Monday, November 20, 2023

Night Owl's Guide to Houston


       This story, entitled "A Night Owl's Guide to Houston," was actually written back in 2012 and is based upon an actual experience from that summer. It was such a bizarre experience that I felt the need to write it down, since I wasn't sure anyone else would believe the tale. I hope you enjoy the story and would appreciate any feedback!


          James Meadows

Night Owl's Guide to Houston
by James J Meadows III

            “Night Owl’s Guide to Houston: Our town is full of all-night venues for eating, drinking and making merry that aren’t full of drunks. We’ll meet at 9pm and choose where to go from a list of more than 100 destinations that are fun for even sober people. By 10, we’ll be en route to great adventures! Guide: Ella Tyler.”

            These words in the Leisure Learning Center catalog gripped my interest. As a 30-year old single male tired of spending my Friday nights surfing internet personals ads, a work friend recommended I check out the leisure learning center. They told me it was a great way to learn new things, meet other singles, and have fun in a casual environment. A flip through the catalog revealed endless possibilities including horseback riding, kayak trips, and even classes on how to have winning first dates. Among them all, I found this ad and I was hooked.

            This was my chance to meet people in a setting free from drunks and alcohol. It was a chance to learn about night spots and hangouts where I could interact with singles or take future dates. I’ll admit, the rather expensive 45 dollar registration fee and the requisite 40 dollars in spending cash were a touch discouraging. I’m a single parent and rather strapped for cash, not to mention sitters. Still, adventure awaited and I wasn’t about to let a little money stop me. I signed up for the class.

            On the designated day, I headed to “Grey’s Café” in downtown Houston to meet the group. Upon entering the 24-hour café there was one thing I noticed immediately. There was not a soul in the place except for the staff and one table in the corner with three customers. One of the customers called out to me.

            "Are you looking for the Night Owl’s Guide to Houston?”

            I acknowledged I was and they waved me over to the table. I headed that direction surveying my new companions. First of all, I wish to point out that I enjoy foods and deserts. At the same time, I am not a person who spends lots of time eating. I am very conscious about my weight and appearance. Likewise, I tend to prefer hanging out with people who also care about their appearance.

            This may be a touch superficial. Still, the truth is: birds of a feather flock together and people typically prefer hanging out with others who have similar values and priorities.  You rarely see paparazzi pictures of professional athletes hanging out with people who look like they’ve spent the previous week eating donuts. If you have a work-out fanatic family member or friend, you probably haven’t seen them walk through the door with a date capable of swallowing them and not showing it.

            On that note, I can say without a doubt that all three of these people were in shape. By that I mean: round. The table was positioned against a wall and I could hardly squeeze between them and the table behind to reach a vacant chair. There were two women and one man. I was glad to see one of the women, a middle aged African American, wasn’t eating. The other two had pancakes, bacon, hash browns, waffles, omelets, toast, and milk sitting in front of them; and those were the plates they hadn’t already finished.

            The woman who called me over, a large Caucasian woman, informed me between mouthfuls of food that she was Ella Tyler, the guide for the class. She presented me with a print-out of available activities and hangouts. My spirits dropped as I perused the list. They were all 24-hour restaurants, including such unique hang-outs as Whataburger and Denny’s.

            I searched the table for a second page. I found one. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much better. It consisted of almost all bars. Meanwhile, the few “late night hang-outs” appearing on the page included the Houston Aquarium, which closes at 10pm, as well as the Winter Solstice Wine and Lights Festival - which would have been an exciting possibility...if it wasn't currently July.

            My mind began searching for some excuse to get out of this mess when our last three classmates entered the restaurant. The first was a middle aged woman with short black hair; but, the second one caught my eye. She was a beautiful and fit woman in her upper-twenties with long flowing brown hair and green eyes. I started thinking this night might not be a waste after all. That was when a fit, athletic male of about the same age walked in behind her. He took her hand and they headed for the table. My enthusiasm dwindled. Still, it was good to see someone of closer to my own age, and I hurriedly struck up a conversation with them.

