Friday, May 25, 2007

What’s in the Funny Papers Today? Well, Sonny, How About Some Non-Consensual Jailhouse Sex Forced on a Rich White Woman by a “Female Inmate of Color"?

We’ve never thought the funny pages of the newspaper were very funny. Even as a burr-headed youngster in thrall to Marvel Comics and reruns of The Three Stooges and Amos ’n’ Andy we could never understand what is was that drew readers to waste even a few moments of the day in the company of Prince Valiant, Mary Worth, Mutt ’n’ Jeff, Lil’ Abner and whoever.

We were wholly unfamiliar with today’s funny pages---Shoe, before Jeff MacNelly’s death, was the last one we gandered at even occasionally---until today, when a prolonged visitation to the men’s room with nothing to read but the Houston Chronicle’s Star section forced us to come to grips with contemporary comics.

We were almost fully on the nod (Gasoline Alley Celebrates Third Centennial!) until we came to an aptly named entry called La Cucaracha, a crudely drawn but demographically fine-tuned effort to appeal to an up-and-coming segment of today’s segmented audience.

The introductory panel sets it up: “Latina socialite Fresno Hilton teaches her half-sister jailhouse etiquette.” The fictional cousin of America’s most renowned parole violator is shown talking into a cell: “Mira, Paris---Listen. If a large, angry female inmate of color walks up to you, what do you say?”

“You are fierce,” replies “Hilton” through the phone receiver.

“No. You say, “Hi, Hubby.”

That was the punch line. (If you were expecting more.)

Yeah, it's about as funny as Imus’s “nappy headed ’hos” remark, except Imus, if we remember correctly, made no implied threat of violence toward the targets of his “humor.”

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Commercial Landmarks of Houston, One in a Very Intermittent Series

For years this rambling southwest-side building housed an establishment called Barnacle’s Seafood Restaurant and Bar, or Barnacles Seafood Boutique (maybe with the apostrophe, maybe without), whose specialty appeared to be the heavily advertised all-the-seafood-you-can-eat plate for $8.25 (maybe it was $8.95). It may have been delicious but we’ll never know because we could never bring our self to eat seafood---or anything else---at a place called Barnacle’s (or Barnacles), even at those prices.

One day when we weren’t paying attention Barnacle’s/Barnacles went dark and was reborn as La Raza, a combination cantina/cafĂ© and used-car lot that should not be confused with La Raza Western Wear at 2835 Broadway or La Raza Meat Market at 8611 Highway 6 South or La Raza Cuts at 3327 Reed Road or La Raza Van Tours at 6665 Avenue L or La Raza 98.5 and 103.3 FM or La Raza, our 3-year old mixed pit/mastiff, or La Raza, our 1982 Ford F-150 pick-up (“Can’t come to work today, jefe---La Raza won’t start! Again!).

As the bilingualists among you know, La Raza directly translates as “The Race”---it’s not always to the swift, or so we’ve heard---although its meaning in general usage is supposedly more subtle, along the lines of the German Volk, a sort of exalted bond of blood and/or tongue that unites the Spanish-speaking people of the Americas (which is a joke, if you know anything about the Spanish-speaking people of the Americas, where the Salvadorans despise the Mexicans, the Mexicans hate the Puerto Ricans and the Cubanos look down on them all, etc. … and none of whom, together or apart, constitute a “race”).

We believe, however, that La Raza is mostly employed by Mexicans in the United States who can’t come up with a better name for their barber shops and combination cantina/used car lots.

We’re sure our money’s good at La Raza, but we can only imagine the unholy hell that’d be raised if some Caucasian opened up a white-type country-western bar called The Race. (Wait … there is a clean, well-lighted place for honkies right down the street from Barnacles/Barnacle’s/La Raza. It’s called The Shamrock, and you know what that signifies, right?)

Friday, May 18, 2007

An Interesting Fact Regarding Our Town’s Alleged Schoolboy Jihadists That Still Begs for Some Explanation and/or Elaboration

As you may have heard or read, one of the four would-be jihadists who were stung by government informants while taking target practice (or something … ) up in Montgomery County caught 10 months in the pen this week for a mere federal firearms violation.

Another young Pakistani allegedly involved in the same hare-brained “plot” to aid the Taliban is supposed to go on trial Monday.

One eye-opening twist in this story that we’d like to learn more about is the fact that the property at Willis on which the four were allegedly honing their infidel-slaying skills (or, according to one of men’s attorneys, simply enjoying an old-fashioned Texas weekend of male bonding, presumably without beer) is owned by the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. We were first apprised of this connection by a story in the Houston Chronicle back in December, wherein the society’s ownership was mentioned in passing---a very hasty passing---with no further elaboration or comment from a society official. The news was attributed to a Houston-based FBI counterterrorism agent who was testifying in a Dallas detention hearing for one of the four.

As far as we can tell this portion of the agent’s testimony went unremarked upon by other media, save for another quickly passing mention in a story that aired on the CBS TV affiliate in Dallas.

