3. Metropolis

"Houston is like a trailer park version of LA." These are the words told to me when I was twelve years old, sipping a 40 oz. Schlitz and smoking a personally rolled marijuana cigarette with a fellow street carp. This was told to me by a heroin addict in his early thirties, who had just completed a successful 'tie-off' and whose inner arm was bleeding from the needle's puncture. Almost stereotypical, it was the first time I had ever seen a heroin addict actually use the inner arm, which is what the common person would picture in a situation like this. All the other times I had seen the junkies use their leg or neck. This drug documentary that I saw recently had this one junkie who said he had used up all of his veins on his body and was forced to shoot into a vein in his eyeball.

As I analyzed the subject I was talking to, I saw small skin craters on his leg. Not small like ant bites or acne scars, but craters with the diameter of a bullet wound disfigurement. They were healed abscess mutilations. I counted five. This was evidence that he was a skin-popper in his younger days.

Skin-popping is another term for subcutaneous injection. You can also inject into the muscle, which is called muscle popping. This vocabulary is most commonly used by three kinds of people: those in the medical field, cops, and people who shoot coke or heroin into their bodies. People skin- and muscle-pop because it's an accident and they missed the vein or it's the opposite and they do it on purpose - because there's less chance of an overdose.

Shooting up presents more health risks for the user than any other method of consuming drugs. If needles, syringes, cottons, cookers, spoons, or water are shared, viruses and infections, like hepatitis-B, hepatitis-C, syphilis, and HIV, can be passed from one user to another through blood left in the works. Bacterial infections, blood poisoning, and endocarditis (an infection of the heart lining) can result if bacteria is injected along with the shot. Abscesses, cellulitis, and other injection-related injuries can result from the cuts in street heroin, especially for skin- and muscle-poppers; and after repeated use, a mainliner's veins can collapse and become unusable. Finally, hitting a nerve while injecting can result in paralysis, and hitting an artery can lead to a large loss of blood or the loss of a limb.

I know all of this from reading my deceased mother's medical books. She had many books and pamphlets about infections, diseases, and techniques to make proper surgical incisions and stitching up the wound. She was a physician's assistant. I never saw her read any of them. She must have not needed them from all her experience as a military nurse in the sixties and seventies.

I remember thinking of all of that amongst other things while the narcotic enthusiast rambled on about the City of Angels. Compulsive thoughts have always plagued my contentment. He continued to speak, still not noticing the plasma falling out of his arm at the speed of a sloth.

Quite frankly, I'm not even sure if my twelve-year-old comrade - whom I entered the heroin addict's house with - was even paying attention to the conversation. If he was I'm sure the significance of LA to him was wide of the mark compared to mine. I've always paid attention to weird shit. I've always had peculiar obsessions. At this specific time in my life, I was obsessed with Los Angeles; and in all honesty, I still very much am today.

We were hanging out with this character because we were young, local, and, most importantly, had weed. We were bored and wanted alcohol. He was of age to buy alcohol and desperately wanted weed because he was from Austin and didn't have a weed dealer here in Houston – or at least not a good one. I could tell he was well over twenty-one, but young enough to maybe hang out and buy us alcohol in exchange for smoking our chronic.

"'S'up, bro? You got any papers?" I asked, as we walked down the street in the subversive summer heat. When you ask indirectly it comes off cool and there's a better chance the interaction will go your way. You always want to be cautious when jumping into a drug conversation. Anybody can be an undercover. I suppose the same goes with any conversation. You should always choose your words wisely; you never know which word could trigger someone into pulling a trigger in your direction or perhaps just saying the word 'no', leaving you with nothing but yourself, your thoughts, and the lonely street to walk down.

When we were that age, the objective was always to get high with as many random people as we could. The crazier the person the better. Then, after we got high with those people, we would ride our bikes somewhere else – a park, a forest, a parking structure – and get high again and talk about how trippy it was getting high with the random people we smoked with earlier.

While the heroin aficionado rode his bicycle to the corner store to get the malt liquor, we stayed at his house and rolled up some joints. When he got back, we smoked and drank and talked about shit people who smoke and drink talk about. 'Generation X' and 'Generation Next' engaged in deep discussion. I had asked him what LA was like, because this was something I would often ask others, mostly older people, because this place, from what I had heard, read, and seen on TV, seemed magical. I would often ask people I encountered (mostly through drug interactions) to get a more personal perspective of what this place actually was like. Not the Hollywood delusion. These conversations would often come after getting into a discussion of how boring and backward Houston or the entire state of Texas was. I have asked about five random people what LA was like and I have repeated the heroin addict's description of Houston to others while on this topic. As it turns out, his opiate-induced simile was quite on the money.

