Friday, May 30, 2008

You Don’t Need Neil Frank to Know Which Way the Wind Blows, But He’s Handy to Have Around in Case of a “Storm Brewing in the Gulf”

They say it’s been 21 years, but damn if doesn’t seem like yesterday when he rolled into town, a cherub-faced former director of the National Hurricane Center with a crazy mad gleam in his eye and especially good bounce in his then-unfashionable flattop. Now, in advance of what could be the most deadly storm season on record (Don’t they always say that? They just gotta be right one time!) he’s taking retirement, consigning his still-vital (judging by the flattop) self to aimless days of golf and repeated afternoon listenings of Miles’ Birth of the Cool, reputedly his favorite sounds for “afternoons of lassitude and ease.”

The import of his passing from our TV screens was recognized by none other than the mayor, who declared Friday “Neil Frank Day in Houston” (well, that's according to Channel 11; perhaps you, like us, stayed in bed all day to observe the occasion). Channel 11, in the curious person of Greg Hurst, assured us that “Doc” (we never knew if he was a pediatrician or an anesthesiologist) would return to the airwaves in case of a hurricane (“Break Glass to Retrieve Dr. Neil”). It seems that hurricanes are to Neil Frank what crack cocaine is to a person who enjoys crack cocaine.

We can hope, of course, but we fear that another Neil with a similarly anachronistic hair-do may have foreseen Doc’s true fate many years back: “Once you’re gone, you can never come back, when you’re outta the blue and into the black ….”

So tonight we are bereft as we stand down the gathering winds and shout our questions to the blackness: Who, who, will get us ginned-up into near-hysteria the next time a tropical storm forms way out in the Atlantic? Who---tell us who----will mangle the pronunciation of the actual deadliest hurricane to hit these latitudes in many years (“Kre-TEENA, you so fine”)? Who will stay on the air for 40-plus hours, becoming progressively dopier and wild-eyed as the next killer hurricane takes a turn to the east? Who, we ask?


(The wind whispered “Mary,” we think …)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Commercial Landmarks of Houston, A Continuing Series

A quiet, sun-bleached afternoon in H-Town: Unique. Bleak. And downright Miesian, in a cut-rate way ...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Chronicle to Anti-Amnesty Sheep: You Are Under the Influence of Lou Dobbs and Therefore Unable to Think Rationally About Illegal Immigration

Jesse Jones would be proud. Ever since our very own Greater Houston Partnership announced it would be mounting a multimillion-dollar lobbying/PR campaign to keep the pipeline of cheap Mexican labor primed and pumping, Jones’ old property, the Houston Chronicle, has been in a near-swoon, very much like a 7-year-old girl with a ticket to Hannah Montana. Ordinarily, the daily newspaper’s tastemakers would be in a lather over a big-money lobbying effort by corporate interests, but when it comes to illegal immigration they’re deep down in the pocket and glad to be there. First there was the approving pro-Partnership editorial of a couple of Sundays ago---more on that in a minute---and this week, following the “news” that a Partnership-sponsored study by noted shill Ray Perryman has “found” that the disappearance of 8 million-plus illegal workers would cost the U.S. $1.8 trillion in annual spending (give or take a billion, we presume), came another sustained round of applause from Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy.

Neither of these efforts had much to recommend it, although Steffy’s straight-faced embrace of Perryman’s numbers crept close to being funny (even pro-amnesty Metro columnist [is there any other kind at the daily?] Rick Casey briefly roused himself to point out that economist-for-hire Perryman has a long history of giving his customers exactly what they want). But the conscientious and appraising reader may have taken note of the extra-thick layer of condescension Steffy lathered over his analysis:
Perryman's research firm on Monday released an economic study that attempts to blunt the blaring blather of talk radio and other anti-immigrant fear-baiting.
Yes, dear reader, if you have any reservations whatsoever about amnesty and the obvious (that is, visible to your own goddamn eyes) deleterious effects of illegal immigration, then you are a fear-baiting nativist know-nothing whose weak mind has been befogged by the “blather” of talk radio.

