Merchants in Houston - Chapter 5

Hi Y'all

Contrary to expectation I had a really good sleep last night. It was my first time "home alone" (Brian in Pittsburgh, Daughter No 3 and Boyfriend in Florida) not, as some of you know only too well, my favourite situation. Like the dutiful wife Brian no doubt wishes I was, I rose with him at 5 am not so much to bid him a fond farewell but more so I could voice my pitiful enquiry about when he expected to get back. As the Dodge growled up the road in the direction of Bush International, I carefully double locked the back door and returned to bed where I found myself wide awake surrounded by complete darkness (no street lights) and an almost palpable silence broken only by the periodic clunk of the ice maker and the decidedly unnerving whispering noise which precedes yet another neck and shoulder chilling blast from the air con. I was not without defences, however, having armed myself the night before with one of the biggest guns in my arsenal of diversionary tactics, "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell. I last read this tome post A level in German translation (Dem Winde Veschwind) whilst languishing in a rain sodden tent somewhere on the outskirts of Inverness awaiting the megaphoned command to recommence picking the raspberries. Such has been my intellectual deterioration over the last 30 years that I'm ashamed to report I could only manage a couple of pages of not quite Queen's English, (the print was very small) before I was overtaken by slumber and only roused some 5 hours later by a UK friend kindly returning my phone call from the weekend. After I had (unconvincingly, I fear) reassured her that no, she hadn't got her maths wrong and no, it wasn't really still the middle of the night in Texas and yes, I was feeling alright I began to take stock and realised that the house appeared to be under attack both vertically and horizontally by persons or wild beasts unknown and that, horror of horrors, although apparently almost 11 o'clock in the morning, it was still virtually pitch black. Having checked for a "power outage" (negative) I tentatively opened the bedroom blind to discover my attacker was non other than Mother Nature, hurling sheets of water off the roof and onto the patio from where it ricocheted against the downstairs windows with a sound like an army of evil squirrels hammering to get it. It was raining as it does here from time to time, suddenly, violently and usually resulting in some degree of flooding. Quite happy, I made a cup of tea and returned to bed to watch telly only to find that practically every channel was broadcasting severe weather warnings for the Houston area including a tornado watch! Sure enough, the rain did not stop all day and at lunch time when I was bold enough to open the back door (and discover I had not locked it properly in the first place) I found the back yard under 4 -5 inches of water and the pool about to burst its banks. I won't say I panicked but I did wonder if there was a plug somewhere I should be pulling and if I could single handedly lug the patio furniture (the ones temporarily impounded by the HPD but that's another story) into the 3 car garage already full to the gunnels with Pickford's boxes. It didn't take me long to reject both courses of action and I spent the rest of the day in observation mode, going between the upstairs game room windows and the TV screen.

In the middle of the afternoon the rain died down for a while and the floods miraculously disappeared. Around 8 .00pm the second front arrived as promised accompanied by some spectacular lightening and I debated turning on the pool lights in an attempt to monitor water levels but decided that ignorance was, if not bliss, then at least preferable to knowledge which might tempt me into introducing myself to the neighbours in less than favourable circumstances ie as a raving mad English woman (a treat I like to reserve for our long suffering UK neighbours) and anyway I was now engrossed in a fascinating programme from the very civilised Public Broadcasting Service channel (no adverts) on the rise of the Kennedys, marking the imminent 40th anniversary of the assassination of JFK just up the road here in Dallas. Like most people, I remember very clearly where I was when I heard the news. It was Holy Trinity church hall somewhere in the north east of England; I was nine years old and Brown Owl was just bringing that Friday's session of Brownies to a close when the door at the rear of the hall burst open and a girl guide (Mary McNought, I think) blurted out, "Have you heard? President Kennedy has been shot!". I can't have had much awareness of political figures at that time but can still feel the shock of that announcement. This is just one of many childhood memories I must share with at least a couple of readers of "Merchants in Houston" but as far as I know I was the only one who later developed a crush on the aforementioned Ms McNought at my first (and last!) guide camp, a purely imaginary relationship that was doomed never to come to fruition after I accidentally melted a billy-can sized hole in her brand new pink plastic pacamac while cooking "cheese dreams" (a nightmarish concoction involving a strictly non-kosher mix of corned beef and dairy products) on an open campfire - just one of several mishaps which sealed my fate as far as any further al fresco adventures with the girls in blue were concerned.

