There are, of course, four stages to dealing with death: denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. In Brazoria County, there's one more: swatting flies from your loved one's corpse while you wait for the hearse to come.
Getting rid of the dearly (and recently) departed has become somewhat chaotic in the county, where the theme song should be "Never Can Say Goodbye." Residents tell horror stories of waiting endlessly for a funeral home to come do its job.
The trouble stems from a recent switch in the cadaver-hauling contract. For years the mostly rural county has let the local JP call whatever funeral home he preferred when a resident died outside a hospital. (A nice way to reward friends, at up to $400 a pop.)
Eventually, however, all the dying in the growing county put the total annual tab over $25,000, and that meant commissioners court had to put a contract out to bid. Miffed at the change -- and not sure they could meet the 50-minute pickup time the contract specified -- no local funeral homes put in a bid this summer.
"We did everything but beg for local bidders," says D.A. Jeri Yenne. "I'd call it a boycott. We couldn't believe it."
Eventually officials got a Galveston County funeral home to bid -- $155 per body -- even though the owner, who prefers anonymity, says he warned that meeting the 50-minute guidelines would be tough.
"They were setting this contract up for failure," he says.
Yenne says that so far the new contractor has met the 50-minute "deadline" at least 90 percent of the time ("We've been busting our butt," the director says), but stories of what's happened the other 10 percent of the time have traveled fast. The tale of the fly-festering victim of a farm accident is often repeated.
The county may have to extend the time limit, Yenne says, but that would mean rebidding the contract.
In the meantime, county residents are advised to buy fly swatters.
Let 'Em Eat Cake
The Great Cupcake Revolution is over. And the state of Texas has crumbled pathetically, like like -- hey, like a really dry cupcake!
The Texas Department of Agriculture issued new nutritional guidelines before the school year in a push to get kids to eat more healthily. Among the new rules was a ban on students bringing in cupcakes -- even big-eyed, innocent, towheaded first-graders proudly doling out to classmates Mom's little bits o' love on a birthday. Even if the cupcakes were decorated with American flags. Or yellow ribbons for the troops.
And all over Texas, moms, dads and kids responded by saying, "You're right, state bureaucrats; birthday cupcakes represent an outdated, obesity-inducing tradition that has no place in this modern scientific world. Thank you for caring."
Actually, they hit the roof. And by the end of August, the ag department revised its rules to allow birthday sweets.
"We didn't realize it would be that big a deal," says Allen Spelce, an assistant commissioner in the department. "We thought people could still have birthday parties, but just not with cupcakes."
With what, then? Carrot sticks?
"Well, something a little more sexy than carrot sticks, probably," he says.
The department will now set its sights on more important nutritional matters, such as monitoring class dorks to ensure they don't violate the recommended daily allowance of boogers eaten.
Shiver Me Timbers
University of Houston history professor Thomas O'Brien teaches a course called Pirates and Smugglers. And no, he doesn't get paid in doubloons. But he does know a lot about the fearsome raiders of the deep:
Q. What sort of things do you cover?
A. It really covers 500 years. We look at what caused piracy to flourish for centuries in the early modern world.
Q. How many times, when you mention this class to people, do they go, "Arrrgh"?
A. Well, I do tell them there's actually an International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I think it's September 27 Pirates have become incredibly popular. You can hardly go anywhere these days that you don't see pirate paraphernalia around, people flying flags. [Hair Balls note: Really?] And partly it's because pirates are representative of rebellion against modern society and dominant centralized states.
Q. There's a scholarly book called Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. How gay were pirates?
A. The evidence is difficult to establish, because we have so little on pirates in general In pirate society, it was pretty well accepted. And there are eyewitness accounts of the fact that, you know, people who were taken hostage, etc., on pirate ships and reporting that in fact they were very open about these relationships, and it appears to represent a very high percentage.
Q. Talk about successful pirates -- if someone were writing The Seven Looting and Raiding Habits of Highly Effective Pirates, what sort of advice would it have?
