The settlement of the mega-nasty divorce suit between Christopher and Valerie Sarofim in June suited more than just the parties themselves. Former mayor Bob Lanier's adopted daughter Courtney, who had paired off with Chris when he moved out on Val, would likely have gotten a ski ride through the mud. Val's attorney, Earle Lilly, had Courtney fitted out for the role of home-busting paramour, had the drug- and sex-spiced saga gone forward. The Sarofims apparently decided to settle their differences after the Houston Chronicle jumped in, threatening daily dispatches from the courtroom by Clifford Pugh. Instead, Courtney, the daughter of former first lady Elyse Lanier by a previous marriage, now has the son of billionaire Fayez all to herself, and a December wedding is on the drawing board. "He's a professor kind of geek who loves to sit and talk about economics," reports Courtney, head of the acquisitions section of her dad's Landar Corporation. The Laniers and Sarofim also make a chummy foursome. "They get along great," explains Courtney of the bond between Sarofim and her parents. "Christopher and my dad spend four hours talking about business. And what mother doesn't like a man who's nice to her daughter?" Particularly one with a credit line like Sarofim's.
To grab your attention, billboards should be as explosive as a child's temper tantrum, and just as unsubtle. Vasectomy reversal! Who's the father?! When half's not enough! The best billboards are amusing as much for what they don't say as for what they do. "The church found out about our family planning!" "The asshole won't fess up to fathering the kid!" "I'm going to bleed the cheap son of a bitch for every penny he's worth!" Tony's signage on the Southwest Freeway is the perfect example: "Why fly to MANHATTAN?" it purrs, then shouts. "Tony's. Houston's great restaurant." The subtext smacks of residual boomtown arrogance and insecurity: Doesn't everyone dash off to the Big Apple for fresh Atlantic salmon in béarnaise sauce? Tony's alone will rescue us from our own inferiority complex; it will soothe our frazzled nerves and remind us that we don't have to jet halfway across the country for a decent meal, for God's sake. We can finally stop the insanity and enjoy a four-star meal right here in Houston.READERS' CHOICE: Absolut on West Loop 610

Houston boosters are fond of reminding the uninitiated that Bob Hope once said the view from the Warwick penthouse was the most beautiful he had ever seen. If only the Main Street Coalition had as juicy a celebrity quote about the hotel at street level. Light rail or no light rail, the coalition hopes to turn Main Street into Houston's "signature boulevard," lined with plazas, parks, shops, sidewalks and (would you believe?) pedestrians. And if the plans are for more places like the Terrace, then we're all for it. From the wrought-iron chairs atop its sweeping staircase, you can nurse an expensive cocktail and take in a veritable panorama of high culture and Houston civility. To the south is the gurgling Mecom Fountain. Across Main Street, behind a shady tangle of live oaks and sculpture, is the classical facade of the old Museum of Fine Arts building. And to the north, toward downtown, is the animated side of Houston's building-of-the-moment, Rafael Moneo's new Beck building for the MFA. Perhaps we should invite Mr. Hope to stop by for a drink.
If Houston's Spanish-speaking community has a paper of record, El Día is it. More than simply recap police blotter sagas, this daily diligently covers news affecting the city's diverse Hispanic community that otherwise wouldn't get covered. El Día has kept a watchful eye on police brutality, the fire department's handling of emergency services, schools and other critical issues. The paper took an active role in promoting the 2000 census, in hopes that Hispanics would not be undercounted, as in the past. El Día includes daily news from Mexico and the rest of Latin America, allowing immigrants to keep up with developments in their homelands. Specialty sections on entertainment, the home and other areas round out the news with a light touch. And no publication in Houston offers better coverage of international soccer.
Rothko Chapel
After a year and a half with its doors shut for a $1.8 million face-lift, the Rothko Chapel reopened in June, radiating renewed richness in its muted simplicity. The renovation work reached from the ground up, bringing the shrine closer to what Rothko had intended, says Suna Umari, the chapel's executive director. The brick structure's foundation was elevated, the roof and skylight were replaced, and the famous paintings got a much-needed sprucing up. The work paid off. The canvases never looked better. Their violet, charcoal and jet-black surfaces are generous receptacles for spiritual yearnings and add deep layers to the chapel's silence. The new skylight and baffle are a particularly effective stroke, distributing light onto the whole of the canvases, where before light spilled onto the upper halves only. The eight interior walls are the color of raw cement. They join the canvases, stone floor, wood benches and black meditation rugs to evoke the sparseness of a Shinto temple or an otherworldly crypt.

