We Go to the Park to Go Somewhere Else: On Houston’s Green Havens
You’re in the city, but you aren’t. You don’t have to spend any money. No one’s asking about your documentation. You don’t have to do much at all except for exist, and open your eyes.
My father used to drive us to the park, which I hated. But every weekend after lunch, regardless of the weather, we cruised the balmy miles from West Houston into the city. Once we’d finally made it, we set up shop on a bench. He’d read for a couple of hours. I sat around in the grass.
For all of its concrete sprawl, even in the early nineties, Houston’s inner-loop made room for green spaces. The city was hard-line industry, and the city was churning oil, but its residents defied the gods of both for a grassy patch to lunch. Or a set of swings with a water fountain. Or some slope to walk their dogs.
For my dad and me, our usual spot sat just along Highway 6: a grainy expanse of sky and dry grass, littered with holes and flowing community gardens and growing murals and dog shit. On the weekends, teams of Indian women turned out in droves for bocce, and an assortment of Korean families raced their black neighbors for the grills. My father and I posted up just beyond all of that, on some benches by a soccer goal and a sandbox and this slide. We heard the shouts from a close match, or the scattered laughter from the barbecues. Then he’d turn back to his book. I stayed bored out of my mind. And I could never time exactly when he’d signal for us to leave, but, eventually, he’d look up from his Asimov or his Butler or his Herbert and head toward the truck, with me stumbling behind him. Me in some Gundam hoodie, and my father in camo pants. If it sounds like a goofy picture, that’s probably because it was.
This went on for years. Mostly on Saturdays. It was ingrained in our morning rhythms, just like taking a piss, or blasting John Legend, or frying some eggs. I never asked what the impetus was, why my father saw fit to take us out of our daily revolutions—and, as long as we went, I never came to appreciate it. But, slowly, I grew to not hate it. It became this thing we did, as natural as anything else.
When, and if, people find themselves thinking of Houston, what usually comes to mind is the sprawl. Abandoned lots. Strip malls stretching for hundreds of yards, with miles and miles of road, and all of it underlaid by the occasional bayou. Gray is the first color that comes to mind.
Through all of our everything, there’s a stupefying chunk of nothing; but for all of that emptiness, you’re likely to find a green space. Houston never misses an opportunity to dedicate them. There’s Hermann Park, by the zoo. There’s George Bush Park in the suburbs, stretching just under eight thousand acres. You’ve got Moody Park on the Northside, and Market Square Park downtown, and you’ve got folks so ingrained in the city’s lore that they’ll rattle another nine or ten offhand. Which is hardly uncommon.
But it’s also a paradox: Families in Greater Houston weigh whole neighborhoods on their surrounding parks, but they’ll drive their F150s, guzzling gas and spewing fumes, across the highway and into town and back about five days a week. Houston, it seems, is always resisting the city that it wants to be. We just can’t fully commit. So you have festivals in Memorial Hermann downtown, a few blocks from life-changing smog in East End. You have Discovery Green, an oasis in the city’s polluted core. You have patches carved out in the hearts of outlet malls, tucked in the middle of nowhere, spaces you’d think might be wholly concrete but they’re actually chocked full of seniors and babies and folks loafing around under trees.
As Houston, for better and worse, makes its claim as a global city, with all of the sheen that moniker implies, and the inequities it fosters, one thing we won’t lack is an allegiance to greenery. And as the weekend soccer leagues of recent refugees, the stoned high-schoolers flying model planes, and any other ragtag patch of locals know, that’s one of our many gems.
It’s why, as my father and I watched Harvey’s waters rise on our porch, we stood with our toes dipped in the water, monitoring the news for the second straight day. Eventually, the broadcast blipped towards shots of our old park. We didn’t say anything as it screened, but we looked at each other when it passed.
As I got older, I took to frequenting those parks alone. I still don’t know how it happened. There wasn’t a rhyme or reason to my weekend migrations, but eventually I settled into something like a routine: I’d grab a banh mi and a four-dollar paperback, and then I’d sit beside a cluster of benches for a while.
