Bearing Witness

This is the story of how I took on the fourth-largest city in the United States.

I watched the entire 663-mile journey from Delta’s Main Cabin and tried to recall the faint white lines marking the borders of states on my dad’s Rand McNally.  I pictured them on the patches of green and brown below and traced their shapes on the window. Alabama. Mississippi. Was that the Mississippi River?

We chased the sun westward until day gave way to night.  The MD-88 made its descent, landing at Bush-Intercontinental Airport, the larger of two serving greater Houston.  IAH lacked the sights and sounds of international airports.  There were no high-end eateries or kiosks dispensing wearables, no throngs of people.  Rather than wait for the SuperShuttle, I hailed an Uber ride into the city.  I was looking for a taste of the real Houston experience.  One can imagine my surprise to be greeted with a thick Turkish accent.

I was bound for River Oaks neighborhood with a stranger.  I could not open my eyes wide enough to take in the sights and sounds of the bustling city at dusk. He must have been reading my mind since he began describing Houston’s rich cultural heritage and of its present-day diversity.  Sensing my genuine curiosity, he began to share his story.  He had emigrated from Turkey seeking a new start trauma; his mother died when he was young, and his father, unable to cope, became abusive toward him and his two older brothers. He chose Houston for a freedom of one kind or another.  What he found is that he really enjoyed Houston’s vibrant western club scene, line dancing and drinking with his buddies, an eclectic group of men and women from all over the world. They were brought together in one city by happenstance. 

He carried me safely down Interestate 69, beneath overpasses and under bridges, until finally pulling into the small enclave of a brightly-lit hotel on a busy street. He excused himself to retrieve my bag from his trunk. I thanked him, said goodbye and proceeded into the hotel lobby to check in.

Rustic earth tones dominated the Crowne Plaza Houston River Oaks lobby.  Shades of burnt orange and brown adorned the floors and walls.  Texas charm and understated luxury intertwined marvelously. The front desk expected me, and I was greeted warmly with a room key.

After exchanging tired ‘goodbyes’ with fellow guests, I stepped off the elevator and onto the seventeenth floor.  I found my room, inserted the plastic key card into the metal slot and pushed open the heavy door.  I closed it and, with the gust of air that followed, said goodnight to Houston.  I suddenly found myself all alone in a strange city.

Armed with a full itinerary, I hit the hotel breakfast buffet early the next morning.  A nod to local producers, real bacon added a nice touch to an otherwise unremarkable hotel breakfast.  I picked up the crispier bits on the way outside to meet my Uber driver.

He met me at the curb in a shining gold Lincoln Navigator.  When I reached up to pull open the rear passenger door, I was greeted in very coarse baritone. “Where ya from?”

I must have satisfied his curiosity, as the Houston-native driver and I spent the remainder of our time together in silence. The distance between River Oaks and my next destination was just under three miles. After only a few minutes of awkward silence, I was left at the main entrance of Greater Houston Area’s most famed retail center.

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Indoor ice skating rink at The Galleria

The Galleria is as beautiful as it is large, with ornate storefronts belonging to the likes of Fendi and Salvatore Ferragamo, as well as H&M and Zara. I wandered for as long as I could, in awe of the shops, until I caught a glimpse of what was arguably the mall’s best attraction for both active and passive participants, alike – a large ice skating rink full of children. Houston summers are hot and humid, so the rink’s popularity was unsurprising. I watched those on ice perform figure 8s and 3-turns until I grew listless. I decided I somehow deserved a souvenir from what was easily the most impressive mall I had ever visited, so a pair of skinny jeans made its way back to the mall entrance with me as I awaited my next chauffeur.

He was from Jordan. His distinguished facial features – dark, curly hair, full, pink lips and piercing brown eyes – made him incredibly handsome. After we exchanged some small talk, he abruptly questioned my interest in our destination and my interest in “the Jewish.” He explained that his people did not believe in those kinds of things, a statement which at first I did not understand. Given that my knowledge of cultural relations in the Middle East was second-hand at best, I did not want to be insensitive and thought it was more respectful to steer the conversation in another direction.

