A Houston Thanksgiving conjures up many time-honored traditions. These include:
1) Throwing a football around and saying, "Kinda hot out for November, isn't it?";
Turkeys of the Year
2) Seeing how far down the D-list the sponsors of the Thanksgiving parade have to go to find a celebrity (This year's report: Pretty damn low, as the "stars" are LeToya Luckett -- the Pete Best of Destiny's Child -- and Jeff Timmons and Will Makar, whose celebrity status is classified as "Need to be Googled";
3) Watching A&M get whipped once again by Texas; and
4) Waiting with bated breath to see who gets honored as a Houston Press Turkey of the Year.
This year we opened up the nominating process to you, the reading public, and dozens responded. Many argued passionately for naming George W. Bush as Turkey of the Year, but although W did his share of draft-dodgin' and substance-abusin' here in Houston, we can't really claim him as one of our own. He is yours, America, for better or worse.
Usually there's not a lot of discussion that needs to take place about who will be Turkey of the Year -- you see if Tom DeLay's still in office, and that's about it. But that no-brainer method was cruelly taken away in 2006, when The Hammer decided to spend more time with his family, or his lawyers.
There was no shortage of worthy candidates, of course. There was the city's convention bureau, which hosted New Orleans's large Essence Festival in the wake of Katrina, and decided it would provide a great opportunity to show 200,000 visitors how Houston is dull and impossible to get around when the convention bureau doesn't really do anything to help. The Festival is back in New Orleans next year, and will return to Houston as soon as New Orleans, Atlanta, Miami and every other American city over 500,000 population gets hit by a hurricane in the same year.
There was the brain trust of the Houston Texans, who bravely ignored the pleadings of every fan in the city and chose a defensive lineman with the first pick of the NFL Draft. We think there was some discussion of this on local sports-talk radio, but we can't be sure since we began to involuntarily reach frantically to change the station whenever we heard the names Vince Young or Reggie Bush. (The carpal tunnel should heal soon, we're told.)
And, of course, there was Ken Lay, ripping off the public one last time. It truly speaks to a man's character that, when the news breaks that he has died suddenly, the reaction of fully 95 percent of the public is a simple "bullshit." As always, the New York Post captured the vibe, sporting this front-page headline: "Before they put Cheato Lay's coffin in the grave, check he's in it."
Lay's death also prompted a classic exchange at a White House press briefing. Spokesman Tony Snow was asked for the president's reaction to the news and answered with "I don't know, what do you think would be the appropriate thing to say?"
"I don't know," the reporter replied. "I don't know him. The president was his friend, not me."
"No," said Snow, "the president has described Ken Lay as an acquaintance, and many of the president's acquaintances have passed on during his time in office."
Lay? Short guy, bald? It's kinda ringing a bell, but I can't be sure. He used to wear a halo, didn't he?
Lay's timely death deprived us all of the chance to imagine Ol' What's-His-Name shaking in fear after he dropped the soap in the shower; on the other hand, it also spared us the inevitable campaign to win his reputation back via well-publicized charity efforts.
No, there was no shortage of viable candidates this year. But perhaps the rule we were following wasn't right -- it wasn't a matter of checking to see if Tom DeLay was still in office, it was a matter of checking to see who was running for Congress in the 22nd District. In the past, sure, that was the same thing. But this year the 22nd showed it wasn't a one-trick pony; even without DeLay, it gave us our Turkey of the Year. And for that we are thankful, as always.
Turkey of the Year: Shelley Sekula-Gibbs
Whatever happened to that bright-eyed, noble widow of a beloved Houston anchorman who we first met as Shelley Sekula Rodriguez?
She's now Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, leading the fight to "secure our borders without amnesty," running the nation's goofiest write-in campaign and promising to solve a whole slew of problems in the two weeks she will serve in Congress.
The "slew of problems" she promised to fix didn't, at the time, include massive heaps of mocking national publicity following a staff walkout on her first day of work, but we're sure she can adjust. Her decision to demand an investigation into the departed staffers showed a keen ability to keep the story in front of the public when it otherwise would have died. It's nice to know she's keeping up the 22nd District's worldwide rep for nuttiness.
