Friday, August 31, 2007

Something Spooky About The Spaghetti Warehouse, and It Ain’t the “Garlic Bread,” Apparently

That’s according to “Sandra” (we believe), who seems to have some position of the authority at the downtown restaurant, 901 Commerce at Travis, and who related the startling news to “Pat” (we think)*, hostess of the mellifluously titled Vibes: Mind, Body and Spirit on KPFT-FM, 90.1: The joint is haunted by ghosts! But they’re friendly ghosts!

Apparently everyone in town except us has been informed of this paranormality, we having missed this eight-year-old expose in the city’s leading daily newspaper (although we can’t find evidence that the once-in-a-century blockbuster has broken itself on to the paper’s front page---a shameful omission, given that the world headquarters of the Hearst Corporation’s local franchise [which we notice is looking these days like a giant, tattered, used-up prophylactic] is but a few blocks away from The Spaghetti Warehouse, and there would seem to be plenty of room for such a tale, given the paper’s unused page-one newshole reserved for that war over there in whatchamacallit). Hostess Pat said that while she was relatively new to town she had heard of the haunting from a nephew, who had learned of it from a teacher at his private school (one you can’t hang on HISD there).

Man, did we feel so out of it---us, the Mike Royko, or perhaps the Henry Timrod, of the Greater Fondren Southwest Super Neighborhood.

Anyhoo, Sandra---who according to Pat had to depart the show early to attend to a “medical crisis” that had befallen her father (and we hope he’s OK)---explained that she and the other Spaghetti Warehouse functionaries have a splendid relationship with the ghosts, who are of course the spirits of the deceased who frequented the premises when still tethered to their mortal coil (and have been photographed in their period costume, sez Pat). In fact, Sandra said she often “thanks” the ghosts for the good vibes they send forth and is careful to “give them their space” while fulfilling her restauranterly duties. Pat, whose post-Sandra guest was a guy with about 9 degrees and a delightful Irish brogue, opined that the ghosts actually added to the family ambiance of the restaurant---that is, no harm would come to you or your penne pasta---and fit nicely with The Spaghetti Warehouse motto, which, as Sandra helpfully noted, is “Great Food, All American Fun!”***

Hmmm. It’s been a long, long time since we patronized The Spaghetti Warehouse---much, much longer than it’s been since we actually sat still to listen to KPFT****---but perhaps we’ll go soon. We’d like to commune with these spirits of Olde Houston, ask ’em what they think of today’s developments: Should Metro not be bound by the supposed confines of the English language and run the University rail line down Richmond, or stick it on the Westpark Corridor, or where the sun don't shine? What of Sr. Chingo Bling? Do they enjoy his modern rhymes? Did Phil Garner deserve his fate? And what of Phil Garner’s father, or the guy who introduced himself to us as Phil Garner’s father, a Foxy Grandpa type who buttonholed us and our associate Il Pinguino***** several years ago while we were dining at The New York Bagel Shop, 9724 Hillcroft (not haunted, as far as we know), and opened the conversational gambit by inquiring whether Il and yours truly were “doctors.”******

And finally, we’d like to ask these ghosts for the straight-from-the-afterlife lowdown on the question that has all of Houston in its grip: Whither Rick Casey?

*We were driving at the time---right near, in fact, where we spotted this fellow traveler---and were unable to take notes, thus our somewhat suspect memory may be confusing Sandra with Pat and Pat with Sandra.

**Although the structure does not rate an entry that we could find in Stephen Fox’s Houston Architectural Guide, from what we could gather in a full 2-3 minutes of deep research of
authoritative sources, the warehouse was built in 1912, originally was called the Desel-Bottecher (figures) building, and once housed a pharmaceutical company, during which time and use an employee plummeted to an early death down an elevator shaft, thus accounting for the haunting. Sounds real to us.

***Or something like that.

****Listening to KPFT for more than a minute or two is like being cooped-up in a stalled elevator with this guy.

*****Not affiliated with Slampo’s Place.

******Answer was "no."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

In Observance of the 2nd Anniversary of Katrina ...

