The view from the Fred Hartmann Bridge is hauntingly beautiful, particularly at sunset. From this graceful perch unfolds a landscape straight out of science fiction, an expanse of petrochemical plants fanning out along the snaking Ship Channel as far as the eye can see. As darkness descends, flares lap at the sky, and little white lights outline the plants' towers, pipelines and processing units like twinkling Christmas lights. The vista conjures images of a metropolis from a different galaxy. Roughly half of the nation's petrochemical industry cleaves to Houston's paved bosom, and no place affords a better view of that industrial might. Out-of-town visitors will be duly amazed at this uniquely Houston panorama. The bridge, which runs along Highway 146 and connects La Porte to Baytown, overlooks Alexander Island, Black Duck Bay and Tabbs Bay, as well as the San Jacinto Monument, our soaring tribute to Texas independence. With its sleek yellow cables and long, tapered roadway, the Fred Hartmann Bridge is itself a lovely site to behold.
Eight days before Christmas, Officer Rhule was driving down the Beltway when he saw two women on the side of the road trying to change their tire. Their jack didn't work, so he took his and changed it for them, but their spare was almost flat. He took them to a nearby Stop N Go and put air in the tire. "But then I got to looking, and two of the four tires were terrible," he says. Plus, the passenger was nine months pregnant and due any day. He has two daughters himself. Rhule says the last thing he wanted the stranded women to worry about was whether the car would get them to the hospital when the baby came, so he took them to Wal-Mart and bought them two new tires. "I paid for them and told them to have a good Christmas and have good luck with the baby," he says. We think this is one of the nicest, kindest acts we've ever heard of, especially since it was the day before the officer's 38th birthday. "They were just good people who were having a tough time," he says. "An expectant mother has got plenty on her mind anyway. I just didn't feel comfortable letting them drive."

During the marathon trial to settle the estate of late Houston millionaire J. Howard Marshall II, Marshall's widow, former topless dancer Anna Nicole Smith, testified, "it's expensive to be me." While that may well be true, the judge in the case eventually ruled against Smith, but we're confident she'll do just fine.
Yes, we know. Wayne's not really a weathercaster. This investigative reporter would rather be chasing down unethical pothole fillers than tracking weather patterns. But when Tropical Storm Allison hit Houston hard, Wayne Dolcefino was there. Before it became virtually impossible not to be up to your waist in water, Wayne searched out the deep spots. Displaying no concern for his physical person, he waded in without even a raincoat. Wayne showed us just how deep the water was that first dark night of Allison. He chased after cars attempting to plow through the water; he pointed out the rooftops of those who had already met their flooded fates; he let a hospital know that an employee was going to be late for work. He investigated, dammit. Of course, Wayne might have been smarter to find out a little more about the water before he went in. A few hours later, reporters began discouraging kids from playing in the filth. And the next day, a decapitated body was discovered floating down Pasadena Highway 225, where Wayne had been reporting the night before.
It looks like a painting, a 12-foot square field of blue, oddly placed on the ceiling of the simple Quaker meeting room. But this painting is alive, deepening in color and drawing you in as the sun sets outside. It's the sky, you realize. Light artist James Turrell has cut an opening in the roof and tapered its boundaries into a knife-edge that subverts depth perception. It feels as if you could reach up and touch the sky, or that the sky has crept down through the opening to touch you. A bird or a cloud or a plane passing overhead simultaneously breaks the illusion and makes it all the more wonderful.
Judging by the interiors of most restaurants, restaurateurs usually don't care deeply about art. Monica Pope is the exception. Her Boulevard Bistrot has art on the plates, on the walls and even in the bathrooms. In fact, the atmosphere of the lavatory was so important to the owner that she commissioned artist Sharon Engelstein to pretty it up with rich floral paintings. Engelstein is no ordinary stall painter. The former Museum of Fine Arts Core fellow has exhibited her work in the Contemporary Arts Museum and in the prestigious Texas Gallery. Now you can catch dinner and an art show all in one building.

