Sunday, December 31, 2006
We inwardly flinched when the taller one stretched over us to pull down a display shoe, our reptilian brain misguidedly signaling an imminent beatdown of our spindly, decrepit self by this bad customer.
“S’cuse me,” said the hairy gent, and we did.
Later, after we made our purchase---a “Portuguese style” flannel shirt stitched in El Salvador---and had headed out the door, we saw the two guys walking ahead of us in the parking lot. They were strolling side-by-side, holding hands and giving each other little smooches on the cheek as they headed to their vehicle, and as we loped up from behind a West U-type mom and her teenage daughter came at us from the opposite direction, both averting their eyes as they walked up to the same-sex couple and then quickly swiveling their heads once past.
We locked eyes with West U mom after she re-swivled. We shrugged. She shrugged.
Reminding us, again, as we always tell the lil’ chi’ren: It’s a big, wide world.
And that’s all we kn …
Saturday, December 30, 2006
Whatever you think about the FBI-stung former councilman, you’ve got to admire the way Reyes manned-up and did his time, without whining about the injustice of it all (at least publicly, as far as we know---we weren’t his cellmate). We hope he lands that construction job he wants, although being a citizen of the United States may render him unqualified for the work.
The Houston Chronicle, in effort to invest the occasion with more gravity than it demanded, engaged the services of Nestor Rodriguez, the University of Houston sociologist and quote-generating mechanism who’s becoming known in some quarters as “the Poor Man’s Bob Stein” (y’know, he’s a liberal arts perfesser---a Hispanic one, to boot---and in the Chronicle handbook liberal arts perfesser=”smart” and “knowledgeable,” on any and all subjects) to add some supposed perspective. According to Rodriguez
"It's a different Houston than when Ben Reyes started as a councilmember … It's more of a global city than it was before. Almost half of our Hispanic population now is foreign-born. There are leaders in the immigrant community now that don't even identify now with the U.S. political structure" [emphasis added].Whoa, daddy. What you say?
Now, we don’t necessarily buy the truthiness of that observation. In fact, we hope the perfesser knows jack-squat of which he speaks. But we fear that he’s indeed right, or thereabouts, and we assume the “structure” with which these immigrant community leaders identify is the one south of the border, the one that barely supports the underpinnings of a civil society, the one in the land of la mordida and beheadings and kidnappings and round-the-clock unrest in the streets and melees at the presidential inaugural.
And they wonder why we’re pissed off about illegal immigration.
Friday, December 29, 2006
The Islamist leaders may also have miscalculated the appetite among Somalis for the harsh brand of Islam they were pushing. On Thursday, to celebrate the departure of the Islamists, many Mogadishu residents stuffed their mouths with khat, a mildly narcotic plant the Islamists had outlawed, and cranked up Western music, which some clerics had tried to ban.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Some of the  bags reportedly came through Terminal D, which handles most international flights. There, arriving passengers pick up their baggage in a customs area closed to the public. It was not clear how thieves obtained access there, if they did.If true, that strongly suggests an inside job, which we suppose is slightly more reassuring than the notion that random unauthorized individuals were able to mosey up to the baggage carousel in a restricted area and make off with passengers’ dirty clothes.
Either way, it’s breach of security, no?
This at the facility managed by the city department that earlier this year refused to divulge information on bonuses paid to employees, citing a legal department opinion that disclosure of such “could pose security and terrorism risks.”
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
This is a child who ate "salad we found in the woods" in his first years, a child who was sent home from school---in the rural South---for "insufficient clothes" (i.e., potato sacks). This is a teenager who was nearly electrocuted by a pair of white men who whimsically invited him to touch a car battery they were fooling with. This is a man who, during his incarceration in the 1980s, long after he'd drowned his nightmare of "insufficient clothes" in velvet and fur and leather and jeweled cuff links, was found to be hiding tens of thousands of dollars in cash in his prison cell, an expression of a certainty that society was merely a thin fiction covering a harsh jungle of desolation and violence, and if James Brown wasn't looking out for James Brown, no one was.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Then we slipped up and read an editorial in the Houston Chronicle. Our Christmas cheer vanished.
