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A personal portrait of oil-stained Houston

Issue 104, Spring 2019

Photos by the author

The event, we are told, will arrive as a violent geyser, propelled from underground by brutal proportions of electricity and pressure, then focused into a vertical torrent and launched heavenward (two hundred feet above ground, give or take) in a spectacle designed to mimic the discovery that hurled us into the modern age of petroleum and made Texas—for all contemporary intents and purposes—Texas

Here in Beaumont, at the Spindletop–Gladys City Boomtown Museum, about eighty miles east of Houston, a small crowd has gathered to pay tribute to a well of chief distinction. The affair’s attendees—mostly parents and their restless kids, tourists set free from the jostling chambers of their vehicles—are hunkered a safe distance from the apparatus, swaddled in coats and hoodies. It is cold for Texas, and frigid especially for Beaumont, which abuts the Gulf, nearly nudges Louisiana, and lies along the roaring, six-lane path of I-10. When our preliminary tour of the premises ends, the museum’s director, Troy Gray, a meticulous, gentle man in synthetic hiking pants and a tucked-in charcoal sweater, steps into the courtyard and makes the call. In exactly five minutes, the contraption will blow. “You might get wet,” Troy warns.

Prior to the announcement, Troy led his audience through a replica town built alongside the well and complete with a drugstore, livery stables, a printing shop, and an active blacksmith studio enclosing the intimate “town square.” The excursion takes on a detailed illusion of the place’s most turbulent age—the early twentieth century—when the whole region erupted with an instant frenzy of new industry. His speech hurried yet precise, Troy takes pride in the ambitious accuracy of every scene. He smirks, blushing a little, singling out the curated details of chamber pots and brass spittoons. In the barbershop, ducking under a protective velvet rope, he pauses to note the room’s period chairs and marble sinks, the hand-painted signs offering FULL SHAVES and HAIR SINGES. There’s a boarding house, too, and a funeral parlor, and a spacious saloon with a functional wooden balcony from which, Troy claims, once a year, to the amusement of local children visiting on a field trip, the museum hires actors to toss an ornery drunk into the street, miming a brawl. 

And of course, in a wide field beside the museum, rising high over the surrounding neighborhood, visible from the highway, there stands the facsimile of the derrick itself—the imposing, sixty-five-foot structure, a symbol designed to inspire in us some brief and amplified awe of the past, an appreciation for the ingenuity and courage that brought us here, the wonders of science and superstition so tightly wound into the history of wells. For me at least, the spell works.

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As a child, living on the outskirts of Houston, I grew accustomed to feeling pinned between a sense of sprawling and fractured history. Often alone, I’d venture out into the natural areas near my house, exploring the scraps of wilderness that bordered the young neighborhoods my family moved into and out of. I’d sneak under barbed-wire fences, committing minor trespasses, building forts, and scrawling maps of game trails, stock ponds, and the confluences of creeks. Mysteries lived in those thinning woods, and I encountered them in the juxtaposition of haunting relics and my contemporary, urban existence. On the random lots of developers and hold-out ranchers, tucked intermittently throughout the city, the ruins of sugar plantations lay scattered, their chunks of iron and brick jutting up from the mud. Syrup cauldrons once used for boiling crushed stalks of cane rusted in thickets of blackberry bushes. Burial plots—likely holding the bodies of former slaves and postbellum, imprisoned laborers—sat on the fringes of baseball fields and strip malls, their crude markers soon to be demolished by bulldozers and slathered with a grid of concrete foundations. Meanwhile, oil rigs, their machinery anchored deep and alone in remote corners of properties, clanked and banged during the night. This landscape, I learned, was defined by a haphazard clash of influence. It was a geographical palimpsest, grafted with generations of pain and profit. Over time, that perspective formed my sense of positioning within the place, or lack thereof. It manifested, personally, in an unsettling awareness, a shakiness in my bearings from the realization that, even though I did come from there, my attachments were as tenuous and suspect as the ones left behind. I carried this apprehension with me from then on, into adulthood, and after I left.

Then, in late August of 2017, prompted by the landfall and subsequent turmoil of Hurricane Harvey, I’d gone back, leaving my temporary home in Iowa to make the long drive down, accompanied by a generous, boat-owning friend from Oklahoma. In Houston, for nearly a week, we waded and trolled through the sickly brown water that had overtaken the city, trying, amid the frantic confusion of conflicting news reports and radio chatter, to assist those who remained stranded and displaced. Ultimately my folks fared well, enduring the comparatively minor misfortune of a totaled car, and I left Texas with a tentative optimism, proud of my origin, moved by the fact that the city had reacted, as a whole, with an uplifting sense of solidarity and grace. 

