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."

The Brewery Tap
Photo by HP Staff
Don't get us wrong. We love the "revitalization" of downtown. We love the crowds, the foot traffic, the energy and the fact that in some bars you have to wear the right fucking clothes to get a drink. This is not our idea of alcohol consumption. Our ideal bar combines good spirits with an even better ambience. The Brewery Tap serves us just fine. Opened in 1987, long before downtown was cool, the joint has a full bar and more than 30 different brews on tap, but even more appealing is its history: The Tap is located in a building that used to be part of the Houston Ice and Brewing Co., once a sprawling three-block operation that was eventually done in by two things, prohibition and refrigeration. Those heavy wooden tables that dominate the room are constructed with beams from a demolished 1905 warehouse. In a sense, the Brewery Tap is a subversive business; it honors history in a city that usually doesn't. So go there and share a drink with the rest of the rebels.
Yeah, yeah. We know. The bridges being built over U.S. 59 have caused ridiculously frequent freeway closures. And on the occasion when 59 is open, drivers have to risk life and limb just negotiating the lane merges around heavy machinery. But as our own Mayor Lee Brown so prosaically put it, "This is the price of real progress." The set of four free-span steel arches will allow the expansion of U.S. 59 to ten lanes, plus an HOV lane or two and a pair of shoulders. They'll also increase clearance above the freeway by three feet to accommodate today's taller tractor-trailers. They'll be pretty too, adorned with artistic flourishes by Cotswold 2000 architect Rey de la Reza and will include gold-colored steel globes, brick walkways, torchère lighting, bike lanes and an arc of fiber-optic light that can be programmed to change colors with the seasons. Many, many months after construction began, the 4,000-ton, $1.5 million Dunlavy bridge opened at the end of August.
Justices Paul Murphy and John Anderson brought the wrath of GOP social conservatives down on their heads by ruling that the state's antediluvian homosexual conduct law discriminates against gays by banning sexual behavior that is legal for straights. Murphy and Anderson made up the majority on a three-judge panel that considered the constitutional challenge to the statute by Houstonians John Lawrence and Tyrone Garner, who were caught in the act in 1998 when deputies entered a house searching for a nonexistent intruder. The judges' ruling had repercussions at the state GOP convention in June, where opponents wrote a denunciation into the party platform calling on the jurists to change their opinion or resign. It also provoked an aborted letter-writing campaign led by Harris County GOP Chairman Gary Polland to pressure Anderson. The letter was withdrawn after cooler heads concluded that it might violate state law prohibiting private communications to pressure judges on cases pending before them. Unfortunately, Murphy and Anderson's well-reasoned ruling will likely be reviewed and possibly overturned by their all-Republican colleagues on the nine-judge 14th Court of Appeals. Just goes to show that when hot-button social issues come before the judiciary these days, Murphy and Anderson's nonpartisan common sense isn't all that common.
Dorothy Parker would drink here. The old Isis Theater has been restored to its swinging, speakeasy style. There's a 25-foot-long cherry-wood bar with a rolling library ladder to get to the good stuff. You can buy a $4 bottle of Bud Light and order caviar at the bar. Down the slippery slate stairs, there's a cigar bar and a wall lined with mirrors -- maybe to make the room look bigger, or maybe because the people who come here really like looking at themselves. The room is filled with black leather jackets, pony-skin shoes and vixens carrying zebra-print purses. Playboy ranked it one of the 25 best bars in America; the napkins say it's "upscale, downtown." (The Mercury Lounge in New York City [more of a dive than a divine blues bar] is located on Houston Street. Coincidence?) Dozens of diamond-patterned chairs are paired with small circular tables lit with silver-beaded lamps. (Diamond patterns are on the wall too; don't ask us why.) Two spinning disco balls hang from the ceiling. On the small corner stage, a black woman in a red-sequined cap leads the jazz band. The dance floor in front of her has a few couples swaying slowly; then the band takes a break and Top 40 tunes come on. Suddenly the tiny dance floor is jammed with people who have to dance.
City Parks Director Oliver Spellman is without question Mayor Lee Brown's most popular appointee as a city department head. Spellman, formerly the Cleveland, Ohio, parks chief, faced a daunting task when he arrived in Houston in the spring of 1998. The department had been left in shambles by Lanier administration predecessor Bill Smith, and was the object of City Council criticism and a highly negative performance audit by City Controller Sylvia Garcia. Spellman initiated his own review and began reining in the bureaucratic anarchy that had characterized Smith's tenure. The new director showed his diplomatic skills in defusing the long-running fight between environmentalists and mountain bikers at Memorial Park. He sat down with both sides and hammered out a deal that protected park ecology while allowing use of some trails by the cyclists. He also rebuilt bridges to the dozens of nonprofit organizations who work in the parks system by consulting with board members and making them feel a part of the team. Says one: "I don't care if Lee Brown doesn't run for mayor again. Just don't take away my Oliver."

Best Of Houston®

Best Of