Austin Dispatches
No. 112
June 22, 2008

I sweated in the courtroom of the 126th District Court, on the fourth floor of the Travis County courthouse on the afternoon of June 16. And I hadn’t even done anything wrong then.

Judge Darlene Burns apologized to the venire for the failing air conditioning in the edifice, built in 1931. Some 48 of us from the jury pool awaited in the gallery for voir dire.

The sheriff had summoned me by mail during Memorial Day weekend. It was a distraction. Simultaneously, predictably, I’d received rumors of work, including that chimerical beast, the full-time permanent job. But Texas law insisted I had to be blind, retarded or insane to avoid the jury selection process.1 

For two weeks, I could focus on little else. Not since I dodged jury duty for the 1997 trial over a Mexican barroom slaying in Waco had I so intensly studied the role and rights of a juror. I arrived at the Travis courthouse, where I was mistaken for a lawyer  with my jacket, tie, and briefcase – as the summons required “clothing reasonably befitting the dignity and solemnity of the court proceedings” – and prepared to invoke the doctrine of jury nullification, shy of doing time or paying fines.2 

Instead, the venire was empaneled for a civil trial, Clark vs. Styles, over payment for physical injuries the plaintiffs sustained in a 2006 East Austin auto collision. Burns promised the case wouldn’t last more than three days.

The Clarks’ lead attorney told the venire that the jury verdict in a civil trial requires a preponderance of evidence for the burden of proof, i.e., “more likely than not.”

He asked potential jurors by number whether they agreed with this burden of proof. Then he asked us if a 51-percent, or perhaps 60-percent, preponderance of evidence was acceptable.

“ ‘More likely than not’ is acceptable,” said I, potential juror No. 34.

“Is fifty-one percent acceptable?”

“These things can’t be quantified like that.”

We recessed for 20 minutes. Then Styles’ attorney questioned the venire. And we questioned him.

“Where’re the insurance companies in all this?” I asked. How did a two-year old matter, typically dealt with by them, in my experience, wind up in state court?

“That’s immaterial,” Styles’ attorney said.

During voir dire I took notes. I guessed who among the venire, by number, the lawyers would likely reject, and how it affected my potential selection.

Close to 5 p.m., I sauntered out of the courthouse. Predictably, recruiters had filled my answering machine with messages during my brief absence.

Just for Laughs

One prospect was located in the hinterlands of Cedar Park, beyond the tangle of Lakeline Mall and the Highway 183A toll road, where I seldom venture.3  So I drove up there the day after my court appearance so I could find the place with ease the day of the interview. But you can’t always look for the building and check the map and watch for other drivers and shift to the correct lane at the correct time, particular when the roads aren’t platted on a grid. I missed the exit at Avery Ranch Boulevard and wound up at a nearby 183A exit toll.

The 50-cent toll required exact change. I didn’t have change. And I couldn’t get change, because the toll booths have been unmanned since Dec. 1, according to the booth signage. Nobody was behind me. Regardless, approaching other drivers would’ve been foolish – if only because I was in a nostril-flaring snit by that point. So I threw a limp dollar bill into the basket – fully $1 more than the system deserves – and drove past the red light.

That evening, I attended the Semantic Web Austin Launch Party at Union Park about halfway through the party to avoid rush-hour traffic. I wandered upstairs to the rooftop lounge where some musicians’ group was meeting. A musician noticed my badge and asked what Semantic was and what it did.

“I have no idea, and I’m in the computer business,” I said. “What does that tell you?”

“Probably that you need to find another line of work,” said a brunette in a summer dress who languidly reclined on a chaise longue.

Obviously, this wasn’t my day. I told the musician about the toll booth. He said the same thing had happened to him and a friend of his. Neither of them has so much as received a ticket in the mail.

But I’ve still been looking over my shoulder since.

The previous week, I auditioned at the Little Walnut Creek library branch to be a comedy writer on a proposed local TV comedy-variety show. So did 20 other people, mostly transplanted East Coast Jews and Italians (and only three women), most versed in comedy styles and sources from the ‘70s on.

