Houston Strong doesn’t sound right to me.
I grew up right down the street from NASA, and Houston Strong sounds like a cliche from all the other tragedies that happen perpetually throughout our country. It doesn’t really capture the true vibe of the city. Yes, Houston is strong. But really, Houston is tough.
Houston summers are tough. It’s 95 degrees every single day from early June to mid-September, and humidity acts like a North Korean dictator: Oppressive, cruel and omnipresent. Stepping out in Houston summers is getting slapped in the face by a sauna sky, and then slapping your own face from mosquito swarms. Kids in Houston aren’t trying to avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks because it’s a game. It’s because fire ants might be hiding in the cracks.
Houston jobs are tough. It’s a city full of petrochemical products and oil refineries. On a good day in the refineries, you merely come home stinky. On a bad day, they explode, transmit a mini-earthquake, and you come home in a box. Refinery workers aren’t working 9–5. Many are working second shift or third shift, quite literally burning the midnight oil to keep the products coming for our cars, trucks, ships and spaceships to keep moving.
Houston is a city full of astronauts, men and women tough enough to break the surly bonds of sky, and explore the unknown and maybe the unknowable. Houston is a city that lost the Challenger and the Columbia. Houston lost Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee. Those losses are living scars, memorialized on street corners, road signs and elementary schools.
Houston still explores heavenward. In spite of the scars.
Houston fans have to be tough. Colt .45 fans sat out in the aforementioned summers for three years before the Astrodome was built. Houston endured the Astros’ rainbow jerseys. Houston resigned to trading Joe Morgan and Curt Schilling as they became legends elsewhere. Houston watched 35–3 become 41–38. Houston went to The Big Dance in 1983 only to have Jim Valvano and NC State morph into Fred Astaire all because of an answered airball prayer.
Houston witnessed Craig Biggio get hit by a pitch 285 times over his 20-year career. He only winced occasionally. Houston waived good-bye to Nolan Ryan, and whiffed on drafting Derek Jeter. In October 2005, Albert Pujols hit a baseball so hard that only NASA could track it.
But in typical Houston toughness, the Astros won the next game and went to the World Series.
Buried beneath the stinging grit, Houston is kind. Houston was the first city to open up to their Louisiana neighbors who lost everything in Katrina. Houston led the charge to end veterans without homes. In 2010, Houston had approximately 10,000 homeless veterans. By 2015, they had only a count of eight veterans still without homes.
Eight. In the fourth-largest city in the United States. Eight.
Houston was the first city to elect an openly gay mayor, Annise Parker. It was a tough decision, but it was a landmark move that wasn’t made by San Francisco, Boston or another traditional liberal enclave. It was made by a city now hailed as the most diverse in the country. Houston is the port-town crossroads where African-Americans, Mexicans, Cajuns, Caucasians and Vietnamese all meet to explore the world above our heads, to extract and refine what’s below our feet. Houston is the crossroads of commiseration and cheer.
It is determined and humble, and found everywhere from Texas City to Humble. It is the Gary Cooper of cities. Understated but prolific. Authentic and bankable. Kind in character, but forever men, women and children of the west.
This week, the world watched Houston break. The world saw Houston swallowed under trillions of gallons of water, like the Hand of God left Heaven’s faucet ajar. Homes sunk beneath the waters, and fire ants move from their vacant cracks to the slumming rivers squatting where the sidewalks used to be. The Astros, Texans and Cougars have no home right now. Long-time Houston residents, veterans of the city’s worst storms and darkest days, are now homeless.
The oppressive dictator turned off the heat, and tried waterboarding instead. Houston broke, but the as the globe witnessed, Houston remained unbroken. A Houston summer would break a normal person. Watching your neighbors perish in space might break a normal city. Watching the Oilers choke repeatedly pretty much did break Houston so they traded them to Nashville for JJ Watt a few years later.
Houston isn’t just strong. It’s gritty. It teaches you work ethic. It teaches you tolerance. It teaches you to reach beyond yourself whether it’s to your neighbor from Saigon or a neighbor not yet met in space.
Houston isn’t just strong. Houston is tough. It’s tougher than you. It’s tougher than me.
And I’m from there.