We presume Steffy was directing his reductive Obamaism at many of his own readers, given that almost all of the comments affixed to the online version of his column were, how shall we say, uncomplimentary. Our favorite was from “clothesliner,” who wrote:
Assuming 18 million illegals in the US, $1.8 trillion in spending divided by 18 million illegals is equal to $100,000 in spending per illegal. If my arithmetic is correct, we not only need the illegals that are here now but a couple million more could definitely put the economy back on the growth side.
We can't vouch for the math, but obviously “clothesliner” isn’t taking into account the effect of those magical, mystical “multipliers.” Then consider the observation of another Steffy reader, “inaruba,” who points out
I don't see anything anywhere in here about the billions of dollars per month being sent South of the border. That is money NOT being spent here. How do you take account for that in one study and not account for it in another?
And from “sunspotbaby,” citing Perryman’s comment to Steffy that without cheap illegal labor "we'd have to raise wages a lot, which is inefficient and bad for the economy" ...
I agree Mr Steffy. We need more illegal immigrant business columnists or maybe some out sourcing through the internet. You'll be understanding when your salary is cut to the point where taking the bus to work is the only option. We ALL need more of that.
That seems presumptuous of sunspotbaby: Why does she or he think Steffy isn’t already a bus rider? Perhaps he takes the same Park-and-Ride as the Upper West Siders on the paper’s editorial board, who on Sunday before last beat the business columnist to the punch in huzzahing over the “news” that America’s employers---or at least the Partnership---“are finally speaking out for sound immigration policy,” as the headline over the editorial put it. (It is not an exaggeration or misrepresentation to say that the daily newspaper considers “sound immigration policy” to be “amnesty for all, enforcement for none.” How else to interpret its repeated insistence on the necessity of the “pathway to legalization” side of the comprehensive “reform” legislation while repeatedly and insistently tsk-tsking and tut-tutting any effort at enforcement of current law since the proposal tanked [in a sea of Mexican flags, we’d say].) According to the editorial
The [Partnership-led] movement aims to inform and motivate the grass roots, where people's views of immigration too often are shaped by commentators such as Lou Dobbs.
At this late date it’s a sign of a very weak mind to stoop to invoking Lou Dobbs when telling readers what a lot of sheep they are. But here’s how the editorial explains the failure of the comprehensivist legislation:
Businesses, trades and large corporations are finally speaking up about this reality. Many say they were caught off guard last year, when a hailstorm of constituent e-mails and letters capsized a promising immigration compromise in a few days …
Yeah, that’s called democracy. Sometimes it works, contrary to the wishes of editorialists.

For a healthy corrective to all this bile, we suggest a few moments with this often-quoted piece by Heather McDonald (the anti-Tamar Jacoby), who knows more about the true costs ("facts on the ground") of illegal immigration than the Greater Houston Partnership, Loren Steffy, Ray Perryman and the Houston Chronicle editorial board combined (we’ll throw in Rick Casey, too). “Lived experience fuels citizen movements for immigration control,” McDonald notes---a truism the daily newspaper’s tastemakers might consider the next time they set out to gratuitously insult so many of their readers (what’s left of their readers).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Everybody’s Dancin’ Those Late John Garfield Blues (¡Leo Gorcey Es Tu Papá!)

Some genius has gone and done it: combined Americans’ two insatiable addictions---watching TV and filling their gas tanks---into one unholy consumer experience. We’re sure this isn’t a brand new phenomenon, but we first encountered it late Friday afternoon at the Hugo Chavez Fill-Er-Up around the corner from our house. We wondered why everyone was staring up toward the tops of the pumps---perhaps gas had already hit $4 a gallon and we missed it, or maybe the face of Jesus had been rendered visible behind the glass---then noticed that each and every gasoline dispenser was newly crowned by a small, two-sided flat-screen TV! We caught the eye of the Hispanic wrecker driver at the next pump, who was chuckling and shaking his head: “Man, they’re making so much money now they got their own TVs!” he observed. “Yeah,” said we, “maybe they got cable, and we can just walk over here at night and catch HBO.”

