When I rolled into the Houston Museum of Natural Science's parking lot at 10:30 Sunday night, I didn't know what to expect. Yes, I'd heard about the rare corpse flower that was attracting record crowds even though it hasn't undergone its horrifically-stinky bloom yet.
But, frankly, it sounded like a whole lot of hype.
It was late on a work-wakeup night. How many budding botanists could there possibly be to justify keeping the museum — at least the Cockrell Butterfly Center part of it — open till midnight?
Then, I saw the cars (more than 25 of them), the security guard patrolling in a souped-up golf cart and the steady trickle of people coming and going from the fountain-passing entrance way.
Houston, we have a happening.
My entourage (two toddlers) and I charged for the door and strolled right through the dimly-lit lobby, heading for the Butterfly Center entrance in the back. It turns out that when you're dealing with the corpse flower, it pays to come late. People waited in lines more than 30-minutes long throughout the day to see this five-foot-plus-tall (still pedal-closed-tight) plant Sunday. More than 3,000 folks turned out in all.
With the clock ticking toward 11 p.m., one could saunter right in though (after paying the $8 adult and $7 kids admission fee). The first person we ran into was a guard/ticket taker named Stephen who had been at work since 8 a.m. That's right, a 16-hour shift for a flower.
"It's been good though," Stephen insisted. "We didn't expect to be here that long, but we saw all the people coming in all day, we knew we had to stay. It's been like this the whole time. Pretty steady. Even as it's gotten later. I can use the extra hours too.
"Everyone's been relaxed and they've been feeding us."
A quick trip upstairs brings you into the corpse flower's waiting room. OK, it's technically the bugs' exhibit area with tons of creepie crawlers under glass, including giant tarantulas, exotic ants and Assassin Bugs. Only, all these creatures — including the usual star Rainbow Scarabs — are suddenly so yesterday's news. It must be a crushing blow to the egos of these usually oohed-over bluish-green dung beetles with striking red halves to see museum visitors sidestepping them like they're a homeless man on Main Street.
But those are the breaks of show biz, six legs.
The corpse flower is just around the bend and who has time to chat with even the Madagascar hissing cockroaches?
Even before seeing the corpse flower, it quickly becomes clear it should have velvet ropes around — and an assistant or three at its beck and call.
"This is so Austin!" one large man in shorts and a T-shirt gushed to anyone who wanted to hear — and several people who didn't. "To have all these people out at museum at night to see a rare flower, that's something you'd only expect to see in Austin. I never thought I'd see the day. Am I in Austin?"
The orator turned out to be from ... Austin. No confirmation if he looks after the plants at Rick Perry's mansion in the hills as a side gig.
A stinking star
There's no easy way to say this, but Houston's corpse flower may need a new agent. Either that or he's going against Les Grossman in negotiations.
It turns out that the shrubbery bringing everyone in — the driving force behind the endless afternoon lines and the midnight stay opens — is sort of kept in a hallway. The corpse flower is growing in an exhibit area in a cramped, tiny passage room that's in-between the bugs-behind-glass center and the rainforest-like, waterfall-cascading-down butterfly habitat.
One of the rarest flowers in the world (less than 30 corpse flower bloomings have ever been observed in the United States) is in a little spot with a view up. Sure, the corpse flower gets its own personal security guard, but the guy's not even wearing shades or an ear piece.
When the corpse flower finally blooms (late afternoon Monday is now the best guess of the Natural Science horticulturists), the big attraction will be an overpowering odor of rotting flesh. It's advertised as one of the worst smells known to humankind, one that will likely drive many weak stomachs from the room (or the hallway). The thing might even stink out the entire museum.
But until that moment, it's a really tall upright green thing that would be worshipped as the ultimate phallic symbol by many cultures (especially Austin's).
My 4-year-old was freaked out by the corpse flower. Not because it's taller than him. Not even because it's so mysterious. No, all the adults (a good 10-plus in a passageway more fit for four) jostling with each other to get the best iPhone picture of the thing were the terror. Then, there was the college-aged couple from Germany who wouldn't stop posing for the museum's live web cam of the flower as they called a host of friends back home and demanded that they watch.
Apparently, mimicking picking your nose qualifies as high humor in Berlin.
Why the rent-a-cop didn't jump in to save the corpse flower's sanity, I'll never know.
The real attraction
Once you leave the madness that the corpse flower must endure (no wonder why it hasn't popped open its pedals yet), the night at the museum turns more fun. Going down those windy circular smooth paths — around the waterfall and all the plants — when the lighting is muted at best is something of a thrill even if it hasn't only been only a few years since you started walking.
Most of the butterflies were asleep (hey, they've got work in the morning), but a few beetles scurried by, across the path and a guy with a flashlight took the time to point out several vines with beautiful dozing butterflies on them to my boys. Whether this flashlight-helper in a green polo is actually employed by the museum is up for debate.
"I could," is all he said when asked directly if he worked for the Butterfly Center.
This fits in perfectly with the vibe of the museum near midnight. You don't really know who's working and who is there for play. There were three other families with kids running around, gleefully pulling out the drawers of the preserved dead bug specimens on the bottom level and laughing at the working bug-vending machine as well.
That's the great thing about little kids, they're ready for adventures that even 25-year-olds balk at. My entourage was only upset that they didn't think to bring their own flashlights.
I'd tell more, but I have to be in the office in the morning. About half of the 40-plus visitors at the museum near midnight reported the same thing, including a METRO bus driver who had a 5 a.m. start beckoning.
The things we do for a stinking flower.
Houston Museum of Natural Science's Butterfly Center will be open from at least 6 a.m. to midnight on Monday — and may go to being open 24 hours, around-the-clock depending on if the corpse flower blooms or not. Update: It's 24 hours of open corpse flower fun until further notice.