But during that trip my perception underwent an irreversible shift. As much as I admired the continuing resilience of Houston’s residents, the experience marked the beginning of an end for my home as I knew it. The reality of the flood had doused it with the dogged stench of the doomed. There would be more Harveys, the most astute minds could not help but remind us. There would be more floods. We would be forced, forever, to repeatedly and painfully acknowledge this truth.

Now, not long after Harvey’s first anniversary, this region still limps from the smack of disaster. The wounds of the last year persist—from the visible toll on infrastructure to the unseen yet palpable strain among people—and, in a tangle of complicated ways, both Harvey-induced and not, my attendance at the Spindletop museum marks an emotional homecoming. 

During the lasting aftermath of the storm I’d realized, somewhat ashamedly, that my motivations to go to Houston during the storm were tainted by a faint thread of fatalism and greed. They were seeded by those initial childhood impulses to observe and record the failures of my home, to sketch them out in the privileged narratives of my mind and writing. Similarly, my trip to Spindletop serves to stoke that childlike fire of interest, recalling the same person that scoured the woods as a kid, hunting for clues in the disappearing fragments of lives lost to wicked empire. Such is a problematic draw, for sure, at risk of glossy historical fetishization, but I can’t help but believe I’m not alone.

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Because who among us has not seen the image of the erupting oil well or at least composed it in imagination? Who is not seduced by such theatrical displays of fortune? That absurd black fountain of crude bursting forth, roughnecks dwarfed by the derrick, their faces freckled with treasure. The fodder immortalized in Giant, There Will Be Blood, and The Beverly Hillbillies. The cartoonish fluctuations of wealth and despair, luck and hope, played out in visceral terms on the land. That defining American drama and all the catastrophe it bore. 

Successfully tapped in 1901, the original rig wouldn’t have been constructed had it not been for the near-biblical resolve of one man, a Beaumont entrepreneur and reformed hooligan named Pattillo Higgins. Born in 1863, Higgins, also known as the Prophet of Spindletop, believed from a young age in what lay underneath the sulfurous hill outside his hometown, professedly assured by a divine voice, but he spent many fruitless years hatching failed plans, drilling shallow, unsuccessful wells, perforating the land to no avail. He struggled for funding. Neighbors and friends called him foolish. Reporters claimed he was a delusional crank who knew nothing of geology and had only “witched the hill with a peach limb,” as one journalist, Robert Shackleton, wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 1901. Many times, he nearly gave up, averted only by the buoying force of his premonition. As he aged and the hill sat dry, his chorus of detractors multiplied. But somehow Higgins knew his fate was bound to change. By the turn of the century, the gift of vindication loomed.

Here is the actual scene: In the winter of 1901, a crew of workers toiled over the mouth of a stubborn well. Up to this point, no human had managed to harness deposits of petroleum with any notable scale or efficiency. Oil, in its scarcity, remained a novelty substance with unrealized potential, used primarily for lubricators, solvents, and kerosene, found floating in gobs in ditches and ponds, or gurgling from a few early rigs up in Pennsylvania. The inchoate automobile, too, with its clattering mess of an engine, still posed an unlikely threat to the horse. 

For months, under the leadership of Higgins and his cadre of recruited engineers and sponsors, a team of drillers sunk lengths of pipe into the soil without luck, fighting the subterranean nuisance of sand, clay, and rock, until one day, on January 10, they noticed something strange. The level of mud in the pipe began to undulate. As quoted by Robert W. McDaniel in his book Pattillo Higgins and the Search for Texas Oil, one of the drillers who’d worked on the well from its start, a twenty-four-year-old from Corsicana named Al Hamill, said, “It was like the hole was breathing.” At one thousand one hundred thirty-nine feet deep, on the shoulders of an ancient salt dome formation, the well had punctured a massive pocket of oil.

First, the hole let out a thunderous belch. Then it vomited something foul. The well ejected “a column of slime and blue gas” and a shower of thick, greasy mud, followed by the shrapnel of the well’s own mechanical guts, six tons of pipes and equipment bursting from the site, splintering portions of the derrick’s frail wooden lattice, sending the confused and terrorized men scrambling. 

Then, for an eerie interval, silence. 

Finally the oil came shooting up, a “solid stream of dirty green crude” that raged for over a week, wasting between eighty thousand and a hundred thousand barrels a day before the crews managed to cap it with a T-valve mounted onto a sliding frame made of railroad track.

The most iconic image of the strike—you have surely seen it—was captured by photographer Frank Trost, who operated a studio in nearby Port Arthur and dashed to Beaumont with his equipment shortly after the thing blew. 

Word of Spindletop, along with Trost’s photograph, traveled quickly. That same week, London’s Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper named it the “Lucas Oil Geyser,” after the mining engineer, Captain Anthony Lucas, who directed drilling operations in the well’s later days in partnership with Higgins. Predicting the global shift it would trigger, the New York Times called it “A World Beater.” The Beaumont Journal called it “too grand for intelligent description.” Lore maintains that an unidentified worker on the well’s site, striding past the plume moments after its eruption, simply called it a “gusher.” 