I showed up with excerpts from past Austin Dispatches and some award-winning headlines from my copy editing career.  And I could make the other auditioners laugh with conceptual riffs off our conversations.

Nevertheless, I kept thinking I might be underqualified for the job. (That’s if the project gets off the ground.) My “competition” is generally younger, has formal training in this sort of work, and is au courant with the various tributaries of the media torrent, a mainstay for comedic grist.4 Whereas I’m self-taught in the mechanics of comedy and scriptwriting.5 Meanwhile, I don’t own a TV set, seldom watch television, contemporary fare even less, and when I do, it’s usually comedy programming.6  As for cinema, I’ve seen two new releases in theaters this year, neither of which anybody I know has talked about. Popular music? I’ve still heard of most of the names that appear on the charts, but I couldn’t tell you what their music – or “music” – sounds like if my career depended on it, which in this case it probably does.

If the show’s impresarios want “cutting edge” comedy like they said, maybe I’m not the guy to provide it.

Speaking of music, the day before, I attended Roux for its debut of late-night salsa dancing. Roux’s on Sixth Street, occupying what used to be Jazz Kitchen. Only the name has changed. Even with the humid atmosphere and uneven, funky floor, I had a good time dancing with some lithe, exotic beauties. However, the late start time and remote available parking will make Roux only a sometime destination.

Cultural Cananpés

Meanwhile, a friend offered tickets to see “The Pirates of Penzance.” I had to decline, because I’d already scheduled to see “The Pirates of Pennants,” about a successful major-league baseball team, and “The Pirates of Penance,” about Hasidic diamond merchants atoning for their sharp practices on Yom Kippur.7

Health News

Because of the recent bacteria scare about store-bought tomatoes, I treated the ones I’d already purchased to a splash of balsamic vinegar and a minute in the microwave.8 But that explains why my date still turned up her nose when I served her spaghetti salmonera.9 Meanwhile, at Texas A&M University, researchers have determined that beef brisket, in particular the fat, is actually beneficial to humans.10 Nice to see the medical profession acknowledging what the rest of us already knew. Also at A&M, other researchers are in the testing phase of a pill for diabetics. If it works, no more needles.11

Austin Death Watch

Austin bucks the national trend with across-the-board increases in crime stats. Most prominently, a suspected arson in the fire that consumed the under-renovation Governor’s Mansion.12 Authorities can’t find the culprit, but we have learned that a third of the on-site security cameras weren’t working at the time, and neither were the state troopers patrolling the property.13 Whoops. New City Manager Marc Ott said he didn’t learn about the fire until the next day, because the fire chief and the city’s communication director didn’t tell him. This helped cost the latter his job.14 

Police chief Art Acevedo attributes the crime surge to out-of-town parolees on drugs or mentally ill, attracted by Travis County juries handing out lighter sentences. Ahem. Naturally, he and officials plump for increased staffing, plus a lot of federal funding.15 However, the police budget has already risen by 84 percent in the last nine years.16 The real solution is to step up use of the death penalty on convicted felons. Or as my Baltimore relatives would put it, “Flip the switch and watch them twitch.”17

Acevedo said, "We like to think Austin's still a small college town, but we need to start thinking like a big city."18 Truer words were seldom spoken around here. Austinites need to get over their small-town mentality.

And they can start by the way they drive. So snap it up, Cletus. Get the fuck out of my way. Accordingly, in the APD traffic survey, I suggested, “Rather than the scandal-ridden APD's ham-handed attempts at 'enforcement' (i.e., handing out tickets to boost revenue), the best it can do to improve safety is a campaign of shame directed at SUV drivers, who're prone to the worst behavior on the roads.”19 

Speaking of other road obstacles, on May 30, nearly 100 bicyclists clogged the streets as they leisurely rode through town. That’s bad. But few bicyclists heeded the safety Nazis to wear helmets. That’s good.20

