Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Most Absurd Thing We've Read All Year (But the Year is Still Young)

From Thursday's New York Times, in a story contrasting the Obama administration's looser standards for White House dress and meetings and the more button-down approach of his predecessor's:
... [Obama] showed up Saturday for a briefing with his chief economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, dressed in slacks and a gray sweater over a white buttoned-down shirt. Workers from the Bush White House are shocked.

“I’ll never forget going to work on a Saturday morning, getting called down to the Oval Office because there was something he was mad about,” said Dan Bartlett, who was counselor to Mr. Bush. “I had on khakis and a buttoned-down shirt, and I had to stand by the door and get chewed out for about 15 minutes. He wouldn’t even let me cross the threshold.”*
Which is just slightly more absurd than this:
Recently axed Merrill Lynch chief John Thain is getting lynched for handing out some $3 to $4 billion in bonuses to employees just before the firm merged with Bank of America. But Thain wasn't the only one handing our checks last year.

While 2008 was a devastating time for investors, 79% of Wall Street workers received bonuses, according to a study by employment Web site

"Following one of the most tumultuous years in financial history, smart people who did good work deserve to be recognized," said John Benson, the site's founder. "The future of the financial services industry may be opaque,* but the industry has a vital role to play in the global economy--and that requires talent.
Which is just slightly more absurd than this:
[Houston schools] Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra pocketed the biggest reward [for teacher performance] — earning $77,500 of the $80,000 maximum award allowed under his contract. The bonus is on top of his annual salary of $327,010*.
*Emphases added, of course.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Synergistic Vibrancy: Meet the New Michael Pollack!*

Our mayor’s shilling on behalf of that downtown luxury condo high-rise (what, the new park with the Bill and Andrea White Promenade wasn’t enough consideration?) was hilarious on the face of it, but what’s truly funny is that anyone would seriously debate its propriety. Or at least pretend to consider with a straight face the possibility that El Alcalde’s letter trying to convince prospective tenants of the wonders of One Park Place was ethically sound, or even politically astute (setting aide the legal niceties).

We’ll leave it to others to point out the obvious shortcomings in that school of thought, but White’s huckstering makes us wonder whether he has advisers who actually give him advice. Advice he takes into consideration. We’re sure the production of the letter for developer-contributor Marvy Finger did not rise to a high-level policy discussion, but it would seem to be the kind of thing a politician with high aspirations might want to bounce off a trusted but straight-talking aide, someone who would have said, “I dunno, this looks kinda janky, chappie, besides being entirely pointless, and will open you up to considerable ridicule. Maybe you oughta toss that finely wrought missive in to the recycling bin and just go cut the ribbon when the place opens.” Y’know, a Rahm Emanuel type.

What it says to us is that White is not as smart as many people (including himself, we’d bet) think him to be.

Sure hope John Sharp stays in that Senate race …

*Somewhat dated reference to long-gone but not forgotten southwest Houston apartment huckster of the mid-’80s, best explained by this.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Requiem for a Barbershop

Reprinted without permission from the May 23, 1958 Police Gazette

e were piddling over the weekend, searching for a place we could score a quick haircut so we’d be spruce for the inaugural festivities on TV, when we discovered that the David Lynch Barbershop had closed its doors, apparently for all of eternity. That wasn’t its real name, of course---we just called it that in a Bush-ian burst of casual nicknamery because every time we crossed its threshold it seemed as if we’d dropped into some eerie, time-impacted twilight zone of Houston Past. Its real name was strange enough: the South Hill Barber Shop, apparently because it was located in the South Hill Shopping Center, an L-shaped strip center with a Blockbuster and Russian general store (called “The Russian General Store”) at the corner of South Braeswood and Hillcroft. But as far as we can tell there’s no “hill” in sight and the shopping center is as low as the surrounding terrain. Across Brays Bayou, on North Braeswood, sits the “Braes Hill Shopping Center,” so we’ve wondered whether at a point in the distant past, before the bayou was covered in concrete, there wasn’t some slight rise in the land coming up from the bayou (thus “Hillcroft”?) that fell victim to the bulldozer of progress.

The barbershop was notable for its lack of frills and finery---there usually was nothing to read while you waited, except for yesterday’s Chronicle, and the yellowed and frayed poster on the wall illustrating recommended hair styles must have been tacked up and forgotten back in the mid-’70s (the mustachioed model suggested early-model porn star). The place was always strangely quiet, as there was no radio playing and not much in the way of barber-customer repartee that was louder than an audible mumble. It was the only place where we’ve seen anyone publicly wearing a pair of those Cra-Z-Coil shoes, the kind with the springs on the heels. On one visit we actually saw two people wearing them there---one elderly customer and a barber who seemed to be on temporary assignment and was not around for our return trip. It was, in other words, an old people’s place. Other than the blessed quiet, perhaps its greatest virtue was that it was never crowded, thus we rarely found our self killing time with a day-old newspaper or staring blankly at pictures of outmoded male hair styles.