The latter stuck. 

Within a year, starting as early as that afternoon’s train, Beaumont’s population ballooned from around nine thousand to over fifty thousand. A hasty boomtown was hammered up around the gusher, bringing with it the symptoms native to such rapid, orderless expansion seen previously in states like California and Montana, with their respective rushes of gold and copper. Beaumont soon endured the growing pains associated with those booms of the recent past—the cases of trafficking and prostitution, oil fire after destructive oil fire, filthy and inadequate lodging, bureaucratic treachery, the twinned hazards of liquor and violence, and on and on.

Now, a hundred and eighteen years later, the museum orchestrates a reenactment of the strike two or three times a month, geyser and all; only this time the well spits water, not oil. The production is powered by a three-hundred-horsepower behemoth of a pump that was salvaged from the U.S. government after a stint of service in the Persian Gulf, where it was used to smother the flames of Saddam’s ignited wells. From a pipe that’s plumbed directly to the city’s main line, it takes forty-five minutes to fill the machine’s three-thousand-gallon tank with fresh water. When the gusher blows, it will take only two minutes to empty it.

Two weeks before attending the faux gusher’s blastoff, in an attempt to gather some sense of modern perspective, I rode shotgun for several hours in the silver Ford Fusion of Juan Flores, weaving through the regions of Houston that bear the heaviest marks of a metropolis wholly dependent on oil. Juan serves as the community outreach coordinator for Air Alliance Houston, an organization that collects and shares data on air quality and pollution levels throughout the city’s eastside petrochemical corridor, where the Houston Ship Channel begins its muddy, port-lined trek toward the Intracoastal Waterway. He’s also the designated guide of Air Alliance’s “Toxic Tours.”

In his role as guide—a title he inherited by default, as one of the most road-savvy and gregarious in the organization—Juan leads groups of researchers, aspiring activists, and community members on educational ventures, showing them some of the area’s most pressing environmental risks. The tour’s route describes a jagged loop within the city, tracing the obscure perimeters of industrial sites. From what I could tell at the start, there’s no clear objective, other than to observe, over and over, the bleak aesthetics of production and export. It’s a morbid safari of sorts, and anyone’s welcome to ride along. On the day of our tour, though, it was just Juan and me. 

Air Alliance’s efforts deal particularly with the neighborhoods adjacent to or, in some cases, entirely surrounded by major refinement and processing facilities, places they’ve come to refer to as “fenceline communities” for their dangerous proximity. Neighborhoods like Manchester, portions of Pasadena, and the unincorporated township of Galena Park, where Juan grew up and still lives, hold some of the most polluted residential blocks in the United States. A legacy of negligence among industrial facilities makes these areas reliably prone to toxic levels of emitted VOCs (volatile organic compounds), most notably benzene, a byproduct of petrochemical processing, as well as various other gases and airborne particulates formed in all manner of chemical handling, from oil refinement to plastic making to metal recycling. 

Residents here—primarily minority and immigrant families, many of whom work in the plants themselves—confront the lasting struggles typical of this proximity, suffering higher-than-average rates of cancer and respiratory disease. They report offensive chemical odors, pervasive irritants of dust and haze, and unexplained explosions within close range of their houses. Some homeowners, too, complain of cracked foundations caused by violent tremors emanating from nearby plants. Every year, approximately four hundred eighty-four thousand pounds of toxic materials take flight throughout neighborhoods like Manchester and Galena Park, and the consequences abound, ranging from trivial to irreversible. Children develop mysterious coughs. Strange, dark, manmade clouds regularly float and park themselves over the residential zones. Cars wear heavy coats of chemical grime.

Still, the neighborhoods remain, and the corporations—some of them major names, like Valero, Goodyear, and LyondellBasell, but also smaller ones, one-off scrap recycling outfits that contribute just the same—keep closing in. Enabled in part by the city’s absence of zoning regulations, which tends to favor the inclinations of the wealthy, facilities needn’t heed precautions like buffer zones or residential/commercial building restrictions. When it comes to the interests of capital and land use in Houston, anything goes, more or less. At times, it’s true, this quirky trait of the nation’s fourth-largest city can make it a stimulating place to live, facilitating cultural and architectural crosspollinations that aren’t possible elsewhere, but it also promotes precarious, oppressive mashups of geography and commerce.

