Monday, October 31, 2005

More Wal-Mart shenanigans

Another day, another story involving improper business practices involving Wal-Mart. This broken record, playing over Andover and over and over, is becoming obnoxious. Someone needs to knock these bastards down a major peg.
The latest involves violations of the Child Labor Laws of this nation by 25 Wal-Mart stores in Arkansas, Connecticut and New Hampshire between 1998 and 2002. The cases center on usage of workers between 16-17 using hazardous equipment (chain saws, paper balers, forklifts).
Child labor laws forbid anyone under 18 from operating hazardous equipment, but that doesn’t matter to Wal-Mart. It apparently controls the government’s penalties.
You see, according to a report from an inspector general with the U.S. Department of Labor (released Monday according to the Associated Press), Wal-Mart’s LAWYERS were allowed to write key parts of the punitive deal with the feds. As a result, the world’s largest retailer was socked with a whopping fine of …$135,540, which is less than what it spends on toilet paper (one-ply, I’m sure) for its stores in a day.
The inspector general said Wal-Mart received “significant concessions” in the settlement that was originally made public last February. What, pray tell did Wal-Mart cook up for itself?
1) The Labor Department is required to notify Wal-Mart 15 days in advance before opening an audit or investigation (that would be totally something inconsistent with guidelines for the department’s Wage and Hour Division, according to the report).
2) Wal-Mart can avoid formal citations or penalties if it brings the offending stores into compliance within 10 days of being notified about a violation.
To Wal-Mart’s good, the report found no evidence of violations of federal laws or regulations. Nor did inspectors find evidence of pressure from internal or external sources during development of the agreement.
The inspector general attributed the problems to “inadequate management controls and guidelines.” You think?!?!?
“These breakdowns resulted in (the Wage and Hour Division) entering into an agreement that gave significant concessions to Wal-Mart ... in exchange for little commitment from the employer beyond what it was already doing or required to do by law,” the report stated.
In that most ridiculous of non-denial denials, Wal-Mart (of course) denied the allegations, but agreed to pay the penalty. Funny, how those “innocent” corporations constantly pay for non-mistakes and non-violations of law. Anyone with a functioning brain knows payment equals guilt. Period.
Labor Department officials disputed some of the charges of favoritism, thinking that chump change is a good punishment for such illegal behavior. Their weakness and incompetence is testament to how little the current government in power cares about the consumer and average person. Pro-business now means anti-regulation and less stringent enforcement of reasonable laws.
Legislation is expected to be introduced that would bar the Labor Department from agreeing to provide notice to companies before investigating any wage-and-hour law complaints. However, it is coming from Democrats and such a bill probably has little opportunity for passage since Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retail company, had sales of $285 billion in its last fiscal year, ending last January. It can afford to train its staff and managers properly. It can afford to hire experienced workers able to handle hazardous equipment that are NOT 16 or 17 or 18 and get paid the most minimum of wage.
Wal-Mart can afford to stop breaking laws all over the place and still sit on top of the retail mountain. But with each action, it shows less and less desire to do so. And when you write your own rules and your own laws for your singular benefit, you cheat everybody.
And, ladies and gentlemen, that’s the kind of company you’re dealing with. It won’t stop until people insist.
When will people insist on doing the right thing over buying the cheapest thing?

The Halloween rules!

