Lay of the Land
Houston, or at least that part of Houston occupied by the city's elite, was flying high in the early part of 2001.
They had their man in the White House. In fact, if you drove through the Rice University area some very quiet nights, you could still hear James Baker laughing his head off as he told yet another party of energy execs about his exploits in Florida.
The city also had the man they wanted in the mayor's office, in the governor's mansion, in the congressional leadership. They had Phil Gramm in the Senate forever, and while few things in life were more annoying than having to kiss Phil Gramm's ass, they had to admit the man's political philosophy was pure gold, as long as you were a rich bidnessman who thought the gummint should just stay the hell out of the way of those folks who were pulling the wagon, as opposed to riding in it.
Still, there was room for improvement. Especially locally, where Mayor Lee Brown was tolerated more than respected. Why, oh why, the powers that be wailed -- especially through their house organ, the Houston Chronicle -- why can't we have the aggressive, charismatic, visionary leadership of, say, Ken Lay of Enron?
There was much well-placed talk of Lay running for the mayor's seat. But the city fathers decided they just couldn't wait.
It was time, they decided, to hand over the city to Ken Lay. The first few months of 2001 were okay, but with Lay operating behind the scenes, boy, the last half of 2001 was going to be great.
A delegation was tasked to visit The Man. Getting in wasn't as easy as they thought, for Lay was a very, very busy guy.
Not content with creating the impregnable financial fortress that was Enron, he had begun dabbling in other areas. An initial meeting between city representatives and Lay had to be canceled when the executive was simply too immersed in his side project of early 2001, which was managing the media strategy for Representative Gary Condit (D-Creepyville).
Once Lay had lined up Condit's appearance with Connie Chung -- "You've got to be shiftier if you want to look innocent, Gary," Lay had advised -- he deigned to meet with the city's delegation.
As the awed group entered Lay's lair, they found him on the phone, working the Lay magic.
"Listen, my friend," Lay was saying to whoever was on the other end of the line, "this tip is as solid as Enron stock. I'm telling you, the sequel to Battlefield Earth is going to be even bigger than the original, and we still have all the John Travolta action figures from the first one ready to go in the warehouse."
The delegation was impressed. They hadn't realized Lay also was involved in the entertainment industry.
"Come on," Lay continued. "A movie about some kid who finds out he's a wizard? If you want to piss your money away on some harebrained scheme, I can't stop you, but I swear on my stockholders' pensions that you're making a big mistake Okay, think about it, but get back to me fast -- this bus is leaving the station."
He put down the phone and looked up at his visitors.
"And now, gentlemen, what can I do for you?" he asked.
Humbly, they laid out their case. Houston needed his leadership. There was no time to wait for elections. Behind the scenes, he would run every aspect of city life with all the magic he brought to running Enron.
"Intriguing," Lay said. "What can I say, gentlemen -- you need me. And my team. I'll do it. And by the time I get done, gentlemen, you can be assured that Houston will be as thoroughly Lay'd as my Enron employees."
And so, on June 1, 2001, the Ken Lay era began.
Grabbing the reins as only he could, Lay decided to first tackle the possibility that Houston might be hit by a devastating flood.
He wasn't pleased with what he found out. Mindless city bureaucrats were forcing developers to spend at least an extra 45 seconds thinking about how their new construction might affect flood runoff. True, the city accepted without a second thought whatever "plan" the developer came up with after that 45 seconds, but that was still 45 seconds that could have been better spent pouring concrete over natural detention ponds.
Getting rid of all that onerous red tape would take some time, but there were more immediate concerns to be addressed by Lay.
"To: All Medical Center Employees
"From: Kenneth Lay, (Behind-the-Scenes) Flood Czar
"Re: Appalling misuse of space
"It has come to my attention that a noisy minority of employees is pressing to have flood pumps, of all things, installed in the basements of Medical Center facilities. These basements occupy some of the prime real estate of the city, and every inch is to be put to its highest and best use.
"Underground facilities such as this are perfect for experiments involving lab animals, not to mention anything involving radiation. I would also suggest that you store all critical research papers there, with the papers involving the most years of research placed nearest the floor, and less critical papers placed highest on the stack. In this manner the less critical papers will protect the important research from dust.
"As for pumps, why not just install steel doors to protect against space aliens? If we at Enron worried about every possible risk that might one day befall us, our stock would be nowhere near what it is now. We need vision, ladies and gentlemen -- Enron Vision. My executives have lived in Houston for many years, and they tell me that in all the homes they've lived in they've never had a basement flood, and I'm sure that involves plenty of basements.
