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Signs of Ignorance

"When you said, 'Don't cut,' we thought you meant 'Cut.' Sorry."

We love our trees here in Houston. We protect them. With big, bold signs warning developers not to cut them down.

Signs that, it turns out, make for a handy device to mark just where you should put the chain saw.

As the accompanying pictures show, a Memorial Park-area site that we guess is soon to be the home of tasteful, elegant town homes (aren't they all?) is a terrific piece of testimony to just how effective the city's tree-protection people are. The signs, in English and Spanish, must have forestalled the chopping down of the oaks for all of 30 seconds, assuming the cutters paused to chuckle heartily.

Geez, the 35 mile-per-hour signs way out Westheimer are more effective on a Friday night than these things were.

Roger Barnaby saw the stumps and the signs while riding his bike about a month ago, so he called the city. "If you were going to illegally cut the trees, I would have at least taken off the posting," he says.

City staffers, he says, "seemed really confused about it, and I explained the situation and they said someone would call me back," he says.

No one did, so he called again the next day. "The woman that I spoke to said unless I knew who cut the trees they couldn't do anything. I said, 'Can't you at least investigate?' They said, 'Unless you saw it, we can't do anything.' "

Parks Department spokeswoman Marene Gustin says the city is definitely on the case, no matter what Barnaby was told.

"That was a very visible violation of the tree ordinance," she says. "I personally got phone calls from city officials who were driving by there, and they said, 'Oh, my God, these trees have been cut,' " she says.

There's a difference of opinion as to who's at fault -- Henry Zalay, the supervisor for Specialist Tree Service, says the property owner said he had a permit to cut the trees down; the property owner, Jorge Barer, says the tree-service company told him it was okay to chop.

The city says Specialist Tree Service received a citation, with a potential fine of up to $500; Barer has agreed to replace the trees.

By ordinance, the city could have fined the guilty party $500 for each tree cut down illegally -- why not slam 'em hard to scare off other ax-happy builders?

Oh. We forgot. This is Houston. No word on whether future "No Cutting" signs will be placed higher up on trees so more of the trunks can be saved after they're axed.

Voice of the Oilers

Lawrence Harris was an offensive lineman for the Houston Oilers during their "Luv Ya Blue" heyday, when Bum Phillips and Earl Campbell ruled the town, if not the AFC (thanks to those hated Pittsburgh Steelers).

Now he's an opera singer, playing Rigoletto for the Center City Opera in Philadelphia. He started out as a tenor and a year ago became a baritone, a switch that hopefully didn't require painful surgery.

Q. How's it going?

A. It's been nothing but great [since the switch]. Because the baritone roles, they're meatier, there's more testosterone involved, so I can bring in all the facets of the locker room and all that. The aggression and the intensity of, you know, the athlete, and be one of the guys. You get to be a villain, so it's a lot more fun.

Q. Can you relate Rigoletto to football?

A. He gets very violent and very aggressive and he takes on all the courtiers and, you know, he's ready to kill. But he's also a buffoon. So, you know, being a lineman [chuckles], you're not really the quarterback. I related very easily.

Q. Did you sing while playing football?

A. All the rookies get up and sing at your rookie camp. And you know most of the guys get up and sing things like "I'm a Little Teapot" or "Jingle Bells" or something like that…It's just a way of embarrassing you or seeing how intimidated you're going to get. So I got up and sang an Italian art song. At first nobody knew what to think. And then they clapped.

Q. What were the musical tastes under Bum Phillips?

A. Oh, man. [Chuckles.] Well, we had the "Cannonball Express" [an excruciatingly off-tune version of the folk song "The Wabash Cannonball" by center Carl Mauck]. And then we had Mauck, when we came back from getting beat by Pittsburgh that one year…singing "God Bless America" [drunkenly and excruciatingly off-tune, he didn't add].

Q. It should have been you. What did you think of Mauck's songs?

 

A. [Laughs at length, finally catches his breath.] I thought they were very appropriate, for Houston and the Oilers and everything.

Benchwarmer

No one can ever accuse the GOP in Fort Bend County of not being slick.

