All Grant Holt wanted to do was report a suspicious backpack. All he got was months of hassle.
Holt noticed an abandoned backpack on the street near the downtown Foley's while returning from lunch May 20. It was still there when he took a smoke break a couple of hours later.
As vigilant and proactive a patriotic citizen as Homeland Security could wish for, the graphic designer called 911. And got hung up on three different times, he says, because he couldn't provide an exact address for the backpack.
So he crossed the street to HPD headquarters. And no one in that lobby seemed too interested in it, either. So -- faced with taking off his shoes and belt to get through the metal detector -- Holt said "fuck it" and left.
He admits he may have tossed in some other profanity, but he was frustrated. Which turned to "pissed off" when an officer came flying out the door, grabbed him on the street and arrested him.
And, well, it didn't help when Holt would answer questions like "Are you drunk?" with "Oh, yeah, I've had 30 beers since lunch." ("I did kind of cuss and berate them after they arrested me," he admits. "I probably called them 'idiots' too.")
That clever post-arrest strategy resulted in Holt's spending 28 hours in jail -- a friend trying to bail him out was told the jail had no record of Holt -- and that was only the beginning.
Since then he's been run through a gauntlet of prosecutors and has faced the prospect of being charged with everything from assaulting a police officer to resisting arrest. Finally, on September 14, he worked out a plea bargain.
He pleaded guilty to cussing in public and was fined $2.
Fined for cussing? And only two bucks? That sounds like something a Disney World employee would get hit with, not a regular ol' citizen.
The class C misdemeanor involves "vulgar and profane language that causes an immediate breach of the peace," says Holt's attorney George Reul.
Prosecutor Todd Leffler says he took into account the fact that Holt was, after all, trying to report something suspicious. "We understand why he was frustrated and cut him a break," he says.
As for Holt, "The next time I see a backpack," he says, "I'm just going to walk right on by."
Can't Help Myself
Every volunteer's experience with the Katrina evacuees is different. Sometimes it can be a smooth-running process where you're given a job and do it; other times, it's like it was for one Hair Balls correspondent September 14.
He'd volunteered the previous week and things had gone well, except perhaps for the grandmother who was told all the ice cream had already been handed out to Katrina youngsters and shouted, "Those kids don't deserve no ice cream!"
A week later he went back and was told to get ready to help folks move from Reliant Center to Reliant Arena. The evacuees, many of them elderly, were ready on time and waiting with their boxes and wheelchairs. And waiting. And waiting. For two hours, while the volunteers tried frantically to get some information on what was going on.
One volunteer, who came down from Minnesota, says she'll never work for the Red Cross again. The plans change "every 20 minutes," she says, and there's no direction.
"You see that guy over there?" She points. "That's our director. I've been here two weeks, and this is the first time I've seen him on the floor."
Eventually things got settled. But not before one more volunteer bit the dust.
Back to Normal
Even with the occasional foul-ups, Houston has been getting almost nothing but glowing press for the city's reaction to Katrina. And then there was The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, writing September 12 about rebuilding New Orleans.
Homeowners without insurance may simply have to sell their lots to developers, the paper reported, and that may be bad news.
The story continued: " 'This may further the Houstonization of New Orleans and the destruction of its historic fabric,' laments S. Frederick Starr, author of Southern Comfort: The Garden District of New Orleans 'This is the most critical question with regard to the cultural survival of New Orleans. Are you going to incentivize the owners to rebuild, or are you going to tear it all down and build some awful thing?' "
Hey, thanks, S. Frederick. Why be hatin'?
Starr immediately starts backtracking when asked about it. "That is an old term," he says. "I used that term 20 years ago in my book."
And what's it mean? "I think 'Houstonization' is simply mass demolition followed by low-density, green-fields development. It's really talking to the Houston that was being built in the '70s and '80s All those one-story houses that go on forever." It kills any feeling of community, he says.
Okay, okay. So he's got a point. Still, you'd think he could let us enjoy our moment just a little bit longer.
You bring a huge influx of poor, mostly black strangers into town, made desperate by losing everything, and what do you get? Good times at gun shops!
An informal survey of Houston-area gun stores shows that the cash registers are hopping lately. It also shows that gun-shop personnel don't really want to talk about it.
At the Ammo Dump, a nameless manager said the media was only trying to stir up controversy (who, us?) and therefore "I'm not going to say anything inflammatory."
He said the increase in sales was "possibly" Katrina-related. He also noted that ammo was selling well. "I think people that already have guns will be sure that they have whatever they need," he added, ominously enough.
So Houston is welcoming evacuees with open arms. And those evacuees better keep their arms in plain sight, if they know what's good for them.
We Give and We Give
The response to Katrina has included several offers by at least semifamous musicians to put on fund-raising concerts. Which is starting to get City Hall worried.
Mayor Bill White and some councilmembers are expressing concerns that any string of concerts will cause the city to be hit with overtime costs for police and other city departments, with no way of getting reimbursed.
But it's a tentative kind of concern, truth be told. No one's eager to look like Scrooge. "I'm not trying to do anything mean or controversial," White told the council September 14.
Councilman Mark Ellis was a little less restrained. "I can't recall a time a city took on another city's problems At some point when they start to have these shows to raise funds, we need to evaluate what the city expenditures will be and what the taxpayers' expense will be."
White said it's "not inappropriate to ask people to consider local funds" when making Katrina donations; such donations could defray the city's cost.
Red Cross, you're on your own.
You'll forgive us if we feel flush with the mighty power of the press. Our noble fight to right wrongs in this town has garnered another hard-fought victory, bringing succor to the oppressed.
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We reported September 1 that one of the street signs at West Bellfort and Sandpiper was misspelled. No deaths had yet occurred because of the tragic "Sanpiper" sign, but it obviously was only a matter of time. While other media outlets ignored this festering threat, too intimidated to take on the city's traffic-sign establishment, we acted.
And within days, the city crumbled. Faced with the undeniable facts of our investigation, they removed the egregious hazard. The reaction was almost as quick as when city workers showed up hours after we hit the streets showing two utterly conflicting parking signs in front of our building.
A new sign is already up at the West Bellfort-Sandpiper intersection. And rest assured the Houston Press was there to ensure it was spelled correctly -- even if other papers weren't.
So if you've got a pothole in your neighborhood or a dog next door that won't stop barking, don't hesitate to call the Houston Chronicle's Watch 'Em column. We're quitting while we're ahead.