Do Not Enter

It's never a good sign when, a few days before a heavily hyped event, callers to the promoter's offices are greeted with the message that the phones are out of service.

But hope springs eternal, especially on New Year's Eve. So thousands of Houstonians -- including one Hair Balls correspondent, who honestly should have known better thanks to the phone omen -- descended on Sam Houston Park downtown for the Forbidden City extravaganza.

Unfortunately, the only thing "forbidden" about the event was the possibility of getting in. Hundreds and hundreds of partygoers, many of them dressed to impress and holding tickets costing anywhere from $35 to $200, stamped about outside the gates as the clock neared midnight.

"It reeked of horse dick," one frustrated partyer told Hair Balls as he left. "Unprofessional horse dick," his companion added.

Horse dick -- of the unprofessional, reeking variety -- seems an apt enough description for the dismal evening.

Fire marshals shut the gates to the tented event at about 10:45 p.m., when they saw the long line of hopefuls and a crowd inside that had hit the maximum of 2,500.

Senior inspector Richard Galvan says his staff had to take over the crowd count when they noticed that accuracy wasn't a priority to a promoter trying to get as many potentially pissed-off people inside as possible. Promoter Andre Mai disputes that assertion, along with many other claims about the night.

Mai and Galvan disagree on how much usable space -- and therefore how big a capacity -- the venue had. But Galvan says he reminded Mai as the event began that the capacity was set at 2,500. Mai says he didn't oversell the event, but then again he had sent e-mails to at least one reporter saying, "We expect a turnout of 3,000 if it's bad weather and 4,000 if it's good."

(When the Houston Chronicle finally got around to covering the mess four days later, it noted exactly one of the seven event sponsors: the Houston Press. Stuart Folb, publisher of the Press, notes the paper had no direct control over the planning or execution of the event. It "seems this event wasn't as organized as a typical Houston Press-sponsored event," he says.)

Frustrated ticket holders were told to come back the next day -- how better to spend New Year's Day? -- and get a refund. There they found yet more long lines.

On the bright side for those guys, 2005 has nowhere to go but up.

Coffee Talk

The overwhelming tragedy of the Asian tsunami left many American companies scrambling to help. Some scrambled better than others.

Managers at several Houston Starbucks stores received a memo from their corporate higher-ups December 29, which they were told to print and post, announcing that $2 of every $10 pound of Sumatran coffee -- including a new flavor just being introduced -- would go toward tsunami relief.

It didn't take long before there was grumbling about exploiting a tragedy, obviously from chronic complainers who don't understand the word "synergy." A second memo went out, marked "Urgent," ordering managers to destroy any hard copies of the original memo and erase it from their computers. At least one manager said he'd never seen such a CYA move.

A third memo then went out, with the additional caveat that if customers raised questions about the effort, they should be given a list of Web sites where they could donate directly to the relief effort.

Starbucks spokeswoman Audrey Lincoff says there was nothing Nixonian about the frantic second memo. "As is our standard business practice," she says by e-mail, "we often ask our partners [employees] to destroy, discard or recycle communications that are inaccurate or outdated."

Which is why, we guess, we never saw the memo pushing 9/11 Breakfast Blend.

Street-Fighting Men

Fred Ashmead lost his race against Duane Bohac for a Texas House seat last November, but he's not done fighting. Except now it's with his neighbors.

Ashmead, 58, is sporting a black eye thanks to a Christmas brawl with neighbor Brian Gillespie, 52.

Both the Democratic Ashmead and the Republican Gillespie say they have been verbally sparring for a long time, mostly over dueling campaign signs in their Oak Forest-area front yards. Gillespie's eight-foot Christmas crucifix, hanging from a tree, apparently further fanned the flames.

The bout was caught on security cameras Gillespie says he had installed after his tires were slashed.

"I was dumb enough to ignore that video camera, and it never occurred to me that he staged the confrontation and I played right into his hands," Ashmead says. "I hit him twice, and my wet shoes slipped out from under me. So with me on the ground…he just beat the fool out of me."

Gillespie says he was defending himself and the tapes prove it, although they were not available for outside review, perhaps pending a pay-per-view sale.

Each side wanted charges filed on the other, but the D.A.'s office declined to get involved.

Houston Is Fat-tastic!

The mysterious phenomenon of Men's Fitness magazine has surfaced again.

Does anyone ever read, or think about, or even acknowledge the existence of this magazine at any time other than its annual Fattest City PR campaign? (Obviously, in Houston the answer is no.)

It's like Mr. Blackwell and his worst-dressed lists: utter obscurity 11 months of the year, and then people get into a dither about them because of some gimmicky, subjective publicity grab. Men's Fitness is the Punxsutawney Phil of magazines, both in terms of year-round relevance and scientifically based research (see "Ground Zero," November 18).

But as everyone knows by now, Houston has reclaimed its title as the nation's fattest city. And Houston City Council did its part by being outraged and devoting plenty of time to getting the vapors over the issue.

"We could have a contest for silliest magazine," Councilman Michael Berry said at the January 5 council meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem Carol Alvarado had a more nuanced take, questioning the bona fides of the study. "I don't think they actually came down and weighed anybody," she said, apparently envisioning the Simpsons episode where the population of Springfield gets on a truck scale.

Mayor Bill White went on one of the network morning news shows to defend our fair city. And Councilman Adrian Garcia proposed that the city record every hour that municipal employees work out and then submit the numbers to Men's Fitness. Snow them under with paperwork! That'll teach 'em!

Having finished their hard work plugging the magazine, White and the councilmembers presumably turned their attention to other things.

And Men's Fitness returned to its regular place in the universe, right next to Scale Aircraft Modeler in magazine superstores. Until next year, when Houston city officials stand ready to do their part again to boost circulation.


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