The work in question was another in the editorial writers’ attempts to foist cultural enlightenment on readers, this time through the suggestion that this season would be an especially good time for outlanders to visit the Project Row Houses thing-a-ma-bob in the Third Ward. The suggestion was occasioned by the news earlier this month that “Third Ward, and the whole city, got an early Christmas gift” (we’re not the only hack working a tortured Christmas angle) when the Houston City Council approved a $975,000 "zero interest performance-based loan" to the non-profit Project Row Houses for the addition of 16 low-income rental units.
As the editorial explained, quoting a city housing official, a no-interest performance-based loan requires no repayment “if the nonprofits who [sic] get them care for their properties and use them as expected.”
So “gift” certainly is the correct terminology here.
The editorial came hard on the heels of a very approving profile of Project Row Houses in the Sunday New York Times, which called it possibly “the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country" and was generous in its depiction of Rick Lowe, the “lanky, amiable, remarkably youthful-looking 45-year-old artist” who founded the project.
Now we don’t have enough personal knowledge of Project Row Houses to judge whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. We probably should just assume, based on all the laudatory media coverage it’s received over the past decade or so, that Project Row Houses’ melding of “art” and neighborhood revitalization is as wonderful as advertised.
It all comes cloaked in a rhetorical finery that makes it almost impossible to question, anyway, without sounding like a mean-spirited crank.
Except … we know from long experience that when any person or institution gets the uniformly favorable and unquestioning treatment from the media---especially in Houston---he, she or it is nowhere near all that he, she or it is cracked up to be. This is an iron-clad rule, to which there are no exceptions. (We’d cite Enron as Exhibit A, but, hell, that’s ancient history.)
And somehow, in its giddy celebration of Project Row Houses’ big score at City Hall, the Chronicle failed to note a somewhat discouraging word about the project that was buried back in the newspaper a month ago. That was the “news” that Project Row House’s longtime financial director, Lajuanda Malone, had pleaded guilty to felony theft of more than $200,000 from the nonprofit and was tagged, as the paper put it in an uncharacteristically raffish turn of phrase, with “10 years in the state penitentiary” (is there not more than one?).
This was a very odd story. It appeared more than a month after Ms. Malone copped her plea---thus qualifying it not as “news” but as “olds,” as the jesters at blogHouston call such late-breaking items---and it was tamped back in the “Arts” page of the paper’s Sunday Zest section. Furthermore, as they say in law school, it was written not by a real reporter but by the paper’s art critic, in an unusual style that wouldn’t pass muster in a high-school journalism class. The story did offer some juicy bits that were screaming for a fleshing-out:
(We notice that Malone is still listed as financial administrator on the Project Row Houses’ Web site, along with a link to her email address.)
Prosecutor Lester Blizzard, chief of major fraud division in the District Attorney's office, said the actual amount was closer to $300,000, taken over a period of about five years. Malone was issued a credit card in Project Row Houses' name, Blizzard said.
"She proceeded to run up personal expenses for luxury items, things like vacations and tickets to (San Antonio) Spurs games.
We can only assume that this story was previously broken or covered by other media and the Chronicle was playing catch-up and burying the story. Otherwise, there’d be no excuse for it not to be on page one.
“Closer to $300,000” is a major theft and breach of the public trust, particularly for a non-profit that, according to its IRS filings, took in revenue of between $1.07 million and $925,000 annually from 2001 through 2003.
The New York Times reporter did take note of the unfortunate incident, sort of, in this chummy aside:
I said I had read that a woman, a former finance administrator for Project Row Houses, recently pleaded guilty to stealing more than $200,000 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. [A former Project Row Houses resident] paused, then said: “I remember a different woman taking something when she left. We were creating a set of value systems, a community, and sometimes people take from their community anyway. The amazing thing was that Rick never got mad. I would say, ‘It’s so wrong!’ And he just said, ‘Yeah, it happens; that’s part of working with people.’ ”Now we wonder what happened with that “different woman.” And whether there was any discussion by city council of Lajuanda Malone’s theft and the apparent lack of oversight at Project Row Houses before the terms of this “loan” were approved (surely there was, and we just were not apprised of it).
