Essaying New Yorker Phillip Lopate (track down a copy of his out-of-print "Against Joie de Vivre") spent eight years, from 1980 to 1988, living and working and teaching in Houston, so he must have seemed a defensible choice when the editors of the New York Times Magazine assigned him to revisit his old stomping grounds for its February 27, 2000, issue of "The Sophisticated Traveller." Lopate's travel essay -- situated alongside pieces by Robert Stone (British Columbia) and Francine Prose (New Castle, Delaware) -- made a relatively flattering case for Houston as an architectural mecca (Rice professor Stephen Fox, natch, is quoted), and even tosses our town a barely deserved bone regarding our perpetual second-string complex: In the 1980s, Lopate writes, Houston had seemed "almost pathetically anxious to become a 'world-class city,' " but today, "now that it no longer cares about being accepted as a world-class city, Houston has a much better chance of being perceived as one." Well, maybe. But the accuracy of Lopate's perception here is just a niggle. You have to read deeper into the story to get to the real head-scratcher. Lopate, like everyone else, is all atitter over our new downtown, with its lofts and coffee shops, where citizens may finally grab a bite or drink after imbibing some of the Theater District's blue-chip culture. "Or," Lopate writes, "they can stroll along the Buffalo Bayou, one of the many streams that run through the city. Ah yes, Houston's famous streams. Sims, White Oak, Green's, Brays -- the names just trickle off the tongue like spring water flowing through what we Houstonians have so long mistaken for mere drainage ditches. Reminds us of Lopate's out-of-print book of poetry: The Eyes Don't Always Want to Stay Open.
Oh, what were you expecting, the Westheimer Street Festival? The Houston International Festival, with its overpriced gyros and male Carmen Miranda impersonators? They may be the largest and most popular street fests in the city, but this modest weekend get-together should be rightfully recognized. For a couple of days last October, a few blocks on Holman Street were filled with the usual suspects: street vendors, food stands, a corporate booth or two. But they also had some fine live music performed by the likes of D.R.U.M., Step Rideau & the Zydeco Outlaws and the Sebastian Whittaker Trio. And Project Row Houses, which organizes the event, featured some intriguing art displays inside each of its shacks. (One house had a pile of coconuts on the floor and a big yellow sign on the wall that said, "Guess how many coconuts are on the floor and win a T-shirt.")
The sky lobby on the 60th floor of the I.M. Pei-designed Chase Tower offers the kind of view that gets kids oohing and asking really deep questions. "What would happen if there was no glass here?" queried one little girl as she and her brother pressed against the floor-to-ceiling window, peering over pulsating downtown to the smoky horizon. Dad cut in, hoping perhaps to turn the girl's thoughts from her mortality, and asked chipperly, "Do you know what that is?" "The Astrodome!" his kids chimed in unison. From up here in the clouds you can see the Bayou City's industrious heart melt into the peaceful spaces of the distant countryside to the south and west. Traffic-clogged arteries like I-45 and U.S. 59 snake past the city, while a grid of inner-city streets bisects the clusters of buildings and patches of green. The Galleria and the Texas Medical Center look like toy cities from these dizzying heights. Gracing the lobby are sculptures by Miró and a useful map to help identify the many gleaming buildings below.READERS' CHOICE: Scott Gertner's Skybar

With 547 manicurist shops listed in the Yellow Pages, Houston must serve as home to more nail salons per capita than any other American city. While we haven't statistically tested our hypothesis, we can't miss the glaring fact that a different nail shop sits on every other block. Why is the demand so high? Are Houston women more concerned about healthy cuticles? Taking advantage of a cheap luxury? More vain about their hands? Or does it signify that they are more ostentatious about their entire appearance from surgically enhanced body parts to big hair to painted nails? We aren't sure. But one thing is apparent: The competition is high, and Nail a La Mode has managed to distinguish itself from its 546 rivals with a name like that. What does it mean exactly? Nails with a scoop of ice cream? Unfortunately the truth isn't that exciting. "It just means design stuff, a modern, different style," said an amused employee over the phone.

Ah, progress. Northbound motorists on the Southwest Freeway have that elevated TxDOT marvel to get them to the I-45 interchange. The only problem, as any regular driver on that route knows by now, is the stop-and-slow traffic on what has turned out to be a consistent bottleneck. Age adds wisdom in such matters, however. Two decades ago those who had to link up to I-45 North from the Southwest Freeway merely veered left after the Shepherd exit and let the overpass feed them onto Brazos at the foot of Westheimer. About ten quick traffic-signal-timed blocks later, they were turning left onto the 45 entrance ramp under the Pierce Elevated. When you see the backups beginning on the "improved" route to 45, take a tip from the old-timers. Just enjoy it while you can. The apartment/town-house boom south of downtown may soon short-circuit this old standby shortcut.

