Best Of :: People & Places
UH's Creative Writing Program turned 20 this year, and in its honor, the literary magazine Gulf Coast devoted its summer 2000 issue to essays, stories and poems by the program's alumni and professors. The fat issue (303 pages, about twice the magazine's usual size) bulges with surprises: national poet laureate Robert Pinsky finds generosity and intelligence in an old cat's bowel movement; Kathleen Cambor's "Summer" begins with the perfect sentence, "She writes letters to her Latin lover every day"; and in "Durian," poet Bao-Long Chu evokes the strangeness of the fruit that smells like dead flesh but tastes of jasmine and almond oil. Equally satisfying, though, is the pleasure of seeing the familiar -- the city of Houston -- described sharply. To Mark Doty, a former New Englander, this place embodies the raw, mongrelized future: "artificial, polluted, a little dangerous and completely confusing, yes -- but also interestingly polyglot, open-ended, divergent, entirely unstuffy and appealingly uncertain of itself." To Beverly Lowry, who now lives in Washington, D.C., Houston is a sweet episode from her past. Lowry mourns the razing of her old house in West U, the place where her boys grew up, where her books filled the shelves, where for a literary party she filled her washing machine with ice and beer. Houston is where Lowry became a writer, and this issue of Gulf Coast makes you feel lucky to know that.
Tucked in the armpit of West U, Bellaire and the railroad tracks, Little Woodrow's seems out of place and time. Few of the mostly working-class regulars who frequent the area's only neighborhood bar live in the monstrosities that have sprouted in the adjoining neighborhoods, displacing the modest middle-class ranch-styles. But those regulars are fiercely loyal, thanks in no small part to Betty Campbell, bar manager since forever. Betty knows her customers so well that she recognizes many of their cars; by the time they enter the place and belly up, their brand of choice is already waiting on the bar. The crowd likes to drink, but disturbances are almost nonexistent, also in no small part because any transgressors would have to deal with Betty (as a few permanently banned customers have discovered). And if you need to vent about life's dirty deals, Betty (who has heard enough whining to board-certify in clinical psychology) fits the bill.
On June 16, the New Black Panthers had every right to be pissed. They'd dressed all in eye-catching black. They arrived at the state GOP convention in Houston in a rare Hummer limousine. And most of them came to the protest party armed with all manner of menacing weapons: rifles, shotguns and an AK-47 or two. They were hunting, all right -- hunting for attention. And that kind of preparation ought to attract ample publicity. Instead, it was A.J. McClure, a 71-year-old nobody Republican delegate from Kaufman County, who grabbed the limelight. What started as a verbal confrontation with the Panthers ended when he either fell or was pushed by a member of the militant entourage. For the next few days, the battles sifted to state legislators and city councilmembers and police and a mayor all arguing over the charge and actions -- or inactivity -- of the police. Meanwhile, McClure's tumble took him, or at least the footage of him going to the mat, onto the national network stage. Stories that touched on the incident totaled more than 2,000 words in the Houston Chronicle and on the Associated Press wire. Yep. It was a prime-time dive. Lots of old-timers may go headlong -- A.J. went headline.
Just another example of how overrated pop music songcraft is. Since a catchy five- or ten-second hook is usually described as genius, the little bit of pop profundity known as the Mossy Nissan commercial jingle also deserves as glowing a description. Over a snappy beat, a male voice sings the name of the dealership over and over. "Mos-sey Neeee-sahhhhn / Mos-sey Neeee-sahhhn / Whoooooooo!" Okay, so the lyrics aren't as deep as, say, "Oh, baby, baby," but they do roll easily off the tongue. The jingle is the brainchild of L.A.-based A&M Advertising.
Europeans may build great cathedrals, but Americans have a genius for bathrooms. At Prague, the WC marries old-world elegance with Yankee utilitarianism. When nature's irrepressible call rises above the club's techno beat, you can drift down to this swank unisex chamber of flickering candles, period furniture and a full-service bar to answer. The style might be described as bathroom baroque. A dripping chandelier throws just enough light to reveal the glinting accessories of nubile fashionistas and their well-groomed mates. The music keeps a respectful distance, allowing one to clear one's mind and bladder in one of 12 stalls set tastefully behind black doors. Roughly the size of a confessional, these immaculate stalls seem designed for a religious experience of one sort or another.
Maybe these are just the moments that downtown finally arrives. Party on the Plaza is in full swing. So is its dynamic corner of the central city, with Bayou Place beckoning the masses across the street. And there, on the magnificent grounds that serve as the front entrance to the Wortham Theater Center, are scores of motorcycles at rest in neatly lined rows. The bikers rumble in to party at the plaza, and what better place to park 'em than on off-nights at the Wortham. All the nightlife available isn't going to be enough if downtown can't loosen up a little. On these evenings, it shows off its finest colors: Electra Glides in blue.
The stuff of public art, hike-and-bike paths, youth programs and parks are pleasant municipal amenities, to be certain. Even residents who don't personally partake of such things can still feel good about having them as part of life in Houston. But all those come after what ought to be the priorities of any public service agency: peace of mind. Sewer lines should work. And trash should get picked up. And -- especially on the freeways of Houston -- we need truck enforcement. The motoring masses shouldn't be regularly terrorized by huge tractor-trailer rigs barreling down on them or sandblasting sedans with refuse from unsecured loads. For 30 incredible years, Houston police largely looked the other way at truck safety violations. As late as mid-1999, police officials gave the excuse that they weren't going to get involved in such "regulatory" functions. Meanwhile, truckers ran amok. After a rash of big-rig wrecks, police finally relented. In October '99, Sergeant C.J. Klausner began the Truck Enforcement Unit with ten full-time officers (another 30 work one day a week for the unit). Statistics (as of July) are staggering. The unit has inspected 5,000 18-wheelers and issued 6,000 citations along with 23,000 formal warnings. After being stopped and inspected, 53 percent of trucks (twice the national average) have been ordered off the road until repairs are made or properly certified drivers are found. Some 500 drivers have been arrested, either for past warrants or other infractions -- or for having no licenses at all. "We've been accepted very well," Klausner says. "Mainstream truckers want to do a good job." And the unit virtually pays for itself through the revenues generated. While Houstonians ought to be horrified at having to wait so long for units that were long established in smaller communities, our hats are off to HPD. When it comes to curbing bad trucks, better late than never.
