Perhaps the lingering hangover from our ungodly hot and dry summer has set Houstonians on edge, because more than a few people around town are steaming and getting their dander up over some very unlikely causes.
Here are examples -- the Houston Chronicle's suddenly prudish treatment of Astros star pitcher Randy Johnson's moniker; a fishy appetizer with a rancid name on a Montrose eatery menu that has sparked charges of anti-Semitism; and the allegedly sexist antics of a district judge addicted to forwarding stale jokes on his court e-mail. In each of these playlets, the participants should consider taking long, cold showers before spouting off further.
First comes the cautionary tale of what happens when a sports columnist tries to freight an innocuous baseball nickname with sexual titillation.
The unexpected blockbuster trade that brought pitcher Johnson from the Seattle Mariners to Houston early last month created an instant local hero. Sports scribes, headline writers and broadcasters couldn't get enough mileage out of the six-foot ten-inch fireballer's nickname, the Big Unit. Front-page boxes, sports-section headlines and numerous leads in the Chronicle bannered "Big Unit" ad nauseam. But all that was before the paper's new columnist, John Lopez, the anointed successor to ousted Ed Fowler, used his debut column on July 9 to lampoon Johnson's nickname as a sort of extended penis joke.
"Someone once asked me at a party what I thought of the Big Unit," wrote Lopez. "I found myself inexplicably jealous when I heard my wife and two other moms talking about the Big Unit. These women are not even crazy about baseball.... And just imagine the potentially humiliating 'Big Unit' headlines we'll see if the Astros win the World Series and meet President Clinton."
Before going on to tell his readers that writing a sports column wasn't work, an assertion for which his initial effort provided open-and-shut evidence, Lopez declared, "no more Big Unit references, please."
Although Lopez now claims the column was all tongue-in-cheek, it didn't sit well with either Johnson or the Houston Astros, who have avidly embraced the Big Unit tag. The nickname originated from an incident in the late eighties, when then-Montreal Expo Johnson accidentally collided with five-foot eight-inch slugger Tim Raines as he walked out of a batting cage. Exclaimed Raines after he bounced back several feet: "You are one big unit."
The tag stuck after Johnson was traded to Seattle and developed into one of the premier pitchers in the game. He now has a line of sportswear, including shirts and caps, that proudly display the nickname. The Astros printed up "K" strikeout cards for fans to wave at Johnson's debut performance in the Astrodome, with "Big Unit" printed on the reverse side. Astros Media Relations Director Rob Matwick says he asked Johnson whether he would prefer to have "Randy" on the cards, and he insisted on "Big Unit." Astros web page designer Craig Sanders reports that caps and shirts emblazoned with "Big Unit" have been selling briskly to customers over the Internet.
The Astros weren't the only folks confused by the Lopez column. The right sports hand at the Chronicle obviously didn't know what the left was up to, because on the other side of the section front from Lopez's column, writer Carlton Thompson led his feel-good profile of devoted family man Johnson with, "The minute Randy Johnson enters a big-league ballpark, he's the Big Unit -- the most intimidating pitcher of his era."
But after that initial breach of the Lopez line, the use of "Big Unit" in the Chronicle dwindled alarmingly, to a few rare sightings in odd locations over the following week and a half.
Two days after the Lopez manifesto, features columnist Ken Hoffman mentioned that the addition of the Big Unit had doubled the number of Net surfers visiting the Astros web site. Two days later, sportswriter Neil Hohlfeld quoted pitcher Shane Reynolds as lauding Johnson with: "He's the Big Unit, and this is what he does...." The same day, Hoffman dropped in another reference by describing a menu item at Clive's called "Big Unit Cheesecake Special." And a statistical ranking compiled by Thompson twice included mentions of the Big Unit. After Johnson's victory in Chicago Saturday, a front-page headline proclaimed, "Big Unit, Big Bats Overpower Cubs!" The normally cliche-and-nickname-addicted sports section continued on cold turkey status.
Meanwhile, several incensed Chronicle readers blasted Lopez in letters published in the sports section a week after his first column.
"To turn a proud nickname into something salacious is disgusting," fumed Tom Kessler. "Absolutely the worst column I have ever read on a sports page," thundered Michael McCroskey. He beanballed Lopez with: "He has now topped Kenny Hand as worst sports columnist in Houston history, with only one column." Clear Lake resident Bob Trainer raved that "Lopez has dishonored himself, the paper, the city I call home, the Astros organization, and even his own wife with this garbage" -- language more applicable to the Clinton-Lewinsky coupling than a sports column.
An unchastened Lopez insists he was just having fun with the Big Unit, and is unaware of any restrictions on using the moniker in the future. Still, he was at a loss to explain the almost total disappearance of the nickname from the Chronicle sports pages.
"Any writer can use it any time they want, as far as I know. I could use it tomorrow if I wanted. It's just a coincidence." Of course, allows the columnist, "Maybe there has been an edict, so to speak.... No one has told me one way or the other to use 'Big Unit' or not use 'Big Unit.' "
Asked whether his written admonition not to use the nickname had perhaps been taken more seriously than he intended, Lopez replies, "That was being humorous, and maybe people took it literally. I have no idea."
After sampling his first barrage of columns, readers both inside and out of the Chronicle can certainly agree with Lopez's last four words. Ed Fowler he's not.
Shriveled big unit, sobered Jew and yukked-up judge
At about the same time the columnist began his unfortunate quest into the cosmic meanings of "Big Unit," Houston attorney Geoff Berg and a visiting friend from Chicago, Julie Ann Sklaver, chanced to drop in for a bite at Tila's Restaurante and Bar on South Shepherd. Berg, the son of noted civil attorney David, says his pal, fluent in Spanish, noted an appetizer on the menu titled "Judio Borracho," meaning "Drunken Jew." It was followed by a cryptic line in English: "You All Know Who You Are."
