Best Of :: People & Places
So you're driving along U.S. 59 when, through the clutter of billboards, you see it: a grand piano, perched precariously on a pole 108 feet above the ground. Chances are, your first thought is "Does that thing really play?" And your second thought is probably "Either way, that's pretty damn cool." Erected in 1973, when the music store was called Holcombe-Lindquist, the metal piano is 15 feet long and nine feet wide. It even has a faux keyboard, with 88 black and white keys. Store co-founder Russell Lindquist says when the Houser Neon Sign Company showed him and business partner Don Holcombe their miniature model of the sign, "It was so overwhelming that we couldn't not go along with it." The 1973 installation and 1978 improvements cost a total of $153,000. In its heyday, it revolved and was lit up with neon. But even if it doesn't revolve anymore, it's still one of the coolest signs in the city.
Forget the unwieldy handle, and remember this about the UTMB-TAMUG 2005-2006 Classical Concerts series: It's absolutely free. You can spend an evening at fine arts venues in Houston and fork over a pile of Benjamins for some of the same concerts that book dates for free in Galveston. Sure, the scheduling is a bit haphazard, and some concerts are announced only a week or so in advance, but the price is right. This year's series opened with an evening of flamenco music and dancing by touring Houston ensemble Lucia & Valdemar with Gitanerias Flamenco. Check the Web site for upcoming shows. And when we say leave the wallet and plastic at home, we mean it: There's plenty of street parking around the UTMB campus, and -- we're not making this up -- free punch and cookies are typically served at intermission.
In a city where not having a car is a death sentence for your social life, we'll give the Bissonnet Village Apartments a nod for being strategically close to one of the hottest singles scenes in the city: Rice Village. Auto-challenged residents of "The BV" can stroll -- if need be -- to the nearby Village restaurants and bars, or just hang at the neighboring Goode Co. Taqueria. The complex is a haven for young Med Center professionals and college kids who cash in on the generous student discounts. And we love that the Marquis II bar -- a favorite of the frat/sorority set and one of the best joints in town to pick up drunken coeds -- is just a brief jaunt away, should you find yourself bleary-eyed and staggering on a Tuesday night (not that we would know anything about that...).
If you want to get a real look at the people populating our hippest little multicultural area, just mosey on over to the Taco Cabana at the corner of Montrose and Westheimer, order a plate of nachos and a margarita, and pull up a chair. You'll see transvestites hailing down cars for dates, homeless youths who look like Blink-182 gone wild hawking everything from stolen CDs to crystal meth, tow truck drivers hell-bent on knocking somebody out, street hustlers with pit bulls, and ordinary prostitutes who are holding on to that slice of land as if it were decreed to them in the Declaration of Independence. And we won't even talk about the folly you'll witness coming out of the condom shop next door. There's a million and one stories written every day at that highly trafficked intersection. You're guaranteed to witness about 20 in ten minutes.
Readers' choice: The Galleria
Many a balmy Houston night has been made cooler and more comfortable thanks to the efforts of the Houston Symphony. Beginning in June, when it first presented Summer Symphony Nights at Miller Outdoor Theatre, our skies have been filled with sweet sounds designed to make us forget that we've still got sweat dripping off our brows. The symphony's Lord of the Rings Symphony brought us into the air-conditioning of Jones Hall on a couple of hot July nights to witness its haunting musical retelling of the classic trilogy, and we returned for its excruciatingly fun take on Bugs Bunny on Broadway. But after that, it was back outside for more music, including a night at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, where the symphony backed disco diva Donna Summer.
Readers' choice: Air-conditioning
Picking the best charity is harder than it sounds. What are the criteria: the condition of the recipients? The overall effectiveness? How the money is spent? Well, if you consider all of those, then Houston's Shriners Hospital just might be the best charity to donate to this year. The hospital provides free -- yes, free -- medical care to children suffering from major bone, joint and muscle problems. These include scoliosis, brittle bone disease, limb deficiencies and spina bifida, among many others. The staff includes orthopedic surgeons, orthopedic subspecialists and pediatricians, according to spokesperson Raquel Espinoza-Williams. Many of the city's finest private practitioners also volunteer their services to the 40-bed facility. Why? Because offering excellent medical care for free isn't cheap: Last year's tab was $18 million. Why not pony up your share?
