Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Despite the fact we are both Houston natives with an active interest in the history of Houston, I've never crossed paths with Mr. J. R. Gonzales, who writes a blog for the Houston Chronicle called Bayou City History. If we did meet, I'm sure we could find a lot to talk about. J.R. and I are about the same age, but with vastly different backgrounds, yet we share the same interest in stories and places and people of Houston past.

His blog is in my blogroll, and right now he's got an interesting copy of a Sig Byrd story from 1952 at the site Sig Byrd: The Queen of the Hidden Ward, Et Alii .

J.R. recently wrote a very interesting series of posts about the old Sears store on Richmond. I spent many hours with my family in that store as a child, as well as learning to play drums just across the street from Sears in the now-defunct Brochstein's Music Store from drum guru Joe Raynor.

Years later, I rehearsed with a band in the late 80's that were housed in a really small ramshackle row of old time small apartment/warehouse-like structures just off Main street and just down the street from Sears. Despite having had been around that area pretty extensively for most of my life, I never knew those warehouses were there until I started playing with that particular band and using that rehearsal space. A hidden place.

So I like J.R.'s stories.

One thing Mr. Gonzales and I have in common is an interest in the writing of the late Houston newspaperman Sig Byrd. What a gift with words Sig had, and what stories Sig told about the Houston that existed just before my birth. I've written about Sig before,
Sig Byrd's Houston, and received great comments and several emails about my post, some even from kinfolks of his. Really nice people.

When I was a kid on up through my high school years, I was often downtown with my father at his office. Sometimes, I'd have a friend with me, but either alone or with a buddy we explored downtown Houston and the surrounding areas pretty thoroughly. Being young musicians, we'd hit Parker Music downtown, and the pawn shops that used to be all over lower Main street. Back in the late 60's and all through the 70's and 80's, lots of downtown was filled with urban blight.

There were some pretty cool boot and leather goods stores downtown and near downtown, like The Palace Boot Store and Stelzig's. There were lots of cheap clothing stores for "nightclubbing" clothing, but tucked away here and there were shoe stores and suit stores where you could get good deals on nice clothing. One of my favorite places was always F-15, the old police supply store near the corner of Washington and Houston Ave behind the police station, for looking at guns and holsters and all kinds of police gear and running into police friends of my fathers.

We'd eat at the old Cotton Exchange Building restaurant, or sometimes at the Avenue Grill or Otto's.

I often ran errands to the courthouse complex for my father, and back then Congress Avenue was lots different than it is now. One of the biggest "fighting words" insult you could make about someone back then was to call them "a Congress Avenue Whore", because there were a whole lot of that breed of cat on Congress on both sides of the courthouse complex. Winos were all around the lower Main street area and Congress, and several dilapidated downtown hotels served as residences for those down on their luck.

Some years later, when I did become a police officer and ultimately do quite a bit of patrol in downtown and the surrounding areas, I guess I was living the life of Sig Byrd, even though I had not heard of him at that time. When I was a kid, we avoided Market Square, the bad parts of Congress Avenue and certain alleys in and around the lower Main street area because of the riff-raff that hung out in them. As an officer, I no longer avoided these areas, but I still respected them because I had seen and heard of the seriously bad crimes that sometimes happened downtown over the years and knew that because of the transitory nature of many of the folks who "hung out" downtown, bad stuff did happen in those dark corners of downtown.

And there were hidden places downtown. For instance, near the old parking garage on Fannin where my dad parked, hidden inside of a small and very run down downtown grocery store which was mostly patronized by transients was a small soul music record store with highly eclectic soul and African rock music for sale. In '75 or '76 as a teen, it was the only place I could find the Gil Scott-Heron album containing his song Johannesburg which had just been played that year on Saturday Night Live. None of the record stores in town had it, and the African store owner also gave me a used Fela Kuti album, telling me "trust me, you'll like it and you'll be back to buy more Fela albums."

The record store was a hidden place because you couldn't see it from the street when you passed the grocery store. You had to go into the store to know there was a tiny record store in the back. Only the most desperate of downtown workers ever went into that store, because it mostly served the wino/transient/street criminal population that hung out and lived downtown then. They sold smokes and single beers and wine and a few foodstuffs and not much else. Pretty much a broke down alcoholics convenience store. It was dingy when you looked at it from outside and dingy on the inside until the music hit your ears. It was the kind of place where you wanted to put you wallet in your front pocket before you walked in the door.

So thinking about Sig and his writing and stories makes me think about my own memories of my own Houston past.

When I discovered the writing of Sig Byrd, I mentioned it to my father, who had known the lady who owned the Houston Press well. All I can recall is that her name was Maggie (I think) and that she was a helluva crusader against drunk drivers during the 1960's. My father found charm in some of the same type characters and denizens of old Houston that Sig did, and had met Sig on several occasions. We both lamented that there was no Sig Byrd reporting in Houston anymore. In the 1960's and 70's, Houston radio and television reporter Jack Cato both came close to being a modern day Sig Byrd and I'm sure there were others I've forgotten or don't know of. Of course, the late Marvin Zindler was, in his early reporting days, covering stories like Sig would on many occasions.

It's funny that despite the microscopic media and social media focus that we have on almost every individual aspect of our lives that we don't have the tinted observations of a writer like Sig to break it all down for us so we can understand what is really going on in our world. What I mean is, Sig could convince you he could see right through these people, to their essence, and despite the fact so many people put everything about themselves online, we know less than we did about people than we did when reading Sig's take on them.

Now what I want is to find out if there is a mother lode of Sig columns somewhere that I haven't read yet.

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