Houston is the fourth largest city in America. It's been this way for a while and it's estimated to double in the next couple of decades. It's very diverse for being the lowest (most southern geographically) big city in the United States. It may be a place people want to come to because it's very large and has lots of room due to the fact it keeps adding suburbs to it, making it a Goliath city – a chaotic metropolis.

Houston smells like sulfur and industry. The high humidity seems to mummify this unpleasant atmosphere. It stay's plastered to your face year-round. Sometimes the smell is described as "burning rubber", "mothballs," or just "acrid." And that's just the air. The air smells this way because of the petrochemical dystopia in the eastside of the city. The oil refineries, chemical plants, and gas facilities are responsible for roughly 25 percent of the United States' petroleum refining, more than 44 percent of its ethylene production, 40 percent of its specialty chemical feed stock and more than half of its jet fuel. So that means if you ask one of the Big Oil boys from Chevron, Exxon, or BP what that smell is; they will simply tell you, "That's the smell of money."

There's also a smell that comes from the ground. Houston was built on a big swamp. On top of that we have forty wastewater treatment plants and something like 6,000 miles of septic pipes. After the "cleanse" it all gets dumped in the bayous.

In Houston, the rivers are called bayous because they feature a slow, meandering, and murky current. In a city without mountains, oceans, or other distinctive topography, the bayous are the distinguishing natural feature of Houston and inspire its nickname—Bayou City.

The city's bayou system is the biggest in the world with 2,500 miles of bayous and channels and more than 300 storm-water holding basins. The main bayou, which flows through Galveston and into the Gulf of Mexico, is Buffalo Bayou. This bayou is fed by natural springs, surface runoff, and several significant tributary bayous, including White Oak Bayou, Greens Bayou, and Brays Bayou. Unlike Buffalo Bayou, White Oak, Brays, and much of Greens was manmade and is essentially a concrete trench, inside of a huge concrete trench, inside of a manufactured canyon.

Houston's bayous, dotted by marshy banks and filled with bass and catfish, weave through the city, providing an appealing landscape for joggers and cyclists. But beneath the murky, brown waters is something not as pleasant: a makeshift dumping ground of cars, trucks, and vans. Texas Equusearch have evidence that 127 vehicles are submerged in the bayous. In April the team found the bodies of two teens who disappeared 42 years ago. Later that month, police found skeletal remains inside a truck recovered from a North Texas lake of a woman missing for 35 years. When asked by the local news why they didn't retrieve the vehicles, the director of the company said, "I was told to keep quiet because the city didn't have money to recover the vehicles."

The only time Houston feels pleasant is when a huge storm comes through. The storm washes all of the nasty entities out of the city. Temporarily at least. I'm not saying I'm only happy when it rains but I'd be lying if I told you that grey skies and lighting crashes didn't bring tranquility to me and this entire Texas town.

The city is unique in that there really isn't a rich or poor side. There are, however, poor and rich neighborhoods. I suppose you could say there are some world famous neighborhoods that became famous through rap songs and movies. Houston local, Wes Anderson, had two big movies sweep movie screens around the world. Both Rushmore and The Royal Tanenbaum's were filmed in Houston's most prestigious and wealthy neighborhood River Oaks. Some poor and notorious were put on the map from ghetto rap songs from artists like Scarface and the Ghetto boys, UGK and DJ Screw. They came from and rapped about South Park, 3rd Ward, Clover Leaf, Sunnyside, Acres Homes, and 5th Ward also known as 'The Bloody Fifth'. Other notable areas in the conurbation known as 'Space City', 'Clutch City', and of course 'Bayou City' are: Garden Oaks, Oak Forest, The Heights, The Galleria area, Bellaire, Katy, Missouri City, The Woodlands, Montrose, and Midtown.

People kind of roam free down here because the land is so spread out. Neighborhoods that could be cities or towns are interconnected. There really is no heavy segregation. This means there can't be large concentrations of police (or people) everywhere and sometimes it almost feels like there's none at all. You don't see drug dealers posted up on corners or anything like that. They often operate out of their grandparents' house in the ghetto or meet up with clientele at gas stations. Just like everything else in life, they have adapted and evolved. That doesn't mean you won't encounter a metropolitan street zombie trying to sell you some rank weed or fake drugs while you're walking on the sidewalk or waiting at the bus stop. If you encounter this, it's more than likely this individual wants to get you alone, stab you, and steal your shoes and wallet rather than become your new drug connection.

You do see an array of bums and hobos on the corners, intersections, and loitering in front of gas stations, many meeting their crack or heroin dealers or telling random people sob stories in exchange for coins and small amounts of cash. They reside under bridges, in the numerous wooded areas in the city, or simply on a park bench. This all, of course, is when they're not in jail. Rarely do these nomads sleep in the homeless shelters, which are specifically made for people in their situation. They make the city uneasy as their appearance is contagiously gloom, often infecting the everyday commuter's happiness with sympathy and sadness, a constant reminder of how real life is, how low it can get, a reminder that this could ultimately be you.