Historically, Juan told me, despite the threats faced by these neighborhoods, first-generation residents didn’t flee. They stuck around. These places are cultural touchstones that hold more significance than a structure and its address. They’re generational landmarks, often the first landing spots for immigrants seeking familiar community—like Juan’s Mexican-born parents once were—in an otherwise disorienting city and an increasingly intolerant federal immigration system. This rootedness rings especially true for elders, but now, with more and more of them passing away, their children confront a harsh dilemma: Stay, dig in, and lock horns with the powers that be, or cut your losses, sell out for a meager price, and vacate to the city’s cheaper suburbs? Most opt for the second strategy, causing the cultural networks of their childhood neighborhoods to shrink in size and spirit as they leave, a move Juan laments but also can’t blame them for choosing.

“If you live here long enough,” Juan said, alluding to the maddening cycle of industrial encroachment, coupled with the struggle to hold on to an inherited, meaningful space for families to grow, “you get to see it all.” 

It’s an exasperating force, the tireless momentum of business and production, and its apparent disregard for the people in the way. I can empathize with his mission to a degree, but I’m also distanced from Juan’s sentiment, guilty of a less noble reaction, and separated by the partition of race and class. Juan’s and my struggle are not the same, but comparable in shades nonetheless. When Juan saw the intensifying circumstance of his home’s unsustainability, he chose to stay and act against it. My instinct, instead, bolstered by the entrenched confidence and apathy of American whiteness, was flight. 

I asked Juan if there was a time, in a neighborhood’s infancy perhaps, when people had a choice to be here or there, nestled with these businesses or farther out, settling for cleaner, less cramped environs. Was any of this a fault in planning on the residents’ part? 

No way, he said. “We were here first, man,” he insisted. “These refineries grew up around us. It wasn’t the other way around.” 

And he’s right. But the issue’s got layers. In the early stages of development, those tracts of residential land next to young industrial property were seen as valuable, safe acres of opportunity. In fact, an early promotional pamphlet put out by the Magnolia Park Land Company in the 1920s cites the location as its chief selling point: “Right in the center of this tract is the land we have secured for Manchester Subdivision,” the ad goes. “On all sides of it is industrial activity. . . . The location of new plants will make still greater the demand for homes here, and the outlook is bright for a community of several hundred families with stores and shops, schools and churches and all the accessories of a thriving industrial city.”

If you look at subsequent maps and plans of Houston, following the correlations of land allotment and demographic shifts, you can see the transgressions of acquisition across time and space, with Manchester and Galena Park getting swallowed, slowly, as the institution of oil drilling in Texas matured toward the mid-twentieth century. The culprits were companies kick-started by the very pocket of oil Pattillo Higgins allegedly wandered over years prior, witching stick in hand. Only after the city’s port grew busier, drawing in larger, unchecked industry, did the homes earn the reputation they bear today. By that point, the city’s more mobile whites, finding this new atmosphere unsavory, exercised that privilege and abandoned the neighborhoods they’d once touted as the city’s finest. 

As in all cities, the story of displacement and discrimination is as old as the municipality’s. And while it might seem like a somewhat ahistorical cheap shot to draw a direct, incriminating line from Spindletop’s boom to the swath of corporations that now dominates Houston and its high-risk neighborhoods, the residue of truth is there. Houston, like every other metropolis, abets the long history of industry-induced subjugation that manifests, visibly and invisibly, as endemic environmental racism. It’s written into the city’s code, embedded from day one in the place’s naïve aspirations of itself.

Appropriately, in the discrete package of a trip with Juan, the toxic tour intends to isolate these concerns in an especially powerful way—by confronting them directly, without the diluting agent of distance. Because it is not enough to appreciate the problem on paper, or from the sterile remove of statistics. To walk this city, to drive it, to hear its cacophony of voices, is to study it with all the closeness and patience the population requires. In this respect, the tour provides an essential service of assigning physical consequence to a universal struggle—where we live and why we live there—that’s often shrouded in the abstract. It compresses history, gives it shape and sensation, to the point that the injustices of a city, no matter how subtle or drawn out, are impossible to dismiss. 

At the wheel that day, Juan’s passion and fluency showed. Without the aid of map or notes, he spun a full narrative from nearly every home and street we passed, pausing to point out places where he’s become particularly invested. Several times a year, when the weather permits, he conducts block walks, knocking on doors and taking surveys, informing neighbors of the environmental hazards their communities face, sharing Air Alliance’s findings, and reminding residents of the rights and resources they can implement to effect change on their own. 

Some people are eager to talk, Juan said. They fill out questionnaires, hear the data, and seem grateful. Some aren’t. Juan’s been harassed by dogs (and followed, on one occasion, by a loose pig). He’s seen his share of callous and indifferent responses. Last year, while block-walking a whiter and more affluent quadrant of Pasadena, he was threatened by a pair of men standing in their front yard, a large Confederate flag displayed on their house. He spun on his heels and left, quickening his steps. 

Interrupting his own story, Juan abruptly stopped the car.

