It’s a sturdy sort of empathy, the kind that makes things happen—whether it’s after the loss of a sports team, or before three hours of traffic, or when the waters are rising.
Every few weeks, some friend or enemy of mine crashes at my place in Houston. They’re usually coming from out of town. They’ll be on their way to New Orleans, or headed home to Dallas. My spot’s just off the highway, tucked behind gas stations and taquerias—but somehow my people find it, hungry and more than a little pissed about the traffic. Sometimes they’ve brought a partner. Or a parent. Or their kid. One time, a buddy of mine brought his Labrador in a blanket.
If they’re from the North, they’ll harp on the Southern Factor. They’ll praise Austin, the city’s westward cousin. It yields a more obvious sheen. If they’re coming in from too far away, they’ll claim there’s nothing to do in town, although it’s not like they’ve read the guidebooks or anything: The city’s just too unwieldy.
And the first thing I’ll tell these folks—My cohort! My friends!—is that they’re deadass wrong.
Houston’s the fourth most populous city in the States and, at something like 600 square miles, even roomier than Los Angeles. The city’s limits, and its outskirts, consist of several counties adorned with sports teams and dubious public transit and the usual trappings of a major American city. It was named after General Sam Houston, a one-time president for the Republic of Texas, and incorporated in 1837 after the Battle of San Jacinto. The discovery of oil in 1901 created an influx of capital, and in conjunction with our ports in the Gulf, beside the burgeoning railroads, the footholds were set for the city to cash in.
But it was the establishment of the Texas Medical Center forty years later, and the Johnson Space Center in 1961, that solidified Houston’s hold as an industrial center for the country and the globe. Our population grew accordingly. Those ports accelerated its diversification: Greater Houston is the most ethnically diverse metro area in the States. Its residents speak over ninety languages. And due to the regular influx of migration into the state (from all ends), the city supports one of the country’s youngest populations en masse. In 2016, the census grew by 56,600 people, which was a decline from the previous year by 37 percent. Some nights, stuck on I-10 at 5:00 p.m., it feels like there are entirely too many other bodies. You’ll drive four blocks in fifty minutes, all but ready for the Rapture. Other mornings, driving I-59 to the north side, you’ll feel like the only person on the planet—the strip malls stretch for miles, with a mid-sized library’s worth of stories behind each door.
The city is mostly filthy. There’s entirely too much sprawl. The infrastructure is draconian in its unwillingness to adapt, and in an effort to expand its horizons, the metropolis risks leaving its stalwart behind. But for every Houston I could give you, and every variation you come to know, and every highly individualized iteration that I spew to my guests, there’s another Houston inside of that, and then a third one on the periphery, and then the fourth that we’ll never decipher, privy only to the interlocutors prescient enough to open themselves to it.
I’m saying that we’re a city of hubs. A city made up of cities. Entirely cosmopolitan, nearly autonomous entities. Between the stained gloss of Downtown, and the suburbanized cool of the Heights, and the controlled chaos of Montrose, and Alief’s unvarnished sprawl, and the refugee haven of Bellaire, and Katy’s eponymous “Little Venezuela,” and Memorial’s moderated glam, and the manicured sheen of Memorial, each hub is bullish in its resistance to blending into its counterparts. Houston is its hubs, and its hubs are distinctly themselves.
So you get a miniature Hanoi in some places. You get Nassau over here, and Dubai and over there. Some of the most marginalized populations in America take their coffee beside some of the country’s richest and most privileged. And while some folks attribute the blending of cultures to the city’s lack of regulated zoning, I think the likelier catalyst is our disdain for accoutrements and formalities altogether. Houstonians, of all stripes, go where they want to go. In a general sense, they don’t much care whether or not it’s where they’re supposed to be.
Explaining those layers to someone who’s not a local, or anyone who’s gone away and come back, can be an ordeal. The city’s like this now, but also it’s also like that. And a little bit of those. And some of that other thing, too. There’s always the melting pot analogy, but, really, it’s more like hot pot—a dish that’s dipped in three, four, and five times, with less regard for the pleasantries than the experience.
Underlining all of that diversity, the city runs on those same multiplicities—so you’re more likely to find Egyptians and Igbos and Koreans speaking Spanish than not. Or black folks mumbling in Mandarin. Or white kids sounding out Tagalog. Depending on your hub, your fluency in English is less of a determinant than an addendum. I was only months from my twenties when I realized that was the case. (Cue violins.) The satellite suburb I grew up in, on the outskirts of Houston, was pretty diverse on its own. My parents came to the city from Oklahoma, by way of Florida, after the briefest sojourn in Kentucky. They were attracted to the area’s layers, and the promise of a varied population. So our particular suburb proved ideal: No three people really looked alike. We were nearly always gucci. Unless you stayed too long in the whiter parts, mostly everyone got along.
