Lemonade Stand

It ain't easy protesting in a van

Arthur Smith is a 36-year-old Houston resident who has a beef with CarMax, the used-car company. He says he was sold a lemon and wants restitution. To get it he's been living in a van outside the CarMax lot, 24 hours a day, for more than a month.

Smith bought a van for $18,000 in July 2004; he says it was plagued by problems and CarMax refuses to talk to him about it. CarMax spokesperson Trina Lee says the company "has gone above and beyond the warranty obligations" and that Smith put 48,000 miles on the van in 16 months working as a courier. Lee says it's Smith who has refused to continue negotiations.

Until the impasse is resolved, Smith is living in his balloon-festooned vehicle, displaying a large sign saying "CARMAX SOLD ME A LEMON!!!" He also hands out promotional material for his wife, Darlene, an aspiring gospel singer with the professional name of Koffey.

He has to move the car a few feet every night to get around city ordinances defining abandoned vehicles.

Q. What did you do for Christmas?

A. I was here for Christmas. It was hard because I wasn't able to provide anything for my son or family…When I first got here, I thought I would be out here for four hours and [CarMax] was gonna come out here and do something.

Q.What did you do on New Year's Eve?

A. New Year's Eve, I was sitting right here. My wife came out here. I could not convince her to stay at home. She said she wanted to bring the New Year in with me. She got dropped off and stayed in the van with me overnight.

Q. Did you have sex in the van?

A.Nah, we didn't, man. I was interested, but she said, "You're not gonna embarrass me and mess up my reputation. They'll come out here saying, 'They're supposed to be protesting,' and somebody [would] come by and take a picture." So she told me no. I was over the board, man, as far as getting next to my wife, man. And I tried, tried, tried. But she said no.

Q.Where do you use the restroom?

A. I'm gonna keep it real with you. All day, I pee in a cup, pour it out on the grass. When I have to go No. 2, I go to Pappas [a barbecue restaurant across the street]. But a couple of times I wasn't able to go to Pappas, so I did have to do it out here twice.

Q. Where?

A.Right in the back. Because I had some plastic bags with some newspaper, you know, and I just set it up. And after that, I took it to that Dumpster that's down there. This would happen about three in the morning. That's one of the things that psychologically kind of bothered me…That right there made it very real to me. That wasn't a good feeling.

Diamond in the Rough

Tropical Storm Allison famously turned I-10 near the Heights into a deep lake in 2001, and the folks at the state highway department are finally getting around to doing something about it. They're about to build two detention ponds in the surrounding neighborhoods.

What they haven't done, it appears, is give much thought to what those ponds are going to look like.

Some Heights residents have visions of vacant, weedy lots -- one of nine acres, one of four -- surrounded by ugly chain-link fencing. The sunken lots would be dry most of the time, so locals would rather see the empty fields filled with parks, baseball diamonds or hike-and-bike trails.

TxDOT says such projects would have to be funded by the city, county or flood-control district, but they don't sound exactly eager to take the initiative.

"We received some correspondence from the Bayou Preservation Center, I believe is the name of them," says project manager Larry Blackburn, "and we'll welcome any talk about that. But people need to come to us with the ideas, because that's not what we're into."

The ponds will be built in fiscal 2008, but any extra design components would have to be decided on this year, Blackburn says.

"We've indicated that we are willing to sit down and talk about these issues to all of the players who would be involved in it, and so far that hasn't come to fruition," Blackburn says.

Heather Saucier of the Harris County Flood Control District says any ideas -- and more important, any money -- would have to come from the city or county. "Building parks is an expensive task," she says. "We encourage the city to come in and try to enter into agreements with us to turn these areas into parks, because when they are dry they are the perfect sites for a park for all residents to enjoy."

No plans have emerged yet, but with such energetic pursuit of the idea, it's only a matter of time. Before residents are looking at a vacant lot surrounded by a chain-link fence.

One Man's Meat

Any of you old-time Houston druggies remember a guy named Gary Stevenson? Came from a well-off family, made some money selling pot here in the '60s?

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