“Look at this,” he said. “This is ground zero.” We were idling on a quiet street in Manchester, with Hartman Park and its community center to our left. To the right stood a small house, a modest bungalow sandwiched tight between two hulking white storage tanks likely harboring crude oil or gasoline, plus another tank at its back, where a yard would be. Even in the late morning light, the tanks cast a full blanket of shade over the house. 

Juan explained the mechanical function of these tanks, which I’d seen across Texas for my entire life, never fully considering their utility. The ones with the flat tops, he told me, are bad news. They operate with a “floating roof” that rides the level of fluid up and down as it fills and empties. During the flooding brought on by Hurricane Harvey, when the city received over sixty inches of rain in spots, most refineries and processing facilities shut down their monitoring systems, turning a blind eye to malfunctions. Instead of floating safely on top of their product, many of these tank lids couldn’t withstand the weight of water above them and plunged, like a fist entering a bowl already filled with liquid, sending materials up and over the tanks’ edges, into the city. Assessing losses from the short period of the flood, facilities reported a combined total of more than eight million pounds of toxic material released into the air and water, an amount many believe to be a conservative estimate.

“During Harvey, out here the benzene levels were off the charts,” Juan said. “You could smell it. It smelled like raw petrol. People were trying to leave Galena Park, but it’s hard to leave when it’s flooded in. You can’t do nothin’ but take it.”

I wondered, silently, if Juan had considered leaving thereafter, or if he’d ever been seduced by the notion of wiping his hands of the place, setting his principles aside. I wouldn’t blame him if he had. Again, I saw myself reflected in reverse to Juan, considering my own proclivities of self-preservation, of surrender in the name of avoidance.

“My dad worked at a refinery,” Juan said. “The one thing he always told me was ‘Mijo, you make me happy, just don’t work at a refinery like I am.’”

He never has. And neither have his siblings. But that doesn’t mean his family is immune to the tragedies of adjacency. 

Just a few years ago, Juan’s daughter, his first biological child, was born with a tumor near her kidney. She underwent three rounds of chemotherapy before she was six months old. After Juan told me this, I asked—nervous I might come off as voyeuristic, or, worse, accusatory—if he felt like their family’s decision to stay in Galena Park was at all responsible. He sighed. He’d anticipated the question but didn’t have an answer. 

“I don’t know, man,” he said. “I don’t know. But it’s always in the back of my mind.”

At the museum with Troy, prior to the gusher, I’d learned the more condensed, yet similar story of early Beaumont and its experience after the boom. In the winter of 1901, and for years after, not everyone counted the strike as a blessing. The incessant drizzle of crude ruined surrounding crop fields and poisoned livestock, and lakes of oil formed around town, spreading outward from the wells until crews shoveled canals and levees to divert the flow. Buildings bore a troublesome film of soot from the omnipresent mist. 

Shortly before his death in 1955, Pattillo Higgins recalled this phenomenon in an interview recorded by his son. “And the one thing I done for them Beaumonters,” he said, “I painted their houses, every one of them. Shining up big white buildings and such like. The gas, the sulphur in the air, kind of put a finish on the white paint—made it look bronzy.

Still waiting for the geyser’s launch, I was killing time in the museum’s gift shop, perusing the books Troy recommended I purchase, when a woman working the cash register beckoned me over. There was a lull in her shift, and she wanted to chat. Her name was Jamie. I asked her how long she’d been working at the museum. 

“Just a few months,” Jamie said. Before that, she’d been in the Army. She’d served in Afghanistan for a tour, and after that she moved back to Vidor, a small town outside of Beaumont. She used her GI Bill funds to start school down the road at Lamar University. Then Harvey hit. “I was at my house when the water came up,” she said. “We had to get out.”

Jamie was forced to walk twice through armpit-deep water to get to an evacuation boat, ferrying her two large bulldogs, one at a time, from her front door. On the second trip, carrying the heavier of the two, she felt an odd snag in her chest. She froze for a moment, then pushed through. Later that week, when she was finally able to see a doctor, she was told she’d suffered a severe heart attack. As if exposing a tender, buried secret, Jamie lifted an index finger to a point on her chest, just above the collar of her V-neck shirt, and traced the silver gash of a freshly healed scar.

“Triple bypass,” she said, almost whispering.

Right then a family of four entered the gift shop, signed the logbook, and began fingering the Texas-themed trinkets. One of the children, a boy of about eight, started flipping through one of the young-adult books about oil. The title was The Night of Black Rain.

