Saturday, December 31, 2005

Draw the Curtains, Fall Asleep on the Couch … And Have a Very Nagin New Year!

We woke up this New Year’s Eve Morn’ full of energy and expectation. We vowed to ourself to follow the example set by our Slampo’s Place Human of the Year for 2005, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who, despite being viciously mugged by reality and finding himself in way over his head (and who wouldn’t have been!), forged along with a kind of bull-headed Bush-ian perseverance that made our jaw go slack with admiration.

Then we settled in with our coffee to read the morning newspaper and immediately fell into a festering funk. The story that sent us spiraling downward dealt with somebody’s big plan to hoist a 9-foot-tall star to the top of the Binz Building as a countdown to midnight, with hopes that said star-raising will evolve into a local tradition to rival the ball-dropping to-do in Times Square.

Ah, come on. We’ve got our own long-established New Year’s Eve tradition in Houston. It’s called the illegal discharging of firearms within the city limits.

The newspaper story included some verbiage from the head of something called the Downtown Entertainment District Alliance (upon reading the title of this organizaiton we were for some reason moved to stand and hum a few bars of La Marseillaise). But instead of the unblinking rah-rah stenographic approach the daily newspaper has traditionally taken to such dubious civic undertakings, we detected a most entertaining tone of sarcasm in the reporting of the star-hoisting and the other World Class enterainment options available hereabouts:

A visit to the city's Web site reveals how bleak the party pickings are: Of the first four "events" listed for today, three are sporting events. The fourth is the Christmas Holiday 2005 Trash Pickup schedule.
Well, as we keep saying, Houston ain’t New Orleans---even now. We're big on picking up the trash here (even when we're not, like last week).

The newspaper then tapped the services of Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History (our favorite kind of history), who opined that ...

Houston is more in line with Indianapolis, San Diego, Albuquerque and Phoenix when it comes to holiday revelry.

Oh, the ignominy.

Obviouslky, this Bruegmann has no sensitivity for the feelings of Elyse Lanier.

The Chronicle wiseacres went on to report that the “biggest entertainer on the books in Houston for New Year's Eve is comedian Steve Harvey.” (Much deeper in the paper we found an interview with Mr. Harvey---hey, we woke up real early, but we knew Kid Galahad was on Turner Classics---in which he boasts that “no one funnier” than he will come through Houston [sigh], and that in his New Year’s Eve performances he would be saying something or other nice about Richard Pryor, although when Pryor was still extant and making funny young Steve Harvey was not qualified to carry his jockstrap to the shower, or even clean the screen of his crack pipe.)

Yes, it’s dire. Not even Sharpstown native Robert Earl Keen will be strumming in his hometown tonight.

All the more reason to stay in. Not that we’d be going out. We’ve got Jon Dee Graham’s The Great Battle, and Eddi Reader’s Sings the Songs of Robert Burns, and Richard Thompson’s Front Parlour Ballads, and an almost-fresh bag of unground Community’s Private Reserve (funny how they’ve repackaged the workingman’s coffee of our youth). We’ve got fences to mend, a yard fill of leaves to rake and mulch, a back-upped toilet to unplug and …

OK ... so what time is the Steve Harvey show?

The early one.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Our Murder Year(s), Part II

Even with the number of homicides in Houston expected to be up about 25 percent over 2004 when this strange year sputters to its end, the accumulated butchery will still fall shy of half of what it was in that Record Setting Murder Year of 1981, when residents of all makes and models were putting the boom into Boomtown with a vengeance.

We remember that year, albiet hazily, as it was the very year we snuck into town and, as a junior staff member of a since-discontinued publication had to spend many late evenings between Thanksgiving and New Year’s filling in for the slightly more senior staff members who covered the police beat out of the old Cop Shop at 61 Riesner. Houstonians were being shot, knifed and beaten to death at an alarming rate that holiday season, usually at a clip of a half-dozen or more on weekend evenings, and thus we spent most of our time careening about Baghdad on the Bayou, listening to the police scanner and trying to talk to gruff homicide detectives so we could memorialize these seemingly random deaths with 2- and 3-inch “widgets” in the next morning’s paper.*

Shortly after that the boom began leaking out of Boomtown, and a few years later the balloon fizzled altogether. Homicides and other crimes began dropping to slightly more acceptable levels, and the civic psychosis abated somewhat … until that other memorable Murder Year,1991, when a seeming rash of well-publicized killings---some involving well-off white people who were jacked or taken off in their front yards---turned policing into the hot issue in that year’s mayor race.

That was the year the Bob Lanier was trying to unseat Kathy Whitmire, who had ousted Lanier from the Metro chairmanship for his repeated efforts to delay or kill the rail plan that voters kinda-maybe-sorta had approved. Lanier thought rail was his ticket to ride, but, being a quick study, he soon realized that all those blaring live-from-the-scene TV reports weren’t devoted to chronicling some great anti-Metro fervor, and that in fact most Houstonians don’t get exercised one way or another over the transit agency and its plans, unless they patronize its services (as it remains today). So---voila!---Lanier came up with his “655 Plan,” which proposed to take Metro’s rail set-aside and use it to place said number of new officers on the streets. Or the equivalent of that number through overtime. Something like that. It didn’t help that Whitmire seemed aloof and indifferent to the almost-daily screaming TV reports of the mayhem (losing her African-American base to a black candidate didn’t help, either).

Lanier did put more cops on the street, and crime did fall ion Houston, precipitously, and continued falling through the somewhat mystifying Lee P. Brown Interregnum. But as University of Chicago economist and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt has noted, crime fell everywhere in the United States in the 1990s, even in cities that did not markedly increase police presence or undertake innovative anti-crime strategies. (According to the Justice Department, the nation’s violent crime rate fell to its lowest level ever in 2004.)

Levitt believes that increasing the number of police does contribute to a reduction in crime---perhaps that seems obvious, but the economist says it’s hard to establish causality---as does locking up more people (e.g., the huge surge in the inmate population that Texas and other states experienced during the prison-building frenzy of the late ’80s and ’90s). But Levitt has also famously and controversially posited that the biggest single factor was the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, which resulted in the non-existence of a large pool of potential criminals who would’ve been born to poor, single teen mothers and begun hitting their prime crime-committing years in the early ’90s. Levitt’s theory makes sense to us, based strictly on our Bush-ian intuition, although it is still being vigorously contested, as this recent Wall Street Journal Online piece shows.

Now we’re having another Murder Year in Houston, or perhaps (hopefully) just a Murder Month or two. Whether the recent uptick in killings and other violent crimes is a temporary incongruity, born of one of those recurrent spikes in gang activity and the unprecedented packing-in of hurricane evacuees to apartment complexes with high vacancy rates (which from a non-economic standpoint might not have been the most desirable places to pack ’em in, because high vacancy rates would indicate that people with wherewithal were staying away in droves, most likely ’cause the places were not so cheery to begin with), will be revealed in time. Homicide is the one crime that definitely can’t be prevented by the simple addition of more cops, unless you’d want one stationed at every residence and business in the city.

The mayor and police chief are right in their cautious estimations, in not going overboard in fingering Katrina evacuees (while trying to pry money from FEMA to pay for police overtime … hmmm …), and are responding correctly by addressing the apparent locality of the crime surge (as opposed to chest-beating vows to pour more cops on the streets, willy-nilly). Still, the homicide numbers for November and December** approach the levels of the early 1980s. Those may have been good times for the city, economically, but we doubt anyone is nostalgic for the attendant carnage.

*It’s mostly become a blur, but we do remember one victim clearly---a Hispanic gentleman who took a knife in the chest and fell out smack in the middle of Hillcroft Drive, not far from the apartment we then inhabited. It was unclear whether he had been pushed from a passing vehicle or had been trying to get to or from somewhere on foot when he gave up the ghost. It was a bitterly cold evening, and the poor guy lay sprawled out in the hard street, his work shirt having been torn open by the emergency medical personnel. We strolled over to take a look at the corpse---we suppose that crime scenes were less tightly restricted back then---and since that night we’ve nursed a great hope that we might expire at home in a warm bed.

**Sadly, one of the most recent was the killing of a classmate of our son who was shot in the head during a drug deal at a park connected to an HISD school in an affluent white neighborhood.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Sheer Balls

Does anyone in Houston favor building a new stadium for Major League Soccer, other than Oliver Luck, who has conveniently exited his post as chief officer of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority to assume the presidency of the soon-to-arrive MLS franchise, and Chronicle columnist John P. Lopez, who apparently has taken on a side job as Luck’s publicist?

We’ve not seen or heard of any discernible public sentiment in that direction, but then we don’t hang in the same circles as Luck and Lopez (it's got a ring, don't it?).

Our rule of thumb on these matters, which we formulated long ago, is to wholly discount anything a sports columnist, writer or broadcaster has to say with regard to the construction of news sports venues, because invariably they reduce themselves to shills for the owners of the teams they cover (and cover from a very nice vantage point inaccessible to the average fan), in addition to exhibiting their woeful ignorance of the wide world outside of sports.

Let’s take Lopez. He relates today that Luck has a plan (details to come) for a new “soccer-specific” stadium “that would not be financed like every other sports mansion on the local landscape” in that “financing will not be another tax burden on citizens.”

Excuse me, but isn’t that the argument that was put forward on behalf of Minute Maid Park, the Toyota Center and Reliant Stadium---that none of these facilities would impose an additional burden on the payer of general taxes (sales and property), but rather the load would be saddled on out-of-towners who rent cars and stay in hotels and users of these venues (revenue that hasn't met projections, by the way, thus forcing the authority to take on almost $40 million more in debt last year to forestall its bonds being degraded to junk status). So maybe Luck's plan isn't so all-fire new and different ...

According to Lopez, this “public-private partnership” which he seems to know little about detail-wise (or isn’t willing to “share” with his readers, because maybe that’s not where his loyalties lie at the moment), could involve, as he coyly puts it, “say, HISD.”

