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Houston has light rail! Does that mean we are now one those urban wonderlands where carless-ness doesn’t mean a life of martyrdom?

Can you afford to board?

Houston has light rail! Does that mean we are now one those urban wonderlands where carless-ness doesn’t mean a life of martyrdom?

To find out, we go walking. On the Monday after the Superbowl, my friend Loreta and I head out towards Metro’s Museum District station. The only other pedestrians are panhandlers standing on the access road hitting up drivers-by.

Most Houstonians spend a huge portion of their life inside a car. Public transportation has generally been viewed as something for people who can’t afford a car. Walking without wearing exercise apparel is usually taken as an indicator of homelessness here.

If you ignore terrain and focus only on distance, my house is a little less than a mile from the Museum Station. It is the length of maybe 7 or 8 city blocks, something you would cover with ease in New York, Paris or London. But here the journey becomes a pedestrian version of the Paris-Dakar Rally as you pick your way through stereotypical Houston terrain — piles of construction dirt, sunken and flooded sidewalks that end without warning or dissolve into parking lots — and hop from concrete median to concrete median through heavy traffic. I lived in St. Petersburg, Russia when sections of the sidewalks were roped off because balconies had started falling from old buildings without warning. That was a piece of cake.

My Eastern European friend Loreta is from Zagreb, Croatia, an eminently walkable city. Loreta is excited about the prospect of abandoning our cars and pretending we are in a walking city. Instead of going in circles around Rice University or Memorial park, we will walk to get somewhere! Then we will avail ourselves of mass transit! It is admittedly a bold plan.

I have come to love many seemingly unlovable things about Houston, including the humidity, but it’s hard to embrace the sprawl designed to accommodate automotive culture. We are a city built not for people but for cars, trucks, minivans, SUVs and those armored personnel carriers called Hummers. The train is a small step towards increased livability and maybe even, gasp, less pollution.

Loreta and I made a trial run and rode the train together the week before the Superbowl. But on that occasion, in true Houstonian fashion, we drove our cars and met at the museum station to catch the train downtown for lunch.

Metro’s fledgling Red Line is one of those rare feel-good things our whole sprawling city has taken notice of. The novelty hasn’t worn off yet and strangers talk about it with each other. I saw middle-aged couples from suburban hinterlands — who have likely never darkened the door of a bus — riding the train for recreational purposes like the monorail at Disneyland.

We sat next to a guy who wondered why such a high tech rail system had a whistle like a steam engine. I listened to it — it did sound pretty Petticoat Junctionesque — but I theorized that the sound of a steam whistle is the audio signifier for a train to all of us, and with as many people as we’ve had running into them we should keep stuff as simple as possible.

We talked and the guy noticed Loreta’s accent. (It’s a cross between Natasha threatening to “keel Moose and Skwerel” and Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd’s “Wild and Crazy Czechoslovakians.”) He asked if she was a foreigner or a “foreigner foreigner.” I noticed he had this military-looking Ross Perot haircut and pressed navy pants with a matching navy sweatshirt jacket over a button-down shirt. It all seemed a little too crisp and tidy. He carried a dark green Jansport backpack, like a purposefully casual accessory. Loreta asked if he was going to go to the Superbowl, he replied no, but pointedly said he would be “around it.”

Maggie Battalino's roof for the Museum District stop

We nodded and smiled knowingly like people in a spy novel. Was he just an oddly dressed geek or an FBI agent trying unsuccessfully to blend seamlessly into the crowd? I voted for FBI when my cell phone rang an hour later. It was Loreta calling from the train ride back. “You wouldn’t believe who is on this train — George Freakin’ Bush Senior. Everybody is saying ‘ ‘Oh he’s so niiice,’ I told them ‘Yeah, he’s eeeevil nice.’” Loreta is still convinced she narrowly avoided arrest on that trip.

But no more idiotic driving to the train for us. This time we are walking to public transportation just like we are in a real city, and we’ll take the rail wherever we like. We say “hi” to the panhandlers as we cross over a highway bridge and I try to avoid eye contact with oncoming traffic – I envision a car window rolled down just enough to offer us a crumpled dollar bill.

We pick our way towards the museum past some great, grand old houses and a group of crappy new townhomes. Their Styrofoam/synthetic stucco exterior has buckled and slid down the building’s façade. Undaunted, the builders have already erected the framing for three more.

At the museum a gleaming new train pulls into the southbound station. We get on and sit across from two diminutive elderly ladies, one Latino with dyed black hair, the other Anglo, with bouffant hair dyed a vivid red. The red-haired woman clutches a cane. It is the first time they have ridden the train and they are worrying about their tickets, wondering if they need a separate return fare. They’re afraid they are going to get into trouble.

A bulky middle-aged blond businessman with sunglasses and a blue oxford cloth shirt is helpfully explaining the ticketing processes and rules to them. Loreta interrupts, waving her hand dismissively. She advises them not to worry about it and coaches them on what to say if someone asks for their non-existent tickets.

“You just tell dem, ‘Look, I had noooo ideea, it is toooo confuuusing, how are we supposed to understand all of deese complicated tings?’” Her accent and exaggerated, “I-am-but-a-poor-simple-peasant” delivery make it all sound believable. Thwarting the system is part of the skill set of all former citizens of communist countries.