A. I think a lot would have to do with two different styles. People like Drake were aristocrats and they ran highly autocratic pirate activities. But what we would consider the more typical pirates, Blackbeard and others many of the pirate ships were run on relatively democratic terms.
Q. Personal opinion -- Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp?
A. I can't really say for sure. I have seen Depp's stuff.
Q. Roberto Clemente or Willie Stargell?
A. Ahhh I'd say Roberto Clemente.
Q. Tampa Bay Buccaneers logo -- the old one [see photo] or the new one?
A. I think I prefer the old one. They were more traditional.
When Lee Brown was the mayor and Sylvia Garcia the controller, they used to fight regularly over her efforts to conduct performance reviews of city departments.
Garcia wanted to be more than a glorified accountant; Brown ferociously defended his turf. The thought that a politically ambitious city controller (and in Houston, there is no other kind) could come in and issue public report cards on the administration was as welcome to the mayor as a night out with councilman Bruce "Dr. No" Tatro.
Brown's successor, Bill White, no doubt agrees (about protecting turf, if not the Tatro date). So it's a little surprising that a proposal to give the city controller's office such power breezed through council August 25, putting it on the general election ballot November 2.
White is more concerned, spokesman Frank Michel says, with two other propositions that were also approved for the November ballot. Those deal with caps on city spending, and White wants his version to pass.
He "has his hands full doing other things," Michel says.
Janice Evans, spokeswoman for City Controller Annise Parker, calls Proposition 3 "a big move forward," saying, "It really gives the controller more power."
So far White and Parker have been allies, but you have to assume Prop. 3, if voters approve it, will come back to bite some mayor on the butt someday.
White apparently thinks so, too. "Certainly he's not opposed" to Prop. 3, Michel says, "but I'm not sure how actively he'll work on behalf of it."
Fog of War
Maybe you've heard lately about Houston attorney John O'Neill. Something about Swift boats and Nam, and John Kerry having a wimpy military record that makes George W. look like Rambo.
O'Neill's book Unfit for Command has launched countless shouting matches on overheated cable shows: Democrats say U.S. Navy records and Kerry's crewmates refute O'Neill's claims; O'Neill's supporters loudly change the subject.
Now there's a chance the whole thing will play out in an unusual arena: the normally staid, under-the-radar offices of the State Bar of Texas.
A Houston attorney is one of several statewide to file ethics charges against O'Neill, saying he has violated bar rules by spreading lies, as opposed to all those other lawyers who tell only the truth.
"If we lawyers live scared to death each day of violating the ethics rules, why should he be able to violate them so publicly?" she asks. Her complaint includes TV transcripts of O'Neill's claims and newspaper articles debunking them.
(No Rambette here -- she's filed the complaint anonymously. Because, she says, going public "would make my practice [of law] impossible Things will probably happen anyway, but I'm not going to hand [my name] to them on a silver platter.")
Mark Pinckard, projects director for the bar's disciplinary counsel, says any investigation would first have to determine whether O'Neill's actions came in the course of being a lawyer. If not, the bar doesn't get involved.
But what if it does? Will Pinckard be issuing subpoenas to President Kerry? Will he, a now-unknown Austin lawyer, be the person who finally gets to the bottom of what happened 35 years ago on those war-torn rivers?
"Things could be interesting," he says, only half-seriously. "This could make or break my name."
Ye Olde Schadenfreude Shoppe
Jus Stuff Linda Lays store that should have been known as the Enron Estate Sale is gone, having shuttered over the summer. Now its suffering the further indignity of an oversize sign in front of the cutesy awning, drawing everyones attention to its failure. We could not let the store die without offering our tribute, in two forms of poesy:
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Nouveau riche doodads
Status bought cannot be sold
Save toothbrush for cell
There once was a woman named Lay
Whose tastes were decidedly fey
She vowed to sell Stuff
Once they called Kenny's bluff
But five hundred bucks for a tray?