The Houston Chronicle employs many weapons in its never-ending battle to attract readers: redesigns of page one, constant updates on what's happening in the world of Destiny's Child, aggressive coverage of the things that make Houston a great place to live.
One weapon they generally never use, however, is humor.
Few major papers in the country make as little attempt to entertain as the Chron. Columnist Ken Hoffman is the only writer at least tasked with trying to be funny; the humor column of Jeff Millar has never been replaced since he left last year.
The writers aren't given much leeway, either, as far as we can tell. Perhaps that's for the best, if a recent bizarre attempt at generating laughs is any indication.
Feature-section writer Daniel J. Vargas offered a first-person story December 14 titled "Spending Money a Sheet at a Time."
The piece centered on the apparently fascinating fact that you can buy uncut sheets of money from the federal government as novelty gifts. Vargas purchased a sheet of 16 one-dollar bills.
"It's real money, and because it can be cut up and spent, we took it to the streets of Houston to see what could be done with it," he wrote.
And hilarity ensues: "I hit Hollywood Video in Montrose first to see if I can pay for rentals with the sheet, which comes in a green tube and is anything but inconspicuous," he wrote. "I'm roaming the aisles with the tube looking for something good to rent."
He finds a movie and approaches the checkout desk. "'How are you doing today?' asks Aubrey Lovelace, the assistant director," he writes. "'Good,' I say, trying not to crack an impish grin."
Trying not to crack an impish grin? Control yourself, laddie.
Told it'll be $4.10, Vargas pulls out his sheet -- impishly, we're sure -- and asks for a pair of scissors. Which the store clerk calmly and somewhat anticlimactically gives him. Instead Vargas pays with his own cash.
He then heads to a supermarket with a Salvation Army Santa in front of it.
"'Do you guys accept this?' I ask as I whip out the novelty that changes a person's mood," he writes, sounding like he's describing a marital aid.
Somewhat anticlimactically (which is quickly becoming a theme of the piece) Santa says he would.
Writes Vargas: "He's oohing and ahhing over the sheet, holding it open from top to bottom like a newly earned diploma. 'Let's put it in. It all goes to a good cause,' [Santa] says.
"Settle down, Sparky. This sheet has some more cheer to spread. So I throw in some change and depart for an unsuspecting bank to make a deposit."
Fresh from bait-and-switching Santa from a $16 charitable donation to "some change," he heads for the big finish.
"I'm standing in a winding line of impatient bank customers," he writes. "My job is to find out if the teller will deposit the sheet of money. People are sighing and rolling their eyes My heart starts thumping faster. I hope the people behind me don't string me up for wasting their time."
Don't worry, dude. There's nothing people like better than waiting in line at a bank.
The bank temporarily says Vargas can't deposit the money, and officials take him to an office where he waits 21 minutes while they contact the Secret Service. Later, however -- in the Big Finish to the story -- a bank spokesman calls to say that he should have been allowed to deposit it.
"Ah, ha!" he writes.
"This whole snafu reminds [the spokesman] that she has a sheet each of $1s and $2s that she meant to frame, buried in a box.
"Well, if you plan to deposit them, take a book, I say. And a lawyer.
"'Yeah, really,' [she] laughs."
As did we all, sir. As did we all.
As near as we can tell, KHOU's Web page was operating perfectly fine on December 19. Which is somewhat surprising, given the station's in-depth investigation the night before that revealed that people who know how to operate computer systems are hapless geeks cursed by bad genes.
"Is there a serious downside to 'geekdom' that allows people to do well at work, but not so well at life?" reporter Dave Fehling asked. "Every big office has them -- the IT people who specialize in information technology. But with all due respect, does it seem that many of them suffer from a particular personality quirk?"
Given that the station's Web site wasn't hacked, maybe that "personality quirk" allows IT people to endure broad generalizations without taking offense.
On the other hand, maybe they all missed the ten o'clock news that night because they were in line for the midnight showing of The Lord of the Rings.
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