By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
When Tommy McHenry steps onto his porch, it's obvious what the problem is. Or part of it, anyway. To the elderly ladies who've lived here in Casa View for three and four decades, the retired homemakers and widows of war veterans who get together and play bridge, McHenry probably looks terrifying. Except replace "probably" with "abso-freaking-lutely."
McHenry is a slow-moving, hulking man with a voice to match, a low-pitched rumble that's as soft and vaguely threatening as an approaching storm cloud. A braided goatee juts from his chin and spills halfway down his barrel chest. The tattoos on his arm have faded, but they still scream with red and blue ink. He looks like a slightly gone-to-seed member of a metal band.
In other words, McHenry is not exactly the kind of neighbor they usually come to when they need to borrow a cup of sugar. And Casa View, nestled in the crook of the elbow where Interstate 635 and Interstate 30 meet, is the kind of neighborhood where people did that kind of thing, once upon a time. The neighborhood developed after World War II; the suburbs hadn't been discovered yet, so young families moved here, to these quiet, tree-lined streets and small, comfortable houses.
Five years ago, McHenry followed them, moving into one of those houses at 10934 Cotillion Drive. That's when the problems started. That's why I'm here on a sunny July morning, standing on McHenry's porch with him and a couple of his buddies, one of whom, a wiry mechanic who's probably 15 years younger than his leathery skin would lead you to believe, identifies himself as Billy Rock. The other lets the question pass without comment.
"You wanna hold on one second, I'll give you a whole bunch of my side," McHenry says and disappears inside the house. When he returns, he's holding a file folder marked "Code compliance." A few days later, the city's Code Compliance Department will offer up a similar file twice as big as McHenry's, more than an inch thick. Opening his folder, McHenry starts inventorying the contents.
"All my tickets that they wrote me, tickets that they've not shown me..." He trails off. "Just anything they can find. Anything they say. They told me I can't have toys in my front yard. My kids can't have their toys. I can't have a barbecue grill. I cook on my grill every day. So they say I can't have that. They say stuff about the trucks and whatever."
A quick survey of his property makes it clear McHenry doesn't agree with Code Compliance's view of what he can and cannot do. A little girl's bike lies on the ground near the porch, along with a few other scattered toys. The barbecue grill is right where it's always been, and looks as though it probably hasn't moved since he put it there. Whatever lawn used to be here is now just a patch of dirt. Of course, you couldn't see any of this from the street, since the view is blocked by three huge tow trucks and a few other assorted vehicles--evidence, some claim, that he is running an auto salvage and repair business illegally from his property
You don't need to look at the file to see everything that's in it and more. Which is why the case seems to be open and shut: Tommy McHenry is a bad neighbor. But anyone who watched the O.J. Simpson trial knows anything involving the legal system is rarely so simple. Code Compliance issues aren't quite so life and death, but they are, perhaps, even more complicated. While there are two sides to every story, if the tale winds through the Code Compliance Department, that number rises to at least three, maybe as many as five or six, depending on how many neighbors get involved. It's never he-said, she-said. It's he-said, she-said, they-said, we-said.
Such is the case at 10934 Cotillion. A former Casa View resident who still plays bridge with some of her old friends--and doesn't want her name used--is the source of many of the complaints in McHenry's file. (There are quite a few: Since November 2001, the address has received almost 50 service requests, and only a handful was generated by code inspectors making their rounds.) She says the house is "the most disgusting sight and offensive blight" in the neighborhood, "a pigpen" deserving of a Chapter 54 lawsuit. (That section of the Texas Local Government Code says the city attorney could file a civil action against McHenry and take him to court to remedy the situation. The city files 50 or so of these a year.)
For his part, McHenry obviously believes he is in the right. He talks about his relationship with Stephen Cunningham, the code inspector formerly in charge of his neighborhood. "He knew if he knocked on my door, I would take care of it," McHenry says. "If there was any problem, I would take care of the problem." Now, he says, they never knock on his door. The code inspectors just drive by, and a week or two later, a notice of violation or a citation appears in his mailbox. "When I try to stop 'em and talk to 'em, they'll take off."