Four mammoth branches dangle to the ground like elephant trunks. They snake along the grass like knee-bound penitents scraping to a pilgrimage's end, only to rise again to the height of small trees to drink in the sun. The live oak at Elizabeth Baldwin Park is one twisted granddaddy of a tree. Despite relatively weak ordinances to protect local flora, Houston has a splendid mix of sycamores, maples, magnolias and countless others. But it is the stately live oak that defines the region. Some, like the venerable giant at Glenwood Cemetery and the strapping specimen that is Baytown's emblem, are woven into the fabric of local lore. Entire lanes around Rice University and elsewhere are graced with gnarled canopies. For its grand dimensions and gravity-defying posture, the live oak at Elizabeth Baldwin Park is truly unique. It stands amid a cluster of hoary, green old-timers whose delicious shade invites squirrels, blue jays and people looking for reprieve. The park dates back to 1909. Chances are the tree was there long before that. It remains an august presence amid new construction on Chenevert, Crawford and other surrounding streets.

Chido Nwangwu decries mainstream news coverage of Africa that depicts "a continent of natives who are sentenced and cursed to face bestial cycles of ethnic wars, genocidal slaughters and more wars." The eloquent Nigeria native specializes in debunking stereotypes. From an office off the Southwest Freeway, USAfrica crusades against government corruption in Africa and touts economic development, while dutifully covering the weddings and other celebrations of the roughly 100,000 Nigerians in Harris County. The paper has reporters in Houston, Washington, D.C., Nigeria and beyond. Founded as a magazine in August 1992, USAfrica has since evolved into its present form of a biweekly newspaper, which also appears on-line. The Web site receives thousands of hits each day, which prompted Nwangwu to launch two new on-line publications: Nigeria Central and The Black Business Journal.
We don't know who he (or she) is, but he's earned the moniker "Mad Faxer" around the Houston Press offices. Over the last two years, he has sent the editorial staff hand-drawn cartoons (a fish eating hippopotamus turds), possible tips ("Ask Ron J. Where is the cave?"), poems riddled with four-letter words and dictionary definitions of "heterosexual." The sly one sends us these tidbits from various Kinko's fax machines so we can't track him down. We keep the faxes because they are sometimes good for a laugh and -- who knows? -- they might become evidence someday. Here is an example from the Mad Faxer's oeuvre:

Bro-mo-Bibbit is at it again

(slaw too)

Dear Mrs. Bibbit

Your double-talk is not God

Disconnect hidden power source

and remote control thermostat

I am an island

My rights are absolute



For the uninitiated, hookah is not another rap artist term for ho. It is the "fragrant nargile" of Orientalist reveries, the hubble-bubble of General Allenby's Tommies. It is a device for smoking that passes the scented smoke -- a mixture of tobacco and dried fruit such as apples or apricots -- through a water bath, cooling it. A common sight at cafes throughout the Near East, hookah smoking has been slow to catch on in the USA. Middle Eastern cafes and nightclubs are offering a "hookah service" to their customers more and more frequently. Sometimes the pleasure can cost $20 an hour. At the charmingly frowzy R&R Lounge & Grill, the two principals offer a pipe of tobacco for a very reasonable $6. For those who attend the unique "Goth Belly Dance" events held every Tuesday night, a hookah of fruit-scented tobacco is the final prop in a multicultural stew of an evening that is, well, so gosh-darned American.
Like its namesake, the Forbidden Gardens is a well-kept secret. However, the spectacular 40-acre spread just off I-10 in Katy rewards those who chance the trip. The outdoor museum carefully reconstructs some of the great design feats of Imperial China, and on a breathtaking scale. The entire Forbidden City, the governmental center created by Ming emperors in the 15th century, is re-created in an astonishing 40,000-square-foot display. Enter at Tiananmen Gate, with its red base and sloping orange-tile roof, and saunter on past the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Imperial Garden and other wonders, all rendered to scale. The model buildings are painted in lovely, painstaking detail, and the grounds of the reconstructed city teem with models of courtesans, concubines, soldiers, administrators and monks. Elsewhere at Forbidden Gardens, you'll find 6,000 terra-cotta soldiers in formation -- a faithful rendering of the same model army that China's first emperor, Qin, had placed in his tomb more than 2,000 years ago. The sounds of bubbling fountains and zither music waft through the air, and iridescent fish and large turtles grace the waters at the entrance. Forbidden Gardens displays ancient weapons, sedan chairs and a reconstruction of Suzhou, "the Venice of China." Tours with highly knowledgeable guides are available.