After the family paid for their wares and left, Jamie told me about how she’d lost her home, how she’d dropped out of school after the combined trauma of the flood and her surgery. She told me about how she’d stumbled upon one of the books sold at the museum by chance, Giant Under the Hill: A History of the Spindletop Oil Discovery, and fell in love with the story of Gladys City’s origin, the town initially drawn up from Higgins’s early aspirations for a Christianity-infused, wholesome, oil-boom utopia. Once he’d finished the plans, he’d named the proposed city after his prized Sunday school pupil, Gladys Bingham. Fascinated, Jamie applied for the guest services job at Spindletop not long after the floodwaters receded in Beaumont. She liked it. She told me Troy even sometimes lets her press the gusher’s launch button, which is bolted on the gift shop’s exterior wall.

Jamie’s story of personal loss and disturbance was striking to me, most of all, for the intricate, often tragic ways her life had been shaped by the past and present of this place, the curious forces that brought and kept her here. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with the director of Air Alliance, Bakeya Nelson, weeks before, when I asked, foolishly perhaps, but honestly, if the city of Houston should exist at all, whether it made sense to her to keep up the fight in the wake of events that emphasized its unsustainability. I’d grown tired—after the storm and its destruction, and the media swarm that followed—of hearing journalists and commentators from outside the city offer their critical takes, their stabs at the city’s mounting pile of alleged sins, and the way they seemed to shame the people who resolved to stick around, the ones who turned to their neighbors and made their lives work, regardless. Weakening in my principles, I’d also begun to believe them. Bakeya quickly, confidently, shot my question down. 

“The question of whether or not it should exist is irrelevant,” she said. “It exists, and so what do we do because it exists? How do we protect people? Because people live here.”

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Toward the end of our Toxic Tour that day in Houston, Juan wanted me to see one last thing. He steered us in the direction of Buffalo Bayou, the city’s arterial waterway that becomes—as it passes through downtown, widening to accept the tributaries of White Oak and Simms Bayou—one of the busiest deepwater ports on the continent. Approaching the water, we parked and got out in a small lot, then made our way closer to the shore. 

Juan told me he used to skip school and split a twelve-pack with friends at this spot on the bayou’s banks, a city-owned patch of land between refineries where a squat stone plaque still stands, marking the location of Santa Anna’s capture in 1836, following the Battle of San Jacinto. There, ducking out and relaxing on the small expanse of grass, Juan would watch the tankers and tugboats lurch past, carrying their products toward the Intracoastal Waterway. He didn’t know it then, but he was building a physical résumé for his future as an activist and organizer.

On the day we visited, the place was packed with fishermen, old men slouching on milk crates, drinking beer and sliding scraps of raw chicken onto their hooks, flinging their lines into the chop stirred up from barges. They were aiming to snag big cats, the channels and blues that patrol the deep holes of the bayous, and maybe a speckled trout or redfish or flounder, saltwater species that occasionally wandered up this far, fooled by brackish tides.

“Look at that shit,” Juan said. He pointed to the men, then swept his hand just a hundred yards upstream, where a house-sized island of trash bobbed, rotating slowly in the water, caught in a filthy eddy. “That’s what scares me. Those people over there fishing!”

I balked slightly at Juan’s disgust, but I didn’t want to argue. I’d eaten from worse conditions, surely, and didn’t mind. There were bigger concerns to be had, it seemed. And who were we to judge? Maybe this was survival. Maybe, for some, those fish were better than nothing. It was a gorgeous, bright day, and it felt good to be outside and on foot after the tour’s frenzied stop-and-go. The sun was dancing off the bayou, and Juan was pointing out the multitude of refinement companies lined along the opposite bank when I noticed, apropos of nothing, the jewelry hanging from his neck—a prominent silver chain laid over his shirt with what a appeared to be a lizard, limbs splayed, climbing up his chest. 

“It’s a salamander with a pearl,” Juan explained. 

I inquired further. Juan’s wife had bought the necklace for him in Vegas at one of those places that farms the pearls on site, right there in front of you, and mounts them to any piece that strikes your fancy. For no real reason, briefly mesmerized, I fixated on the metallic, shimmering salamander, the jewel lodged in its tiny jaws. This bizarre instance of flair.

All the dizzying talk of oil and gas had me tracing peculiar connections of the trade. I had mining on the mind, and it wasn’t hard to follow the topic into a spiral of relations, like a conspiracy theorist hunting down obscure traces of affirmation, finding dubious symbols in medieval paintings and Super Bowl commercials. The gleaming creature dangling on Juan’s chain. The sloshing tank of refined gasoline under his hybrid car (albeit assisted by electricity). The barges and their mountains of barrels holding crude. The chocolate bayou surging through the city. The skyline of coughing smokestacks around us, their jagged peaks forming an irregular, rusted crown. The fish writhing in these men’s hands, their aquatic stomachs ripe with trash, their veins radioactive. I wanted, and was still straining, to see the city like Juan did, glowing with a potential worth investing in, but our tour had complicated that effort. I’d begun to build a kind of folk hero of Juan in my head, but his villains grew more intimidating with every stop, working their way into my language, blurring my vision.