Settle into the wrought-iron chairs. They are spread on the grounds at the base of the seven-story, girder-crossed mural painted by Suzanne Sellers on the adjacent Houston Club Building. And savor this new oasis of what used to be nothing more than an unsightly few asphalt parking spaces wedged between forgettable urban barriers. There's elegance to be had in the basics here: a line of leafy cedar buffers from the sidewalk, four raised planters sprouting with shade trees and deep purple flowerbeds. Add to that the sound: water softly cascading down a polished stone fountain. Thankfully, one thing won't be heard here -- all the swaggering civic titans touting the next grand megabuck schemes to capture "world-class" acclaim for Houston. While the local politicians and entrepreneurs indulge in their collective fantasies (and let the city's infrastructure go to hell in the process), JP Morgan Chase Bank took a delightful down-to-earth approach. Since its opening last June, this small patch of central city has been transformed into a classy cosmopolitan respite. While boosters endlessly dash after elusive dreams of international envy, foreign travelers would welcome this simple, peaceful place of beauty in the most scenic sections of Paris or Rome. Chase Bank Park proves that "world class" doesn't have to mean big or bold or even billion-dollar budget.

When it comes to drinking, we prefer to imbibe free of industrial dance beats and blinding strobes. Of course, we don't mind the beautiful people who tend to gather at those high-tech nightclubs. That's the great thing about Grasshopper/Red Lights: Downstairs, you can sit at the Grasshopper's long, curved, glass-top bar, gulp down one of its funky cocktails and watch the parade of finely accessorized flesh march upstairs to the faux Victorian parlor known as Red Lights, an opulent discotheque where they spin the usual rhythmic pleasures underneath a lighting system designed by NASA or something like that. The bartenders on the first floor are courteous and accommodating; the folks upstairs do them one better: They're also discreet, as they serve customers in one of the handful of private rooms that you can rent for $75 and up. Downtown's latest playpen is housed in a former jewelry store, which may explain why you have the overwhelming desire to propose to half the people who walk through the door.

Critic Ann Holmes once called Jones Plaza the single most hostile block in Houston. It was stark and forbidding, built so high off the street that passersby couldn't see its top. It sat essentially unused except for events like Party on the Plaza. That's all changing now. Architect Mark Wamble, formerly of Bricker & Cannady, and his team have created a much more inviting public space for downtown. The lowered plaza will have a grand entrance ramp next to a waterfall and a bamboo grove. Five canopied steel pergolas flanking the plaza will be covered with vines to provide shaded seating below. Corner gardens will feature Mexican sycamores with leaves that actually change color in the fall. The stage will have state-of-the-art sound and light equipment, and the bathrooms will include air-conditioning and attendants. All for the relatively inexpensive cost to the city of around $6 million. The Jones Plaza renovation is scheduled for completion in October.

Every now and then, without much hope, a wine drinker drifts into Bert Wheeler's. It's a liquor store, not a wine boutique, and you expect the guy behind the counter to make change, not steer you to a great little Pouilly-Fumé. And certainly Roger Cooper doesn't look or sound anything like Robert Parker. Cooper laughs about that: "I'm a black dude, for God's sake."

So he doesn't wait to be asked. He chats up all his customers -- even the occasional goober wearing a Confederate-flag shirt -- and if you express an interest in wine, he'll ask about your dinner plans and tannin preferences. He steers newbies to Italian or Chilean "starter wines" and questions aficionados about their preferences. Do you prefer subtlety or youthfulness? Do you like your chardonnay creamy or citrusy-crisp? Do you want a hearty Burgundy, or do you gravitate toward mellower blends?

He speaks the lingo with such enthusiasm that you're surprised to hear he's a teetotaler -- and the son of teetotalers. He studies wine the same way he studies electrical engineering at UH-Downtown: as an academic subject, something he reads about. "I drank a bottle one time, and I threw up," he says. "I might swirl a wine, or smell it, but other than that, it's not me."

Five years ago he applied to work at Bert Wheeler's because he doesn't have a car. Six days a week, he walks to the store from his house. "It's not the greatest job in the world," he says, "and it certainly doesn't pay a hell of a lot. But it's like Dr. King said: If you're going to do a job, you should do it so well that nobody living or dead could do it better."

After school and work, Cooper kicks back with a book and a soda. Of course, for a cultivated palate, not just any soda will do. "Coke's too strong," he explains. "And A&W is too sweet. But Barq's! Oh, man, that Barq's!"

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