Best Of :: People & Places
As you approach the Big Easy's front door, you can hear from within the concertina-sharp sounds of a wailing guitar shredding the night air. You immediately imagine an old African-American man, or a middle-aged white guy in a fedora and shades, jamming on stage. You open the door. You look through the smoky haze, and unless you're as cool as Harvey Keitel's character in Pulp Fiction, you do a double take.
There, in the middle of the dance floor, is Rick Lee on his knees, playing slide guitar. He's picked up a heavy chair and is sawing on the strings with one of the wooden legs. You can't help but notice that this bluesman is distinctly Chinese-American.
"People look at me funny," he sings on his signature tune, "Even a Chinese Man Can Play the Blues." "They don't know what to expect / They dis me before they know me / Lord, I don't get no respect."
Rick Lee fell in love with the blues as a teenager. After hearing the Bluesbreakers' version of "All Your Love" on a classic rock-blues show, Lee was intrigued enough to investigate the original by Otis Rush. Just one listen was all it took for Lee to know that he was to be a bluesman forevermore.
Lee was born in Houston, the son of Cantonese immigrants, and spent a good chunk of his childhood soaking up African-American culture at his parents' grocery store in Kashmere Gardens. "I didn't pick up anything musically from growing up there, but I did get a sense of community. There's a sense that people there aren't getting the same breaks there that people are getting in River Oaks. Though I would never be presumptuous to say I truly understand the blues, I was exposed to the social aspects that gave rise to the music."
"The blues is about life, all aspects of life," Lee says, choosing his words with the careful aplomb of the attorney that he is during the day. "You can express the whole feeling, the whole range of human emotions with the blues."
Lee's special hero is the late Guitar Slim, whose six-string readings of African-American gospel organs simultaneously electrified and sanctified the South in the mid- to late '50s. From reading about Slim, Lee learned not just his wildman antics, including walking on the tables, but also a whole philosophy of blues as a uniter of people from all races and walks of life. "Slim taught me that you should become part of the audience while you're playing, let the audience become a part of what you're doing."
This professor-on-the-move replaced sleepy Felix Fraga just a year and a half ago and is already developing into the power player of Houston Hispanic politics. Raised in Corpus Christi and Austin, Vasquez came to town as a communications prof at the University of Houston, and quickly began laying the groundwork for a political career. He used his first term as a Houston Independent School District trustee to build a network of support among Anglos in the Heights, and then steamrollered over a barricade of established Hispanic politicos to win a council seat. Since then he has carefully charted a course as an independent between council conservatives and the bloc supporting Mayor Lee Brown. Vasquez recently demonstrated his growing muscle by joining outgoing councilman John Castillo in an attack on Brown aide Carol Alvarado, who's running to replace Castillo in District I. Gabe has made no secret of the fact he aspires to be Houston's first Hispanic mayor, and at the speed he's been moving, that could put him in the race for the top spot in 2004.
Just look up. On bridges, buildings, trains, the backs of freeway signs, the tag is everywhere. It's an inspirational call to the "next" generation, a macho throw-up that conveys the adrenaline, irreverence and illegality of its creation. Most of all, it's cool. But the Houston Police Department's antigang task force doesn't think so. Last March, officers raided a legal graffiti show in a warehouse on the east side. Wearing all black with guns strapped to their legs, the officers said they were looking for "intel." But aerosol artists say the cops were really looking for Next, the most prolific graffitist in town. The task force was out of luck, though. Next was nowhere to be found.
Most courts wouldn't take much time with an 11-year-old troublemaker. But J.P. George Risner did what the Houston school district had refused to do: have the imbalanced youngster checked out by mental health professionals. Now the youth is on medication -- and back on track in school. Risner, in his 14 years on the bench, has proved time and again that he's determined to take his responsibilities far beyond just clearing dockets. He's held court at night and on weekends to be more accessible to the public and to parents. The former Houston building inspector has a rock-solid record in innovative programs to fight youthful problems such as truancy and juvenile delinquency. While Risner has received extensive training, he doesn't have a law degree. What he does have is more than enough: common sense, innate fairness and a keen interest in helping others.
Of course, the travesties continue: tearing down the old Gulf Publishing building on Allen Parkway, bulldozing bits and pieces of the precious past, flushing out Houston's final habitat hideaways for the sake of nothing more than the sameness of another new Rolling-Creek-Timber-Valley-Plantation-Estates subdivision. But the Bayou City shows more indications than ever that it just might be starting to appreciate its heritage. The rebirth of downtown awoke the greediest of developers to the potential for profits in preserving historic structures, even through costly conversions. Blocks of buildings restored as lofts are beginning to line the central city. Commercial uses are coming back as well. It seems that restorations are being considered for many more buildings (at least the ones not owned by Hakeem Olajuwon). Coupled with that are more aggressive wetlands preservation programs and nature centers. However, the most honorable of efforts can't begin to compare to the Restoration of 2001. This one involves several hundred square miles of the region. The rehab bill ran $5 billion and up for a collective project to rehouse about 100,000 residents and restore about half that many vehicles. The very heart of Houston -- the Texas Medical Center, colleges, the criminal courts system and the fine arts institutions -- had to be rebuilt in many ways from the devastation of Tropical Storm Allison.
The best smell? Coffee, of course. And there's no bigger coffee smell in town than the odor steaming out of Kraft's Maxwell House factory, a few blocks (and miles of attitude) east of Enron Field. Most days the prevailing winds blow that smell, ooh that smell, in a northwesterly direction, toward the north end of downtown and away from most eastside residents, many of whom can more or less stand on their porches and read the smoky plume from the one-million-square-foot facility for changes in the weather. And a fine day it is when the winds change, blowing that slightly processed coffee smell back over the near east side, where it mingles with, and partially masks, the cabbagy stink of wastewater treatment facilities and some of the ranker stretches of Buffalo Bayou. Fusion City, indeed.