When Sekula-Gibbs first got elected to the city council in 2001 -- running on a platform that wasn't so much "Get rid of the Mexicans!" as it was "You used to watch my husband on TV!" -- no one expected a whole lot. She seemed to be in the quiet, go-along mode of most city council members.
Before long, though, council members and the folks attending meetings learned differently. It was a rare subject that Sekula-Gibbs did not feel the need to orate upon, usually with a heavy emphasis on the fact that she's a doctor. (And usually not with a heavy emphasis that she is a dermatologist, which isn't exactly the kind of doctor they make TV shows about.)
She single-handedly created the move to ban smoking in bars, marking perhaps the first time that Houston tried to do something because it had been done in New York and Austin.
When DeLay decided the country no longer deserved him, Sekula-Gibbs announced for his seat. But because the GOP outsmarted itself trying to preserve the 22nd for a Republican, she had to run as a write-in candidate.
Having a name like "Shelley Sekula-Gibbs" and deciding to run a write-in campaign is, in a word, genius. It called to mind the immortal jingle sung by The Simpsons' Schwarzenegger character, Rainier Wolfcastle: "Mein bratwurst has a first name, it's F-R-I-T-Z. Mein bratwurst has a second name, it's S-C-H-N-A-C-K-E-N-P-F-E-F-F-E-R-H-A-U-S-E-N."
Sekula-Gibbs took things to a whole other level, however. To produce her radio ads, she apparently had her staff scour the country to see if there were still any singing groups out there in the Mitch Miller/Lawrence Welk mode. They came through with flying colors, resulting in a jaunty little song that sounded like it was first used to sell Burma Shave back in the '40s.
All you had to do to vote for Shelley, the ads energetically explained, was spin a little dial until it reached the proper letter on a computer screen, then hit "enter," then move on to the next letter until you had spelled "Shelley Sekula-Gibbs"!! What could be easier? Remember to pack a lunch, though -- you might be in the voting booth for a while.
J.R. Perez of the Fort Bend County elections office says voters were pretty inventive in spelling Sekula-Gibbs's name. Fort Bend is only one of four counties in District 22, but the list of spellings that were accepted as write-in votes (by a bipartisan panel who ruled on voters' intent) is 28 pages long.
Voters cast their write-in ballots for, among others: Kelly Segula Gibbs, Snelly Gibbr, Schikulla Gibbs, Sheila Gibbs, Shelly Schulla Gibbs, Shelly Gibkula and, by someone who obviously never wanted the joy of using the machine to end, ShelleySkulaGibbsssss.
The name "Sekula" was spelled as Sektula, Sukla, Sequila, Sedoko and Sedoka (by puzzle fans?), Meklua, Sekluda and Shecola.
One voter couldn't be bothered, just putting in SSG. (It counted.) Another, for some reason, entered Sekula Smith.
Another voter entered "Shelle Sekula Fibbs," which might have been a hidden political message. Not so hidden, but counted as a vote just the same, was "Shelly DraculaCunt Gibs." (We like to imagine the bipartisan discussion on that entry: "Well, they misspelled the first and last name, but that's definitely a Shelley vote.")
Even with all the enthusiastic spelling efforts, Sekula-Gibbs lost the race to Democrat Nick Lampson. She got 42 percent of the vote, though, and is widely expected to run again in 2008.
First, though, will come her Congressional term. November 7 also saw a special election in the 22nd to fill the remaining term of DeLay. Lampson didn't run in that one, and voters had Shelley's name spelled out for them on the ballot, so she cruised to victory.
Congress may end up being in session only two weeks before DeLay's term ends, but Sekula-Gibbs is a woman with a plan.
She's told reporters she is dedicated to playing "a meaningful role" in working against higher taxes and for better health care.
But what about the second week, after she solves those problems? Again, Shelley has Big Thoughts. Like this, when a KHOU reporter asked her about the Iraq war: "If you put it in perspective, we've lost 2,800 brave men and women in Iraq but we lose over 9,000 Americans at the hands of illegal immigrants every year, according to the General Accounting Office."