No. Somebody needs to stand up and stop that. ASAP. We’re sure we’ll be told it’s been done in other cities and other school districts, etc., and we’re sure there will be no new “tax burden on citizens,” but that’s not what a school district is for. Period. It’s that effin’ simple. (We would unilaterally assign the task of derailing this plan to, say, Chronicle news columnist Ric Ocasek … excuse me, Rick Casey, but since it’s not something that happened in San Antonio 15 years ago he probably couldn’t work up much interest).

In a textbook case of government “empire building,” Oliver Luck and the Sports Authority have been angling for several years to bring an MLS franchise to Houston---a job that by no stretch of the imagination was part of the authority’s initial charge. The Sports Authority should have been shuttered long ago and its bill-paying functions housed in the back of some non-descript office building with a hand-lettered sign on the door. Didn’t County Judge Robert Eckels raise that possibility a while back? What happened with that?

Last year, in his role as the Sports Authority’s chief officer, Luck gave a speech in which he told an East End group that a revamped Robertson Stadium would be a suitable venue for an MLS franchise. There was no mention of a new stadium, according to the Chronicle story still posted on the authority’s Web site. Now that Luck has taken the revolving door to the former San Jose Earthquakes, Robertson Stadium apparently will be good only as temporary home for the MLS. A new stadium must be built. No doubt the owners of the Earthquakes figure Luck is the man to deliver one, and he's already shown them he knows how to handle the media (was he, by any chance, working out this financing plan of which Lopez writes while drawing some of his $200,00 annual paycheck from the Sports Authority?).

Our olfactories aren’t that sensitive anymore, but this has a very bad smell about it.*

*Our prediction: Somewhere along the line opposition to a new “soccer-specific” stadium will be characterized as anti-Hispanic. Watch!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like Him Anymore (Which Is a Good Thing)

Walter Mischer, recipient of an appropriately played send-off on the front page of Tuesday’s daily newspaper, was among the most influential people, if not the most influential person, in late-20th century Houston.

Mischer was the acknowledged King Daddy of the hell-bent-for-leather suburban developers who in the flush years following World War II pushed the city farther and farther out from its core while stretching public resources and turning a very nice profit. But that, it should be noted, was what people wanted at the time, and many still desire (people like our relatives and old friends of our parents who lived in those wood-frame cottages on the east side that we remember as being particularly cold when we made our annual visitations at this time of year). Mischer was responsible for the development of a large swath of the part of town we call home, areas now considered “old” and relatively “close-in,” and through the spread of the municipal utility district concept he left an indelible mark on Harris County, for better or worse. His influence is still strongly felt today, in the ongoing controversies over the Grand Parkway or in the person of Port of Houston kingpin Jim Edmonds.

Mischer, as state senator and former county judge Jon Lindsay told the Chronicle, was a “powerbroker par excellence,” a direct heir to the 8F clique that for so many years met behind closed doors to make decisions for most everyone else in Houston (in those long-ago days when the banks, newspapers, the radio and then TV stations were controlled by locals). For many less-powerful people in Houston, that made the secretive and publicity- averse Mischer something of a Prince of Darkness, the prime local exemplar of those who manipulated public entities and officials for private enrichment. Mischer was an object of fascination for investigative reporters, particularly Pete Brewton of the Houston Post, who found in Mischer one link to the titular entities of his book The Mafia, the CIA and George Bush through what Brewton alleged were Mischer’s longtime ties to New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello (we mention Brewton’s book in the interest of presenting a more, um, fleshed-out portrait of the deceased, not necessarily to endorse his hypotheses, which we had to jog our memory to recall far past the point of the usual necessary jogging, and which we may have nonetheless misconstrued [if so, sorry]).

Mischer had a seemingly inexplicable animus toward Kathy Whitmire, and it would have been interesting if the Chronicle had managed to scare up a quote or two from the ex-mayor. Democracy had sporadically broken out in Houston prior to Whitmire’s becoming mayor, through the election of the elder and junior Hofheinzes, but Whitmire, a woman who had worked her way up through the political (not business) ranks, was for some reason particularly irksome to Mischer and his cronies, Bob Lanier among them. As the Chronicle obit noted, Mischer backed Louie Welch’s unsuccessful comeback bid to unseat Whitmire, and he later supported Lanier in his successful campaign to oust the city’s first (so far only) female mayor. Prior to that, Mischer even constructed a candidate mostly out of whole cloth to run against Whitmire (the guy, who had several pressing personal problems that went unrevealed to the public, was badly beaten). It is mildly interesting that Mischer, though past his heyday, backed both Lanier and Bill White, each of whom turned out to be a much bigger liberal than Whitmire ever aspired to be.

It’s impossible to think of someone in the city now comparable to what Mischer was to Houston in the 1960s through ’80s.

And that’s progress.

Comments of any length are welcome at the e-mail address found in the upper right-hand corner.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Mayor White Dances, FEMA Fiddles, and Waiter, Can We Get the Check?

Channel 13 had an interesting story Sunday on Mayor Bill White’s weekend ride-along with patrol cops to some of the half-dozen high-crime “hot spots” among west- and southwest-side apartment complexes. Without providing figures, probably because no such figures exist, the station reported that Katrina evacuees are to blame for a “noticeable part” of a recent rise in murders, robberies and aggravated assaults (while noting that they are not solely responsible, and that the numbers of these crimes began inching upward before the hurricane, and that the city had seen an overall decrease in violent crimes over the past two years).

So how “noticeable” a part have New Orleans evacuees played in any real rise in crime (that is, statistically conclusive, and thus taking into account the unprecedented, almost overnight jump in the city’s population after the first week of September)? Is that even quantifiable? And, more to the point, is this something we should be worried about?

It’s a question that obviously has crossed Bill White’s mind, as Channel 13 quoted the mayor vowing to send any evacuees who dare to commit a crime in this jurisdiction straight to the hoosegow or remand them to Louisiana.

The television report followed what we thought was a rather startling figure that was tucked down in a story last week by the Chronicle’s Eric Berger and Jennifer Radcliffe on White’s hanging the “No Vacancy” sign on the city’s offer of 12 months of free rent and utilities for evacuees.

The story noted that the city had written out “up to 500” of the vouchers a day in the previous month, without seeing any drop in the number of evacuees housed in local hotels (this may have been previously reported in the Chronicle or elsewhere---we tend to limit our intake of local media reportage so we can work on getting our handicap below 20). According to the Berger and Radcliffe:
That's because the majority of those seeking apartments have just arrived in Houston. During each of the last five days, half to nearly three-quarters of the families signing up for vouchers at the Disaster Recovery Center in Houston had been in the area for three days or less, officials said.
So that means it’s possible that in just that particular workweek evacuee families were arriving in Houston at a clip of up to 250 to 375 a day, presumably to take advantage of the city’s very generous free rent offer (and are these folks still considered “hurricane evacuees,” a good three months after the hurricane?).


No wonder the traffic in southwest Houston is about to send us over the edge.

White seems to remain confident that FEMA will come though and extend its recently imposed March 1 deadline for ending reimbursement of the city’s 12-month rent program, even as he cracks jokes at FEMA’s expense. We hope he’s right. The mayor has invested quite a bit of his political standing in the city’s generous welcoming of evacuees, and for the most part it’s paid off in a bounty of good will and favorable publicity for Houston, and for him. White’s also done a good job of ensuring that blame for any potential debacle is laid at FEMA’s door, where it would seem to belong, although we’ve found that such well-composed narratives often turn out to be less pat and more complicated than they initially appear.

But we’ll see.

A point or two regarding Bush’s Sunday night speech: If you’re still trying to lay out a justification for a war two and a half years into it, isn’t that an admission right there that the undertaking was ill-advised? But as Bush suggested, those arguments are past tense, and at the moment it comes down to victory or defeat, whatever “victory” may mean … and we suspect at this stage it will mean a whole lot less than Bush originally envisioned.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Put-Upon Victim Speaks Truth to Power

Like you, we felt a faint twinge of sympathy earlier this week when we learned of the plight of Ken Lay. We knew already that Lay faces federal fraud and conspiracy charges; what we didn’t know is that Lay, like the 2,800 people who died in the World Trade Center, is the victim of an organized terror plot. As he told the Forum Club of Houston, quoting the always quotable Winston Churchill, in a Churchillian cadence:
"Truth is a great rock. Whether it will continue to be submerged by a wave, a wave of terror by the Enron Task Force, will be determined by former Enron employees."
This came in the course of a speech in which the former Enron CEO rehearsed his market-tested courtroom defense before an audience of his peers, or what used to be his peers, as he prepares to stand trial next month. An apparently agonizingly long portion of his talk was devoted to his contention that he is being persecuted, in ways both immoral and illegal, by the above-cited task force, a notion that most likely will be allowed only a subliminal airing in the courtroom and thus is being offered up to influence the court of public opinion, in the person of would-be jurors, former employees and other potential sympathizers (you’re out there somewhere, just not easily visible).

Lay’s well-burnished courtroom defense will be to blame Enron’s vertiginous fall on the sneaky criminality of the arch-mastermind “Andy” (a big-time criminal indeed) and the subsequent “run on the bank” that sent the company he put together and nurtured to an unseemly P/E ratio into an irreversible downward spiral before Lay had time to grab his ass and holler for his mama.

The sophisticates rolled their eyes and chuckled up their sleeves at these patently transparent rationalizations, justifications and blame-shiftings, yet we strongly suspect that Ken Lay’s exercise in victimology will work. Almost everyone in North America, including Lay and his wife, knows that he’s guilty of something (world’s biggest fuck-up, world’s worst chief executive officer, world’s dumbest ass, world’s most clueless captain of industry, world’s most blindly faithful believer ... ), but we’d bet the $8 or $9 we cleared (after taxes and expenses) on our ill-advised purchase of Azurix shares that the federal prosecutors will be unable to persuade a jury that that something meets the definition of a crime (or crimes).

