Best Of :: La Vida
By John Nova Lomax
In defending Houston's good name, after acknowledging that our climate, terrain, architecture and history are nothing special, sometimes exasperated lovers of Houston simply throw their hands in the air and say something like, "It's the people. The people make Houston great." That grand vague statement is personified in part by Martha Sobhani — one of the hordes of people here who came to Houston by chance, and who in their thousands have made this such a fascinating place to be.
Sobhani almost never sees a happy customer come in to the office of her deep Montrose garage. Sobhani's business is Atlas Auto Glass and Paint and Body. Most of her customers fall into two categories: accidents and break-ins. Both are among the suckiest occurrences of modern-day urban living, and customers who come in are often outraged or depressed. But nine times out of ten, they walk out of her windowless, though fresh-flower-brightened, office feeling renewed, even happy to be alive.
"I try to bring perspective," says Sobhani in a sing-song accent. A native of Tehran, Farsi was her first language. "This is not the worst thing in the world. Let's face it. We are having it good in this country. If you are having a car and working, you are lucky. There are billions of people on the planet not as lucky."
Sobhani has lived and worked on four continents, so she knows whereof she speaks. As a young woman, she found herself an exile. Growing up as a member of the minority Baha'i faith in the Shah's Iran was bad enough, she recalls, but when the Ayatollah took over, her co-religionists were practically hunted for sport. Luckily for her, by the time the Iranian Revolution was complete in the late seventies, she had already escaped to Madagascar, where she worked with Baha'i youth and met the man she would marry and have two (now-grown) children with. Before coming to America in 1984, she also spent some time working in France.
None of those places hold a candle to America, she says. "Every day I wake up thanking God that I am in this country. My daughter says, 'You know, Mommy, I don't know any American as patriotic as you are.'" Sobhani thinks her daughter, like many native-born Americans, takes things for granted. "I am not saying there are no problems — yes, there is racism and sexism, all those things exist — but I still believe that this is the best the world can offer," Sobhani says.
And while many business owners claim to treat their customers like family, Sobhani really does. "I really believe that only good customers come to my shop. Second, those people could be my son, my daughter, my mother or father, and I would like to treat them that way. When you see them as people and not customers, it becomes something more than just changing their windshield glass. You want to do your best. I am not sure I always achieve that, but I really do try."
It could be that people want her to succeed simply because they like her. It is hard not to practically fall (platonically) in love as she steers you out of your funk. We wondered how her job didn't drag her down — how hearing the same stories day in and day out, seeing the same good people victimized by criminals or fate over and over again didn't wear on her.
On the one hand, she says, there are plenty of interesting cases to break that dreary litany. She remembers one man bringing in a truck in which every pane of glass had been shattered. He told Sobhani his girlfriend had done it. Sobhani asked him if he was all right. "I'm fine," answered the man. "My wife's pretty mad, though."
"I could write a book," she says. (Or be the subject of a reality show, we might add.)
While everybody else is jumping on the Westbury bandwagon, you'd be wise to check out Sharpstown, which is less a "hidden" neighborhood than it is one that's undervalued and underrated. Like Westbury, Sharpstown offers spacious, mid-century mod houses on generous lots and is pretty convenient to everything worth going to — in fact, perhaps even more convenient, as Westbury's freeway access is poor. Unlike Westbury, Sharpstown happens also to be a riotous cavalcade of pan-American, pan-African and especially pan-Asian sights, sounds and smells, a far cry from that utterly outdated Baby Boomer-era myth of Sharpstown as a Levittown-style suburb of cookie-cutter houses and whitebread values. That Sharpstown has been dead and buried since about 1985. The neighborhood's single-family homes on the backstreets are still a bargain, and that will only increase as those once-scrubby little trees continue to grow and start throwing some serious shade.
These community newspapers in West University, River Oaks, Memorial and Bellaire are as thoughtful and researched as they are feisty. Bellaire Examiner Editor Charlotte Aguilar keeps things going at a steady pace, making sure these papers provoke discussion as much as they celebrate neighborhood achievements. Reporter Steve Mark stays on top of Houston Independent School District business, and not always in the more comfortable manner that some other media members adopt. This is a group of community papers that remains focused on its readers in both print and online editions, and that not infrequently breaks news that its bigger brethren would love to have.
READERS' CHOICE: Houston Press
As everyone knows — because we've been told so over and over — talk radio from the left side of the political spectrum is boring, earnest and dull. Unless you listen to Partisan Gridlock on KPFT-FM Friday afternoons from 3-4. Host Geoffrey Berg, an attorney, is funny and sharp; he gets good guests (from the right as well as left) and doesn't let them off the hook (again, whether they're from the right or left). Entertaining talk radio from a progressive view? Sure, Air America died, but its spirit burns on here in Houston.
When Texas favorites Rick Perry, Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent showed up for a rally at the Berry Center in Cypress, the crowds followed. Wearing camouflage and hats decorated like American flags, the people listened to The Nuge shred the "Star Spangled Banner" and Palin say things like, "A lot of us in our states proudly cling to our guns and religion." But when a Houston Press photographer snapped a picture of one Perry/Palin supporter, thanks to the Internet, the picture became the symbol of the Houston rally. The supporter, apparently homeschooled, held up an errantly spelled sign: "Homescholers for Perry."
Vanity Fair reporter and Barbarians at the Gate author and native Texan Bryan Burrough was raised on tales of the exploits of the great oil men, and The Big Rich is likely the only book you will ever need on their successes and excesses. While Dallas-Fort Worth barons like the wise Richardsons, the crackpot Hunts and the dissolute Murchisons do occupy a broad swath of the tome's pages, Houston is well represented, with a full accounting of the mighty Cullen family and a swift and punchy (literally) retelling of the rise and fall of pugnacious Glenn McCarthy and his Shamrock Hotel. For Burrough, the demise of the Shamrock was the end of an era that began with the gusher at Spindletop, and never has that age, with all its whiskey-soaked infidelities, rampant anticommunist paranoia, family feuds and sheer myth-creating grandiosity been better captured on the page. Read it and weep, if only because they don't craft icy stares (or philanthropic souls) like Roy Cullen's anymore, nor wildcatters like Glenn McCarthy, who could not only inspire James Dean's character in Giant but also probably drink Donald Draper under the table and steal his best girl to boot. (Not to mention kick his ass.) All that, and now forgotten, once ubiquitous local socialite Baron Ricky DiPortanova and his River Oaks swankienda soirees, too.