Every Friday I travel into downtown Houston to see a movie or two. Since selling my car a few weeks ago I’ve had to restrict myself to this single day, partly as I have classes to prepare for on the other weekdays, but mainly because the Park & Ride bus doesn’t run at weekends. But I’m grateful to have any public transport out here in Clear Lake (Clear Lake is a suburb of Houston, but is, I think, within the City of Webster; I’ll never understand America’s regional divisions).
Bay Area Park & Ride is a brisk forty minute walk along Bay Area Boulevard, a four-lane 45mph road flanked by strip malls and apartment complexes with names at odds with their dull grey and tan two-storey blocks (University Green, Clear Lake Village, The Cove, etc.). After selling the car I bought a bike which gets me to the bus within 15 minutes.
Recently I’ve told myself Friday is a “day off”, so I take fiction to read on the 45 minute ride. I rarely get through more than a couple of pages though because, I can’t take my eyes off the scenery, despite having hummed past dozens of times since last summer. Either side of the interstate is a constant stream of commercial properties: car dealerships, mattress stores, restaurants, more restaurants, mobile home centres (what does “TAPE & TEXTURE THROUGHOUT!!!” mean?), motels, malls, offices, furniture stores, “adult” establishments (“1000 minutes for $50!”), insurance companies, it’s all there. Occasionally I spot houses, maybe tucked between a sprawling Toyata dealership and a tacqueria, an entrance to a neighbourhood of homes with nothing seperating it from eight lanes of I-45 other than another two lanes of feeder road.
Between these twenty miles of neon and special offers and the bus’s HOV lane are cars, pick-ups, SUVs weaving through other cars, pick-ups, SUVs. And I can’t understand how people live like this, how we’ve ended up living like this. Seperated from everyone else in rushing cars, homes spread over distances so vast and disorganised that there’s no there there, driving miles along anonymous roads to the nearest anonymous store.
Apart from the better view, I love the feeling of sharing that I get from public transport. Some might say you’re sharing with people you don’t necessarily want to share things with. That’s the impression I got when I mentioned in class I was going to travel by bus on my recent trip to Austin. “Oh, you’ll find some real characters on there!” they said. No, some of the bus station’s clientele probably wouldn’t be found inside shiny private environments like Houston’s massive Galleria mall, but fuck it, they’re normal people. These “real characters” live in the same city as you, the same world, they’re a product of the same laws and culture that has brought you your Toyota Land Cruiser with outside temperature display.
I feel like some kind of commie weirdo cycling, walking and bussing around here, and living among this sprawling banality is enough to turn me into some kind of raving radical. I think the authorities have cottoned on however; it can’t have been an accident that my radio’s battery died while KTRU played Billy Bragg singing The Internationale this afternoon…