Right in the center of Houston's gay bars, JR.'s has one of the longest and most entertaining happy hours around. Though its patrons are predominantly gay men, people of all persuasions are welcome (age 21 and older, that is). Happy hour begins at noon (yes, noon) but really starts firing up around 5:30 p.m. The drink specials vary nightly, but you can always count on $2.25 well drinks, the same for longneck bottles of domestic beer, and $1 off all top-shelf liquor. What makes JR.'s happy hour so worthwhile is Ms. Mama Carol. The light-haired diva behind the bar will break out in dance at the drop of a hat, and is more likely to bend your ear about her boyfriend and show you the flowers he sent her than to listen to you cry in your drink over yours. But if you need to cry, go on Wednesday, Ms. Carol's day off. That way you get it out of your system before the weekend.
Houston's strength is in diversity and ever-evolving transitions. Nothing shows this off better than the last leg of Memorial Drive into the city. Relish the tribute to nature on the green-space trails along Buffalo Bayou, the ones accented with public art, the ones that could have been erased with a concrete-lined culvert ages ago. The trees along that area instantly give way to the human wonder of a rising skyline with architecture as unique as any in America. If it were only bringing travelers in among tall, impersonal buildings, like Allen Parkway does, the marvels would end there. But Memorial flows into the beginning of Texas Avenue, a pathway pulsating with human attractions. There's Bayou Place, born again from the dead Albert Thomas Convention Center. And this is the Eden of the fine arts, from the Wortham Theater to the Alley to the longneck and get-down concerts on the plaza across the street. And on to the venerable Lancaster Hotel, a touch of old Houston elegance and efficiency. And finally there's the grande dame of them all, the revitalized Rice, anchoring a downtown that has stormed back to life after too much slumber. Before long, this route will be the two or three best miles of Houston, as the heart of the city gets enlarged all the way to Enron Field and beyond. For now, a lot of Houston's diverse strength -- nature and the naturalists, business and the corporate set, the clubgoers and culture seekers -- is coming together on this common turf. Feel good, Houston; this is the genuine stuff of which great cities are made.

Best Place to Park Your Car and Walk Two Feet for an Ice-Cold Shiner

West Alabama Ice House

You're stuck in traffic, the temperature is over 100 degrees, and you're thirsty. Highway beer billboards are making you even thirstier. This is what hell must be like, you think to yourself. Pull off the highway and head to the West Alabama Ice House. Park your car and stumble to one of the picnic benches under the awning. There, a lady with a kind voice and Texas-size smile will serve you a Shiner. If you get there around happy hour on Friday, there's almost always an old guy grilling hot dogs. If you try to pay him, he'll ask if you want to get him fired. Why would you want to get St. Peter at the Pearly Gates of Beer and Beef fired? Around back there are more picnic tables, horseshoes and hoops to shoot. Some days they even barbecue.

Democracy reared its not-so-ugly head in Seabrook this year when residents got mightily pissed off that their elected officials were determined to bring a mammoth billion (with a "B")-dollar container port to the doorstep of their small town. Visions of a huge rail yard and 7,000 trucks a day rumbling down now-rural roads to deliver goods to the proposed Bayport terminal didn't fit in with residents' image of their sleepy gulfside town. But the mayor and several city councilmembers seemed determined to help the project along, negotiating contracts with the Port of Houston Authority. The incumbents argued they were only trying to make the best of a bad situation, but Bayport opponents wanted more aggressive officeholders. So they went out and got them. First they went door to door and held events to gather the necessary signatures for a recall election. Then they had to go to an appellate court to force the city council to set an election date. Then they turned out in force in February, ousting the mayor and three other councilmembers (the only other pro-Bayport councilmember had but a few months left in his term). The new council might not stop Bayport, but it won't be for lack of trying.
Lend an ear to anybody over at the hallowed beer hall, and they will tell stories of the apparition that has been lurking in the nooks and crannies of the place for ages. Just how long has this spook been around? Well, long enough that the people have given it a name: Maggie. Cynical social drinkers may not buy the idea of a phantasmal barfly, but the employees and regulars stick by their stories -- and man, do they have stories. There was the one time a couple of employees found a bunch of candles lit on the second floor. They blew out all the candles, but when the owner of the bar went upstairs, he found one more candle lit. And when he picked up the candle to blow it out, the glass container it was in shattered in his hands. (Oooh, we're on some Tales from the Darkside shit now!) Or how about the one where the cleaning lady took her kids to work one day and the little ones were scared to play upstairs because they could "hear her voices"? Sure, you can dismiss all of this as drunken hokum, but the management has invited a medium to observe the place, and the medium gave it a scary-ass seal of approval. With all the corporations that are buying up property around that area, they should think before getting the idea of plowing down the hallowed Ale House. They wouldn't wanna open up a Starbucks there and have somebody see dead people -- serving them up a grande mocha latte.

