A few days before Christmas I'm in the car at a light on Matilda at Mockingbird, and this sedan comes rolling around the corner at me with two guys, one at the wheel in his 40s maybe and the other guy riding shotgun probably in his 70s. As they roll by I see that they have to be father and son. No way they're not.
They have on matching goofy hats—little stingy-brim green fedoras with peaked crowns. Are these hats Alpine? Or Jewish? Maybe Bosnian. The only thing I know for sure is that the hats are extremely funky, and not in the good way. Obviously the younger guy at the wheel never wears a hat like this except when he is driving around town with his dad during the holidays.
I like the holidays, because the holidays are when sons and fathers drive around town in matching goofy hats. That's as deep as I go.
This is the one time of year when I allow myself to think optimistic thoughts. Every problem has a theoretical solution of some kind, and sooner or later people are more likely to find the solution than they are to just keep butting their heads into the wall.
My son, Will, is home from Austin. His buddy from birth, Elliot Kaiser, is back on leave from Tokyo where he's on a ship in the Navy. The three of us spent a wonderful evening at Gezellig, the jazz club on Lower Greenville.
I wore a tweed sport coat, and I suggested that Will wear one too. When Elliot showed up, he said, "What are you two so duded up for?" Will was silent, long-suffering. It didn't strike me until that moment that I had made us look like the hat guys.
Tough! It's the holidays. I have privileges.
I asked Will what he thought the difference was between Dallas and Austin. He lives in a loft over Sixth Street in the bar and music district. I wondered why Dallas seems to have all this law enforcement trouble in its entertainment districts, while Austin stays so mellow. He told me how they keep things mellow in the blocks right around his apartment.
"On the weekends, they have six to 10 cops lined up at every corner," he said. "They park paddy wagons at every intersection, and they just arrest people all night long. You walk down the street, and there's always someone getting arrested right in front of you."
Aha! The secret to serenity in 21st-century America. Continual mass arrests! I snapped to it right away. It's not that the problems in Deep Ellum and on Lower Greenville are insoluble. We just have to make up our minds that we are definitely going to solve them no matter what.
The next week I met with Dallas police Chief David Kunkle to talk about a story I have been working on for some months. When we were done, he took me over to the window of his conference room and showed me the view. He's on the top floor of the Jack Evans Police Headquarters Building at 1400 S. Lamar St., in an area that was a vast jungle of crack and prostitution not that many years ago.
Right outside the conference room window on an adjoining vacant lot, a new condo tower is slated for construction by Jack Matthews, who developed the South Side on Lamar apartments across the street from police headquarters. Matthews is calling it "The Beat."
That's a cool name. It's a reference, I guess, to the proximity of police headquarters, probably meant to be reassuring and at the same time a kind of brag about the edginess of the venue.
Chief Kunkle pointed out a landscape of cleared ground out beyond the Matthews property stretching almost to the edge of downtown. All kinds of big names are rumored to be holding those properties, ready to cash in when the area gets posh.
He had other news. A month earlier in a column I had made a prediction: "It looks like we're headed for a pretty bad spike in crime citywide this year" ("Going to the Dogs," November 23, 2006). And look, I've always said if you don't want something to happen, just get me to predict in print that it will. You're covered.
The chief showed me numbers indicating that we will have a solid citywide decline in murders this year of almost 6 percent, following a reduction in murders last year of 19 percent. That's pretty damned amazing.
Overall, violent crime looks like it will be down just more than 2 percent, which is less amazing but still good, and that's in spite of a fairly steep spike in sexual assaults. The big question is whether we will still look as bad as we have in recent years in comparison with other cities our size. We shall see.
But the big picture is that the crime numbers are moving in the right direction. Kunkle told me he thinks his "Operation Disruption" initiative has been a significant factor in bringing down the violent crime numbers. Operation Disruption is a program of random sweeps in which squads of police turn over every rock in an area looking for crime.
The issue is so starkly simple when we finally are forced to stare it in the eye. Crime happens. Lots of it. If you want to have safe entertainment districts or safe neighborhoods in this society at this point in time, you have to make a major investment in cops.
Things can happen. Problems can be solved. It takes will. And the right people.
I met last week with Sam Coats, the airline executive and corporate turnaround specialist who has announced he will be running for mayor in the May 2007 election. It wasn't an official interview, and I didn't take notes or run a tape recorder, so I can't quote him directly. But it was a hell of an interesting chat.
Coats was one of the key negotiators who brought about a recent resolution of the controversy over flight restrictions at Love Field—the Wright Amendment fight. He has moved in and out of key posts at a string of airlines over the years including Braniff, Southwest and Muse. He captained the turnaround and sale at auction of Schlotzsky's Inc., the restaurant chain, after that company went bankrupt two years ago.
I first met Coats about 300 years ago when I was on the editorial board of the old Dallas Times Herald. He's an interesting guy, very mild-mannered in person. But then he goes into Schlotzsky's, calls a meeting of all the top executives, and at the end of the meeting he tells them when they get back to their offices 19 of them will find letters of dismissal on their desks.
He says he's determined to examine all of the city's ongoing programs and commitments with a fresh eye to see which ones are crucial to the core mission and which are not. I believe him.
He thinks he can bring better consensus-building skills to the office of mayor than we have seen under Mayor Laura Miller. I believe that too, but I also believe my 190-pound Weimaraner dog, Otto, could bring better consensus skills.
I'm trying to get to know all of the half-dozen or so people who say they're running for mayor. So far Coats hasn't gotten much ink, probably because of a perception that he's a long shot. But after I left our meeting, a little light bulb went off over my head.
They're all long shots.
Especially if southern Dallas councilman Don Hill joins the race, effectively taking southern Dallas out of play, then it's all a game about white guys carving up North Dallas. And nobody's an inch ahead of anybody in that game.
So, indulge me here. Let's say we actually do dig through the pile and pick the right person for mayor—somebody with a keen eye, a strong hand and some serious people skills. I'm at a loss to tell you which one that will be, but imagine that we solve the puzzle and get the right one.
Then let's say we experience a big burst of willpower and decide that we are going to do whatever we have to do to solve the city's No. 1 core issue above and beyond all other issues—putting enough cops on the streets to kick crime's ass.
We could take off.
Of course—and I have written about this before—the real danger in Dallas has never been that people will have too much fun. Quite the contrary. When I first came to Dallas, the city was still a kind of national capital for Wahhabi Christians who wanted to roll up the sidewalks at night and not allow dancing.
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The trick here will always be walking that fine line between safety and the edge that Jack Matthews is trying to hit with "The Beat." Why can't we do that?
Go to YouTube and look up "Tokyo Krawlers" or go to Tokyokrawlers.com. You will find cool little videos put together by my son's buddy Elliot and his sailor friends in Tokyo. One is a tour of a kind of supermarket for fetishists. Another is a transcendental homecoming for American skater/gamer guys at Mandrake Comic Store, an enormous underground emporium in the fashionable Shibuya district. This is the seamy, noisy underbelly of Tokyo you never saw in Lost in Translation.
All that stuff comes home. It comes home to Dallas from the Navy, from Yale, from Iraq, from Austin, from everywhere they go, and when they return to Dallas, if they return, things here get better, not worse.
My New Year's prediction is that we are doomed. Remember what I said about my predictions.