The front tires of the vehicle tumble over the ridge of a railway whose warning lights have not functioned in at least a year, forcing drivers to gauge their own, precarious jump as steel titans barrel down along the tracks, distant bellowing a constant background feature of life in this darkened area of town. While the distant city lights gleam like the proverbial Emerald City against a black canvas, The Third Ward of Houston sits in almost perpetual shadow.
City street lights function perhaps once at the end of every other block, their grime covered glass coffins filtering the light into a grim yellow-gray hue. These sad colors melt along in the streets, barely breaching the darkness that our car slides through, quietly, a predator seeking its prey. My companion, a young woman, a mother, makes small talk above the din of the rap music vibrating through the floor of our vehicle.
She loves her kids more than anything in the world. She likes to take a break on the weekends when they're with gone, visiting family. Earlier she was enjoying a short glass of whisky mixed with soda, a slim cigarette pinned between her fingers, a small cloud of smoke filling the air in front of her. It's late now though, long after the bars have closed, and the raucous music that filled the clubs just hours before has now been traded for the silence of the city at night.
So now, with all taste for alcohol gone, and cigarettes no longer sufficient to feed the hunger, its time for the last vice of the night. It's almost six in the morning, and we're on the hunt for cocaine.
Any Friday night, a visitor might find themselves in Montrose. Quirky, upbeat, with neon glowing from the tops of independently run and owned coffee shops, wine bars and restaurant. Not far away is Rice Village, where the local college community gathers, late night conversations wafting out from the open doorways of bakeries, a select few sitting around outside the shops, lips sipping at bottles of microbrew. On campus, the local student bar is located beneath the stairwell of its science hall, with the cost of a glass of beer no more than a dollar. Not a bad idea when you've had to deal with the incessant droning of a professor too in love with his own voice to tell that his class is more concerned with that evening's shenanigans than their current interests, which by and large concern music and alcohol.
For those more concerned with dancing their cares away, a short jump to Washington Avenue reveals a strip of bars running off into the distance in their best imitation of Sixth Street in Austin or Beale Street in Memphis. Heavy beats resonate in the night, calling to revelers whose steps carry them through the evening, passing beneath bright lights and restaurants that are open through the night to cater to the crowd spilling out onto the pavement with the coming of the sun. When two in the morning has arrived, and the majority of the night's partiers have departed for home, the dedicated remain for the after hours celebrations. Bar after bar continues to resonate with music, thunderous music reverberating through the streets, buildings shaking as they are slammed by the audio assault. From the corners of outside patios and in the darkened interiors of the buildings, bottles of water, undoubtedly replaced with vodka, mix with juice and sprite as the party continues. At one end of the city, the festivities rage on, until six in the morning has broken with the sunrise and the partiers move onto the afterparty. It's a never-ending rotation of alcohol consumption, money burning and revelry. At least it is, however, mostly legal, and though alcohol is a poison all its own, it is managed, for the most part, by its consumers.
The greatest benefit of alcohol, however, is it's place in the public narrative. In Houston, it's the constant accompaniment of the weekend revelers, a mixture of bar staff, businessmen, restaurant owners, and regular party goers, who dance their nights away in the blazing hues of the streets. It's a kaleidoscope of brightness that shines throughout the night. It's also a city of darkness. The Third Ward is far removed from the college spots, drinking holes and artsy cafes that populate the west side of the city. As a matter of point, it's distanced by only ten minutes if you know the highways. However, once you pull off, you may as well be a world apart.
What's strangest about this side of town is the juxtaposition of wealth against poverty, not only because of the short time it takes to bridge the two points of the city, but because of the looming University of Houston that rises like a glittering stone from a black pool. Much like the aptly named Gilded Age, however, the University of Houston only serves to hide a much more grim state of affairs in the Third War.
I said the situation was gilded though, and though that might apply to any major urban city, the University of Houston occupies a unique place in such a description. With its colleges, businesses and general growth, the city is one of prosperity for many. In the Third Ward, it is a place of despair. It should be said that the people who live there most likely don't think of themselves in that regard. No matter how easy it is for a politician in Washington, distanced by time and circumstance, to accuse the poor of being lazy dependents, the accusation rings false to anyone that has had to work the daily grind. It bears no reality for those who walk daily to work, or take a string of buses to arrive just in time for their jobs to start, almost two hours after leaving their homes. Despite this, people find happiness.
That doesn't mean it's easy. Schools promising bright futures for children, and future placement in college, speak the rhetoric from behind the protection of iron bars that line the perimeter like a gigantic prison. It's a sad reality for those living in these areas. Poverty drives people to many things, including violence and theft, and precautions must be taken. It's something students at the university, separated by nothing more than a street's worth of distance, must be reminded of from week to week.