Just behind us, arching over the banks of the bayou, one man’s fishing pole doubled over, the line taut and jerking. After a few minutes’ fight, the fish, a sizeable black drum, was on land, and the man wrestled with it for a moment before removing the hook from its puckered mouth. Then, steadying it on the ground under his boot, he took a smooth rock and gave the fish one swift, efficient whack to the brain. He tossed it into a five-gallon bucket. Not twenty yards away, planted in the grass, a sign announced in English and in Spanish:


Back at the Air Alliance headquarters, before parting ways, Juan led me into his office and showed me the alliance’s next project of issuing residents home sample kits they could operate themselves. The device seemed simple enough—a plastic bucket with a one-way valve and an airtight bag inside. All you’d have to do, Juan explained, is open the valve, let the natural vacuum of the bag inhale a sample, and seal it back up. From there, residents could provide scientists with material taken at crucial stages, immediately after anyone noticed strange odors or particulates in the air. It would put the process rightfully in the people’s hands, the ones who are closest to the issue, the ones who live it daily. Juan’s optimism at the prospect was clear, but I could also sense some weariness in his trust of residents’ participation. 

Earlier on our drive, we’d passed Juan’s own house in Galena Park, and he’d spoken of the political complications there, his unsuccessful efforts to inspire action among his neighbors. Recently, in a bid for city council, he engaged in heated, unproductive debates with other candidates about development. “It got dirty,” Juan said. One opponent attempted to dazzle voters by promising to bring a Walmart to the neighborhood, which Juan proved was unsound for a host of reasons, namely that the proposed location was not viable land for construction, as it was composed of a shifting, sandy soil dumped there years ago, a consequence of the repeated dredging of Buffalo Bayou. Later, when he ran for mayor, Juan told me his opponents fabricated accusations of a criminal history and claimed he’d lied about his daughter’s medical condition to garner sympathy. Juan fought hard, canvassing and planting signs. Ultimately he lost to the incumbent candidate. Exhausted by the ordeal, he’d become disillusioned with his hometown’s administration.

But when I asked why he’s remained in Galena Park, a place he knows, maybe more than anyone else, is hazardous and difficult to love, his conviction returns. I can hear it hold firm in his voice. “We need to organize and fight, and educate,” he told me. “If I leave, I’m part of the problem.”

The human instinct to burrow and consume, our destructive nosiness, is a vast and burdened subject. It beguiles artists. A short, brilliant essay by the writer Mary Ruefle, “The Dart and the Drill,” maybe my favorite work of literature, interrogates the act of mining with haunting precision, beginning with an anecdote from Ruefle’s youth, when her brother impaled her skull with a “succession of darts” thrown across the rec room of her childhood home. It then floats, associatively, poetically, through a survey of extraction in all its forms, from the primitive hunt for ore across generations and cultures, to the curious, probing instruments of NASA’s Mars rover, to a hummingbird’s needle-nosed beak rooting for nectar in a blossom, to the morbid image of a gold tooth attached to a necklace (an anniversary gift her father thought romantic but was not received as such), to the gruesome medical act of trepanning, to the much softer, yet ultimately more devastating, tradition of psychological and emotional warfare. “The human brain seems to be obsessed with boring into other brains,” Ruefle tells us, “and if none are available, one’s own brain will do quite well,” by which she means, I long believed, we are simply and hopelessly fated to fuck each other up, that we are destined to pester and brood, to sabotage ourselves and the ground we stand on, forever. The essay offers no solution, winding instead to the infuriating conclusion that “no one has ever stopped trying, no one has ever stopped and said Enough, all these things do is make us shudder.”

Years ago, when I first encountered Ruefle’s essay, I occupied a precarious state of emotions. I was stuck in a quicksand of depression, unsure of my station in the scheme, lacking real thrust, and I felt embraced by Ruefle’s words in the way only the best art can reach out and rattle you with its strangeness. I loved the refreshing honesty of its inquiry. Loved its abruptness and lyrical bravery. I saw myself mirrored and also challenged by its sentences. 

I, too, had once bored into myself, taking the drill to my temple in figurative terms, when I left Houston as a young man, a child really, bent on lighting the fire of estrangement behind me. By high school I’d become a directionless kid, tangled in the usual traps of idleness and angst, and in my junior year, after being mistakenly associated with some wayward peers I hardly knew, I was accused of and detained for a crime I did not commit, a charge whose absurd particulars I am embarrassed to even mention now. In court, my parents lacked the funds or energy to fight the case, and my existing record of spotty attendance and slipping grades cast my defense in question from the start. Virtually stripped of choice, I pleaded no contest and accepted the conviction, a felony it turned out, and I entered adulthood full of absolute rage—at myself, at the system that had produced me, at the perceived dreariness of my prospects and surroundings. 

