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Lost Houston

by Published on

Twenty-first century readers lucky enough to stumble into Sig Byrd’s Houston can be forgiven for wondering if such a place ever existed. Even Byrd—a newspaperman well aware of time’s passing—must have foreseen that. “The persons, places, and incidents in this book are real persons, places and incidents,” Byrd wrote in the book’s not-quite-boilerplate front matter. “Any resemblance between this book and a work of fiction is either coincidental or, what is more likely, is entirely in the reader’s imagination. He probably has been reading too many novels and has neglected to cultivate the acquaintance of his neighbors.”

Byrd wrote a column called “The Stroller” for the daily Houston Press in the 1950s, and later for the Houston Chronicle. These stories were adapted from the columns. Byrd did not neglect to cultivate the acquaintance of his neighbors. He found them gassed up on Milam Street’s Catfish Reef and cutting vinyl sides in the Bloody Fifth Ward, shoeing horses on Vinegar Hill, and fishing for gar in the East End’s “bilge-green bayou.” Fun-gals and law-hawks; ex-boxers and lady bouncers; pachucos, pastors, poets, and ragpickers with handles like Twitchy Tess, Deacon Neal the Gospel Man, Sam Petro the Tomato King, and Don Antonio of the Segundo Barrio—each wearing what Byrd called “the story face,” wherein he discerned “truth with the bark off.”

The truths of that raw Houston were disappearing even as Byrd wrote about them, but he immortalized his neighbors in prose that carried all the noir melancholy of The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell and the vernacular panache of Damon Runyon. “Weazened” characters looked “slaunchwise” at each other on Byrd’s shadowy Houston streetcorners.

Those are real words, and Byrd’s Houston was a real world. It still connects across the years, though the book and two novels that preceded it are long out of print, even after its author’s barely heralded death in 1987.

This being the 21st century, the connections are electronic. There’s a Sig Byrd’s Houston page on Facebook, and Byrd’s “Stroller” columns are archived in scanned facsimile on Flickr. Read them—or Sig Byrd’s Houston, if you can find a copy—alongside 1951’s Houston: Land of the Big Rich, by longtime Houston Post columnist George Fuermann, for a literary archaeology of a city where truth is not stranger—just more interesting—than fiction.

Contributing writer and Houston native Brad Tyer is currently writing a nonfiction book in the Pintlar mountains of Montana, whence he blogs about books, beef jerky and river restoration at http://web.me.com/btyer/.

Houston native, 7th-generation Texan and Rice University graduate Brad Tyer has contributed to the Observer under five editors since the mid-1990s, including stints as freelance critic, contributing writer, interim editor, and two rounds as managing editor, from early 2008 to late 2009 and late 2012 to present. In the interim he's served as the Observer's long-distance copy editor. A former staffer at the Houston Press, former editor of the Missoula, Montana Independent , and widely published freelance (High Country News, New York Times Book Review, Public News, Texas Monthly, The Drake, Thora-Zine, etc.), Brad has been awarded a 2010 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a 2011 Fishtrap Writing Residency, and a 2011 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to support research for his first book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, published by Beacon Press in 2013. Brad oversees the Observer's cultural coverage.