What really got us about this story was the non-explanation offered by the apparently not-so-amiable Lowe, who told the Chronicle’s compliant art critic:
"It's a legal matter, and I'm not going to discuss it … We have a new executive director and new leadership. (This issue) is behind us. We are moving and rolling and in good shape."Yeah, man, you’re an artist, a visionary. You can’t be bothered with explaining a serious theft from a non-profit that subsists on the kindness of taxpayers and charitable foundations.
That’s for suckers.
Monday, December 18, 2006
This year we’ve had difficulty getting in to the swing of the season, for some reason, and thus have been unable to fully participate in the rituals of rabid consumption that make this the most wonderful time of the year.
Maybe it’s that we’ve yet to hear Please Come Home for Christmas, except as done by the Eagles---twice, most recently on late Friday afternoon at a Starbucks. That’s the gay version, as the kids say, and it makes us blue to realize that the genius of Charles Brown has been shunned in favor of this tepid, half-assed, don’t-get-it remake.
Maybe it was belatedly learning of the death of George W.S. Trow and the subsequent and probably unrelated passing of Ahmet Ertegun, whose life was a monument to unforced, naturally occurring, non-quota bearing, non-legislated and non-dictated multiculturalism (as has been naturally occurring since we began marking time).
Or maybe it was the sweat rolling off of our broad forehead as we clambered up to the roof Saturday to string lights in the 80-degree weather. We hate to have to run the air conditioning at Christmastime and get ensnared in the global-warming feedback loop.
Whatever the reason, we’ve tried to force-march our self into the spirit by playing some of our favorite holiday sides, few of which come close to the majesty of Please Come Home for Christmas (which we must hear, unbidden, on the radio, for the season to truly commence) but all of which say to us, “Hey, man, it’s time to get down to the Meyerland Mall and see if you can find a parking spot, and if your luck holds you won’t encounter any parking-lot robbers,” etc.
The very first number that comes to mind is afore-mentioned Mr. Brown’s very mellow Merry Christmas, Baby, a relatively unremarkable song save for these lines: "Merry Christmas, baby/Sure been good to me/Ain’t had a drink all morning/But I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree.” An Xmas song for 12-steppers and other non-drinkers, although you suspect Brown is going to pour one as soon as the song ends.
At the darker end of the street is the Pogues’ fantabulous Fairytale of New York, wherein the late Kirsty MacColl and the possibly late Shane MacGowan (haven’t heard from him lately) stumble through the streets of New York, cursing and crying and whompin’ on one another until they hear “the boys from the NYPD choir … singing Galway Bay” (that’s what it says on Wikipedia, usually infallible in important matters such as these, although it always sounded to us as if they were singing “the boys from the NYPD choir were singing Gaahwa Humall,” or something). The cops’ serenade offers the hard-living codependents only momentary distraction, not an occasion for forgiveness and reconciliation, although when they sing “ … and the bells were ringing out on Christmas Day!!” … Well, everyone’s Irish at Christmas.
… Especially Bing Crosby, whose jaunty Christmas in Killarney always left us buzzed the countless times we heard it as a young person on our parents' copy of Bing’s White Christmas album (we could see the Pogues covering it, if they’re still alive, or maybe they already have). We also much liked the subsequent Hawaiian number, Mele Kalikimaka.
Bing, too, was a practicing multiculturalist, and we thoroughly understand Bob Dylan’s late-life fascination with the putter-toting crooner. Bing Crosby was far out.
Speaking of Dylan and far-outedness, we shan’t forget Mott the Hoople’s Death May Be Your Santa Claus. Despite the title, the song has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas. The best we can remember, it’s all about being pissed off, at nothing in particular. Yet we include it here simply because it leads off what is arguably the best Dylan album (by Dylan or non-Dylans) between Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. Our copy is too scratchy for further listening, so on the off-chance this is available on CD and we’re on your Christmas list, we’d be much obliged (and in return, we’ll give you something of value).
Closer to home, no Christmas would be complete without a listen or two to Robert Earl Keen’s Merry Christmas from the Family. It’s become a sort of Christmas tradition of ours to threaten to play this in our mother’s presence, since, after one listening years ago, she declared it “awful” (a judgment we believe may have something to do with an ongoing fear of falling into White Trash-dom). We, of course, greatly admire the song for its recognition of the power music has to bridge cultural divides: “Sister brought her new boyfriend/He was a Mexican/We didn’t know what to think of him/Till he sang Feliz Navidad.”