Berg says he discussed the title with a waiter, who explained that the dish was finely sliced salmon soaked in tequila, and then commented, "You have to have a sense of humor to eat here." Not in a laughing mood, Berg and Sklaver left without ordering. Berg contacted the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League to complain about the offensive menu. ADL Director Jonathan Bernstein phoned restaurant owner Tila Hidalgo Leach and implored her to remove Judio Borracho from the menu. "Like your customer," wrote Bernstein to the restaurant management, "ADL is also concerned about this negative reference. We feel the listing is inappropriate and could be construed as anti-Semitic. We welcome a response from you."
Since alcoholism and heavy drinking have never been traits particularly associated with the Jewish faith or Jews as an ethnic group, is the menu entry really offensive? Another local restaurateur notes that bistros that rely on the booze business avoid heavily Jewish areas, where alcohol sales are abysmal. On the humorous side, irreverent attorney Neal Manne, who is also Jewish, jokes that Tila got her entree all wrong, since "the real Judio Borracho is salmon soaked in Manischewitz."
Other Jewish community members took Judio Borracho more seriously. The ADL's Bernstein agrees that drunkenness has never been a stereotype used against Jews. He also says, "It's certainly not one we would want to develop."
In a protest letter, Sara Selber, the director of the AIDS Foundation, asked Tila to "explain to me, why not the following menu items as well: Mexicano Borracho or 'You must be too drunk to work,' Africano Borracho or 'You must be too lazy to work,' Chino Borracho or 'You must be too blind to work.' Any and all of the previous slogans would be just as offensive. If you did not make a mistake and were trying to offend the Jewish community ... mazel tov ... mission accomplished."
Selber concluded by advising Tila "to eliminate the entire Borracho mentality, as enough people have lost their lives by being in this state (as suggested by the proprietor) and then attempting to drive." At last check, Mothers Against Drunk Driving had not weighed in on the controversy.
Restaurant manager Richard Cole explains the origin of Judio Borracho as an inside joke between Tila and a gay Jewish customer who imbibes like a fish and loves salmon soaked in tequila. Cole recalls that "This guy said, 'When you put the marinated salmon on the menu, you're going to have to call it the Drunken Jew, because that's what I am.' " As for the line, 'You All Know Who You Are," the manager says, "That's a reference to him and his friends, because they used to get drunk as hell and eat salmon together."
Cole, who is gay, was himself the inspiration for a Tila's menu listing when he created a meat dish by accident. "I was playing around in the kitchen and came up with a pork dish, and nobody knew what to call it," remembers Cole, "So instead of a long, drawn-out name, she put 'The Queen's Spicy Marinated Pork.' I thought it was so cool."
Cole's first reaction to the Judio Borracho complaints was sarcasm. He suggested that the ADL look into getting other names changed, like the finny jewfish and a plant known as the Wandering Jew. Laments the manager: "It's like, oh please, when will this shit ever stop?"
Tila owner Hidalgo Leach initially was noncommittal when asked by the ADL to excise Judio Borracho from the menu. But as protest letters and negative comments from customers multiplied, she ran up the white flag. "It was not intended to offend anyone," she explained contritely, and has now officially renamed the offending appetizer "Salmon Borracho."
Whether that gets Tila off the hook with anti-drunk-driving activists remains to be seen.
Last and perhaps least in the parade of minor taste offenders is wisecracking 125th District Judge Don Wittig and his addiction for bombarding a sometimes unappreciative courthouse e-mail audience with the latest jokes he's culled from electronic correspondence.
Along with a sample of Wittig's recent output, a critic sent the following note our way: "Judge Wittig sends jokes like this all the time on his Harris County computer. Is it ethical for a judge to spread sexist jokes and to use county equipment?"
The joke in question had been sent by a friend of Wittig, University of Wyoming professor Kristine Utterback. Titled "Feel Like a Woman?," it describes a rough trans-Atlantic flight in which a female panics and demands that a male passenger make her feel like a real woman before she dies. A hunk rises from one seat, strips off his shirt, hands it to her and whispers, "Here.... Iron this."
Funnier than the joke is the mailing list to which Wittig directs his yuks. It includes Judges Tad Halbach, Richard Hall, Patricia Hancock, Dwight Jefferson, Scott Link, Michael Peters, John Woolridge, Louis Moore and Wittig's daughter Marie.
One of the lucky recipients says Wittig's judgment in humor leaves much to be desired. "They are universally bad jokes," says this source. "They are never funny. If you get e-mail jokes from people, you learn quickly that the ones from this guy are going to be funny and the ones from this guy are going to be stupid. Well, I don't even read Wittig's anymore."
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Wittig, a current GOP candidate for the 14th Court of Appeals, initially seemed to have trouble recalling the joke e-mail. After seeing a faxed copy, he owned up to the transmission, but doesn't believe the material is tasteless. "After receiving it from Dr. Utterback, I sent it to my daughter," says the judge, "and she did not find it offensive. I've seen some jokes that are deplorable, and I delete them."
Any aspiring comedians who would like their work circulated all over the Harris County courthouse can tap into the circle by e-mailing email@example.com. tx.us. Just address Wittig as The Laughing Judge; maybe Tila can name an appetizer after him.
Something with a stale corn crust might be apropos.
Help The Insider snoop for the next scoop. Call him at (713) 280-2483, fax him at (713) 280-2496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.