... If “observing” is how you’re supposed to mark these ginned-up, media-flogged occasions, you could do worse than to spend a few evenings with Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (available on DVD or through HBO’s on-demand service; it’s actually 5 parts). The series suffers from some of the same problems that afflict Lee’s movies: It’s repetitious and muddled at points, especially when the chronology shifts from the hurricane’s passing to its horrific aftermath, and fraught with the usual polemical rage. But Lee’s business here isn’t merely to lay blame (although Bush comes off as the fatally detached numbskull he is; Blanco does nothing to dispel her image as over-stressed and over her head and looks as if she consented to be interviewed at gunpoint; Nagin, who appears to have been more than eager to cooperate with the celebrity director, skates away much too easily for our taste, despite the periodic appearances of his arch-critic [among many], the historian Douglas Brinkley, whom Lee trots out to give some needed context to the proceedings).

By devoting most of the series to snippets of straight-on interviews with New Orleanians---most of them black, some white, almost all possessing that special cross-racial brio that marks the native of the city---Lee unmasks the full human face of the tragedy in a way that we found deeply moving, and we generally try to remain unmoved by anecdote or artful narrative.* One especially affecting presence is Wendell Pierce, the actor and New Orleans native who plays Baltimore homicide detective Bunk Moreland, one the best characters in the history of television drama, on HBO’s The Wire (itself a moving and dead-on exploration of slow-motion urban disasters), who evenly recounts the fucking-over his 80-year-old father sustained after the storm at the hands of his insurer. Pierce recalls how his father, after returning from World War II, scrapped together enough to buy a new house in Pontchartrain Park in Gentilly, one of the city’s first suburban enclaves for middle-class blacks. The house was destroyed by the waters and Pierce’s father relocated to Baton Rouge---a reminder of how many of the displaced were working- and middle-class homeowners with deep roots in the city, including many, many people who are now settled in Houston. Lee’s series also left us with a newfound respect for Sean Penn.

As we noted here shortly after the storm, no large municipality in the country was more ill-equipped to deal with a disaster of Katrina’s proportions than New Orleans. Along those lines, we recommend these anguished pieces in N.O.’s Gambit Weekly dealing with the recent surprise guilty plea by City Councilman Oliver Thomas for taking a $20,000 bribe from a city concessionaire---a crime he committed a couple of years before Katrina. Thomas was viewed as a conciliator and a unifier in what apparently is an increasingly racially divided city and was on track to become mayor; his downfall was especially dispiriting. The paper’s editorial on the same subject refers to the “secret fatalism” that afflicts too many people and politicians in South Louisiana**, a sobering flash of civic self-knowledge that you rarely see in the media, anywhere, especially around here .

In the meantime, it’s perhaps salient to remember that while Houston isn’t New Orleans, the city’s never been tested by a similarly scaled disaster, Alicia and Allison notwithstanding.

And we hope it stops raining soon.

*This is a joke, we think.
**Something of which we have first-hand knowledge.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hell (Is Other People) On Wheels

The other day we were driving up North Braeswood near its intersection with Stella Link (one of Houston’s most evocatively named byways) when the traffic in the right lane suddenly slowed to a crawl, then stopped … then picked up again at an even more deliberate crawl, then stopped, then … etc. We figured there was some unannounced road work blocking the lane and traffic was backing up while motorists tried to scooch to the left, and so as usual we grew impatient and large thought balloons framing bold-faced cuss words roiled over our noggin, but we let go of our anger as we got closer to the intersection and saw the holdup: an old white guy in a ballcap, couldn’t have been a day under 80, toodling along North Braeswood on one of those Scooter Store-type scooters that had been customized for comfort with the seat from a straight-backed desk chair. He was traveling close to the curb and going no more than 5-8 mph, at best, other motorists swerving wide around him and some honking as he inched along in the 90-plus degree furnace of the mid-afternoon, seemingly oblivious to the threat of imminent if not premature death at the hands of some cell phone-entranced suburban harridan hogging the roadway in her giant Ford Expedition. We saluted the old boy and gave our horn a light tap as we moseyed around him, not in anger but in sheer awe and admiration of his grit and tenacity. He did not take either hand from the handlebars to wave back, or to remove the cigarette that dangled from his lips.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A F**kload of Bling, Whether You’re Ready for Today or Not