In Plano, the upper middle class uber-suburb outside of Dallas where I live, the following story is quite true. It shows the kind of arrogance about its children that should not be permitted.
Last night (Sunday), at dinnertime, the doorbell rang.
Three children stood in front and yelled "Trick or treat?"
"What are you doing here tonight?" I asked. "It's not Halloween!"
"Well, we decided to go tonight because it MIGHT rain tomorrow and we didn't want to get our candy wet," they answered.
My wife gave them each a piece of Tootsie Roll (one of my former favorites since I am a diabetic and cannot even sniff the bag) and I sulked away, upset that the RULES had been broken for candy greed.
Here are those rules in my mind:
Rule No. 1 - Trick or treating ONLY on Halloween night - regardless of what night it falls.
Rule No. 2 - No porch light means no one home (ours was off by the way). Don't go to that house and bother people. Not everyone wants to participate.
Rule No. 3 - No one over 12 should get a darn thing. You're old enough; leave the stuff for the little ones.
Rule No. 4 - No harem costumes for girls who are ... shall we say ... more mature for their age than others. Sex does NOT sell at Halloween.
Rule No. 5 - No candy for children who don't have teeth!!! If they cannot walk on their own, why are parents SO insistent of dragging 1 or 2 year olds in hot costumes when they should be sleeping? It's as bad as giving birthday parties for toddlers who have no idea what is happening!
Rule No. 6 - Stop giving children the equivalent of Godiva bars! It's bad enough that they will consume so much sugar as to get sick, have a mouthful of cavities and simply make a mess with melted chocolate smeared all over the house. Showing much YOU can spend on them is not the right thing to do.
Rule No. 7 - Trick or treating time should NOT begin before 6 p.m. and not go past 9 p.m. Period.
Rule No. 8 - The weather is the weather - deal with it. I did it in the freezing cold and early Michigan snow.
Rule No. 9 - No repeats. Once you've been to a house, you can't repeat. Once you're gone, you can't come back (out of the blue and into the black).
Rule No. 10 - Parents should have to walk with their children as protectors and supervisors. You don't let them loose on neighborhoods and you still with a Starbucks or enjoy a smoke.
Anyone want to disagree or add anything?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Houston, we have an indictment!

Enough has already been said and written about today’s five-count indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, so I’m not going to add my two-cents on the eventual outcome.
But I WILL say this: everyone seems to be “sad” over all of this.
Ambassador Joseph Wilson (his wife was the name and he was the target) the indictment marked “a sad day for America.”
President George W. Bush: “we’re all saddened by today’s news.”
Libby himself in a written statement: “Today is a sad day for me.”
So when is someone going to get mad? When is someone going to get upset that people at the highest levels of government thought so stupidly that it was OK to lie to the FBI and the grand jury about all of this?
Sad, my ass! It’s sad to think that people continue to act this way when all evidence points to one thing: You don’t tell the truth, you get bit in said ass!
Hey, Scooter, do watch where you sit.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

You’ve been GOPeed On!

If anyone EVER wanted to clearly define what end of society that a particular political party favors, simply look at the latest efforts by the U.S. House Republican leadership to cut the federal budget in order to pay for hurricane relief efforts.
The GOP version of Edward Scissorhands is trying to slice away $50 billion (with a B) and almost ALL of them come at the expense of the very people who need them the most – those who are poor, disadvantaged and voiceless in the system. They don’t contribute heavily to the like of Tom DeLay or Dennis Hastert (the Speaker of the House, but does anyone know his name?).
And there is speculation that the committee vote, along party lines but totally controlled by Republicans, is just a set-up for failure in the overall House chamber when individual Congressmen will be forced to explain their budget cutting vote in their own hometowns.
Here’s what has been proposed (according to the Associated Press on Oct. 28):
* raising premiums to employers for government insurance of their employees’ and retirees’ pension benefits;
* new fees on students who default on loans or consolidate them;
* higher fees on parents who borrow on behalf of their college-age children;
* $3.8 billion in cuts to child support enforcement;
* tightening of eligibility standards for foster care assistance in nine states and
* delaying some lump-sum payments to very poor and elderly beneficiaries of Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income program.
* elimination of payments to industries harmed by unfair foreign trade practices.
* raising $2.4 billion in lease revenues by permitting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
And nowhere is there any talk of revisiting that giant Transportation Bill so loaded with pork and wasteful spending in the billions that no rabbi could bless it as kosher. All the proposed savings could be easily found in that piece of lopsided spending, but it involves pet projects and we’d rather cater to pets than human beings.
Suggest such a thing and legislators get downright grumpy and ornery. It’s like stealing candy on Halloween.
Meanwhile, President Bush is reported to have met with House and Senate Republican leaders and said he was “pleased with the progress.” I’ll bet he is pleased. I wonder, though, if the average voter is pleased.
People need to remember all of this in November, 2006 and make a change. You can’t complain about how evil and horrid Congress acts and then vote to retain your congressional representative because he “brings home the bacon.”
That HAS been the problem all along and the facts speak for themselves – the Republican-controlled Congress has rolled up deficits SO high, you can’t over it.
Time for America to wake its ass UP! You’ve been GOPeed On!