            The couple was from San Francisco and was visiting the girl’s mother here in Houston. The middle-aged woman who entered with them turned out to be said mother. She was looking for a way to show her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend the sights of Houston. The best part was that they weren’t interested in eating. They wanted to see popular hang outs and fun venues around the city. My hope became rekindled as they expressed this preference to Ella.

            The guides readily agreed to this plan and proceed to pack everyone into a compact car for the tour. The Californians and their mother wisely decided to follow in their own vehicle and we headed for the first destination. As I sat in the car with the other three, I listened to them discussing the numerous eating groups they were members of. They encouraged me to join an eating group also. They said meals usually only cost between fifty to a hundred dollars and told me it was a great way to try all the unique restaurant venues in Houston. When I told them I wasn't really interested in an eating group, they became more insistent. 

            The previous discussion of my eating habits and finances as a single parent probably already tipped you off to this fact. However, in case it didn’t, I will admit that having a group of people who can barely fit in their own car seats pressuring me to join eating clubs so I can go around town spending a hundred dollars on meals wasn’t my idea of a fun ride. Needless to say, I leapt out of the car as soon as we reached our location.

            Said ‘location’ turned out to be an empty bridge in the middle of an empty park beside a suite of empty office buildings. Something told me this was not one of the premier hangouts in Houston.

            The guides led us through the darkness to the edge of the bridge. There I was greeted with a smell unlike any other in the world: Guano. I didn’t need their explanation or the barrage of siren sounds to know that a swarm of bats lived under the bridge.

            Now, I like seeing bats as much as the next person and enjoy watching them fly. Please note, though, that the operative words in the previous sentence both dealt with visibility. Now, please see the first sentence in the previous paragraph referring to the darkness. You couldn’t see anything! We were at least informed there were bats under there, even if we had no way to see them firsthand. We were also told scientists liked to come here to study the behaviors of bats or harvest the guano for agriculture purposes. Then, after loitering about for several minutes, we were led back to the car.

            Okay, stop one, not so great. But Ella announced that the next stop would be more exciting. This second stop was a new skate boarding park built by the city of Houston. It was complete with concession stands, modern art and loud music. They said it was a popular hangout for young people. Things were looking up again. There was only one small fly in the otherwise wonderful ointment. We arrived to discover the park closed at 8.

            We spent the next thirty minutes walking around the chain link fence so we could stare into the well lit concrete obstacle course. While we did so, I visited with the young couple from California. Since I lived in California during my military enlistment, I found myself sharing stories of life up there and how different it was from Texas.

            Eventually, Ella announced our next destination: New China Town. She talked about how the place was filled with stores, restaurants, and other locations which are open all night. She said people are always milling about and enjoying the night life. Again, the idea showed promise. 

            Hopping back into the car, we began a 40 minute drive out to the small suburb of Sugar Land to see China Town. On the way, the host received a phone call from some old high school friends. These friends wanted to join us for the remainder of the event. The hosts obliged them and told them we were heading to China town, where they agreed to meet us. We arrived in China town and parked in an empty parking lot full of closed buildings. A small still-open coffee shop became our point of rendezvous with the coming high school friends.

            We ordered tea and waited for their arrival. I was pleased to see for the first time some signs of life and activity. Neon lights in Chinese and parking lots full of cars stood in a single large shopping center across the way. Unfortunately, we weren’t going there. We were sitting at a coffee shop waiting for the host’s friends to arrive.

            A half an hour later, we were still sitting at a coffee shop waiting for the host’s friends to arrive. Forty-five minutes later, we were still sitting at a coffee shop waiting for the host’s friends to arrive. So far the only interesting thing I’d done in China Town was share more conversation with the California natives. When forty-five minutes turned into an hour, however, the California natives were ready to go. Feigning being tired, they excused themselves and prepared to leave. Possessing the good sense to act before my chance passed, I also excused myself, informed Ella that I had a nice time, and convinced the Californians to take me back to my vehicle. The ride was nice. We had a pleasant visit on the way back to the café.

