A lot of people in my fair city are quagmired right now over what to do about the Astrodome. Called the Eighth Wonder of the World, this monstrosity of a stadium has been vacant for years while several million people try to decide how to vote on what they think should happen to an architectural freak show, a massive structure that holds as many memories as one could fit into its cavernous reaches and then some.
It’s not just that the building itself is unique or that it was the first of its kind. It’s not that it’s pretty (because it’s not, particularly, and growing less so as it creaks into decrepitude). But the Astrodome is just so personal a place to so many people in this city.
And maybe that’s why the ballot options have been so silly, why voting on the Dome’s fate has been such a difficult scenario. When we go to the polls, we don’t get to say what we actually want to do with it. In the most recent election, the choice was to make it a convention center or…not. Well, of course we don’t need another convention center there, and of course the cost to convert the stadium for that purpose would be astronomical. No one wants to pay those taxes. The problem, of course, is that the alternative to the convention center appears to be, in the absence of a consensus otherwise, to tear the thing down – which will also impact taxes. (Duh.)
But lots of people don’t really want to tear it down, either.
The current plan – if I’m keeping up with the discussion – is to raze the building and make it a surface parking lot. That kind of makes me want to vomit. It’s the sort of ugly and boring “solution” that makes people around the country think Houston is full of stupid people with no sense of aesthetics.
A pair of Rice students, who won a contest to come up with creative solutions for what to do with the Dome, suggested turning the Dome itself into a massive parking structure, and then breaking up the zillions of acres of existing surface parking around the structure into parcels of really valuable real estate. Those parcels could be sold to retail shops and restaurants for a boatload of money, because frankly, that land is worth a lot, and the development would help revitalize the area, which it desperately needs. Plus, those retail and dining establishments would have a ready audience every time an event finished at Reliant Stadium – the even bigger stadium next door to the Astrodome that made the Dome obsolete in the first place.
(If you’re not from here and are starting to wonder what the hell is wrong with us, I won’t tell you that’s an unreasonable question.)
To be honest, I don’t technically have a dog in this fight. I have opinions on what they should do with the Dome, but since I no longer actually live in Harris County, I don’t get to vote on it. (The suburb where I do live is one of the most frustratingly irrelevant places to live if you have any interest at all in politics or city development.)
And I’ve never been a big sports fan, so my attachment to the Dome is not rooted in that. I spent plenty of time in my youth going there for football and baseball games, for rock concerts and the rodeo. When I turned ten years old, for my birthday (which falls in the middle of rodeo season), my godfather took me to see Crystal Gayle and Eddie Rabbit in concert. I liked Eddie Rabbit’s music, and Crystal Gayle had the longest hair I’d ever seen, so I loved her, too. When I was a freshman in college, I saw Faith No More, Metallica, and Guns ‘N Roses there. The acoustics sucked. But that day I had rounded up my little brother and one of my friends from their respective high schools, getting them out of school early to go to a rock concert (with their parents’ permission), and that story is hilarious.
But it’s a story for another time, because the most important memory I have of the Astrodome has nothing to do with any of that. It’s of a baseball game I attended there in eighth grade, but I don’t remember whom the Astros were playing and didn’t care that day, either. I was only mildly impressed by the skybox reserved for us. I remember thinking the food was pretty good, but it seemed odd to have the game playing on a television in the lounge when we could just step outside the door and see it on the diamond below. Our seats in the stands were near-ish to the top of the structure, and I remember watching birds that had gotten into the stadium flying around near the ceiling, and thinking how strange it was to see birds’ nests in the joints of the steel rafters.
The reason I was at this game had nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with writing.
The Houston Chronicle had sponsored a city-wide essay contest about Houston for students that year. My Creative Writing teacher had assigned all of us in class to write an essay for the contest, and I had written from the perspective of a bird flying over the city. I remember nothing else about that essay except that a few weeks after the contest, I received a letter in the mail congratulating me on winning it.
I was not the only winner, of course, but I was one of the few from my grade level. Another boy from my class who was in Creative Writing had won, too, and we were going to be honored, along with the other contest winners from each grade level, in the middle of an Astros game that spring. And as a prize, we would each be given a certificate and a watch. A nice watch, from Gordon’s Jewelers. A watch decorated with 14K gold, a watch with a diamond in it.
I was pretty excited when that letter came in the mail. I read it in disbelief then showed it to my parents, who also read it in disbelief.
“You’re going to go onto the field during an Astros game!” they exclaimed, excited for me. “They’re going to give you a really nice watch!”