More reasons to hate Wal-Mart

One doesn’t really need additional reasons to hate Wal-Mart, but the corporate giant keeps providing them all the time,
Here’s a new one: In Fort Worth, Texas, a newly-constructed Wal-Mart, has announced its intention to sell wine and beer at its store – a fairly radical departure from its stock items.
And it will break the law, with the city of Fort Worth’s blessing, to do so.
As many of you already know, Wal-Mart already controls three of the nation’s biggest retail factions. It sells 19 percent of all groceries in the United Stated, 16 percent of all pharmacy drugs and 30 percent of household staples. Any more of an increase and one would have to seriously consider anti-trust status.
Wal-Mart sought, and received, a variance from the city of Fort Worth to sell alcohol. Why a variance … for something out of the ordinary? Seems as thought to the new store is quite close to an elementary school - Ridglea Hills Elementary.
As in right next door.
Which, by state law, is prohibited from selling alcohol within 150 feet of a school. Wal-Mart property is adjacent to it apparently.
A dilemma? A conundrum?
Well, in typical jurisdictional fashion, the Fort Worth school district was never informed by the city of this “variance” and is going to court to protest the license … although the horse is already out of the barn because the city’s formal proceedings have been approved.
So what did the city do, since it KNEW of the conflict and school location? It insisted that Wal-Mart construct a 16-foot wall to keep the little children from the booze. A Wal-Mart spokesperson said in addition to the wall, they have also put in “additional safeguards” to make sure minors wouldn't be able to buy the alcohol.
Shame on the city of Fort Worth for sneaking around the law and kow-towing to Wal-Mart’s improper request. And shame on Wal-Mart (a redundant statement, sorry!) for knowing that a school was next door and that it would openly sell alcohol to its clientele – less than brilliant patrons who might “slightly” abuse that product within shouting and striking distance (as in cars) to young schoolchildren.
Again, stop shopping there, people! This company is no good and now threatens the well-being of innocent children.
Sadly, some of the neighbors don’t see a problem and don’t see the danger, wall or no wall. They shop at Wal-Mart and they vote. And you wonder why the country is ALL screwed up????

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

More reasons to absolutely HATE Wal-Mart!

I make it a personal policy never to walk into any store owned, operated or named Wal-Mart. I believe them to be as close as anything is to the devil incarnate on this planet.
Before you claim that such a statement is too harsh, too reactionary or too ridiculous, I will testify to having seen Wal-Mart in action as a predatory-pricing business, not at all interested in free enterprise and seeking to be the one and only retailer in the United States.
Wal-Mart’s ultimate goal is to be the last entity standing, regardless of its overall effect on the economy, people’s lives and the world trade situation. The firm that once proudly announced its American ties and American product is almost single-handedly responsible for making China a major world manufacturing power.
So now it is disclosed in the October 26 issue of the New York Times that an internal memo sent to board members of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. proposes several ways to reduce health care and benefits costs without doing any further harm to the company’s slightly tarnished reputation, outside of NASCAR families and the lower middle class.
Among the suggestions? Hire more part-time workers and “discourage unhealthy people from seeking jobs.”
The Times said the draft memo to Wal-Mart’s board was obtained from Wal-Mart Watch, a pressure group allied with labor unions that says Wal-Mart’s pay and benefits are too low.
Wait, there’s more! According to the Times, Susan Chambers, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for benefits, is also recommending reducing 401(k) pension contributions and wooing younger, and presumably healthier, workers by offering education benefits.
To discourage “unhealthy” job applicants, Chambers is suggesting that Wal-Mart arrange for “all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart-gathering).” Interesting since no one does that job now and you cannot find a check-out line without 5-6 people waiting.
Another brilliant idea is to put health clinics in Wal-Mart stores, to reduce expensive employee visits to emergency rooms.
Chambers expressed concern that workers with seven years’ seniority make more than those workers with one year’s experience, but aren’t any more productive.
It has been already established that Wal-Mart is one of the lowest paying companies and is horribly tight about offering health care benefits, with employees forced to wait for TWO year’s worth of service before being offered anything.
And here’s the REAL kicker – in the memo, Chambers admits that 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart’s 1.33 million United States employees are uninsured OR on Medicaid. Less than 45 percent of Wal-Mart’s workforce has health care coverage. That’s a wonderful testimony, isn’t it?
While Wal-Mart is getting squeezed, along with every other American business AND worker, it is still making a fortune. While it cost Wal-Mart $4.2 billion last year in benefit costs, up from $2.8 billion three years earlier, in that same time period, Wal-Mart earned $10.5 billion on sales of $285 billion.
In an interview, Chambers said she was not focusing on cutting costs, but on “serving employees better by giving them more choices on their benefits.” Yeah, take it or leave it, you scum!
The memo, by the way, is on the NYT Web site.
We have long since stopped being a nation that engaged in free enterprise. The better mouse trap theory doesn’t work in the U.S. anymore. The Republican-controlled government spends money like a drunken sailor at a strip club, it allows fraud to run rampant and encourages massive campaign donations, from folks like Wal-Mart, to protect them from us, the average citizen who is struggling to make ends meet.
Screw Wal-Mart! Stop shopping there! And let those people know why! Go without instead of feeding this monster.
Bring back competition to American retail business.

