Downtown – ah, yes, the busy traffic, the panhandlers, the torn-up streets. Uh-oh. Some old guy fell and almost got hit by a truck. I’ll help him up.
“Thank you, young man,” he says, brushing himself off.
“No problem,” I reply, noticing his peculiar dress: beaver skin hat, frock coat, carrying a silver handled cane. He has white sideburns and looks strange, but familiar.
He starts down the street but suddenly turns and asks, “Could you tell me where I am?”
“Walker at Milam.”
“No, I mean the town.”
“Huh? It’s Houston, Texas.”
He looks up at the buildings. “My, it certainly has changed since the last time I was here.”
“How long ago was that?” I inquire.
“Oh, about 140 years, give or take a decade. I’m just back for a look.” He extends his hand. “Name’s Sam, but most people call me General.”
“So, what brings you here?”
Sam frowns. “I heard the wildest rumors that Houston has problems.”
“The rumors may be right. Just look around. We had better streets when I lived here. At least our mud was even. Do these orange cones grow naturally? And what’s that I smell?”
“Like I said, call me Sam or General.”
“No, I mean what you are smelling is this city. We have dirty air.”
“Then do something about it. You created it. You clean it up,” Sam orders. “We could clean it up, but some people say pollution is no big deal; and hate radio says the EPA is a Washington plot to run our city. Still, this pollution has cost us.”
“Yeah, about 2,000 jobs and $4.7 billion in collected taxes over the next 25 years.”
“What about crime?”
“Things should get better now that our police chief is no longer on trial.”
“And your fire department?”
“We’re a little short on equipment. We have hook-and-rung trucks.”
Sam scowls. “I’m told you have running water and good libraries and parks.”
“They say about 20 percent of our water supply is lost through leaks. The city is thinking about closing the libraries on Sundays, and some of our parks look like Stalingrad after the battle.”
“Don’t you have enough money to fix these problems?”
“General, City Hall is having a money shortage because, we’re told, these are tough financial times. But we’ve had money shortages even when the economy was booming. As far as our budgets go, City Hall couldn’t crunch numbers if it used a sledgehammer. So council members are going to cut back on various city programs, although there are some sacred cows not to be touched.”
“Don’t you have a mayor?”
“More like a mayor-at-large. When he goes to City Hall he parks in the visitor’s slot.”
Sam is silent for a moment. I think I see his eyes becoming moist. “Maybe it should,” he says softly. “Who should what?”
“Maybe Washington should run my city. Clearly, you can’t.” ih