A year ago, historic Oyster Creek was on the verge of extinction. Today, it's got a chance, thanks to Lisa Rogers. On behalf of Brazoria County ranchers, including her husband, Rogers forced an investigation into the illegal diversion of the Oyster, which had watered her family's cattle for 175 years. The state put the blame on the Sienna Plantation Levee Improvement District, which employed the considerable legal and political power of Vinson & Elkins to stonewall the accusations. When state regulators backed down, Rogers upped the volume and threatened to drag the administration of former Texas governor George W. Bush into court. The levee district quickly put together an engineering plan to restore the downstream flow of Oyster Creek. While that work has yet to begin, it would be hard to bet against someone like Rogers. Not long ago, over lunch at the Sienna Plantation Country Club, a V&E lawyer asked Rogers to drop her threat of future legal action. She refused, of course, but not before she expressed some admiration for her host's youth and good looks.

Judge Burdette was popped for DWI on Montrose after he tried to leave the scene. Burdette is a good ol' boy Democrat who managed to hang on as a visiting district judge in Harris County after getting dumped by voters twice. But his days of holding court at local bars may have been permanently ended when he slammed his Jaguar into the rear of Patti Lyn Simon's pickup truck last March. According to Simon, Burdette was so polluted he tried to drive away, telling bystanders, "I'm drunk. I've got to go home now." The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct sanctioned Burdette for his actions and ordered him to take educational courses on alcoholism and to attend antidrinking therapy sessions. Whether his judicial friends will continue to recommend him for visiting appointments remains to be seen.
Courthouse regulars were worried a few years ago when longtime judge Doug Shaver announced his retirement from the 262nd bench. He was one of the few Democrats left in any court in the county, and certainly one of the more independent-minded jurists of any affiliation. Concerns about keeping the proverbial level playing field only increased among defense attorneys when voters chose his replacement, a 17-year prosecutor and husband of another assistant district attorney. But Judge Mike Anderson has aptly filled Shaver's black robe -- and then some. He's drawn among the top ratings in Houston Bar Association polls and attracted solid admiration from attorneys for both the state and the defense. Anderson is building a reputation as somebody who will listen to both sides and be beholden to neither. Better yet, he doesn't take himself too seriously. That was shown in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Allison, when beleaguered county justice workers were treated to a street-side barbecue cooked up by, among others, Judge Anderson.

This former gatekeeper for Mayor Lee Brown lost her desk at City Hall after ducking a drug test. A former employee of Brown crony Danny Lawson, Mackey served the former drug czar as secretary and appointments coordinator since he returned to Houston in 1995 to establish credentials for his successful 1997 mayoral race. After she ousted several competitors for the ear of the mayor, Mackey met her own waterloo when asked to take a spot drug test. She initially avoided it by going home, took the test the following week and then resigned before the results became official. But don't feel too sorry for her. A loyal mayor Brown quickly found another position for Mackey: raising money for his current campaign for re-election.

Here's to not letting work interfere with your priorities. On January 11 at the intersection of Milam and Congress, a man who had apparently been hit by an oncoming car and looked to be a minute from his death was being wheeled into the back of an ambulance by three paramedics. Before the driver sped away to the hospital, however, he was seen making a beeline for the Houston Press stand. Had the driver simply grabbed a copy and jumped back into the vehicle, we might have chalked it up to the hectic pace of his profession, but what makes this reader tops in our loyalty department is the fact that he then took the time to read our fine publication. In recognition of his dedication, from now on his copies of the Press will be free at all participating newsstands.

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