"So get that stuff down in the basement now. Let's see who can follow my orders best and get their most valuable stuff in the basement first -- you or the Houston Symphony.
"Keep dry (ha ha),
His flood-prevention philosophies were soon put to the test with the arrival of Tropical Storm Allison, which dumped untold amounts of rain on Houston.
Lay's plans were completely, utterly successful. Not one member of Lay's inner circle at Enron suffered any flood damage whatsoever. Others reportedly endured some minor inconveniences, but Lay was too busy moving on to his next project to waste time mollycoddling some grumblers.
And what could be more important to Houstonians than sports? (At least those Houstonians who stayed dry during Allison.)
Lay immediately set up a task force of his top executives to put the Enron stamp on the city's sundry sports teams.
The University of Houston's football team, for instance.
The Coogs had slipped far from their glory days, such as they were, and the Enron guys went to work. Some analysts later claimed that UH went 0-11 in the 2001 season, suffering their first winless campaign ever, but according to Enron's accounting methods the team just missed out on a BCS bowl bid. And if some negativity-obsessed carpers wanted to say the official report documenting the so-called proof of the Cougars' success was "as easy to understand as an Esperanto translation of Finnegans Wake, or even an Enron financial report," then they could join the rest of the "can't do" crowd being pulled on Phil Gramm's wagon.
When it came to basketball, Lay and his boys were equally adept. They quickly got rid of Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, freeing up money to pay even more to people like Kelvin Cato and Matt Maloney.
Maloney had long since left the Rockets, but Lay -- citing an Enron philosophy of Throwing Good Money After Good Money (as Defined by Our Financial Statements) -- felt a couple more million thrown his way would provide the key to turning his career around. Likewise, Lay declared that Cato was "grossly underpaid" by Rockets management.
"Here you've got a center who can be counted on to give you not only up to five points a game but almost five rebounds a game -- and we're talking night after night; this isn't a case of some flashy star who comes in and pads his stats by getting seven points and seven rebounds against cellar-dwellers and then disappearing the rest of the time," Lay said. "You mean to tell me you only give that guy a six-year, $42 million contract? That's Dynegy thinking, not Enron Thinking. We here at Enron feel Kelvin Cato is a growth industry. We're trading futures on Kelvin Cato, and we're making a bundle."
The "bundle" was, as of the close of fiscal 2001, still in the "projected" stage, but such projected profits are money in the bank to visionary guys like Lay, if not quite to not-so-visionary folks like his employees with their 401(k) plans.
Lay also made quick work of the Houston Comets, the only team to ever win the WNBA championship. Given the popularity of the WNBA, it's impossible to find out what happened during the 2001 season, but we're sure the Comets went on to win their fifth straight title behind the leadership of Cynthia Cooper.
In baseball, Lay's job was easier. As he took over his duties in June, the Astros had rebounded from their disastrous 2000 season and were looking good in the National League Central. "Larry Dierker is a baseball genius. End of discussion," Lay said. "And the only way to ensure that this team gives Houston the success it deserves is by operating under a self-imposed salary cap. That Drayton McLane, I'm telling you -- he could work at Enron. We especially like his bookkeeping. Even if he gets creative seeking to declare financial losses while we do it to declare profits, what you people have to understand is this: It's the journey, not the destination."
Given that Lay's changes at the Astros were subtler than his actions elsewhere, it took a while for them to sink in. But by the middle of September, the Enron philosophy finally had begun to take hold, with noticeable results.
And the effects were felt not merely on the field: Lay also began supervising the rejuvenation of the Enron Field area.
Even two years after the stadium was opened, the promised rejuvenation had been pretty much limited to one sports bar. Lay quickly took matters into his own hands. When Trammell Crow announced that their landmark Ballpark Place development would be ummm delayed once again (but only delayed, they swore. Really, they said), Lay ordered up an entirely new "Coming Soon!" sticker for the property's sign. Houstonians flocked to see the new sticker, and several purchased a beer at the one sports bar because, according to one, "there's not a helluva lot else to do around this neighborhood."
Football is king in Texas, of course, and even though the Houston Texans weren't set to begin play until the 2002 NFL season, Lay was not about to let matters slide. As team officials huddled in preliminary discussions about who to take with their first ever draft pick, Lay quickly put his foot down. "Two words: Chris Simms," he said. "And give him Kelvin Cato money, and tie him up for a long time. We don't want to lose a clutch performer like that."