Monday, October 24, 2005

These people should be strung up by their thumbs

I post this link to last Friday's article in the Washington Post. It's on the same topic I blogged last week.
If anyone believes that FEMA was just a victim of media overplay or it was ALL the fault of local and state officials, read this and ask yourself, "Why haven't these people been arrested?"
Starting with Michael Brown.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Why the Astros finally won

Aside from the Detroit Tigers, my favorite sports team is the Houston Astros, since I stepped off a Trailways bus in 1987 in suburban Houston. I was in the far left-field corner for the 1980 National League playoffs against Philadelphia for the ill-fated Game 5 and suffered with each pitch in 1986 against the New York Mets.
Houston is not a Johnny-Come-Lately; it has been one of the best teams in baseball over the past 10 years (fifth among teams in victories). It has had enough talent to go to the World Series, but it has always been one of those things – mainly the inability of its offense (usually potent) to overcome the single most important commodity – pitching. Atlanta has had it; St. Louis has had it; Florida has had it; Houston has had it; last year’s Boston Red Sox had it. Strong pitching (quality starters, solid middle relief, lights-out closer) can put a cork into any offense. Just ask the 2005 Cardinals or ask last year’s playoff version of the Astros.
Both teams in this year’s World Series had similar paths to this championship. The Chicago White Sox used to be an offensive juggernaut but lacked enough pitching to make that important leap.
So what happened? They traded OF Carlos Lee, a 30 home run, 100 RBI player, for little Scott Podsednik of West, Texas (best kolaches in America) and altered the offense. Podsednik became a new kind of weapon – a dangerous leadoff hitter who could steal bases and score runs.
Chicago then strengthened its bullpen and traded for two important pitchers – Cubans Jose Contreras and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, each exiles from Castro and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Chiacgo already had a potential ace in Mark Buerhle plus solid arms in Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia (former Astro farmhand that Houston sacrificed in the Randy Johnson deal with Seattle).
Midway in the season, after a sensational start, Contreras became the pitcher everyone hoped, and feared, he would be – unhittable. Hernandez was the best fifth starter in baseball and suddenly, the offense didn’t need to bash people to death.
And what is this lineup? Paul Konerko slammed 40 home runs but hits around .240, the cleanup hitter is former Astro and Ranger Carl Everett and the remaining lineup sports a bunch of no-names. Looks just like Houston. Morgan Ensberg came into his own this season with 38 home runs and more than 100 RBI after a horrid 2004 season. But after him are a bunch of no-names.
The Astros overcame plenty of injuries and a 15-30 start to the season. Look what they changed. They dealt the hardest-throwing reliever in baseball, Billy Wagner, for a bag of old shoes, lost a two-time MVP (Jeff Kent) and potential MVP (Carlos Beltran) to free agency, moved a grizzled 39-year-old back to middle infield (Craig Biggio), played without their captain and eventual Hall of Famer (Jeff Bagwell) and suffered at the start without All-Star Lance Berkman, mending a damaged knee collected in a flag football game off-season.
They did not have a decent fourth starter with Brandon Backe on the disabled list for much of the time and three rookies – Willy Tavares, Chris Burke, Jason Lane – were forced into service. What happened? Tavares’ speed, legendary in the Houston minor league system, gave the Astros a legitimate leadoff hitter who could score runs ahead of known run-producers like Biggio and Berkman (multiple 100 runs season apiece). Biggio responded, at 39, with his best offensive numbers in years.
And the promise of the Astro pitching – the Big Three of Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte – came through with flying colors. They were strong, they were healthy and they were feared. And slowly, the offense discovered how to win 2-1, 1-0 and 3-2 games.
This will be a series of small ball, pitching, defense and little things (mistakes, executed plays and decisions) that decides the outcome. Chicago isn’t sweeping anyone. Its bullpen was not used against Anaheim/Los Angeles/California (pick a name) but it has had closer issues all season. It is not a battle-tested group, something that cannot be said for the Astros.
In fact, Clemens, Oswalt and Pettitte should pitch six of the seven games (including the three in Houston) and each has more playoff and World Series experience than Chicago (other than Hernandez). Clemens and Pettitte have won in the Series and that counts for something.
For the first time in Texas history, the World Series is being played on Lone Star soil, with the team that has earned the right to be there. Texas Rangers fans can only sit and contemplate what their front office needs to do to join that club (now the franchise with the longest absence from the World Series).
As I mentioned above, the clues are all there.

