River Oaks accountant Bob Martin may make his living balancing other folks' books and tax accounts, but he has the soul of a reporter, albeit a conservative one. He hangs around KSEV radio and maintains a wide circle of media pals. He also may be the only person in Houston who has developed a time schedule to record all local TV news broadcasts every evening. Martin makes regular appearances on KHOU as a talking head on accounting themes, and feeds reporters a weekly stream of suggestions for stories. In the current mayoral cycle Martin is backing Michael Berry, and is not shy about recommending media strategy to the first-term councilman.

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.
It took you three weeks, but you finally worked up the nerve to ask for his number, that sexy hunk at the gym. And you were thinking the hard part was over. But wait! You still have to woo him with your natty clothes, wow him with your classy ride and wallop him with your fabulous taste in dining. You want a second date, don't you? We suggest you slip into a little black dress, roll by and pick him up in your shiny-clean wheels and escort him to Aries, Scott Tycer's showplace of culinary magic on Montrose. With choices such as three-onion brioche bread pudding with confit of tomato, whole branzino in salt crust with asparagus, and Evil Chocolate Overlord Cake, you can't fail to impress the man. Aries has won the hearts of national critics and local diners alike with its upscale American cuisine. Maybe with Tycer's help you can win your date's heart, too.

Veteran land broker and appraiser Tom Bazan first got involved in the municipal arena when he launched a lead paint detection business and fought city contractors who were all too eager to ram through deals without completing proper inspections. From there he ventured onto Houston's transit battlefield -- first producing a Web site that urged the recall of city appointees to the Metro Transit Authority Board, and then e-mailing a sometimes daily antirail bulletin to a list of government officials (mostly Republicans) and media members. He was among the first to call attention to Metro's growing financial problems resulting from slumping sales tax receipts. While some folks have complained about receiving his unauthorized e-mails, Bazan claims innocence, noting that some of his willing recipients often forward the messages on to others. It just goes to show how one man's spam is another's exercise in free speech.

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.

With its gleaming silver spindles, strips of barbed wire surrounding the front door and a big red "look over here" star affixed to its roof, the Art Car Museum is hardly the staid sort of building that pops into one's mind at the mention of the word museum. But its collected set of beautiful art cars is uniquely Houston, and a perfect place to take guests who associate this city with only Enron. Not that it's just an art car collection. The museum, founded in 1998, makes a concerted effort to bring unusual avant-garde art from all over the globe to our hometown -- although a fair share of local artists have exhibited here as well. And here's a bit of trivia: The Art Car is probably one of the few museums in America to receive a visit from the FBI after September 11 (see "Quirky Yes, Al Qaeda No," by Jennifer Mathieu, November 15, 2001). Seems someone thought their avant-garde "Secret Wars" exhibit was some sort of terrorist threat. In the end, the feds deemed the exhibit just really weird, so you know it's gotta be good.
"Do you remember when I was an elephant? The elephant is always here!" It's a familiar set of phrases for any woman who has used the facilities on Rudyard's first floor. (For the uninitiated, the elephant is the coat hook on the back of the bathroom door, with ears and a body penciled in to make him look like a pachyderm.) The homey pub on Waugh is not just a spot for a Shiner and a burger. It's also a great place to read. Just check out the bathroom walls. From poetry ("Don't bother to hover above the seat, the crabs in here can jump ten feet!") to political debates to a long line of cartoon people sketched on the wall of the second-floor women's restroom, every winner of bar graffiti is covered. You might end up spending most of the night on the can instead of on a bar stool. The best part is that Rudyard's is always repainting its bathroom walls, regularly leaving a fresh canvas for the masses to express themselves.

When the Colombia-born Clara Suarez Harris ran her luxury car over husband David at the Nassau Bay Hilton last summer, she stepped from an innocuous life as one-half of a prosperous dentist couple with young twin boys into national tabloid legend as "The Mercedes-Benz Murderess." Although videotapes were never too clear on exactly how many times Clara rolled the Mercedes over David, the jury never bought her claims that it was all a big accident and she was really trying to smash her car into the vehicle of David's mistress, Gail Bridges. The panel did find she acted in "sudden passion," which translated to a maximum 20-year sentence with at least ten years to be served without possibility of parole. If fellow best baddie Andy Fastow has given his Southampton neighborhood unlikely infamy, Clara has joined bathwater baby killer Andrea Yates in the burgeoning category of "Madwomen of Clear Lake."
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.

Texas has the nation's busiest executioner's chamber, and Harris County sends more convicted murderers to Huntsville's gurney than any other. Fighting this state-sanctioned killing machine are a handful of idealistic lawyers and the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of legal representation afforded to poor Texans charged with a capital crime or sentenced to death. The Defender Service became the main safety net for indigent inmates seven years ago after the federal government pulled the plug on funding for a system of legal resource centers that served the same purpose. In addition to representing defendants, the group, headed by University of Houston Law Center graduate Jim Marcus, churns out studies documenting how innocent people are being pulled into capital punishment's widening maw. "We are running full tilt at the edge of a cliff, the execution of the innocent," concludes a recent survey titled "Lethal Indifference." The study also notes that although two out of three capital cases nationwide are overturned for error, since 1995 the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals has reversed only eight of 270 decisions, the lowest reversal rate in the nation. That's about as underdog as it gets.

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