A spokesman for the GAO couldn't confirm the existence of such a report, but maybe Sekula-Gibbs can find it when she's up there in D.C. (See Hair Balls, page 12).
We look forward to the day when historians write Sekula-Gibbs: The Congressional Weeks.
Her diary will be invaluable:
November 13: Orientation Day!! Learned about how offices are assigned, where to park, etc. No progress yet on balancing the budget, but I still have time!!
November 14: Chatting with newly elected members, a lot of them are worrying about where they'll live while in Washington. A hotel works for me! (As long as it's smoke-free.) Question: Should I transfer my Blockbuster account to a store up here? Answer: May not be worth the hassle. But The Da Vinci Code is coming out during my term!
November 22: Back home for the Thanksgiving break. It's nice to be back where everybody knows your name (sort of), but I can't shake the feeling that I've gone through about half my term and still haven't balanced the budget yet.
December 15: My term as a Congresswoman is over. Yes, there were disappointments -- I'm still annoyed they couldn't get a proper nameplate on my door before my term ended -- but there have been triumphs as well. The decision not to transfer the Blockbuster account proved to be a good one, for instance. And I'll never forget the thrill of voting in the same chamber as Tom DeLay! Yes, I leave with a heavy heart -- I couldn't end the Iraq war, or round up those murdering illegals. But I can be proud of what I accomplished here, or what I thought about accomplishing here, if only I had more time and seniority.
Even if she doesn't get extensive tax legislation passed, Sekula-Gibbs's brief stint in the House will not be totally unworthy of note. The City of Houston, for one thing, will now have to spend up to $2 million running an election to replace her on the council.
Thanks, Shelly! Or Kelly. Or Shelley. Or whatever your name is.
Wild Turkey of the Year: Jeff Skilling
If you're a disgraced Enron exec, there are several ways to go -- dying, like Ken Lay; squealing on your buddies, like Andy Fastow; or partying like you're Mel Gibson's wilder brother, like Jeff Skilling.
Skilling further cemented his rep as the Keith Moon of Enron by getting arrested in Dallas this year for public intoxication, a couple of years after he had been arrested in Manhattan for public intoxication.
PI charges are normally reserved for barfing frat boys, or as a way for cops to hassle minorities. White-collar types like Skilling don't fit the profile.
It's all somewhat baffling, so we turned to our expert on all things rambunctiously alcoholic, Brian McManus. Formerly the Houston Press's Nightfly columnist, he's now living in Philadelphia and a member of the raucous band the Fatal Flying Guilloteens.
Houston Press: Have you ever been arrested for public intoxication? Ever come close?
McManus: No. But not for lack of trying. One time, a cop shined a flashlight on me while I was urinating outside a club, let me finish up and then gave me a talking-to: "Come on now, guy." But he didn't write me up. I have a tendency to be over-nice and very gracious when it comes to dealing with officers of the law: "Yes, officer. No, officer. You're completely correct, officer." That sort of thing. That means I'm a bitch. A bitch with no priors.
HP: How hard do you have to work to be arrested for PI, if you're not Hispanic?
McManus: I think it's pretty damn tough. Most cops -- and you see this all the time in the countless TV shows about them and the terribly difficult job they do -- don't like getting bogged down in paperwork. If you're visibly intoxicated but seem to pose no serious physical threat to those around you, you will most likely be let go simply because they don't want to sit at a desk and fill out forms. It's been my experience that if you're not shouting racist insensitivities in the middle of the street, throwing punches at women or attempting to drive a vehicle, you won't make a cop's radar.
HP: In his Dallas arrest, Skilling's attorney said his client "had drinks with dinner at a Mexican restaurant and then went for a walk." Is he somehow leaving out some details, or are the cops in Dallas total fascists?
McManus: The cops in Dallas are fascists. Skilling's attorney has a point. That said, something must've tipped the cops off. Perhaps he shit his pants or started walking down the train tracks that are just off Market Square.