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From the Galleria past Beltway 8, as Saturday night gives way to Sunday, the strip-mall parking lots on Westheimer host impromptu car shows, with ball-capped guys checking out each other's mods. You hear words like "cams" and "noz." You feel the sub-bass rumble of Corvettes eager to exceed the speed limit. You see the racing stickers and parking lights that separate racing imports from "civilian" cars. The racers cruise in packs up and down Westheimer, challenging each other at stoplights by tapping their brakes, honking at their friends and watching, always, for someone new to take on.
Not only is University of Houston grad Judy Hay one of the best straight shooters in town in her dealings with the media, but she would surely be the last flack standing if Survivor had peopled its island with public relations types. Hay joined the agency in 1970 with a freshly minted sociology degree and became its spokeswoman in 1975. In the quarter-century since then, she has been a calm and credible face for child welfare in some very troubled times. "The saddest interview I have to give is when a child is hurt and we weren't able to protect him," says Hay, who concentrates on providing factual information to reporters rather than spinning or whitewashing for her agency. "I want people to have the perception that we're honest, we're accessible, and we're accountable. I've never known a reporter to go around me and set up a hidden camera, and I think that's because if something's bad, I'll tell you it's bad." Hay is proudly promoting a newly released HBO documentary on child abuse, Broken Child, which includes a number of Houston cases. Hay worked closely with the producers on the three-year project and has nothing but praise for the results. "It is beautiful," she says. "If you don't get the consequences of child abuse after watching this documentary, you never will."

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Bronx Bar

From the street, music blares from the Bronx Bar like a warning. Thump-thump-thump, the numbing bass line declares. At the sidewalk gate, a broad-shouldered bouncer clad in a black T-shirt gives the coveted silent nod. Inside, members of the mostly young and Caucasian crowd navigate around, trying to shout to one another over the obnoxious thump-thump. It is packed. Another weekend night in the Village. On the patio, a young woman called Missy, clad in a low-cut tank top and shimmering skirt, holds her cigarette in her languid, manicured right hand. Her nails glow a fierce deep pink as a young man with a crew cut leans forward across the table with his lighter. Her friends giggle. His swish their beer bottles. If they had met at a wild fraternity party of their college lore, maybe they'd be making out by now in the corner. But these days, they are young professionals, aspiring to own SUVs. Missy shapes her painted lips with effort, forming the words before she says them. In her Minnie Mouse voice, she excuses herself to the ladies' room. Instantly one of her friends follows, designer handbag at her side.

In a world where the phrase "White House intern" elicits sniggers and blow-job jokes, we all can say we're relieved that Monica "I don't take dirty dresses to the dry cleaners" Lewinsky wasn't from Houston, but Kristen Jones is a White House intern we're proud of. The 20-year-old University of St. Thomas sophomore broke her neck and crushed her spinal cord three years ago when she dived into a shallow backyard pool. The accident left her paralyzed from the neck down. Instead of sitting around feeling sad, Kristen started writing letters. She was elected the youngest person on Houston's City Commission on Disability and applied for an internship at the White House. She was one of just a handful of differently abled interns. Kristen worked last spring in the Office of Public Liaison and Disability Outreach. It was a typical internship; she answered mail and met with disability groups and advocates, and maintained a listserv. Those three months, and then another two working in the Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, helped her decide to pursue a double major of political science and special ed. She liked the White House. Does she want to work there again? "It depends on who's elected," she says. "I don't think I'd want to work under a Republican."
How can you get lost on a circular freeway? Easy. Other large cities have a natural barrier such as an ocean or mountain. In Chicago, you can go east only as far as Lake Michigan. The Atlantic gets in your way in Boston, Baltimore and Miami. Seattle has Puget Sound or Mount Rainier, and San Francisco has the bay. But in Houston, you have a whole lotta flat and not a whole lot more. In Los Angeles, if you're lost but see the Pacific, you just turn your car around and head back the other way. But woe is unto the fresh transplant to our fine city who finds himself lost on the 610 Loop. There is no beginning and no end. You just go round and round. For those not in the know, directions like North Loop East and West Loop South are a good enough reason to get a cellular phone, a compass and a stress appointment with a therapist.

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