Lightening the mood, we chatted briefly about Jordan – about the people, the food and that which led him to the United States and, eventually, Houston: what he called “the American dream,” the promise of endless opportunity, “if you work for it.”

With that, he left me at the entrance of my chosen destination and, in spite our differences, wished me well.

Before the first guided tour of the day began at the Houston Holocaust Museum, I took a moment to look through the Art of Gaman Exhibit dedicated to the Japanese and Japanese-American men, women and children unfairly interned during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Furniture and utensils fashioned from wood, scrap metals and other bare supplies were on display, along with pictures of many displaced families. Neither their stoic faces nor the images of the shanties in which they were forced to live would ever leave my memory.

It was a sobering start to the permanent exhibit at the Houston Holocaust Museum entitled Bearing Witness: A Community Remembers. Our tour guide, Ruth, was a small woman of a particular age whose piercing stare and deliberate voice commanded the room of over thirty noisy and restless visitors. Gathered together in front of a large picture of a grade school-aged children, Ruth asked each of us to pick the face of just one child to remember and to carry with us throughout the tour.

She led us first through a brief history of the Jewish people dating back to their origins in the Middle East, and we progressed quickly from the first of many major oppressions against the Jewish people to later affronts – from Christians, Muslims and entire Middle Eastern nations – until we found ourselves on the Eve of Kristallnacht when Ruth’s voice lowered to a solemn whisper. She never again raised her voice and so, from the Night of Broken Glass, we moved deeper and deeper into the execution of Adolf Hitler’s ultimate plan to completely exterminate the Jewish people.

Our journey through the pictures, videos and stories of one of the darkest times in European history, as well as stories of its unlikely heroes such as the Danes was at times painful; it was, however, a necessary and disturbing reminder of the inhumanity which undoubtedly still exists (see: the murder of Terence CrutcherISIS, Kim Jong-un, or the American prison-industrial complex). Perhaps even more touching, Ruth concluded the tour by revealing her father’s very personal journey from Germany to Denmark and, eventually, to the United States during the War. However, this lone highlight was overshadowed; by the end of our tour, we discovered that none of the children from the picture where we started had survived the horrors inflicted on the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis.

Indeed, my mood was somber, but the sunshine outside beckoned. I stood outside of the large black doors to the museum and directed my gaze down the street. There was what looked like a hospital and, beyond that, a large park. I had time to kill, so I made my way toward the open greenspace.

Hermann Park shares the neighborhood with Houston’s Museum District, Rice University and the Texas Medical Center and is lined with benches comfortably shaded by large moss-covered trees.

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McGovern Centennial Gardens in Hermann Park

I encountered a wheelchair-bound man in the McGovern Centennial Gardens, entranced by the waterfall, and sat next on the park bench beside him. His wife, though several years his junior, was a dark-haired beauty, and she took her place beside me. Her deliberate hand gestures, even wiping beads of sweat from her brow, were regal, and she led with experience and wisdom gained over the years.

“So what brought you to Houston?”

I explained that my impromptu solo journey had been inspired in part by rebelliousness and by an insatiable curiosity about other ways of life. It was her story, however, which was much more captivating. She had been born a pauper in Armenia. Her husband, a wealthy American, had fallen for her while traveling abroad and decided that he had to have her as his wife. He offered her family a dowry and whisked her away to a new world. It was the kind of romance I had only read about in novels.

She continued regaling me with stories of her Armenian-American blended family, her non-traditional daughter and African-American beau, and of entrepreneurial pursuits selling Armenian chocolates from her home kitchen. Her husband, however, now depended on her care. As if stewing in the sun, he grew visibly agitated. Before leaping from her seat, she left me with the suggestion of a book – Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Then she and her love left me there on the bench, only the scent of her perfume remaining.

By then the sun was beating down from overhead. It was hot, and there was one more activity on my itinerary, the one to which I looked forward most. I opened the Uber app and requested another driver. This time, she was a Houston-native.

I jumped into the backseat of her Toyota Corolla after a dangerous attempt at jaywalking. “Hotel ICON?”