HP: Getting a PI arrest after a federal judge had ordered you to stay sober as part of your bond -- ballsy? A cry for help? Evidence that the margaritas in Dallas are unfairly strong and can victimize a nave Enron executive?
McManus: I've read Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and by that I mean I've seen the movie. Skilling really liked taking risks. He loved riding dirtbikes at unsafe speeds and yeah, there was something in there, too, about him stealing millions of dollars from company pensions to cover his own ass. Does that make him ballsy? Is he a wounded, misunderstood victim of his own genius? Maybe. But I just think it makes him Republican.
HP: In his New York arrest, Skilling blew a .19, lifted a woman's blouse to see if she was wearing a wire, tried to steal a license plate and, according to the police report, at one point "went to the middle of the street, put his hands behind his back and began talking to the sky, asking if FBI cameras were capturing what was happening." What kind of style points would you award? And what's the deal with the license plate?
McManus: That sounds like some sort of Martin Lawrence "I've been doing cocaine for days on end" type of story that always ends with the suspect shouting conspiratorial this-and-thats about being followed or under surveillance. As for the license plate, that's just par for the course. When you're really blasted on goofy juice you wind up doing stupid things. I know a guy that bought a live chicken in the Italian market one morning after a bender and then walked it around on a leash. That sort of thing just happens.
HP: Would you like to party with Jeff? Where in Houston would you take him, and what would be the sound track for the evening?
McManus: I'd love to party with Jeff. He seems like a corporate dickwad, but the kind of dickwad who, after a few, would completely agree with you after you shouted "Mannnnnnnn, you're a dickwad!!" in his face. As much as I'd love to take him to Leon's Lounge or Lone Star Saloon, I'd really just want to take him to a bar where people would know who he was the second I introduced him -- a steakhouse bar or Pesce or something like that. I think it would be pretty easy to score free cocktails like that.
Sports Turkey of the Year: David Carr
By the fifth year of their existence in the modern days of NFL parity, most expansion teams have made the playoffs. The Texans haven't come close.
We choose not to rehash the entire sordid history for fear of inducing that little piece of bile in the back of the throat that tends to come up when you're discussing Charley Casserly. We instead focus on one man: David Carr.
Carr has been blamed, both fairly and unfairly, for much of the Texans' awfulness. He holds on to the ball too long and gets sacked, he telegraphs passes, he's not a clubhouse leader, etc., etc.
A change in coaches was supposed to herald a new day. There is some evidence that Carr is improving, but we'd be willing to bet it's not going to last and, until the Texans bite the bullet and get rid of him, they ain't going anywhere.
Carr is our Sports Turkey not because of who he is -- he's an upright guy who'll answer questions after a tough loss and he hasn't had any scandals in his time here. (If anything, he's too boring and strait-laced, which might not help in an NFL clubhouse.) Rather he's our Turkey because of all he has put us through.
You only have to search the archives of the Houston Chronicle to see what we're talking about. Back in the misty days of ancient Texans history, Carr was a god bestowed on Houston by a benevolent Providence. The Chron, in its coverage of the Texans' first training camp, had a daily feature called "Carr Watch" which would focus on the QB.
Remember those days? Here's a sampling:
July 26 -- "Highlight: Displaying his mobility by getting outside the pocket and throwing a laser to Alvin Black, who hauled it in for a touchdown. Memo: Carr is much more mobile and athletic than advertised.
"Lowlight: We'll take a rain check."
July 24 -- "Highlight: Threw a ball about 40 or 50 yards in the air and landed it in the waiting arms of Jermaine Lewis...It offered a glimpse of what can happen when Carr's arm meets Lewis's speed.
"Lowlight: The final horn. Carr was so sharp Tuesday, the worst thing that happened was practice ending."
July 28 -- "Highlight: Pick a play, just about any play. Carr continues to amaze sideline observers with his ability to throw into tight spaces. If he plays the way he practices, the Texans have a very special player on their hands."