Enron is a tragicomedy, with many more comedic elements than tragic ones, and Lay delivered only the most recent farcical turn when he implored his former Enron employees to rise up and rally to tell the world his company actually was a “substantial” one (as it indeed was at one time) with “values and vision” (if you say so, sport) and thus push back the terror wave and un-submerge that rock of truth. (This plea brings to our mind a former governor of Louisiana whose signature, when asking the people for their support, was to look beseechingly into the camera and say, “Won’t you he’p me?”)

We'd be surprised if any ex-employees heed the call. They, we would imagine, have been used enough by Ken Lay (could be wrong, of course---some people just can't stop believin').

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Nobody Ever Moved to Houston to Read No Damn Book

Back in another lifetime, when we drew a meager (very) paycheck from a since-discontinued publication that operated out of a building at Highway 59 and the West Loop in southwest Houston, we were summoned to attend a news conference early one morning at a hotel near Hobby Airport. The holder of the news conference was John Tower. We’ve long forgotten the topic, and we can’t remember if Tower was then still the lone Republican U.S. senator from Texas or had taken leave of that office and was on his way to the public humiliation that capped his career. We do remember one thing he said, though.

Tower was way late to his own event---we’re probably embellishing this faint memory, but we seem to recall that from close-up he still reeked of the previous evening’s consumption---and when he finally tottered up to the dais, he spread his arms, grinned broadly and declared, “Well, it’s good to be back in this very erudite city once again.” *

That was the first time we had heard Houston referred to as a “very erudite city.” And it remains the only time.

We weren’t sure what Tower intended by that throwaway remark, and we didn’t have the opportunity to ask that morning, as there were notes to be taken and supposedly more pressing questions to be posed. We figured that he probably was just kidding, giving a hung-over wink to his pals in the small audience, but we also considered the possibility that he was being wickedly sarcastic. After all, he was something of an erudite fellow himself, or had pretensions thereof (with his Savile Row suits and detachable collars, etc.), having attended the London School of Economics and Politics and been a professor of political science for a long spell. And although Tower was born in and raised a bit in Houston and graduated from high school in Beaumont, he chose to base himself in Dallas, where to this day the locals look down their long thin noses at the yokels in Baghdad on the Bayou, as newspaper columnists of days past called our town (how come nobody calls it that no mo’?).

Or maybe he was being sincere, in a chummy and early-morning woozy way, and through his long years of public service had recognized something in our town that had escaped the attention of less discerning observers.

We had occasion recently to again ponder Tower’s salutation when we learned of Houston’s showing in the annual literacy rankings of cities with populations larger than 250,000 as compiled by John J. Miller, the president of Central Connecticut State University (“the Harvard of central Connecticut,” as Jon Stewart called it). The survey weighed several factors to formulate what Miller calls “one critical index of our nation’s health” (don’t ask us how a university president has time to compile a study).

Baghdad on the Bayou was ranked 53rd, sandwiched between No. 52 Mesa, Az. (“The Little Phoenix of Maricopa County”) and No. 54 Phoenix (“The Big Mesa of Maricopa County”) out of 69 U.S. cities (in 2004 Houston came in 63rd among 79 cities ranked).

This year’s Top 10 was populated by the usual suspects associated with books and computers and other manifestations of “literacy”---Seattle, Minneapolis, Washington and San Francisco---but also included Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, smallish tank towns that usually call to our mind “National League,” not “literate.”

In Texas, Austin was tops at No 16, followed by Fort Worth (tied w/ Las Vegas for 44th) and Dallas at 48th.

Houston ranked behind Jacksonville, Fla. (“The Birthplace of Hooters”), but ahead of No. 63 Arlington (“The City With Plenty of Parking Spaces”), No 64 San Antonio (“The Heavy Metal Music Capital of North America”), No. 67 Corpus Christi (“We’ve Got a Nice Beach”) and No. 68 El Paso (“Welcome to the End of Earth”), which barely escaped its last place finish of 2004, thanks to Stockton, Cal.

Most of the cities in the lower third of the rankings are in California or Texas and have large immigrant populations, which we would surmise accounts for their poor showings (Los Angeles clocked in at No. 60). Survey compiler Miller did not see fit to include “a large supply of cheap labor” as a criterion.

What he did consider were the number of a city’s bookstores per capita, the educational attainment of its residents, its Internet and library resources, the newspaper circulation in the metropolis and the number of magazines and journals published there.

We’re generally suspicious of these type of ginned-up surveys (“Fattest City,” etc.), especially one that proposes to quantify something as seemingly intangible as a city’s literacy, so we thought we’d take a closer look at the categories and how Houston fared:

Bookstores, based on both retail outlets and rare and used bookstores, as well as the number of members of the American Booksellers Association per 10,000 population: Houston managed a tie at 39th with Nashville, ahead of Dallas but behind Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. According to Miller, “The presence of retail book stores is positively associated with quality of libraries. So, it is not a question of whether people buy books or check them out: they do both or neither.”

Education level, based on the percentage of adult residents with an educational level of 8th grade or less, the percentage of adults with a high school diploma or higher and the percentage with a bachelor’s degree or higher: Houston showed up, barely, in 51st place. No. 1 was Colorado Springs.

Internet resources, based on the availability of library Internet connections and commercial and public wireless Internet access, the number of Internet book orders per capita and the percentage of adults who have read a newspaper on the Internet: Here Houston scored best, tied for No. 24 with very erudite Colorado Springs.

Library resources, based on the per-capita number of branch libraries, volumes held in libraries, circulation of material, library and school media professionals: Houston again nailed down the No. 51 slot; St. Louis (!) and Cleveland (?!) were ranked Nos.1 and 2.

Newspaper circulation, weekday and Sunday, divided by total city population: No. 50, alhtough the Houston Chronicle has retained its ranking, as you may have read.

Periodical publishers, based on number of magazine publishers with circulations over 2,500 and the number of journals published with circulations over 500 per 100,000 population: We’re No. 49!

Hmmm … there does seem to be a pronounced consistency to Houston's place in the pecking orders.

We must now conclude that in all likelihood our man Tower was poking fun at us.

Or else he thought he was in Fort Worth.

*Writing this led us to muse on how unlikely it would be for someone like Tower to be elected to a statewide office in Texas today.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Ain't Dark Yet (Keep Tellin' Yourself That)

Will Baby Boomers ever just shut the fuck up and slip away gracefully to the Old Folks Home?

Apparently not. Today’s Parade magazine (available in the deep recesses of Sunday newspapers everywhere) brings news that “Life Begins at 60.” This is one of those periodic generational updates from noted fabulist Gail Sheehy, who’s made a career of this sort of facile psychologizing (Passages, etc.) for nigh on a generation.

We didn’t have time to read the entire Parade article, because as a mid-range Baby Boomer* we know that our days are not limitless and the horizon draws close, and on top of that we just realized that we had stepped in some dogshit earlier when we were out poking around in the yard, and we gotta go take care of that business, soon.

Yet we did pause to peruse Parade’s gallery of celebrities who are turning 60 next year (the maximum age of the Baby Boom cohort), and we think that their scalpeled and Botoxed and Collagened faces (OK, not all of ‘em, but lots more than you’d think) argue strongly against Sheehy’s grandiloquent declaration. (Didn’t, by the way, life used to begin at 30? What happened with that?) These mug shots would actually seem to indicate that life is pretty much over at 60, that from there it’s just a quick roll downhill to mere oblivion and the waiting boneyard. Or many hours of plastic surgery.

There’s Reggie Jackson, now truly looking like Mr. October. Guy hasn’t hit a home run in 18 or 19 years, if we’re not mistaken. And Rollie Fingers, still with the mustache thing, but he hasn’t ambled out of the bullpen in a good two decades. Then there’s Donovan---Donovan!---who hasn’t charted a song since 1966 or 1967. Bill Clinton (not president for five years) Cher (yikes!). Sally Field (ditto). Sylvester Stallone, whose face gives us the mean shivers. Crackpot filmmaker Oliver Stone. Connie Chung (is she still trying to get pregnant?). Michael Milken, Tyne Daily and Jimmy Buffett, etc.

All these disparate personages shackled together on Parade’s geriatric chain gang have one thing in common: Their best work is behind them, whether it was relief pitching, singing Hurdy Gurdy Man, enacting welfare reform or using junk bonds to finance questionable corporate acquisitions.

Sheehy calls ages 50 through 75 “The Age of Mastery,” a concept we did not raise this morning when we spoke in the driveway with our 56-year-old (we think) next-door neighbor, who exhausted most of our conversational moment recounting in very fine detail his recent five-day stay in the VA Hospital. His confinement was occasioned by a urinary tract infection of unknown origin that caused, among other symptoms, his “right nutsack” to swell up “as big as a goddamn avocado.” (Maybe it was his left nutsack, we weren’t taking notes.)

He says he’s fine now, but it goes without saying that his longheld dream of dunking a basketball at age 60 has been dashed.

*But not “old.” Not us. No way. Never.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Here Everything’s Better. Almost Everything.

A day that will live in infamy: Pear Harbor (1941), Nolan Ryan signs with the Rangers (1988), Drayton McLane declines to enter salary arbitration with Roger Clemens (2005).

The scale of the tragedies that posterity will commemorate on December 7 has progressively diminished over the years, to the point that the most recent falls well short of even the loosest definitions of tragedy. It may not even qualify as bad news. We wish we could pretend that we’re exercised and wrought over Clemens’ probable departure from the hometeam, but we aren’t. For starters, we’re a fair-weather fan, at best, and long ago shed any sentimentality we once harbored in regard to professional sport (it was about 1967). And on a merely personal level, we never much cared for Clemens before he signed with the Astros, believing him to be the prickish sort, although we of course admired his competitive drive and the way he tried to drill Mike Piazza with the broken bat, etc. We’ve also found his shill-ery for the San Antonio-based supermarket chain to be bothersome, in a strictly aesthetic sense (i.e., “not pretty”).