It was the place we took our son for
that traditional rite of male initiation, the first store-bought haircut, when he was three. The barber’s name was “Paul,” a short, thin, downbeat old white dude with ropey arms covered in smeary blue tattoos---the sailor-man kind. He looked to have been a bad customer in his day, and he was not good with kids. The only thing he said to our son, who was not yet conversant in adult irony, was, “I’ll try not to cut your ear off.” (It was not a happy experience for the lad, and since then he’s had his locks trimmed at Super Cuts or other featureless chain outlets.)

After that we did not return to the barbershop for another 10 years or more, until one day, when one of the succession of Vietnamese ladies who cut our hair was unavailable, we dropped back in as a matter of convenience and struck up a commercial relationships of sorts with a nice older Hispanic woman who rented one of the chairs. When she was absent or busy we turned to the proprietress, an elderly Jewish gal who appeared to have been a looker in her day, or even to Paul, who was still manning the chair from which he’d administered our son’s first shearing. What they all in common was that each gave a damn good $12 haircut, and while they were nice and talkative if engaged they were not overbearing in that phony-friendly modern way. They did not besiege us with their considered opinions about politics, or sports.

The owner had an interesting story that she related to us on a couple of occasions, but of course we have forgotten most of the particulars. She grew up somewhere in Eastern Europe---not Poland, as we guessed, but maybe Hungary or Romania (?)---and when she was 16 she and maybe some family members made a beeline for Russia in advance of the Nazis. They ended up in a camp there, for the duration of the war. While she was interned, or maybe afterward, she met up with her husband, and somehow they made their way to Houston, where they set to cutting the heads of its citizens in 1948 (we think). If we’re not mistaken, she told us that they had moved the shop’s location, following the incremental exodus of the city’s Jewish population from near-downtown to the Promised Land of the suburban southwest, although we could be confusing hers with another long-standing commercial establishment we know about. We can’t remember what happened to her husband---maybe he had passed on---but in any case the shop had been at its current location since the center opened in the late ’60s.

Paul had interesting stories, too: He had grown up or lived as a young man in the area, long before it was developed. He remembered when Fondren Road
dead-ended at the bayou and told us of the days when he and friends would hunt rabbit on its south bank. Paul did not appear to be a person given to much pretense, although we noticed he always sported an expensive, shined-up pair of gator- or ostrich-skinned boots. Once we saw him leaving the parking lot in a big pick-up, maybe an F-250, with his window rolled down and twangy country music blaring, the kind you never hear on the radio anymore and must have come from a tape or CD.

We remained a semi-regular customer at South Hill for a couple of years until, for some reason we cannot recall, we decided (in a way) to let our hair grow long and shaggy for many months. When we were ready to return to regular follicle maintenance a friend recommended yet another Vietnamese barber who gave a mean trim. She does, and tells us sweet lies (“You hair nice up here!”). When she’s done with the clippers she gives our neck and temples a brief, brisk massaging---something, thankfully, that Paul never did.

We never returned to the South Hill, until last weekend, when we drove up and found it shuttered and dark, the barber chairs unbolted from the floor and gone. No written explanation was found on the window, but a city inspector’s tag cited sign damage from Ike. The "damage" wasn't much: the “e” from “Barber” had fallen and a couple of other letters were out of whack. We shrugged and left but felt a twinge of guilt and remorse as we returned home to call our Vietnamese lady barber for an appointment.

Friday, January 09, 2009

A Few Questions (and Sundry Points) about the Bellaire Police Shooting of Robert Tolan

These come from a sidebar to a comprehensive story headlined “Bellaire police under fire after shooting” by Charlotte Aguilar in the Jan. 7 edition of the weekly Bellaire Examiner. We’ve annotated them a bit and shuffled their order:
1. What was the origin of the stolen vehicle report that led police to Tolan? As we’ve noted, the Examiner’s competitor, the weekly Village News, reported this week that a Bellaire officer “mistyped one numeral” when entering into his laptop the license plate of the Nissan Xtera in which Tolan and a companion were riding. This miscue, according to the Village News, resulted in a “return” showing that the plate was for “a black Nissan that was stolen.” The newspaper offered no attribution for this explanation and characterized the officer’s mistake as “defying the law of probability,” although we believe it just meant to say that the odds against such a coincidence---alleged coincidence---would be extremely high.

2. What was the substantiation procedure for vehicle ownership? It took the Examiner 48 seconds to run the plate and determine it was the Tolans’ SUV on an online data search that requires a log-in and password. See No. 1.

3. Had Tolan and his companion been searched? Did all officers know they were unarmed? Perhaps the most important question of all, if the explanation offered for No. 1 by the Village News turns out to be true and the sequence that led to Tolan and his cousin lying face-down under police gun in the Tolan family driveway actually was triggered by a bizarre 1-in-1000 (or whatever) miscue. It leads to the following question:

4. Why was deadly force used instead of a Taser, which is standard Bellaire police issue? (Maybe they’re a little gun-shy about pulling the Taser because off all the bad publicity, but a Tasering and subsequent hectoring of the cops by Quanell X certainly would have been preferable to the bullet in the liver that Robert Tolan received.)