All over town, Houstonians quickly began to feel the effects of Lay's reign as the year went on. Sure, they remained blissfully unaware of their guardian angel, but they enjoyed the benefits just the same.
For instance, where before it had been somewhat, slightly, just a wee bit inconvenient to park at the new strip malls on West Alabama near Kirby, Lay ensured that there were dozens of never-used parking spaces by tearing down the historic Ale House pub.
Even before his official appointment, he guaranteed that the leadership of the Houston school district, which had |generated the best press outside of Enron's during the tenure of Rod Paige, would continue by making sure a loyal Paige appointee was announced as his replacement. As with Enron, glowing press reports surely indicated that nothing wrong was going on, he knew, so the promotion of Kaye Stripling was a no-brainer.
But it didn't end there. Shortly after taking control of Houston, Lay was amazed when he went to the city's public works department and looked at plans to improve some downtown streets.
"These planners just aren't thinking big enough," he grumbled to two of his most trusted lieutenants. "We need a downtown like New York, or Boston. We're trying to attract an Olympics, for crying out loud. Head on over to public works and change these plans pronto."
He stormed out of the room, already late for an appointment where he'd be pushing Compaq executives to "merge with anyone you can find."
The two lieutenants looked at each other.
"What's New York and Boston got that we don't?" one asked.
"Ummm Lots of annoying downtown traffic?" the other said.
"Surely the boss doesn't want us to increase downtown traffic," said the first.
"Yeah, that's what you always say: 'Surely the boss doesn't want to throw $3 billion into some power plant in India,' you said a few years ago. 'Surely he doesn't want to get involved with trading Internet bandwidth,' you said. And both times he reamed us out for not following his orders."
"All right, all right already. I'm heading over to public works. You go take care of the expanded bleachers for the UH-UT game."
The lieutenant soon stormed into the department's planning offices.
"Isn't there any way that we could make all this even more annoying for commuters?" he asked. The bureaucrats, unaccustomed to such visionary thinking, simply shrugged.
"That's good as far as it goes," Lay's man said. "Anyone else?"
Emboldened by their newfound freedom, others piped up.
"We could tear up some streets that we tore up just a few months ago," one said.
"We could make sure that no one ever sees anyone actually working on the sites as they crawl on by in their cars," said another.
"Yes, yes, but that's still not enough," the Man from Enron said impatiently. "You're not thinking big enough. What else can we do?"
They all looked at the floor, shuffling their feet.
"Metro, dammit," he spit out. "We can tie up Main Street for years with some cockamamie Metro project, forcing traffic onto all the other streets we're closing."
Jaws dropped. Here was vision.
"But what kind of project, sir? A road widening?" one asked.
"Think bigger," he replied.
"A center lane for buses only?" another said.
"Bigger, men, bigger. Try thinking the Enron Way," he replied.
With a sigh that indicated he was realizing just how big a job he had taken on, Lay's man spelled it out for them.
"Light rail," he said. "A light rail line that won't add any new mass-transit users, but just attract people who used to take the bus."
"Come on, sir," one planner said. "Houston's voted down light rail every chance they get, and building that useless line would cost $300 million, at least."
"You're fired," the Enron man said.
The Metro light rail line did indeed transform Main Street in 2001. Where once had been bustling mom-and-pop restaurants and sandwich shops, discount clothes outlets and convenience stores, soon became a no-man's-land of failed businesses, starved into submission by interminable construction.
Again, there was some complaining about the "little guy" getting hurt, but Lay, big man that he was, didn't lash back. He knew that the complainers simply didn't understand how good all this was for the other little guys, the ones who buy up devalued downtown real estate by the block for future use.
And traffic for downtown commuters was like it had never been before.
Houston's cultural world was not ignored by Lay. Gladys Knight starring in Smokey Joe's Cafe at the Wortham Center as part of the 2001 Theatre Under the Stars season? Ken Lay did it. The extremely hard-to-get Beach Boys for the downtown Fourth of July bash? Lay.
Even more notable, he used the arts to test Houston's resolve, to see just how much the city could take. While some folks might have thought that the city had suffered enough with Tropical Storm Allison, the Rockets and 'Stros and endless traffic, Lay offered one thing more: a new Ezra Charles album.
Few Houstonians have been able to escape Ezra Charles, the city's local version of well, of a really nasty toothache. For years he's been pounding out his bland R&B (except for those years when he was doing swing) at bars, bah mitzvahs and corporate Christmas parties all over town. Unending critical scorn has done little to stop him.
Still, it had been three years without a new Ezra album. Getting Charles into the studio was the No. 1 priority for Lay's plans to improve Houston's cultural life.
