The Year of Living Anxiously

Are We Having Fun Yet? Or is it just the jangly buzz of advanced urban stress syndrome?

Gail Gross & The Dalai Lama
Richard Gere has nothing on the Houston beauty-book authoress who attended a New York symposium with His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso and took in his niece as a houseguest while sending her to the University of Houston.

PHENOMENA

The Hurwitz Trajectory
The new year began famously for the mayor's First Friend, who holidayed with the Laniers in Vegas, then won the mayor's nod to build a possible downtown casino. Next came the debut of the opulent $84 million race track developed by Hurwitz's Maxxam Inc. -- and a flood of hype hailing him as an economic savior and a latter-day prince. Oops -- soon the race track was wallowing in red ink, the downtown casino plan was on life support, Maxxam's lumber division was drawing increased fire for chopping down California redwoods and Prince Hurwitz was looking suspiciously froglike

Toxic Sea Creatures
Memo to the gals planning next year's "An Evening with King Neptune" charity gala: think again. '94 featured the usual oyster scares, plus alarms about dioxin-laden Ship Channel crabs, Lake Livingston fish and almost a ton of finny creatures killed by Dow Chemical's discharge of hazardous chemicals into the Brazos River. Icing on the aquatic cake: marauding jellyfish inflicted over 1,000 stings to Galveston beachgoers over Memorial Day.

Casino Madness
Tt was brief and giddy and semi-surreal: this spring, half of Houston -- from financier Charles Hurwitz to the Taub family to Mattress Mac -- was scrambling madly for position in the Great Casino Race, with pols and lobbyists aplenty cashing in on the push to legalize gambling. But by late fall, after legal setbacks and conspicuous lack of action on Hurwitz's proposed downtown casino site, half of Houston -- from City Council to Mayor Bob -- was scurrying to distance itself from the gaming issue.

Trunk Wrapping
Something there is that compels Houstonians to gird their tree trunks with jillions of tiny lights come the holiday season, a practice which has now spread from the public corridors (Highland Village, the park at City Hall) to the nabes, cloaking the city in what naysayers label "electrified stumps" and "trees wearing support hose."

Poison Clouds
Let us count the ways in which toxic shrouds of vapor snaked through our beleaguered, petrochemicalized realm: a Texas City cloud of ammonia gas sent more than 1,200 people to the hospital; a sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide cloud escaped from Crosby's Elf Atochem plant; a nitrogen tetroxide leak at NASA caused respiratory problems for 46 workers; a persistent fire at a Baytown tire recycling plant (its third in eight years) spewed forth carbon monoxide and particulate matter; and a mysterious cloud perfumed with mercaptan, the natural-gas flag, brightened the holiday season for an entire day in much of the city.

Surrendering To The Inevitable
Maybe it was the Zeitgeist; maybe it was self-preservation. Whatever. The holier-than-thou Randall's grocery chain announced that after 28 teetotaling years, it would lift its ban on selling beer and wine, and the Astrodome -- after a 29-year holdout -- agreed to allow fans to tailgate in the parking lot.

The Mac Factor
What does Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale want? The excitable Gallery Furniture huckster spent the year trying to get it: hosting the warm-fuzzy Astrodome homecoming party for the Rockets; buying out Oilers' stadium tickets so TV viewers could see their team up close and losing at home; giving lavishly to charity; emceeing galas; throwing press luncheons for Bela Karolyi's gymnasts. Do we love him yet?

Ethnic Cleansing
No way around the fact that this is precisely what happened to Harris County's various courthouses in November's Republican sweep. Every minority judicial candidate who had an opponent lost.

River Oaks Concrete Creep
Don't look now, but neo-New-Brutalism is threatening to invade Houston's least minimal neighborhood. In the newly hot Baja River Oaks real-estate territory bounded by Kirby, San Felipe, Shepherd and Westheimer, defense lawyer Mike DeGeurin built a concrete mansion some call "Fort DeGeurin," while a few streets away, heiress Olive Neuhaus moved into a stucco-and-cinder-block tower on a block that also boasts a concrete box by architect Carlos Jimenez. Are Lynn and Oscar next?

The Allen Syndrome
Not since the Allen Brothers worked their seminal real-estate scam has a Houstonian confounded the public interest as efficiently as Vinson & Elkins lawyer Joe B. Allen. The Lanier buddy and lobbyist supreme got City Council to roll over and play dead by A) giving Sanus Health Plan Inc. a fat city contract despite employee groups' protests and notoriously low customer-satisfaction ratings; and B) refusing to annex three industrial plants that would have added millions to city revenues.

Post Oak Arches
Love 'em or hate 'em (it's hard to be neutral), the stainless-steel arches now spanning Post Oak are impossible to ignore -- especially in concert with those shiny silver Big Bird light fixtures and those shiny silver Christmas-tree skirts.

Oilers Jokes
With local sportswriters calling the shoulda-been-contenders "national laughingstocks" for plummeting toward the NFL's worst-ever losing streak, lampoons of our poor, pitiable pigskinners were inevitable. Most popular: "Have you heard the O.J. Simpson trial is being moved to Houston? They want to get it as far away as possible from professional football."

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