5. Were police following procedure in how they allegedly handled Mrs. Tolan’s protest about the ownership of the vehicle? To break it down further, why did Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton, who according to police was responding as backup to a call on a stolen vehicle, push Marian Tolan against the family’s garage door after she tried to tell the officers that the residence was the family’s home and the Nissan indeed belonged to her son? We haven’t seen any report of exactly what Mrs. Tolan said or did but wasn’t it apparent to the cops that the woman had emerged from the house, belonged there, and might have had some important information about what was happening in her front yard? (Cotton’s handling of Mrs. Tolan caused Robert Tolan to attempt to rise up from the driveway, leading the officer to fire his gun at least three times, striking Tolan once. In its public statement the Bellaire Police Department described this sequence like this: “An altercation ensued as officers attempted to detain and question these suspects [Tolan and his cousin]."

6. What was the content of the call for backup, and how many officers were at the scene at the time of the shooting?
We have a couple of questions we'd like to add:
7. Were Bellaire police under pressure because of a perceived holiday crime wave in the general area? Both weekly papers carry stories on local crime (as community papers should) and routinely identify suspects by race, a practice that we favor (journalisticaly speaking). In fact, the play story in the Examiner’s Dec. 24 issue was headlined “Be merry but wary: crime on the increase.” The paper reported that “Bellaire recorded three armed robberies last week alone” (it did not identify the suspects in these crimes by race) and quoted Bellaire police community relations officer Joe Quimby saying “crime is definitely up.” Which in a roundabout way brings us to the final question:

8. Was Tolan a victim of racial profiling, as his family and its lawyers claim? More precisely, why, as the Village News reported, did officer J.W. Edwards see fit to employ “a tactic used frequently by police,” that is, checking the plate of Tolan’s vehicle, after he spotted the 23 year old and his cousin leaving a Jack-in-the-box near the Tolan’s family home? From out here in the grandstand it looks bad for Bellaire, but whatever the answer isn’t it likely that a benign form of racial profiling might have worked to the advantage of all concerned? If we may: According to the 2000 Census, there were 131 black residents of Bellaire, or 0.8 percent of the 15,600 or so population (the number probably hasn’t changed much since the Census). We’ll buy you a six-pack if there are more than 25 African-American homeowners in the 90-percent-white city-within-a-city. The Tolans have lived in their house since 1994. Sneer at community policing if you must, but wouldn’t a longtime cop who had patrolled the streets for years and knew the community at least have it in the back of his mind that---oh yeah---a black family lives on this block, and might have taken Mrs. Tolan more seriously (or respectfully)?

Just asking. We await the answers that should be provided by an unbiased entity with subpoena power.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Near-Fatal Typo?

One of the many puzzling aspects of the Bellaire police’s highly suspicious shooting of Robert Tolan in the 23-year-old man’s front yard is how the cops allegedly came to believe (wrongly, it turned out) that the car Tolan and a cousin were riding in was stolen.*

Now we have an answer, of sorts, from the 23rd paragraph of a story found on Page 9 (talk about burying the news!) of the Jan. 6 Village News, a weekly giveaway that apparently is still not available on-line (so you’ll have to take our word on it---we’re good for it).

The foul-up is being attributed to Bellaire officer J.W. Edwards, who had followed Tolan’s 2004 Nissan Xtera to the Tolan family’s driveway after, as the Village News recounts in the 6th and 7th paragraphs of its story, “he tapped Tolan’s license plate into his laptop computer [and] … got a hit. The vehicle came back as stolen.” A full sixteen paragraphs later the News completes the sequence (with no attribution, although the entire story is heavily slanted toward the Bellaire Police Department’s version of events):
After the incident [Tolan’s shooting], the officers learned the vehicle was, indeed, not stolen [as Tolan’s mother had informed them].

Edwards had mistyped one numeral, and in a mistake that defies the laws of probability, the return came back a black Nissan that was stolen. [emphasis added]
Defies the laws of probability? We’re pretty sure the young Village News scribe did not mean to say that such an explanation was impossible (didn't he?), yet you don’t have to open your nostrils very wide to detect a bad odor coming off this entire incident.

We’re not passing judgment---we weren’t there, and so far we’ve got very few facts to base a judgment on---but we do hope the newly installed district attorney gets cracking and pursues the truth with more diligence than her immediate predecessors might have.

*Also puzzling, but inconsequential in the scheme of things, is why the Houston Chronicle, after correctly running the Tolan shooting as its front-page play story on New Year's Day, let four days elapse before it got around to again reporting on the shooting. Talk about a long weekend!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bad Smell

Stopped at the light
at Stella Link and South Braeswood,12:20 p.m.
With the windows rolled down
because it’s 80 degrees in the dead of winter.

It comes wafting in,
slowly, imperceptibly---on lil’ cat’s feet!---at first.
Then storms in, enveloping, and the whole world reeks of
Popeye’s Fried Chicken.

Crispy fried death:
There was a day
we really ate it up.