We get off at Dryden/TMC to check out the station. I used to work as an administrative peon at the UT Medical School. If I managed to get up early enough I’d take the bus to avoid paying nine dollars a day for parking. I wish they had a train back then. A sleekly gliding train is far preferable to the lurching and jolting of a diesel bus. A bus is just a big ungainly car, but light rail magically suggests Tomorrowland.

I’m just so happy that we have light rail and that Tom Delay and the forces of evil have been beaten back. Metro even involved artists in the design of the stations. Suffice to say, some designs work better than others. But I am so grateful for rail, it is hard to be critical. Artists who focused on decorative elements and the visual seemed to come out better than those who had more conceptual ideas. The problem is that other than canopy and platform patterns, the primary area allotted for visuals is on the narrow posts of the stations. That is a pretty dinky area to have to present your ideas. I’m thrilled Metro incorporated art, but they could have embraced the idea much more boldly.

While we wait to take the train the rest of the way down to the Fannin South station we hear about some of the downsides of light rail. A doctor standing next to us tells us about almost getting squashed by a train in the weeks before the whistles were sorted out. Another person tells about someone who drove into a train and was billed by the city for $8,000 in repairs. Weren’t there stories about horses freaking out and bolting when the automobile was first introduced?

The train arrives and we take it to the end of the line where Loreta exclaims, “Hey, we could take the train to Sam’s Club!” pointing to the enormous discount store. I say that yes, we could, but when the hell do you buy anything at Sam’s Club that you carry? I picture myself dragging huge boxes of Tide and 50 lb bags of dog food across the parking lot and onto the train. Giant-economy-size American quantities of consumer goods are unbefitting of mass transit. Maybe you could get by with a tower of Styrofoam plates or a giant 24-roll block of toilet paper but I think it might even need its own ticket.

But Loreta has an even better idea, to the everlasting regret of her husband Joe. “Hey, look, we could walk to the auction!” I gaze over the paved expanse that stretches behind the Sam’s Club and an adjacent car dealership and see a row of industrial warehouses in the distance. One of the buildings houses a weekly Monday antiques auction. The preview is going on now…

As we trek across several empty football-field-sized parking lots, we start to get an inkling of just how much concrete Houston has. Loreta tells me her father came to Houston from the ex-Yugoslavia in the early 1980’s for some petroleum engineer’s conference. He was provided with a car but the meetings weren’t that far away from his hotel so he and a fellow Croatian just walked everywhere.

The Texans tried to explain to them that that just wasn’t done, that it was weird and that people would think they were crazy. He and his co-worker ignored the reality of the terrain and the transportation morays of Houston, even walking along the highways. They chose to experience West Houston in the same way a tourist would explore any European city. They created a minor scandal.

We wander into the auction and see it’s filled with its standard array of tea trolleys, stained glass windows, chamber pots and wardrobes. But I spy a piano — no an organ, an old pump organ — and point it out to Loreta. She’s ecstatic. She hits the keys but no sound comes out. She runs to grab a chair. Sitting down and vigorously pumping the pedals, she yanks out stops labeled things like “Vox Humana.” With a rush of nostalgia, Loreta says, “I learned to play on a harmonium like this! My uncle the priest had one in his church and he would work the pedals while I hit the keys.”

Loreta is a tall Slav with absurdly short chubby fingers. She is also a concert pianist who debuted at Carnegie Hall. She hunches over the keyboard and as she plays, the creepy, haunting sounds of every Bella Lugosi film emanate from the wheezing organ. The smattering of antiques dealers standing in the warehouse is treated to a performance of Halloween music played by a woman who sometimes slips and says “wampire.”

We decide this five thousand pound harmonium is a must. She will return for the auction later that night, where she ultimately buys it. How she and her husband will haul it home remains to be seen.

We’re starving and neither of us wants to dine at Sam’s Club. We take the train back downtown for lunch. At the Reliant Stadium stop, we are joined by leftover Patriots fans, loaded down with half-price souvenirs. They ask us directions to George R. Brown Convention Center where there are apparently even more souvenirs to be had. Janet Jackson’s exposed breast is a hot topic of debate on the train.

Main Street has a Superbowl hangover, it’s littered with scaffolding remnants and drooping banners proclaiming “The Main Event.” There are some Superbowl stragglers at the sushi bar we hit for lunch. Two jubilant red-faced Bostonians are bombed out of their gourds on sake at 2 in the afternoon. It looks like a pretty good idea and we wish we were tourists on vacation and didn’t have to work later.

We take the train back and try to look at Houston through the eyes of a tourist riding this slender spine of rail through what is, area-wise, one of the largest cities in the world. Areas that always seemed completely disconnected — downtown, midtown, the Museum District, the Medical Center and even the Astrodome, er Reliant stadium — now feel connected. Even though they are all located along essentially the same street, you rarely drive to all of them without taking a highway. There is now a feeling of continuity, a hopeful line drawn through the sprawl.

We reach our stop and make our way back to my house. There is something liberating about walking in Houston and letting the train take you to parts of the city you never visit without your car. It not only gets you places, it lets you view your city in entirely new ways. But you just can’t haul a harmonium on it.

Kelly Klaasmeyer is an artist and writer living in Houston.

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