By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The 15th version of the "Friendshipment Caravan" -- a somewhat motley collection of school buses and trucks, packed with aid supplies, church folk and community activists -- passed through Houston July 3, on its way to the Mexican border.
Once in Mexico, the vehicles and their passengers head to a dock, get loaded on a ship and sent to Cuba. Which isn't technically legal, in the strict sense of following laws passed by Congress, signed by the president and held up under judicial review.
But we quibble. Or at least the Friendshipment Caravan people do. "The embargo is mean-spirited; it's an immoral policy and it hasn't worked in 40 years," says Lucia Bruno, communications director for the caravan.
Things always get a bit tense as the caravan pulls up to the border in McAllen. In past years, the group says, border guards have wrestled a Bible-carrying Catholic priest to the ground (man, it's a good thing those subversive Bibles never made it to Havana); they've confiscated a yellow school bus because it "had military implications," leading to a hunger strike; one year they cut the electrical cords on a bunch of sewing machines being shipped by the caravan.
So caravan members were eager to see what would happen in this post-9/11 election year, where Cuba policy could play a key role in the Florida vote. Mace? Rubber bullets? Would Pfc. Lynndie England show up with snarling guard dogs and a pack of Marlboros to give a thumbs-up?
About 40 customs officials, border guards and local police were waiting as the caravan approached July 6. And what happened was nothing, for the most part. "They used their big machine to X-ray our vehicle, but otherwise they were in a peaceful mood," says caravan official Ellen Bernstein.
But the battle may not be over. Customs Service officials distributed a written document outlining the Cuban embargo; it includes the need to get a federal license to travel to Cuba, something the caravan members don't have.
"When we return [to the border] on the 19th of July, we have to see what awaits us," Bernstein says.
Padre, get ready to rummmble Beer Bureaucracy
Trying to enjoy the Astros has been difficult this year, but it was downright exasperating July 2.
When you've got Jimy Williams managing your team, the only way to get through a game is with the help of quite a few beers. But that Friday, beer-drinking was a bureaucratic nightmare.
One thirtysomething man and woman bought a pair of beers on the concourse before the game; they were carded by the guy pouring. Then they were carded by the guy (one foot away) who took their money. Later, they were carded by a vendor selling in the aisle; when the woman offered to hold her friend's beer while he reached for his wallet, the vendor refused to hand it to her. Still later another vendor (as we said, Williams was managing) said a beer seller had been busted for selling to a 17-year-old girl.
TABC cited Larry's Big Bamboo, the stadium bar named after former manager Larry Dierker. He's a huge Jimmy Buffett fan who's apparently unfamiliar with that singer's "Livingston Saturday Night," which warns guys chasing high schoolers that "15 will get you 20" years in jail.
TABC and Aramark take these things seriously. Even one violation of selling to a minor means Minute Maid would not be able to sell any beer for seven to 20 days, a TABC spokeswoman says.
On the other hand, they could just choose to pay a $100 fine for each day of the suspension.
When you've got Jimy Williams as your manager, you better damn well pay the fine.
Late in May, Harris County's criminal judges sent out a memo noting that the probation department faced a "fiscal crisis" and "has severely limited economic resources available to maintain and operate" the organization.
So it came as a bit of a surprise a month later when the department's head, Paul Donnelly, sent a memo inviting judges to travel to Humble July 13 to partake in a training seminar by "a very dynamic and motivational speaker by the name of Clint Swindall."
Swindall's Web site says he gets paid up to $7,000 to speak on such subjects as "Stop the Ride I Want to Get Off!" The 36-year-old graduate of Southwest Texas State University "travels the world delivering high-content speeches," the Web site says. (No word on whether he is, Chris Farley-like, thrice divorced and living in a vaaan down by the riverrrr.)
Donnelly says the department got a bargain rate of $4,500 for the event and that "when you invest in developing your people, everything works better."
He says the fiscal crisis has passed, anyway. Cuts and hiring freezes have all but eliminated a looming $7 million deficit in a budget that totals about $47 million.
In fact, the department is hiring again, he says. And those employees are going to be motivated to within an inch of their lives, if Clint Swindall has anything to do with it.