El Chronicle de Houston went long Sunday on local rapper-payaso Chingo Bling, who rated not only the cover of the once-fusty Zest section (“Chingo Bling Gets His Shine On”---some hep talk, that) but also was accorded a blurb that ran higher on the front page than that recurring one with the odd full-body shot of the paper’s nebbishy SciGuy (who may indeed have the “sharpest” eye on all things hurricane but lacks the true mad gleam necessary to whip up a genuine panic).

The Chingo Bling profile took the typically happy-ass and unquestioning approach the newspaper takes to almost all its profile subjects, including Death Row inmates. Nevertheless, there were some interesting facts in the story (we assume they were facts---if that turns out not to be the case, please disregard this posting), which was occasioned by last week’s release of Mr. Bling’s big-label debut, They Can't Deport Us All, on Asylum Records/Warner Music Group (the “Asylum” label apparently having changed a bit since it was home to Jackson Browne).

One would assume that the use of the first-person plural in the CD’s title means that Mr. Bling is residing in the United States illegally and thus subject to deportation (uh huh, right) by the “they” to which he vaguely refers, although the subject of his citizenship or lack thereof is skirted throughout the entire longish newspaper article (not that it would be relevant, of course, when you call your CD They Can't Deport Us All). That’s par for the course at El Chronicle, where the question of a person’s standing as legal or illegal, which is at least occasionally relevant to whatever proceedings are at hand, is almost always avoided, unless he or she has gotten shit-faced and killed three people in a car wreck.

But another item hints that Mr. Bling, whose real name is Pedro Herrera III and whose parents, according to El Chronicle, “Came to the U.S. from Valle Hermosa, Mexico,” is probably a citizen in good standing: The newspaper relates that Pedro III is a graduate of Trinity University* in San Antonio “with a degree in business administration and a concentration in marketing.” So much for the street cred.

Whatever his status, this revelation strongly suggests that Mr. Bling’s us-vs.-them La Raza bullshit is simply a clever marketing ploy designed to relieve the gullible of their $18.95 or however much a CD runs these days, in advance of Pedro III’s eventual move to West University Place or River Oaks, depending on sales (parking on the lawn is prohibited in both locations, however).

One important matter regarding Pedro III went unaddressed by El Chronicle, that being the meaning of his nom de rap. As all Leon Hale readers know, bling is the gaudy jewelry and other shiny consumer items associated with the hip-hop lifestyle, while chingo, as any schoolboy in Houston can tell you, is a bad word, a form of the verb chingar, to fuck, although chingar has so may uses and variations and meanings and shades of meanings that Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz---no relation to future Nobel winner Chingo Bling---actually undertook to address that subject in his exploration of the Mexican mind, Labyrinth of Solitude.

Since “I fuck bling” makes no sense, at least to us, we turned to the authoritative Urban Dictionary (hell, it’s as authoritative as anything else these days), which defines chingo as a “large amount” or, similarly, a “fuckload.”

OK, that’s better: A fuckload of bling.

*Awarded the No. 1 ranking by U.S. News & World Report in the category of institutions that offer undergraduate and select master’s programs in the Western part of the United States.

Related: Local blogger fills in the blanks for the daily paper's new teen columnist.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Impending Doom, Unending Gloom: The Week in Review

As we periodically ducked on to the Web throughout the day on Thursday, watching in almost-real-time as the Dow threatened to fall through the floor and tropical storm whatshername threatened to swamp the streets of Houston, our sense of dread grew profound. There seemed to be no clear boundary between our mind and that gray, foreboding sky. If we read one more online story quoting an analyst using the word “panic” we thought we would pitch our self out the window, even though we were in a one-story structure.

It was a day to again remind us how less stressful, and how much easier, life was before the world was wired-up, globalized, flattened and rolled in dough and fried. Back then, when Elvis still reigned, we knew nothing of the Shanghai Composite Index, or of Shanghai.

