Eyeball to Eyeball

Why the Mexican bus-company owners went from hating Laura Miller to endorsing her

I said I needed to drive across the river and meet him at Norma's and hear this story eyeball to eyeball. This was way too important for the phone.

Over our cups of coffee Quintanilla told me that he had taken "about 200 people" into City Hall with placards and led them up to the fifth-floor offices of the city council. By some published accounts, the group was closer to 100 people, but let's not quibble.

Lots of people. Real mad.

Carlos Quintanilla took an angry crew of Mexican  bus-company owners down to City Hall to give  Laura Miller what-for. They wound up being for her.
Mark Graham
Carlos Quintanilla took an angry crew of Mexican bus-company owners down to City Hall to give Laura Miller what-for. They wound up being for her.

Quintanilla told me when he got to the fifth floor the police were already urging Miller not to come out through the security station into the midst of the crowd. Miller not only came out: She insisted on inviting the crowd back inside to a conference room. Quintanilla eagerly accepted the invitation and then deliberately jammed as many people as he could into the room to scare the spit out of her.

Quintanilla told me: "The room was jam-packed with very angry people. We went in there very angry. We didn't go in there to kiss and make friends. We went in there to declare war on someone who we thought was threatening our position.

"Laura Miller was surrounded by bus-company owners, jam-packed in there around her like sardines. To say the least it was a tense situation."

In the meeting, Miller flatly denied having said what the Observer story had quoted her as saying about waging a code war against seedy shops on Bishop Avenue. She and I have discussed this issue since then. She says she doesn't remember the remark and couldn't possibly have said it on the record. I do remember it, in detail.

Quintanilla said the debate that day turned quickly from the remark itself to issues about the bus industry. He said they shouted at her, insisting that she hear their point of view. He said she listened, but she also insisted on telling them her own point of view.

"She said, 'You know what, I feel very strongly about code compliance and the right of homeowners to have peace.'

"And I said, 'I feel very strongly about the right of businesses to exist and to prosper.' We spent about an hour and a half explaining our position."

Back and forth, parry and jab, give and take. But somewhere in that hour and a half, it happened. It was not that Laura Miller apologized, not that she backed down, not that she promised to be more sensitive or form a committee.

It, according to Quintanilla, was that she did not. Did not back down. Did not apologize or weasel. Did not patronize. And at some point in that process, eyeball to eyeball with her, the bus-company people decided they respected her.

"She was very consistent in her position," Quintanilla told me. "That's one of the things that I told her. I said, 'You know what, Laura, I respect you for not wavering. Most politicians, they would capitulate with 200 people and the media on them.'"

You know that we are a weird city, right? We have this ancient history of avoidance, whereby the single most important aim of all public affairs is to avoid. Avoid friction. Avoid conflict. Avoid loud noises. Did we avoid the civil rights movement, or did it avoid us?

There is a wonderful speech in the play The Madness of King George, in which the doctor who has been hired to cure George III of England of his dementia talks about how just being king can drive a man loony.

"Deferred to, agreed with, acquiesced in, who can flourish on such a daily diet of compliance?" the doctor asks. "To be curbed, stood up to, in a word thwarted, exercises the character, elasticates the spirit, makes it more pliant. It's the want of such exercise that makes rulers rigid."

In a sense, we have all been little kings here, haven't we? No one may look at us or speak to us unless we look or speak first. We must all bow and back away. And we must never speak directly about anything.

I think that's what all those things like "Dallas Together" were back in the '70s and '80s, those feel-good be-nice committees: fresh gauze stretched over rancid gauze. No air ever gets to the wounds.

Unfailing politeness is not always a sign of respect. Sometimes a willingness to argue shows more true respect. You take it for what you will, but I think the story of Miller and the Mexican-American bus-company owners is very important. Very important.

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