Alas, the offerings of “Top Pump” TV (or maybe it’s “Pump Top”), as we noticed it is called, were not as riveting as premium cable. It was very thin sopa, sort of like what you get on an airplane before they show a bad movie or a Mork and Mindy rerun (as we noticed they were actually doing on the last United flight we took). While we kept one eye on the pump ($3.62 per, on the cash card), the other eye was treated to a five-day weather forecast, an ad for a financial services company we found easy to ignore, and a snippet of E!-style “news” reporting not the latest U.S. fatality count from Iraq but that “Drew Barrymore had a hard night when she was rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver in Hollywood.” The fetching young actress was OK, however, and “had the presence of mind” to get the license plate of the other driver (what presence!). “Yeah, we’d like to rear-end Drew Barrymore!” we shouted at the wrecker driver (we are truly beyond embarrassment). The driver only smiled thinly, leaving us to worry that he was perhaps a born-again Christer and thus offended by our misguided attempt at male bonhomie, or that his pump was not tuned to the same “channel” as ours, or that he had taken us literally and was preoccupied with the fantasy of driving recklessly to the scene and hauling off the disabled vehicle of a comely movie star.

In any case, we assume this placement of TVs atop the pump is a simple but likely ineffective way to get the customer’s mind off his or her soaring gas tab. Desperate times call for etc. (yeah, we know gas is cheap as dirt here compared to what they pay elsewhere in the world). Just the other day we heard a story, second-hand and uncorroborated (very), of a chance encounter between two shoppers at the Neighborhood Wal-Mart that ended with one, a middle-aged African-American lady, confiding that she and members of her church congregation were now joining hands around the pump and praying for prices to fall.

After we had filled our tank three-quarters up with $30 on the cash card we went home for some more TV watching, taking in a DVD that included an old John Garfield movie, the Busby Berkeley-directed They Made Me a Criminal, which featured an early appearance by the Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys, so early that “Slip,” the Leo Gorcey* character, was still known as “Spit” and actually spat on people. It is the dream of Spit and his somewhat reformed fellow juvenile delinquents (who are in the process of being redeemed by falsely accused and on-the-run boxing champ Garfield) to open a gas station in the Arizona desert because, according to the Billy Halop** character, “they make good money.” To illustrate---or perhaps debunk---that notion, Garfield and the lads stop at the only nearby station to gas up their jalopy. “Lessee: eight gallons … that’ll be $1.30,” says the grizzled proprietor. By our ’rithmetic that’s about 16 cents a gallon. According to one of those on-line services that calculate the “relative” value of old money (for yuks, we guess) the $1.30 paid by John Garfield in 1939 was worth $19.41 in 2007, at least as measured by the CPI (not always the most reliable measure, according to the learned Web site we consulted, but what the hell). That’s around $2.43 a gallon.

Yeah, we remember $2.43 gas.

*According to the authoritative Wikipedia, “Gorcey was removed from the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album after his agent demanded a payment of $400.” We believe our copy includes Mr. Gorcey’s mug, and we will make it available to you to have and hold for, oh, $400.

**According to Wikipedia, “Diminishing film work, marital difficulties, and a drinking problem eventually ate away at Halop's show business career.” And: “Halop married seven times.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Readymade (No Thought Required)

You gotta love this Slate piece by Jack Shafer on the unanimously reverential treatment our nation’s daily newspapers accorded master marketer Robert Rauschenberg upon his passing this week at age 82. Shafer opened with this damning summation:
The solemn tributes to Robert Rauschenberg in today's newspapers prove that you're more likely to encounter an independent mind operating in the sports pages than the arts section.
Oh, that’s brutal. Wish we’d written it!
Shafer goes on to point out ...
You'd expect that an artist who deliberately courted controversy might rouse a little debate on the event of his death. But none of his provocations move the daily art-crits in that direction—not his White Painting, not his "black painting," not his Automobile Tire Print, not his screenprints, not his Mud Muse, and not his "cardboards." Even the time that he asked Willem de Kooning for a drawing, erased its every line, and displayed it as Erased de Kooning Drawing wins worshipful treatment from the gang. "[A]n act both of destruction and devotion," reports the New York Times. Evidence of "creative overdrive," proclaims the Los Angeles Times. An example of "the younger generation, turning history into a blank slate," finds the Washington Post.
We never had much truck with Rauschenberg’s art---we prefer pitchers like the one above, which is why we’re running it without credit or permission---but we were always intrigued by the fact that the artist was a pure product of what our friend Banjo calls the Petrochemical Underarm of Southeast Texas. From a 2005 profile in the Beaumont Enterprise, one of the art world’s most authoritative organs:

"We didn't have any museums when Milton was here. That's what we called him then," said Dovie (Horton) Logsdon, a classmate from Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur. "But we all had to make the best of what we had. Everyone here was either farming or working with the railroad. We had to create our own culture."

