(changes wanky headline, corrects beer jerky to beef jerky)
A week back from a work trip to Houston and San Antonio, Texas, and I've finally been able to blog the experience. This attempt at covering What I Saw during those four nights and five days is a dwarf in comparison with Nina’s regular, real-time and photo-supported travelogues
With audio and video to hand and a bit of space on a half-empty plane, the 10-hour journey went as well as any flight can for someone with a fear of flying. For in-flight entertainment, I watched No Country for Old Men (providing a indication of geography perhaps with its New Mexico/West Texas backdrop, not to mention Javier Bardem’s controlled evil in pursuit of his pesos), and listened to Radiohead’s Rainbows and Mark Lamarr’s show. Personal media came in the form of an old Skream mix, it serving not only as dubstep manna but a UK cipher for the Americans and a qualification of difference from my older, wiser corporate Britpanions, if anyone were to hear or be interested. No, they’re all mature, fear-free and asleep. Then came Foals’ debut
. I must admit I have been enjoying all the band’s propaganda about how good and how different swimmers they were to the rest of the bottomless indie-dance pool. That and an impressive performance on Shyter Later a few months back. All the stuff about the profound influence of proper dance on their sound was also entertaining but also proved to have negligible import – only one track took any programmed beat and made more out of the electronic flutters. That said, after time rarely invested in a full album play, there is something different about them, and it’s broadly located in a lack of rockism. There is no ‘I’m the star’ in the lead guy – indeed the vocals are set back in Sitek’s mix– and the two guitars likewise aren’t thrust centre stage but really do work to fuel the rhythm, real new wave catalysts. Time for another DVT-busting walk down to the lav.
Always lightheaded after completing a flight, this time my Brit swagger in the humid afternoon was definitely misplaced as by the time I reached customs I’d realised I’d left my CD players and batch of CDs on the plane. Cocky cock. Reflection on that in the Homeland Security queue. My first encounter with an American on his patch then came with the mild grilling and fingerprinting. It took two hours of driving in the hire car on highly elevated freeways before we found our corner of Houston, a basic chain hotel for the night. I went down the end of the block to pick up my usual essentials, carbonated piss, fatty crisps and other snacks – noticing that disarming service-centred staff attitude, coming across a 25-story condo jutting out of the sky. With the general scale so big, a pedestrian can’t really get a good perspective on even a small area of the place. We convened back at the bar and went off for a slap-up Mexican at the other end of the street, and a few last drinks in a Mexican bar on the way back, now feeling motion sickness.
The following day’s editorial shindig in a much slicker and smarter hotel a few miles away went well – weirdly I didn’t get the nerves when I did my turn but this did leave me to miss out some important information, and this left a few hours for seeing the US consumerist square in the face – at a shopping mall. No option here, we were waiting on our ride to "San Antone", and not surprisingly the experience didn’t go well. Lots of bewildering walking up and down the levels, trying to make up reasons to go into shops, lots of puzzling why people were walking so slowly (because this is their livez, motherfucker), lots of pretty Latinos headed into a wedding in an adjacent hotel, no little despond after I got through to my wife and heard City had lost. In the wait outside the dropoff point we also got a great show of all the latest massive cars (the Cadillac Escalade
being the blingy jaw-dropper), and the seeming pride taken by the obese as they get dropped off to walk the five yards into the centre. Lately developed oil and petrochemical centre Houston is more pro car than other cities, but this little lifestyle snapshot was indicative of unsustainable lifestyles across the world.
We then did our bit for pre-driving season activity by riding down to San Antonio, with any guilt assuaged by the fact four of us were in one car obviated by the editor’s wife following on behind solo. Stopped off in the tiny town of Colombus near this stretch of the Colorado river, the woman in front of me expressing surprise at the flood of people into the gas station. That was our sole stop in the three-hour trip, and soon we were off the freeway and into San Antonio, home of the Alamo and therefore integral to the hegemonic vision of the US, making it more than appropriate for cheerleading conferences of US-led sectors of the economy. I would have no time for a trip round the mostly rebuilt Alamo fort area, where Americans resolutely held out (for a while) against Mexicans seeking to reclaim the state. It was lucky then that I was in a fifth floor room of the historic Menger hotel opposite, where Roosevelt, maybe Crockett and others rounded up willing and violent Americans for the fight. Ironic now that Mexicans are the absolute economic backbone of this state, as they likely are for many others.