Public opinion seems mixed, at least the public opinion of poor Richard Justice, the Houston Chronicle’s usually astute sports columnist, who was so torn by the Astros’ non-move that he wended his way through many inches of newsprint coming down firmly on both sides of the issue. His point, we think, was that while there were sound reasons for tightwad McLane to relinquish Clemens, the Astros owner should have made the effort to come to terms with possibly broke-down pitcher (as his last two starts would suggest) because … he should have. Justice had already secured his credentials as a world-class sentimentalist with his heartfelt brief on behalf of oldster Jeff Bagwell’s insertion into the line-up as designated hitter for the World Series. That worked out well, you’ll recall (at least Justice refrained from padding out his Clemens column with the revelation that he had recently learned the meaning of the word ambit.)

Another small tragedy befell Houston on this December 7, one that we found more troubling than the probable loss of the seven-time Cy Young winner and noted backyard grill-ist. It happened near our neck of the metropolis, on the campus of Westbury High School, where 27 students were arrested after what was variously described by the media as a brawl or a mini-riot that reportedly pitted students from Houston and against evacuee students from New Orleans (we use the word “students” simply for lack of a better shorthand description, because you can safely bet the mortgage that none of those involved have done any studying for years, if ever).

While this unfortunate episode (unfortunate for the school, the school district, and the great majority of Westbury students who were trying to keep their heads down and escape into the larger world with a high school diploma), has deservedly received extensive media attention, we’d like to point out something that is perhaps so obvious that it goes without saying: that at bottom this incident was about absolutely nothing, nothing except the ongoing infantilization of a too-large portion of our African-American youth, another sorry example of what the comedian Dave Chappelle has called “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”

As summed up by one Anthony Brassey, identified as a Westbury alumnus, for Channel 2:
“As for the Houston kids, they are taking it like, ‘This is my home. You can’t take over my home.' New Orleans kids are like, ‘They put us over here, so since we’re over here, we’re going to take over.' ”
Which, in its sheer incomprehensibility, just about explains it all.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Greatest Christmas Song in Christendom

When we were a boy in the previous century, in that time before teenagers were downloading Internet porn on their cell phones, the annual and much-anticipated commencement of the Christmas season (as it was then known) was signified by the first playing of Charles Brown’s Please Come Home for Christmas on the radio. This usually did not occur until the first week of December, at the earliest. From then until New Year’s, the song was played incessantly on the town’s Top 40 station. It was such a beloved local standard that it occasionally could be heard on the easy-listening and country-western stations, too.

We just assumed this was a phenomenon solely endemic to southwest Louisiana, and that Brown was a local product, a purveyor of the deeply soulful la-la that would much later be categorized as “Swamp Pop” by rock-n-roll academicians, or whoever. We were wrong on the second count, we would learn, but our first assumption may have been close to correct. In any case, the deejays of KVOL (“1330 on your dial”) were most certainly on to something: There is nothing more sublime in the annals of American popular music than the opening of Please Come Home for Christmas: the solemn three chimes--- dingdingding --- and then Brown’s warm and expressive voice bringing you the news as the music rolls forward: Bells will be ringing ...

As a child, the song was like wallpaper to us: It meant nothing more than a familiar signpost to an upcoming holiday from school, another trip back to the ancestral home in East Texas, presents under the tree, etc. Then, as a young man, we acquired a perhaps superficial first-hand appreciation of the tragedy of which Brown sang---I’m not be getting any this Christmas---which, as far as tragedies go, pales next to the Holocaust or the Great Terror or a tsunami that kills tens of thousands, yet all tragedies are at some level personal ones, as somebody said.

More recently, as we stumbled into the autumn of our years, we arrived at a much deeper appreciation of Please Come Home for Christmas, of the overwhelming sense of loss and longing that informs Brown’s song. We’ve probably heard it a thousand times, yet Please Come Home for Christmas can still move us and stir all variety of emotions, if not quite drive us to our knees or bring us to tears. Neither time nor the Eagles’ pallid remake of some years ago has diminished the power of Brown’s words and voice.

Charles Brown was not from Louisiana but from Texas City, born there in 1922. Most biographies say he became a teacher of math and chemistry, but like many talented and ambitious African-Americans of the time he got the hell out of segregated 1940s Texas and made his way to California, where he launched a successful R&B career that carried him through the mid-’50s, with songs such as “Trouble Blues” and “Black Night.” While Brown himself reportedly was a cheery and decorous individual, in his music “the leitmotif was unremitting pain and misery,” wrote Jerry Wexler in the notes to Brown’s 1990 album All My Life. By the late '50s he had, as they say, fallen off the charts, and at some later point he was reduced to stoop labor to make ends meet. Before his death in 1999, though, he had achieved a nice and deserved comeback with the help of Bonnie Raitt and others, and All My Life was testament to the durability of his awesome talent.

Please Come Home for Christmas, as far as we know, has never been included on those “100 Greatest Songs of All-Time” lists complied by Rolling Stone or the American Academy of List Compilers. It wasn’t even mentioned in Brown’s obituaries (Merry Christmas, Baby, a pleasant but nothing-spectacular Brown offering, was). That’s wrong, but the sentiment of the song, particularly its last verse, with its professed hope for delivery and the triumphant little flourish of resolution tacked on the end, speaks to the true spirit of Christmas better than any song we can think of, and it’s a sentiment that can be embraced not only by the Christian but by the Muslim, the Jew and the Hindoo, too, as well the agnostic and atheist. Even the Scientologist.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

¡Voto para mí! ¡No soy Iraní! (And Smile!)

We suppose you can’t hold a candidate responsible for something said by a 71-year-old aunt, especially something “shouted” during a demonstration to protest a news conference (in other words, a pseudo-event born of another pseudo-event).

Yet as reported by the Houston Chronicle’s able education writer, Jason Spencer, the comments of Dolores Torres on behalf of her niece, northside Houston school board hopeful Anne Flores Santiago, suggest something more than an impromptu burst of passion by a doting relative.

According to the Chronicle, Torres was one of a dozen or so Santiago supporters who were protesting during a news conference staged by an “influential group of Hispanic Democrats” who appear to be backing Natasha Kamrani, Santiago’s non-Hispanic opponent in next Saturday’s runoff (we’ll pass on trying to summarize the nature of this influential group’s complaint against Santiago, which we suspect at bottom has something to do with the often unfathomable configurations and reconfigurations of local Hispanic politics-playing [which, on slightly further reflection, are not much different than those of Euro-American or African-American politics-playing]).

Ms. Torres apparently was so incensed by the Harris County Tejano Democrats’ criticism of Santiago that she was moved to loudly broadcast the following endorsement of her niece:
“She’s Hispanic and she grew up in the community. She’s not Iranian.”
She elaborated:
“Foreigners are coming in not knowing the community. Anne grew up here.”
It turns out that Ms. Kamrani is not Iranian, either, according to the Chronicle: She was born in Ohio, of an Iranian-born father and “a mother from Kentucky.”

While we wouldn’t dismiss the importance of an elected official having roots in the community she represents, we have to wonder whether Ms. Torres’ classification of Kamrani was wholly her own invention, a result of her intensive but ultimately faulty opposition research, or whether it was reflective of a theme that the Santiago campaign has bandied about the community to selected audiences---that is, those that don’t ordinarily include newspaper and television reporters.

Whether Ms. Santiago disavows the comments of her aunt was left unaddressed in the Chronicle story. She also was not available to speak to the insinuation/allegation/whatever lodged by the Tejano Democrats, instead leaving that task (sort of) to a spokesman.

We don’t reside in District I and thus have no dog in this hunt, but we most assuredly would not vote for any candidate for a school trusteeship who feels it necessary to have a spokesman (or spokeswoman, spokesperson, spokeshuman, etc.) do their speaking for them.

As for Kamrani’s ethnicity/nationality/whatever, we would hope that Ms. Torres and all others who seek to raise the issue of “foreignness” will heed the Chronicle’s sultry-eyed Cultural Coach (our stylebook dictates that we upper-case this vaguely Orwellian self-designated title), who in her latest installment advises that this holiday season is a time to embrace cultural differences and to “smile, whenever possible.”

A smile, says the coach, “can open closed doors---and narrow minds.”

That’s particularly sage counsel for these divisive times, when the lion resolutely refuses to lie with the lamb, the Sunni and the Shi’a cannot come to terms, and the Tejano openly scorns the Cincinnati-born half-Iranian foreigner.

(And God bless the lil’ schoolchildren of HISD.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Pickle-Puss Pundits Agree: Evolution Is Where It’s At!

Recently both Charles Krauthammer and George Will, the dour right-leaning duo of The Washington Post Writers Group, delivered up spirited defenses of evolution, with Will bearing the suggestion that attempts by “overreaching” and intemperate social conservatives to impose their Bible thumppery on our already science-deficient public schoolchildren was hastening the inevitable splintering of the conservative coalition. It was downright apocalyptic.

Krauthammer, meanwhile, marshaled his considerable talent for argument in the service of a withering dismissal of intelligent design: suitable as theology but a “fraud” when held out as science, says he (alas, if only Krauthammer could see his way to apply the same exacting empirical standard to our misadventure in Iraq).

We thought these pre-Thanksgiving columns constituted a fairly significant development, especially given the obvious muscle these two flexed in clothes-lining the Miers nomination. We figured it was just a matter of time before “limited-government conservatives,” as Will puts it---or even just folks whose IQs cross the three-digit threshold---would run screaming from the room.

Maybe the stampede’s begun (not that there’s anywhere in particular to run to).

