Telephone Road

Telephone Road, starting with images: the beginning in Eastwood, the historic neighborhood largely gentrified but still with its ragged edges, the forest that used to be where Foley’s and the City office are now; the Tlaquepaque Market that Julio and Damaris del Carpio are building on Telephone, recreating Guadalajara in the East End; the 1920’s brick bungalow we are thinking of buying that sags in the back from water and clay soils and history; the old men who wander at the Family Dollar and Jack in the Box drinking beers in paper bags; doing laundry at the washateria at Jefferson; the peluquería in the old building on the corner where my father used to work at the dry-cleaners in the 50’s; Tex-Mex restaurants with cheese enchiladas with chili gravy for $7.50 next to Por Mis Cazuelas where tacos de queso guisado y nopales go for $1; the train tracks and the low moan of the train late at night as it crosses through the barrio; the old signs along Telephone Road that harken back to another time; the house my grandparents built and the Catholic Church my grandmother labored at for as long as she lived; the 50’s and 60’s my dad told me about, the era that Steve Earle’s song talks about:

Everybody's rockin' out on Telephone Road
Telephone Road is ten miles long
Fifty car lots and a hundred honky-tonks
Jukebox blastin' and the beer bottles ring
Jimmy banging on a pinball machine

My dad raced around these car lots, those honky-tonks. They were his territory, a secret territory that he won’t speak about anymore. “It was a different time,” he says. But if he gets a few drinks in him and we are one-on-one, the stories come out, the things he would rather not talk about openly. Racing Corvettes, getting into trouble with cops, struggling to make ends meet as the man in the house. Things he’d rather forget. But things that I piece back together living in the same stretch of road.

A few years ago, my car was having a hard time passing inspections and I explored some of these car lots on Telephone with a friend, Carlos, an insane formerly-Baptist, former Mexican Youth Revolutionary, who has celebrated his fiftieth birthday every year for at least the last ten years. Since my broke-down car needed bodywork and taillights and a long list of other repairs, I couldn’t take it just anywhere. I had to find one the crooked way. Carlos said he would take me out to try and find a sticker. We searched around parking lots near Hobby Airport, but finally, we ended up at a car lot, Sinclair’s, where an old Chilean friend of his fixed up cars. They scraped off an inspection sticker from another car (not an easy process) and popped it on my car. It sort of looked right. It worked for a while till a young guy at the Jiffy Lube hooked me up with a better looking sticker for an eighty dollar service fee.

As far as the jukebox and the beer bottles, the closest I have come was with a group of pals who all of us together formed a Scary Adventure Club. One of the club members lived on the southern stretches of Telephone south of the Loop. Right in front of her house was one of many Korean owned lounges that line that part of the Road, this one called the Maccalita Lounge. One night, being drunk and high and with more courage than normal, we wandered into the place and bought beers. We were the only customers for a while, no jukebox and no sawdust or beer bottles on the floor. We stayed for a few hours, as the Korean ladies that worked there attended to the lone strangers who wandered into the place. Many middle aged Latino and white men, they would go deep into the bowels of the place and sit down on one of the many slumping, ancient couches that lined the walls and were jumbled randomly throughout. We heard noises, saw bouncing heads, and then the men would leave as soon as they were finished. Not exactly a honky-tonk.

Telephone Road today isn’t the same kind of place it used to be. On the far reaches of Telephone out by the Beltway is an old antiques and flew market that has been transformed into La Pulga – overpriced illegal Mexican cheese, churros, miles of stuff set up in the back of pick-up trucks, on small tables with umbrellas and tarps to cover when it rains. The traffic, mainly pick-up trucks and SUV’s backs up for miles waiting to enter the parking area. The place teems with people wandering around the rows and rows of stalls both in the old antique/flea market section that is indoors and outside where the place explodes in every direction, selling everything from compact discs, DVD’s, clothes, toys, tools, bikes, boots, parakeets, rabbits, washing machines, refrigerators. This ain’t Steve Earle’s Telephone Road.

And yet there is something about how it is today that is not entirely separated from the past, from where the way it used to be. Telephone still has a reputation. A girl at work, Cuban, American, asks me if it’s safe on Telephone Road, if I can walk around after dark. Another girl, a Mexican American, says she wouldn’t ride around in that neighborhood on her bike, especially not after dark or really at any time. Most of my mother’s family, who are old-time West University white folks, have never and would never come to Telephone. It wouldn’t cross their minds and hasn’t for generations. My dad tells me that he proposed to my mother because he was tired of driving that far across the city to pick her up and take her home. It would, he explained logically, be much simpler just to get married. They were hitched three weeks after my father asked for her hand in the sitting room in West U.

Walter Benjamin wrote that of all the existing descriptions of cities, a great minority are actually written by natives of those cities. “The superficial pretext—the exotic and the picturesque—appeals only to the outsider. To depict a city as a native would calls for other, deeper motives—the motives of a person who journeys into the past, rather to foreign parts.” In a city like Houston, there is little time and space for this kind of extended foray into the past, into the city as we live and have lived it. Houston is a modern, forgetful, un-remembering place. A dis-remembering, dismembering place. A city that grew by eating its neighbors, that expanded out like a cancer in Southeast Texas.

But I get lost in Houston, in the history. The Gulf Coast is a thick place – humid air heavy with heat, with moisture, with history. Quoting passages from historical books, the historical record, the official history, I could get lost for ages in the websites, the yellowed pages of the archive, the repertoire of stories, anecdotes and footnotes to a history most often ignored in the everyday life of this low-lying, easily flooded metropolis.

What is it then, to take one street, one road, one neighborhood and enter it, write of it, journey through it, not in the way of an outsider but as one who lives here, but as one who has generations here? For me, the East End has power. Until recently, I thought my family’s connection to the East End was only on my father’s side—the family came from various farming towns in Central and East Texas and settled in First Ward and in Magnolia by the Houston Ship Channel. My father’s grandparents settled there, then moved into the emerging neighborhoods around Telephone; theirs was Broadmoor. But recently, reading a journal written by my great-great-grandmother on my mother’s side, I found out that seven generations back her people lived and died in Harrisburg. Founded before 1826, the town was one of the original Anglo settlements in Texas and in the mid-nineteenth century a rival to be state capital. These generations are still buried somewhere in Harrisburg, although we don’t know exactly where. See, Harrisburg was burned in 1836 by Santa Anna; it staggered back to life despite the fire, but lost ground to Houston. In 1926, Harrisburg was eaten by Houston, becoming part of the East End. More layers of history.

There is so much past on Telephone Road, Harrisburg Boulevard, Macario Garcia, Wayside, the Ship Channel, the parks, the neighborhoods. I want to write these places, these stories. . . but let it be clear that I am not exposing something new, discovering an unknown thing. I am not trying to speak for those who have no voice. I have an imperfect, personal vision, and I only provide a partial take, a walking tour on constantly shifting ground.

A few years ago, Perry Homes put up signs near the train tracks on Telephone that announced a huge townhome and single family home community would be built on an abandoned industrial site. I went with my boyfriend to wander around the remains of the warehouses and out-buildings that were still on the site. We walked into the largest building, sparrows (or were they bats?) alighting in the upper reaches of the shell of a structure. We screamed and listened to the echoes. We took pictures and documented in our minds and on film what was about to disappear. A year later the Perry Homes signs came down and For Sale signs were erected in their place. The company said the investment was still too risky, but it’s only a matter of time before they come back. There is an urgency to these stories then, a need not to forget, before a larger wave of redevelopment remakes these neighborhoods again.

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