By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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In a city filled with skyscrapers and sterile strip malls, Montrose is the last place for fun, funky artisans to gather, work and thrive, says painter and performance artist Mark Larsen. Even with the gentrification, red dots flame on bungalows and studios in a district with enough coffeehouses to keep Juan Valdez living in luxury.
"Montrose is the last bastion of bohemian society," says Larsen, now one of the unlikeliest field generals in a turf war against a deposed Enron tycoon.
Three weeks ago, Linda Lay invaded Montrose, making her debut as a merchandiser of secondhand goods -- mostly excess wares from hubbie Ken's former kingdom. Her Jus' Stuff shop sits on West Gray, a few blocks from the neighborhood's main artery, Montrose Boulevard.
News crews pounced on the story of the rich woman's massive yard sale.
The more that was written about the store, the more grumbling Larsen heard. When he hung artwork at Texas Children's Hospital, he heard nurses complaining. Artists who came to his studio to sketch on Friday nights said they were outraged. Larsen's wealthy River Oaks clientele told him the shop was tacky.
Even worse, to Larsen, was the locale.
"Montrose is the art community, and it's supposed to stand for principles and values of creativity, and not materialism, hoarding and wealth," he explains. "That Jus' Stuff place could be, for artists, a symbol, a holy place, a shrine to materialism. All it needs is a steeple or golden arches to set it off."
Two weeks ago, Larsen conceived of the counterattack against this capitalistic affront on the hood. He wanted Lay to hear the grumbling, the anger and the outrage. Larsen called artist friends and asked them to contact their friends for a protest, Montrose-style: street theater.
When demonstration day arrived last Thursday morning, he expected at least 200 participants -- he was afraid there would be too many.
There may have been one problem with that prediction: Larsen hadn't factored in the laid-back nature of the neighborhood. By the 2:30 p.m. start, only about ten had shown up. Another 20 or so arrived as the street theater protest progressed.
À la West Side Story, warring gangs portrayed on one side the wealthy who cashed out of Enron early, and on the other, a mob of angry artists outraged that Montrose had become the sty for capitalist pigs. (Granted, the store is just blocks away from accepted icons such as Ann Taylor, The Gap and dueling Starbucks stores -- it's not like Lay knocked down an art gallery or a granola-and-wheat-grass stand.)
The wealthy in this war were represented by a man in a tuxedo and a woman wearing a black fur-trimmed top, pearls and Jackie O. sunglasses. Their signs shouted, "Screw California" and "Greed is good."
Opposing them was the starving-artist side (which almost all the protesters wanted to be on), the tattooed, flip-flop-wearing coffeehouse crowd. "Imelda Marcos is Back," their signs countered. "After this, visit the O.J. Simpson flea market."
"Justice, not Jus' Stuff," Larsen screamed.
"Let us shop, let us shop," the rich contingent cried back.
Larsen led more chants: "We just want to say to you, we think your place smells like poo."
Wearing an inside-out black T-shirt spray-painted "Gilt-y," demonstrator Ira Dembar told Larsen, "We're gonna nominate you as the Bulwer-Lytton of poetry."
Joyce Day was literally incensed -- she milled among the artists burning a bundle of South Dakota sage. "I'm trying to get rid of the negativity," she said. "I'm trying to cleanse the area of greed and decadence."
Then art -- the performance theater -- suddenly imitated life, much to the delight of the news crews called to the media event.
A well-dressed middle-aged man, who wasn't part of the demonstration, appeared in front of the store. Louis Snyder looked like he wanted to beat every single one of them. He walked toward the group, shouting, "Are you guys crazy, or just assholes?"
Local TV and radio reporters descended upon him. In an impromptu mini-press conference, Snyder said that he had stopped by the store the previous day and was returning to buy a blue and white vase filled with fake orchids. The protesters, he said, need to get jobs and go away and leave Linda Lay alone.
Actually, they didn't speak to Linda Lay at all.
A sign on the door said the shop was closed "due to a plumbing problem." While protesters wondered if it wasn't a ruse in response to the protest, there were sopping wet Persian and Turkish rugs drying on the asphalt outside.
Lay stayed inside the store. When a reporter asked for a quick comment through a crack in the door, she simply said, "I'm closed. I'm dealing with a water leak now."
"Mrs. Lay believes that it is their right to express their opinion," store spokesperson Kelly Kimberly told a Houston Press reporter the next day. "That's it. She doesn't have anything else to say beyond that."