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Losing Ugly

Basquiat inspires some Houstonians.

You try to do something nice, and see what happens?

A couple of weeks ago, we praised City Hall bureaucrats for not getting in bed with a low-income-housing developer who's the subject of an FBI investigation in Dallas (see "Winning Ugly," November 24). We said the city took a pretty screwed-up route but eventually made the right decision.

Now that decision's been reversed. Or maybe the city's housing director, Milton Wilson, was either incredibly misinformed or incredibly disingenuous when he spoke to us. We do know for sure he's now incredibly good at ducking phone calls on the subject.

The city is considering lending developer Brian Potashnik $2.3 million so he can get federal HUD funds for two projects he's already built. When we last wrote about it, Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs had some questions about the item that was pending before the council's Housing Committee.

Wilson, who couldn't talk enough about the issue at the time, said then there'd been a misunderstanding and the loans were really no longer on the agenda. If the matter did come up at the next meeting, he said, he'd tell councilmembers the item had been withdrawn.

Instead, he recused himself at that next meeting, and the item was kept alive and sent on to the full council.

John Walsh of the mayor's office had been pushing for the loan, but neither he nor mayoral spokesman Frank Michel returned calls.

Another Potashnik ally is Councilman Gordon Quan, chair of the committee. He notes Potashnik hasn't been charged with any crime in the bribery investigation. "There's a lot of smoke, but I don't see that there's a real fire to it," he says.

Sekula-Gibbs says she still has questions. "This is not typical of…this administration. They have attempted to be more transparent, and now it seems we are taking steps backward into the old days," she says.

There's more to come, no doubt. Especially with local residents' complaining about poor security at the complexes, and broken promises about units that were being saved for seniors now going to Katrina evacuees.

On the bright side, no one's mentioned the word "bribery." We guess we should take what we can get.

Eye of the Beholder

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has decided to get all hip and street on us with its "Beats of Basquiat" parties, which are being held in conjunction with its exhibit of works by the late avant-garde icon.

The parties actually succeed to a large degree: Instead of the stilted, forced vibe you might expect from trying to convert the MFAH into a Soho loft, the events boast great DJs and a pleasantly eclectic crowd.

That crowd, however, might be a bit more real than the museum is looking for. Security at the monthly bashes is going to be increased, according to a museum insider, because officials discovered that some party attendees had honored Basquiat's graffiti period by tagging one of the museum bathrooms.

The unauthorized display was quickly cleaned up. Apparently because -- unlike with Basquiat -- some gaggle of New York critics had not yet deemed it Art.

Hey, maybe 20 years from now the museum will wish it had kept the display. Maybe in 2026, ExxonMobilConocoChevronWalMart will donate big bucks to re-create the scene, right down to the urinals.

Unfortunately, we are not able to determine the museum's take on all this. It won't even acknowledge the bathroom was tagged.

"That," a spokeswoman says, "would be something the museum wouldn't comment on."

Memo to self: Back-burner that idea of pitching the MFAH an exhibit called "I Tag, I Am: Fences and Walls of the East Side." Maybe next year.

No Good Deed...

Michelle Krupa, a reporter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, has been writing a series of stories following the progress of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston. The latest one, dated December 6, ruffled some feathers here.

She said she and a photographer were, like every other Katrina victim they met, overwhelmed by the things that make Houston Houston.

Driving around Houston's "spaghetti monolith of highways," she wrote, was a trial. "It was so sprawling, yet also monotonous, with few landmarks to distinguish one section from another. It seemed like an eternal Veterans Boulevard" [Hair Balls note to those unfamiliar with New Orleans: Not a compliment] "and even by New Orleans standards the drivers were nuts…We all just wanted to go home."

Predictably, Houston's blog community, or at least the right-wing, easily offended portion of it, had a fit. "Who cares what these NOLA lame-o's have to say about Houston!" wrote one person posting to the Lone Star Times site. "They have to claim the armpit of America as their home!! The whole place has always been a giant camode waiting to back up!" (Whatever a giant "camode" is, we guess we can agree we don't want it to back up.)

Some of us, to be sure, couldn't find much fault in the Times-Picayune story.

But come on, Krupa -- wasn't there anything you liked about Houston?

"I had a really good meal at Luling City Market, because we don't really do barbecue here. So I had a nice brisket," she says.

So you liked the third-best barbecue place in town. Anything else?

"The thing that really struck me about Houston…[was] driving around any neighborhood where the houses didn't have water rings four, five or six feet up," she says. "It was really refreshing…to see a city where all the houses are either being lived in or inhabitable -- it's like a small miracle."

Tourism folks, you have your new motto: Houston -- It's Inhabitable! (Compared to Post-Katrina New Orleans).

A Little Help

The post-Christmas season is almost upon us, that happy time of dealing with customer service representatives, voice-mail jungles and bureaucratic indifference. We give you a taste of what's to come with this recent experience.

In the space of six days, Reliant Energy sent three different e-mail bills to a Hair Balls correspondent, each for a different amount.

The correspondent called Reliant's customer service line, and -- after a mere three times giving the same information about account number and address -- had a conversation that pretty much went like this:

Reliant: It looks like there was a meter-reader sent to your house and a correction was made to your bill.

Customer: But why did they have to correct it so many times?

Reliant: I don't know. CenterPoint does the meter-reading. We just pass on what they send us in terms of usage information.

Customer: So I should talk to CenterPoint to find out what's going on.

Reliant: You can contact CenterPoint, but they're just going to pass you on to us.

Customer: What?

Reliant: CenterPoint doesn't talk to customers.

Customer: So you guys don't know anything about why the bills were corrected, because you just forward to me whatever paperwork CenterPoint sends you.

Reliant: That's right.

Customer: But I can't talk to CenterPoint, I can only talk to you.

Reliant: Yes, sir.

Customer: Doesn't that sound a bit strange?

Reliant: [Silence]

Customer: So can you guarantee that this is the only bill I'll get this cycle?

Reliant: I can't guarantee that, but hopefully it will be.

Customer: "Hopefully it will be"?

Reliant: Yes, hopefully it will be.

Customer: Wow.

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