In the future, when people use jetpacks to get around, my great-grandchildren will ask me why I have PTSD. With palpable melancholy, I’ll seat them at a small kitchen table, my chair positioned directly under a single hanging light so the shadows on my face are long, and horrify them with stories of commuting in the greater Houston area.
Like space, Houston is big. Really big. The city proper is about 600 square miles (the greater Houston area covers nine counties and is over 10,000 square miles). There are three concrete rings around it. Rhode Island could fit inside the outer one. The middle one, Beltway 8, is a circuit of about 90 miles. Sauron is downtown somewhere.
Needless to say, in a city this big, you have to be in a hurry.
You don’t so much enter the freeways of Houston as much as dive in headlong and hope to god you can crawl out downstream before you drown. I’m used to it. I learned to drive on these streets. When I went to a small college in a small town, I drove the only way I knew how, like a Houstonian, and everyone thought I was out of my damn mind.
But now I’m getting a look at this nightmare with fresh eyes. My daughter got her license last month and now she has a theatre internship near downtown. Thirty minutes no traffic, an hour during the evening rush, easy. She hasn’t made this trek alone, yet, and I fear she never will. She did drive the freeways a couple of times with me as a passenger and I’m pretty sure she thought she’d stumbled onto the set of a Mad Max film. At one point, she was forced to exit prematurely when a line of hive-minded fuckwits actively worked to keep her out of their lane. At another, she was almost clipped by a lunatic in a pickup driving diagonally across four lanes of traffic, texting with one hand and indiscriminately firing a machine gun with the other. There may have been an explosion or two. And laser beams. There were definitely laser beams. By the time we arrived at our destination, she was shaking and muttering something about buying a gun and taking up smoking.
The nightmare isn’t isolated to the freeways, either. Houston is a convoluted network of roads, designed by drunk circus monkeys, and paved across unstable swampland like so much spaghetti. Just because you’re going south now doesn’t mean you won’t be going north in a minute and you’ll probably need a 4×4 to do it. The same street can have multiple names. Multiple streets can have the same name. Sometimes a left turn requires a right turn and then a U and the first occasion to make that U is five miles down the road, a road that’s under construction and crosses not one, but two sets of railroad tracks where locomotives pass, one right after the other, at unbearably slow speeds. I’ve taken lefts that required bathroom breaks.
And as a rule, you don’t know when you’re on a one-way road, you just kind of work it out when you realize all the cars are coming straight at you. Yellow lights mean the intersection in front of you is about to collapse so you’d better Dukes-of-Hazzard your ass across it. School zones are where parents work out their differences by running over each other’s children. Stop signs might as well be bowling ball feeders.
And let’s not forget the Metro light rails. Someone, somewhere decided that if Houston streets need anything, it’s small trains running right down the middle of them. Driving on railroad tracks is certainly more exciting than crossing them, I guess. At least they aren’t full-blown engines that can crush your car like a tin can. You might lose a limb or two, nothing fatal unless you bleed out while the ambulance takes a 45-minute left.
If Hurricane Harvey taught us anything, it’s that Houston should forgo streets in favor of canals à la Venice. People are nicer on boats. More civil. Fall overboard on a boat, someone will pull you back up and dry you off. Fall overboard in a car and your entrails will be spread over three counties and 8,500 square feet before your brain even has a chance to register what’s happened.
Alas, this is my city. I can complain about her because I live here, but you outsiders better show us some god-damned respect. The last thing you want is a bunch of angry Houstonians running amok on your streets.