Photo: Houston Streetwise
Since I moved to Louisiana, every few months I’ve met someone who’s spent time in Montrose. It’s this trendy suburb in Houston, the kind the South’s accused of lacking, and the folks who bring it up are usually bemoaning the neighborhood’s changes. They’re always white. Always a stone’s throw away from rich. Rocking flannel and Converse, or a leather jacket and boots, or a floral-print skirt just this side of tattered. One guy, a tattooed teacher, told me he missed the block’s grit: Montrose used to be this place where you never knew who’d beat the shit out of you. Now the notion’s less plausible, which really is a shame, or at least that’s what this guy said. That’s usually how those conversations go.
But every now and again somebody brings up Dirk’s. It was this coffee shop on the corner, one that’s been closed for a minute. But it felt like the neighborhood’s nexus, the thesis of the place, and its phantom still hangs between West Main Street and Branard.
The interior was plain. Just some benches and a register. And the same six baristas slunk around smoking cigarettes. They’d yawn at the counter, slumped, skin grinning through the holes in their shirts, routinely disappearing for some air, or some pot, or to swap words around on the banner facing the boulevard. “Of course we’re open,” it might say, if Dirk’s was obviously closed. “Same same same same same” was another regular. “Stop drinking” made an appearance, right after “Currently out of stock,” and once, hungover, biking back from wherever, I looked up to find a simple admonishment: “Don’t.”
I found Dirk’s on my bike. I didn’t own a fucking car. And you have to drive in Houston—everything’s thirty minutes away. But I’d been living in the Third Ward, this historically black community up the road, for a few years, and also I was broke, which meant I went everywhere on two wheels. So I’d fill a water bottle, pack a worn-out copy of Gary Soto, and push myself down Elgin until the skyscrapers started to shrink.
Except I may as well have ridden to Shangri-La. Dirk’s regulars were foreign to me. I knew Country Black Folks and Suburbanites. No one told me about gays. No one told me about the skinheads sipping espresso by the window, or the crew-cut women conducting book club in the back, or the blind violinist tuning up by the door.
I needed to figure them out. I spent whole days in those booths. Read the same poem over and over (“How strange that we can begin at any time”), but mostly I sat and I watched. A couple years later, the rest of the block would catch up with itself, its high-rises would stretch even higher and some bike-shares would erupt beneath them; and a sheen settled onto the road, and the neighborhood haunts began to crumble, and it’d leave me, on more than one occasion, perturbed, just strung out on the curb; but no one knows what will drive them away until it finally does. So I kept my eyes open. I posted up at Dirk’s.
I was waiting for a Turning Point. This felt like the place it’d happen. And one day I was just sitting there when a black dude sat right across from me. He was middle-aged, and bearded, with a stoop that implied he worked with his hands, and he told me he was an artist, and he invited me to this show.
I followed him to a gallery. We stalled in front of the paintings. They were shitty, if I’m honest, but it was the Profound Experience I’d been waiting for. He offered to buy me coffee, and I was broke, so I let him do that, and then we sat down and we looked at our hands and he told me he thought we should probably stick together.
He said there weren’t that many of us. I didn’t know what the hell that meant. Or rather, I did, but I couldn’t acknowledge it then. It felt like I’d grazed a black hole, like I’d steered too close to the sun, and when he got up for refills I stood up and I was gone.
But that’s not the story I tell when people ask me about Dirk’s. We all have our places that exist beyond space and time. And a year or two after the afternoon I stumbled into it, the baristas posted a sign that said they were closing forever.
Eventually the building came down. Realtors started to linger. For whatever cosmic reason, the banner stayed up a little longer. The property’s since given way to a burger joint, and a smoothie shack after that. At the moment, it’s nothing. If you blinked you’d never know it was there.
Bryan Washington divides his time between Houston and New Orleans. He is working on a collection of short stories.
Last / Next Article