The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.
It was a rare frigid and drizzly December afternoon for Houston, with feels-like temperatures in the 20s before it snowed later that night. Just as Alice came to expect in Wonderland for “nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen,” so it had seemed for Houston’s 2017 and its furious flood and field of dreams come true. I turned off my Netflix fireplace, happily working from home that day, and put on my heavy coat. With both errands to run and lunchtime hunger, I debated descending into downtown’s tunnels. It had been years since I last walked through the hellish maze. “Starbucks?” I asked of the security guard after circling two times around a building lobby, frustrated that Google Maps may have sent me to a closed location. She pointed and nodded her head towards the stairs, “It’s in the tunnels, honey.”
Instinctively I tucked my chin into my coat as I stepped out of my building, shoulders rising, head lowered. Walking in that degree of cold, memories of the northern cities I fell in love with came flooding back. My car-less life in New York City, Philadelphia and a few Jersey cities revealed to me what a walkable city really was about – connection. The seamless threading of the sidewalks, buildings, parks and shops, the events that happened on and in them and everyone crossing through those places, the interconnectedness of residents, workers and tourists, whether packed tight into a subway car or spread across Central Park’s Great Lawn created an equally kinetic city and people.
I fell in love with those cities for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till disillusionment do us part. They pushed me to suck it up as I trudged through feet of un-shoveled snow, slid on icy un-salted sidewalks, ran through rain storms, carried bags of groceries for eight blocks and willed myself to stand still on the subway platform as sweat rolled down my back and legs in the unbearable August heat. They warned me to watch the gap between the train and the station platform, to take the remaining moments to gather my belongings, to gather myself, to stand clear of the closing doors.
Would you tell me please which way I ought to go from here?
That depends a good deal on where you want to get to, said the Cheshire Cat.
I don’t much care where–said Alice.
Then it doesn’t matter which way you go, said the Cat.
–so long as I get SOMEWHERE, Alice added as an explanation.
Oh, you’re sure to do that, said the Cat, if you only walk long enough.
I crossed Texas and Travis Streets and entered through a revolving door into the warmth of the JPMorgan Chase building. The escalator in front of me was vaguely familiar but lacked a sign to coax me down. “Tunnel” would have been sufficient. In the city under the city was a cross-section of 150,000 downtown Houston employees at lunch time. Airport travelers without luggage ordering lattes from Starbucks, buying birthday cards and candy bars at Paradise Gifts, lunching at Otto’s or Maggie Rita’s or grabbing slices at the pizza joint, getting haircuts, dropping off dry cleaning, mailing letters, power walking in dresses and sneakers. It was a humming subterranean airport terminal/food court with pristine marble floors and walls, little tables and chairs and sitting areas, complete with a mall-sized decorated Christmas tree.
Zig-zagging through a hallway I dead-ended into a small open room of post office boxes with a single windowless door in the corner. A note on it stated its hours of operation – Monday through Friday, 11:00a.m. to 11:45a.m.
“What are your hours?” I asked the woman behind the counter at Gigi’s Cupcakes. “Monday through Friday, 11:00 to 4:00–BUT–on Tuesdays we close at 3:30.”
“Monday through Friday, 6:30 to 2:30,” said the hostess at Maggie Rita’s. “6:30 in the morning?” I asked. “Would you like to be seated for lunch, ma’am?” she asked in that politely annoyed Texan way.
The decision to put so many of downtown’s retail functions below ground, in the tunnels built by office buildings, is a key example of the movement away from public space toward privatization. The tunnels have leeched an entire economy from ground level, and takes much of the street life and energy of downtown with them… whereas any damn fool can happen upon interesting shops while walking daily through a city’s streets, you need a guide to take you into the tunnels. –Phillip Lopate, “Pursuing the Unicorn: Public Space in Houston” (Cite, Winter 1984)
Thirty-four years after that was written, downtown’s growing residents still lack the basic retail and services to make downtown viably walkable. If we could just make it underground. Find a way to get there on weekdays only and by 6:00p.m. or 4:00 or 3:30 or 2:30 or 11:45a.m.
At the entrance of a narrow hallway I saw a little sign – “N. Travis Tunnel, 717 Texas” highlighted in orange, then underneath three more lines, an orange right arrow to “717 Texas,” an orange left arrow to “JPMorgan Chase Tower” and a red left arrow to “Downtown Tunnel Loop.” Hm. Like the first day of high school I stared at the wall map, an Etch A Sketch mess of colored tunnels, peppered with symbols of forks and knives for dining, envelopes for mail drops and dollar signs for ATMs. Eleven different tunnels full of little airport terminals interconnected by narrow, low-ceilinged, uninviting hallways, ultimately disconnecting people from the city’s sidewalks.
I tried two other hallways out of the terminal – one leading to the N. Louisiana tunnel was locked with no sign indicating why, and the other at the opposite end past the Christmas tree that I thought would be locked had no sign indicating where it led. Possibly underneath the over 100-year-old Houston Chronicle building that was recently demolished and paved into a surface parking lot. Through double glass doors and a set of stairs, the hallway’s entrance looked under construction or maybe in repair from Harvey. How does someone in a wheelchair get through this tunnel? I kept walking to hit only a dead-end choice of a parking garage or card-access elevator.
Before her was another long passage, and the White Rabbit was still in sight, hurrying down it… she found herself in a long, low hall, which was lit up by a row of lamps hanging from the roof.
I backtracked to the first hallway, thinking maybe the Downtown Tunnel Loop would have a post office open longer than forty-five minutes, though from the map the red loop looked like it only circled one city block. The hallway curved and to my left was a fitness center, with floor to ceiling frosted glass to protect the workforce in their workout gear. Turning right I walked to the end of the hallway where another little sign read “Downtown Tunnel Loop” with a red arrow pointing to a simple white door that looked more at home in someone’s home. I hesitated, looked around, then tried the door handle.
There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again.
Had I missed a cupcake at Gigi’s with EAT ME piped on top? A Dos Equis bottle at Maggie Rita’s with a DRINK ME label around its neck? Shrunk to an inch, I could have slithered under the door. But for what? There was no beautiful garden tempting me through the door. It would just be another Starbucks. Another gift shop, barber shop, lunch stop. Another post office that maybe posted its minutes of operation. Or more locked doors and dead-ends.
The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid sleepy voice. ‘Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar…Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I—I hardly know, sir, just at present–at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
Friends in NYC asked me if I’d ever move back to Houston and the answer was always an emphatic NO. I thought my next stop would be L.A., the sunshine and the palm trees always opening their arms as I walked out of LAX. I’ve had a layover in Houston, years of deep well falling, mad tea parties, shrinking and growing and asking “Which way? Which way?” Normal chronological paths with careful planning creating predictable results had not been my way. Mostly it was change, then figure it out.
And so it has been with downtown Houston. Though not once has it been impatient with me, told me “Hurry up! Find your way!” It makes no apologies for its lack of bustle or bodega, just content to keep figuring itself out, waiting with open arms while I smile from across the room.
I found my way out of the warmth of the tunnels, lowered my head in the drizzle and tucked my chin back into my coat. An out-of-the-way Wonderland of snow would soon fall.
If you enjoyed this, check out more from Amy Pearl in Table For One.
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