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Case of the "Raving Maniac" Resolved; Angry Mob Disperses, Goes Home Happy

James Campbell, the Houston Chronicle’s doughty readers’ representative (our house stylebook at Slampo’s Place dictates that such falutin’ titles be lower-cased, along with realtor and editorial board) had his hands full with readers’ complaints about the seemingly different messages conveyed by photos of U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., that accompanied a recent story.

Well, at least one reader, an unnamed and unidentified soul whose e-mail Campbell quoted at length in his column in the Sunday paper. Reader Anonymous claimed the photo of Graham made him look like a “raving maniac” while the one of Bingaman and another Democratic opponent of a Graham amendment made them appear thoughtful.

The anonymous reader detected liberal bias at work, which is not outside the realm of possibility, although there most certainly were at least 10 other more glaring examples in that day’s paper, especially if that paper contained a story on illegal immigration, gun ownership or the death penalty (the only kinds of stories where we really find this “liberal bias” to be bothersome).

Campbell came down on the unnamed reader’s side, concluding that the paper’s sloppy or inconsiderate choices of photos certainly could have given the appearance of bias, even though there most definitely was none intended. A more “thoughtful” picture of Graham would have been appropriate, and one was provided. You can judge yourself by going here, if you haven’t already.

Our own take on the matter is that some people just have too much time on their hands (the anonymous e-mailer, for instance). But for another opinion we turned to a truly unbiased and thoughtful source, our own reader representative, Sr. Hidalgo “Hard” Hidalgo. “Hard” at first begged off, saying he was “going home” for the holidays and wouldn’t be back until after Christmas. (“Home,” he explained, is a “little nowhere place outside of San Luis Potosi---you never heard of it, man.”) After we plied him with a Double Latte (upper case, ‘ccording to our stylebook) and a ride to the bus station, he offered the following:
“This Graham dude---that’s his name, right?---obviously is winding up the last chorus of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” with which he’s entertained friends and associates for years. They say if you close your eyes, you’d swear the older Louis Armstrong was in the room. As for this Bingaman---that's the Bing-man, or Der Binger, isn't it?---well, this guy most definitely is checking out the chick in the low-cut blouse at the next table. Or trying to remember where he put his keys.

Anyway, I see no bias at work here. None at all. But one of a daily newspaper’s prime responsibilities nowadays is not to offend even one reader. I mean, you just can’t afford to lose one reader, what with circulation falling like it is. Also, it’s an accepted practice that a newspaper should publish only flattering pictures of powerful people. So I’d suggest that from now on the Chronicle run just the official congressional portraits of our senators and congressmen, or their officially approved mug shots, or the head shots of them lying in state in the Capitol rotunda, whatever.

Is that enough? Well, I gotta run. See you next year, if I make it back over.”
Thank you, Hidalgo. Again.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

"Out of the Office ..."

Due to family obligations and a much-needed trip to the Hill Country, Slampo's Place will be closed for the week of Thanksgiving. We will open again next week. We appreciate your patronage.

We have many things to be thankful for this week---we won't torture you with the list---although we're never quite sure to whom or to what we're thankful.

There is one item, however, that we forgot to add to our list, although the full-page ad on page C7 of Tuesday's Houston Chronicle sports section jogged our memory. It's the ad with the large picture of the spruce middle-aged gentleman with the inscrutable smile.

We know Maureen Dowd is thankful, too.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Johnny Cash Was a Gunslinger (Joaquin Phoenix Is But an Actor)

The new Johnny Cash biopic* seems to have attracted uniformly favorable if not outright gushing notices, with critics huzzahing and cooing over the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as J. C. and June Carter Cash.

We, of course, loved Johnny Cash, as did most right-thinking Americans. We never picked cotton, but we went way back with him, back before Cash, a man with a knack for both a song and a career move, had so deftly chiseled himself into a granite icon of Americana, of realness and gravitas and so forth. All the way back to The Rebel, Johnny Yuma, the first J.C. tune we can remember hearing on the radio (or, more likely, as the theme to the TV show of the same name). Our devotion remained constant, right through the Nine Inch Nails song and his last appearance talkin’ Jesus on The 700 Club.

We firmly believe this sorry ol’ world could always use more Johnny Cash, especially more Johnny Cash songs, or songs by others that J.C. transformed into Johnny Cash songs.

But we’re not sure the world needs a Johnny Cash biopic.

OK, that’s an overly broad assertion: We’re positive that we don’t need a Johnny Cash biopic.

Somehow, we know, Hollywood will fuck it up for us. It being the lacuna of Johnny Cash, the essential unknowability of the public entertainer whose emotional range (when not singing, that is) veered between wariness and circumspection (a manifestation, most likely, of what W.J. Cash [no relation that we know of] called in his landmark 1941 book The Mind of the South the “complex of fears and hates” that marked the 20th century White Southerner).

Joaquin Phoenix may indeed be the fine young actor, but we’d prefer not to have Hollywood filling in the blanks for us, trying to explain Johnny Cash and his motivations through the dated medium of method acting. We still need some mystery in our life.

And besides, in a strictly visual sense, Phoenix and Witherspoon seem too sleek, too pretty and too callow for us to suspend disbelief.

Moreover: These major Hollywood productions invariably are incapable of capturing that ineffable Essence of Peckerwood (see paragraph 4 above). Most often they can’t even get the accents right.

(We were reminded of this earlier tonight as we tried to watch the first half-hour of Your Cheatin’ Heart on TMC, the 1964 biopic with George Hamilton woefully miscast as Hank Williams [although no less an authority than Leonard Maltin calls it one of Hamilton’s best roles, which we believe is damning with faint praise]. We could smell the horseshit coming off this film when we first watched it, at 10 or 11 years of age, but we thought that the distance of time and our carefully cultivated reverse snobbery might have rendered it watchable. But no. Anyone associated with this movie, including Red Buttons, should hvae done time. [As a sidebar note, the fight scenes are some of the phoniest ever filmed---the movie goes out of its way to make Hank out to be some fearsome fight-picker, when in truth he was the frail and sickly sort, an embellishment that would be ignorable except for the fact that G. Hamilton fights like a big girl when he takes a swing at the owner of the medicine show who’s screwed him out of some coin.])

But Hollywood should keep trying. If Walk the Line is a hit, we have some other screenplays in the works:

Little But Loud: The Little Jimmy Dickens Story: Hillbilly fever, birds of paradise, grinnin' like a mad chimp. Lots of Jesus, for sure, with amphetamines a possibility (we’re not saying, we just remember he always seemed very wound up on those Grand Ol’ Opry reruns we used to see on Saturday afternoons). With Tom Cruise as "Little" Jimmy.

Kiss an Angel Good Morning: The Charlie Pride Story: No amphetamines that we’re aware of, possibly some low-key, incidental Jesus, but for sure minor league baseball, failure and eventual triumph, plus crossing racial barriers and overcoming prejudice---a potential tour de force for Denzel or some other actorly actor, possibly Jamie Foxx for a younger demo, or … Tom Cruise, in blackface, for something edgy.

Seven Nights to Rock: The Moon Mullican Story: Coffee, non-filter cigarettes, Red Man chaw, pie. Political intrigue---Gov. Jimmie Davis---and Beaumont at dusk. Made for Tom Cruise.

Dylan and Lennon in the back of a taxi 1966 discussing Johnny Cash and other matters. Dylan appears in this short film as a giggly 12-year-old; Lennon plays himself. Amphetamines, cigarettes, musical legends in transit. Courtesy

Banjo Jones on CNN Radio: No Jesus, no drugs, but lots of stickin' it to the man!

*A currently fashionable term that we believe is shorthand for a movie (pic) about a real-life person (bio).

Sunday, November 13, 2005

LBJ Shat Turds Larger Than John Culberson, and Other True Texas History Facts

Two stories in the Chronicle last weekend illustrated the durability of Faulkner's over-quoted maxim that in the South the past isn't even past---most especially when it comes to the naming of public buildings (the rest of the time it's usually ignored or paved over).

In the first, D.C. bureau correspondent Samantha Levine reported that at least half of Texas’ Republican members of the U.S. House, including Slampo’s Place’s own representative, John “Kid” Culberson, were refusing to co-sponsor legislation to name the Education Department building after LBJ, the first Texan to serve as president. In the second, Eric Hanson detailed a slightly more nuanced controversy in the Fort Bend school district over naming a new school after Billy J. Baines, a longtime educator and the first black principal in FBISD.

Such matters were simpler in the old days: Most buildings and other public projects were named after long-dead white males (not that we find anything intrinsically wrong with dead white males, seeing as we’ll be one sooner or later), and nobody much cared one way or another, if but for fact that a small and select group of white males had all the power and usually made such decisions without further consultation. Now, in this day of asymmetrical identity politics (and our definition of that term includes white identity politics, too,) and hpyer-partisanship, nothing is so siimple.

Culberson initially was on board with the renaming but changed his mind, presumably after pressure from the House Republican leadership not to name a building after the Democratic president. Or, apparently, even a men’s room in the building. This is how Culberson explained his newly discovered opposition to naming the Washington non-landmark after LBJ:

“I strenuously disagree with the way [LBJ] expanded the size, power and cost of the federal government. I just don’t think that he’s a good role model for young people ..."
Since when do long-gone public figures have to have been “good role models" to get a slab named after them? JFK was probably the closet we’ve had to a gangster as president, and of course there are no airports, school buildings or expressways named after him, are there? And what about, for instance, Andrew Jackson, whose name we pull out of the air simply because he's the subject of a hot new bio by Longhorn-turned-Aggie-turned-Longhorn historian H. W. Brands? Old Hickory was a stone killer---one of only two of our presidents to have actually slain another man---and a horrible racist, even by the somewhat loose standards of the early 19th century frontier, who pursued our red brothers with a genocidal fury, a bully and a braggart, etc.---not to mention a war hero and small-D democrat!---but we doubt those documented historical facts have led Culberson to refuse any $20 bills that have come his way. And the very town Culberson represents in Washington of course bears the name of the “Big Drunk.”

