Monday, October 02, 2006

Whither the Rum Runners?

Five or six months ago we were killing the end of a nearly-dead-anyway Saturday afternoon at an estate sale a few miles from our house. We occasionally drop in at these public dispossessions in the dim hope that we can find something to add to the sizable collection of worthless crap that we’ll one day bequeath to our children, so they’ll be burdened with divesting it at a sale of our very own probated “estate” (or, more likely, setting it all on the curb for heavy trash pick-up), although we know the days are long past when we can walk into a falling-down house on the north side of our hometown and discover an ancient bathtub full of 78 RPM records from the pre-dawn hours of rock ‘n’ roll for a dime apiece, as we did about 35 years ago, or purchase a box of near-mint 1950s Police Gazettes for $5 from two elderly gay guys in Montrose, as we did not 20 years ago.

Everyone knows the price of everything in this day of eBay and Antiques Roadshow, and everything’s been Sold American, as the would-be governor has sung, so this time-killing incursion was shaping up as just another disappointing walk through a dead person’s house, one that was certain to leave us especially glum based on the realization that none of the departed’s friends or relations bothered to retrieve his or her family photo albums, which were on sale along with the apparently uncracked Modern Library copy of Ulysses and the worn 1970s furniture that was probably headed curbside (surprisingly, nobody was buying the photos, although they pictured an especially good-looking bunch). We were headed out the door when we spotted something encased in a Ziploc bag that caught our interest---the March 20, 1964 copy of The Houston Press, the very last edition of that daily newspaper. The conductors of the sale were asking $5 but settled without haggling for the 50 cents we offered (that being the going price of a newspaper on the street).

We felt a moral imperative to buy the thing---after all, somebody had bothered to save it, either for sentimental reasons or under the delusion it might be “worth something someday” (that day not having arrived), and now it was lying there on a bookshelf, alone and unwanted. We’re sensitive that way.

We brought the yellowed newspaper home and placed it atop the stack of important papers on our desk, where it gradually settled toward the bottom as more important papers and bill stubs were added. This weekend we finally got around to paring the stack and thought we’d give our purchase a run-through to see if we got our four bits’ worth.

This was The Houston Press published by the Scripps Howard chain, which we’d always heard offered a scrappier, livelier and more sensationalistic alternative to the somnambulant Chronicle and Post of the day. The one that employed Marvin Zindler and Garvin Berry and Maxine Messinger and many others who were in the throes of their journalistic dotage years later when we mistakenly got off the bus in Baghdad on the Bayou (thinking we were in Beaumont).

We weren’t familiar with the particulars of the Press’s demise, but come to find out it went out just on its rear end just like the Post did some 30-odd years later, at least according to the March 20, 1964 The Houston Press. “Houston Press is Sold, 52-Year History Ended by Chronicle Purchase” reads the six-column headline over the play story, which reported: “The Press today announced sale of its plant and certain other assets to The Houston Chronicle after successive years of operating at a loss.” That was it as far as the whys and wherefores of the transaction. The rest of the story dealt with the history of the paper, including the claim that the Press played a major role in implementation of a city manager form of government in Houston (later abandoned “in favor of the present arrangement”) and had “brought to light many instances of misconduct in public affairs.”

“Through the years,” the story concluded, “the Press developed the reputation and the tradition of being a ‘fighting newspaper’ on behalf of the people. That is the tradition that today passes into other hands.”


Other than another small front-page story thanking readers for 52 wonderful years, there was no indication in the paper that the ride was over, the song had ended, that time had stopped in that most time-bound of institutions, the daily newspaper. (As the Stones were to ask just a few years later in their grossly underappreciated Between the Buttons LP, “Who wants yesterday’s papers? Who wants yesterday’s girl?” Answer: “Nobody in the world.”)

Right under news of the paper’s demise is a large picture of three bad customers who appear to be conversing with “Police Chief Buddy McGill” (a picture that today would be exposed by some sharp-eyed blogger as “obviously posed”). The surly trio were subordinate players in an ongoing drama in which they were accused of stealing $160,000 from Corrigan’s Jewelers on Post Oak and turning the “loot” over to a former Pasadena mayor named Sam Hoover (we recall hearing of this affair many years later and believe there was lots of other stuff involved, stuff we’ve mercifully forgotten). Also on the front page is a blurb for a story inside on Mary Wells, a sophomore at Lamar High who “appreciates a class with a challenge” and thus was the paper’s 38th, and very last, “Teen of the Week” for that school year.

It was business as usual, too, in the paper’s letters-to-the-editor section, which included off-kilter missives from locally renowned letter-to-the-editor writers W.A. Stubblefield and Carl Brownfield, who continued to ply their letter-writing avocation long after the Press was shuttered, and for all we know may still be writing away (or maybe …they’ve become bloggers!)

And then there is Maxine Messinger’s last “Big City Beat” column for the Press, which wheezes un-self consciously on with the usual collection of freeze-dried air kisses to the rich and locally famous, the faintly sleazy and, mostly, the clients of her PR buddies, the same kind she’d continue to blow for a jillion more years as a Chronicle institution. Almost every bold-faced, three-dot item is shot through with a nearly poignant yearning for World Class status … yes, even then:
THE LAST WORD: Houston’s folk singing group, The Rum Runners, got good reviews on their stint in Kalamazoo, Mich., and head from there to a stint at the Old Town North in Chicago. APA, one of the major booking agents in show biz, is interested in signing the fellas, and is using the Windy City date as a showcase for viewing ’em …”
Whoever said past is prologue wasn’t shittin’!

A few months after obtaining this artifact of what may or may not have been a simpler time we met a guy a little older than us who had grown up on the southeast side of town and graduated from Jesse Jones High, when it was an all-white institute of secondary learning, and whose father served on the Houston City Council in the 1950s. One day this fella showed us a photocopy of the front page of a Houston Press from 1957, which featured a huge picture of his father over a story in which the councilman was accused of soliciting bribes in an alleged scheme involving the redemption of MUD bonds in areas the city had targeted for annexation (which did sound like a fertile field for corruption).

The story was based solely on the otherwise uncorroborated allegations of two former bond traders (if we’re remembering correctly), one of whom had since entered the pet-grooming racket (or something like that), and it rambled along in an odd conversational tone as the reporter supplied such incidental details as one of the accusers lighting a cigarette and propping his feet on his desk while music from the “hi-fi” drowned out the traffic from Kirby Drive. It was strange, to say the least.

The fella told us that nothing at all happened after the story appeared, at least with regard to the allegations.

This fella, we might add, became a newspaperman.

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