Viewed from space, Houston, like all cities, very nearly resembles a malignant cancer or a slime mold. But it’s different somehow; it’s a pernicious kind of mold unique to the green prairies of America. Houston is a prime example of induced demand – the highways always reach capacity no matter how wide and plentiful they are because humans will always move in on empty space. It’s the microeconomics of Manifest Destiny.
You scream or sputter along the arteries of this megatropolis on massive freeways, flyover interchanges supported by beams emblazoned with a star of Texas, and for miles you see a landscape heaving with big box stores and fast food restaurants and malls and megachurches; strip malls of culture; retail space measured in football fields, parking lots big enough to land jetliners; consumable, retouched, gas station tchotchke faith. It’s a vast Mecca of a particular kind of consumerism unique to America – doubly evocative in that Houston is built beneath the burping smokestacks of oil refineries.
I stopped for lunch in the suburb of Katy. Katy is a place where the earth is systematically scraped clean of all vegetation and replaced with the empty promise of happy families. Pine scaffolding and insulation and sheetrock and a facade encase the promise and massive tracts of land are geometrically organized in such a way that streets lined with mailboxes and trash cans wind gracefully into cul-de-sacs. Once a suburb has been carved into the earth, a landscape designer will plop tiny little saplings onto the earth and adorn The Promises with visions of the fully grown tree. “It’s a new build!”
I stopped for lunch just as Church™ got out and stood haggard and underdressed among the faithful in line for overdressed salads. At the register, Manicure thumbed through her patent leather pocketbook as her flailing blond-haired son flung his limbs and farted his armpits. Behind me, a floral skirt flitted just above a pair of diabetic ankles crammed into orthopedic pumps. The woman living above the skirt looked down in purse-lipped judgment at the flailing limbs and then at my shoes then my pants and then my shirt and then my unmade face. I smiled. Her pursed lips creaked into a small smile. Her nose crinkled. There was a geometry even in the way our gazes had started at each other’s shoes and met at each other’s self-righteous smiles.
I sat at a table in the corner and watched heads bob up and down to meet forks and spoons. Each head was attached to it’s body by a necklace or a collar. Up and down. They were swans. A Russian ballet of head bobbing, pecking at You-Pick-Two™ specials, jaws churning, adams apples floating up and down on strawfuls of sweet tea. Broken crayons and defrosted french fries accumulate under swinging bobbysocked feet. “What did you learn in Sunday School?” Her tongue stuck out as she tried to color inside the lines. She broke her crayon.
An hour before they had been an audience, a congregation, each of them a pastel-colored scaffolding around which promises are built. An hour before their single-family homes had sat empty while they sat by the thousands in multi-million dollar stadiums of Osteenian faith. Pressure-washed faith; stripped of last millenium’s gothic pomp in favor of clean lines, light shows, and showmanship. At 606,000 square feet, it’s a formidable display of American values – Big Box Glory of God.