Therefore, a new study confirms what we drivers already knew: Two downtown intersections of Interstate 35 are among the state’s worst for congestion.21 You can thank the environmentalists for blocking expansion until it was too little, too late. At the heart of downtown, city officials blame the races and festivals they approved for the cumulative delays on the Cesar Chavez Street renovation project that are pushing back completion until August at the earliest. Try March. Fittingly, the project is on a street named after a Mexican-American labor leader.22 

The Travis County district attorney opted not to prosecute food company Michael Angelo for the 2003 accidental death of a Mexican janitor in a meat-processing machine. The company persuaded the D.A. that it doesn’t prepare Mexican food.23

Rising food and gas prices are forcing Castle Hill Café – a place with sentimental connotations for me – to close June 28.24

Neighborhood News

Firehouse Subs opened at the newly built Austin Commons strip mall at Kramer Lane and Burnet Road. The food won’t ring any bells. Saks Fifth Avenue is locating in The Domain.25


1 Texas Government Code, §62.102.
2 Ostrowski, James. "The Rise and Fall of Jury Nullification." JLS Spring 2001: 89-115.
3 AD No. 102n7 (Nov. 12, 2007).
4 Gitlin, Todd. Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives, rev. ed. New York City: Owl Books, 2003.
5 Cavett, Dick, and Christopher Porterfield. Cavett. New York City: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974: 185-195; Eisler, Dan. Rabbit Is Rich. Unproduced screenplay, 1987; Eisler. The Old Man and the Sea. Unpublished stage play, 1984; Saturday Night Live. Ed. Anne Beatts and John Head. New York City: Avon Books, 1977; Straczynski, J. Michael. The Complete Book of Scriptwriting, rev. ed. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1996.
6 AD No. 102n18.
7 The Pirates of Penzance. Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York City. 31 Dec. 1879.
8 Geewax, Marilyn. “Tomato-Linked Salmonella Cases Double.” AAS 21 June 2008: B1+.
9 Rosemary Stanton’s Great Food for Men. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2002: 39.
10 Banta, Bob. “Texas A&M Graduate Student Is Behind Vindication of Brisket.” AAS 26 May 2008: B1.
11 Roser, Mary Ann. “Giving New Hope to Diabetics.” AAS 19 May 2008: B1.
12 Beherec, Sean. “Fire Engulfs Governor’s Mansion.” DT 9 June 2008: 1-2.
13 Ward, Mike. “DPS Admits to Security Errors.” AAS 20 June 2008: A1+.
14 Coppola, Sarah. “Ott Upset That He Learned Late of Mansion Fire.” AAS 21 June 2008, final ed.: A1+.
15 Bhattarai, Aalok. “Austin Police Respond to Higher Crime Rate, Seek Federal Aid.” DT 17 June 2008: 1; Osborn, Claire. “FBI Data: Crime Drops Nationally but Not in Austin.” AAS 10 June 2008: A1.
16 Plohetski, Tony. “Austin Police Costs Surging.” AAS 17 June 2008: A1.
17 Smith, Jordan. “CCA Jump-Starts the Death Machine.” AC 20 June 2008: 25.
18 Bhattarai, op. cit.
19 Eisler. “Re: APD Traffic Survey.” E-mail to Steve Adams, 6 June 2008.
20 Mottola, Daniel. “New Study Raises Specter of Helmet Law.” AC 6 June 2008: 20.
21 “Austin James in the Worst Way, Traffic Study Shows.” AAS 20 June 2008: B1; Min, Ines. “Austin Jams Among Worst.” DT 19 June 2008: 1-2.
22 Wear, Ben. “Cesar Chavez Roadwork Running Slowly.” AAS 21 June 2008, final ed.: A1+.
23 Plohetski, Tony. “No Charges in Worker’s Death.” AAS 21 June 2008, final ed.: B1+.
24 Rice, Dale. “Castle Hill Café Says Farewell.” AAS 20 June 2008: B7-8.
25 Novak, Shonda. “Saks Plans 2011 Opening in Growing Domain Development.” AAS 10 June 2008: D1.