By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
With Junior making the payments, and Margaret's daughter, Tina Magello, applying for a beer and wine permit, Blondie's reopened as a steak house. Since Tina and her husband now managed the place, they wanted to change the name. No way, Margaret said. "I want them to drive by it every day and see it."
That year Margaret spent Christmas in a San Antonio motel with a couple she didn't know too well, but with whom she drove across the Southwest. They took turns at the wheel of Margaret's maroon extended cab with a camper hitched to the bed. Margaret was on her way to California for an electrical job. In the camper, she removed her jewelry, dropping it in her right front pocket, and wrapped herself in a comforter. She had been feverish to leave La Porte and her Blondie's troubles. And she needed money. But now she worried that she had made a mistake by leaving her daughter with the burden of the bar. Maybe she should return to La Porte. She prayed, asking the Lord to show her a sign, then fell asleep. Next thing she knew, she awoke in the hospital, her head busted above the right eyebrow, her crushed arm wrapped in gauze, her right knee split open so wide it couldn't be stitched.
Another vehicle had hit the truck in Phoenix, sending Margaret across three lanes of Interstate 10, where she slid 65 feet -- so hard that the jewelry in her pocket was embedded in her breast.
Then a car ran over her left hand.
"I had four hot checks and a warrant out for driving without insurance. I'd never been in so much trouble. I asked God to show me a sign. I'm always hardheaded, but I didn't have to land on my head on the freeway. He could've been gentler."
Margaret returned to La Porte in a wheelchair and closed Blondie's while she recovered. Business was bad anyway, her reputation smeared by the SOB fiasco. She had had enough of the nickeling-and-diming, enough of the permit delays and frequent inspections. She started a small-business owners group, and others told her that the city had given them the runaround too. They shuddered at the mention of long-closed restaurants, launderettes and bars. They were afraid; Margaret was mad.
"I have fought this battle for so long for the people who have businesses and are trying to survive," Margaret fumes. "I want them to know how crooked and sorry these politicians are in a small town." In March 1998 Margaret sued the city of La Porte, the mayor, the city manager, the assistant city manager, the planning director, the police chief and the assistant city attorney for violating her civil rights and conspiring to run her out of town. The city officials claimed immunity.
Rankin, who was named as a defendant in the suit but later was dropped, says it's nonsense that the city desired her property. "It's in a floodway; it's in no prime location.Like people sit around and say, 'What are we going to get rid of?' That doesn't happen."
The lawsuit dragged on in the tedious way lawsuits do. And it drained Margaret, spiritually and financially. In June she left for an electrical job in Hobbs, New Mexico. Then in January of this year Hurta called to say that foreclosure papers were coming her way. Junior, entangled in his own business troubles, had stopped making the payments. Margaret immediately borrowed a friend's rental car and drove straight home. Home is where your troubles are. Junior had broken their business deal, Margaret explains. "So I said, 'You just lost $87,500, you son of a bitch.' That was the last I heard of him."
In February of this year a district judge dismissed Margaret's lawsuit on the grounds that she failed to plead facts that would overcome the city officials' immunity. She blames her lawyer, who forced her to pawn her diamonds when she ran out of cash. "I'm real bad at picking men," she says with a sigh.
Not only did she lose the lawsuit, but Margaret was in danger of losing Blondie's, too. Unable to make the payments any longer, she sold the pool tables and started cleaning. She had no choice but to sell her club. Margaret was tearing Sheetrock off the back wall when an old lover walked through the door. Once, she had thought Kyle Smith would be her Sir Galahad on a white horse. Turned out he had a white welding rig. Kyle offered to start a partnership with her and reopen the bar in his name. Margaret shrugs. "It's like the Lord keeps sending me the men."
The drive east from Houston to La Porte, through Pasadena on Texas 225, is a tour through exposed metal, mazelike pipes, giant vats and dragon-burst flames. The petrochemical plants loom large and expansive, defining the landscape like so many has-been Emerald Cities in the midst of a vicious industrial revolution. White spheres hum on the grass, like giant eggs nesting. Smoke constantly billows, gray clouds morphing shapes but never dissipating. Now and then an incongruity nicks the monotony: Palm trees ridiculously line one stretch of the highway; cows graze before gargantuan cylinders, heads drawn to the ground like magnets. At night, the plants glow like cities, countless points of light in the distance.