True, LBJ was not a nice person. He was crude and boorish, famously did his bathroom business in full sight of humiliated underlings, was a philanderer and probably a crook, pulled on his dog's ears, showed off his surgery scar, lied his ass off about Vietnam (something you won’t find these Texas Republican congress people objecting to), and certainly expanded the size, power and cost of the federal government (although how Culberson can cite this as justification with a straight face, given that the current Texan occupant of the White House has done the same thing---and is in danger of becoming a LBJ-like figure, with the descriptive tragic eternally attached to his name---is beyond irony). But now he's history, which, like life itself, is not so easily reduced to silly talking points about role models.

(And which of these expansions of federal power does Culberson object to? Medicare? The Voting Rights Act? Maybe Culberson could lead the charge to repeal those intrusions. The fact is, though, that Culberson and every other Southern Republican ought to be moving to erect a statue to LBJ in front of every mall on the freeway feeder, because LBJ is inarguably the figure most responsible for the party realignment that eventually made Texas GOP congressmen like Culberson a dime a dozen.)

The Chronicle story even-handedly noted that House Democrats voted along the party line against renaming D.C.’s National Airport after President Reagan, which just goes to show how silly these “debates” are. Who, flying in to D.C. today---including those Democratic congressmen and even, say, Barbara Streisand en route to a Kennedy Center function---thinks, Oh, I can’t land at an airport named after Ronald Reagan. Nobody thinks about it, of course, as they wouldn’t when they carry out the very mundane business of the federal education bureaucracy at the LBJ Building.

In Fort Bend, the move to name a new middle school in the planned communnity of Sienna Plantationafter Baines did prevail despite resistance from those who wanted the name to reflect “the history and flavor of the area’s rural past,” as the Chronicle reported, with River Ranch being their preferred choice. The history and flavor of the area's rural past are not altogether a wholesome and salubrious thing, of course, given that Fort Bend's 19th century economy was almost exclusively underpinned by slave labor, and the area was the site of one of the more notorious episodes of the Reconstruction, the Jaybird-Woodpecker War.

A point in River Ranch's favor, explained one free citizen of the present-day Sienna Plantation to the Chronicle, is that it “does not designate a specific culture group.”

Except Billy J. Baines isn’t a specific culture group. He’s a real living person, an individual who happens to be black, who spent 33 years with FBISD and was the first black school administrator in a district in which African-American students now constitute a plurality. He’s real history, with a face and name and a story to tell, about a life that was at least marginally enhanced by the activist government of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

We know nothing of him personally, but on the face of it Billy Baines seems to be a role model that even John Culberson couldn't object to.

Houston, The Missing City
In keeping with this posting's history theme, we'd like to point out a local Web site brought to our attention by Kevin Whited at the rascally blogHOUSTON. It's called Missing Places, and, in Whited's words, it's oddly compelling (if just a wee artsy-conceptual and whatnot for us). Anyway, we loved Missing Place's description of Houston as
a city whose urban development has long been distinguished paradoxically by the impermanence of its architecture rather than its fixity. Houston is literally defined by geographic disruption---the buildings of the city are quickly altered, roadwork and redirected streets are the norm and volatile weather continuously pummels the city, to cite just a few examples. These disruptions create a city of revolving contradictions and perpetual discontinuity, and the job of making sense of this city is left to a scattered population.
Yep, that's pretty much our agenda: trying to make sense of this place, which can be so weird, wild and wonderful (when it's not so dark, depressing and scary).

Thursday, November 10, 2005

He’s So in Love!

We marked today, Friday, on our calendar because it’s the day that Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey promised to reveal why Bill White might be able to defy the traditional wisdom that holds a big-city mayor can’t win a statewide office such as governor or U.S. senator.

That heart-shaped promise was etched in the newsprint of his Wednesday column, wherein Casey ambled on for 17 or so inches on the subject (we fully read about 10 of ’em, including the first and last ones, thus more than qualifying us to issue the forthcoming predictably damning judgment ), quoting a political scientist or two and the former mayor of …. was it Seattle? Yes, it was Seattle. The city in Washington. You were riveted, weren’t you?

In other words, Casey found this to be a topic of such abiding interest that he stretched it over a two-part series, with a slow-motion wind-up and delivery. It comes hard on the heels of his last two-parter, which was mostly devoted to his reminiscences of the judge from San Antonio who’s been named to preside over the Tom DeLay trial. That’s San Antonio, where Casey used to ply his trade and apparently still gets his mail. A Chapter 11 filing of intellectual bankruptcy appears imminent.

(After skimming this week’s first installment, we finally realized that encroaching senility is the defining characteristic of the species Chroniclus columnisticus [with apologies to the senile portion of our readership, which breaches the potentially fatal 75 percent mark, according to the Audit Bureau of Bloggery and Bullshit], a proud tradition dating back beyond Allison “The Motorman” Sanders and through Thom Marshall and Leon Hale. [Other notable characteristics: You have to be older than 50, have virtually no clue what’s going on in the city, be a white male [not that we have anything against white males], never piss any one off too too much, and no habla espanol … We’ll exempt under-50 business columnist Loren Steffy from this broad brush, as he’s far and away the paper’s best columnist, and probably bound for a more prestigious posting before too long, we’d bet.])

We’ve never gotten much of a rise one way or another from Casey since the adenoidal martinet who runs the editorial operation imported him from San Antonio, where we remember occasionally reading his column. To an out-of-towner Casey seemed to offer a pretty good inside-ball take on doings in city government there, something like Tim Fleck could be doing for the Chronicle if the paper had had the stick not to consign him to the anonymity of the editorial page. In San Antonio, Casey seemed to know his stuff. Here, he seems lost, tired and supremely uninterested (and uninteresting).

But we’ve noticed there is one subject that raises Casey’s ardor, that brings a flush to his heavily bearded cheek and a bounce to his step, one that doubtless makes him feel young again and perhaps evokes his days of glory in Old San Antone. That subject is Bill White, who, Casey wrote Wednesday:

…even if he becomes recognized as one of the greatest big-city mayors in U.S. history … has an even greater hurdle than most accomplished, ambitious politicians in reaching higher office.
We’re much too blunt to detect the delicate irony that we’d assume plays along the edges of such a sentiment, so let us just say that there will in fact be no way that Bill White will be “recognized” as a great big-city mayor, if only because of the pedestrian reality that he’ll have only six years in the office, if he so chooses and is so granted, and the terms limit sorta puts a crimp in the “greatness” attainability (at least for the recognizers who can maintain a modicum of critical distance).

Casey also relates that

…Big-city mayors deal with practical problems more than issues, but they also must appeal to an electorate that is generally more, well, urbane and more diverse than suburban and small-town electorates.
To which we can only say, well, “No shit?”

And looka here:

So Bill White makes a name for himself by getting control of a runaway budget, by making a dent in Houston's notorious traffic, by cleaning corruption out of a famously pay-for-play City Hall, by generously and efficiently leading the welcoming committee for Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
Has he done all that already, after less than two years as mayor? (We missed the front-page headlines about cleaning the corruption out of City Hall.) Or is this the Casey-projected White record after six (or four) years, which still may not be enough to elect White governor, Casey suggests, even though the columnist apparently plans to tell us otherwise in today’s installment?
Or do you think there’s an opening for another flack at City Hall? (That’d be our guess.)

Hey, we like Bill White OK. We’ve voted for him twice---considering the pair of stumps who ran against him two years ago, you’d have to be in chronic identity-politics denial or not care much about the city’s future to have voted for anyone but White---and we think he’s done a decent job, even if we’re a bit put off by that overweening sense of intellectual superiority that he can barely contain behind the Jimmy Stewart mask (and which will be his undoing, if he’s ever undone, which we hope he won’t be).

But, still, we just can’t get all moony over the guy.

It’s unseemly for a man our age.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Wanking on Your Ranking

“Chronicle retains ranking,” reads the soul-of-wit-and-brevity headline tapped low and inside the business section of Tuesday’s rank-retaining Houston Chronicle, a choice bit of phrasing that sounds as if it were the tortured product of high-level consultations between the business and editorial sides of the newspaper.

As the close readers among you probably noticed, the sizzling headline did not quite capture the full scope of the story beneath, a one-source official press release that was mostly devoted to various canned explanations attributed to publisher Jack Sweeney for the 6 percent fall in the paper’s audited daily circulation (4 percent on Sundays) during the six months ending Sept. 30.

The Chronicle was hardly alone in its decline, as all of the nation’s 25 largest daily papers reported selling, giving away or tossing off the side of a speeding delivery truck significantly fewer copies over the same period, save for the New York Times, which registered a modest, as they say, 0.4 uptick. Yet the Chronicle’s drop was the fourth steepest, percentage-wise, although considerably less than the headfall suffered by its Hearst Corp. stablemate, the San Francisco Chronicle, which owned up to a circulation decline of more than 16 percent.

The Houston Chronicle headline writers, no doubt aware of the rising reader clamor for more “happy news,” did indeed dig down to locate the nearly obscured silver lining with the factually sound subject-verb-direct object combination “Chronicle retains ranking.” If the paper had not retained its ranking … well, that would have almost risen to the level of real news, since by our ’rithmetic it would have required a gain of about 22,000 daily papers over the previous year to surpass the sixth-ranked Chicago Tribune---that’s a larger numbers gain than reported by the NYT---or a loss of 140,000 or so to drop beneath the eighth place Boston Globe. (It’s all about the art of the possible, we guess.)

We’re not here this evening to offer our complex and turgid explanations for the continuing fall in newspaper circulation and/or readership---we’re available to do that in private, for $250 an hour, with shower and hot towels available---but we can’t let Mr. Sweeney’s sundry rationalizations of the numbers pass without comment. (And we’ll stipulate into the record here that the reporting of newspaper circulation has long been recognized as a notoriously slippery art, one that’s subject to easy manipulation, etc.)

