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Best Of 2002


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Best Of :: People & Places

Best Church for Atheists

Why let a little thing like a lack of belief in God keep you from going to church? The Houston Church of Freethought has been hosting monthly services, minus the religion, since 2000. Sunday-school sermons can cover such topics as the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or Darwin's theory of evolution. Just because you've strayed from the flock doesn't mean you see no benefit in belonging to a herd. There still exists the human need to share a little coffee and conversation with like-minded folks.

Chris Bell

It isn't every day a politician wins the inside track to one office by getting beaten in a race for another. But that's exactly what happened to attorney and former at-large Houston city councilman Chris Bell, who turned a third-place finish for mayor in 2001 into a front-running candidacy as the Democratic nominee for the 25th Congressional District.

The 42-year-old Bell is a former radio and TV reporter who got bitten by the political bug after graduating from the University of Texas with a communications degree. He initially ran for the state house while working in Amarillo as a news anchor but lost by a wide margin. When he moved to Houston in the late '80s, Bell enrolled at South Texas College of Law. He worked at KTRH radio as a courts reporter to pay his tuition and in short order passed the bar and met and married Alison Ayres. But even as he launched a family and a law practice, Bell could not shelve his political ambitions.

Although at first Bell wanted to run for the state legislature or Congress, pal Jeff Steen convinced him that City Council was a more realistic goal. After one close defeat, Bell served two terms as an at-large councilmember. As his relationship with Mayor Lee Brown worsened, Bell decided to forgo his final term-limited two years in office and initiated an upstart mayoral campaign against the incumbent. The strategy for the race was predicated on the idea that the lifelong Democrat would be able to unify both conservatives and moderates against Brown. Unfortunately for Bell, at-large City Councilman Orlando Sanchez came along and spoiled his party. The Cuban-born conservative scarfed up the Republican vote, and on election night Bell found himself a distant third. The next day, friends suggested to Bell that he might want to use the momentum and name identification generated by his mayoral run to seek the congressional post soon to be vacated by Ken Bentsen Jr., who was running for U.S. Senate. Until then, Bell had been under the impression that the district was being gutted by a state redistricting plan. He soon learned that a judicial review panel had restored the old Democrat-friendly lines.

"It's the classic situation where one door closes and another one opens," comments Bell, whose fund-raising total in the race has soared to over a half-million dollars. He's been rated by local pundits and a Wall Street Journal political survey as the favorite to beat Republican challenger Tom Reiser in the November general election. In fact, his loss in the mayoral race may have put him in line for a job for which his skills and temperament are better suited.

"I personally believe -- and a lot of those close to me believe -- that this is a better fit," says the candidate. "It gives me an opportunity to keep doing what I started doing on council in working for common-sense solutions. This is just on a bigger playing field."

It's a lesson that others can take to heart: Sometimes it takes a painful defeat to put you in striking distance of the job of your dreams.

Dan Hunt, co-owner, TOC Bar

Tropical Storm Allison reigned over downtown like a nightmare turned horribly real. How did the folks over at TOC Bar deal with the aftermath of this pernicious force of nature? With complete and utter denial. "We never closed," declares co-owner Dan Hunt. "We always stayed open. We didn't give people the chance to find out if we were closed or not."

Spoken like a true businessman. After the storm nearly turned the three-year-old watering hole and several other area bars into actual holes of water (five and a half feet deep in some places), Hunt, the TOC staff and a bevy of volunteers immediately went into action to get the bar in tip-top shape for the following weekend rush. "By Monday or Tuesday, the water was gone," remembers Hunt. "And we just gutted the place, you know? We threw all the furniture out, came in and cleaned the heck out of everything with pressure washers and lots of soap and bleach and everything to get all the stink out."

According to Hunt, it took him and his crew four days to scrub all the reminders of Allison from their walls and floors. And did they throw a major bash to signal their return to form? Nope, it was just business as usual. "I don't think we did anything special," says Hunt, still apparently in denial. "We just tried to play it off like everything was back to normal."

TOC Bar may have been a mess, but the connecting TOC Lounge was completely shot to hell. With $200,000 worth of damage, the TOC Bar's one-year-old spin-off chill room became a casualty of the storm. Hunt and TOC decided not to rebuild the lounge -- not because it was impossible, but because they had disagreements with the land owner over fair rent prices in a post-9/11, construction-centric downtown.

Despite the cost of the cleanup and the loss of the lounge, TOC has recovered. The bar is as rowdy and rambunctious as ever, almost to the point that you forget the place was a lake, briefly, about a year ago. "The last time I thought about it was on my tax return," says Hunt. "I don't think anybody even thinks about it anymore." TOC may stand for Totally Out of Control, but it was nice to see the club's staff and owners keep their cool in a crisis.

Infernal Bridegroom Productions' Jason Nodler

Back in the early '90s, The Axiom was the coolest hellhole in Houston. In a best-of issue of its own, Details magazine listed the bar (in its Catal Hüyük incarnation) as the punk place to visit when in town. Skanky, dark and perpetually sticky, the punk rock bar hunkered on the eastern edge of downtown and filled the night air with grungy, growling alternative rock and wildly screeching punk. It was host to the young and pierced, who slithered up to the bar with their shaved heads and combat boots for poetry slams and pitchers of brown beer.

On the outside, Jason Nodler looked like any other Axiom barfly, with his hangdog T-shirt style and his perpetually ironic sneer. Of course, even bellied up to the bar, guzzling pitchers of Lone Star, the wiry young man who would soon become artistic director of Infernal Bridegroom Productions was casting his artful eye on the wide open spaces of The Axiom, sticky though they may have been. In fact, he had a vision. The Axiom, with all its angsty, dank, too-cool blackness, would become the space where Nodler would produce his first show, In the Under Thunderloo. The eccentric rock musical about cavemen and the Apocalypse caused a riot of energy among young Houston hipsters. The show sold out every night, and Nodler's star was on the rise. But as he and IBP began to make waves, The Axiom began to lose steam. When it closed, it seemed as though an era of wild-bar finery was over.