Friday, October 14, 2005

How to NOT win friends and influence enemies

Let’s see. What should NOT be done in the time of a disaster recovery to endear yourself to the people most affected and those constantly watching.
Let me count the ways.
First, be asleep at the governmental wheel, go play air guitar 2,000 miles away while people are shell-shocked and looking for someone to help.
Second, have idiots running important agencies that are charged with the relief effort. Have these idiots sit on their collective hands while people go without food, water and shelter.
Next, give no-bid contracts to the usual suspects (Halliburton, Brown and Root, etc.), suspend the immigration rules so these people can hire illegal aliens instead of displaced U.S. citizens, pay these people lower-than-legal minimum wage (because the rules have been suspended) and let them operate without any kind of environmental rules (also suspended).
Then, have you lead agency, FEMA, promise the moon but deliver nothing, as long as two months AFTER the disaster passed. Promise $2,000 checks to everyone affected and then don’t give them out.
Order 91,000 TONS of ice to cool food, medicine and those storm victims, sitting and sweltering in near 100-degree heat, at a price of … $100 million, and constantly divert those truck drivers with the goods to places unaffected by the storms.
Have the Small Business Administration accept more than 7,000 applications for loans, and only process 20 of them!
Ignore local and state businesses and order items from as far away as Alaska when the same things could have been purchased locally.
Initiate no contract to collect the remains of those who died in the storms and flooding because of stupid rulings.
Ignore all fraud or calls for local intervention. Make sure your pals pocket million upon billions of government taxpayer dollars.
And in the end, what do you have?
The George W. Bush Administration.
All above are facts! Hence, the conclusion is factual. And shameful.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Who died and left James Dobson as God?

If anyone wanted the correct reason to keep Harriet Miers, or any OTHER choice made by President George W. Bush, to the Supreme Court, the case has been made by … President Bush.
From Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2005, the Associated Press reports:
“WASHINGTON - President Bush said Wednesday his advisers were telling conservatives about Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers’ religious beliefs because they are interested in her background and “part of Harriet Miers’ life is her religion.”
“People are interested to know why I picked Harriet Miers,” Bush told reporters at the White House. “They want to know Harriet Miers’ background. They want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions. And part of Harriet Miers’ life is her religion.”
Bush, speaking at the conclusion of an Oval Office meeting with visiting Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, said that his advisers were reaching out to conservatives who oppose her nomination “just to explain the facts.”
He spoke on a day in which conservative James Dobson, founder of Focus on Family, said he had discussed the nominee’s religious views with presidential aide Karl Rove.”
Ladies and gentlemen, you can’t have it both ways. John Roberts’ religious views were NOT to be taken into consideration, just his judicial record and conduct. But a nominee with as much judicial experience as Woody Woodpecker has to be explained in a different light.
If anyone thinks that conservatives like James Dobson are NOT interested in establishing a theocracy in the United States, matching their own narrow religious viewpoints to the detriment and exclusion of other minority religious faiths, better think twice. They have found the perfect patsy in Bush and are exploiting him to the hilt. He is permitting this in order to score some sort of political victory and leave a favorable legacy.
And who in the hell is James Dobson that HE gets to have confidential information about a potential Supreme Court justice while the U.S. Senate sits and waits to discover who and what she is? Shows you who the real power brokers are in this country and it isn’t good news for the average American.

Remember that first ‘black hole?’

