Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Houston: There's no there there.

Today I tutored a young woman who was supposed to be writing a "descriptive paragraph." One choice was to write about one's own neighborhood and describe it. Her paragraph described driving along a street on a cool, windy day, and seeing the bare trees and the big, beautiful houses.

The problem is, in Houston we don't have bare trees, really. And the number of cool, crisp days you can count on one hand. Some of the pecans and oaks lose their leaves for a few weeks in mid-winter, but the dominant species--the live oak--is never bare: it starts to put out tiny new yellowish leaves in February, and at that time, some of the older, brown leaves fall. But it's never completely bare.

Right now, although it is "fall," you would never know from looking at Houston or its trees: they are all green and leafed out. The oaks and pecans don't start losing leaves until December. And although it's the end of September, it was 96 degrees on Tuesday.

There are some big, beautiful houses in Houston, but those are not the houses that our students live in.

So I asked her if this descriptive paragraph was really about her neighborhood, and she said that it wasn't; that she had made it up. I thought so: usually when you read vague, insipid student writing, the student didn't obey the injunction to "write what you know."

I asked her, "So, where do you live?"

She answered, "What do you mean?"

I didn't know how to respond to this. After a few seconds I said, "Ok, so where did you wake up this morning?"

She said, "Oh, ok, I live over by the airport."

So then we had something to work with. I asked her about her commute home, what exit she got off at, what was at the exit, what did she see on Monroe Avenue on her way to her street, what she saw after she turned onto her street, whether she could hear the airplanes, and what her own yard and house looked like. The trouble was, all she could say was, "Houses. Trees." She didn't know what color the houses were or what kind of trees were in her own yard, or what kind of flowers grew in the little garden in the front yard.

This is just pitiful. This is worse than the unexamined life: this is the unseen life, the life that is thought by its subject to be so unworthy as to be not worth looking at, at all.

Or maybe it's just that the average Houstonian doesn't look at her city, for fear of what she might see. If you really do look at Houston, it's somewhat horrifying in its ugliness. Maybe it's a form of psychological self-protection to imagine fall in a New England college town, rather than have to face the fact that your dirty, hot, humid city has no seasons, and that what you see when you drive home is an adult bookstore.

It reminded me of what Gertrude Stein said when she visited her old hometown of Oakland, after having lived in Paris for years. She said, "There's no there there." The home she grew up in was gone, her synagogue was gone, her neighbors were gone. Everything that had once made it a place was gone.

That kind of alienation is endemic in Houston, where the built environment is so transitory, where perfectly good houses are torn down every day to make townhouses at a frenetic pace, and where place is rarely created at all, even temporarily. Everybody is here from somewhere else, some other "there," most often a village in the Third World. Or in my case, a village in Tennessee.

How can a writer even describe such a city? Houston has a gritty, concrete (literally) reality that should be easy to describe, but somehow many people can't. They can't tell you what they see on their commute, maybe because it doesn't mesh with their ideas of what they SHOULD see on their commute. They should see a street out of a movie or TV show.

Most movies seem to be set in a world where people live on leafy, prosperous streets that literally have white picket fences. A movie I saw recently, "Father of the Bride," is an example. The family is not presented as being especially affluent, but the house is big, covered with blooming roses, and sited on a street with other "big, beautiful houses." It seems to be in New England somewhere; the people wear sweaters, and leaves fall in a picturesque way. It snows.

Nothing like that happens in Houston. Leaves fall IN SPRING! Roses bloom IN WINTER! It never snows! Our lives and neighborhoods don't look like movie lives or TV lives. So, if we don't have fiction to guide us in writing about our lives, we sort of have to start from scratch, with what really is happening on the ground, even though it's not supposed to be happening.

Maybe that's actually a good thing. Somebody could probably make a list of great writing that comes from just such circumstances: the alienated subject in the nondescript city, where there is no there there. If you can think of writing like that--whether novel or memoir--let me know. One example might be a great story about Houston that I read in The New Yorker years ago by Antonya Nelson, "Eminent Domain." It described the placeless place and the ensuing anomie perfectly.

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