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Welcome to Houston!

My image of Houston has always been and continues to be defined by the cheap little map you get when you rent a car. Houston is like a big, fat, overgrown cell, the membrane formed by interstate highways. It has no real shape -- just a blob. A giant splat on the Earth. There are some mitochondria here and there, but it's rather undifferentiated. Someday this cell might grow into something interesting, like part of an eyeball, but for the moment it is a stem cell, devoid of personality. The nucleus is almost invisible -- apparently it's somewhere in there in the middle, where the interstates knit together.

Houston is the least vertical city in America. The land is flat, the buildings are flat, even the food is flat. Steaks, tortillas. The motto here seems to be Spread It Out. You drive down I-45 and the sprawl keeps going, flatly, everything having precisely the vertical profile of a car dealership. I'm not trying to ridicule it. Not me! I'm from a place that would fit into the parking lot of your average Houston shopping mall. I don't believe in condescension. Condescension is beneath me. I'm sure the Houstonians like living in a place that has yet to discover the concept of zoning.

I'm getting hungry for a heapin' helpin' of Houston food, maybe a slab of beef the size of a banjo. Weirdly I am driving a pickup truck, as that was the only car available at Thrifty. Feel like I ought to go pick up a keg somewhere. The pickup cost $113 a day, not including vicious taxes, like the "Stadium tax." I was told that the rates were so high because an oil and gas convention is taking place in town, but that's confusing: I thought Houston WAS an oil and gas convention. This is one of those how-can-you-tell situations.

Kornheiser was brilliant on Jacksonville (speaking of the competition for Worst American City). Yes, Tony, Tampa is Paris by comparison. I grew up 90 minutes from there (Gainesville) but you'd as soon have visited the paper mill as go to Jacksonville. The fancy-pants people with big cars would go there for the Florida-Georgia game but our '54 Ford would be unlikely to make it farther than Starke. Jacksonville grew by cartographic sleight of hand, apparently annexing all of Duval County (this from dim memory), so that the city limit suddenly splatted Houston-like across all of northeastern Florida. Cross into "Jacksonville" and you were still in the pineywoods. In the early 1970s Jacksonville became so self-consciously striving that it dubbed itself "the Bold New City of the South," a label that proved unpersuasive. It's still shocking to think it has a professional football team. The Gators are bigger. The Gators are a cultural force. Maybe that's why I don't care for the Jags: they're interlopers in Gator Country. But perhaps I should take another look at Jville. Maybe next time I won't take the bypass on the way to the airport. No promises.

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 27, 2005; 5:56 AM ET
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