On Friday, we unplugged from the computer. The sun shone much of the day and the six inches of rain the newspaper warned of did not fall, at least on our locale. The Fed moved to ease the prospect of panic, and the markets surged. We passed a tranquil evening, our dreams undisturbed by falling bridges and broken levees.
By late Saturday, though, the panic-o-meter was rising again, thanks to the highway department or whichever geniuses program the electronic signs along the freeway, which flashed this message: “Hurricane forming near the Gulf. Keep gas tanks full.” We wondered briefly whether this referred to Dean, which we thought had already “formed” but was still a ways off, or to some newer, closer-in disturbance that had gathered force over the course of the day while we weren’t paying attention. Although we try to do what we’re told, we were torn over whether to follow the sign’s command, since it seemed we would only be topping-off our tank again next week if it Dean were truly headed this way. As we approached the Hugo Chavez gas station near our home we saw that the lines at the pumps were already four or five vehicles long and threatening to spill into the street. “Fug it,” we declared as we drove on home, where we hoped to catch some more rest in preparation for whatever mad run next week will bring.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sweat: Another Good Thing About Houston

Yes, we write as a smooth-palmed, fair-skinned burgher who’s never spent 8 to 10 hours in the sun steering one of those huge crawling-roach lawnmowers with the handlebars, but we still see no reason not to be grateful that we reside in a clime where we’re blessed to sweat in copious* amounts, especially at this time of year.

We were reminded of our good fortune this past weekend when various semi-strenuous outdoor activities, culminating with a flat-tire changing in our driveway on Sunday at twilight, caused us to soak through three changes of clothes before nightfall.

We’ve long known that sweat---the body’s air conditioner, they call it---is wholesome. A good sweat always leaves us feeling better, more relaxed, and brings out the deeper shades of our baby blues. Having passed most of our days in the vicinity of the 30th parallel, we find nothing offensive or off-putting in sweat. Nowadays---and this may be a symptom of advancing years---we’d rather sweat a little, or a lot, in our sleep than wake up shivering and stiff in icebox-level temps.

According to Tuesday’s New York Times, sweat’s a much, much bigger deal than we, or even Karl Rove, ever imagined:
“It is plain old unglamorous sweat that has made humans what they are today,” writes Nina G. Jablonski in her recent book Skin. “Without plentiful sweat glands keeping us cool with copious** sweat, we would still be clad in the thick hair of ancestors, living largely ape-like lives.”
The Times does not report whether Jablonski’s book addresses the sexiness of sweating, as signified in post-war culture most memorably by Patricia Neal’s lubricious character (whatshername) in Hud and James Brown’s famously strident declaration to the object of his affection, whose mere holding of JB’s hand caused the boy to break out in a cold sweat (the absolute worse kind, especially when you've been drunk for 2-3 days and it's pooled under your collar). Personally, we’ve always thought that a good looking woman never looked better than when coated in a fine sheen of sweat, however acquired.

So quit whining and go sweat: It’s hot ’n’ sexy and another thing Houston’s got going for it. We may feel different about this in 10 or 15 years, though, when 110 in the shade is the new 100 in the shade.

*The only measurable amount of sweat.
** Ditto.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Good Thing About Houston (One in What May Be a Continuing Series, If We Can Think of Anything Else)

We came to the realization a while back that we were offering the discerning reader a far too gloomy a view of Our Town. We vowed to assume a Klineberg-ian cast of mind and spend more time sashaying down the sunny side of the street instead of poking our noodle (figuratively speaking) into the dim recesses of the recently built but now abandoned Hispanic-themed strip center (metaphorically speaking). We figured that a subsidy from the Greater Houston Partnership would greatly contribute toward that end, but while awaiting payment we’ve decided to forge ahead and---to quote The Sopranos' Paulie Walnuts quoting the post-Al Kooper Blood, Sweat and Tears---ride a painted pony, let the spinning wheel spin.

In that spirit of calculated risk-taking we are moved to commend the Houston Shakespeare Festival, which closed its 33rd season this weekend with an edifying Romeo and Juliet dressed in an unobtrusive Roaring ’20s motif. We try to make it out to the festival every year but often can’t (or we forget). When we do, we’re invariably impressed by the quality of the productions, not that we know anything about the theater.