Art was foreign to Rauschenberg when he was growing up in the working-class town.

"The first art I saw that was hung on the wall as art was in California during the Navy," said Rauschenberg.

What he saw at the Los Angeles County Museum was Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" and Lawrence's "Pinkie."

"They looked like the backs of playing cards I had seen. I remember being surprised that a human being actually made them. I thought, well, that's what I do. I doodle and draw and copy the funnies," Rauschenberg said.

From such privations does great art spring. Anyway, our longtime favorite Rauschenberg anecdote, which we’ve read so often we assume it to be of the print-the-legend variety, involves the future world-beater and soon-to-be-former-Milton hitchhiking back to Port Arthur following Navy service in World War II. Donna Rae Wiser picks up the tale in the Enterprise:

To his surprise, his family had moved away, leaving no address.

"Someone told me they thought they might have moved to Lafayette," he said.

He hitched another 120 miles to a coffee shop there. There sat his father, Ernest, who explained simply, over a cup of coffee: He'd been promoted to Lafayette.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

No Country for Old Men (Or Women)

A faded flier on a lightpost in southwest Houston. Note the very detailed description of the suspect, right down to the unkempt facial hair. The object here of course is not to promote or debunk stereotypes, but to catch a bad man who's beating up old people.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Is You Is or Is You Ain’t an Elitist? (You Kinda Sound like One Is the Reason We’re Asking)

We are unashamed and willing to stand naked before the world this evening and acknowledge the following: We can’t sit still for NASCAR. Or Toby Keith. Sean Hannity strikes us as the walking definition of “dumbass.” We occasionally eat tofu*---why, we’re not sure, but we think it has something to do with “health”---and we generally avoid trans fats, although we would defend to the death your right to eat trans fats---well, maybe not to the death---and certainly would never encourage a class-action suit against the makers of that key food grouping of the early 21st century.

Does that make us an elitist? It certainly might, especially in light of the following: We read the Sunday Times (sometimes on Sunday). We rarely drink alcohol, but when we do we prefer expensive dark beers brewed in Portland or Belgium or some other foreign place. We have been hunting a grand total of three (3) times in our life (although we own a serviceable array of firearms and enjoy repairing to the Piney Woods for their lawful discharge--all in preparation for the day our daughter starts “dating”) and we go fishing maybe an average of twice a year (although we’d certainly like to go more often, and occasionally voice that desire aloud, usually on days like the ones we’ve been having lately). We did not go to an Ivy League college---we somehow managed to wring a degree from the state-funded diploma mill in our hometown---but we have at least a passing acquaintance with the works of Wittgenstein and Hegel (not in the German, of course). We have never read a John Grisham novel. Of these facts we are neither proud nor embarrassed. We have passed through that portal into the place where we pretty much couldn’t care less (or is it could care less?) what anyone else thinks of us, pro or con, with some few notable exceptions.

So, yes, we fear we might be an elitist---we prefer to think of our self as a member of the natural aristocracy, of course---a designation that automatically disqualifies us from pursuing a late-life career in electoral politics (among many other disqualifiers). If you (like us), have a life so attenuated that you devote one or more waking hours to the viewing of MSNBC, then you are aware that the “elitist” descriptive now has been tied snugly around the neck of the callow Obama, as it was around the protruding Adam’s apples of John Kerrey and Al Gore (although for Obama with considerably less debilitating effect than the likely deadly Judas Kiss of the Rev. J. Wright). No less an observer than Pat Buchanan---and we’re not being facetious here, as our coozan Pat is probably the most astute spectator of the political sport in the entire USA (and a likely Hillary voter in a McCain-Clinton match-up, we’d wager)---has suggested the elitist image that now has Obama walking with a crutch will soon have him rolling in a wheelchair.

Perhaps Pat saw the film clip of Meredith Vieira---Meredith Vieira of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire fame!---asking Obama whether he had “fire in the belly” or “arugula** in the belly?” (Was that a line she borrowed from Maureen Dowd?) We forget how Obama replied, but it was not the appropriate answer. He tried to answer the question by avoiding it, as an elitist would. The non-elitist reply would’ve been: “That’s the stupidest goddamn question I’ve ever heard.” Then Obama could’ve pulled out one of his secret cigarettes and fired it up---smoking being a decidedly non-elitist pastime these days---and blown second-hand smoke right up the nostrils of the pert patrician nose of Meredith Vieira. The election would’ve been over! McCain probably would’ve withdrawn and even Clinton would have had to finally let go.

