If you've driven along any of Texas's major highways lately you've seen the signs. A drought has raised the threat of wildfires to dangerous levels, so -- as the signs say -- there is a "Statewide Fire Danger," and therefore we are under an "Arson/Burn Ban." Motorists are urged to call the number listed if they see any violations.
The first 50 times we saw the sign, we didn't think much of it. And then it was pointed out to us -- isn't "arson" always banned, pretty much?
We decided to go undercover and had this conversation with the woman who answered the phone number listed on the signs:
A. Arson hot line.
Q. Hi, I'm calling about the arson-ban signs that I see on I-10. When is the arson ban going to be lifted?
A. Lifted up? It's probably going to be in March.
Q. In March? OK. Because, you know, I'm kind of not doing too well financially right now. And I have a restaurant that not too many people like to eat at. So, when the arson ban is going to be lifted, things might get a little easier for me, you know what I'm saying?
A. As in what way? What are you needing it to do?
Q. Well, I need the arson ban lifted so I can engage in arson.
A. What are you needing to burn?
Q. Oh, my restaurant.
A. You want to burn down your restaurant?
Q. Well, just between you and me. I mean, the food's no damn good. And, you know, I've got bills. I've got bills. We all have bills, I know, but I got a lot of bills.
A. Okay um yeah, it probably won't be until March, unless we [get] a lot of rain and [the rain] has to be, like, statewide.
Q. Rain's gonna put out the fire, though. And I got the little lady cracking the whip. That's a lot of money, you know.
A. Right, yeah, so -- ummm -- we would need to get like a coastal rain, we would need to get like a panhandle rain, you know, [and] a mid-section rain in order for the statewide burn ban to be lifted.
Q. What do you think of Chinese-Mexican fusion? I thought it was gonna go like hotcakes, but apparently no one wants to eat that in Houston.
A. Uhhh, I don't know. I don't know. Personally, I mean, I don't eat at places if they're going to try to sell two different types of foods. I mean, you're either going to sell burgers or you're just going to sell Mexican food or you're just going to sell Chinese food, you know?
Q. Well, maybe with this money I get I can do that -- just sell burgers. Well, thank you.
First rule of local television news -- there is nothing in this world that is more fascinating than a live police chase. If alien warlords invade Earth and take President Bush hostage, the local stations will cut away from covering it if there happens to be a guy on the Gulf Freeway who won't pull over for the cops.
Houstonians were treated again to the spectacle January 18 when Jittu Mann of Spring led cops on a sometimes-leisurely two-hour chase along the Southwest Freeway in a BMW 330i. News helicopters on three stations documented every inch of the event as the Beemer glided through traffic and survived a head-on collision when Mann went the wrong way down an entrance ramp.
Reporters filled the airtime with the BMW's specs, and Internet chat rooms dedicated to the automaker leapt into action. "Damn, the car is so safe," one poster noted. "Well, glad I got the black-leather interior," said another. "A lighter interior doesn't look good on TV."
So, did all this free publicity result in a rush to buy BMWs? Alas, no, according to one sales manager at Momentum BMW, who preferred anonymity.
"January's pretty slow for cars," he said.
Sales staff were glued to the TV for the last 15 minutes of the chase. "It was interesting to watch -- It looked like [the car] was doing what it was designed to do," the salesman says.
The dealership has a test track where drivers can try out the cars, but top speed in the limited space is probably near 40 mph.
So if someone wants to check out how the sedan handles in the 100 mph range, they're going to have to run from the cops?
"Yeah, pretty much," he says.
Free Advertising, Part 2
Citysearch.com is a California-based online guide for entertainment and dining in various U.S. cities. When it began a dozen or so years ago it featured heavily staffed local bureaus; since then they've become more centralized.
People still use it, of course, as did one Hair Balls reader who noted the following blurb on Citysearch.com's Houston site, for a restaurant called RA Sushi: "Washed in red by overhead lamps and stained woods, the sleek decor at this second-floor eatery bears a hip Asian feel. The loft-like space features a sushi bar in the main dining area, as throbbing dance music enlivens stylish diners vying for tables."
Gee. Sounds like quite the scene. There is one slight problem: RA Sushi hasn't opened yet.
But "stylish diners vying for tables" sure sounds like first-person reportage, right?
Our reader e-mailed Josh Hinsdale, Citysearch.com's Houston editor. "For locations that are not yet open, we rely primarily on second-party information to draft our description," he replied.
"Second-party information"? That sounds like a euphemism for "press release."
Hinsdale told Hair Balls that "previews" of yet-to-be-opened places can include descriptions of decor and ambience that "are written from our editorial research."
"In the case of RA Sushi, we neglected to denote the profile as a 'preview,' and this has been corrected, along with some tighter editing, thanks to your tip," he says.
The new blurb simply mentions "dance music designed to appeal to stylish diners." As soon as the place opens.
Yet Another Savior
Now that Roger Clemens has taken his leave, you might have thought Houston would be bereft of Godlike sports figures. Luckily there's always Houston Chronicle columnist John P. Lopez to come to the rescue.
As the Texans prepared to name former St. Pius High quarterback Gary Kubiak as their new coach, Lopez was there to testify: "No matter how Gary Kubiak decides to use the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft," he wrote January 25, "you can count on this: If the pick proves to be a booming success, Kubiak will deflect all credit. And if the pick ends up being a flop, he will take the blame."
And if the bottled water in the press room suddenly turns into a robust cabernet sauvignon, you'll know who to thank.
Lopez went on and on about Kubiak's near-deity status. Which isn't really anything new when Lopez is greeting incoming Houston coaches:
January 2001: "Hiring [Dom] Capers will mark the first time [Texans owner Bob] McNair has veered onto a road that has a few potential potholes. But don't turn in your PSLs just yet, Texans fans. As much as this will be a daring hire, it'll be a good one."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
November 2001: "On many fronts, [Jimy] Williams is a perfect fit for this club Williams will quietly and with dignity take the fall, even if it is obvious that it's the [Astros] players or management bumbling and stumbling."
December 1998: "This was a night that didn't just offer evidence that the [University of Houston] Cougars could be on their way to a bright future. It offered some hints that [new coach Clyde] Drexler might be more serious about this coaching gig than most experts and fans around the country believed he would be."
Less than three years later, writing about UH athletic director Chet Gladchuck: "He seemed to follow the Clyde [Drexler] disaster with a smart move, hiring Ray McCallum, who appears to be doing things the right way." McCallum lasted four years and was axed with a 44-73 record.
Man. If only Lopez would criticize a new hire, Houston sports fans might have some hope.