Afternoon rush hour. Traffic oozes south from the Cullen Center garage and north from Brazos Street, battling for the turn that will take commuters onto the Interstate 45 ramp at Pease. Others are roaring off the exit ramp onto Jefferson. The light turns red and stays that way just long enough for motorists to gaze beyond rolled-up windows at a seeming mirage, an isle of calm amid this crazy concrete- and car-infested corner of southwest downtown. Yes. It is a park -- a real one, only feet from the throbbing traffic of the highway. This small wedge of green space serves as a surprise oasis. At its center is a soothing pool, perhaps 20 yards across. At its center is a fountain splashing water upward some 15 feet, then cascading down to create robust waves lapping against the edges. Once within this green space, the perimeter of hedges and trees is tall enough to nicely strangle the worst type A in us. Enjoy this touch of Eden on any of five picnic tables or four benches. Or on foot -- or yes, even from behind the steering wheel. Savor the calm. In a few seconds, the green light will flash and the angst of another freeway commute will commence.
The Texas Department of Transportation has the cookie-cutter approach to rest stops. Most of them are no more than off- and on-ramps from freeways, where the harried masses of motorists huddle at basic tables as traffic roars by a few yards away. The no-frills approach suits drivers just fine. But how sweet it is to steer away from the standard every now and then. That's the case for the crowds celebrating their final westward exodus from the anxiety of the Houston area, or those heading toward the big inner city about 30 miles to the east. This rest stop (technically, a TxDOT "picnic area," since there's no indoor restroom) straddles the divided I-10 median. The path to the outdoor tables is a descent of sorts, giving drivers a small natural barrier from the freeway traffic whizzing by. Both directions exit left to reach this isle of calm. Best of all, a buffer of trees and vegetation separates each side from the other. The small ravine running through the middle is a nice divider, a bit of nature known as Bessie's Creek. As Hollywood might say about this tranquil rest stop, a river runs through it.
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.
Just west of the Heights, in the largely undiscovered subdivision of Timbergrove Manor, sit 21 acres of pine-tree-filled land, one of the largest such plots left inside the Loop. The land is owned by the Houston Independent School District, and residents grew alarmed last year when HISD announced plans to use the forest as a new location for the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The land had been enjoyed, if perhaps taken for granted, by the kids, dog walkers and nature lovers of the neighborhood, but the close call spurred them to action. HISD has agreed not to move HSPVA there, but the district has balked at permanently making the forest a park. While the issue is being hashed out, volunteers have been at work clearing fallen trees, planting flowers and marking out walking paths on the land. More than ever, the place has become an Inner Loop oasis to be treasured.
When he was growing up in the town of Hallettsville, Gene Mikulenka thought the word "gay" meant that you smoked pot, that you were cool. One day a couple of guys came into the restaurant where he worked and asked Gene if he was gay. "I did it a couple of weeks ago," he responded, "but I'm not going to do it anymore because it hurt my throat." Gene has come a long way, baby. The confused kid who didn't know a homosexual from a hemphead has grown up to be an openly gay cowboy, representing the queer community in the most macho, hetero, conservative world of all: the rodeo circuit. And he has certainly represented them well. Gene has won the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo three times and earned three world titles in pole bending. And the American Quarter Horse Association has named him to its top-ten list six times. He even did some time as a bareback bronc rider, getting bucked off and stepped on with the best of them. Gene Mikulenka is no sissy, but this cowboy is also not afraid to cry. He gets a little misty when people ask him for autographs or coming-out advice after the occasional MFA screenings of the indie documentary about his life, American Cowboy. "Thank you, Gene," his friends and fans say. "You're riding for all of us."

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