What’s more, the festival is free and for Da People, and by that we mean the entire spectrum of Houston’s variegated, flip-flop-shod, slightly to morbidly obese humanity, from rambunctious kids to doddering oldsters, all splayed together in the 90-plus degree bowl of Miller Outdoor Theatre and few if any among them rating mention in a Shelby Hodge column (as far as we can tell). Although the underwriting is mostly corporate, not governmental, these events leave us with a warm, 1930s WPA-style feeling and let us imagine that we live in a time when more than a handful of our fellow citizens had at least a passing familiarity with Shakespeare (that’s not this time).

Even the low rumbling conversation the very large person---hell, he was humongous---persisted in carrying on with his wife or himself after intermission did not spoil our evening. When we turned around to glare the gentleman did not ask us if we had a problem, did not produce a handgun to wave in our face, did not cut loose with a volley of curse words. He immediately piped down, bringing to mind another good thing about Houston, perhaps a vestige of our fading Old South heritage: Some people still have manners!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Attention, Local Humans: Don’t Say You Weren’t Warned

From “Da’wah To Our Fellow Human Beings Living in America,” by Hamaza Thie Bui, South Central Zone Representative, Al-Furqaan Foundation, in the August edition of Houston Islamic Source:
The eventual purpose of da’wah is to establish a model for humanity to see … always have a translation of trhe Qur’an ready. Let people see you carry it around. Let people see you read it at work … We have to look at all Americans as potential Muslims … We need to use wisdom to give them a ayah or hadith that they will accept. That entails knowing the language of the land---English---proficiently and understanding American culture … We should collectively give out the Qur’an to non-Muslims. We should make sure it gets everywhere: to business leaders, our government rulers [sic] … We should put Allah’s name in our business contracts. For entrepreneurs, when we sign contracts with non-Muslims, should put it in the name of Allah, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful in the document … Finally, we cannot call them kafir until they openly reject the truth … a kafir covers up the truth, although he knows in his heart there is only one God … It is our duty to tell these potential Muslims the truth; [sic] in a way they will understand it … We as Muslims need to carry on the prophetic message of bringing glad tidings to the believers and warnings to the disbelievers of Allah’s terrible punishment … We want to make sure that (inshaAllah) on the Day of Judgment that there is not a single non-Muslim in this country who can say that he or she hasn’t heard about Islam from us Muslims, and not from FOX-TV or CNN News …

Friday, August 03, 2007

Ron Paul: Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth of the Republican Party

We finally forced our self to sit still Sunday morning for one of these weekly or daily televised presidential debates, however often they’re being conducted, and came away understanding why Ron Paul, our very own homegrown Libertarian gynecologist-congressman, has been creating such a buzz (outside the base, of course). Paul’s always seemed a bit Don Knotts-like to us---with the excitable, high-pitched tone, the unflaggingly earnest demeanor, the play in the too-large shirt collars---but compared to the other seven (or 14 or 15) on This Week with George Stephanopoulos he came across as a rock-ribbed (if slightly bug-eyed and hectoring) Old Testament prophet.

Paul’s got convictions and the courage of his convictions and just by standing upright and espousing his unfashionable Taft Republicanism he played the others in the shade. Among this number we must sadly include John McCain, someone we like and admire (even though we couldn’t disagree with him more on Iraq and illegal immigration) but who’s starting to remind us too much of Droopy Dog.

The best line of the debate was not uttered by Mitt Romney---the Houston Chronicle’s Julie Mason has a precisely tart description of his freeze-dried putdown of the callow Obama (and how pathetic is it at this late date to resort to invoking Jane Fonda for a cheap laugh?)---but by the Libertarian gynecologist-congressman, who outlined his Iraq exit strategy thusly:
"Just come home. We just marched in. We can just come back."
Yeah, maybe the extrication's not that simple, but he’s 100 percent correct in describing the entrance strategy. And we're pretty sure he didn't pay a consultant to come up with the line.