Sunday, September 14, 2008



Essay: Houston after dark

How to fathom that 5 million people are without power? The best way is to see it for yourself, to see a normally luminescent city - a bonanza of lights and billboards and ever-beckoning commerce - engulfed in almost total darkness.

Out on the highways and thoroughfares, in the middle of the night, you can drive for miles without seeing anyone, or any light other than that coming from your car.

They become so scarce as to greet you like a friendly smile.

Gaudy car dealerships. Gas stations with no gas. Flashing logos at tacky bars and restaurants. Even still-burning cigarette butts. These are your friends while you drive in pitch black Houston.

Cruising through a neighborhood with no lights can conjure an eerie feeling. You know people are there, tossing in bed as they sweat, cursing the hurricane for all their discomforts, but when you cannot see them or any sign they exist, you feel like the only person in the world.

Drive deeper into the darkness and you see the detritus of old trees in the street, cars parked in the driveways of big Texas houses, discarded plywood or generator boxes, but you don't see any people. And you don't see any light.

So you head back to the big streets, back to see your friends, the lights, and wonder at the randomness of where light remains. On the east side of the North Freeway, Greenspoint Mall is but a silhouette, but the other side of the median is as bright as a summer's day, where a host of businesses look as though they could open any moment. Carmax is bright enough to resemble a sports stadium, but a neighboring dealership has not only no lights but no cars, either.

As you drive around the two loops, all you see are bright, flashing sirens, which mean something too, as they are bringing scarce light to dark places and maybe darker happenings.

Then, as you wind around a bend, heading back downtown on U.S. 59, you see it, the only place that never darkened during the storm: the Houston skyline.

Light, alas, is everywhere.

--Bradley Olson

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