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Robbed at Gunpoint: #4

A homeless man named Verne found the stolen backpack two miles away from the scene. That was where the thiefs bought gas with my credit card. Verne called to tell me the news, and I jumped for joy. I simply forgot what I had in there. When I received the backpack (emptied of the electronics), I found several things I totally forgot about. The abandoned packpack still had a software CD belonging to my company as well as an old literary magazine I edited in college, Nada magazine. That magazine will be a collector’s item someday (or maybe not), but it was my last remaining copy. It was priceless. I wouldn’t have realized I had lost it until weeks or maybe even months later.

Vernon is a former trucker who lost his license because of DWI’s. Now he’s living in a small closet at a gas station. His life seems pathetic to outsiders; he holds a sign to beg for food and hasn’t taken a shower or found a job. I’d worked with homeless people before and have an idea of the challenges they face, the biggest being communication and basic hygeine. I gave him a $30 reward and offered to take him out to lunch on Sunday. For him, it was a nice windfall, and I’m glad to provide it. He was a nice chap, reasonably intelligent and not a psycho, one of the people who can easily escape homelessness with the right system of support. Amazingly, he said that he is a frequent target of theifs…a homeless man! Why would anyone steal things from a homeless man? But I knew what he was talking about. By standing outside, he remains highly visible to passersby; behind a car window, nobody knows who you are or knows how to talk to you (or if you will even open the window).

I grew up and went to school in Alief (which is located in southwest Houston). I know the neighborhoods well. I moved to a part of town slightly seedier than before to live at an apartment with topnotch recreational facilities. And yet as I drove to where the homeless man was staying (at a janitor’s closet at a Citgo gas station), I noticed several other people roaming the street homeless as well. Things have changed; one starts to wonder, why? Is it because the schools or city facilities have deteriorated? Or that the demographic has become poorer and less educated? Is it because of gentrification of both physical structures and inhabitants?

If you had money to spend fixing the problem, where would you spend it? Some say police; others say schools. Others say that if city infrastructure were well-managed, businesses would be more likely to locate here (as well as the high-paying jobs). Alief is a residential suburb. There’s not going to be new colleges or technology centers springing up anytime soon. On the other hand, real estate is still plentiful and cheap; mass transit and tollways are branching out here, so it’s easy to rent an office and start a business.

Also, inside the loop Houston seems pretty yuppified, but west Houston has rich pockets of ethnic groups. I used to live near a Chinatown section (which actually contains lots of Vietnamese people). Besides that are Arabs and Pakistanis and Indians. Lots of nondescript stripmalls with terrificly ethnic shops. I shouldn’t overlook Mexicans and African-Americans here. They were always a visible minority, and now it seems they are no longer on the bottom rung of the immigrant ladder (although ironically the teens who robbed me were Mexican and African-American).

A neighbor once complained that her (white) daughter was a minority in her Alief high school. She said that with disdain, as though this were sufficient proof that the schools were going downhill. But ethnic diversity is supposed to be a community asset; if so, why is it associated with so much crime?

Suburbs often lack public spaces or events to bring people together. In Houston (as in most major cities), artistic groups reside inside the loop; ethnic diversity notwithstanding, west Houston has always been a kind of cultural wasteland. Cineplexes, shopping malls, apartment complexes, fast food restaurants. Where should one go to hang out?
(Sidenote: although I didn’t really set out with this intention, I have a feeling that my video projects might use settings in Alief/West Houston. Stay tuned.)

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