In The Shadow Of Howard Hughes’ Houston Plant – Part One

It has always been interesting to me that big shot drill-bit mogul and one time tinsel town player, Howard Hughes, once ran his famous factory close to where I used to work in Houston’s notorious Second Ward neighborhood. The Hughes plant was actually on the edge of that ward and it is not altogether a bad or rough area, just working-class, although for some reason a few of the various wards of Houston get coupled with them a terribly scary adjective in the media. It’s an industrial and working-class area, given you don’t want to break down anywhere in the middle of the night and certainly not here, mostly because in days of yesteryear you may not find a working payphone to call for help.

5425 Polk St.

5425 Polk St. – the office building at the red marker is all that remains. It’s now a state landmark bldg.

Hughes factory occupied a niche of the Houston Ship Channel area before that tributary was booming and while the surrounding neighborhood was growing and was still relatively peaceful and quiet. Now days, the surrounding area is not entirely devoid of depressing views, unless one can find beauty in the ocean of chemical plants off 225 which resembles a corridor to the entrance of purgatory for out of town laypersons – stretching for miles. An old girlfriend from glitzy nearby Deer Park, once remarked at how her blue-blooded friends from Baylor U were aghast at the very site while making the exit from the greater expressway on a trip as her special guests for a weekend. But, there’s that silver-lining of course: Those beacons and smokestacks of commerce which sprawl out before you create a hell of a tax base, making Pasadena, Texas one of the richest communities in the country.

In the mid-90s, I worked in the area of course and got to know the Second Ward very well. “That’s a rough part of town!” I would be lectured by suburbanites, who didn’t know any better. But I didn’t see the danger, besides, what crook is going to carjack a broke looking kid in an ’81 Celica with bald tires. Gang-bangers don’t usually target the downtrodden in broad daylight, who may or may not have $3 in their Velcro wallet. But these were lean times, as the Celica could attest had she not been traded in later, her fate probably landed her in Mexico where she is now hauling chickens to market in Veracruz. How many times did she groan into my office parking lot on empty, only to be reborn by five o’clock and safely, somehow, get me home on fumes? But Fridays were always a windfall, and my temp agency had an office en-route to home and was close to Dad’s BBQ and Jack’s Gas, both old friends. Jack’s was a fill-up joint that also specialized in that southern delicacy: fried foods, for their odorous corndogs were ambrosial to an empty stomach, not to mention the big red letters on the side of the building: We Cash Payroll Checks!

But life was measured in fivers it seems now – $5 for gas, three packs of smokes for $5, a dozen tamales from Carlos’ wife, $5 – orders placed on Thursday ready by Friday at quittin’ time. The “roach-coach” was expensive not to mention unnecessary. Others may wax nostalgic about slumming at the roach-coach but that game got old quick, for just down the street was Super Chicken n Rice, an Asian family run joint, the Wok Café, or “Hamburgers”, more old friends. Super Chicken is still there, including the logo- a superhero chicken wearing a cape. For $2.99 you used to get two big mystery pieces deep fried and large scoops of what was referred to as fried rice. On the way to this skid row of deliciousness one could while waiting in traffic, ponder the plight of the panhandlers or optimists who were selling things found the previous night in a dumpster or set by the curb. I would then have to remind myself that I was almost homeless, one paycheck myself from such self-employment. One destitute couple routinely offered for sale three or four cheap oil paintings: a schooner on the sea, a bowl of fruit, etc., but I am not sure if they ever sold one or what became of their dog, who probably regretted meeting them: He could do better on his own.