DICK HITT City Lights

So long, Old Sparky. Meet your replacement, Spike.

There is a sign in the basement parking garage of the Stoneleigh Terrace Hotel, posted against a murky wall in half-light cast by a bare light bulb nearby. The sign is metal, and gnarled, twisted like a bar of taffy by the grill of a pigskin zealot trying to park against the wall during the last Texas-OU weekend.

Battered though it is, its dra-conian message can still be read. It says, “Intruders Will Be Towed Away.”

Well, good. It’s time to get tough on all strata of criminals. The crime rate is so bad ;that in its now-honest Uniform Crime Reports, the FBI sounds urgently boggled. Ubiquitous, epidemic, unrelenting crime is bad because it reflects a heartbreaking malaise oozing through our society, and it makes our insurance rates go up. If the rate increases continue, more lives will be wrecked as desperate heads of households resort to a life of crime and start stealing insurance. “Guilty, your honor. I stole that Homeowners Comprehensive because I was desperate. If I hadn’t stolen it, my family would have to do without.”

Questions linger about the towing away of intruders, however. What happens to their cars? Do security guards, police, deputies, constables, paramedics, whomever they call, find it necessary to wrestle the intruders to the floor of the garage and hold them there while the tow chains are wrapped around their ankles, hands, or necks? Or do most intruders just give up and tow quietly? Are the intruders towed to jail, or to the pound?

This could easily be capital punishment if the intruders were towed on a cruel route that took them across the potholes of Cedar Springs or Maple. It would be sheer hell when the tow truck needed to veer into a left-turn lane and towed the hogtied and bouncing intruder across those traffic buttons.

It would seem humane, or certainly a kindness, to attach a skateboard or a mechanic’s trolley to the underside of the intruder to avoid a lot of bleeding and scraping. But who can say what’s humane any more?

There are a lot of people moving here monthly who may not be aware of our city’s background, even notoriety, as a place of stern justice. The towing away of intruders, literally, might have gone unnoticed in the days of the late Sixties and early Seventies when our juries were meting out sentences of 500, 1000, 1500 years to convicted felons. Bill Alexander, then top assistant district attorney, now a successful defense lawyer, overspoke for the Dallas law and order faction when he was quoted in Time magazine in the early Seventies: “Earl Warren shouldn’t be impeached, he should be hanged.”

Maybe the opinions of its prosecutors haven’t softened in the ensuing few years, but the state’s own view is that it is more humane now.

My neighborhood unabridged says that humane means being marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for other human beings or animals. Interestingly, the example it gives of usage is “a humane warden.”

Our warden was rendered more humane in 1977, when, by vote of the Texas Legislature, we dispensed with the electric chair, known widely and sardonically as Old Sparky, and instituted the allegedly more humane (and swifter) method of death by injection.

Our present form of capital punishment is said to be the most humane form of execution possible, given the state of the art and the art of the state. When the mortal nip was voted in, it joined the bluebonnet (state flower) and mockingbird (state bird) as one of the legislature’s officially favored things.

There seemed a peremptory sort of debate in Austin and then we had it, death by injection. New! Improved! So long, Old Sparky; meet your replacement, Spike.

With its waxing and waning in recent years of contradictory court decisions, many citizens remain foggy about the status of capital punishment. The occasional Utah firing squad reminds us that the death penalty is alive and well, if not exactly in vogue.

At the beginning of 1980, there were 125 persons awaiting death by injection in Texas penitentiaries. Idaho and New Mexico each have condemned one person to die by injection. In the last two and half years, juries in Oklahoma have sentenced 27 persons to die by injection. Oklahoma has had a series of particularly heinous murders and rape-murders in that period.

When Texas voted in death by injection, I conjured idle pictures of what the mechanics of a death shot must be like. There is the vague image of a prisoner being strapped to a table and being given a shot in the arm. But I am pharmacologically naive, and I must also lack showmanship, for the state of Oklahoma recently disclosed the ritual it has decided upon for death by injection:

The condemned prisoner will be taken to the third floor of the administration building (at McAlester State Penitentiary). About 30 people will witness the execution. The convict will be carried to the third floor strapped to a stretcher, his (or her) head propped up so that witnesses, including six journalists and five persons chosen by the prisoner, can watch . . . throughout the proceedings.

The executioner will be one of three volunteer medical technicians, dressed in white rather than in black hoods. None will be identified. They will stand silently behind a partition, through which a tube will be passed and connected to the condemned’s arm or leg. All three will inject dark fluid into the tube. None will know which of them is injecting the lethal substance.



“It’s sort of like a firing squad approach,” explained Corrections Department spokesperson Nancy Nunnally, in a reference to the tradition that some members of firing squads are issued blanks and others bullets. What the anonymous technicians will inject is “an ultrashortacting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic agent. The official cause of death will be coronary arrest.”

Death-by-injection is a new science, and I realize that there are as yet no standards of excellence. While it is far more systematic than Jonestown, the Oklahoma Plan bothers me. The part about the white hoods and the propping up of the head during the stretchercade is Orwellian. It may not be cruel, but it is unusual.

