It all started with turtle racing.
I’d been living in Houston for four days when a friend of a friend emailed me a pre-packaged list of things to do across the city. My eyes stopped scanning when I landed on Thursday night turtle races at Little Woodrow’s in Midtown.
Surely this was too strange to be real. But it was the perfect entry point to a city that feels like it was created to challenge notions of what goes where. Here, parents vie for a chance to saddle small children to sheep every March for mutton busting. Viet-Cajun crawfish is a springtime staple. And you can spend more than an hour driving among F-150s, paper-plated luxury cars and slabs without actually leaving town.
Houston lives to defy expectations. And this is, at its core, a love story about Houston. So here we are – at turtle racing.
I didn’t want to go alone, so I pitched the races to my editor at the Houston Chronicle, where I had just been hired as a features writer. And on a Thursday night in May 2015, I ventured to Woodrow’s, where I met Marie D. De Jesús, a photographer assigned to what we agreed would be her silliest story of the week. Many of the bar-goers were young professionals new to town, trying to experience Houston’s eccentricities while they could.
Count me among them. I was one of 23,890 millennials who moved to Houston from out of state in 2015. At first, I’d planned to spend between 18 months and three years here, polishing my resume before moving on. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose Houston origin story starts with the misguided notion that this city would become a dot-on-the-map memory for my future self.
But then came turtle racing. I’d come into the assignment expecting to gawk at a sideshow. Instead, I was enchanted as the red-eared sliders (slowly, steadily) jockeyed toward the outer edges of a racing ring surrounded by koozie-waving twentysomethings. And for the first time since I’d loaded my hatchback for the 27-hour drive to Houston earlier that month, I felt like maybe I belonged – right where I was.
Three months later, I was swiping through a dating app when I saw a profile that made my thumbs stand still after just five words: “Rocket scientist. Turtle racing enthusiast.”
I took a deep breath and swiped right. A match.
‘The best stories’
I grew up in Knox, New York – a town home to fewer people than some of the apartment complexes I’ve lived in here. We had cows and hundreds of acres of hay to bale every summer. Knox didn’t have a stop light, or a library. But we did have one small country store where you could order a pizza or pick up a gallon of milk. I worked there for four years, listening in on Sunday mornings as the older men sipping free-refill coffee leafed through Albany’s newspaper, the Times Union, pointing to headlines and grumbling that “Flatlanders” just didn’t understand.
That paper, I learned, wasn’t really for us. Neither were the movies or TV shows I watched, where characters’ lives felt worlds away from my experience. The media landscape I was exposed to told me I’d have to move to a city someday to – to borrow a phrase from everyone’s favorite railroad bridge – Be Someone.
It took longer than I’d care to admit for me to unravel that notion and realize I have Been Someone since the moment I was born.
Weirdly, it was a high school internship at that very newspaper that set me on that path. I was a 17-year-old intern when I first met a top editor and precociously parroted what I’d overheard serving $2.50 bacon egg and cheese sandwiches: “You never write about the Hilltowns.”
Shortly after, the paper dispatched a reporter to cover Knox’s elections. And I learned the beginnings of a life lesson: All our stories matter. We just need people to recognize they’re out there.
Good journalism can do that.
I’ve spent the majority of the nearly two decades since that internship as a newspaper reporter, then editor, defining and redefining what it means to do this work. Meeting coverage. Disaster response. Narrative storytelling. Comforting the afflicted. Afflicting the comfortable. Writing a good story for a good story’s sake. The job description molds and flexes with a community’s needs.
As Houston Landing’s columnist, I’m excited to address the Houston area’s needs in a new, fresh way. My goal here is both straightforward and complex, much like Houston. I want to tell stories that matter in ways large and small.
The best stories, I’ve always thought, leave no one feeling like an outsider.
In that way, the best stories are a lot like Houston.
Life on the fringes
I barely understood this expansive city when I matched with the rocket scientist. But thanks to turtle racing, I knew we had at least one thing in common. So I used turtles to break the ice.
He knew my article: His coworkers often joked that he never missed a turtle race, so when Marie’s photos appeared wide across a color page in the paper, his boss slammed a copy on his desk and said, “Show me where you are in this picture.”
But he had missed the races that week, for a reason he couldn’t remember.
The reason, I’ve since decided, was fate.
The rocket scientist spent that fall showing me around Houston. We had our first date at Catalina Coffee on Washington and our second at an Astros game, where he showed me when to clap during the seventh-inning stretch’s “Deep In The Heart of Texas.” We had our first kiss at the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Cockrell Butterfly Center. We went to turtle racing every Thursday.
In between weekend gallivanting, I’d spend workdays crisscrossing this city, learning and sharing stories of people who began to feel less like strangers and more like neighbors.
And I fell in love with the rocket scientist who showed me this city, and the city that showed me something new every day. The city that took the longing out of belonging for the first time in my life, and reminded me that you never know where one little story can lead you.
For me, a seemingly small story about racing reptiles changed my entire world. I now know Houston will never be a dot on the map in my late-life memories.
It’s the place where someone who felt like she existed on the fringes gets to tell stories that remind us that fringe is a detail that makes something truly beautiful.
The place where I learned when to clap during “Deep In The Heart of Texas,” so five years to the day after that first date at Catalina, the rocket scientist and I could walk down the aisle to it.
The place where I can teach our daughter – a native Houstonian – that she’s Been Someone her whole life.
We all have.