Anyway, let us return to November 2003 when I awoke to brilliant sunshine after a peaceful and happily uneventful night to news that large portions of down and mid town Houston had been flooded out, several highways were closed, innumerable vehicles wrecked, 55,000 people were without electricity, 9 localised tornadoes had been reported and many homes, particularly in the poorer areas, had suffered severe structural damage with the subsequent loss of personal belongings. Thankfully there was only one reported fatality, a 17-year-old high school student, who sadly drowned in her car on the way home from school. Inspection of the back yard showed nothing worse than a strangely greenish pool full of leaves and earth worms, and, as I stood there, 4 enormous pine cones which appeared to be lobbed from the roof by yet more malevolent and elusive tree vermin. Fortunately tomorrow is the day for Josh, the Pool Man, so I swept up a few pine needles (those besoms are not just for ornament or play-acting, after all) and left it at that. I expect Josh will be late again tomorrow. I had almost given him up last week when he appeared just as it was getting dark and confided that he had had a "real tough" day. Apparently he had inadvertently dislodged a large and very heavy rock from the ornamental waterfall at one of the pool he tends and had spent a humiliating and tedious afternoon trying to retrieve it from the deep end and reposition it on the cascade to the satisfaction of the disgruntled and exacting owners. At least, that's what I think he said!

I am pleased to announce the acquisition of my very own wheels since I last reported. Yes, the fabled Mercury Mountaineer did finally materialise and very nice it is too, although I'm not convinced a V8 engine is entirely necessary for the 10 minute trip to HEB punctuated by 5 sets of traffic lights and 4 stop junctions. I don't know what these initials stand for but HEB is my grocery store of choice, a sort of Aldi deluxe with a huge range of goods at very competitive prices and no faffing around with silly loyalty cards like most of the other supermarkets here. They also have a really neat vending machine which will rent you the DVD of your choice for only a dollar a day. The display of fruit and veg is truly spectacular and much has been sampled but I'm still waiting to find out what to do with yucca root and prickly cactus leaves (no suggestions please!). As you would expect, food is generally very good quality here with a few small disappointments in the chocolate, cheese and sausage departments. Bread has also proved surprisingly problematic. As most "ordinary" American bread is sweetened I have been drawn to what is known as the "artisanal" varieties and thus it has come to pass that I have unwittingly fed my nearest and dearest ham salad sandwiches made with bread impregnated with honey and blueberry jam on French stick which was discovered (amid much indignation) to contain slivers of raw garlic Unfortunately there is no lack of opportunity to indulge our individual vices; Brian is very taken with the famous Texan Bluebell ice cream, especially the pineapple upside-down cake and lemon meringue pie flavours and I have sampled almost every flavour of Lays potato chips, even the guacamole ones which look like they're suffering from a case of terminal mould, while Daughter No 3 has developed a passion for ultra sour skittles. For 45 cents a piece you can choose from fried apple or lemon pie, glazed cherry do-nuts and brownies of almost every description. Novelty iced (or "enrobed") cakes are amazing; I must get one for Christmas but not, perhaps, the one offering a very realistic, if uninviting, impersonation of a whole roast turkey.

At the weekend I finally gave in to the many tannoyed exhortations to "get ready for The Holidays" by which is meant Thanksgiving through to the day after Christmas (there is no Boxing Day here) and persuaded Brian to buy me 2 animated and illuminated reindeer (doe and buck) to grace the front yard. I was also hankering after a complete set of Texan Christmas tree decorations (you know, cute cows, cowboy boots, cactus tinsel, fairy complete with stetson and chaps, the odd shotgun, no, only joking!) but was told I had to be adult about it and choose one or the other so the reindeer won but I might just sneak in the odd little "yalla" dog and a couple of "geetars". The rest of our, ie Brian, spare time seems to be devoted to tracking down Open Mic venues to facilitate Phase Two of Daughter No 3's musical career. Apart from another foray to what must be considered our local, the Parrot Pub, most of these establishments are to be found Downtown requiring a minimum 50 minute drive, much of it on the horrible I45 which has, however, had the unlooked for benefit of finally putting an end to No 3's complaints about the unfairness of not being able to drive over here. Audiences at venues played so far have been gratifyingly receptive with Daughter No 3 usually being approached by other musicians but alas, as yet, no A&R man! There has also been the odd glitch in the programme such as the evening when, after a few false trails and dark alleys, we stumbled upon the Next Door Coffee House, a live music venue we found on the internet. As it was (unusually) brightly lit and also because she was desperate for the loo, our intrepid youngest daughter abandoned our usual strategy of sending Brian in first for a recce and went straight in, smartly followed by Dad and Boyfriend. Bringing up the rear at a more cautious pace I was able to observe the presence of certain instantly recognisable iconography displayed above the door. Inside the lobby I found the advance party puzzling over a notice board liberally decorated with said symbols and in the corner a small bald-headed man tuning up a guitar. I decided to approach:

