Stranded by Continental Airlines in Houston for 24 hours, I decided to take the bus downtown from the airport hotel in which they’d put me.
Given that buses were the spark and focus of so much of the civil rights movement, what’s striking now is that, yes, African Americans have won the right to sit at the front of the bus. But that’s because they are also sitting at the back and in the middle: essentially, whites have abandoned public transport altogether in a city such as Houston. And this despite, or rather because of, the fact that it’s astonishingly cheap ($2 for an all-day pass, though you need to top that up on express buses in the evening rush hour… see below).
So from an explicit divide drawn through the middle of the bus, we now have an implicit, and so invisible, line drawn between transport users and the suburban commuters in their trucks and SUVs.
Interestingly, however, there were no Latinos on the buses I took. And this despite the fact that in many ways Houston is a bicultural city: all signs and announcements are in Spanish as well as English, and on the street at least I heard Spanish probably more than English. Just about every service worker I encountered, from the check-in agents at the hotel to the guys leaf-blowing the streets, to the bus driver and the cleaners at the airport… they were almost all Latino.
But on the return journey to the airport, it was a white guy who gave me a dollar on seeing that my pass no longer worked. Perhaps an act of racial solidarity among the bus-borne minority.
Meanwhile, I went down to the Rothko Chapel, which I first saw almost two decades ago. I still feel rather underwhelmed, but it was good to return and to re-experience the underwhelment. I also stopped by the Jung Centre. Most of the other museums were closed, it being a Monday.
Even so, I should apologize to my friend Ivonne, Houston native and very much a booster of her home city. The place is far better than I remember it. The public transport works, or at least it worked for me. There’s plenty to do. I even managed to find a few decent bars. And it’s not its inhabitants fault that the place is so damn hot and humid.
Though perhaps my good feelings towards Houston are also because in the interim since my last visit I have seen cities such as Dallas, a better example of the disaster that American cities can become.