According to Sweeney, the Chronicle's decline "was primarily due to a more conservative auditing posture by the Audit Bureau of Circulations,” which means, essentially, that because of circulation scandals at the Dallas Morning News and other papers, the ABC is now pressing for a more realistic and reliable accounting.
"We used to be able to collect and show proof of payment to ABC on overdue cacounts," Sweeney said. "Now if a subscriber is one day late with a payment over 90 days, the computer system automatically eliminates the address from the paid circulation averages."
We’re not even sure what that first sentence means. What the second sentence means, essentially, is that there will be no more graveyard vote emanating from the Chronicle precincts. Go three months without paying the electric company and pretty soon you’re reading your Chronicle in the dark. Go three months without paying on your credit card and you begin to develop a deep appreciation for the biblical injunction against usury. Go three months without paying the Chronicle and … you continued to get the paper! And were counted as paying subscriber!

Soaring fuel costs have also altered circulation strategies, Sweeney said. "We've pulled our distribution in closer to our core market by eliminating San Antonio, Dallas, far South Texas and parts of Louisiana."
We have no idea how many Chronicles were sold in those far-flung locales, but we'd bet the combined total was something less than the number of unsold editions abandoned daily on roadway medians by homeless paper hawkers, or the number of unread and unbundled Chronicles stacked up for instant recycling outside hundreds of schools in the area that are beneficiaries of the Newspapers in Education program (which we assume aren't counted in the circulation numbers, but then again we're kinda naive).

But don't worry about those audited numbers, because it's those highly dubious, hypothetical multipliers that really count:
Sweeney said overall readership, measured as paid circulation combined with the number of readers of each copy of the newspaper, remains strong."Over the past five years, our weekly cumulative readership has remained stable at over 1.9 million adults 18 and over," Sweeney said.
Here's how the San Francisco Chronicle, which mentioned its percentage drop in the headline over the Web version of its story, handled the same topic:
Newspapers have sought to blunt the significance of circulation drops by emphasizing a different number, called readership, that takes into account the fact that a single copy may be read by more than one person. But, Rick Colsky, who runs an agency in San Francisco that buys advertising space, said ad purchasers s still tend to rely on circulation "because the readership is too iffy."
Yeah, that's probably why the San Francisco Hearst property took such a hit: It's too honest!

(By the way, did you know that in addition to the newspaper, the Houston Chronicle "produces, a direct mail operation, and free publications such as La Voz and La Vibra, both in Spanish ... [and reaches] over six out of 10 adults in the Houston metro area each week." That's according to none other than Jack Sweeney, as said between gulps of Diet Pepsi while washing down a bag of "hot chips" from the Chronicle commissary.)

The Genius of Greg Hurst, Continued

“He’s certainly earned his stripes.”
--- Referring to a local veteran who was wounded in a roadside bombing in Iraq and has received a temporary donation of a wheelchair-accessible van. Hurst made his comment just as the Channel 11 camera provided a chilling close-up of the unsmiling vet’s scarred and misshapen head.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Bedlam Calling

We’re happy to report that our man on the Houston City Council, M J. Khan, is fighting back against the would-be usurper of the budding but eventually term-limited Khan dynasty in District F, K. A. “Scooter” Khan (Scooter is not K. A. Khan’s nickname, at least as far as we know; we just felt like giving it to him to save us the trouble of double-checking whether we were confusing M. J. with K. A., or perhaps confusing K. A. with A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear mastermind, as we mindlessly tap-tap-tap away).

M. J.’s campaign has rolled out a recorded phone endorsement from Mayor Bill White, and its opposition researchers have discovered that Scooter Khan claims his homestead exemption on a residence outside the district (which appears to be true), even though in filing to run he swore that he lived in District F since June 2004. Not only that, but according to the mailer we received from M. J. (and we believe almost anything a politician tells us, especially when it’s delivered in the mail), Scooter has bothered to vote but once in Houston, in the November 2004 general election, and was then registered using an address outside District F (the address actually appears to be in the district but seems … fishy).

So, suggests the M. J. mailer, Scooter may have committed one of the following: 1.) Perjury 2.) Voter fraud or 3.) Tax evasion (M. J. obviously has retained some professional hired help). Whatever the case, it seems apparent that Scooter, who’s probably reported raising more money than any challenger to a council incumbent, is something of a suspicious character (we’re being polite in recognition of the end of Ramadan, and likewise will refrain from using such vile and ungodly terms as f--k, sh-t, p-ss, and c--------r for the duration of this positing).

The District F field is composed, as every schoolboy in Islamabad now knows, solely of Pakistani-Americans, a development unworthy of notice in the local daily newspaper but potentially all the buzz in the illicit gambling dens of the Punjab, if not for the recent earthquake. The third candidate in the race is Paki-Am John Shike, who on his Web site “strongly” proposes renaming the following: Wilcrest Drive after Rosa Parks, Harwin west to Beltway 8 after Muhammad Ali, Harwin from the Beltway to Highway 6 after George Foreman, and Westpark (all of it, we guess) after Barbara Jordan. While cynics may deride Shike’s proposal as a blatant example of what political scientists call “pandering,” we think each suggestion is worthy on its own merits, and we can easily envision a commemorative plaque and tacky "Rumble in the Jungle" sculpture at the point where Ali Drive meets George Foreman Drive.

Meanwhile, M. J.’s office recently organized a community meeting to rally opposition to what is being called the “expansion” of the renowned Carnival Night Club from its current location in a down-at-the-heels mall on Highway 59 to a site formerly owned and occupied by Gillman Motors near the tenuously ghetto-fabulous Sharpstown Mall. Gillman has sold the Sharpstown property and relocated its operation out to the Beltway, leaving behind only the concrete foundations and its very tall sign that now thanks Sharpstown for “38 wonderful years” (the sign, it probably goes without saying, is an atrocious eyesore and looks as if it were designed by one of the local 11-year-old graffiti artists.)

An excellent story in our local This Week section of the Chronicle by Zen T.C. Zheng paints Carnival as some seething Boschian netherworld right across the freeway from Memorial Southwest Hospital (we’re familiar with Carnival through those live remote advertisements for the place on Spanish-language Channel 61, which always seem to show three very happy guys in cowboy hats rubbing up against one wide-bottomed woman in spray-on jeans … they’re “dancing,” apparently). Some selected excerpts from Zheng’s story:
“… between Nov. 27, 2003 … and Oct. 27 of this year police responded to 377 calls [associated with the club] for loud music, assault, drugs, theft, robberies, gunshots, illegal weapons, underage drinking and a murder … a show at the club on May 12 this year drew 2,585 patrons while its occupancy limit is set at 1,207 ….[the director of the ER department at Memorial Southwest Hospital] said the emergency room has been burdened by [Carnival] patrons who have been assaulted at the club and some club patrons have brought prostitution and violence to the hospital parking lot … the emergency room has become overcrowded in the past 12 months on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights between midnight and 3 a.m. with those injured at the club …"
The story quotes auto dealer Ramsey Gillman as saying he was unaware that Carnival planned to relocate to his former property and knew only that he was selling to a “Mexican-American entrepreneur.” He added: “It never occurred to me that certain group [sic] doesn’t like them.” Them apparently being ... Mexican-American entrepreneurs? ... and the certain group being … just who do you mean, Mr. Gillman? Your neighbors in Sharpstown for those 38 wonderful years? Yeah, bye-bye, and enjoy the gunfire and prostitution in your front yard.

Khan has been on the Carnival case for a while, Zen T. C. Zheng reports, having protested the club’s liquor license with the TABC back in January. Hopefully he can continue that work after Tuesday. (And by the way, why was this story relegated to the zoned weekly “community news” section of the Chronicle? It seems to have all the elements for a great story, or for a take from a local columnist, if the paper had one who actually lived in Houston: the hallowed Houston right to do what the hell you want with your property vs. less hallowed notions of greater community good, shifting demographics, changing neighborhoods, multiculturalism and diversity and blah blah, dancing and firearms and cowboy hats and blaring Latino music … oh, yeah---somebody might want to read that.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

99 and a Half Won't Do

The following is a transcript of a 30-second commercial that Bill White’s campaign purportedly plans to air in heavy rotation over the weekend leading to what is expected to be his near-unanimous re-election as mayor. The ad features testimonials from real Houstonians, looking like real Houstonians and saying real Houstonian things.

Fade in …

"One Saturday I was changin' the oil out in my front yard---man, it was hot--and up rides this pasty lookin' white dude on a bicycle, looked to be a real expensive model, and he stops, gets off, takes off his helmet and goes right to the junk pile in the vacant lot across the way, I mean there was a ton of stuff people been dumpin' there for years, and he goes right to it, starts draggin' everything out to the curb, even that rusted old Kenmore dryer, and when the city truck pulled up he goes to tossin’ it in himself, I mean he was humpin’ it like a one-man Salvadoran tree crew on Friday afternoon, so I walk over to take a look and dang but if it ain’t Bill White! The mayor himself! That’s one thing I learned about Bill White: He’s deceptively strong.” --- Eldridge "40 Watt" McDonald, folk artist and handyman, Fifth Ward

"Of course no one in my family has voted for a Democrat since before John Connally left the party, but we find Bill to be a delightfully frothy mélange of Ronald Reagan, Pope John XXIII and Oprah. And his wife is just a darlin'!"--- Trudy Bascom-Haffler, gourmet cook and GOP precinct chair, Tanglewood

"When Hurricane Rita try to come to Houston, Bill White stand up and say, 'No, hurricane, go away! Shoo!" And hurricane go to Port Arthur, cause much damage property. Bill White know how to talk to hurricane." --- Nan Nguyen, manicurist and spa operator, Spring Branch

Fade out …

Announcer’s voice: “Bill White: If he’s been even half as good as his commercials, then he’s been a heck of a mayor!”

