Peace -- For Now

WELCOME TO HOUSTON! Downtown was festooned with colorful banners in the days leading up to the July 13 All-Star Game. Baseball fans were welcomed, and highlights and attractions of the city were proudly pointed out. Perhaps the biggest banner was devoted to the city's newest symbol of corporate evil, Halliburton. Hung on the side of that empty hotel by the Pierce Elevated, it sent a simple message that Halliburton cares -- about some things.

Josh Harkinson

The 15th version of the "Friendshipment Caravan" -- a somewhat motley collection of school buses and trucks, packed with aid supplies, church folk and community activists -- passed through Houston July 3, on its way to the Mexican border.

Once in Mexico, the vehicles and their passengers head to a dock, get loaded on a ship and sent to Cuba. Which isn't technically legal, in the strict sense of following laws passed by Congress, signed by the president and held up under judicial review.

But we quibble. Or at least the Friendshipment Caravan people do. "The embargo is mean-spirited; it's an immoral policy and it hasn't worked in 40 years," says Lucia Bruno, communications director for the caravan.

Things always get a bit tense as the caravan pulls up to the border in McAllen. In past years, the group says, border guards have wrestled a Bible-carrying Catholic priest to the ground (man, it's a good thing those subversive Bibles never made it to Havana); they've confiscated a yellow school bus because it "had military implications," leading to a hunger strike; one year they cut the electrical cords on a bunch of sewing machines being shipped by the caravan.

So caravan members were eager to see what would happen in this post-9/11 election year, where Cuba policy could play a key role in the Florida vote. Mace? Rubber bullets? Would Pfc. Lynndie England show up with snarling guard dogs and a pack of Marlboros to give a thumbs-up?

About 40 customs officials, border guards and local police were waiting as the caravan approached July 6. And what happened was…nothing, for the most part. "They used their big machine to X-ray our vehicle, but otherwise they were in a peaceful mood," says caravan official Ellen Bernstein.

But the battle may not be over. Customs Service officials distributed a written document outlining the Cuban embargo; it includes the need to get a federal license to travel to Cuba, something the caravan members don't have.

"When we return [to the border] on the 19th of July, we have to see what awaits us," Bernstein says.

Padre, get ready to rummmble

Beer Bureaucracy

Trying to enjoy the Astros has been difficult this year, but it was downright exasperating July 2.

When you've got Jimy Williams managing your team, the only way to get through a game is with the help of quite a few beers. But that Friday, beer-drinking was a bureaucratic nightmare.

One thirtysomething man and woman bought a pair of beers on the concourse before the game; they were carded by the guy pouring. Then they were carded by the guy (one foot away) who took their money. Later, they were carded by a vendor selling in the aisle; when the woman offered to hold her friend's beer while he reached for his wallet, the vendor refused to hand it to her. Still later another vendor (as we said, Williams was managing) said a beer seller had been busted for selling to a 17-year-old girl.

TABC cited Larry's Big Bamboo, the stadium bar named after former manager Larry Dierker. He's a huge Jimmy Buffett fan who's apparently unfamiliar with that singer's "Livingston Saturday Night," which warns guys chasing high schoolers that "15 will get you 20" years in jail.

(Aramark spokeswoman Kate Shields says the citation was actually given to a vendor selling in the stands; the matter will be cleared up at a July 14 hearing.)

TABC and Aramark take these things seriously. Even one violation of selling to a minor means Minute Maid would not be able to sell any beer for seven to 20 days, a TABC spokeswoman says.

On the other hand, they could just choose to pay a $100 fine for each day of the suspension.

When you've got Jimy Williams as your manager, you better damn well pay the fine.

Motivate Me

Late in May, Harris County's criminal judges sent out a memo noting that the probation department faced a "fiscal crisis" and "has severely limited economic resources available to maintain and operate" the organization.

So it came as a bit of a surprise a month later when the department's head, Paul Donnelly, sent a memo inviting judges to travel to Humble July 13 to partake in a training seminar by "a very dynamic and motivational speaker by the name of Clint Swindall."

Swindall's Web site says he gets paid up to $7,000 to speak on such subjects as "Stop the Ride…I Want to Get Off!" The 36-year-old graduate of Southwest Texas State University "travels the world delivering high-content speeches," the Web site says. (No word on whether he is, Chris Farley-like, thrice divorced and living in a vaaan down by the riverrrr.)

Donnelly says the department got a bargain rate of $4,500 for the event and that "when you invest in developing your people, everything works better."

He says the fiscal crisis has passed, anyway. Cuts and hiring freezes have all but eliminated a looming $7 million deficit in a budget that totals about $47 million.

In fact, the department is hiring again, he says. And those employees are going to be motivated to within an inch of their lives, if Clint Swindall has anything to do with it.

Representing an Alternate Universe

Meet Brent Sullivan, whose name in English means "Snowball in Hell." Sullivan is running as a Libertarian against Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and given Lee's devoted constituents -- no Republican even bothered to run against her -- he is, you'd have to say, something of a long shot.

An undaunted long shot, though. A hopelessly deluded long shot…that's for others to decide. Sullivan is emphasizing Jackson Lee's support of a return to the draft, without necessarily underlining the fact that her proposal would eliminate rich-kid draft deferments, stoking war anxiety among the white well-to-do.

Hope springs eternal in the 18th Congressional District:

Q. You think the draft bill actually has a chance of passing?

A. I think it has a real strong chance. This is the kind of thing that may not be talked about at all now, but late November or December, it'll slip through…People ought to stand up and say no.

Q. So how's your platform playing in, say, Acres Homes?

A. I've been thrilled by the result I've gotten. People first of all are happy to see a candidate for Congress talking to them.

Q. The Republicans aren't even running a candidate in this district.

A. They're hugely missing the boat here.

Q. Sheila's got some big-name supporters. She showed up at a news conference recently with Michael Jackson. What celebrities can you count on?

A. Jimmie Vaughan is a Libertarian. He played a concert at the Libertarian National Convention.

Q. Jimmie who?

A. He's Stevie Ray Vaughan's brother. Pretty accomplished blues guy in his own right. Then there's Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman…They've both identified themselves as Libertarians. But I haven't got any celebrity endorsements yet.

Houston Sports Legend

Tracy McGrady, guard, Houston Rockets, 2004

McGrady, acquired in a trade that sent Steve Francis to the Orlando Magic, has been greeted as a demigod by Houston fans. The more cynical local sporting media has refused to grant him that status, however. They treat him as a full-fledged deity. *Career Highlights: Was treated as a savior when drafted out of high school by Toronto; acrimoniously left three years later, dissing his teammates (including Vince Carter, his cousin). Was born again as a savior when he returned home to play for Orlando; acrimoniously left four years later, dissing his teammates (no relatives, though). Told Rocket fans he wants to finish his career here and that "I feel I'm a coachable player," so the third time's obviously a charm. Showed two-sport ability in February when he was ejected from a game for kicking a ball into the stands. Twice. *Honors: Golden Globe quarter-finalist for his scene in the Magic training room earlier this year, when a trainer asked the pouting star where his knee hurt. "Where do you want it to hurt?" T-Mac replied. Won the Sociology Statistician of the Year award in 2003 for his ability to discern -- and to tell Stuff magazine -- that "about five percent" of NBA players are gay. Nominated for an NBA Executive of the Year award for complaining that the Magic front office actually made a trade for Juwan Howard without consulting him first. *Moment to Remember: As he sat out yet another late-season game in March, he said in a courtside TV interview that turning the Magic around was "gonna take getting guys in here with a winning mentality and guys who won't take days off."

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