Alison Cook looks back at 1996: Year of the Rat

According to the Chinese lunar calendar, it was 4694 -- the Year of the Rat. Our own fair city's rodents celebrated with inventively rattish behavior as we slouched toward the millennium: Between Thelma and Louise, Warren and Felicia, Bud and Drayton, Wayne and Sylvester, Betti 'n' Benny, there was entertainment and outrage aplenty.

Thanks to the FBI sting, City Hall took on all the mystique of a rats' nest (will the last clean councilmember please turn out the lights?). Thanks to federal

judges, who threw out our tortured electoral districts, we were treated to a campaign season with all the elegance of a rat ... er, calf scramble. And just when it seemed we could finally kiss the interminable Allen Parkway Village squabble good-bye, along came a new infestation of monumental civic bores. The Kingwood Annexation Wars turned into our own little Boston Tea Party. The Battle of the Burge turned Commissioners Court into a fair approximation of the Hatfields and McCoys. And we pray that we may never again hear the word "stadium," although we might reconsider if they called it the MacArena.

Mother Nature acted like a bit of a rat, transforming us first into a tinderbox and then a giant, mildewed sponge. So did the fates, sending plagues of red measles, encephalitis, cyclospora and carcinogenic corn our way, not to mention stinging jellyfish, spiny dead catfish and that eight-mile flotilla of tarballs. Perhaps we might be forgiven for thinking reality was treacherous, especially since iced tea was found to be toxic, Ninfa's parent company went bankrupt and Tony's dumped its chef.

Then there was the disquieting spectacle of various rats scuttling off the ship -- had we sprung a leak? Marshall Field's threw in the towel. The Oilers and the Astros kept trying to find the door. The NBA crown took itself elsewhere. Nouveau-riche watchers grieved that they wouldn't have the departing Sapersteins to kick around anymore. UH poet Richard Howard, Houston society's intellectual dinner guest of choice, packed up his bags shortly after receiving his $375,000 MacArthur "genius grant." The NFL dissed us, and Newsweek had some fun with that scale model of the Forbidden City on the Katy prairie: "Last month the Houston area finally got a little culture," the mag sniped, "albeit that of Imperial China." Cancel our subscription, you rats! No wonder Mayor Bob decided we needed a million bucks to spiff up our image.

All was not ratty. Glad tidings appeared in the form of quintuplets -- and Marvin Zindler's 75th birthday, feted with all the pomp of a Royal Jubilee. We got to feel all warm and fuzzy about the exploits of our fellow citizens Carl Lewis, Kerri Strug, Evander Holyfield and Michael DeBakey, emissary extraordinaire to Boris Yeltsin's ticker. Life on Mars? Ice on the moon? The protein that could end death as we know it? We got it, along with our first-ever Nobel Prize winners, Rice profs Robert Curl and Richard Smalley. But all else pales beside that quintessential moment during the Olympics when a bandaged Kerri Strug was borne into her network news conference, like some valiant Cleopatra on her barge, atop a Mattress Mac recliner. Our hearts swelled with perverse pride, and we remembered -- as we do every year when the time comes to take stock -- that Houston is our kind of town.

Rats of the Year
A rat caught on the Fort Crockett campus of Texas A&M at Galveston -- and nine collected in nearby Jefferson County -- tested positive for the killer hantavirus.

Hurwitz, spare that tree
While the government tried to protect America's largest privately owned grove of old-growth redwoods from the lumbering unit of Charles Hurwitz's Maxxam Corporation, demonstrators including actor Woody Harrelson scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to hang a banner reading, "Hurwitz, aren't redwoods more precious than gold?"

Hurwitz sent a note of support
After Thai entrepreneur Boon Suwanakorte bought the old-line Vargo's restaurant, he decided to chop down the 100-year-old cedar growing through the ceiling -- a tree around which the restaurant was specially designed.

Well, they do say He moves in
mysterious ways
Saying he believed God wanted him to take control of the financial affairs of an elderly Angleton couple, "Brother Bill" Hill, a Baptist associate pastor, got himself declared their guardian; when the husband died and the wife entered a nursing home, he spent thousands to refurbish their house, where he allowed his son to live rent-free, doled out the couple's trust-fund money for Houston Rockets memorabilia and a new bicycle and spent almost $2,500 on a new computer system for his church.

Thou shalt not covet thy late ex-son-in-law's goods
After the ex-son-in-law of Pentecostal pastor J.J. Bourn was killed in a traffic accident that sent his fiancee to the hospital, the minister and several relatives were charged with looting the couple's vacant home, removing everything from bathroom articles to the air-conditioning compressor.

O.J. sent him a note of support
Augustin Diaz Zamora lured a 17-year-old honor student out on a date, where she was raped by seven suspected gang members; afterward, Zamora asked her if she was mad and suggested they could still go eat and catch a movie.

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