The election’s over. Jack Josey Terence is sunk. (Again.)

Monday, October 31, 2005

Karachi Calling

The comically misnamed Voter's Guide in Saturday's Houston Chronicle offered little to guide us in next week's elections, but it did confirm our surmise that the race for the District F seat on city council is an all-Pakistani affair.

We knew already that incumbent M. J. Khan was of Pakistani origin and that his batshit challenger, John Shike, also hailed from that same corner of the partitioned Subcontinent. Now, thanks to the Chronicle's incisive reportage of forms the candidates fill out and send in to the paper, we know for certain that M. J. Khan's other opponent, the unrelated K. A. Khan, is also a Pakistan native and claims a diploma from Karachi University (whether he received his retroactively remains an unaddressed mystery).

This most certainly is a development of historic scale, not only in our humble District F but likewise in the city of Houston, the state of Texas, the entire United States of America and perhaps the whole planet Earth outside of Pakistan (assuming they elect the equivalent of city councils there, we dunno).

What's interesting (mildly ... eh, not so much, really) is that while a Census update shows "non-Hispanic Asians" (are there "Hispanic Asians?") make up about 15 percent of the district's population---by far the largest percentage of 'em among the city's nine council districts---Pakistanis, despite their presence behind the counter at almost every convenience store/gas station in southwest Houston, can't possibly account for more than a mere 2 or 3 percent of the district's population, if that much (well behind Vietnamese- and Chinese-Americans, we presume).

So maybe the Pakistani immigrant, in addition to his recognized talent for buying up distressed properties in borderline neighborhoods and allowing them to become further distressed, has a heretofore unacknowledged knack for electoral politics, such as reputedly possessed by the Irish-American ward heeler in days of yore.

We've previously reported that our introduction to Mr. K. A. Khan came through a mailing with a fine-print identifier in which he blamed M. J. Khan for a rise in gang activity, prostitution and graffiti in District F (the graffiti proliferation is definitely fact-based, although we doubt the obviously increasing volume of preliterate handwriting on the wall would be less if Mohammad J. Christ hisself were on city council). K. A. has reported raising a fair amount of money for a council challenger, most of it from what appear to be fellow Pakistanis (M. J., by contrast, claims a fairly wide base of support and seems to have been responsive to constituent concerns, so we're assuming he won't be sunk next week in a miasma of voter confusion/indifference).

It's probably difficult for these candidates to stand out in the all-Pakistani crowd, so they might want to steal a turn from our fellow "non-Hispanic white" man we saw panhandling Saturday morning on the turn-lane median of Chimney Rock and Highway 59 ... festively sporting a tall witch's hat. We would have tossed him a buck, but we had the light.

It's that little extra flair that can mean the difference between an icy stare and a handful of loose pocket change, or being a "real estate investor" and having a good job with decent salary and benefits representing District F.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Feel Like Some Poetry Today

Threw a chair
at Phil Garner
But it sailed over
the insufferable
gray-streaked horizon.

Then awoke
to the smell
of burning plastic

Hey Soos.

The frickin

“Houston Dreamin’ Thursday A.M.,” excerpted from Down in ‘The Brae’, by Hidalgo “Hard” Hidalgo, reader representative and Metro patron since 1999

Monday, October 24, 2005

The ‘F’ Stands for Khan-Fucking-Fusing

A week or so ago we got one of those direct-mail pieces that clutter the mailbox around election time. This one did command our attention.

“M. J.=Crime Drugs Prostitution,” it blared, next to a picture of our District F city councilman, M. J. Khan, who, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said of Thomas Dewey, has a pronounced resemblance to the little man on the wedding cake.

Below that is a chalked murder-scene body outline with “District F” printed on it. (Subtle, no?)

On the back it says: “M. J. has destroyed our trust and community” and goes on to claim that District F has “more break-ins … drugs … gangs and graffiti … prostitution” since Khan’s been on the council.

Well, at least the boy’s been busy.

The fine-print disclaimer on the mailer reads “Political Adv. By K. A. Khan Campaign Lenny Treasurer.”

Lenny Treasurer?

We finally realized over the weekend that this K. A. Khan is running against incumbent M. J. Khan in the Nov. 8 election. K. A. has several large signs further uglying up the already stupendously fug-ugly stretch of Hillcroft near Highway 59. The signs proclaim that “The 'A' Stands for Accountability,” although we figured it stood for asshole based on his scurrilous and near-anonymous hit mailing.

(The K stands for Khalid, according to city records, and Khalid A. Khan has reported raising a not-insubstantial $68,000 in campaign money, most of it from contributors with, and how shall we put this without offending the sensitive portion of our readership, Muslim-sounding names, which we report only because we surmise that Khalid A. Khan has not exactly staked a wide base of support in the highly diverse district, and because, well, we list “telling the truth” at the top of the Slampo’s Place Mission Statement. The third candidate in the race is John Shike, whom we know to be a certifiable loon, and we would so testify in court, if compelled to do so.)

M. J., a Pakistani-American who once was president of the local Islamic Society (and if this Khan vs. Khan khan-test is more than mere rank opportunism on the part of K. A. and reflects some split in the local Muslim community, well, we would hope some media outlet that pays its employees to gather and report information will so inform us), represents Sharpstown and Alief, areas that have undergone significant shifts in their racial/ethnic composition in the past quarter century. The District F seat was long occupied by the Last Angry White Man in Southwest Houston, John Goodner, and more recently was in the custody of a more buttoned-down Caucasian, Mark Ellis (who seemed OK). Hispanics constitute a majority of the District F populace, while the percentage who are Ofay has fallen to well below 20 (although us whiteys account for a much higher percentage of the electorate, natch).

We didn’t know too much about M. J. before the last election, when he sought the seat after Ellis decided to run for a citywide council position, and we still don’t. We learned that his wife was a doctor and he had some graduate degree or another from Rice University (credentials we found reassuring, even though at our advanced years we should know better). We also recalled hearing or reading somewhere (probably not in the local daily, which seems to have pretty much given up on covering local politics) that M. J. had some Republican connections or was affiliated with the Harris County GOP, but we also were led to believe that he was somehow allied with the slithery Sylvester Turner and the ever-present Sheila Jackson Lee, both liberal Democrats, and the former did in fact cut a taped phone message for Khan (the one we got offered no identifier, possibly because someone thought Turner’s voice is so distinctive that he needs no introduction).

We saw Khan once on a Saturday afternoon before the election, door-knocking a couple of streets over from us and later driving a late-model BMW or Audi up and down the street as if he were searching for some targeted address (we waved, but he did not, which suggested to us that M. J. Khan is a careful driver who keeps his eyes on the road and his hands upon the wheel).

That, however, was once more than we saw his runoff opponent, the son of a former Houston mayor (not Kathy Whitmire) whom we never espied in the neighborhood, nor did we get so much as a door-hanger or a piece of direct mail (lyin’ ass or otherwise) from the gent. We suspect he figured his hallowed last name would carry the day, but unfortunately for him many voters in the district nowadays wouldn’t know a McConn from a M. J. Khan. (And they may not know an M. J. from a K. A., either.)

So, using the “what the fuck” principle we often apply to local judicial contests, we went with M. K. in ’03. Excuse me: M. J.

We have no idea whether M. J.’s been a good, fair, fair-to-middlin’, poor or piss-poor council member. We saw him once at a meeting his office helped arrange so residents of our neighborhood could vent at Public Works supervisors over the continuing effed-up mess on Dunlap Street. Khan seemed pleasantly inoffensive and attentive to all. He gave a little wrap-up speech in which he suggested that “everyone” in Houston should purchase flood insurance (which, as far as we know, he does not sell).

We’ve asked our neighbors, but they seem to know even less than us about M. J., other than that his office has been relatively cooperative in dealing with the Dunlap Street Crime Scene. (One, an ex-NASA employee who claims to have lived on our street for 49 most likely godforesaken years, and whom we consult about past flooding and hurricanes, etc., calls him “Genghis, our man on council”… a little multicultural humor for ya there … )

The last time we saw M. J. was not an in-person sighting but rather on TV during the approach of Hurricane Rita, when he planted himself like 500-pound armoire behind Mayor Bill White’s left shoulder every time White and County Judge Robert Eckels staged a news conference. He looked properly concerned and stoic in the face of impending doom.

So, based on those fleeting impressions and that scant knowledge, it appears we’ll once again be bestowing the Slampo’s Place nod on M. A. … er, M. J.

That’s M. J. Khan. For council.

His opponent is K. A.

The district is F.

The letters are many, but the days grow short.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Genius of Greg Hurst

"Well, I don't guess he'll be waching the game."
-- referring to Saddam Hussein Thursday evening while segueing from a report on Saddam's trial to a story on the Astros' first World Series appearance

Menawhile, back on the ground, James Kunstler, in slow-roasting the New York Times Sunday Magazine's blithe examination of a land-voracious suburban builder, offers this pricelessly pungent prediction for our fellow consumers in the higher latitudes (Kunstler's a guy who we hope is wrong, even though we find ourselves agreeing with a good portion of what he writes):

Home heating costs are going to crush the public this winter, and even the supposedly well-off in big new houses are going to feel the pain, because the truth is that many of them are leveraged up to their eyeballs to be where they are, and supernatural utility bills will push them over the edge just when the national bankruptcy laws have been revised to make wiggling out of debt much more difficult and punitive. The price of gasoline will keep ratcheting upward from where it is now like a medieval torture device, and will combine with home heating costs to make the public's collective head pop like a winter melon.

Not exactly sitting cozy by a warm fire, huh? Almost makes us glad we live in a zone where the high temperature on October 20 was 85 and all we'll have to worry about is the tab for the wintertime air conditioning.