There are many other fine Christmas tunes---John Prine’s Christmas in Prison (“ … and the food was real good/ we had turkey/and pistols carved out of wood”), the O’Jays’ (or was it the Spinners’?) Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas (“ … without the one you love”) and the Run-DMC number about “Christmas time in Hollis, Queens/and mama’s cookin’ refried beans”---as well as many must-have collections of holiday songs (our favorite being Rhino’s Doo-Wop Christmas, although we seem to have lost track of ours, so if you have it please return it).
Most scholars agree that the greatest recorded selection of Christmas tunes once traded commercially under the title Phil Spector’s Christmas Album (originally A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector), which features various acts from the famed producer’s early ’60s stable---the Ronettes, Darlene Love, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. Several of the songs approach Charles Brown territory, especially the Darlene Love number Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) [not to be confused with Please Come Home for Christmas] and the Ronettes’ very sweet I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus.
Still, we’ve always found the highlight of the album to be the final cut, a spoken-word coda set to Silent Night in which the future accused murderer explains, in a soft, post-adolescent voice that can only be described as angelic, how the album was his attempt to showcase the Christmas music he loved and to do something new and different for the “recording industry, which is so much a part of my life.” (We Googled around for three or four minutes trying to find a transcript, to no avail---somebody’s falling down on the job out there.)
This, to us, is what Christmas is all about: a nice but potentially psychotic Jewish boy from Los Angeles overproducing frothy holiday songs by African-American singers meant to celebrate the season dedicated to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Feliz Navidad, as they say at the jailhouse.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Although Carey’s report had the logic of many of our dozing-off dreams, it turns out we were wide awake. And after a sound night’s sleep and a day’s somber reflection, it occurs to us that Johnson, who “fired off a memo” to Parker asking her to henceforth refrain from using the acronym CAFR, has his work cut out for him in his campaign to rid the world of the word kaffir. (Out of idle curiosity, we’re moved to wonder whether the councilman has ever used the word “nigger” in good-natured banter with fellow African Americans.* Just asking.)
First stop: Kaffir, Texas (yep), population probably not much, which according to the authoritative Handbook of Texas Online is a “rural community and loading station on the Santa Fe Railroad between Tulia [uh oh] and Happy [yeah!] in north central Swisher County. Kaffir is dominated by the huge grain elevator and loading bin beside the tracks near U.S. Highway 87 (Interstate 27) and apparently was named for the strain of grain sorghum (usually spelled kafir) produced in the area.”
Johnson, preferably with Carey and Fox 26 camera in tow, should immediately drive to Kaffir and demand that the locals change the name of their loading bin stop to something more appropriate. (“Bumfuzzle” sounds good.)
Then there's the kaffir lime leaf, said to be a key ingredient in Thai food (damn, we love Thai food). There are many fine Thai dining establishments in Houston, and hopefully Johnson will organize a boycott of each and every one until their dishes can be certified "kaffir leaf-free.”
And what about the book for young adult readers, Kaffir Boy, which can be found in many Houston-area schools, actually being read by Houston-area students? Johnson needs to root this work out of our schools, and maybe he can grab Dick Gregory’s Nigger and Huckleberry Finn while he’s at it.
We could go on---our son once had a friend, an Israeli kid named Kafir (pronounced kuh-FEAR)---but we’ll stop now. After all, we previously were under the vague impression that kaffir was an archaic term, a Kiplingesque, Boer War-era anachronism, but according to this recent article in The Guardian it still has the power to sting and discomfort.
In South Africa.
It also apparently is still used by some Muslims as a slur against non-believing infidels.
So count us a proud kaffir!
* Or whether he's gotten deeply ironic and used kaffir, as in "You my kaffir!"
Monday, December 11, 2006
Johnson tells Isiah Carey, the reporter who drummed this one up on what must have been an especially slow news day, that he was “taken aback” when he first heard this bureaucratese escape from Parker’s lips. And why is that? Because it sounds just like kaffir, a word not much heard on the streets of Houston but which has a wide variety of meanings in other cultures, including its use as a slur against blacks in South Africa and Jamaica.