Throughout the '90s the building would take on many identities, even as a fabulous transvestite bar. But it seemed as though the space that had launched one of our city's most stirring and successful theater companies would never return to the glory of its early-'90s punk rock heyday. Re-enter Nodler, who clearly never forgot the power of those times. Last year, when IBP finally got the funding for a space of its own, it wasn't long before Nodler and his motley crew were back at McKinney, rolling up their sleeves and getting down to the nitty-gritty business of turning the dilapidated bar into a first-class avant-garde theater. These days it's scrubbed and painted and dressed up with couches and carpets -- but not too dressed up. After shows and during weeks when nothing's in production, the expansive lobby hosts punk bands, just like in the good old days. The mix of highbrow and lowbrow, of theater and music, is making The Axiom one of the most compelling things happening in Houston when the night sky rolls in.

Astro Alan Zinter

To a lot of people, perhaps, the scene was desultory: a mid-June game between two teams far below .500, the seventh inning of a 7-1 blowout, Milwaukee's Miller Park two-thirds empty. Houston Astro Alan Zinter waited in the on-deck circle. To the fans barely paying attention in the stands, Zinter was just another no-name pinch hitter strolling to the plate. For him, the moment could not have been more tense or exciting. "My knees just shook; I could feel my heart beating in my chest; I could hear my pulse in my ears," he says. But that short walk from the on-deck circle to the batter's box marked the end of a long, long journey for the 34-year-old catcher.

It marked his big-league debut after 13 years in the minors. Thirteen years of bad pay and endless bus trips, 13 years of watching his teammates get younger and younger as former hopefuls gave up the dream or got promoted past him. Big things had been expected of him. He was a first-round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1989, but his big break never came. Somehow, Zinter never gave up.

"If you had asked me 13 years ago at Shea Stadium, 'You're not going to make the big leagues until 2002 -- can you do it?' I probably would've said no," says the El Paso native. "It was frustrating, watching TV and seeing people I had played with or against. I was never jealous -- it just fueled my fire to do more." Zinter says he stuck with it all these years simply because he loves the game. "I've always had heart and dedication," he says. "But I would critique things a lot -- I wanted to be a perfectionist."

But baseball, as he notes, is a game where the best batters fail 70 percent of the time; he had to learn to accept that and not dwell on the times he couldn't get a hit. "I realized I had to change my attitude and think positive thoughts," he says. "You have to not let the bad days be so bad and the good days be so good, but to stay on an even keel."

Each spring would bring the moment when he'd get the bad news that he was being shipped down to the minors. But this year the new Astros manager, Jimy Williams, left him believing his chance would come soon.

Sure enough, his chance came, on that otherwise forgettable mid-June night. Zinter grounded out against Brewer pitcher Ben Sheets. From then on he was a big-leaguer, his career statistics forever listed in the Baseball Encyclopedia no matter what the rest of his future held. Now, instead of long bus trips, he's taking charter flights to four-star hotels in Chicago and Montreal, playing in stadiums he's only dreamed about and basking in the casual locker-room luxuries that veterans take for granted.

"I'm not a prospect anymore. I think I appreciate it all even more now than I would have if I was 23," he says. "I'm enjoying every minute of it."

Gilbert Johnson, co-owner, The Chocolate Bar

That's right, folks, chocolate's making a comeback. Did it ever go away? you may ask. Well, for most of us, no. But health-conscious types now have a new reason to indulge: Chocolate is good for you. A recent Penn State review says cocoa beans are loaded with flavonoids, which have strong antioxidant effects and can lower cholesterol levels and improve cardiovascular health. (Remember the scene in Woody Allen's Sleeper when the physician recommends a hot fudge sundae as holistic medicine? Not so crazy, huh?)

Whatever their reasons for going back to the dark stuff, local chocolate cravers should be grateful that Gilbert Johnson didn't like Florida. If he had, he might still be there today, and Houston would never have known the fantasyland that is The Chocolate Bar.

Johnson's love affair with chocolate began two decades ago in Kansas City, Missouri. Driven by his passion, he moved to Florida with a business partner to open his own store. After a brief detour through Austin (which, lucky for us, Johnson also disliked), he settled in Houston in the fall of '98 to retire and be an artist. But he was unfulfilled. He longed to return to business -- and to making chocolate.

"For me to be totally happy, I have to have my chocolate world," says Johnson. And does he ever. Since The Chocolate Bar opened two years ago, it has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: Houston demanded 2,000 pounds of milk chocolate last Christmas for the chocolate-covered popcorn alone.

Johnson agrees that chocolate is great for your heart, but he's not talking medicine. He sums up the success of his business with one word: comfort. "After 9/11, our business just went out the ceiling, because everybody was like, 'Oh, I just need a piece of chocolate.' "

"It's about fun and happiness," Johnson adds. "It brings back unbelievably happy thoughts." As customers poke around the shop, marveling at the chocolate ballet slippers (which one clever visitor said were "too too"), the chocolate golf sets, the solid chocolate baby bottles, the violins, the dental kits (!), the dipped potato chips and the outrageous homemade ice cream concoctions, "You can see 'em having these flashbacks," Johnson says. "And regression therapy. I call chocolate a very soothing regression therapy."

It's enough to make you feel like a kid in a candy store. But as Johnson puts it -- and when you visit, you'll know exactly what he means -- "This is not candy. This is chocolate."


Best Church for Atheists: Houston Church of Freethought


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