Maybe they sensed their judicial candidate, Cliff Vacek, was in trouble. Seems unlikely in Tom DeLay's home, but you never know. Vacek had been beaten in his attempt two years ago to win the GOP primary for D.A.; he then amassed a $100,000 war chest to take the 400th District Court seat.

That apparently scared off one-term incumbent Bradley Smith, who announced he would not seek re-election.

But the machinations were only beginning.

The commissioners court stepped into the race July 27 when they announced they were using $363,000 in state grants to fund something called a sanctions court. The court -- the only one of its kind in Texas -- is for probationers who make minor missteps like not reporting in or not getting a job. Usually district judges handle such things, but the new dedicated court means a judge can spend time ordering probationers to report to him directly every week if he wants. (Thus earning the nickname, in some circles, of the Baby-Sitting Court.)

The grant, and thus the court, lasts only until August 2005. So who to appoint to it? Bradley Smith, of course, who's a short-timer anyway. And the beautiful part: That opened up Smith's 400th District bench. So on August 13 Governor Rick Perry appointed Vacek to the seat.

He'll now run with all the advantages of incumbency, even if he won't be doing much judicial work in the two months before the election.

Vacek says "there's nothing sinister" about what happened, but Democratic candidate Albert Hollan feels railroaded. "[T]he independents, the ticket-splitters, they look for a name they know, and if they don't see one they'll vote for the incumbent," he says. "This all just seals the deal."

Welcome to the home of Tom DeLay, Hollan.

Smoke Free or Die

Shelley Sekula-Gibbs is the Houston city councilwoman who seems congenitally unable to make a public statement without reminding people she's a doctor (she has much better control when it comes to mentioning she's only a dermatologist). Her keen understanding of zits and rashes has led her to propose a citywide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.

We entered some of Houston's smokiest dives to determine just what the (raspy) Voice of the People was on the proposal. Chopping machete-like through the thick haze at Sherlock's, for instance, we discovered dedicated do-it-yourself cancer researchers were of one mind on the subject. The proposal, they thought in a word we heard often, was "bullshit."

Taking a deep drag, Michele Lockard said her mom would tell Sekula-Gibbs to "go to hell, because my mom smokes everywhere," which we thought represented a poignant mother-daughter bit of bonding.

Unfortunately, we had to cut off our research somewhat early, as the phlegm we were coughing up was beginning to turn a nasty shade of black.

Fear not -- we will soon resume our research. Right after we score some scuba gear.

Broken Hip

On August 18, the Houston Chronicle's tepid "Too Much Information" page -- the features section Wednesday highlight -- had infotainment nuggets on Madonna, American Idol's Simon Cowell, Gloria Estefan and a "very cool" Levi's commercial.

And on August 19, they accused us of being unhip.

At least we assume they were talking about the Houston Press -- the Chron didn't have the balls to mention anything other than "an alternative weekly" that quizzed a Dairy Queen spokesman about its new MooLatte drink. Such pranks are so five minutes ago, they sighed.

Getting dissed by the Napoleon Dynamite of pop culture didn't bother us; if anything, we were thrilled -- "stoked," as the Chron hipsters would say -- because the story featured a quote from Syracuse University professor Bob Thompson.

Thompson is one of those guys who's ready with whatever sound bite a reporter wants, and no one seems to speed-dial him more than the Chron. Just in the last eight months alone, he's been trotted out as an expert on Captain Kangaroo ("Television has gotten hip and fast-paced, a SpongeBob SquarePants-ing of America"); The Sopranos ("As Shakespeare said, 'The play's the thing.' Or as modern people might say, 'It's the content, stupid' "); the ESPN show Playmakers ("Some of the stories they told were pretty compelling"); the Super Bowl halftime fiasco (too boring to quote), and -- just to move things along here -- poker on TV, '90s nostalgia, the tenth anniversary of the O.J. trial, the use of the term "silver bullet" in 9/11 testimony, that guy who kept winning on Jeopardy, all those robots in movies these days and Fahrenheit 9/11.

 

That's not counting the three wire stories they printed featuring the guy during those same eight months.

And now he weighs in on us. We feel like…like…like that guy who won the first Survivor!


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