Writer's Note: This column appeared in the Oct. 12 edition of the Dallas Morning News' Collin County Opinions Page.
My youngest child, a 16-year-old high school junior, is about to enter the biggest black hole of life – she’s getting her own car. Her mother’s brother-in-law is in the final stages of preparing a car he purchased sat a police auction (a 1996 Grand Am). It needs a new engine and other “minor” things, but she has these wonderful visions of freedom and romping to the mall in a car not dependant upon her mother’s ownership.
She dreams of that; I have nightmares about constant addition of oil, radiator fluid and flat tires as numerous as IHOP has pancakes. But it is her milestone in life and she is ready to roll.
Do any of you older than 50 remember that very first car/vehicle you actually “owned?” You know, the one you spent your hard-earned money to purchase? Mine was a 1962 Mercury Comet and I bought it while in college merely to avoid walking everywhere. The first car certainly was not an SUV, Lexus or hot-rodding sports car that too many Plano teens seem to believe are owed to them as a rite of passage.
The Comet cost all of $25 and had a rusted-out hole under the gas pedal, which offered a delightful view of the passing pavement at any speed. It was white and was never washed (a proud tradition I continue today). It served its purpose well and when the heater actually functioned, it was a fairly comfortable ride.
Then … one summer night, returning from a 30-mile trip from Tiger Stadium to Ann Arbor (the University of Michigan), a sudden thunk was followed by a stream of sparks from the back. I stopped on the shoulder of Interstate-94 and discovered that the Comet had broken its axle.
Since Michigan law did not permit shooting cars like broken horses, we snipped off the license plates and stuck out our thumbs. I knew the Michigan State Police would retrieve the Comet after 72 hours and that agency could provide a decent burial for the car better than any poor college student could.
My son, Robert, got his vehicle when he was 18 - a 1991 red Chevrolet pickup. It didn’t take long for it to sit ... idle ... not functioning ... dead. The truck became true testament to a favorite saying of mine, “Never buy a used car (or anything used) from a relative.” Robert learned the hard way.
In less than seven months, it became that black hole where his money kept disappearing. If it wasn’t an errant water pump, it was something else, culminating with an engine fire (the electrical wiring went haywire) on a trip to his old hometown over Spring Break. He was understandably downcast about the whole thing. He spent good money, working long hours to earn, and he still owed his cousin a considerable amount for the piece of junk that sat in the front yard for the longest time – a memorial to what might have been.
Unfortunately, wise words from fathers are seldom heeded.
“How many miles does it have?” his father asked upon purchase.
“At 100,000, but they aren’t ‘hard’ miles, only driven on highways,” was the response.
“Robert, miles are miles because it’s all the same in terms of engine wear,” the father retorted. “Are you sure about this?”
“I know what I’m doing,” was Robert’s final thought on the matter.
My other daughter, Lisa, bought a huge pickup truck to move to Oklahoma City right after high school, but we did not realize the length and difficulty of the trip. The truck’s engine literally blew up and with it went her first automotive ownership experience, as well as most of her money. Lisa learned the hard way.
When I stepped off the Trailways bus in 1976 in Conroe, I knew immediately that four-wheel transportation (not a bicycle or walking) would be essential. But at $140 a week starting pay, the Bentley I desired was kinda out of the question. So another $25 was plunked down on a powder blue 1964 Ford Fairlaine that could not be started in park (the transmission needed to be in neutral and I had to jiggle the lever with one hand while turning the ignition with the other), got less than 8 miles to the gallon and had a footprint for a gas pedal.
It belched smoke and sounded like a sick bovine in heat. When you stepped on the foot pedal, the front end lurched up and forward and took off like a bandit. It was ugly, but what did you expect for $25?
Since that time, I’ve gone through minivans, SUVs, station wagons, small Japanese pickup trucks and four-door sedans for family use. But nothing can replace the feeling and memories of that very first car, whose existence in your life came directly out of your own pocket.
Perhaps Kelsey won’t have to learn the hard way. Hers (hopefully) will actually work.
Then again, it’s a used car. Her first. And the odds say otherwise.