For more than two decades the Zwicks have helped thousands of Latin American immigrants make the transition to life in the United States. What began as a humble shelter for refugees from war-torn Central America has evolved into a multifaceted operation that includes two health clinics, a labor hall and clothes- and food-distribution components. Casa Juan Diego, located on Lillian Street just south of Washington Avenue, houses as many as 150 immigrants a day, among them paraplegics, AIDS patients and others with serious health problems. Supported by donations, the center offers orientation and support to those who have recently arrived in the States. More than 100 day laborers assemble each morning at St. Joseph the Worker Labor Hall on Shepherd to seek jobs in construction, gardening, house-painting -- whatever comes around. The efficient operation provides contractors with much-needed labor while protecting the workers' right to a fair wage. Some 300 families receive rice, beans, corn, cabbage, tortillas and other staples at Casa's two food-distribution sites, while scores of uninsured patients get medical attention at the health clinics. "This is our life," says Mark Zwick of the couple's work.
Walk into this dive, and you're surrounded by beer and boys. The walls are papered in beer ads, and hanging over the Texas-shaped table is a faux Tiffany lamp advertising Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller Lite. Around the Texas table are men, men, men. Men in lumberjack plaids, men in jeans, men in hiking boots. Real Texas men singing along with the Willie Nelson tune playing on the jukebox. These are guys who understand what Merle Haggard means when he says the bottle let him down. These true Texan studs are strong, smart and sensitive enough to listen to the lyrics and know all the words. The girl-to-guy ratio is usually about ten to one. (Who can lose to those odds? Especially since the beer flows so freely here that they broke the Shiner tap.) It's not a place where a girl on the make has to put on three-inch platforms and an uncomfortable black dress. All she has to wear is her cute sneakers, jeans, a tight little tank top and a big Texas smile.
Richard Burr is the veteran Houston attorney who devoted his intellect and emotions to fighting the death penalty long before Governor George Bush's run for president made the issue a hot-button topic with the national media. Burr started his career as a public defender in Florida and became director of the Capital Punishment Project of the NAACP. After moving to Houston, Burr joined the defense team for accused killer Gary Graham in 1993 and waged a determined, if unsuccessful, fight that ended with the recent execution of the man later known as Shaka Sankofa. Burr served as litigation director for the Texas Resource Center, a clearinghouse agency that secures representation for death row inmates, until leaving in 1995 to represent Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh. After the resource center died for lack of funding, Burr and his wife, Mandy Welch, organized the Texas Defenders Service, which carries on the mission to represent death row prisoners. Houston attorney Mike Charlton, a death penalty opponent recently named attorney of the year by the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, offers this tribute to Burr: "Absolutely the smartest lawyer I know. His thought processes and ideas [in capital cases] carry more weight than any other lawyer in the state of Texas."
Sometimes referred to as the Flower Man, Cleveland Turner is a former drunk who slipped the grip of booze by promising God he'd dedicate his life as a sober man to creating a place of uncommon beauty. God must have held him to the vow, because Turner's home and yard in the Third Ward are a cacophony of flowers, fruit trees and vegetable plants, discarded musical instruments and scavenged oddities that, when considered in sum, constitute one of the city's most engaging folk-art displays. Earlier this year, though, the city's public works and legal departments threatened to fine Turner for encroaching on the sidewalk and drainage ditches in front of his house. Turner made another promise: He'd "rot in jail" before he'd alter his artistic vision to appease a small group of philistines from City Hall. While pressure from neighbors and folk-art enthusiasts, who say Turner's creations are one-of-a-kind, tempered the city's position, the Flower Man was forced to make a few concessions. With cookie-cutter developers ferociously altering the character of inner-city neighborhoods like the Third Ward, it's appropriate to wonder how much longer something so far from mainstream sensibility will survive. Our advice is to see Cleveland Turner's house while you can.READERS' CHOICE: Tie: NASA/ Kemah Boardwalk

After the death of 51-year Democratic incumbent Carl Smith, former corporate salesman and GOP Harris County treasurer Paul Bettencourt ran a political gauntlet to win the post. After Commissioner Steve Radack pushed the appointment of former Oilers defensive back Willie Alexander through the court, supporters on the county GOP Executive Committee put Bettencourt on the ballot instead. He trounced his Democratic opposition easily, and Willie had to hit the road. Following that controversial start, Bettencourt has established his credentials as an innovator by upgrading the tax assessor-collector's computer system, hitting the neighborhood-association and community-organization speaking circuit, and reaching out to minority politicians and civic leaders. Bettencourt also has aggressively pursued so-called tax factors, lawyers and accountants who offer to recover tax overpayments for property owners in exchange for a percentage of the money. In most cases, the homeowners themselves could have easily collected the refund, had they only known how. Other pols see more than just good government as his motivation. With County Judge Robert Eckels rumored to be looking for a statewide post to run for in the coming election cycle, Bettencourt is in an excellent position to move up the Harris County food chain as well. If the dominoes fall into place, his public relations efforts could lay the groundwork for a major political promotion.

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