A bit of a tourist haven for its pretty riverwalk, even balmier weather than Houston and erstwhile triumphalist history, Saint Antoine was an immediate relief from Houston because it’s a compact centre where walkers are encouraged to walk (although it’s more populous than Dallas), and a few nice buildings from the 19th century and early 20th such as the Dillard department storefront and the Morgan hotel, as well as some public rooms in the Menger. Out shortly after we all checked in to our respective hotels, horrid consensus took us to the drinking and music place of my worst nightmares – Coyote Ugly, the NYC-originated chain bar that inspired the film, where waitresses serve as bar-top dancers and also have to do perform lewd acts with fat fucks who like country rock and tequila. A load of brit squaddies were right in there lapping up the action. Pretty unedifying stuff making me feel all European. Then we left.
For the main tranche of my stay here, the trip took on the nocturnal characteristics of a med holiday, with a posse barhopping and meeting various people, each leaving it to their own judgement as to how pissed they got. One night I was last of my crowd to stay out, enjoying the hospitality of our American office counterparts if not the sound of New Order, Smiths and co being DJed through a bad 80s hi-fi system in a Latino bar ( i think this 'Latino' term is feeling slightly seedy and i'll drop it). The next I found myself actually trying to get into corporate bashes in fenced-off hotel rooms using aliases. Is this how far I’d come? I want to go all the way back. In truth, that’s where all the others had headed and I didn’t want to Billy it round the town before skulking back for an earlier-than-planned CNN feed. Plus all the drinks were free – well up to a point where others would question your dignity (yah-blah, this is work, etc).
This was played off and probably justified (“I need a drink”) by two hard days in the back of our corporate suite, editing, subbing and churning out stories for the real-time service. Yeah, basically this is what I do at home but the changed environment and unforgiving strip lights and aircon seemed to make it more demanding. This slug/slog was alleviated in the first day by free food as they were hosting a reception but no such luck in the subsequent day and a half. But it wasn’t that difficult, and even better innovation (well for them) was going on right there in front of our faces – we were hosting video and audio files as soon as we got them from the edit. Which everybody was pleased about. Generally, there were a few managisers there who at last saw the value of what it is that I do (basically turn round stories to a decent level of accuracy and speed, and keep going) by dint of being much closer to it than normal, so the trip had a personal benefit. Good to have all the issues come out in the Houston meeting too. Nevertheless, while I was in close and regular proximity to a particular bunch of people and talking to them on a relatively frank level, this was mostly functional and I kept my professional distance. You give out as much as you need to in these scenarios, live the life in parallax.
So by lunchtime on Tuesday we were done with the staring into the PC, and I had just a few moments to get the kids some stuff before we prepared for the off. At the Menger, and to return to the sizeist theme, I saw an American problem in microcosm when I asked to get my bags back from the concierge on at the time, and the very large, early 20-something must have taken 10 minutes to waddle 30 yards down the corridor and return with them.
More observation was possible on the return drive back, the odd nodding donkey, the general fertile, non-arid landscape, the repeated signs to stop off for beef jerky, the picturesque rivers traversing under the highway, the German/Dutch heritage in the names of the towns, the subprime foreclosure effect of white Americans begging for help at road junctions, the sheer size of Houston, the sheer size of Houston’s churches, business parks, gated communities, even, at its airport, its rental car zone (they probably call it Hire City or something). An hour-delay held up my journey back, but it didn’t matter what time we were flying as I wouldn’t be sleeping, especially with the often-present turbulence. Cue a film-fest of Hosseini’s Kite Runner (tears were jerked although you can read it equally as a lament for a non-invaded, non-Islamicised Kabul), The Counterfeiter and some generic NYC drugs mafia shit, this time involving the Russians. Elation again on touchdown, but overall happy to have gone even for a piecemeal experience of southern Americana.