During my senior year, in a flight of adventurous stupidity, romanced by a recruiter in the cafeteria job fair, I enlisted in the Marine Corps as an infantry rifleman. I spent the next four years in Hawaii and overseas, on deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, where I lived in tents and mud huts with other young men, most of them Southern or Midwestern children of backgrounds miraculously similar to my own, each of them harboring their own damaging inner fires. They became brothers of mine, and we formed bonds I still cherish, but we unanimously bucked against military life, and when I completed my stint, I hit the ground running like the rest of them. We dispersed. I found a new love in books and college, in writers I idolized and emulated. I was saved by the grace and generosity of intellectual mentors, centered by prolonged stints of difficult, necessary solitude, and eventually healed, given supreme purpose, by the kindness of the woman who became my wife. 

Occasionally, in correspondence or on social media, I catch up on the continuing lives of those friends I met in the Marines. I take stock of the roles they’ve assumed. Many of them thrive in their new freedom, raising families and cultivating dreams, and many others have entered similarly extreme, military-adjacent fields of labor and travel. I see photos of the large percentage of them who draw their paychecks from the oil and gas industry, their engagements strung out across the country, fixing pipe in obscure coordinates in North Dakota, or camped out in temporary trailer villages in West Texas, or serving rotating shifts out on rigs in the Gulf. 

Some of them, finding the civilian world too large and wracked with dissonant noise, considering their lives useless, slide into steep trenches of mental illness. They spiral and flail in their silent, personal wars. Too many have lifted guns to their heads, and I mourn them still. 

In my most thoughtful moments I want to reach out and wrap my friends up with time and patience, and love, and at times I can, but at other times the responsibility overwhelms. I’m absent and self-interested. My compassion fizzles.

Following my outing with Juan and my trip to Beaumont, I revisited Ruefle’s essay, coming to it with fresh eyes, in an older state of mind. It contained drastically new meaning. I realized that most of all, more than anything I’d previously gleaned from its few pages—more than any charming aphorism, more than stylistic genius or syntactical tricks—it offered the faint but gleaming possibility of promise, the option, or obligation, for someone, someday, to actually say Enough, to witness the patterns around them and divert the narrative for good. It was a call to action, I now knew, not a passive art object. 

Enlivened by this new impression, I wanted to embody its message retroactively in support. In the same way I longed to connect with those friends I see flailing, over the course of witnessing his vulnerability, the seemingly futile strain of his work, I wanted to reach out to Juan, assuring him it was right, assuring him he was seen, at least by me. I wanted to tell Jamie, too. I wanted to cover them both in a protective shield of understanding, but all I could do during our time together, over and over, was nod my head and listen.

Finally, back at Spindletop, with the countdown completed, Jamie triggers the gusher. Just as Troy promised, it unfurls into a forceful trajectory, straight up through the derrick’s straddling beams and one hundred twenty-five feet beyond that, dwarfing the museum’s campus. A mild wind has kicked up, and at the gusher’s highest point it bends and spreads into a righteous fan, dissipating into a backdrop of clouds. 

I’d read that along with the oil that day in 1901, other prehistoric debris was mixed in—stuff that had no business straying above bedrock. Shards of sediment, buried deep for millennia until then, fell like rain on the gusher’s observers. A world inverted. 

Today, we catch no fossils in our palms. No ancient dust lands on our tongues. Instead, we stand on the asphalt, Troy and Jamie before us, proud keepers of their fountain, the symbolic tic mark on the timeline of our bumbling tribe of humans, when we unlocked some deep, treacherous code of the planet, a curse we could never stuff back into the box from which it came. 

Eventually, the gusher exhausts its supply and disappears. Troy and Jamie head back inside. The rest of us load into our cars and leave, splintering into our respective headings.

On the road, alone, I point the car toward Houston. I’m staying at my mother’s house tonight, as I usually do when I’m in town, sleeping in a small bed among the vast family of cats she keeps acquiring, to the point I don’t know half their names. I’ll be back there by the evening, but I’m in no hurry, so I take the side roads into the city, navigating intuitively, stopping here and there for coffee and gas. At one point, a little lost, feeling inexplicably glum, I get out and stand beside the car, listening, waiting for nothing in particular. I’m parked on a gravel road next to a clearing in a field of tall grass and mesquite, where an oil pumpjack nods, thumping out its faint cadence. I get back in the car and keep going, winding at last through the labyrinthine suburbs. Nearing downtown, I can see the concentrated silhouette of tanks and refineries. I can see the smokestacks lined up, their familiar curls of white and yellow steam. It looks like the city is breathing.


Micah Fields

Micah Fields is from Houston, and received the Oxford American’s 2018-19 Jeff Baskin Writers Fellowship. He lives in Helena, Montana, and his book about Houston’s story of development and storms is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.