That exchange typified how the leveling of the “elitist” charge has become just another trump card, perhaps the ultimate one, in the great American con game of status: a member of the communications elite needling a member of the political elite with the suggestion that he’s a latent elitist. It reminded us of the time we saw conservative author and talk-show chick Laura Ingraham butter up Imus (in those longed-for pre-Morning Joe days) by telling him, “Yeah, you look a NASCAR fan---I could see you at the track, wearing a cap ….” Something like that. Imus, who dropped out of high school to join the Marines, is in fact a NASCAR fan (when we said we “can’t sit still for NASCAR” we meant “NASCAR really sucks”). Ingraham, arbiter of regular-guyness, went to Dartmouth and clerked for a Supreme Court justice.

Obama, of course, is not of the once-dominant East Coast aristocracy of cold-blooded WASPy financiers and politicians that produced our current president but rather of the less class-bound aristocracy that sprang from the post-War Baby Boom meritocracy, elevated not by lineage but rather by high SATs and Ivy League degrees and, for those who pursued a career in Democratic politics, an unfortunate proclivity for do-as-I-sayism and the pressing urge to assume the moral high ground in almost any political argument. And Obama isn’t really an elitist in that latter-day sense, although Yale law graduate H. Clinton comes off as a midnight-to-6 waitress when compared to him. We saw that clip of the Illinois senator fooling around on the basketball court with the North Carolina team and we noticed he can actually play. Pick-up basketball is no elitist pastime. (Obama said that the Heels’ Tyler Hansbrough went easy on him while guarding the senator; we assume that meant Hansbrough was only guarding Obama’s white half.***)

The accusation of elitism long been a problem for left-of-center politicians, as Jeff Greenfield reminded last week in a Slate essay on George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, the author’s first-person account of life among coal miners and their families in 1930s England (a book that every young person should read---NOW!---along with Down and Out in Paris and London). Orwell, a small-s socialist and the 20th century’s most perceptive critic of totalitarianism and imperialism, sought to explain socialism’s unpopularity among the British working class thusly, according to Greenfield:

"As with the Christian religion," [Orwell] writes, "the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents." Then he wheels out the heavy rhetorical artillery. The typical socialist, according to Orwell, "is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism, or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaler, and often with vegetarian leanings … with a social position he has no intention of forfeiting. … One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England." (Think "organic food lover," "militant nonsmoker," and "environmentalist with a private jet" for a more contemporary list.)

Orwell also rails against the condescension many on the left display toward those they profess to care most about. Describing a gathering of leftists in London, he says, "every person there, male and female, bore the worst stigmata of sniffish middle-class superiority. If a real working man, a miner dirty from the pit, for instance, had suddenly walked into their midst, they would have been embarrassed, angry and disgusted; some, I should think, would have fled holding their noses."

Real working-class folks, he says, might be drawn toward a socialist future centered around family life, the pub, football, and local politics. But those who speak in its name, he says, have a snobbish condescension toward such quotidian pleasures—even condemning coffee and tea. "Reformers" urged the poor to eat healthier food—less sugar, more brown bread. And their audience balked. "Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like organs and wholemeal bread, or [raw carrots]?" Orwell asks. "Yes it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would rather starve than live on brown bread and more carrots … a millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits. An unemployed man doesn't."
But things are much changed since Orwell’s time. The author, who elsewhere in his writings was equally contemptuous of vegetarians and “sandal-wearers,” died from TB at 46 (after years of smoking like fiend and getting shot in the throat in the Spanish Civil War---he was a guy who was willing to put himself out there). If born a half-century later, we bet Orwell would be pursuing a low-cholesterol diet and walking the treadmill at the health club at 6 a.m., although he’d likely just do it and shut up about it. As for Obama---it just shows once again what a great country this is when a half-black man from Hawaii can rise to become an arugula-eating elitist.

*We actually had some this evening, leftovers from our vegetarian daughter’s to-go plate.
**For non-elitist readers, this is fancy-pants lettuce.
***Unsophisticated vaudeville humor for the 21st century.