“In short, it’s similar to the N-word,” Carey helpfully explained.
We can only assume he means “nitwit.”
“It’s just too close to a mean and hateful term, according to Johnson,” Carey further explained.
Johnson has “fired off” a memo to the controller asking that she refrain from using the acronym. In public and private.
According to Carey, a spokesperson for Parker said she was too busy to comment on the matter.
As we hope she’ll remain.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Since World War II Houston’s story has been one of relentlessly outward crazy-quilt expansion from the city’s original core, beginning with the early close-in suburban developments of the 1940s and early ’50s through the mid-’90s bloodletting that ended in the forcible taking of Kingwood by Bob Lanier, with the suburban growth into the far nether reaches accompanied by the predictable sad decline of infrastructure and neighborhoods in the older, mostly black and Hispanic inner-city areas (a state of affairs that has slowed somewhat, if not exactly reversed---partly thanks to Lanier---although the decay has been spreading for the past 25 or so years into the older, apartment-filled areas that were once the far suburbs). Check out a circa-World War II map of Houston (courtesy Bayou City History) and see how compact and geographically coherent---how small, really---the city was in the days before what Jim Kunstler calls the Era of Easy Motoring dawned.
As Matt Stiles and Renee C. Lee reported in Saturday’s Houston Chronicle story on the very tenuous proposal
Which means maybe Houston can get around to taking better care of what it’s got, with an eye toward halting the wholesale abandonment of the city by the middle-class (which we can easily see being finalized in, oh, about two or three quick decades).
For decades, Houston annexed aggressively so it could grow without being ringed in by other incorporated areas.
But now, at 600 square miles, it may be about full-grown geographically.
We’ve got to hand it to Bill White. Although we’re not yet ready to date him---like this guy, or our neighbor who had to stake two White signs in her yard last year, even though he had no serious electoral competition---it’s clear that the mayor’s a master triangulator, of almost Clintonesque magnitude. We thought it interesting that he assigned the task of negotiating with The Woodlands to a Republican and our former representative on city council, Mark Ellis.
As White moves closer to making a run for statewide office, though, it’s the people in his own party he’s got to worry about, such as Houston state Rep. Garnet Coleman, who, according to the Chronicle’s Stiles and Lee is wary of the deal and apparently unfazed by the prospect of an annexation adding a sizable number of white Republican voters to the city:
"From a fiscal standpoint, you want to make sure we are getting the most tax dollars we can receive," said [Coleman].Oh really?
Anyone in The Woodlands who read that remark would probably conclude that Bill White’s made them an offer they can’t refuse, and whatever the cost they’ll be getting off easy.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
For the most part it was an interesting and at times illuminating read, even the made-up and imagined parts, but we had a real hard time getting past the newspaper’s choice of photos of the accused now-17-year-old killer, who was pictured with a solitary tear rolling down her cheek (she’s remorseful), engrossed in her school studies (she’s got an eye toward the future) and on the front page cuddling with a teddy bear next to her neatly obscured mother (she’s just a little girl, even though the mean ol' state has certified her to be tried as an adult). We’d imagine that the girl’s lawyer, who surely consented to and monitored the newspaper’s interviews with his client, couldn’t have been more pleased with the pre-trial imagery, although the stories themselves hardly made her out to be such a sympathetic character.
We would never mount our high horse to accuse such a morally resplendent institution as the Houston Chronicle of racism---no, not the daily newspaper that refuses to identify at-large crime suspects by race because, in the words of its reader representative, presenting such potentially relevant information amounts to “racial scorekeeping”---yet we can’t help but wonder whether the accused killer would have been accorded the soft-focus treatment if she weren’t a chubby-cheeked white girl. Yeah, imagine the paper running the same type of pictures if the accused were a burr-headed, tattooed cholo type ... like the victim.
Almost as bothersome was the pronouncement in the last installment by University of Houston sociologist Nestor Rodriguez (apparently Rice University’s Bob Stein was tied up that day, probably on another line with another Chronicle reporter), who seemed to suggest it all has something to do with welfare reform and stricter immigration law.
Please, stop that.