Like a hand-hewn beam, Charles Max Jennings is both rough-cut and a commodity. He may come off as a crude old fart with an attitude ("You're goddamn right" is one of his favorite phrases), but Jennings is the worst nightmare of a corrupt bureaucracy. In his case, it's the City of Houston Water Production Department, the subject of a 1999 Houston Press investigation. Jennings delights in documenting the wrongdoing of the department, which he chronicles in detailed, tabbed (and amazingly accurate) notebooks to make life easy for reporters and law enforcement staffers. His latest crusade has attracted the attention of the city Office of Inspector General and the FBI, though whether they have the guts to act on the information remains to be seen. Unlike most other whistle-blowers, however, Jennings isn't afraid of being fired, exiled or otherwise retaliated against, and readily identifies himself. "I put my name on every letter I write," he says. "My name is not spelled "Anonymous.' "
"Downtown...," sang Petula Clark, "...where all the lights are bright." And she's exactly right -- it's where all the flashing red lights are brightest. Perhaps the trade-off, the sense of security from crime, is worth it. But downtown cops seem dead set on writing up damn near every driver that ventures anywhere near the downtown district. On certain weekday mornings, horse-mounted patrols stand by major intersections (Milam at Texas, for one) in stakeouts for those most dreaded of criminals -- motorists whose car licenses or inspection stickers have lapsed. Otherwise, there's a wealth of choices from the legions of citation corps: squad cars, UH-Downtown campus cops, Metro police in cars, Metro police on bicycles, HPD bike cops, HPD officers on foot and more. Hardest-hit are occasional drivers into the central city; those trying to obey traffic laws while figuring out how to run the maze of one-way streets, no-turn intersections, detours for construction and dearth of on-street parking. Then there are those trying to do it drunk. Thousands of Houstonians do manage to navigate the labyrinth without municipal court citations. They return to their cars, breathe a sigh of relief and make it home -- only to notice the meter maid's parking ticket tucked under the wipers.

Houston-based Drew Carter's combination of law enforcement sleuthing and social working with the family of serial killer Angel Maturino Resendiz resulted in the killer's bloodless surrender last summer. Carter, with less than one year's tenure with the Rangers, had become involved five months earlier, when the Rangers were called in to assist in the investigation of the bludgeoning murder of West University physician Claudia Benton. Benton's murder was then linked to the killing of a Weimar couple, and the nationwide search for the train-hopping killer was under way. Carter would play a key role by gaining the confidence of Resendiz's half-sister, Manuela Karkiewicz. She eventually alerted him that Resendiz told other relatives he wanted to give himself up, and the surrender was set for the international bridge linking El Paso and Juarez. During Resendiz's subsequent murder trial, he accused Carter of violating a promise to his family that he would not face the death penalty. Carter denied the claim and replied that he didn't feel compelled to put his credibility against that of a mass murderer. Resendiz subsequently received a death sentence. Even if Carter had to stretch the truth to get a rampaging killer off the streets, it's a fib we can live with.
She was bored. She had nothing to do after work except eat dinner and watch TV, and the reception was so bad in her apartment that the rabbit ears were useless. She wanted to do something fun, something artsy and hands-on. And she wanted to meet other people. A Leisure Learning catalog appeared in her mailbox, so she signed up for a ceramics class, which met at Foelber Pottery Gallery & Studio. A wiry John Foelber showed the class how to throw clay and pinch and shape pieces into handles or boxes or little sculptures. An assistant showed them how to work on the wheel, the wet, slippery clay mutating between the fingers. No one said anything about that scene in Ghost. She made little containers, perfect for ashtrays or cat bowls. Problem was, she didn't smoke and didn't own a cat. She, non-blond, gravitated toward the other non-blonds in the room. And together they wondered why was the class all-female, and almost all twentysomething professionals and students? And why were most of them blond?
Walk up. Sit down. Light up. Savor. The State Bar, that one-flight-up reincarnation of the Old Capitol Club at the Rice Lofts, pays ample tribute to an earlier time when tobacco could be richly enjoyed, right along with well-mixed drinks and quiet conversation among trusted associates. Atop the grand stairway, it is quickly obvious that this is a place that pays impressive homage to the earlier era. Some of the furnishings are straight from that power bastion of the original Old Cap Club (even though it was downstairs). There's ample space around the long U-shaped bar for smokers. And in the more intimate area, the tall leather sitting chairs practically command guests to extract their sterling-silver cigarette cases, give a few sharp filter-tip taps on the elegant tabletops and take that Zippo out of retirement. The best at the State Bar awaits beyond the balcony doors, on the grand porch overlooking Texas Avenue and the throngs below. Plenty of Houston's most influential figures, from Jesse Jones on down, worked their deals in this kind of setting. Then they shook hands and fired up fine cigars to salute sealing the deal. The deals may be gone these days, but the State Bar has brought back that same sense of satisfaction.
This state rep ran a smart but vastly underfunded campaign against River Oaks big bucks Peter Wareing. He also showed rare political moxie by taking on westside political activist Steven Hotze and refusing to kowtow to the good doctor to get his endorsement. After leading a crowded field into the runoff to succeed the retiring incumbent Bill Archer, Culberson came out swinging against Wareing, the son-in-law of influential downtown businessman Jack Blanton. Wareing spent more than $4 million in the primary effort, while Culberson made do with $700,000. He evened the odds with a strong grassroots organization and counter-punched by zeroing in on Wareing's history of supporting Democrats. "It's difficult to imagine how a registered Democrat with a history of supporting Sheila Jackson Lee and Ann Richards is a better conservative than a state representative with a 14-year track record which shows that I have a 100 percent pro-life record," charged Culberson. "There is no vote, there is no issue, there is no principle on which Dr. Hotze [and others] can point to in my legislative history that would demonstrate I am anything less than a stainless-steel conservative." Culberson rolled up 60 percent of the vote, while accomplishing the rare feat of getting the party's moderate and conservative wings working together. It should be great training for his next few years in the partisan pressure cooker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Tilman Fertitta already had a sizable restaurant empire, including his highly successful Kemah Waterfront complex. Now he has snagged a prime pied-à-terre in the burgeoning downtown entertainment district as well. Fertitta recently won the competition to lease from the city the old Fire Station No. 1 and original municipal water plant along Buffalo Bayou, and will be building an aquarium-entertainment-eatery complex on the site, complete with a miniature train and fountains. We're assured the aquarium will not be featuring the less-than-comely alligator gar, catfish and mossbacked turtles that frequent the sluggish waters of the bordering bayou, though perhaps Fertitta could throw in a dummy or two to mimic the corpses that still occasionally pop up there. "It's on a much more mammoth level than Kemah," Fertitta promises of his new fishy deal. "We feel like it will be the No. 1 draw in downtown Houston."