Friday, October 07, 2005

DARTing in and out of facts

You disappear for a month, view some of America’s greatest parks and natural sites and return home to Plano and the usual whining and complaining about the “same old same old.” People, such as former councilman Steve Stovall, continue to cry about how other communities choose to spend their money and why everyone isn’t on board with expansion of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART).
It would be helpful if some history and perspective were added to the conversation about how we got here and why. In 1977, I worked for a daily paper outside of Houston and was asked to write a news story (I was the sports guy) about introducing rapid transit and light rail to Texas, notably Houston. To recall, Texas was labeled as “Super state” and was flush with oil money, overflowing in the state coffers. The Legislature could have spent that surplus on anything – teacher pay, infrastructure improvement or rapid transit throughout Texas.
But as a local state representative grumbled to me, “In Texas, son, people want to get around only with rubber to concrete. They don’t want them fancy systems back East.” So nothing was done and Austin stuffed the money in its version of a mattress.
Almost 30 years later, that statement is as stupid as not paying for better teachers, not improving our highways until they start to crumble and failing to start building light rail systems in every major Texas city when the money was there. It wasn’t the first act of ignorance and it won’t be the last.
The Legislature offered no help to cities faced with this Sophie’s Choice. You tack on additional sales tax, up to 1 percent within a city, for two of three options – economic development, cultural/facility development (such as libraries, etc.) or support of a regional transit system. Two, but not all three. Of course, the tax system in Texas has been part of the problem since sales of goods and property ownership are the main means to fund everything in this huge state.
DART failed, in its mission, to sell itself 20-25 years ago. No city had a true idea of what was planned or what would be. Instead of beginning work within Dallas, and then going to the suburbs with what was happening on the ground, DART went with a concept - a “spec ad” in advertising lingo – but only a few ‘burbs bought it. Most voters, on a city-by-city basis, rejected plans to join DART.
It wasn’t just Allen and McKinney that said “no.” None of the southern suburbs joined DART, except for tiny Glenn Heights and it will never have light rail until Duncanville, Cedar Hill and DeSoto say “yes.” It will never happen because DART has always wanted retroactive payments for the missing years. It doesn’t believe in the philosophy that “here is where the ball lies; play on from here.” DART seeks taxing mulligans.
Not every city made this choice and convinced the Lege to alter the system to benefit some special project. The Ballpark in Arlington (a.k.a. Ameriquest Field) is a taxpayer-funded facility for a private entity, using a transit system tax. In San Antonio, the Alamodome is, for lack of a better description, the world’s largest bus terminal, built with the transit system tax. There is an evacuee football team as occupant but little else. And there is no public parking around it because part of the construction provision had fans using VIA (the city bus system) to get to-and-from the facility.
DART is the best light rail system in Texas and it is totally inadequate for the needs of this region. You can’t take the rail to Fair Park, Six Flags, Ameriquest Field, the Kimbell, the Dallas Arboretum, Deep Ellum, Knox-Henderson, the Galleria, North Park, Stonebriar Centre or 90 percent of what consists of the Metroplex. And that’s better than Houston (with a line from downtown to the Reliant Stadium) and San Antonio (with nothing). How sad is that?
If DART wants to solve its revenue shortfall, the answer is almost too simple to comprehend. All that is needed is for DART to 1) charge for parking and 2) stop the honor system for rider tickets. If you charge $3-5 to park all day in a DART lot, it would still be far cheaper to do that than drive downtown (or wherever) and pay to pay in a more expensive lot.
If you insure that everyone who rides on DART pays for that privilege, it will generate hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars into DART accounts. It would mean hiring people to work as cashiers and ticket dispensers, but it’s how it is done in all other light rail cities. Gee whiz, DART becomes a job producing machine AND pays for it by collecting more revenue. Duh, and I could have had a V-8!
Each community makes up its own mind and then deals with consequences. To try to interfere in this argument is as bad as early this year when forces outside Plano tried to influence the vote on Plano’s monetary participation in the proposed Arts Hall. Officials from other cities wanted to pipe up, but when the shoe was on the other foot, and Planoites tried to voice support for referendum in Frisco about housing construction, they were told by those officials to “butt out!”
It will take billions and half a century to build a system to satisfy the needs of this region. We pay today for mistakes made two or three decades ago. But we can’t whine about it now when the same voices were silent back then.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The perfect chicken fried steakout