Dating is like ordering tapas: You try a whole bunch of different things and you hope you get something you like that agrees with you and doesn't make you sick. Mi Luna is a fun "first date" -- it's like a fancy mall food court, because you each can get whatever you want, from baby clams and poached salmon to stuffed zucchini and veal tongue. (We recommend the B'Stilla, a Moroccan chicken pie with cinnamon almonds wrapped in crisp phyllo dough. It sounds like a bad idea, but you'll like it.) You can tell a lot about someone from what they order. Do you want to date a guy who gets a bowl of goat cheese and mushrooms as his main meal? What about a girl who eats oxtail? Can you kiss her goodnight? If you decide that you can't, Mi Luna is located smack in the middle of Rice Village, right next to Urban Outfitters. If you hate your date, you can go shop away the irritation, pick up a novel at Half Price Books and head home. Or if you're feeling brave, walk a block to The Ginger Man and meet a new person. Maybe he or she will be that special someone who orders something you want to share.
There's no telling where Cynthia Flood and her two children would be living today if they hadn't crossed paths with Mark Davis. Last October, Davis read a story in the Houston Press that recounted how Flood's $250-a-month apartment in the Fourth Ward was in the path of a city-sponsored redevelopment project and was destined to be demolished. She was denied a government-subsidized apartment in the new Historic Oaks of Allen Parkway because of credit problems. Flood had taken out a student loan to attend Hargest College a decade ago, but dropped out when she became pregnant with her son. Her government checks, however, kept going to Hargest, which kept cashing them. Flood, a single mother earning $7.15 an hour checking groceries at Kroger, managed to whittle an $8,000 debt down to $1,700, but the city housing authority nonetheless rejected her application for housing. Enter Davis, a bankruptcy lawyer and estate planner who knew someone with a contact at the U.S. Department of Education. Davis helped Flood with the paperwork for a deferment, which removed the delinquency from her credit report. He also pestered city housing officials until they reconsidered Flood's application. In May, thanks to Davis's generous donation of time and expertise, Flood and her kids moved into a new apartment at the Historic Oaks of Allen Parkway. "She just needed someone to cut through the red tape," says Davis, a solo practitioner. "I think attorneys have an obligation, when they can, to provide assistance to people who need it."
Journey back to your junior year of high school. You just saw a movie while seated next to the crush of your dreams, with your feet propped up on the back of the seat in front of you. Your hands touched in the giant tub o' popcorn. Happiness shot straight through you. You drove separately. Afterward, you walk to your car. Standing outside the vehicle you say you had a good time and you kiss goodnight. (Getting in the car together would be too much of a commitment.) Crowds coming out of the Alanis Morissette concert, or whatever basketball game is playing, thunder by. Wasn't there a cop? you ask, looking around. "There's three right over your shoulder," your date says. But you forget about the pigs in spitting distance as the kiss deepens, and one of you drops to your knees. More people pass, and since you're not 16 anymore, one of you starts worrying about whether this classifies as lewd and lascivious behavior, and your date wonders if he's going to get disbarred -- or lose his medical license. (Damn being a responsible grown-up!) You stand up, kiss goodnight, get a high school hug and a happy memory. Sure, there isn't a meadow or a brook or trees, but kneeling on the concrete by your car, to us, is an essential Houston experience.
Finally, now that Houston ranks No. 1 in something, why should we give that up? You thnk it's easy being top dog when it comes to ozone violations? This year shows all signs of a tough competition with Los Angeles, the traditional winner of the smog crown. Consider this: Houston's weather (hot air and weak winds) should serve to our advantage, since warmer weather is more conducive to forming ozone, yet L.A. has beat us out in the past. Last year we were lucky; weather was on our side. But this year, with L.A. due for some warmer La Nina-inspired weather, we may lose our ranking. By late summer L.A. already had logged 34 violations, while we had only 26. Last year we finished with 52 ozone violation days, beating L.A. by 11 whole days. So keep up the good work! Drive on (preferably in SUVs and vans). Forget about rail. Who needs decent public transportation when there's gasoline to buy and a title to defend?
Seventy-two-year-old Billie Carr has finally retired from her DNC position, and she'll leave plenty of devoted fans behind, including her old friend President Bill Clinton. Having fought her way to the top through the ranks of conservative Democrats who once dominated the party, Carr, by necessity, also adopted many of their hard-fisted tactics. That has left plenty of moderates bruised and dismayed as the party moved to the left over the years. In the process, many of them switched ranks and helped Republicans to their domination of Texas, holding every statewide elected position. After fighting cancer to a draw through radiation and chemotherapy, Carr is now working on her memoirs at her southwest Houston bungalow, and predicts it's just a matter of time before the pendulum swings back to the Democrats. "We seem to go through seasons where people burn out, sell out or drop out, for whatever reason," reflects Carr. "And we have to go back and work some more, because there are certainly more Democrats than there are Republicans. We have a lot of work to do, and I think that we can do it." For sure, there's nobody who has clocked more hours over the last half-century on behalf of Texas Democrats than Billie Carr.