Hit up any space in Houston for long enough, and you’ll start to notice patterns: the Thai dude who hovers above the mossy benches, most mornings, to feet the cats. Or the Pakistani girls congregating on a blanket, hunched over iPhones, talking about boys. There were the black women lunching on the benches behind me, and the mother and daughter walking laps around the parking lot, and the loose assortment of young folks rolling down the hill in front of us, for no other discernible reason than because it was tall.
For months, I watched this Honduran couple lunch in the grass every weekend. They’d hustle into a formation, with the guy still in his soccer jersey. His partner cradled the baby in this faded light blue blanket. They followed the same routine every Saturday: They’d eat, argue, and leave with the kid. The folks around them looked up from time to time, but once they settled into civility, we always turned away.
But then, one day, they were really going at it, and all of a sudden their kid just started walking. And they both shut up. All of their onlookers were speechless. And we all just watched this baby do its thing for a moment. After those first few steps, she fell, but it was a jubilant fall, and we all cheered her on.
The couple looked a little embarrassed, but they smiled at all of us, for the first time in weeks.
One day, I told my father about this. We were eating barbecue at this joint in Katy. Most of the folks we sat with were white, and burly, and hungry. The air stank of grease and pork. Eventually my father looked at me, still chewing, and said, But of course she started walking. Most of us do.
A few years back, I met this guy at a park downtown. He was drawing something in a notebook and I couldn’t tell what it was. I never walk up to people like that, it’s just not something I do, but that time, I did—I asked him what it was.
He looked me over once. Then he said it was open space. He was trying to get it on the page. You hardly ever saw that in Houston.
For the next little while, I’d see this guy at the park, and he’d be sketching in his book, and I’d find some excuse to wander over. Mostly, we watched the other park-goers. Or I’d mooch off of his lunch. Or we’d walk around the pool framing the center of the park, smoking cigarettes silently, and just being in motion. He drew his way through two sketchbooks, and I’d leaf the pages, pointing at the things he’d drawn. When I was off (I was always off), he’d take my hand and find the thing for me: that fountain, or that tree, or that ledge, or that stoop. We’d started meeting every few days by then, so the contact didn’t shake me. He seldom drew people, and when I asked why that was, he said that the park was more interesting: It took longer to change.
At one point, he told me this was the quietest start to a relationship he’d had, and it shook me a bit. I hadn’t known that’s what was happening.
We lasted a little over a month. The space, it turns out, wasn’t enough to sustain us. But I still saw him, from time to time, drawing in different spaces, and we’d make eye contact, or we’d nod, and sometimes share a grin. But after every one of those connections, we’d look at the space around us, since that, really, was what brought us together. Nothing else would’ve made as much sense.
If there’s anything that sticks out about these spaces in Houston, it’s their ability to take you somewhere else. You’re in the city, but you aren’t. If a metropolis is made up of many hubs, then its parks are their siloed havens. You don’t have to spend any money. No one’s asking about your documentation. You really and truly don’t have to do much at all, except for maybe exist, and open your eyes a bit. I still haven’t asked my father what he saw in all our park visits when I was a kid, but that’s what I eventually found.
Lately, I’ve shifted spaces. Now I visit a tiny garden by the museum district, one of my favorite spaces in the whole fucking city. It’s just behind the zoo. You’ve got the outdoor orchestra’s amphitheater behind it. And, beside a tiny little railway, you’ve got this space that’s mostly just cherry trees and pond water with some benches. A cottage sits in the center, but no one lives there. A sign is posted next to it, asking visitors to be a little more quiet.
And that’s what most of the folks who show up are looking for: a chance to listen deeply, with themselves, or in a crowd.
I haven’t brought a boyfriend here yet. I haven’t brought my father, either. It’s mine, for a little while, until it’s time to pass it off. And that’s always been interesting to me, the way the context of a place changes. It’s the same, and then you’re different. When you’re different, it’s the same.
Bryan Washington is the author of Lot, with fiction and essays appearing in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, BuzzFeed, Vulture, The Paris Review, Boston Review, Tin House, One Story, Bon Appétit, MUNCHIES, American Short Fiction, GQ, FADER, The Awl, Hazlitt, and Catapult. He’s the recipient of an O. Henry Award, and he lives in Houston.