Deep in the heart of Texas, 32,000 federal employees give their all in the service of their nation.
They heal the sick and reach for the stars. Houston's biggest federal employers include the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center and NASA Johnson Space Center, each with about 3,500 employees. The city will take on further federal activity when the Government Procurement Connections conference — connecting government agencies, corporations and small businesses — rolls into town April 6-7.
Houston comes with its own tagline, thanks to the Apollo 13 crew: "Houston, we've had a problem." • Our specific problem? So little time, so much to do here. Houston is home to more than 200 institutions devoted to the arts, science and history.
Space Center Houston is one of the city's top attractions. A tram tour offers a glimpse behind the scenes of NASA's Johnson Space Center, whose highlights include the historic mission control center, the Saturn V complex at Rocket Park and the space vehicle mock-up facility. The Living in Space module introduces visitors to the rigors of life beyond the atmosphere. Try eating and showering in minimal gravity. The starship gallery shows off an early space capsule, a lunar rover and a giant Skylab trainer, among other goodies.
For something on a smaller scale, and in an artistic vein, the Menil Collection offers an intimate environment in which to view a range of creative works, from prehistoric representations to surrealist works by Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. Melting clocks notwithstanding, these may still be considered mainstream works.
Yet Houston has its share of oddball wonders, too, led by heavy hitter the Orange Show. Postal worker Jeff McKissack worked on it from 1956 until his death in 1980, crafting a 3,000-square-foot homage to his preferred citrus. The meandering maze incorporates a wishing well, a pond, wagon wheels, tractor seats and mannequins. Come in the spring and you can be part of the annual Easter Orange Hunt. Bring a basket.
Just as the Orange Show gives a nod to Florida's finest, so does the Beer Can House toast Milwaukee, Munich and all the great places where hops are joyfully fermented.
The house is a living celebration of suds, a folk art gallery and workshop adorned with more than 50,000 beer cans. Apparently, a former owner had a tendency to hoard, and after filling the attic and the garage, he decided to put his empties to use as domestic adornment.
At some point, Houston got a head start on the trendy "eat local" movement. Its farmers' markets boast character, creativity and, of course, outstanding produce. Canino Produce has grown from 3,800 to more than 20,000 square feet since opening its doors in 1958. Restaurant buyers and everyday shoppers rub elbows amid a wealth of local vegetables and specialty items. Central City Co-Op keeps prices down by buying in bulk for its members. Visitors can purchase a day pass.
Houston institutions tell a lot of lesser-known stories, beyond the rocket ships. Take, for instance, the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, the only museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of the African-American soldier. With a vast repository of artifacts, the museum celebrates this little-known chapter through documents, videos and a broad range of historical memorabilia.
The modest storefront of Casa Ramirez Folk Art Gallery belies the treasures within. The gallery exhibits and sells a diverse array of Mexican craftwork, from religious icons to brightly painted skulls celebrating the Day of the Dead. Wood carvings, metal sculptures and accomplished portraits all have a place on the walls and shelves.
Along the same lines, the American Cowboy Museum comes as a surprise, being more Tonto than Lone Ranger. Located on a working ranch, the museum celebrates the multicultural aspects of the Old West. Exhibits place a special emphasis on the role of blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and women. Visitors can take part in tours and hands-on activities.
At the end of a long, hot day, Houston offers plenty of places to cool off.
Poison Girl clientele pour in from across the social spectrum, bumping elbows at this dive bar. They come for the cheap drinks and good company, the jukebox, the pinball machine and the lazy luxury of the picnic tables on the outdoor patio.
Need another bar? Try 300 Houston, a luxury bowling emporium. The upscale alley features flat-screen TVs, a VIP cocktail lounge and a kickin' stereo system. Personal servers bring food and drink right to your lane.
Absolve Wine Lounge complements its spectacular list of some 150 wines with tasty contemporary snacks like pomodoro meatballs and Italian quesadillas.
While Houston's is a story of life and vibrancy, we'll conclude on the opposite end of the spectrum: The National Museum of Funeral History describes the diverse traditions of internment over time, displaying historic hearses and memorabilia from memorable sending-offs. Museum motto: "Any Day Above Ground is a Good One."
• That's how astronaut Jack Swigert said it in space. Tom Hanks got it wrong in "Apollo 13."