I experienced a wave of fond amusement about Houston when I read the Wall Street Journal's article Tuesday about how the old oil town is seeking to make itself beautiful for the Super Bowl.
Houston is known for its strip malls, tacky apartment buildings and ugly billboards, as the article noted, along with the obligatory fact that it's the only major city without any zoning laws.
The big Texas city - the Journal credited it with 2.3 million residents, although I'm sure the population is much higher - always had a crazy vitality. Pickup trucks with rifles hanging from back-windshield racks going 90 miles an hour on the endless interstate loops. Guys and gals with big hats and big boots and big cars. Construction and traffic everywhere. Neighborhoods of many national origins pulsing with a profusion of languages, funky enterprises and ethnic restaurants.
While the lack of zoning made for striking juxtapositions - a soaring skyscraper next to a shack - old Houston neighborhoods exude charm. Rice University is lovely. Beyond its frontier rowdiness, Houston boasts first class art, theater and music.
Built on reclaimed swamp land, much of Houston is sinking. Its marginal roads look like the Third World on acid. It's one of those brawling Texas towns whose bragging outweighs its reality. But I'll always have a primal love for Houston. I did a lot of growing up there:
I saw my first major league baseball games, Houston Colt .45s vs. St. Louis Cardinals, in stifling Colt Stadium, the pastel temporary arena that didn't have overhangs to block the relentless sun.
For the Cardinals, Bob Gibson, Stan the Man, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Dick Groat, Ken Boyer, Julian Javier. A great ballclub.
For the .45s, Bob Aspromonte, Bob "The Flea" Lillis, "Turk" Farrell and Rusty Staub, not far removed from New Orleans Jesuit. An expansion team its its first National League season.
Traveled with my father and grandfather down U.S. 90 from Baton Rouge through Lafayette, Opelousas (home of Jim Bowie), Lake Charles, Nederland, Beaumont and Orange. I-10 had not yet been finished.
As we sat in the brutal heat watching the young Gibson mow down the .45s' motley crew of rookies and major league castoffs, we could see the Astrodome's skeleton in the early stages of construction. Now, after being trumpeted as the eighth wonder of the world, the dome lies vacant and rusting.
After the completion of the Astrodome, the Colt. 45s changed to the Astros. Over the years, I spent many a humid Baton Rouge night listening to the woebegone Astros on the radio. Jimmy Wynn, the Toy Cannon. J.R. Richard. Joe Morgan. Bob "The Bull" Watson. Cesar Cedeno. Doug "the Rooster" Rader. Sonny Jackson.
Elvis in the Astrodome, with my dear late friend Loftin and his beloved brother Grant. "The King" in his early Vegas white suit incarnation - not yet so fat - sang during intermission of the Houston rodeo.
Bob Dylan and the Band, the Astrodome. With my dear late friend Loftin.
Jackson Brown and Bonnie Riatt. University of Houston. With my dear late friend Loftin. Bonnie had a tough time getting her guitar in tune. Little did I know that some 40 years later, I'd see Jackson in downtown Nashville with my dear daughter Ruthie. Jackson sang some of the same songs. I'm at the age where I really understand the meaning of the song, "Doctor, My Eyes."
Kareem and the Big O, Milwaukee Bucks, vs. Elvin Hayes and the Houston Rockets. Houston Astrodome. With my dear friend Hall. A job interview at the Houston Astrodome amusement park. Didn't get the job.
Houston Astros vs. I can't remember. Houston Astrodome. As 15 year old, flew from Baton Rouge with my father and his business cronies on a corporate jet and witnessed the guys playing poker, smoking cigars and drinking whiskey.
Houston Astros vs. Cincinnati Reds. Houston Astrodome. With my sister, Melanie. Saw George Foster hit the longest home run I've ever seen off the Astros' Flaming Floyd Bannister.
Met Irish revolutionary Bernadette Dohrn. University of Houston. Details hazy.
Saw Freddie King, the Texas Cannonball, play two or more sets at a blues club in downtown Houston. Details hazy except for the recollection that Freddie was still playing at 2 a.m. or so.
So, here's to you Houston, my old love. Hope you look real pretty for the big game.