            When they pulled into parking lot, we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. Then they were off and so was I. The next morning, I pulled out my leisure learning center catalog and noticed another event I had circled to go on. I hurriedly scratched the event off my list and threw the page away. It read:

            “Houston Secrets: See secret Gardens, international and local foods, and fascinating places to shop on this tour of little-known spots in Houston. We’ll meet a 9am and leave by 10. Guide: Ella Tyler”.

Monday, November 6, 2023

The Last College Tradition


This short story was written in response to a short story prompt called "Indian Curry" and is loosely based upon actual people and events in my life, although I changed the names and some of the details both to avoid giving away too much information about my past. Anyway, let me know what you think! As always I appreciate any feedback!



"The Last College Tradition"
by James J Meadows III

                The refreshing aroma of various spices tickled my nose as I passed through the dirty double-glass doors of the old restaurant. Somehow, even after all these years, the familiar aroma still filled me with a rush of excitement and anticipation, sending my mouth watering and tongue tingling. The smells blended nicely with the equally pleasant sense of comfort and peace I felt, as I looked around at the familiar decorations and tapestries, almost completely unchanged since the first time my friends and I had placed foot inside this restaurant so many years ago.

                “Mister Baker,” called the warm, cheerful voice of a middle aged Indian man, emerging from a nearby doorway. “My goodness, is it that time already? How the months have flown!”

                “Good afternoon, Mr. Sachdeva,” I replied. “I agree. The months certainly have gone by! How are you doing?”

                “Doing well, thank you,” he said. “Your usually seats and table, I presume?”

                “Yes, please,” I replied, as he collected four dinner menus and signaled for me to follow. “I am sorry to hear about your father, by the way. He was a wonderful man.”

                “Thank you,” Mr. Sachdeva replied.

                He seemed uncertain what else to say and I, sharing his sense of awkwardness, didn’t press the conversation. Mr. Sachdeva’s father was the original owner of the restaurant, and had owned it at the time my friends and I first started coming here. Back then, Mr. Sachdeva worked as the greeter. He had taken over the family business after his father’s death a few months ago.

                “Here you go, sir,” he said, gesturing me toward a chair at the small table for four in the back of the restaurant.

                It was the chair I always sat in, at the table my friends and I always sat at. Mr. Sachdeva placed the menus around the table at their various spots, while I took my seat.

                “I’ll be right back with the drinks,” he said. “You would like Riesling, of course. Mrs. Daniels wants a Chardonnay; Mr. Jones would like a water; and Mr. Bellard will take a Pinot Gris. I will place the food orders with the cook.”

                “You know us too well,” I said, giving a small laugh.

                He shared in the chuckle, yet the smile did not extend to his eyes. There was a look of sorrow in them and, I daresay, perhaps even pity. I tried not to think about the look as he walked away.

                Glancing at my watch, I checked the time. There were still five minutes until six o’clock, the hour my friends and had I agreed to meet here – I was usually early. The gathering was a tradition for us. This was our favorite restaurant when we were in college together and, when we graduated, this is where we ate our final meal together. On that day, we made an agreement to make sure our friendship never died. We would meet here every six months, on June 1st and December 1st, at 6pm, and we would eat the same exact meal we had on that last day, with the same drinks and everything. Today, was June 1st.

                We knew the tradition was silly. At the same time, it was something unique, fun and ultimately meaningful to us. Now, sixteen years later, it was a tradition we still maintained. Sadly, though, it had changed somewhat.

                  I glanced at the chair to my left. This chair once seated, Shannon Daniels. She and I had met in junior high school and hit it off quite well. We formed a study group with some of the other kids and even dated for a short period, before ultimately concluding we were much better off as friends. We remained so throughout our college years.

At the time we graduated, she was engaged to a young man named Allen. She was the first of our group to get married and the first of our group to have children. Sadly, a heat stroke, while working in her garden one weekend, meant she was also the first of us to die. She was still in her twenties.

