West Webster Street is a rutted excuse of a street that skirts the southern edge of the Fourth Ward, veering west off of Webster Street for about seven blocks before dead-ending into Taft. It's a very old street by Houston standards -- old enough to be named for a 19th-century historical figure -- and it's bracketed by weathered shotgun shacks and other wood-frame houses, some of them abandoned and boarded up, some still inhabited and in varying states of repair.
The mayor's Neighborhoods to Standards program obviously hasn't been extended to West Webster yet. The sidewalks -- that is, on the blocks where there are sidewalks -- are crumbling and uprooted, and if you were of a conspiratorial turn of mind, you might think that the city of Houston had intentionally let West Webster Street and the surrounding neighborhood go to seed in the service of some grand redevelopment scheme.
One day in the not-too-distant future, after Allen Parkway Village is made over and the nearby Midtown district is overrun with loft apartments, white people may be a common sight in the vicinity of West Webster Street. But today it's rare to see a white face there, unless it belongs to a vagrant pushing a cart full of cans or a worker in a service truck -- or, according to the Houston Police Department, a crackhead looking to score.
Tobias Keogh is none of the above. He is white, however -- from the sound of him over the phone, he's very white, but then he's from Canada. How he ended up in the 1300 block of West Webster, handcuffed in the back seat of an HPD patrol car, is a tale that Elyse Lanier's Houston Image Group might want to consider before it spends $1 million hiring an out-of-town ad agency to spin the city a new image.
Keogh lives in Ottawa, Ontario, and works for a company that manufactures business software. He travels quite a bit in his job, and last month he was in Houston for a trade show at the JW Marriott across from the Galleria.
What Keogh knew of Houston -- the image, if you will, that he had formed before his visit -- seems very close to what Bob Lanier would like the rest of the world to think when it thinks "Houston." Keogh's father-in-law had previously visited our city and enjoyed it immensely, returning home with lots of pictures that he shared with his son-in-law. Keogh believed Houston to be a "terrific, vibrant, cultural city," with plenty of diversity -- Tex-Mex is big up in Ottawa -- and some fascinating architecture in its downtown.
Keogh had even heard that catchy "Don't Mess with Texas" slogan, but of course he wouldn't know that it was the centerpiece of that wildly successful anti-litter campaign that the Highway Commission had approved when Bob Lanier was its chairman.
So Keogh was excited that his work brought him to Houston, and, as he does when he visits other large cities, he wanted to have a look around. He's a bit of an architecture freak, and more than a bit of a walker. On the morning of October 9, he caught the 82 bus downtown from the Galleria, bringing along an extra pair of shoes in a Marriott bag with the intent of getting in as much walking as possible.
Keogh spent several hours roaming around downtown. He remembers One Houston Center, circling through the Theater District and being "intrigued by the shapes of the buildings" almost everywhere he turned. It was a nice day, and since he was enjoying himself so much, Keogh was primed to return to his hotel by foot, retracing the route of the 82 bus outbound on Westheimer. He launched off from the west side of downtown, not completely sure where he was going but hoping to use the very tall building he remembered seeing in the distance -- that would be the Transco Tower -- as his "north star" to the JW Marriott. Somewhere along the way, though, with all the one-way streets and the freeway overpasses and the way downtown is off-grid to the streets to its west, Tobias Keogh got a little off track and wound up a dozen blocks north of Westheimer on West Webster Street, where he learned the other meaning of "Don't Mess with Texas."
Keogh hadn't gotten very far when he came across two young African-American men -- one guy on a bike, the other bare-chested and holding a basketball out in the street. Naturally, they gave a hard, appraising stare to this well-groomed, athletic white man shuffling down their street. Naturally, Keogh was scared.
"It was a decrepit area," he recalls, "but I thought I'd be in danger if I showed fear." The guy on the bike circled around Tobias once. Tobias nodded at the guy with the basketball; the guy with the basketball nodded back. That was the extent of their exchange, Keogh says. He kept on walking. About 20 paces down the street, he stopped to light a cigarette, feeling slightly relieved. Suddenly, from behind him he heard the sound of spinning tires. It wasn't the sound of the Fourth Ward giving chase, but the calling card of officer Donald Ray Miller of the Houston Police Department.
The officer first instructed Keogh to toss his cigarette on the ground, then ordered him to spread his arms and legs for a pat-down.
"He asked if I had any weapons. I said no. He asked, 'Did you speak to those guys?' I said no. Then I said, 'I did say "hey" to them.' I hadn't spoken to them, but I figured I had better tell him everything."
Officer Miller also told Tobias to hold out his tongue and roll it around, apparently trying to determine whether he was hiding a hit of crack in the recesses of his mouth. Tobias says he hesitated slightly before complying with the officer's command -- not because he was ignoring his instructions, but because he didn't fully understand them.
"It wasn't the officer's accent -- I travel a lot so I'm used to hearing lots of different accents," he explains. "But I was nervous and scared. Apparently, I wasn't obliging him quick enough."
Keogh says Miller became visibly upset, a reaction that may have been exacerbated by the fact that the two guys in the street were watching intently.
The next thing he knew, Keogh was handcuffed and in the back of Miller's patrol car. He admits it was kind of exciting in a way -- to be a prisoner in a police car in a strange neighborhood in a big, strange city. And he could almost sympathize with Officer Miller: after all, it was a tough-looking neighborhood, and maybe, from the officer's view, he did look like a crackhead.
Besides, Keogh figured that once Miller had determined that he had no guns or drugs on his person, which he did, and once Keogh explained who he was and how he came to be on West Webster and showed the officer his passport, which he did, and once the HPD computer showed that Keogh was not wanted for a crime, which it did, Miller would send him along his way, perhaps with an apology but better yet with directions to Westheimer.
