The Black Labrador is an English Pub in the Montrose area of Houston, situated near downtown and the Arts District. We’ve only lived in Houston for a little more than five years, and it’s 45 minutes from where we live, but given our Anglo predilections, we’ve visited the pub’s warm environment more than a few times.
As any good pub does, just being there amongst the environment of wooden tables and chairs, draped windows with ivy encroaching from the outside, the entirely unnecessary fireplace (it is Houston, after all), and a copy of the Magna Carta by the bathrooms, The Black Lab stiffens the resolve and convinces one to keep calm and carry on.
You’ll notice I began the opening paragraph using the pronoun “we” because every experience I’ve had there has been with the love of my life, Kirsten. We have met former students there for a bite to eat and reconnect, spent Valentine’s Day there with friends and their parents, celebrated our daughter’s 21st birthday (for the record, she had a very respectable pint of Guinness), and then, of course, the many times just the two of us have ended up there after visiting a museum, or an art supply or bookstore in the area; the little four-top table near the bar, kind of out of the way, next to a window.
It was announced this week that after 33 years The Black Labrador was closing. And to add a little salt to the wound, this came just after the half-priced bookstore in the Rice Village announced it was closing after being in the location since 1981, another place we have been to more than a few times.
What to do with such news?
The older you get, the more of these types of places exist; places where you once had experiences, perhaps even very meaningful ones, that go to the wayside.
My hometown of Tulsa is littered with these types of places. I spent the first 23 years of my life there. Now when I go home to visit and drive around town, it seems all I do is say things like, “See that Ace Hardware? It used to be a Safeway.” I do so knowing full well that the things I point out to those in the car with me cannot accurately represent the wash of emotion I feel as nostalgia does its work.
How strange it is to inhabit a physical space for so long, and then leave it?
We drive by it every now and then, the old house. I sometimes fantasize about going up to the door, giving it a knock, introducing myself as the person who once lived there, and being able to walk through the house again, the living room and kitchen, my old bedroom.
But then there is a kind of place lost where the physical structure no longer exists at all due to something like a fire or demolition.
The best example I have of this from my own experience is Tulsa’s Bell’s Amusement Park, or what used to be Bell’s Amusement Park. It is now, quite literally, a parking lot. When I was there last year, we pulled into the parking lot where roller coasters, log flumes, and haunted houses used to exist physically. The cold spring air that cooled my face on that grey day in March suggested something vague to me that I still can’t put my finger on as Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” played in my head. Indeed, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Outside of places such as restaurants, school buildings, and grocery stores, another example to which many can relate is a house in which they once lived. I grew up in the same house from the age of four to 19. I played with Star Wars toys, shot BB guns in the backyard, had sleepovers, Christmases, and Easter egg hunts; all the memories are there in that one house, that one physical space, and then suddenly one day I no longer lived there.
I have memories of experiences as a child and teenager of a place that I can no longer physically see or touch. It’s gone. The whole Bell’s Amusement Park is gone (it has been since 2005). Of course, many Houstonians have a similar emptiness; Astroworld was demolished and turned into a patch of earth now used for overflow parking during the Houston Rodeo.
What do we do with this particular kind of loss, where the place we once had experiences is not just a new business in the same building but the building itself is literally gone?
This brings up some very interesting questions about experience and the objective world. The building which The Black Labrador currently occupies is going nowhere, but something new will no doubt occupy the same space (hopefully another English pub). The house I used to live in is still there, but another family now occupies it. Bell’s Amusement Park is no longer there as a new thing physically occupies its space; a thing as unromantic as you can imagine, a parking lot.
So what is experience? In what ways should we acknowledge it and to what degree should we value it? And what should we do when we can’t physically go back to where important experiences happened?
Recently my mother-in-law traveled to her 50th high school reunion. The building which had been her high school had been torn down a few years ago. Those who attended the reunion were given a brick from the old building. What’s the point of that? Why do we find that important? I suppose it’s a type of mooring. That our experience, which is intangible, has an easier time maintaining itself if there are tangible places where we can visit, to help maintain our consistency of self. This explains why moving to another city can be so jarring; the places that once gave us meaning and helped represent who we are, our memories, are no longer around and we have to build new ones. Or like Bells Amusement Park, a place that simply disappears.
I don’t really know the answer. I don’t think that I have an answer. Perhaps it’s just to stare it in the face and acknowledge it for what it is, and bear witness, to keep calm and carry on.
So let us raise a glass to the places no longer ours and to the memories we had there, to The Black Labrador, the Half-Priced Bookstore in Rice Village, and the myriad of places that populate each one of our lives.
Cheers, my friends.
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