(Editors’ Note: In light of the recent multiple storms and flooding we thought a blast-from-the-past story about how the rain made it difficult for our writer to get to a restaurant one night in the early 90’s might be of interest to our readers.)
It was an afternoon in March 1992 that my lawyer husband called from a pay phone at the Criminal Courts building downtown to tell me I needed to come pick him up because his car was dead. He said he’d be waiting on the curb under an umbrella.
Tucked in behind the wheel of my red Chevy Lumina I drove away from our home located near Woodway and Sage at 4 pm and headed east with the intention of driving through Memorial Park, the quickest route to reach the underbelly streets of Houston’s premier skyline.
It was raining. Strike that — let’s say instead that falling on moi was le deluge. The sky above had the sort of ominous grey-black scowl that means Nature’s in the mood to stay nasty. The storm, as is a storm’s wont in Houston, had raged since morning, but safe and snug inside my house I hadn’t paid any attention until forced to go out and deal with it.
Nearing the eastern tip of the park at Westcott Street, the cars ahead began to slow to a snail’s pace. Impatient, craning my neck to see what was up, once upon the cross street I saw the cops and the barricade. Naturally I rolled down the window to inquire why I was being waved away from forward progress and ordered to take a left.
“The underpass at Shepherd is flooded. You want to die go on, but if you don’t then hook it to the left, lady,” said the nice policeman.
The next four hours of my life were like something out of a David Lynch movie — vivid yes, but so absurd you want to scream and throw something guaranteed to explode upon impact, then get roaring drunk. Making the left I arrived at I-10, and that’s when I saw a vision of what the Apocalypse will probably look like.
Because White Oak Bayou had overflowed onto I-10, not just one but a host of leviathans were doing a side crawl swim below. There were semis, pick-me-up trucks, buses, 18-wheelers, UPS trucks (everybody knows those drivers are crazy), one Hyundai with a woman clinging to the roof and some guy trying vainly to save his Harley from drowning down in the flood waters. Even though the rain was relentless there were hundreds of people out of their cars and standing around on the freeway banks or up along the rail of the overpass gawking at the unfortunates caught by the flood. Cops were everywhere, and firetrucks and firemen, and I recall even seeing a taco vendor on the upper level handing out pork-filled tortillas through the window of his panel van.
Slowly driving on I knew I would not be going downtown by any of the usual routes. Rather prideful about my sense of direction I was quite sure where downtown was, but once I’d traveled past T.C. Jester and North Shepherd and had gotten through the north reaches of the Heights I found myself on Irvington, a street I knew from traffic updates on the radio but unknown to me in practical application. I was lost.
About three hours into it a street sign informed me that I had reached the Eastex Freeway. Inching along with the other vehicles, a man in a cowboy hat whose truck was accessorized by a rifle across the rear window honked and tried to engage me in chit-chat, but I kept my own window tightly shut. More lone drivers on the road leered my way when we were forced to sit side-by-side and wait out the traffic light. No one looked especially friendly, and I reckon given my mood at the time I too appeared more Lady Macbeth than Lady Marmalade. The night had grown as dark as Bill Maher’s humor, and most of the street lights, compromised by the storm, were out.
I drove on like a blind, demented nonagenarian who should have had her license revoked ages ago. Some lights were still working inside the buildings of Emerald City, so even though I was a homing pigeon wildly off course my eyes stayed on the downtown prize, and at Navigation it seemed right to turn right. Miles away from home in the west, I finally chugged into the city from the far east.
My husband had called at 3:30 pm. It was well past 8 when I reached that complex devoted to Houston jurisprudence. He was waiting, as promised, on the curb. The rain had stopped for the moment, and he was practicing his golf swing with the furled umbrella. As I pulled up I thought for a minute about how men react to trauma in women. Would he notice how long it had taken me? Would he express concern, ask me about the scary circuitous trip through parts of the city never traveled before? Would he apologize for sending me out on a mission that, while not impossible, was right up there with terrifying?
“Where should we go for dinner?” he said, throwing his briefcase in the backseat on top of the dog hair. “I’m starving.”
Driving Around Houston on a Rainy Evening
(with a wink at Robert Frost)
What roads these are I cannot know.
My route toward town is skewed and slow.
The rain — the rain, will it never clear,
I watch I-10 fill up below.
My little car must think it queer
That 18-wheelers swim while we’re safe up here.
In a Ward unknown I often brake,
Narrow and dark, neon off on signs for “Beer!”
Police block the way to the loop and shake
Their fists at those who make a huge mistake.
Trying to run the ramp down into the water’s sweep
Goes the nut case, the death-wisher, dope and flake.
My blood sugar as low as the flood is deep
Where the hell am I — what is this street?
But I go on for there are promises to keep
And miles to go before I eat,
And miles to go before I eat.
(Not to mention the thing to which I’m most inclined.
After one is stormed one must be wined.)
Main Street was deliciously free of cars and water, so we drove south and finally, lured by the scent of garlic, veered over to Smith. By 8:45 we were seated at a table at Damian’s and the Valpolicella was on its way. At 11 we began the ride home, taking Westheimer, which is and remains my preference for travel options, Houston’s most dependable Linus blanket of roads. Even when it pours.