August 15 -- "Highlight: Every day, Carr seems to make a throw more spectacular that the spectacular throw of the previous day...
"Lowlight: Having to answer questions about the [Sports Illustrated] cover jinx after appearing on the cover of the magazine this week."
You get the idea. Compare that to post-game quotes from Carr in the last year or so: "We kept shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties and [mishandled] snaps. That's elementary stuff. My brother's high school team isn't that bad."
Or "I don't think there were other ways to lose, but then we played Tennessee."
Or "I'd never thought in a million years we'd play like that. That was unbelievable."
Or "It was a tough way to lose a game two weeks in a row. You could write a book about it."
Or "It's frustrating because you get tired of losing. You can't let it get to you, though."
Again, you get the idea. Somewhere along the line Carr went from being a future Hall of Famer to being the go-to guy for quotes on losing.
Maybe new head coach Gary Kubiak is the answer. Or maybe the Texans are just doomed to ineptitude, interspersed with brief periods of false hope. All we know is that it ain't no fun rooting for them, and David Carr's a big part of that.
Turkey Landlord of the Year: Weingarten Realty
For years, Houston's Weingarten Realty has been developing commercial real estate without making waves. With deep roots in the community -- hey, Andy Fastow's wife is a Weingarten! -- they've been solid citizens, quietly and steadily making their big bucks.
Until 2006, when they went batshit.
Word began to leak out earlier this year that the Landmark River Oaks Theatre, the much-loved home for indie films and overpriced tickets, was in danger. Then came rumors that the Alabama Theater, now home to a Bookstop, was also at risk of being demolished.
What happened? Had some outside firm come in from New York or L.A. and decided to thrash its way through what little exists of Houston's history? No, it was the Weingarten family, heeding the call to keep those stockholders happy.
Drew Alexander, CEO of the company (and grandson of the founder), has been tight-lipped about things, but he did confirm to the Houston Chronicle that change might be coming.
"If people want to raise money and continue operating [the River Oaks] as an upscale dinner theater, with cocktails, then great. If people love to go to the Landmark River Oaks and it does well -- great. Or if the building can be converted to doing something that performs well, that's great, too."
So it's come to this: the fate of the River Oaks is in the hands of someone who can put the words "upscale" and "dinner theater" together while keeping a straight face.
Fortunately, a whole army of people has risen up to fight the possible closing. Unfortunately, the script is playing out true to form.
This is Houston. These things go one way, and one way only:
1) Developer threatens beloved landmark.
2) Citizens arise.
3) Citizens and developer meet and "have a dialogue" to find common ground.
4) The bulldozers come.
We're clearly in Phase Three of this tale, if you listen to Sarah Gish, the former River Oaks manager and foreign-film cineaste who has been leading the protests. She uses the word "dialogue" and touches all the achingly hopeful bases: "We want to work WITH Weingarten so that they can come up with a solution that is agreeable to all," she says by e-mail. "We are on hiatus until January, but are still working behind the scenes on plans for saving both theater sites (which I don't want to say yet, since they are still in development), which includes hopes for meeting with Weingarten."
Man, we really want Gish's group to succeed. (Although not necessarily if it includes an upscale dinner theater. Some sacrifices are not worth it.)
But when a developer starts throwing up his hands and saying, "I owe it to the stockholders," you're in trouble. And dialogue is only staving off the inevitable.
Of course, since this involves the movies, there's always the chance that Gish and Alexander will cross swords at the negotiating table, scream at each other and shoot daggers with their eyes...right up until he decides he likes that gal's spunk.
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While his stockholders clamor for higher returns and his underlings wonder what's gone wrong with him, Alexander tries to win Gish's heart by flying through every Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard movie he can find on Netflix. He tears up at The 400 Blows. He decides the original Breathless is better than the Richard Gere remake.
He gets ready to ask Gish to help him save the theater instead of tearing it down. Together they can make it a Cinema Paradiso right there on Gray.
Then he remembers it's Houston, he can get away with anything and preservation is for losers.
And Houston gets another Banana Republic. And a potential Turkey of the Year for 2007.