Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bums and Breast Implants in Houston

Vagrants wander the streets of downtown Houston bothering businessmen and tourists in an aggressive manner that I have not seen elsewhere. The contrast with New York City, from which I recently moved, could not be starker. Gotham City is now a strollers paradise with lovers walking hand-in-hand unmolested. Yet in this freewheeling city on the Gulf, people on foot are accosted by hostile beggars at each corner.

I was genuinely pleased and somewhat bemused when I first moved to Houston for a short-term contract job. The first thing I noticed is this is perhaps the most narcissistic city in America. There are more plastic surgeons, tanning and nail salons, gyms, and spas per square mile here than in any city where I have worked. The citizens of Houston are constantly pruning and sculpting their nails, eyelashes, and abdominal muscles so they can preen in front of the opposite sex. Consequently the city is full of lovely folks having fun.

That view of Houston differs from what one reads in the press. The national papers, if they mention Houston at all, write of a steamy tangle of black ghettos, Latin barrios, walled-off wealthy enclaves, and hurricane floods. But I find the multi-cultural, bilingual diversity of this rather hot and steamy city one of its attractions. As for the weather, my only complaint is not the heatit is the omnipresent air conditioning. Could we open a window or two

In typical New Yorker fashion, I dont keep a car here. I find the buses, taxis, and walking cheaper and more convenient. In my wanderings about town, I rarely venture beyond the Galleria, midtown, or downtown. There is no need. This vast city of far-flung suburbs has a small inner core of Brazilian barbecues, art films, jazz caf鳬 tapas bars, slam poetry, and belly dancers providing all the entertainment and social venues that I need.

Houstonians to a man boast that their former downtown Dantes Inferno is turning into a Garden of Eden. Boarded up office buildings and parking lots are shunted aside to make room for upscale housing, restaurants, and bars. But amid all this talk of the gentrification of Houston there is a situation festering downtown that needs to be addressed. These are the wandering, babbling rabble of beggars who mar an otherwise pleasant situation.

When I was a boy I saved my money and flew up to Manhattan from South Carolina to see an opera. New York in the 1970s was absolutely frightening. Dangerous-looking people lurked in the subway, drug dealers confronted you when you crossed the street, and homeless panhandlers and squeegee men terrified this wide-eyed youngster from the Deep South.

Frustrated with the liberal politics of the nanny state, New Yorkers tossed aside Ed Koch and David Dinkins and installed a hard-nosed former prosecutor who had faced down the mob: Rudolph Giuliani. He brought in a police commissioner who ascribed to the broken glass theory of crime. To wit: graffiti and a sense of disorder on the street foster genuine crime and lawlessness. So the mayor and his minions rounded up all the panhandlers, wiped clean the subway cars, and installed a dozen years of Pax Giuliani that persist until today.

The situation in Houston in could not be further removed from that pleasantry. This city is the worst city for aggressive panhandling of any place I have lived or worked, even worse than Ed Rendells Philadelphia. I used to catch the bus at the corner of Main and Lamar but moved two blocks away to avoid panhandlers who stood outside the grocer. That store sells cold beers in single cans clearly meant for the wandering vagrant.

My friends and coworkers say to just ignore these characters yet they too are constantly bothered. When someone curses me because I do not respond to their questions-or when they circle me plying me for handouts--all I want to do is shove them or punch them in the mouth.

Every culture has beggars; I recognize that. We cannot simply round them up and cart them off like some fascist state. There is a genuine problem of the schizophrenicthey are demented and unable to care for themselves. Society should step in and provide them a home, food, medicine, and some endeavor to occupy their time. But beggars who are clearly sane and who prefer begging to genuine work should be run off the streets by the police. Otherwise your much ballyhooed effort to revitalize your downtown with gleaming townhomes and condominiums will fall apart, for people will not want to live or visit here.

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