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!"

Franchisee Dominic Quijano and wife Nelly invented that icon of America's Hispanicization, the McDonald's breakfast burrito, under the golden arches on Harrisburg Boulevard in the East End. Rolled up in a nine-inch flour tortilla, the burrito combines scrambled eggs, sausage, green peppers, jalapeos, tomatoes and cheese, most of which were already in the McDonald's pantry. Which is probably why the burrito tastes a lot like a Sausage McMuffin on a tortilla with salsa added.

"When I moved to Houston in 1984 to open the restaurant, I couldn't believe how many people here ate tacos for breakfast," says Quijano. Losing breakfast business to the many taco stands in the Hispanic East End, Quijano decided to make a breakfast taco of his own. "I approached the McDonald's people about it. The vice president told me to go ahead and work on it and call him when I was ready to test it."

First Quijano tried rolling McDonald's hash browns with seasonings in a flour tortilla. It didn't go over very well. Then he tried various combinations of ham, eggs, sausage and salsas before arriving at the current configuration. "The customers told me how to make them," admits the burger man. "They would say, 'Too much pepper, not enough salt,' until we got it right." Nelly Quijano did the tortilla research. They started with tacos on six-inch tortillas but eventually adopted the nine-inch size for the sake of neatness.

The burritos come conveniently packaged in a yellow paper wrapper and sell for $1.18 with tax. Mild salsa in a plastic pillow pack is served on the side on request. But Quijano's Harrisburg customers don't mess around with the wimpy condiment. Instead, they buy pickled jalapeos from a large plastic jar on the back counter for 29 cents apiece.

After testing and approving the item, the McDonald's corporation gradually rolled out the breakfast burrito across the city. "It sold even better in Anglo neighborhoods than it did in the East End," says Quijano. After proving itself in Houston, the McDonald's Breakfast Burrito was introduced across Texas, and eventually to much of the world.

Funny thing is, Dominic Quijano, the man who put Mexican food on the McDonald's menu, isn't of Mexican ancestry. His family is Cuban. He grew up in Florida and lived in New York City before he moved to Houston.

"Cubans don't even eat tacos," Quijano chuckles.

When Texas legislators used their redistricting clout in 1991 to draw a Houston congressional district that a Hispanic could win, a wily state senator named Gene Green helped in the design. He had ulterior motives.

The final shape of the district resembled a praying mantis, with arms snaking out in search of identifiable Hispanic households that pushed the Latino percentage of the district to 60.6 percent. At the time, many political observers assumed that would be enough to guarantee the election of Houston's first brown-skinned member of Congress.

Green knew better, banking on the core group of Anglo voters he had represented for 19 years in the Texas House and Senate. The legislator jumped into the 1992 Democratic primary race, and with equal measures of luck and gritty campaigning, he managed to beat out then-Houston city councilman Ben Reyes in a marathon fight that was extended to a second runoff after the first was invalidated because of voter irregularities.

Green then went to work winning over disappointed Hispanics, displaying the qualities that have earned him the reputation as one of the hardest-working elected officials in the city. "Gene is a very effective old-style service-oriented congressman," says Dr. Bob Stein, dean of social sciences at Rice University. "His voting record is less important to this constituency than delivering goods and services."

How effective has Green been with his Hispanic constituents? In 1998 the League of United Latin American Citizens made the congressman an "honorary member."

Political consultant Marc Campos, a former foe, credits Green's hustle with allowing him to continue to hold a majority Hispanic district without serious opposition.

"He's a workaholic member of Congress," explains Campos. "When he comes home from Washington, he doesn't go hang out at an icehouse. He goes to a civic club meeting. During the flood in June, he was everywhere. The guy just works his ass off."

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