Some would have simply stopped with Charles's agreement to record Beaumont Boy (now available on Icarus Records!), but not Lay. He did more. Without Lay, Houstonians would never have known, through song, just how Charles felt about the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Houston had waited 11 years for this. And they got it: "Bad Year for the Blues," which actually contains these lyrics describing the helicopter crash that took Vaughan's life after a concert with Eric Clapton:
He had jammed on the stage with as big as they come
And he'd showed 'em his power and might
He was offered a helicopter back to town
But the rain and the power lines conspired to bring Stevie down.
"You don't think it's a bit over the top, Ken?" Charles had asked at the recording session.
"No, babes, no," said Lay, who was behind the soundboard in wraparound shades, his arm around a lively gentlemen's-club dancer. "I'm telling ya, this one ranks right up there with 'If There's a Rock and Roll Heaven (Then You Know They Got a Helluva Band).' "
Charles was still hesitant -- was Lay just blowing smoke up his ass by comparing his work to an epic like "Rock and Roll Heaven"? So he added these liner notes explaining the song (and if you don't believe us, you can buy the CD): "'Bad Year for the Blues': August 10, 1990. Has it really been 11 years? Since SRV's been gone does everybody feel this giant hole in the music world, or is it just me?"
When it comes to giant holes in the music world, few are as expert as Charles. And without the enthusiastic nudging of Ken Lay, we might have been deprived of all this.
Lay was also intent on helping out the local media in 2001. He was the one who tipped KTRK off to its biggest scoop of the year: that baby-killer Andrea Yates was pregnant in jail. KTRK was also very competitive in eventually reporting the further development that Yates wasn't pregnant. And Lay made sure the Houston Press named South Park Mexican as a winner in its annual music awards just before the rapper was arrested for allegedly molesting a child.
Whether it was managing the Chris Bell for Mayor campaign or urging former Astro Ken Caminiti to loosen up a little, Lay's influence was felt everywhere in 2001.
But his fierce sense of loyalty meant that Lay and his team could not ignore their pride and joy, Enron. Even as they took on all their other responsibilities, they continued to work magic at the little energy-and-trading company that could.
Things didn't always go smoothly, however. Lay and his team became aware in the fall that Enron stock was in danger of plummeting because of of something someone else had done, to be sure. At any rate, Lay ordered a company-wide memo to go out ASAP telling all employees that their retirement plans might be affected.
"To: All Enron Employees
"From: Ken Lay
"Re: Our Stock
"Our stock is CRATERING! All the money you think you have saved up is about to vaporize! Whatever you do, CASH OUT NOW!"
Tragically, a glitch in the e-mail system caused the memo to be distributed only to the company's highest-paid executives. When Lay found out, he was really, really mad.
Suddenly Lay was forced to spend more time at his company. People kept tossing around words like "Chapter 11," and things got very tense until he was assured that it would affect only those unfortunate folks who couldn't be bothered to check their e-mails.
But all of a sudden lawyers were badgering him for his time, and investigators actually wanted to know about what was known, in Enron culture, as bookkeeping élan, that je ne sais quoi that made Enron Enron.
It became increasingly tedious to have to explain to nonvisionaries how it took a special vision to, well, envision profits where lesser minds saw none.
Regretfully, Lay came to conclude that he would have to devote all of his time to pulling strings in Washington to save his butt. Or, as he put it, "to ensure that our loyal Enron employees get all the value for their stock that they deserve, because here at Enron we are just one big happy family."
That decision meant, of course, that he could no longer be the behind-the-scenes guru spreading his mysterious mojo all over Space City. Houston would have to get through 2002 on its own.
"I'm sorry that the coming year may not be as blessed as the last six months of 2001 were," Lay said as he tried to warn the public of hard times ahead.
Houstonians, filled with gratitude for all Lay had done, knew they had to look elsewhere for leadership.
But where could they find someone with the same magic touch? Who could provide the same unending bottom-line success?
Things looked grim indeed. And then they remembered: Hey, Larry Dierker's available.
(Any similarity between the characters in this parody and actual people -- living or dead -- is strictly intentional.)
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- College and NFL Football: Thanksgiving Weekend's Best Bets
Sat., Nov. 28, 2:30pm
Sat., Nov. 28, 7:00pm
Sun., Nov. 29, 12:00pm
Mon., Nov. 30, 7:00pm
- The 10 Best Things About the Holidays in Houston
- Prosecutors: Paxton's Hollow Outrage at "DEFCON 1"