Left Field

Johnny Rockets? Food Fight, That Bible Way & Frio Fury

Although the interior designer at Johnny Rockets tastefully left out the “Whites Only” signs, the fifties retro diner resembles the old Woolworth’s lunch counters in more than just décor. That’s what six Hispanic patrons discovered in late July, when they were refused service by the restaurant at the upscale Barton Creek Mall in west Austin. After watching several white patrons be seated just before closing time, the group was told by the host that the café was closed, only to observe another group of white customers get seated a few minutes later. When they inquired again, they say, the host was openly hostile, and they gave up. According to the historical script, the six should have returned the next day for a sit-in, whereupon they would be set upon by rabid teenagers with crew cuts. But in a hard-working microchip town like Austin, who has time to have mayonnaise dumped on their heads? The group contacted Austin civil rights lawyer Jim Harrington, who filed a lawsuit against the restaurant in mid-September. It was the second of a series of suits Harrington’s organization, the Texas Civil Rights Project, intends to file over public accommodations discrimination in its “Equality Under the Law Campaign.” (The first was filed against a suburban Austin Denny’s in August.)

What Harrington didn’t count on was Nancy Hedrick, the general manager for Barton Creek Mall. Hedrick played a big-haired, red lipsticked Bull Connor, busting up a press conference in front of the mall entrance and having Harrington arrested for trespassing. (Harrington told Left Field he located two potential clients while in the cooler.)

In a subsequent visit to the mall, Left Field found Hedrick in her mall office bunker, where she confirmed she had Harrington arrested, despite a permanent injunction Harrington obtained from a district court against the mall in the eighties, which recognized that a shopping mall is a “quasi-public” place where First Amendment rights of expression and assembly must be respected.

Hedrick later treated Left Field to the same bum’s rush, tipping the mall’s considerable contingent of off-duty state trooper security guards to our planned lunch date and photo shoot with two of the plaintiffs, which began in front of the café, quickly proceeded to the parking lot, and ended with our photographer’s license plate posted on the mall cops’ troublemaker list. Harrington has filed lawsuits against Barton Creek Mall and the City of Austin for violating his civil rights, as well as false arrest and imprisonment. According to Bill Groux, Vice President of Marketing at Johnny Rockets corporate headquarters in Irvine, California, the company has a “zero tolerance policy towards discrimination” and has “launched an investigation” into the incident. And Left Field is looking for another location to do our Christmas shopping.

Tom Delay: Whipping ‘Em Up at Bible Way

Bible Way Temple is a cavernous stone structure, with a patchwork of unmatched linoleum, creaky pews, and a jerry-rigged sound system supporting synthesizers, guitars, drums, and (not so well) a microphone. As Hurricane Floyd threatened the nation’s capital in early September, the sanctuary in Northwest Washington was filled with fervid believers swaying, cheering, praying, and screaming for Texas Congressmen Tom DeLay and Dick Armey. Joining the two Texans at the altar were Oklahoma Congressman Ernest Istook Jr. and William Murray – the wayward son of infamous (and missing) Texas atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair and currently the leader of something called the Religious Freedom Coalition. The crowd of children and retirees, high schoolers in matching t-shirts, and middle-aged African-American preachers must have reminded the Texas congressmen that they had ventured much farther into the real D.C. than they normally dare.

At mid-stage sat a cluster of black preachers and one slight Hispanic woman. To the far right, in a row of folding chairs, the guests of honor sat rigidly, legs crossed, smiles fixed. On the left, behind a large and mysterious stack of cardboard boxes, sat a group of high school students. As latecomers recruited for the occasion scrambled from their buses to look for seats, synthesized organ tones swelled, ten gospel choirs began to sing, and a preacher began to roar into the microphone. Wandering about were a few bewildered members of the secular and Christian press.

If it sounds surreal, it was.

The ten gospel choirs were intended as an entrée to the national evening newscasts of a sanctified press conference whose “news” was the perennial re-introduction of Representative Istook’s “Religious Freedom Amendment” – which promises constitutional protection for prayer in public schools. The event was moved indoors after Hurricane Floyd turned northeast and the only suitable Capitol venue was already booked by the Congressional Black Caucus.

Bible Way was so far from official D.C. that Armey and DeLay’s offices were uncertain of the venue and the press was frustrated by the weather and the directions.

The few rain-soaked reporters who found their way to the church stood to the side of the stage in front of the pile of cardboard boxes. Because no one out of the direct line of the speakers could understand anything said on stage, it was not an ideal press pit. With little else to do, a couple of newsmen poked at the pyramid of boxes behind them. Wrapped in white butcher paper, embossed with elliptical hands-clasped-in-prayer superimposed on a billowing American flag, the boxes bore large labels: “FAMILY,” “FAITH,” “FREEDOM,” “PRAYER,” and so on. Although the boxes were described as containing “two million petitions” in favor of school prayer, the reporters poking around the boxes revealed the sacred arks were empty vessels.