Surely there’s an innocent explanation and the Islamic Society was unaware of what the government claims these Koran-thumping jokers were up to on its property. Or perhaps someone in the society colluded with the government and its informants by helping to set the foursome up. Or …

In lieu of clarification, we’ll just let our imagination run wild.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Minor English-As-A-Second-Language Indignity of the Week

We have a friend---a close friend---who answers to “Jim” but whose Christian name is of course James, the name under which he maintains his checking account and driver’s license and other formal accoutrements of the modern, cosmopolitan life. Jim reports that he recently made a trip to the drive-thru at the branch of the multinational banking corporation he’s patronized for many years, intending to deposit a check that was written out with his first name as “Jim” and to get a small amount of cash back.

After sending the check up the pneumatic chute, Jim waited in silence for what seemed like an unusually long time before the speaker crackled and the teller, forgoing the usual introductory pleasantries, demanded to know, “Who es Jeem?”

“Jim is me---Jim is James,” James/Jim sought to explain. “Jim is a whatyacallit, a diminutive, for James … in America.”

Jim says his explanation resulted in another full minute’s worth of silence, during which there apparently was some intercession by a higher-ranking bank authority, before the canister with his $40 hurtled back through the chute. No one wished him a nice day at the conclusion of the transaction, he says.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Our Entry in the Houston Chronicle Art Car Parade Poetry Slam

Not to be uncivil, BUT:
We’d rather not hear or read another word (not one)
about the effin’ Art Car Parade.

Or any other of these twaddlin’ bourgeois diversions.

Because the secret wish of poetry
is to stop time ('ccording to Charles Simic).

So if we see you toodlin’
down the freeway
in your ART CAR,
with the plastic fruit and dirty drawers and whatnot
glued to the chassis,
and the entire 4th period art class
stuffed in the trunk,
you best move out of our way
because we’re late
for a shootout on the feeder road.

After that, there’s gonna be a
cockfight in the parking lot.

We don’t know much about cars.
And less about art.
All we know for sure is that we’re gonna die.
Maybe later tonight,
maybe in the Year of Our Lord 2027
(give or take a month).
And all the g-ddamn “poetry” and Art Cars and
Houston Chronicles delivered to our doorstep in never-ending sequence
won’t save our …

To be obvious about it.

The secret wish of poetry being to stop time, according to Jimmie Reed.

So you better take out some insurance on me.


Ok, where’s our prize?

Monday, May 07, 2007

People Like Us

We’re beginning to understand where The Sopranos is headed. We always suspected that creator David Chase was carrying on his seven or eight-year dialogue with his audience from a conservative vantage---“conservative” in the obvious sense of “Why can’t things be like they used to?” as well as the more oblique “There are limits to man’s capacity for [insert noun here],” not “conservative” as in, say, “Dick Cheney,” who gives all you conservatives a bad name‑‑‑and now we’re (almost) certain of it.

Chase is winding it down by going even deeper and darker, to the point that “disturbing” is the only fit adjective for the last two episodes. He’s telling us that we, the audience, are the suckers and saps that a real-life Tony would consider us to be---if not as morally corrupt as the protagonists themselves---for making an emotional investment in his characters and even considering the possibility that there is something redeeming or endearing about Tony, Carmela (they’ve done their best by their kids!) and the rest.* The ceremonial masks of suburban New Jersey are off, the ancient teeth are bared. We’re reminded that these people are leeches, sociopaths, killers---and, as in life, no one seems particularly smart, or anywhere near as smart as they think they are (we always place our own personal self near the top of that list, right below Dick Cheney). When the screenwriter J.T. Dolan (who said he was working on a Law & Order script!) reminded a fallen-off-the-wagon Christopher that “You’re in the Mafia ...” in Sunday’s episode, Christopher drunkenly repaid his fellow 12-stepper for that bland but portentous observation by casually drilling him in the forehead with his 9 (he was aiming for Tony and missed).

Thanks, we needed that. We’re feeling better, and we expect to be on top of the world when Chase brings the curtain down four weeks from now.

*Our own bond with Tony was sealed in an early episode as he and feckless son A.J. struggled to change a flat on the side of the road. When A.J. whined that "maybe we should just call Triple-A," Tony set him straight: "In our family, we change our own tires."

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Our Unsentimental Education

Musta been ’73 or ’74 (we’re pretty sure it was ’73, but we lost our diary) and we were standing on the corner, not in Winslow, Arizona, but on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley near the University of California campus, not searching for soul food and a place to eat but rather an establishment that on a Sunday afternoon would cash an American Express Traveler’s check, one of a dozen or so in denominations of $20 that for security purposes we kept tucked down in our sock inside our left hippie-prole workboot---the sum of a fortune we had amassed washing dishes and tending the “salad bar” (pre-self serve era) at the Bonanza Steakhouse on Johnston Street in the Hub City.

