized the airport I was flying into is called The George Bush International Airport. I could have done without that. It gave me a crawling feeling about the town right off the bat. And seeing it strictly from the point of view of airport to hotel, to conference center is not the way to find out the best parts of a city.

It is not a city that is friendly to walking. My hotel is only two blocks from Walgreen's, but almost no one can be seen walking outside of the malls. If you want to go anywhere, you get in a car. If you are walking, you stick out. It's almost like aberrant behavior. To be seen walking on the street automatically puts you under suspicion. It is a highly nonconformist act, and that makes it a suspicious act. This is Houston, the heart of the oil world. The home of George Bush the elder. It is presumably the model of George W. Bush's America. As I cross the street I wonder how much of the much-vaunted "American Way of Life" - which we are allegedly going to war over again -- is really desirable to drag into the 21st Century.

It's a way of life that relies on ever-increasing mass consumption. Without "economic growth" everything falls apart. The thin strands that hold our society together all come apart when people don't buy more and more all the time. So what does the president say after the World Trade Center is obliterated, vaporizing 4,000 people? Go out and shop. Be a good American and buy. Everything depends on it.

The government is spending a billion a week in Afghanistan to fight a war Bush says is about terrorism but it looks like it might be just incidentally about oil, like the "war on drugs" in Colombia. The system will collapse without a constant infusion of millions of barrels of oil. The world oil supplies are rapidly being depleted, but the American leadership makes no move to encourage development of alternative energy sources or conservation. The oil companies are reaping massive profits now -- with the help of the U.S. military to make the world safe for capitalism - so why mess up a good thing? It certainly that won't be disrupted while there is a Bush in the White House.

I walk across the parking lot and into the front door at Walgreen's where I am greeted with aisles and aisles of merchandise of great variety. Besides the standard toiletries and cosmetics there are racks of tee shirts with brash American flags and elaborately drawn Eagles and slogans like "PROUD TO SAY USA". As I stand at the checkout stand waiting, I notice a rack of lamps that are also little fountains. They appear to be made of some sort of green ceramic or plastic. It looks like Astroturf, maybe it is. There are about eight of these creations with slight variations on display within arms reach of the checkout line. They are plugged in and turned on with water constantly dribbling through. Someone is trying awfully hard to make them look irresistible on this point-of-purchase display. There are masses of them stacked up in boxes. I wonder who would buy such a thing and what it would look like in the buyer's home.

There are two checkout people at cash registers, one African American, one Mexican American. They are members of the service class of Houston, which is as much a pillar of this kind of hierarchical society as the SUVs that stream aggressively through the intersection endlessly. Walgreen's is the kinder side of that phenomenon. The state of Texas executes more poor people than most countries, including the entire United States outside of Texas.

It seems that no one walks, they get in cars to go down the street to the store. When their muscles get flabby, they go to gyms and pay for the privilege of walking on treadmills with their eyes trained on TV screens or headphones over their ears. Groundskeepers sweep the sidewalks with gasoline-powered blowers, apparently conceived of as labor-saving devices. If they want to exercise their arm muscles, they can lift dumbbells at the gym. Or they can play golf if they are rich enough. Meanwhile we are occupying countries and fighting wars to protect our oil supplies, the fuel for the grass blowers, or whatever they are.

Houston's proud skyline is veiled in smog, a symbol of former governor Bush's policy of making air-pollution regulations voluntary. The big corporations can stop polluting the air if they want to. Of course none of them want to just now. Someone at the conference I am attending said yesterday she had heard that Houston was the fifth most polluted city in America. She was corrected by a proud Houstonian who said, "No, we're fourth."

The smog is palpable. In the morning you can see it between you and whatever is across the street. I feel like I have to wave it away like cobwebs as I walk. Thanks George. The big oil companies appreciate it.

I am in town to cover a conference. Barbara Bush is a guest speaker. She is a big hit. She gets a standing ovation before she utters a word. Her dazzling white hair is piled over her head like cotton candy. Her face is highlighted by bright red lips and spots of rouge on her cheeks. I heard her give the same speech at another conference a week before.

"I'm proud to welcome you to the city George and I have called home since 1959," she drawls. After the introduction, it is word-for-word the same speech I heard a week before at another conference in New York. I recite a few lines to the person next to me before Barbara says them. Then that too gets old.

"I was recently invited to speak to a conference of plastic surgeons, " she says, "and I don't have to tell you how ridiculous that was. I was afraid they would rush the stage to get their hands on me."

I've heard practically every word, and it was excruciating the first time. She bragged about her great family, "41 and 43,""the great governor of Florida" and "the world's most precious son" in the White House. How fortunate America is, she says, to have such a "great, wise man" in the presidency at such a trying time. I slip out the door as she is reciting the anecdote about how George takes the whole family, including the grandchildren on a vacation every year and last year he took them on a cruise of the Greek islands. "I don't know how many of you have taken your grandchildren to a topless beach, but..."

The people love her. To them she represents white-picket fence America. Pleasantville. I can't understand what they like about her, about her awful family. When her husband was president it was war and recession and now her son is president and it's war and recession again, with a short reprieve in between. It's fine if you are a defense contractor, a weapons manufacturer. It's good for some high tech manufacturers, for the pharmaceuticals industry, the insurance industry, big oil of course, but not for regular working people. Scores of companies went out of business during the Gulf War. Many more are going out now. There have been thousands of layoffs. But these people love Barbara as if she were queen. I guess that's it. It's deeply ingrained peasant behavior to love your oppressors, the royals who steal from you, and then offer you protection.

I thank God that I can go back to New York, a real city where people walk. It's the most anti-Bushtopian environment in America. There you can get lost in the city along with a lot of other people who are also refugees from technofascist mall America. You can get around without a car. It's a city that somehow maintained a public transportation system in spite of the tricks pulled by Standard Oil, General Motors, Firestone Rubber and others to dismantle the country's train systems and manipulate government to turn America into a suburbanized car culture.

New York survives, in spite of the attack. Whether it came from that son of Bush family friends the bin Ladens or was orchestrated by some other nefarious combination of people, it did not kill New York, or the will of Americans to have a free society. It did not scare New Yorkers into accepting John Ashcroft's attempts to turn the country into a police state to save "our way of life." Ashcroft's attempts won't stand. At least in New York they won't. The modern feudal state may already be in effect in Houston, for all I know. New York will be an island of refuge from Nazi America, as it already is. Ashcroft's frequent warnings of more attacks won't cow the people. They can knock a building down every week if they want. We'll get used to it.

It's good to get back to New York, where Houston is pronounced "How-ston" and the redneck world of big oil and Ross Perot can be forgotten. Even in New York the Bush PR machine is more powerful than ever. They are genuflecting and slobbering about him on the TV news shows. There was a big ad for George and his wife with vacant zombie stares wishing us all a happy Thanksgiving. I saw a commercial for a show coming up in which you will be able to spend Christmas at the White House with George W. and whatever his wife's name is. Just what I'm dying to do.

But I can turn the TV off.

-- By David Cogswell

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