Houston Zoo
Usually the animals aren't up to much. Anybody ever seen one of those gators so much as blink? Some time back, it was even revealed that one of the snakes in the reptile house was made of rubber, and nobody cottoned on for more than a year. Far more fascinating is the people-watching at this cheapest and most democratic of local attractions, and one of the few places in the heart of town where one can see lots of tourists, both foreign and domestic. Some come from farther away than others. While any given day finds the parking lot full of cars from Louisiana and Oklahoma, if you had been there one special day in 1997, you could have rubbed elbows at the giraffe pen with the black-turbaned Taliban leadership, who visited the zoo as guests of Unocal in happier times.

Hit the southern tip of the Piney Woods of East Texas and turn the car north through the town of Kountze. As the Sonic and the Dairy Queen dissolve in the rearview mirror, the highway takes on a rural tone. And just beyond the city limits, the humble shrine shows itself ever so briefly at 60 mph. Roadside weeds suddenly disappear into perhaps a 20-yard plot of freshly mown green grass. Sunk into the rich loam of soil is the white Styrofoam cross, embedded with dark roses. Local law enforcement officers say it was here that a "young fella" lost his life in an auto accident. And the family and friends return regularly, intent on preserving his memory. The personalized arrangement of flowers on the cross spells out his name, a beloved moniker in these parts: Bubba. Relatives can't forget him -- motoring strangers don't, either.

Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, Cher, P. Diddy, Gwen Stefani, Busta Rhymes, Shirley Manson, the Goo Goo Dolls…Everybody who's anybody stays at Hotel Derek when they come through Houston. But how can you get a peek at the stars without staking out their hotel rooms and looking like a psychotic stalker? Just casually order a drink at Maverick (the bar formerly known as Ling & Javier). According to hotel staff, while Aniston and Pitt rarely emerged from their room when they were at the Derek (would you?), the other celebrities who stay there like to hang out at the bar -- especially the Goo Goo Dolls. And they don't think the recent conceptual change from Chino-Cubano to Southwestern fare will put a damper on the celeb sightings. After all, as one employee said, "this is the nicest hotel." Where else would they go?
Once upon a time, Dr. Richard Patt had a teddy bear in his front yard. It reached 20 feet, give or take, into the sky. His neighbors hated it. But it wasn't enough. The backyard was empty and boring. So he and Joe DiPaulo, the man who designed the park across from St. Joseph Hospital, planned a fantasy theme-park-style spread. Now there's a 40-foot mountain with three straight-from-Maui waterfalls that flood into a pool. Under the mountain is a cave, with a separate spa and another waterfall. Think the grotto at the Playboy Mansion. "It's almost exactly like that," Patt says, "without all the breasts." There's also an open-sesame wall. When he leans against the two-ton stone, the wall swings open to a courtyard and two more rooms. One of those rooms has a murder-mystery bookcase that opens to a spa. There's a waterslide from his upstairs balcony to the pool, an outdoor fireplace and two fire towers that shoot eight-foot flames. He's thinking about opening his yard up for events. We hope he decides to do it.
This Houston assistant city attorney took over direction of the city lobbying team last year and had a promising maiden session. The 42-year-old neophyte impressed capitol veterans with a low-key approach combined with a tenacity that belies her five-foot-one, 110-pound frame. Grace volunteered for the job when her boss, City Attorney Anthony Hall, took over supervision of the lobbying program from the mayor's office in 1999. "They literally threw me to the wolves," chuckles Grace, "and I didn't get eaten. People were surprised." Statistics bear her out. Of 18 bills introduced on behalf of the city, 16 passed. Overall, the lobbying team prevailed on 94 percent of the positions taken for or against legislation. Grace says she quickly learned that many of the actions of legislators had little or nothing to do with the merits of a particular bill. "Their past drives them," she notes, "and that history was the most important thing for me to learn." It's a cram course she'll be continuing when the legislature reconvenes next spring.
When it comes to local news in the Houston market, Channel 11 truly stands alone in terms of quality. That doesn't mean it's great: Local TV news around the country has been in a general decline for some time. KHOU is fighting that decline better than anyone else around here, though. They've got a great investigator in Anna Werner (of Firestone fame), and solid, unflashy, veteran reporters like Doug Miller and Nancy Holland. Throw in hurricane expert Dr. Neil Frank -- or his equally talented colleague, David Paul -- and you've got the best news team in town.

This former KTRH reporter left journalism and signed on to flack for legal giant Vinson & Elkins. He then took a sabbatical to help the Lee Brown mayoral campaign sweat out a narrow victory over Orlando Sanchez. Then he had the good sense to leave V&E just before the heat got turned on over its role in the Enron collapse. Joe is currently working the corn fields of Iowa on behalf of incumbent Democratic governor Tom Vilsack, who faces a tough re-election effort in November.

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