I let out an exhausted confirmation, and eyeing my sweat-drenched clothes, she cranked up the air conditioning. The small car whipped around a few street corners as we talked about her daughter, my hometown and hers, as well as the usual sights of any big city on a Saturday afternoon. Finally, I arrived in the very heartbeat of the city and said goodbye to my latest friend.

Inside the historic Hotel ICON, owned in part by Magic Johnson of NBA fame, a motley group assembled near the centerpiece of the lobby – its large, antique bar.

‘Korman,’ originally of Lafayette, Louisiana, led us out of the hotel lobby and into the streets of Downtown Houston, rife with music from the Bayou Festival goings on in nearby Market Square Park. He was our tour guide for the afternoon and made great care to share the histories of some of Downtown Houston’s longest-standing structures.

 

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Our group consisted of two married couples, friends by way of the PTA at the local prep-school attended by their children. We followed Korman, our fearless leader, in lock-step through downtown and the goings-on: a live jazz band and pots and pots of fresh-caught, steamed crawfish. It was the Houston Creole Festival, an annual celebration of locals of Creole descent.

Korman led us first to Fusion Taco, a small eatery that began as a food truck serving up gourmet tacos. Diced cucumber, tomatoes and house-made raita brightened up the lamb keema taco, while the tempura shrimp taco and wasabi aioli-based slaw packed a sneaky punch. After a quick round of beers on the house, we set out on foot again.

Next was El Big Bad, best known for flavor-infused tequilas, as well as six spectacular and very different salsas. I opted for three – a peanut-based salsa, one of charred tomatoes and a classic salsa verde – to accompany my blueberry margarita made with jalapeno-infused tequila.

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Indoor ice skating rink at The Galleria



Sambuca
 offered a change of pace with its posh downtown location on Texas Avenue and elegant dining room. We dropped in for a two-course tasting. First were a caprese salad and beet salad; tuna tartare, seared breast of duck and a chicken and shrimp tostada rounded out the second and final course.

 

 


We sat down for a final meal at Batanga, a Latin-fusion restaurant serving up small plates and classic mojitos.

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Indoor ice skating rink at The Galleria

After the tour, Korman returned to the Hotel ICON and back to his life as a full-time assistant principal at a local middle school and part-time Airbnb host extraordinaire. The couples, however, and I elected for more conversation over drinks, and later the married couple from Houston who warmly referred to me as an “ambitious youngster” offered to drive me back to River Oaks for which I as genuinely appreciative. They had embraced a lone stranger from out of town, and for an evening I didn’t feel alone in a foreign place.

My heart and stomach were full as I sleepily boarded an empty elevator bound for the seventeenth floor.

The next morning, a final Uber driver from an unknown place arrived at the Crowne Plaza Houston River Oaks to take me back to the airport. On this morning, I was distracted, and as the sun began to rise over storm clouds my mind was with Houston, its sights and the sounds and the smells and the tastes I experienced in a whirlwind 48 hours.

The sleepy airport showed signs of life as shopkeepers lifted the iron gates separating them from passersby. I made my way towards the gate to await the call for departing passengers and reflected on the previous days. Houston was a modern city, where tall Stetsons like in the old Westerns were few and far between. The people were warm and welcoming, and the culinary scene was diverse and thriving.

We followed the sunlight eastward, touching down in an Atlanta lit by day, and I made my way through the familiar sights and sounds of a busy, international airport.

If you are planning a trip to Houston, check out some of the highlights from my adventure!

Batanga

908 Congress Ave
(713) 224-9500

Crowne Plaza Houston River Oaks

2712 Southwest Fwy
(713) 523-8448

El Big Bad

419 Travis St
(713) 229-8181

Hermann Park Conservancy

1700 Hermann Dr
(713) 524-5876

Houston Culinary Tours

701 Avenida de las Amerivas
(713) 853-8100

Fusion Taco Canteen and Cocktails

4706 N Main St
(713) 422-2992

Holocaust Museum Houston

9220 Kirby Dr, #100
(713) 942-8000

Sambuca Restaurant

909 Texas Ave
(713) 224-5299

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