When you grow up in a different region of the nation, you are exposed to a different kind of cuisine. What you take for granted in Texas is not very common in other places, and vice versa.
I never ate Tex-Mex food until I crossed the Red River 30 years ago. What Texans call “barbecue” was a meal I never ate. My barbecue world was solely beef ribs; we were never offered sausage or pork ribs (or even beef brisket) because of the high concentration of Jewish people in the Midwest and the Kosher rule against the consumption of pig.
My father requested the same meal a majority of nights - a large sirloin steak cooked on a charcoal grill (Kingsford, thank you) with a large baked potato and a vegetable (mostly asparagus or broccoli). What he ate, we ate.
If you “blackened” a piece of meat, it meant the cook burned it. The only thing fried was chicken, not a quality beef of cowhide.
When the Trailways bus finally opened its door to drop me in Conroe, Texas. I partook of Tex-Mex cuisine (except for menudo or jalapenos) and South Texas Catholic Church Sunday barbecue (da best).
But my favorite meal was a chicken fried steak (until my cardiologist said otherwise). I will admit to slipping once in a blue moon. I had a fine example in Flagstaff, Arizona at the Grand Canyon CafĂ© on Route 66 on my recent trip. Out of five stars, this rated 3 ½ with a light crusting and the brown (not cream) gravy nestled under the steak, not on top.
But the best that ever was (in Texas or elsewhere) no longer exists. Even though I live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (allegedly one of the steak capitals of the nation), I still try to find the kind of chicken fried steak to which I was introduced one Friday night on a road trip to Austin.
Between Austin and Brenham sits the oil boom-or-bust town of Giddings, a community symbolized the roller coaster dependency that Texas had on big oil in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a quiet town of 5,000 people in the early ‘70s until the state’s largest pocket of oil was discovered along the geological formation called the Austin Chalk. Soon the population and income level rose dramatically. Mercedes dealers and hotels began to populate the sleepy Washington County city. In five years, the bottom dropped out, only to see a mirage of hope in the late 1980s. Alas, oil still cost less than $20 per barrel for the longest time and most of Giddings died.
Among the casualties was Schubert’s Restaurant, a old quaint establishment on the eastern outskirts of town, next to the older Sands Motel. It had the kind of peeling linoleum floor that only small-town eateries possess (bless them).
It also served the finest chicken fried steak of them all. It was a real round steak, often with the bone embedded, hand-dipped in a perfect batter (not too thick) and fried to the right tone. When you took a bite, you tasted the meat more than the covering. It was not a bogus chicken fried steak, meaning a fried hamburger patty inundated with so much batter you can’t tell which is which. Nor was the meat so pounded (or laughingly tenderized) out of existence that the texture was gone.
Included was true milk gravy, with the proper amount of lumps, fresh-made rolls and a steaming baked potato or Texas fries from fresh cut spuds. A salad was offered in those perfectly cheap walnut bowls from a small salad bar; drinks came in the classic diner-type glasses.
A small steak covered a regular plate, the large saw its edges spill past the lip of a large platter. It was the best bargain in the Lone Star State, and customers ventured from all points to sup at their tables. Football teams, college and high school, went out of their way to stop at Schubert’s for a pre-game or post-game meal.
When oil went boom for the last time in 1990, Schubert’s silently closed its doors, and Texas was not a better place to live. No one in the Metroplex has been able to duplicate the quality, taste, value and atmosphere that caught my imagination and love as an imported Texan.
I continue my search, but places with claims of having the best chicken fried steak around are only pretenders to the throne. If you have a suggestion to help me complete my journey, contact me immediately.
I’d like to smile just one time after a meal. Quick, while the doctor’s not looking.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A hack used to be a taxicab

So President Bush nominated his personal attorney as the next Supreme Court justice of the U.S. How fine and dandy; it keeps in his tradition that experience and qualification matters little when it comes to filling government posts. This nomination is from the man who brought you John Bolton as U.N. ambassador, Michael Brown as FEMA director, Michael Chertoff as Secretary of Homeland Security and a dozen other jobs for his political and fundraising hacks.
Hell, he even found Tom Schieffer, president of the Texas (baseball) Rangers while W. was part-owner, an ambassadorship ... because we know dealing with professional athletes is like being in a foreign country.
Two things - should anyone who has served on Dallas City Council in the last 25 years REALLY be on the Supreme Court? That owuld be an automatic DQ in my book, given the council's reputation.
Second, do you think she has BEEN in the Supreme Court building as anything other than "Visitor?"
If only the Democrats had decent candidates to run in 2006, power in Washington could change hands. Miers is just another sympton of a White (frat) House run amok.