Most homeless people suffer from some kind of mental illness or some kind of disability, either physical or mental, or both, but there are some who were successful at one point. Successful for most of their lives or at least some point in their lives, but ultimately lost it to too many interactions with the demons that inhabit the earth: the accidents, the injuries, the violence, the lawsuits, the depression, the addiction, the crippling financial system. Too much 'bad luck'. The truth is, many of us, most of us, are only one missed paycheck away from being the person holding the sign that says 'Please Help', one divorce away from suicide, one road rage dispute missing from spending the rest of your life in a 6x8 prison cell for permanently removing someone you only knew for two and a half minutes on the planet..

One of the saddest places where the misery is amplified is the METRO bus stop by the hospital. The hospital sits on Ella Boulevard and the 610 (Six Ten) freeway. At the bus stop Houston's most desperate sit, stand, and occasionally piss on the walls of the hospital. Some are overweight with diabetes while others look like starved Holodomor victims. Many are in wheelchairs or being held up by crutches. Many are missing limbs, eyes, ears, and of course teeth. They all end up there because of a service the hospital provides to them.

Across the street, under the freeway overpass, their dire situations got trumped when a homeless and shoeless 7-months pregnant woman in her mid-twenties moved into a cardboard box. It's such a sad situation even the neighborhood newspaper wrote an article about her and the influx of the homeless at the overpass intersections. About two-months ago I got caught at the light and there she was, holding a cardboard sign, shoeless in the rain, and 7-months pregnant. I looked at her body. She was shaking. I looked at her face. She was crying.

Sometimes, when you drive into Downtown Houston from the North Freeway, otherwise known as I-45, it looks as if you are driving into an emerald city, because you see the Wells Fargo Plaza, which could literally be a building that comes from the Land of Oz, due to its extravagant height and luminous green glass tented windows that shine bright in the reflection of the sun. Most of the buildings in the downtown skyline have these green tents. But even if they aren't green, most of the buildings have this inviting glow that entices the human eye like a bug zapper attracts flying insects to its light. The skyline has a certain radiance that seems to project energy to the volatile environment that surrounds it.

Lots of people come to this city with hopes of creating a new identity or starting a new life. I believe both individuals and families do this or perhaps individuals that are hoping to become part of a family. I know one major factor of this is the weather down here. I also know criminals come down here to escape their past.

It's a warm climate where you hardly ever have to worry about putting on a jacket or other ridiculous extra layers of clothing. Many people seem to immigrate from the Midwest or Northeast to escape the Rust Belt, the cold, or the corrupt and miserable places like Detroit.

If I lie in bed without music or my fan on, which is a necessity for me to sleep, I can often hear the faint but clear sound of the train slithering through the city like a gigantic iron serpent, perhaps a rattlesnake, with the pumping of its 5,000-horsepower diesel engine representing the rattle. You will hear this if you live anywhere within about a 6- or 7-mile radius of the tracks. That's more or less everywhere in the greater Houston metropolitan area.

If it's not a train it's a plane, cutting through the air like a surgeon performing a thoracotomy. I sometimes have daydreams of them crashing into my house or in my neighborhood. I always contemplate what I would do in that situation. I have always wanted to be a hero.

Planes aren't the only things making noise in the sky …

Helicopters chop up the wind like a rogue Harley Davidson biker gang. Police helicopters will periodically fly around in circles at night time, shining a spotlight on the land below. This happens most often when there's a police chase, raid on a drug house, or a shooting. Preferably, multiple victims if you want to see the local news chopper. Single victim shootings happen daily and tend to be rather redundant to those of us who impulsively read the newspaper every single day and neurotically watch the local news every single night.

Sometimes it's a life flight helicopter, bringing someone's mangled body to the hospital from a grizzly car accident outside the city limits or a vicious gang fight from one of the surrounding penitentiaries.

Loud sirens from ambulances, fire trucks, and police vehicles let you know someone in the area is fucked up or has just fucked up. You hear this approximately twice in the morning or perhaps evening, and at least twice at night. You hear all of these noises just lying on your bed or couch. Lower class and middle class. The bulk of Houston.

When there's no conductor operating a train and there's no flying or dying, there's people driving. Not just up and down the block, but on the freeway. The freeway, approximately two miles away from where I sleep, keeps a constant buzz. During the day the traffic keeps the city nourished. Under the moon, motorcycles and reckless vehicles race over its concrete lanes like famished falcons. The streets never sleep. They're immortal. They are the heartbeat of the entire city.