I recently had a nine hour layover in Houston. Houston is, like most of real America, for driving only. No reasonable public transportation. That means renting a car. Since a Cadillac with steer horns was out of my price range, I thought the most appropriate vehicle for Texas would be a Crown Victoria.
I rented from Thrifty because they had the lowest advertised rate. Naturally, I expect some taxes and hidden fees but what they had in store for me was exorbitant. On an advertised $30 rental for what amounted to about six hours of use, they nailed me for nearly $150. They charged me for a full tank of gas when I only needed a quarter. There was an optional pass for toll roads that I took. I asked the guy at the counter how many tolls there were in the city and he said a lot, plus they no longer accept cash or credit so if you get stuck out there without one of these passes Lord knows what happens. How many tolls do you think I actually encountered? Answer at bottom*. There was also a litany of other dubious money grabs such as a “facility use fee”—you know, like how grocery stores tack on an unadvertised charge for walking on their floors. I could have sorted some of this out if I had the time and was willing to argue about it. That’s Thrifty Car Rental for you. The Crown Vic itself was fine. It’s as big as an SUV but car-shaped. It’s not luxurious. I felt like a cop.
I’m an architectural tourist, so I checked my big list of buildings I wanted to see for Houston. It turns out that Houston is a city in decay. The Masterson YWCA has been demolished, as has the avant-garde Best Products Showroom. I will never see those. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel was closed to the public in March, but it still stands. It is sure to languish for several years before being destroyed as well.
Not all is lost. The Rothko Chapel is alive and well. I first heard about it from the Peter Gabriel song “Fourteen Black Paintings”, and that is what it contains. The chapel is a simple octagonal room with large Mark Rothko canvasses on each wall. Each painting is solid black. These guys, your Rothkos, your Stamoses, your Barnett Newmans, and even your Mondrians, often paint simple abstract shapes and I sympathize when philistines declare them hogwash. Your kid probably could paint that. But nothing is simple, even when it tries to be. The paintings tell you about paint itself, about opacity and about the way it sticks to canvas and itself. Paint isn’t a dye that changes the color of an object. It’s an object itself. It rolls and mottles. And black isn’t just black. It’s grey, white, green, blue, and purple. It’s on the canvas, yes, but really it’s in the light and your eye and your brain.
I sat on a bench in the Rothko Chapel for about twenty minutes, sometimes staring and sometimes swivelling my head to compare. A security guard was there. There was an aged couple whispering to each other. There was a fat young man looking distraught. And there was a woman in a meditation pose. She was immobile from the time I entered to the time I left. Together we submitted ourselves.