In a story this past February about the suicide of lottery winner Billie Bob Harrell, we described Karen Gerstner, an attorney, as seeming "more likely to offer someone a glass of milk and a plate of cookies rather than cutting-edge financial advice." A couple of weeks later, Gerstner had a package of cookies and a pint of milk, along with a lottery ticket, delivered to the paper. We didn't win the lottery, but the milk and cookies were delicious.
Star Cafe is for real. It doesn't cater to denizens of the mainstream American culture looking to try something it deems "exotic." Nope, at Star Cafe, the clientele is composed of Arabic immigrants, mostly from Egypt. They gather at this drab location (next to Sun & Ski on the far side of a Westheimer strip mall) to sit beside concrete walls outside on the sidewalk, smoking a variety of hookah flavors, including strawberry, apple, rose and grape. Rental price is $5, not including tax. Inside, the kitchen bustles with chicken kabob, lamb dishes, hummus and sweet pastries. Here, people pass time with friends, new and old, playing board games, chatting, smoking leisurely. They don't want any part of your passing trends.
During the long half-year that is the Houston summer, there's not much to the weather beyond hot and humid. Occasional rainfall will pass through; even less occasionally some severe weather will occur. But Houstonians still cling desperately to the romantic notion that maybe, just maybe, the weather will one day change, so we like to watch meteorologists in action. Anything that changes the plodding routine of "high in the mid-90s, low in the mid-70s, 20 percent chance of rain" is as welcome as a Canadian cold front. So give us the irrepressibly bouncy Chuck George, backup weatherman at KPRC Channel 2. George does his goofy remotes from all over the city every morning, haranguing 4-H'ers at fairs or demanding that some elderly square dancers get up and shake it. It can get dicey out there -- George inadvertently displayed a raw, skinned and gutted pig at a barbecue once, something no one wants to see at 7 a.m.; another time he required stitches after falling at Shamu's pool at Sea World in San Antonio -- but we've never seen anyone so damn perky. And if you already know what the weatherman's going to say, at least let there be some variety in where he says it.
We're not sure of the brand, but this past March, Texas prison inmate Antonio Lara allegedly sawed through several cell bars using dental floss. Unfortunately, say prison officials, he then fatally stabbed fellow prisoner Rolando Rios as guards were escorting him to the shower. The incident resulted in a statewide lockdown of Texas's 122,000 inmates.
The late Dickie Rosenfeld, who died in July, was a giant in Houston radio. He brought the Beatles to town in the 1960s and was the creator of the original Hudson and Harrigan show. He spent most of his 50 years in radio as general manager of KILT. But even the legendary Rosenfeld raised eyebrows a few years ago when he decided to make 610 AM an all-sports station. At that time KTRH-AM was the established sports (and news) leader in Houston radio. But by the time he died in July, the battle was over, and KILT had won. Rosenfeld succeeded by luring Charlie Pallilo and Rich Lord away from his rival, and by pairing friends John Granado and Lance Zierlien for the morning-drive show. Rosenfeld also had the vision to latch on to the nationally syndicated Jim Rome show. Dickie, we'll miss you, podnah!
At least Houston now has bike lanes. The intersection where Alabama meets Shepherd has long been a congested one for Houston motorists. And now one of the lanes in either direction on Alabama has been converted into a lane for bicycles. It may not improve the traffic flow for gas-guzzling vehicles, but perhaps that alone will encourage people to pedal their way to and from the popular (and award-winning) businesses in the area. You might even be able to get to your destination more quickly on two wheels.
Not that long ago, the Eastex Freeway was the obvious orphan of area transportation arteries, a forlorn, four-lane route to sheer frustration. Compared to its sister link, the Southwest Freeway on the other side of town, this section of U.S. 59 suffered from potholes, uneven pavement, antiquated access and awful scenery. The scenery hasn't changed much, but the infrequent travelers will swear that this exotic and efficient freeway just can't be the old Eastex. After some five years of construction, the result is a gleaming dream of a design that spans up to 12 lanes in some places. The progress is apparent in that most savvy motorists know that the Eastex will usually beat the beleaguered North Freeway on any run to Bush International Airport. Of course, there's still the Humble-area traffic snarl when the improvements end. But take progress one milepost at a time. TxDOT finally did something right.
The trickle of water emerges from a giant culvert and heads south in a straight line, carved years ago by machinery, bounded by a grass-covered levy to the east and power lines to the west. The water has a brownish hue, and at times a faint whiff of sewage speaks to origins other than rainwater. But the ditch that runs parallel to the power lines between Gramercy and North Braeswood, protected by a fluke combination of rights-of-way and a lack of urban encroachment, harbors an array of wildlife that would make a state park proud. In the early-morning mists, egrets, herons and other waterfowl wade in the shallow water and peck at invisible morsels. A family of bright green South American parrots that nest high in the transformer towers forages among the trees overlooking the ditch. Box turtles roam the steep, wildflower-covered banks or plop beneath the surface at any sign of intrusion. Beneath the wires, horses graze along the fence that separates them from the water. Block out the white noise of the highways, and the place might as well be a hundred miles away.
Fish are usually the featured performers in any aquarium, but at Sawadee, they take a backseat. Sure, there are a few exotic species swimming in the jumbo 500-gallon tank that greets customers near the door. But the real attractions are the stunning varieties of coral: spectacular tentacled colonies waving in the artificial current that simulates waves breaking overhead; brilliant green and blue neon clusters jutting like antlers from their rock bases; soft-bellied creatures that appear 90 percent mouth waiting for food fragments to drift by. Customers linger well after the bill is paid to gawk at the spectacle. Sawadee owner Yut Heckler has a thriving side business designing coral habitats. He learned the hard way it's much more difficult to maintain a coral habitat than your average fish tank. Coral are about the most sensitive creatures on the planet, and simply moving them from one end of the tank to the other can be fatal. But he has mastered the complexities enough to propagate his samples, and he uses coral from his showcase Sawadee tank as breeding stock for his new creations.
Slainte (pronounced "SLAWN-cha") is a Gaelic drinking toast, which translates roughly to "Cheers!" Stools are situated around a big black barrel of Jameson whiskey, a James Joyce quote is on the wall, and Lord of the Dance music fills the air. You can order a blarney burger, Irish lamb stew, corned beef and cabbage or chicken strips fried in Harp. You can sit around the cozy tables and down a pint of Guinness or a shot with your friends. It's a place where you can hear your friends when they talk. In the back of the bar, there's some sort of rock wall that we don't really understand. Maybe it has to do with the Blarney Stone. Maybe it's supposed to conjure the far and away rocks along the Irish shore. Or maybe you're supposed to feel like you're entering a cave with green and burgundy booths and old Celtic art on the wall. Upstairs is a darker, undecorated room, with leather couches and Barnes & Noble-type cushy chairs. There's an outside balcony that lets you look out at the street, make fun of the strange outfits people are wearing and watch the rickshaw driver pant up and down the street. Don't worry if you can't read the writing on the walls. You're not that smashed -- it's Gaelic.

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