1 can’t offer an option that would be any less Kafkaesque, but the Oklahoma Plan seems so calculatedly clinical, and perhaps this is what bothers me most. Hearing about the system brings to the surface a disturbing realization I didn’t know I had: that the idea of the state issuing itself drugs and chemicals is very disquieting. Maybe I have seen too many old newsreels of the Zyklon B canisters at Dachau and read too many sci-fi novels about mass mind control and tranquilized populaces. But basically it bothers me, the authorities using drugs.



A Pocket Lapse Now

Remember the good old days when it was everybody else’s money that was funny? I probably never felt more smugly American than while window-shopping in Veracruz or Frankfurt, standing outside the windows and looking at all those astronomical, preposterous prices in the coin of the realm: 26,000 for a Ford Falcon, 4995 for a stove, 3665 for a television set. How can these poor people keep up with the sheer numbers of pesos, marks, cruzeiros, rand, and quetzales necessary to live day to day, we asked, checking the secret wallet compartment to make sure our sound, stable dollars were still there.

During the holidays, however, I ran a string of errands that included paying 15.31 for a bag of frozen deveined shrimp, 1.09 for a loaf of Oroweat Country White bread, 3.95 for a hamburger and .85 for a Coke at lunch, 186.47 for two brown bags of toys at a discount store. A Gulf Oil gift-items catalog offered a pair of loafers for 88.00, which I could opt to pay out in four installments. I was contemplating a society in which it is sometimes necessary to buy shoes on time and pay 44.95 for a pair of corduroy pants when I drove past the sparkling showroom of Motor Cars Ltd. at Cedar Springs and Pearl. There were price placards on the windshields of the cars, tasteful little rectangular signs in black on white: 250,000 for the 1936 Mercedes 540K; 175,000 for the Hispano-Suiza; 170,000 for the white Rolls Corniche. Suddenly I felt the warm rush of Veracruz’s humidity, heard the municipal band playing its concert in the zocalo, saw the sheafs of Loteria Nacional tickets fluttering green and purple in the doorways.

I consoled myself with the thought that the car I was driving was only 1/22nd the price of the Rolls, but even so had cost more than the house I grew up in. At the end of the time-warp there came that familiar, comforting thought: Won’t it be good to get back home again to normalcy? Where, under his new contract with the Houston Astros, Nolan Ryan will earn 260 dollars every time he makes a pitch. Donde está la frontera?



Dominguez vs. Dominguez

While a task force of federal and state agents raids restaurants or gas stations, confiscating betting slips, IOU markers, and telephone setups, Mayor Folsom complains that he still has not received the Indian headdress and the cherry tree owed him by the mayor of Washington, D.C., in their wager over the Cowboys-Redskins game. For Texas-OU, Governor Clements bets Texas beef against his opposite number’s Oklahoma buffalo.

Another classic feud in Dallas is between Pete Dominguez, Mexican restaurateur and Texas Longhorn fan, and Eddie Dominguez, no relation, Mexican restaurateur and Texas Aggie fan. Over the years the two Dominguezes have wagered tubs of taco meat, stacks of tostadas, cases of sangria over the results of the Texas-Texas A&M games, with most of the victories going to the Longhorn faction.

For the most recent Texas vs. Aggie edition, the owners of Casa (Hook ’Em Horns) Dominguez and Tupi (Gig ’Em Aggies) namba decided to bet something more than 50 pounds of meat. They agreed that the loser would work in the winner’s restaurant as a busboy for a day.

Mexican restaurants can always use a new busboy. So can German, Italian, Hungarian, Olde English, and French restaurants. Nobody likes to bus tables; that is, very few American citizens deign to take the job. Because of the nature of the work and the conditions of the labor market in border states, the bus staff is the first place immigration officers look during the alien raid. Aliens used to be easily spotted by Immigrado by their haircuts and pointy-toed shoes, but they have wised up in recent years. They all wear jogging shoes now, which eases assimilation and is also a practical aid when the time comes to dash out the back door of the kitchen. (Recently, two friends stopped at a small Mexican restaurant on Harry Hines for a late lunch. One was a uniformed cop. As they moved toward a table, three brand-new members of the kitchen staff spotted the cop and, making no distinction among the types of uniforms worn by Norteamericanos, darted out the back door amid a clatter of overturned pots, pans, and bus trays.)

A few weeks after the Texas-Texas A&M game, won by the Aggies 13-7, the mutually agreed-upon day arrived for Pete Dom-inguez to report for work to Eddie Dom-inguez at the latter’s Tupinamba restaurant on Northwest Highway. Pete was supposed to work a split shift, bussing tables for the lunch and dinner rushes.

At mid-morning, Pete called Eddie to report that he would be late for work. “My car won’t start,” he said.

Several minutes later, Eddie Dominguez got another phone call from Pete Dominguez. The message was that he was going to be even later getting in to work. He had gotten his car started, but it was out of gas.

Pete actually did show up to work his bus shift, but not before calling Eddie one more time, to report that he would have to go down to visit a sick relative in Mexico and would be even later.

Pete worked his split shift as a lunch anddinner busboy. The other employees atTupinamba, who were not in on the gag,reported to their boss that the new guy wasin fact a pretty good worker, seemed toknow what he was doing, and would makea good hand. But, they said, he spent a lotof time talking to the customers, many ofwhom seemed to know him. He didn’tshow up for work the next day, but nobodywas surprised. That happens a lot.

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