But Officer Miller wasn't going to give Tobias Keogh an inch. What he did was write out a ticket, charging Keogh with "walk[ing] in the roadway where sidewalk provided."
Yes, under Section 552.06 of the Texas Transportation Code, you can be charged with a crime, a Class C misdemeanor, for walking in a street where there's a sidewalk available. That would seem to be an unusual crime in a city where walking is discouraged and there are so many places sidewalks aren't provided, but a municipal courts prosecutor says his office receives about one such charge a week.
Obviously, there's a safety concern behind the law, but Tobias Keogh was walking in the middle of West Webster -- "out in full view," he says -- precisely because he was concerned about his safety.
But even if Keogh hadn't been afraid and was walking down West Webster for his health, it's unlikely he would have been on the sidewalk. Along the particular block where he was stopped by Officer Miller, the street is indeed paralleled by a very narrow path of concrete that a long time ago could have been correctly described as a "sidewalk," but today, as on the other blocks of West Webster with sidewalks, it is a broken and busted mess, overgrown with weeds and strewn with litter. It runs so close to fences in front of the little houses that you can almost reach over and touch anybody rocking on a front porch.
"And if you look about 25 feet back and 25 feet forward, there was no sidewalk," Keogh says.
After accepting the ticket, Keogh thanked Miller "for being such a good ambassador for your city." Miller, he says, met that sarcasm by asking Keogh if he wanted to return with the officer to his station.
"I said no. He said, 'Then you better not say anything else.' "
Keogh didn't. He proceeded on his journey, but after walking about 50 yards and lighting another cigarette, he decided to go back to ask the officer, who was finishing up his paperwork in his car, for his badge number or a ride out of the Fourth Ward.
"If this is such a bad neighborhood, could you help me out? Could you drive me to Westheimer?" Keogh says he asked.
Nope, he couldn't.
Keogh again sarcastically thanked the officer and asked him if he at least might point him in the direction of Westheimer.
"He threw his arm up in the air and said, 'It's that way,' " says Keogh, indicating that it took some guesswork to figure out where "that way" lay.
Keogh did make it to Lower Westheimer, and he continued his walk until he came to HPD's 802 Westheimer Storefront and went inside. The officers were cooperative but told him there was nothing they could do for him, and that if he wanted to fight his ticket, he'd have to do so in court. As he was leaving, he saw Officer Miller pulling in the parking lot. All the way back to the JW Marriott, Keogh kept looking up every time a cop car passed to see if he were in for another session with Miller.
Officer Miller, speaking through HPD spokesman John Leggio, pretty much confirmed the particulars of Keogh's story, although the officer, as you might suspect, had a different take on the episode.
He still isn't giving Tobias Keogh an inch.
Through Leggio, Miller says he placed Keogh under observation after spotting him "in close proximity to a drug area" and determining "he was looking to see who might be around, like he was looking to see if a cop was around." Miller claims Keogh engaged the two men on West Webster in conversation -- Tobias acknowledges he said "hey" to them, remember -- and that those two particular gentlemen were known drug dealers. Then the officer saw Keogh walking away from them, in the middle of the street.
That gave the officer, as Leggio picked up the story, probable cause to stop the white man on West Webster. And while nothing illicit was found on Keogh's person, how was the officer to know -- and I'm not sure whether this was Leggio himself speaking or Miller speaking through Leggio -- whether he had purchased some crack and then thrown it away before the officer searched him?
Leggio, when I initially recounted Keogh's story to him, acknowledged that it sounded "highly unusual" but noted that since Tobias was from out of town, Officer Miller could have -- no, he should have -- taken the suspect to jail, instead of allowing him just to sign his citation and ease on down the road.
According to Leggio, Miller didn't book Keogh into jail "as a courtesy," since he was from so far out of town.
So it could have been worse. Keogh made it back to the Marriott and then went back to Ottawa, his "image" of Houston somewhat colored by his encounter with Donald Ray Miller on West Webster Street. He wasn't going to come back to court to contest the $183 fine for walking where a sidewalk was provided, but neither was he going to pay the fine and the $100 extra he would be assessed if he failed to appear for his November 13 court date. It was matter of principle, and, at the same time, Keogh figured he might end up back in Houston one day and he didn't want to be thrown in jail if he were stopped by police and discovered to be a scofflaw.
Keogh contacted the Canadian consulate in Dallas, which contacted the city's Legal Department, which provides the prosecutors for the municipal courts. As it turned out, the Legal Department couldn't find the charge against Keogh, because a clerk apparently couldn't decipher Officer Miller's handwriting and misspelled Tobias's name as "Kedgh" when the charge was logged into the courts' computer system.
But eventually, common sense and competency -- in the person of assistant city attorney Jim Gallay -- prevailed, and on November 14, the charge against Tobias Keogh was dismissed.
When I went down to West Webster to check Keogh's description of the street and sidewalks, I made sure I wore my HPD news media badge in full view, in case Office Miller placed me under observation. And when I saw several black guys hanging out in the street and on the stoops in the middle of the day, I nodded slightly, barely perceptibly -- enough to let them know I knew I didn't belong there and was passing through, but not enough so that any third party would be led to believe I was engaging them in conversation.
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Tobias had described the street vividly, and his description was accurate in almost every detail, as was the rest of his story.
There is one thing he said, however, that makes me wonder about Tobias Keogh:
"I had a great time in Houston, and I will come back. It was nice. I like Houston."
But he won't, of course, go back to West Webster Street.