Explorer? Mustang? It's all the same to Harris County.
Explorer? Mustang? It's all the same to Harris County.
Daniel Kramer

Toll-Free Hassle

As a freelance reviewer for the Houston Press, Mike Smith listens to a lot of music. Unfortunately for him, much of his listening is done while he's on hold for the Harris County Toll Road Authority's customer service phone line.

Not only does the music selection get a thumbs-down (it's "sappy"), so does HCTRA.

For two years, Smith has been getting notices that he owes the authority money for illegally driving through the EZ Pass lane. As proof, the authority includes automated camera photos of a 2002 Ford Mustang speeding past the toll booth.

The only trouble is, Smith drives a Ford Explorer. Which doesn't look a whole lot like a Mustang.

And so he goes on hold and gets more demand letters in the mail. "What pisses me off is this kind of threatening legal language toward me when I've already had 20 to 30 of these dismissed for incorrect identification," he says.

HCTRA spokeswoman Patricia Freise is perplexed. "This has been a first for us," she says. There must be two vehicles registered in the DPS database with that same license plate, she says. "How in the world that happened, I have no clue."

It turns out there are not two such license plates in the DPS database, although there is a 2002 Mustang listed whose license plate is identical to Smith's except it includes an N where Smith's has an M.

The agency's computer system reads and enhances the license plate photos -- a HCTRA worker suggested to him that it could be misreading his number.

To which Smith replied: "It could be that this guy is out running the tollway and has taken a piece of black tape and made his N an M." (Said the HCTRA worker: "I never thought of that.")

A lot of people have suggested Smith simply get a new license plate. (A lot of sane people.) But that's not his style.

"I'm like, 'I'm not going to go and stand in line and pay the money to get a new license plate. You're crazy,' " he says.

Hey, it's just a thought. In the meantime, enjoy that on-hold music.

What'd I Say?

Allen Pinkett spent five years as a running back for the Houston Oilers and still lives here, traveling occasionally to do radio work for his alma mater, Notre Dame, and other gigs.

One of those other gigs was for the Westwood One radio network October 11, working as a sideline reporter for the Green Bay Packers-Tennessee Titans game.

Listeners won't soon forget his work there. Announcers Marv Albert and Boomer Esiason asked Pinkett during the game for some insight into a pending instant-replay review.

"I think sometimes when they view it and break it down," Pinkett analyzed, "it's similar to the way they broke down the Rodney King beating. You know, when you look at it in parts it doesn't look like they beat him up so bad. But when you see it real fast, he got his butt beat. So, uh, the totality, I guess, of the event is what, uh, is what they look at."


A stunned Albert and Esiason had trouble believing what they had heard. Esiason couldn't stop laughing, and Albert asked, "Was that a Saturday Night Live satirical sideline moment?"

Pinkett couldn't be reached, but he later apologized through USA Today: "My only comment is really no comment, beside the fact it was a poor analogy," he said.

As poor as the 9/11 attacks, Pinkett somehow managed not to say.

Wait a Little Longer

Drivers slowly prowl through an utterly packed parking lot, waiting eagerly to pounce on anyone leaving. Cars are illegally abandoned on the median and in any available space by those who couldn't wait any longer, eager to get inside and get in a line to wait for 45 minutes.

Are these people desperately trying to get tickets to some hot concert? Nah. They're just trying to vote.

All during the week of October 18, early voting at the West Gray Multi-Service Center has been a frustrating mess for people hoping to dash in and quickly take care of their civic duty.

"It's been one of our busiest sites," says David Beirne, spokesman for the Harris County Clerk's Office. The pace of early voting is double that of 2000, he says.

"There were waits of 45 minutes the first two days, and you don't usually see that until the last two days," he says.

What does this mean for the election? Hard to say. "The people who tend to vote at that location are a perfect blend of [Republican] River Oaks and [Democratic] Montrose," he says.

The office can't add any more machines, and the hours they're allowed to stay open are set by statute. So unless the first few days were simply an onrush of people who couldn't wait to vote for or against someone, you'd be better off finding another location.

Or bringing a book.

Fright Night

Halloween is nigh, and where better to take the kiddies than a strip club?

That's the thought process among the folks at La Bare, which bills itself as "America's Number One Ladies Club." They're having a costume show for kids.

Oooooh, look, Little Billy -- it's the awesome Stuffed Jockstrap Monster! And over there, with the fistful of dollar bills and the apple martini -- it's the legendary Shit-Faced Maid of Honor!

Now that's scary. Alas, it is not to be.

The show will be strictly "G-rated," the folks at La Bare say.

"There's going to be a costume contest, a dance contest -- there's going to be no stripping or alcohol or anything of that nature here," said the guy who answered the phone at La Bare.

Proceeds will go to charity, although just which charity the guy couldn't say.

He was somewhat busy, so we didn't have time to get his advice on how parents should answer the question "Mommy, how did you find out about this place?"

Theater of War

The smoky upstairs pool room at PJ's Sports Bar on West Gray isn't often home to heated political arguments. Or to C-SPAN cameras.

But on October 20 the cramped quarters hosted a debate between John O'Neill, the leader of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and Glenn W. Smith, head of Texans for Truth.

O'Neill's Truth is that John Kerry is lying about his service in Vietnam; Smith's Truth is that George W. Bush is lying about his service in the National Guard.

Since the two Truths don't really oppose each other -- both could be right or wrong at the same time -- there doesn't seem much to debate about, but the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists set it up anyway.

Things started out nicely enough, but soon degenerated. O'Neill is a slick public speaker; it's usually only after an event, when you can check on his glib comments, that you find things might not have happened as he described. Smith is a more mellow type, and seemed somewhat overwhelmed by his feisty opponent.

Almost all audience questions were focused on the Swift boats, but then again some of the questions were along the lines of "Don't you think Bush allowed 9/11 to happen so he could invade Iraq?"

Not many minds were changed during the two-hour event. But it's a good thing the debate didn't go any longer, for O'Neill's sake. At the beginning, he noted that he had lost 15 friends in Vietnam. By the end of the night, the figure was 55.

There's no telling how high the body count would have gone if the thing had continued.

Even though the event devolved into silliness, C-SPAN went ahead and aired it. Which is fortunate, because we wanted to see the graphic solemnly locating the event at PJ's.

Frankly, though, we're in shock that PJ didn't manage to put up a huge banner announcing the Thursday Steak Night Special for the C-SPAN cameras. Maybe next time, when the pool room wins its bid to host the 2008 vice presidential debate.


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