I must admit I am a tad ticked that it has taken destructive winds and inundation to land my city on the minds of the cultured. Let me start by saying I forgive you, only slightly, for waiting until its residents were in great peril to turn an inquisitive eye to our exciting, singular, and oft-neglected southern metropolis. It’s been there for a while. It’s where your oil gets refined, where your totaled cars get shipped and stripped into scrap, where your Sysco products come from, your Igloo products, and on and on. It is, as New Yorkers might only admit under duress, our nation’s most diverse city, in every sense of the word. Dilettantes of urban theory like to point to Houston’s lack of zoning as the defining feature of the country’s fourth-largest city, an attempt to explain its odd sprawl and developmental irreverence. That’s not entirely true—Houston does have zoning, it’s just a little different—but the critique stands. Houston’s a haphazard collage of the commercial and residential. I like to call it America’s biggest instance of unintentional art. It’s truly unique, geographically and culturally. And the same forces behind that dynamism make it prone to frequent, deadly floods.
In the past twenty-five years, Houston’s concrete surface area has increased by more than 25 percent, in turn reducing the amount of absorbent marshland meant to keep East Texas’s precipitation contained. Unchecked development hasn’t done that percentage any favors, and one could argue the city could use an ordinance or two to ensure more porous ground is preserved in the city limits. Add to that a system of drainage bayous, also lined in concrete, that are notoriously clogged with debris that the city’s deemed too expensive to extract. What’s more, Houston lies on a series of giant underground salt domes, which we’ve hollowed out in oil extraction efforts over the last century, leaving the city sinking on its shallow crust. Slowly, the city is on its way to becoming a smooth and massive bowl.
All this to say we know why the rain is pooling, and we know what could have been done in the city’s infant stages to avoid such disasters, but at this point such matters aren’t worth the parade of blame. It’s done. Cities have problems. This is Houston’s. What I’m really interested in, though, and what seems to me the most appropriate manifestation of Houston’s host of ironies this week, is the triumphant rise of Houston’s benevolent furniture mogul, mister Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale.
What I’m really interested in this week is the triumphant rise of Houston’s benevolent furniture mogul, mister Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale.
I remember Mattress Mack’s store, Gallery Furniture, with vivid precision. As a child, I quickly learned that a trip to the hulking furniture showroom with my parents yielded at least three handfuls of Goldfish crackers from the huge bowls that sat, unsupervised, like it was nothing, on display pieces throughout the premises. I remember the joy of browsing, playing house in the false rooms of furniture my folks never bought. My mother was more of a thrifter, a vintage hound, and Gallery Furniture was late-’90s suburban-chic. Most of all, I remember the iconic Gallery Furniture commercials, the style of which Mack allegedly invented during a business slump in the 1980s. Legend has it that he spent his last $10,000 on a measly two commercial spots, and when he disliked the sluggish pace of the script he decided to ad lib a spooling rant of red-hot savings, packing everything he could into his precious thirty seconds of airtime. The frantic pitch became his gimmick, and I watched him shout it hundreds, if not thousands of times. It became an anthem. He’d run through the seasonal specifics while seated on a discounted suede sofa: the Fourth of July Sales Event, the Superbowl Savings, the warehouse liquidation, whatever. Finally, he’d raise his voice and scream, red-faced: Gallery Furniture really will. . . SAVE . . . YOU (and then he’d shift on the couch, plunge a fist underneath his ass, and rip out a fan of crisp twenties) . . . MONEY! The routine burned itself on my developing Texan brain, and it galvanized the perception of my hometown as a scrappy and shameless hub for individualistic commerce. Say what you want about the high-production, slicked-out commercials of today—the McConaugheys in whisper-quiet Lincolns—this man had fortitude. He became a mascot.
It’s true that Mattress Mack hovers over Houston—not just my Houston but everyone’s—as a totem of capitalistic heroism, a testament to the urban pioneer ethos that rules the roost in H-Town. Mack got his start slinging discount mattresses from the bed of a truck on an I-45 access road—or feeder, as we call them, which you should add to your lexicon, since Houston invented the thing, or at least the widespread use of it. He nurtured his business into a healthy empire with three locations of massive showrooms and warehouses, complete with cafés and snack bars and—I’m not kidding—cages of exotic animals, birds and monkeys, for customers to ogle while testing out recliners. McInvale takes pride in his self-made manhood. He’s a vocal Tea Partier, a by-your-bootstraps kind of dude, and is known to rope his employees into standing at attention while playing “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” through a store’s speakers. In an inspirational speech he gave once, I watched him decry use of public assistance.
The tight-walleted conservative sentiment relies only on a lack or refusal of the imagination.
It came as a minor surprise to me, then, when I got word that Mack had opened two of Gallery Furniture’s locations to flood evacuees last weekend, stocking them with food, water, and, of course, lots of mattresses. The act of generosity shocked me for a brief moment, half a second maybe, but then it didn’t at all. Because this is the thing about those hard-charging capitalist cowboys: the tough-guy shtick breaks down every time it’s held to the light, and not because people are particularly compassionate beyond belief, or any saccharine judgement of the like, it’s just that the tight-walleted conservative sentiment relies only on a lack or refusal of the imagination. And once imagination’s not required, once the consequences are real and close to you, the answers get easy. What do you do? Help. Contribute. Share. Why is that so hard to grasp in the abstract? Why must it be tested in the extremely, life-threateningly tangible to prove essential? Why is it so easy for some to fabricate and fixate on the image of the lazy citizen, the government parasite, but alternatively difficult for them to imagine the Houstonian grandmother standing on her roof, drenched in rain?
Why should you care about Houston, then, other than the fact that its residents are currently facing unprecedented floods, tornadoes, and potential weeks of being stranded in their homes, praying the waters recede, the rains halt, and Harvey drifts and dissipates over the bathtub of the Gulf? Maybe because the entity of Houston isn’t as severe and soulless as you thought. Maybe there’s humanity in the messiness. Maybe Houston’s a big ugly beast of a city, an organism that morphs into difficult shapes we can learn from. It betrays us. It fucks up. But there’s community in the folds of it.