@choice: Lyle Lovett

Best Response to a Houston Press Story

Karen Gerstner

In a story this past February about the suicide of lottery winner Billie Bob Harrell, we described Karen Gerstner, an attorney, as seeming "more likely to offer someone a glass of milk and a plate of cookies rather than cutting-edge financial advice." A couple of weeks later, Gerstner had a package of cookies and a pint of milk, along with a lottery ticket, delivered to the paper. We didn't win the lottery, but the milk and cookies were delicious.
Star Cafe is for real. It doesn't cater to denizens of the mainstream American culture looking to try something it deems "exotic." Nope, at Star Cafe, the clientele is composed of Arabic immigrants, mostly from Egypt. They gather at this drab location (next to Sun & Ski on the far side of a Westheimer strip mall) to sit beside concrete walls outside on the sidewalk, smoking a variety of hookah flavors, including strawberry, apple, rose and grape. Rental price is $5, not including tax. Inside, the kitchen bustles with chicken kabob, lamb dishes, hummus and sweet pastries. Here, people pass time with friends, new and old, playing board games, chatting, smoking leisurely. They don't want any part of your passing trends.
During the long half-year that is the Houston summer, there's not much to the weather beyond hot and humid. Occasional rainfall will pass through; even less occasionally some severe weather will occur. But Houstonians still cling desperately to the romantic notion that maybe, just maybe, the weather will one day change, so we like to watch meteorologists in action. Anything that changes the plodding routine of "high in the mid-90s, low in the mid-70s, 20 percent chance of rain" is as welcome as a Canadian cold front. So give us the irrepressibly bouncy Chuck George, backup weatherman at KPRC Channel 2. George does his goofy remotes from all over the city every morning, haranguing 4-H'ers at fairs or demanding that some elderly square dancers get up and shake it. It can get dicey out there -- George inadvertently displayed a raw, skinned and gutted pig at a barbecue once, something no one wants to see at 7 a.m.; another time he required stitches after falling at Shamu's pool at Sea World in San Antonio -- but we've never seen anyone so damn perky. And if you already know what the weatherman's going to say, at least let there be some variety in where he says it.

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