“They sure are!” I must have said. And then, “What on earth am I going to wear?”
The question of what I would wear wasn’t actually hard to answer. My mom had bought me a cute new outfit for that year’s Christmas Dance, a hunter green knit skirt and oversized sweater with big black stars all over it, the height of fashion at the time.
The question of why my essay had been chosen among the winners was a tougher thing to figure out. I had been plagued that year with writing failures.
My new column in the school newspaper had flopped. It was called “Ask Angélique” and meant to be a helpful information-gathering service to my fellow students. (Remember, this was almost a decade before the Internet existed for civilian use: encyclopedias and dictionaries were important books every kid needed on a regular basis.) The shoebox I’d optimistically decorated with construction paper and markers and placed in the school library was stuffed each week with inane questions ranging from the disrespectful and tacky “Are you a virgin?” to the cruelly impossible “List all makes and models of cars ever created. Example: Buick Skylark.” The worst part? I knew who was writing these questions. I had been going to school with these kids since kindergarten, and I knew their handwriting, and I understood the askance looks they gave me after I read their otherwise anonymous questions.
A short story I’d written in Creative Writing class one day when I’d had the flu and hadn’t been sent home from school yet had earned a D for being only three paragraphs long – hardly representative of my usual work – and that assignment had sat on top of a stack of graded papers on the edge of our teacher’s desk for everyone to see every day for a week. (A couple of the boys in my class sneered that D in my face for the rest of the year.)
A long fiction project I’d been working on for months in my spare time – a novel I was writing about my cousins and me, on notebook paper with a pencil, so I could easily edit it – had been ruined the week before when my little brother had opened a large bottle of bubble solution in my closet and accidentally spilled it all over the pages, blurring the manuscript beyond recognition.
And a few months before, one of those cousins in my soaked manuscript – one of my closest friends in the world – had unexpectedly died, taking with him my desire to play the piano and my ability to know how to properly express grief. My teacher was getting tired of reading my poems and essays about how much I missed him.
The thought that I might ever experience success again had pretty much fled. So when I turned in my essay to my teacher, I forgot about it, and when I got the congratulatory letter in the mail, I taped it to my closet door, next to the pin-up posters of Ricky Schroeder and Duran Duran, so I could see it every day and remember that this had really happened.
We went to the Dome on the appointed Sunday afternoon. A representative from the newspaper and another one from the jewelry store guided all of us through the ceremony protocol. After the fourth inning, we would all file down onto the field and stand in a semi-circle behind the pitcher’s mound. The man announcing us would speak each of our names into a microphone, and our names would appear in lights on the giant marquee. The crowd would go wild as, one by one, we walked from the semi-circle to the tall woman with big curly blonde hair and a smart skirt suit, and she would hand us our prizes. Then we would walk back to the semi-circle, and when it was all finished, we would return to our skybox for the rest of the game.
There are a few things I remember about that awards ceremony. One was that you couldn’t actually hear your name being announced, because the echo in the Dome was like its own physics experiment. You watched for your name in lights and hoped the kid before you could decipher the noise better than you, so you could follow his lead. My black flats crunched the Astroturf with each step, a noise I felt more than heard in the din of 35,000 screaming fans. The blonde smiled primly at me when she handed me the certificate and the watch box. I walked back to the semi-circle with a ringing in my ears and couldn’t wait to open that box but managed to hold off until we got back upstairs. Not all of the other kids were so polite.
My mom, waiting for me in the skybox, looked proud of me when I came back up. “You looked so pretty out there,” she said, smoothing down the impatient curls of my waist-length hair. I handed her my certificate so she wouldn’t try to help me as I fumbled the box open. I wanted that moment to be all my own.
The watch had a round onyx face and a narrow, black leather band. The face had nothing on it but a diamond where the twelve would have been. All three hands were made of gold, and a gold border rimmed the face, in which was etched Roman numerals to mark the hours. The glass was made of clear crystal. It was a beautiful watch, and someone had given it to me because something I had written was good, a determination made by complete strangers who didn’t know me or love me or have to tell me they approved, by people who didn’t hand the essay back to me, saying, “You certainly have become opinionated.”
I went to the Astrodome many times, but no other time I went really matters. And so, when they tear it down – since it doesn’t appear that anyone in charge of the situation has enough sense to stop it and do something useful and productive with the space – this is what I will remember.
Birds nesting in the ceiling.
And 35,000 screaming fans lauding a fourteen-year-old girl, rock star like, for a piece of writing that, forgettable though it was, made her believe in no uncertain terms that somewhere she would have an audience, and for that, must have been brilliant.