                “Here you go, sir,” Mr. Sachdeva interrupted my thoughts, placing down drinks around the table.

                “Thank you,” I answered, glancing at the glass of Chardonnay he placed at Shannon’s spot.

                After she passed away, my friends and I decided to keep her spot. Not only that, in keeping with tradition, we would still order her food and drinks, to serve as a reminder that she was still with us in spirit.

                “Should I start the food, sir, while you wait?” Mr. Sachdeva asked.

                “Yes, go ahead, please” I replied.

                He gave me another mournful look, which I tried to ignore, and headed for the kitchens.

                  I glanced down at the glass of water sitting across from me. This glass belonged to Michael, the only one of our company who didn’t drink. I met him at Sunday school, while I was still in high school. We became best friends almost instantly. For the remainder of our high school days, we were inseparable, together every evening, weekend, and any other time we could get away with it. We were the closest thing either of us ever had to brothers.

                 Unfortunately, like the Chardonnay, this glass would not get drunk. Michael and I went different directions in our careers and to different cities in our state after graduation. When we were thirty three, he suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of stress at work. The police and his family found his body at a hotel, where he had ended his own life. Distracted by work and life, I hadn’t spoken to him for three months prior to his death – a fact for which I doubt I will ever forgive myself.

                “Your food, sir,” Mr. Sachdeva’s voice broke in upon my reflections.

                “Thank you,” I replied, as he placed a full plate of freshly cooked curry in front of me. “It smells wonderful!”

                I pulled out my fork and started eating my dinner. As I took a bite, I watched Mr. Sachdeva place a plate of Beef Biryani in front of the spot where Shannon sat and a plate of Rajma and rice in front of the spot where Michael once sat. Finally, he put a large bowl of Jalebis in front of Robert's spot.

                Robert’s food would not get eaten either, though I couldn’t tell you why. I’m not sure I’ll ever know. Robert and I met while working at the same summer job after our freshman year. We bonded over a passion for computers, television shows, and video games. I never really knew his family, outside of a few girlfriends he dated, who sometimes came to our get-togethers.

                One day, when we were both 36, I called Robert and scheduled a time for us to get together in about two weeks to hang out, have dinner, and just visit. When the date came, he didn’t show up. I texted him but he didn’t respond. I tried calling him, no answer. Later that day, I went onto his Facebook page to send him a message – which was rare for me since I don’t use Facebook much.

                I saw from comments and pictures left by family on his site that he had died a little over a week-and-a-half before. His funeral was performed the previous day, the day before we were supposed to meet. I messaged his family, asking what happened. They never messaged back and I didn’t press the issue.

                Finishing my last bite of curry, I placed the fork down onto the table. I stared for a few seconds at the untouched dishes and drinks circling me. Just sixteen years ago, a group of college graduates sat at this table, celebrating our friendship and planning for the future. How could they all be gone in less than twenty-years, not one of them getting to see their forties? How much longer would I press on before joining them?

I leaned back in my chair, staring at the empty seats. For a moment, a brief moment, the seats weren’t empty anymore. I could see Michael’s pale skin, platinum hair and trademark smile as he sat upright and proper, watching me; I beheld Robert’s dark skin, dark hair, and scarred face as he reclined backward in his usual manner; I gazed in Shannon’s bright green eyes as they sparkled with her usual zest and enthusiasm.

Somehow, I knew they were all there with me, smiling at me, thinking of me and proud to know that I was thinking of them. Then, the images faded. I saw only Mr. Sachdeva standing across from me, watching me with his sad, yet understanding stare.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked, rising from the table and reaching for my wallet.

“Nothing,” he answered. “This one is on me.”

With a small smile, he picked up the plates and headed toward the back. I reached into my wallet, withdrawing all the cash I owned. It wasn’t much but it was something. I placed all of it onto the table then turned for the door.

 Passing through the glass doors, I gave one last nostalgic look behind me, staring at the table as long as possible until the tinted doors finally closed, hiding its view from me. Heading for my car, I climbed inside, buried my head in my hands and wept for the last time – until December.