November, 2012. Three robberies, on campus, in bright daylight, at a parking lot a short distance from the university. The same month, another thief who raided the campus store built into the first floor of the graduate student apartments. December, 2012, a young man pushed to the ground and mugged. The same month, another who fought off his attacker to retain his phone. January, 2013, a pair of robberies in front of the athletic center.
The reality is that, while mostly safe, the university sits in a part of town racked by poverty and all the realities that poverty brings, including theft and assault by desperate individuals. Every crime brings new waves of police activity, but nothing short of wholesale reform can address the conditions growing in the Third Ward. It wasn't long ago that the National Basketball Association helped build a playground in this part of the city. Now, it's a base of operation for local drug dealers.
In the back seat we have a companion, picked up as she walked along, a snug winter cap pulled down over her head and feet tucked into sneakers so worn they seem to have been tossed into the wheelhouse of a gigantic clock. No shoelaces hang from them, and the mouths hang open like a gaping jaw in shock. We've stopped at two places now, one a two story apartment, if it can be called that, and another a home in a street so dark it was barely possible to see the car parked in front of us. Even at six in the morning, the bass coming from a nearby home drew attention to a mammoth speaker that had been hauled onto the porch. Once our guest returned empty handed, though, it was off to make one final attempt.
Our call pulls into a gas station whose pumps don't seem to have functioned in years. A car, its wheels removed, lies motionless in the grass field next to the cold blue lights of the station, a group of men standing about. Our guest leans out the window, inquiring, asking about who might have 'powder' on them. At nearly six in the morning, it seems nobody. Everyone that deals ran out long ago. However, our contact departs inside of the station, returning shortly with a large bag in compensation for our failed efforts. It is at this point that I realize you can, apparently, buy beer before six in the morning on a Sunday if you know where to look. In Texas, this shouldn't be legal for a few hours more.
As we're about to pull away, a flurry of hands start pounding on our window, upset voices calling inside the vehicle. After all, these men had just tried to determine where to get powder for my companion, so why should they go uncompensated? Voices angry, fingers prying into the sides of the door, our guest quickly slips them a few dollar bills, calming their tempers as my host pulls out from beneath the blue lights and back onto the streets, now anxious to get away before they demand more. The car roars for a moment as it pulls us along, taking us back into the ward. I can't help but think how sad it is that a single dollar bill was coveted so intensely.
When we do drop our guest off, all her efforts at attaining the drug unsuccessful, my hose can't help but feel bad for having driven the woman around the Third Ward for the past hour or so. The guest, in her dirt stained jacket and with open, worn fingers, asks for some small compensation. My host obliges, given her a twenty, the sight of which makes the guest nearly jump out of her seat. Again, I can't help but feel twisted inside that twenty dollars could have such an impact.
Our guest returned to her block, we drive off, the both of us in need of sleep. My host asks me if I'll use names, which I promise her I won't. That's a violation of trust, not to mention code. You don't name names. I'm not here to get anyone prosecuted, I tell her, just to relay what a night like this is like. She was hesitant at first, and is still hesitant, but as long as I promise to relate the experience without being too specific, she's fine with the story.
I myself hate the notion of taking cocaine, though it is all around in the late evening scene. Still, there's such an atrocious reality to it when you get down to the source of where it comes from. When well dressed businessmen, owners and revelers, armored in ties and suits, take a sniff of the stuff, it seems so sanitized. They scoop it, hidden inside of their cigarette boxes, the white powder vanishing quickly into their nostrils. It's not as if it's that hidden, or a secret. The after hours scene is full of the stuff, which I have always rejected, and always will. I've got a career to protect, and addictions to avoid. Alcohol is sufficient for me.
Still, when I talk to my host a week later, I'm reminded just why I dislike the drug, and everything associated with it, so much. She's leaving soon, to hunt more, relaying the fact that she's spent a few hundred on it just that month. Once, when I'd first met her, she'd indicated she was trying to quit. In fact, many times she implies she's sober, but what I've learned is that she's sober in only the most relative sense. She doesn't abuse it the way she used to, but when the compulsion comes, and it does come, she feels a need to hunt it down. It's almost insatiable.
She's got everything set up in place to quit though, she assures me. Everything is in the right place. She's got better friends now, having abandoned the ones that abused her friendship in order to get a hold of the powder. Her current friends are, for the most part, off the drug, and even those still on it only use it recreationally and not addictively. Addiction, it seems, is another term that can be relative to the speaker. She doesn't think she is. Sometimes, I wonder.