Me: "Pardon me Sir, is the music played here usually of a religious nature?" Him: Long pause. "Well, Maam, all music is a kinda religion to me." Me: "Oh quite so. But... is it expected that songs should have a, erm, spiritual content? Him: Even longer pause "Not necessarily. But, Maam, I sure ain't planning on playing no ZZTopp!" Me: Nervous laughter

At this point a somewhat bewildered Daughter No 3 emerged from the bathroom and in accordance with Brian's own personal take on Cartesian philosophy ("We're here now so we're stopping") we trooped into the coffee bar while I mentally removed one of our songstress's original compositions from her set and wondered what the words to "Marlene on the Wall" might actually mean. As it happened I needn't have bothered; the playlist was already signed up until 11.30 pm and, as our daughter so eloquently put it, there was no way we were staying that long! Having relieved the (coffee) bar tender of the last of his hard liquor (3 diet cokes, Boyfriend was on the wagon) we retired to an out of the way table to allow a decent interval to pass before we could make our escape thus affording ourselves the opportunity to enjoy a couple of totally uninspiring songs from my friend of the lobby, the lyrics to which were so indistinct he could have been exhorting us to espouse the joys of the occult for all we knew!

In an attempt to salvage something from the evening (it had taken us nearly an hour to get there, don't forget) Brian announced that we would now proceed to McGonigal's Mucky Duck, a more congenial establishment which he knew for a fact was just a couple of hundred yards away as he and I had been there before (this is true; it was last April, daylight and someone else was driving). Thirty five minutes and a great many blind alleys, multi storey car parks and entrances to office blocks later we probably stood a better chance of finding our way to the Dirty Duck, Church Street, Middletown than its equally insalubrious transatlantic cousin in Norfolk Street, Houston. The problem was that Norfolk Street, once a perfectly normal downtown thoroughfare, has been carved up in recent years into several short unconnected dead ends and we experienced them all. With total disregard for my very reasonable fear of ending up in a "Bonfire of the Vanities" scenario Brian, frustrated upon finding himself yet again in the forecourt of a block of townhomes, sprang from the Dodge and accosted a couple exercising a big white dog or, more accurately, allowing it to do something unmentionable on the grass verge. Now call me paranoid, but it is my contention that most people, trapped in a poorly lit cul de sac, do not welcome being accosted by an unintelligible stranger, especially one with an incomprehensible not to say unhealthy interest in birds with short webbed feet. The dog certainly thought so and let Brian know it, thus allowing his owners the opportunity to adopt that well-known defensive strategy of complete ignorance. "Sorry, we've just moved here and don't know nothing about anything". You just can't keep a good man down, however, so undeterred My Dear Husband now turns his attention to a hapless jogger who had recklessly mistimed his entrance to this particular section of Norfolk St. Naturally, the first couple saw this as their chance to escape but they had reckoned without Dog who, having apparently decided that the bearded Englishman posed no immediate threat, now preferred to regard him as an object of profound anthropological interest and was listening intently to his interrogation of the jogger which, predictably, also did not last long. "Sorry, I've just moved to the area and don't know zilch about Norfolk Street, Irish watering holes or waterfowl of any complexion". On his return to the car Brian was at first astonished then affronted to find his travelling companions variously convulsed with hysterics and the pain of an over full bladder. In what I believed to be a vain attempt to retrieve the situation I once more took up the by now very battered Key Map to Houston and, by some miracle and the aid of a pair of specs from the 1 shop in Middletown, identified yet another, hitherto unexplored, centimetre of Nightmare, sorry Norfolk, street. No sooner said than we were there and there it was, rising from the murk like the lost citadel of Atlantis, McGonigals Mucky Duck! Never, in our family at least, was a pub so enthusiastically hailed. After availing ourselves of the facilities we made our way to the backyard, so avoiding a 14 dollar per person cover charge for the not quite Simon and Garfunkel soundalikes and, huddled together for warmth and protection against the ever present mozzies, we raised our glasses to the doughty crew of the Dodge Intrepid and vowed that (after Florida) we'd be back to show them how English birds do it on the other side of the Pond!

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