It got weirder. William Murray’s speech was so awkward and flat that even this hair-trigger Amen crowd sat on its hands. (The more fortunate members of the crowd didn’t understand Murray’s English.) Armey got a warmer reception, because his speech was brief and punctuated by a mantra-like repetition of the word “babies”: “They will not let our babies pray, when all we want for our babies is a better, more godly world for our babies, so that our babies will be safe, and our dreams for our babies’ lives will come true.” Armey got a lot of mileage out of babies, although in a spirit of ecumenism he might have thrown in the occasional los niños.

Armey was quickly upstaged by a Hispanic lady preacher reciting a godly version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” In this rendition, Mary wasn’t allowed to bring the Lamb to school, and there began society’s problems. If the Lamb were at school, the preacher rhapsodized, there would be no guns, no drugs, no sex, no family problems…. Thoroughly warmed up, she shifted into Spanish, enthusiastically describing Tom DeLay: “¡muy importante!” And his relationship to God: “¡muy importante!” Her ecstatic sprit grew, as did her arm-waving and head-rolling – until she abruptly stopped, turned to DeLay, and in a loud, clear, extended cry shouted: “¡Es Wheeep!” This she punctuated with a violent karate-chop impersonation of a cracking whip.

It was a unique introduction, but Majority Whip DeLay began his speech, with Juana-the-Baptist translating his flat declamations into enthusiastic hand-waving and head-bobbing. “The Devil sent the rain to put a damper on our rally today,” DeLay said, causing a member of the congregation to sway uncontrollably, her mouth open, tongue extended, eyes rolled back, completely absorbed in the spirit. “God is not welcome in our secularized schools,” DeLay said. “But everything opposed to God is welcome.”

Invoking the Devil lifted one woman to another level, but for the most part Delay and Istook spoke as if they were at a suburban country club, and not even the odd pantomime of the bilingual preacher could add punch to their tired soundbites.

“In the battle for our culture,” DeLay piously intoned, “we all need to understand you cannot just stand up for America, you must kneel down for America.” Now that was news, from the man most responsible for Congress’ impeachment of Bill Clinton for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But no one from the capital press was present at Bible Way Temple to hear the word.

The Fury in Frio

From a respectable distance, it looks like conventional countrified economic development. The Frio county commissioners applied for a matching grant to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and were awarded $500,000 to build what they’re calling the Camino Real Regional Park, on a 160-acre site off IH—35 in Pearsall. The plans call for a pavilion, a playground, a pond with fishing pier, a nature trail, an R.V. campground – and an eighteen-hole golf course. Seems unremarkable enough. But the commissioners apparently weren’t counting on The Implacable Vigilance of Max Fury. They may learn to regret it.

Max Fury is the web handle and alter ego of Pat Shanley, a Pearsall woodworker, musician, actor, and occasional local activist, who has declared war on the most visible aspect of the would-be Camino Real: the golf course. As his web page (www.vsta.com/~maxfury/) explains, Shanley says he does not oppose either development or parks, but argues that the golf course is an unnecessary public works boondoggle that was rushed through commissioners court without serious public notice or discussion, and which will be useless to most Frio County citizens. (“Probably only four people own golf clubs here,” he told Left Field, “and no one else can afford to buy them.”) More alarmingly, Shanley points out that in a time of diminishing state supplies, the Camino South Golf Course would use an inordinate amount of water (“the same annual amount of a city of 9,000 people”), and that turf maintenance will require persistent application of herbicides and pesticides, “four to seven times the amount per acre used in regular agriculture,” increasing the danger to the local water supply, dependent on the aquifer that runs below the park. The county insists it will use recycled wastewater on the golf course, but Shanley is dubious: “We get our water from an aquifer, our only source of drinking water, the Carrizo…. The signs at the city limits which used to say, ‘This public drinking water supply certified by the State of Texas’ have been taken down long ago, which should tell you something. Dilley, which is sixteen miles south of us, has found E-coli in their public drinking supply. We’re trying to save what’s left, even if it’s brown, green, or blue one day to the next, which it is.” Shanley says he believes the open land is also home to the Texas Horned Toad, a threatened species – and that the T.P.W.D. is supposed to protect endangered species, not subsidize the destruction of their habitat.

County Judge Carlos García has dismissed the golf course opponents as “playing scientist” and insisted that the development will “bring jobs.” He vows not to listen to what he calls “negative B.S.” But it seems certain that the commissioners have not heard the end of Max Fury and his friends. Shanley – who signs his e-mail from “Deep in the Heart of Graft” – says that a few years ago Frio citizens stopped a similar commissioners court plan to welcome a San Antonio landfill, so in keeping with tradition he is running homemade but eloquent ads in the local paper, spreading information about the relationship between golf courses and “toxic fiascos,” distributing petitions, and recruiting whoever will listen, from Pearsall to Austin. If he can find a sympathetic lawyer, he’s considering a class action lawsuit, and he’s also contemplating running for county commissioner. “I could do just as well as these guys,” he told Left Field. If nothing else, his Max Fury wardrobe should definitely improve the fashion tone of the public sessions.

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Published at 12:00 am CST