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AFTERWORD Hot Dogs on the House BY PAUL JENNINGS When the Chronicle promised that hot dogs and refreshments would be furnished during the groundbreaking ceremony for the new downtown Houston baseball stadium, you had to figure that many of the current residents of this broken-down neighborhood on the eastern fringe of downtown would show up for the festivities. ISure enough, a significant number of those walking down Texas Avenue on the way to the event are carrying their own bedrolls and comparing notes on the relative merits of the local soup kitchens. “Real home cooking, not the usual crap,” one woman tells her two companions, as they stroll past the boarded-up storefronts and littered doorways. But once they reach the fenced-in site behind old Union Station, a simple blackand-white sign declares: “Hot Dogs $1.00.” Their lunch plans dashed, most of the homeless choose to skip the the event itself, and vanish into the nearby landscape of abandoned warehouses. A few, sporting battered Astros caps, hang around. They’re joined by office workers from the nearby high-rises: men mostly, their sports jackets flung overthe-shoulder or across-the-arm in the midmorning humidity. Most of the women who turn out stand off to one side, looking uncomfortable in their expensive office clothes. Two nuns in charge of a group of sixth grade girls march in and get good seats right down front. The business in hot dogs is brisk. Despite the presence of few sign-waving protesters, the event rolls on without a hitch: sunny skies, two tents full of media, handsome players in tight jeans and expensive cowboy boots signing autographs, a congenial Dixieland band. Orbit the Astros’ mascot, dressed in a furry green suit, works the crowd for a while, but quickly poops out in the heat. A nice touch is a wandering vendor tossing bags of peanuts to outstretched hands, the crowd taking visible pleasure in each towering throw, each graceful catch. In the shadow of one trailer a group of Harris County legislators wait to be seated, one senator idly fingering an autographed ball. At 11:30 sharp, the dignitaries are shepherded onto the speaking platform. On the front row are the scheduled speakers: Jack Rains, Chairman of the newly formed Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, County Judge Robert Eckels, Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, Astros owner Drayton McLane, State Senator John Whitmire, and Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay. Behind them sit members of the sports authority and assorted legislators. The seating arrangements suggest an unseen manager’s lineup card: political fixers to get things rolling, heavyhitting bankers and developers in the middle of the lineup, women and minorities clustered at the bottom of the order. The ceremony kicks off with an invocation by a prominent African-American minister, de rigueur for any political enterprise in Houston that requires inner-city votes. As the minister eloquently acknowledges the Almighty’s efforts in returning baseball to downtown Houston, McLane fidgets nervously, straining to keep his eyes shut. Whitmire remains still, but tilts his head back and scans the crowd with half-closed eyes: he might be counting votes on the senate floor. Lanier calmly continues making notes. Later McLane tells a reporter that “this is really a meaningful, exciting, thrilling time for all of us.” A refreshing change of attitude, considering that McLane has been threatening to move his team from Houston almost since the day he bought it. Today, though, he finally has what he wants: a $265 million downtown stadium, with the county kicking in $180 million from new taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars. Of the remaining $85 million, $30 million will come in the form of an interest-free loan from local corporations, and another $15 million will be raised by the sale of corporate skyboxes and guaranteed by the city. McLane is theoretically responsible for the restbut since he retains the naming rights to the new stadium, an asset valued in the neighborhood of $50 million, he will likely come out of the deal without having to spend a cent of his own money. After a short set of speeches, the actual groundbreaking gets underway, complete with phony hardhats and chrome-plated shovels. Again, there is a carefully ordered logic to events: movers and shakers first, followed by local legislators, sports authority members, and ballplayers. Next come the architects, lawyers, various gofers, and city council members. As the photo op continues, a small group of compactly built union menbricklayers, laborers, operating engineers, structural steel workersstudy the future construction site and talk among themselves. In less than an hour, the ceremony is over and the camera crews start breaking down their gear. As the workers from the rental company fold up the chairs and load them back in the van, a half-dozen homeless men suddenly reappear and start digging through the trash bags for empty cans. Some get left-over hot dogs handed out by the food service workers. It seems a shame just to throw them away. And so, on this day at least, there turns out to be such a thing as a free lunch after all. 111 Paul Jennings is a Houston freelance writer at work on a book about the early history of the city. NOVEMBER 21, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 31