It wasn’t until I started bouncing around that I realized that this wasn’t the case for Texas en masse, let alone the standard for the entire fucking country. But where, in some cities, a black kid wandering too far invited scrutiny at best, and a check-in from the cops—or their self-appointed counterparts—at worst, no one really turned their heads at my dropping by and breathing up all of their air, whether the predominant demographic was Vietnamese, Filipino, Haitian, or Indigenous. The most common refrains were: Have you eaten? Why not? Then are you hungry? And whether or not I had money (I never did), there was always room at the table. Even if you were only around for a change, there was room for you, too.
And those hubs did change me. They opened my eyes. I ventured out of my satellite only sparingly as a teen, until one day I drifted further, and then a little further after that. By the time I realized my orbit had grown, and my particular biases had withered, along with their underlying fears, the folks I met had already shifted my perspective. They restructured my sense of the possible and fattened me up. The trans folks I met saw me, and took me into their arms. The undocumented folks I met saw me and took me into their arms.
I came out in those hubs, again and again. They showed me that there’s no one way to be. I hung around bars and made out in cantinas and slumped around discounted Chinese diners by feeder roads, and I made friends that took me in, from all over the world and just around the corner. They were learning the city, too. We educated one another. We smoked in the shops underground. We fell in and out of love, until all we could do was laugh it off. We chalked it up to the process. We laughed at the doctors sprinting to work. We visited each other in the hospital when we flew too close to the sun. There are loads of ways to fall for a city, because home is where you love, but it’s also where you feel you can be loved back.
A few weeks back, I saw some kids at this bar a few streets from my apartment. None of them looked the same. They rocked the table beside mine, and they were comfortable with one another in this way that age erodes, and when one of them called a jeer at some hunched-over passersby, they fell over each other, laughing, high off their own company—and it’s a strange, salty thing to catch yourself in someone else. You sort of see where they’ve come from. You sort of wonder where they’ll go. Then you can’t help but question where you’ve ended up yourself. Watching those kids, thinking of my friends, I started laughing, too, until I was bent over, fucking bawling over the salsa; and of course they stopped to stare, but it didn’t even matter. This was all a part of their education, too.
Everyone in Houston’s got their thing they won’t find anywhere else. I’ve got this buddy whose niche is getting massages in Midtown. I’ve got another friend who lives in the suburbs, but swears by Gulfgate for her hair. (As she would say, They know.) Some people dig the ice houses. Others can’t part with the symphonies. The other day, I asked my father how much longer he had in the city, and he told me that he wanted to leave, but he didn’t know if he could. He’d miss the international airport. He’d miss all of the food. A city with Houston’s phở, he said, was as good a place to die as any.
What keeps me put are those hubs. And more than that, the people in them. The word folks throw around when they talk about Houston is “scrappy,” or some other synonym for “resilient.” But, honestly, I think it’s just another way of being present between those bayous, under all that humidity, when each of your neighbors is from somewhere else and you’ve come to expect nothing less. It’s the glow that emerges when you give yourself up to difference. A sturdy sort of empathy. And not the one that’s always photogenic, but the kind that makes things happen. Across language barriers. Over economic boundaries. Whether it’s after the loss of an unreliable sports team, or before three hours of reliable traffic, or when the waters are rising and your home is flooding and you’re in the garbage truck with your neighbors at midnight because that’s the only vehicle strong enough to roll through the tide. Or whether, after taking that ride, and being placed in that shelter in the center of the city, you kiss your kids on the head and tuck them into some borrowed blankets, but you don’t cower or count the clock or wish you’d left the week before. Or maybe you do, but only for a little while. Because then you start folding towels, since you’re still awake, and some people aren’t. Or you grab a microphone, because you’re bilingual. Or you move donation boxes, because you’re strong. Or you manage the line of shelter-seekers, or you track their family members on a spreadsheet, or you’re just around, weathering it out with everyone else, because sometimes that’s all it takes.
I don’t know what to tell anyone who asks me how to make a life here, but I can tell them that this empathy is a true thing, a mineral that’ll stay in the ground.
Although, sometimes, those conversations are a little easier: one friend, sleeping on my couch for the week from Virginia, told me it felt like she was in Mexico. But also Poland, she added. And Lagos, too. So we sat there, naming the possibilities, until it finally got dark and we walked up the block for some tacos down the road—or another world, so to speak, to see what it had for us. At the very least, it was something to do.
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.