Standing with us was our traveling companion and high school classmate P-t R-----d, a hardcore backpacker and birdwatcher (the latter a pastime we would not come to appreciate for three decades or so) who aspired to study ornithology at Cornell but wound up joining the Coast Guard (he may have gone to Cornell later, though; we lost track). We had been in the “Bay Area,” as we learned it was called, for 2-3 weeks, “crashing” at various locations, including on the ground behind a mansion in the Oakland hills where the drying-out father of a Stanford-attending friend of ours was working as a caretaker, on the ground behind a church in Berkeley, on the ground in a rancid burnt-hippie/speed freak “pad” in ’Frisco and not on the ground one night at the YMCA, where we discovered most of the gentlemen lodgers to be annoyingly aggressive in their practice of homosexuality. And there was a week in there where we rented a room in a fraying but not-bad Victorian boarding house-hotel for a grand total of $20---that was for the entire week (!) ---near the Castro District, although we chose to sleep on the floor and allowed P-t the full comfort of the four-poster bed, perhaps because of our latent fear of joining the throngs of annoyingly aggressive homosexuals amok in that pre-AIDS bacchanal. Or maybe we had developed a taste for sleeping on the ground.

So we were standing there on the corner, two aimless smooth-faced hippie boys from the provinces, when this short but sturdy black guy with an unfashionably close-cropped Afro and serious mien comes striding toward us. A man of purpose, carrying a clipboard and with a pen tucked behind one ear, wearing a camo vest and the sort of thick, black horn-rimmed glasses that today signal “I’m a cheeky would-be urban hipster, although somewhat behind the curve” but back in that day simply mumbled “Socially awkward.”

“Hey, what’s happenin'?” said we, our standard greeting of the time (these days we just say “¡Hola!"). The guy looked official, in some way, so we thought he might be able to help: “Listen, do you know where we could cash a Traveler’s check around here? We’ve been to a couple of places but they want us to buy something.”

“Yeah, just a minute though,” the clipboard-bearer said with buzzsaw penetration. “I’ve got this petition I wish you would sign.”

“What’s it for?” we asked, carrying the conversational ball while P-t grinned from the sidelines.

“We are,” the clipboard-carrier explained, “asking U Cal to offer a class in Marxist criminology.”

It took us a second to formulate a reply, which went something like: “Really? I didn’t know there was something … that there was a school of, um, criminology that was Marxist … ah …”

“There is. Would you sign it, please?”

“Well, we don’t go to school here, actually. In fact, we’re not even from around here.” Trying to be helpful.

Mr. Officious drew his clipboard back and said, “Yes, I could tell. Where are you from? Mississippi? Alabama? Just a couple of overprivileged white boys … I bet you make fun of ‘rednecks,’ right? You don’t even know why they’re called ‘rednecks,’ do you?”

We were young and non-confrontational and much more willing to take people as they came than we would be in just a few years, but that one bit down into us as we flashed on our father, from whom we were then at a chilly remove.

“No, we don’t make fun of rednecks. And we know why their necks are red,” we said, putting into our reply as much fuck-you spin as we could muster.

“Yeah, OK,” said the would-be scholar of Marxist criminology. “You can cash your check down there,” pointing to a Rexall Drug Store down the way with the distinctive orange-and-blue sign you used to see everywhere in American cities. Trying to be helpful.

We went as instructed, but of course they wouldn’t cash the check.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

No Wanking on Your Ranking Today: Chronicle Circulation Falls, A Little, But Voluble Publisher Remains Strangely Silent

Not much news here: Circulation continues to roll steadily downhill at the Houston Chronicle and most other big-city newspapers, as measured by the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations report. The Chronicle, however, suffered a drop of just 2 percent in its daily paid circulation, a mere shaving nick (compared to the 14 percent gut-shot sustained by the Dallas Morning News) that we expected would somehow be processed into almost-good news by the unrivaled verbal dexterity of Chronicle publisher Jack Sweeney.

But we found no word of the latest figures in Tuesday’s Chronicle, the day after the ABC report was released---not even the perfunctory “Circulation falls but Chronicle retains ranking as 7th largest metropolitan newspaper” that’s usually hidden way back in the paper’s business section. That means discerning Houston readers were denied a fresh serving of long, declamatory quotes from Sweeney explaining away the declines and forecasting better times ahead in “today’s media landscape.” (Perhaps he, like us, has not fully recovered from that shower scene in Sunday night’s Sopranos.)

So let us step into the breach in Sweeney’s absence and discern the half-fullness of the cup: By our calculation the Chronicle’s weekday circulation has fallen by just about 50,000 over the past two years. At that rate, the Hearst Corp. can wring about 20 more years of columns from Leon Hale before it converts 801 Texas into high-rise lofts.

UPDATE: We wrote too soon, as Wednesday’s business section reports that---ta da!---“Chronicle steady in newspaper rankings.” The story quotes (so to speak) Sweeney saying the paper “had its second straight gain on Sunday,” although the lede reports “Sunday circulation declined 2.2 percent.” Well, whatever. As Sweeney puts it, “There’s still plenty of demand for a compelling local newspaper delivered to your door every day.”

Who could argue?