We waited for someone to step up and dethrone Charles Kuffner as the best blogger in town. We scoured the H-town blogosphere, reading what the pamphleteers of the 21st century had to say about sports, politics, music, art and breakfast. We wasted countless hours, time we could've spent paying our bills or cleaning our homes, getting too much information from all the folks out there who've stepped up, sat down and started typing. And we still think Kuffner is the man. He shines when it comes to local and national politics, but he's not above throwing in a random jab at Paris Hilton when the situation merits. And who doesn't like a little bit of that?
Readers' choice: Lopez@Large:blogs.chron.com/lopezblog
Beneath a giant chandelier hoisted above the corner of Montrose and Westheimer, float after float passes by every year in the nation's original nighttime pride parade. It's one heck of a party and a nonpareil people-watching opportunity. This year Gs, Ls, Bs and Ts lined the streets, hooting, hollering and hooking up long before the actual parade passed by. All of the usual suspects were part of the cortege: Continental Airlines, PFLAG, Community Gospel Church and HATCH, as well as a bevy of beauties in their tightie-whities. And after all the floats were gone, that's when the real partying began. It's here, it's queer, and it's anything but austere.
Readers' choice: Art Car Parade
While it's not the most polished pad of pulp in the printed-matter pile, Hater magazine has a youthful exuberance all but lost in so much of the mainstream media. A free, digest-size, full-color rag, Hater is available quarterly, in limited supply, throughout the city. The mag's credo states that "Hater defined is the critic of our generation," and boy, do its writers go off on their generation. Half dedicated to hip new music -- it has featured Bun B, Dizzee Rascal, Slim Thug and Chingo Bling -- and half dedicated to observations of the world around us, the magazine gives its writers full license to bag on everything from cuts in education to gentrification. And they do. The latest issue is fiercely anti-Bush, but still, when you dig into these highly opinionated articles, you'll find that these writers are having fun getting things off their chests.
No, there are no tours being offered at the moment. You can't just walk in and see the exact spot where Ken Lay and Co. made the decisions and signed the papers that all but destroyed their faithful minions. But you can stand outside and gawk at this architectural masterpiece. Like staring at the charred remains of a burned-out warehouse, or rubbernecking at the site of a pileup on one of our many freeways, looking at the building that once housed the Enron elite can inspire feelings of helplessness, woe and dismay, but it's just so damn beautiful you quickly forget about all the livelihoods lost. Designed by Cesar Pelli & Associates and Kendall/Heaton Associates at a cost of $200 million and later sold after the shit hit the fan for a mere $102 mil, it's one of our city's most unique and gorgeous structures. Bring an out-of-towner to the food court and try to get up to the glass walkway that connects the two buildings, where you and yours can really relive one of Houston's most embarrassing and shame-filled moments.
The best view in the Houston area requires some gas money and a large appetite for Gulf Coast seafood. Head down I-45 to Galveston, catch the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula and follow the signs to Stingaree Restaurant. For optimal viewing, arrive about an hour and a half before sunset and insist on a table by the window. If one isn't available, opt to wait -- your eyes and stomach will thank you. Get comfortable and order the all-you-can-eat barbecue blue crabs ($19.95). You'll be here awhile. As the sun sets, marvel at the massive barges surging through the Intracoastal Waterway. Like it or not, this is Houston's industrial raison d'etre, and even in the chemical light, it's beautiful.
Remove your shoes and shuffle to the front of the hall. The benevolent eyes of a three-ton white jade Buddha follow your steps -- as do those of a hundred lesser gold Buddhas sunk into the front of the aptly named Grand Buddha Hall. The psychic residue of the thousands of devotees who have cycled through this space since it was built in 1989 ease your passage into a comfortable meditation. A quiet walk around the lotus pond puts you in just the right frame of mind. Maybe you'll reach enlightenment, maybe not. For an extra boost, try the temple's sessions in yoga and meditation.