Within Houston, there is a hidden city. No, were not talking about the tunnels, were talking about the behemoth oil refineries and petrochemical plants that stretch along and dominate the Houston Ship Channel, the commercial engine of the city. These industrial complexes are hidden, tucked behind a security wall of chain-link fences and armed guards. The only way to get a good glimpse is by water. Enter the M/V Sam Houston, which has been running public tours along the Houston Ship Channel since 1958. Take the 90-minute cruise and gaze at the seemingly unending sweep of twisted steel and spaghetti-network of tubes and pipes. The ride inside the air-conditioned boat is free, but reservations are required 24 hours in advance, and dont forget to bring a photo I.D. Sadly, security precautions prohibit taking any pictures, which means you cant see this spectacle of engineering any other way.

JPMorgan Chase Tower

It's the tallest building in Houston, the tallest edifice in Texas and one of the top 50 tallest skyscrapers in the world. With a résumé like that, it's easy to understand why the 75-story JPMorgan Chase Tower has the best views around. Visitors can't quite get all the way to the top, but there is an observation area called the Sky Lobby on the 60th floor that lets you soak in the horizon. Just take the express elevator up, and in exactly one minute (one second per story) you'll be gazing out over the Houston skyline. Open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday, JPMorgan Chase Tower provides a bird's-eye view of Reliant Stadium, the Medical Center and the Galleria. Why, some folks even say that on a clear day they can see all the way to the coast.

Said to be more than 400 years old, the massive live oak at Bagby and Capitol (behind the Bayou Place entertainment complex) was no doubt a mite smaller back in the Republic of Texas days, when it would have been only about a youthful 225. Even so, it's hard to believe the tree could have grown a whole lot since then, considering how much the ground beneath it has been watered with blood and tears. As the legend goes, about a dozen people were hung from its trunk-like branches when Texas was still its own independent nation. When a nearby courthouse was built in the late 19th century, the oak became a prime viewing spot for families of both the condemned and their victims to watch the grim proceedings. In other words, one of the shadiest spots in downtown Houston has an appropriately shady past.

A year ago, local production company TVMan launched its "Be a Fan" campaign for the Houston Aeros, giving us some of the smartest, funniest, most absurd and effective ads we'd seen in some time. They're all excellent, but we have a sweet spot for the one featuring mustachioed Sergeant Larry Hall. Consisting entirely of Hall, in dress blues, standing against a plain light-gray background, it kicks off with Hall saying, "I love my job. We chase bad guys," in a country twang. "When you're involved in an intense sport, you're going to have shoving matches sometimes." Then, bam, it cuts to Marshall deadpanning "I have a gun." He starts talking about the Zamboni, and then, bam again — "I have a gun." At the end, he says it one last time: "I mean it. I have a gun," only this time, he cracks up. Best hockey commercial ever, hands down.

READERS' CHOICE: Gallery Furniture

By John Nova Lomax

In defending Houston's good name, after acknowl­edging that our climate, terrain, architecture and history are nothing special, sometimes exasperated lovers of Houston simply throw their hands in the air and say something like, "It's the people. The people make Houston great." That grand vague statement is personified in part by Martha Sobhani — one of the hordes of people here who came to Houston by chance, and who in their thousands have made this such a fascinating place to be.

Sobhani almost never sees a happy customer come in to the office of her deep Montrose garage. Sobhani's business is Atlas Auto Glass and Paint and Body. Most of her customers fall into two categories: accidents and break-ins. Both are among the suckiest occurrences of modern-day urban living, and customers who come in are often outraged or depressed. But nine times out of ten, they walk out of her windowless, though fresh-flower-brightened, office feeling renewed, even happy to be alive.

"I try to bring perspective," says Sobhani in a sing-song accent. A native of Tehran, Farsi was her first language. "This is not the worst thing in the world. Let's face it. We are having it good in this country. If you are having a car and working, you are lucky. There are billions of people on the planet not as lucky."

Sobhani has lived and worked on four continents, so she knows whereof she speaks. As a young woman, she found herself an exile. Growing up as a member of the minority Baha'i faith in the Shah's Iran was bad enough, she recalls, but when the Ayatollah took over, her co-religionists were practically hunted for sport. Luckily for her, by the time the Iranian Revolution was complete in the late seventies, she had already escaped to Madagascar, where she worked with Baha'i youth and met the man she would marry and have two (now-grown) children with. Before coming to America in 1984, she also spent some time working in France.

None of those places hold a candle to America, she says. "Every day I wake up thanking God that I am in this country. My daughter says, 'You know, Mommy, I don't know any American as patriotic as you are.'" Sobhani thinks her daughter, like many native-born Americans, takes things for granted. "I am not saying there are no problems — yes, there is racism and sexism, all those things exist — but I still believe that this is the best the world can offer," Sobhani says.

And while many business owners claim to treat their customers like family, Sobhani really does. "I really believe that only good customers come to my shop. Second, those people could be my son, my daughter, my mother or father, and I would like to treat them that way. When you see them as people and not customers, it becomes something more than just changing their windshield glass. You want to do your best. I am not sure I always achieve that, but I really do try."

It could be that people want her to succeed simply because they like her. It is hard not to practically fall (platonically) in love as she steers you out of your funk. We wondered how her job didn't drag her down — how hearing the same stories day in and day out, seeing the same good people victimized by criminals or fate over and over again didn't wear on her.

On the one hand, she says, there are plenty of interesting cases to break that dreary litany. She remembers one man bringing in a truck in which every pane of glass had been shattered. He told Sobhani his girlfriend had done it. Sobhani asked him if he was all right. "I'm fine," answered the man. "My wife's pretty mad, though."

"I could write a book," she says. (Or be the subject of a reality show, we might add.)

The days of regular jackpot-jury payoffs in Harris County are long gone, but that doesn't mean they have completely vanished. Rob Ammons, who specializes in pipeline explosions, won a big victory this year for the family of a man who was killed in a 2007 blast. Ammons convinced a jury to award the survivors of Joshua Wade Petrie $82.5 million in damages. Exterran Energy Solutions of Houston was found to have been grossly negligent in the incident. The company is appealing, of course, but for now Ammons proved that large corporations can still be held responsible for misdeeds, no matter how handcuffed plaintiffs' attorneys have become via "tort reform."

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