Sunday, July 25, 2010

Waiting for Conrad

There were two cases before Conrad Black took the floor at the district court in Chicago on Thursday. The first was Barry Ware, who'd been convicted of drug offences and who was sentenced to twelve years. The second was a detention hearing for two guys whose counsel seemed a bit unsure of themselves, and who you had to hope were court-appointed.

I'd arrived at 7am, as the clerk had told me the day before to get there early if I wanted to get a seat in the court for Black's status hearing. As it turned out, he wasn't due in court until 12.30. So me and anoter intern and a large part of Barry Ware's extended family were the only ones present for the majority of the morning.

Conrad Black and the media pack finally swept in with their blackberrys and posh aftershave at 12. One of Black's team of not-quite-heavies had suggested to Stephanie (intern) and I that we should go and wait in the queue for the seats with the journalists, but we told him we'd been there since seven, at which point he seemed to realize we were just geeks and let us off. He also gave te press a lecture about not filming or broadcasting from the courtroom in any way, which I assumed meant he was federal staff. It wasn't until I later saw him pushing photographers off Black's car that I realized which side he was on.

The hearing itself was brief. Black's team again pushed for him to be allowed to go back to Canada, this time on the grounds of his wife's health. The judge, Amy St. Eve, refused (again), repeating that she still did not have a thorough enough financial affidavit. Conrad Black agreed to the terms of his bond, said surety would have to come from his friend Roger Hertog as he couldn't afford it himself (hmm) and then they all rushed back out.

I'd been sat next to a guy who used to be a Chicago DA, but who now does TV slots for a Canadian channel. He got me and the oter intern into thepress section downstairs in the lobby. About fifty journalists were hoping for a few words of wisdom/apology etc from the man himself, but in the event he went straight for the doors and his own car. The doors of the building are revolving, which is an obstacle to a cameraman attached to a soundman. We also saw one crew wrap themselves around a pillar outside, with the presenter trying to get his mic into the middle of the scrum.

Anyway, I got one photo, then they were gone, so I went to get a burger.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rail trek

In Chicago. Had two nights in Denver - shared hostel room with Marielle, a massage therapist called Candice and next door to a man who described himself as 'vibrating with joy'.

My brother has rubbed off on me. I have become a train geek. These Amtrak overnighters are not like the European ones. Loads of space, no passport controls every ten minutes, no Soviet-style loos which you can't use when the train's in a station. It was three hours late however, which felt comfortingly like home.

We had a big Christian youth group in our carriage. Less pot-smoking and card playing and more boggle and guitars. One of the leaders had a very annoying habit of playing an imaginary trumpet. He nearly got a smack, Christian or not.

Felt like a character in an Agatha Christie made-for-tv film having breakfast in the dining car. There was a old gentleman with a brown shirt and braces sat opposite me who didn't say a word, and slept through the wait for his food. When it eventually came, he took three bites before puking it up on the floor, which was somewhat unexpected.

Anyway. Now in Chicago. Massive buildings, massive pizza, Transformers 3 being filmed downtown. The set looked like a disaster zone - exploded cars, trashed buildings, soldiers with M16s. Shrewsbury on a Saturday night?

Monday, July 5, 2010


One thing that's taken a bit of getting used to in Houston is that even when it’s raining hard enough to hurt here, it’s still really hot. With the air-con jacked up, you end up wearing all your layers indoors and stripping off outside.

There was a car stuck in the underpass near our house over the weekend. It’s not small – it looks like an SUV, although it’s difficult to tell – but on Friday night the driver obviously thought he or she could make it all the way through the flood water that had poured onto the Allen Parkway, and got caught out.

Hurricane Alex technically never hit Houston. After brewing in the Gulf, it turned left and made landfall on the coast of Mexico on Thursday, but the storms we had from its edges were spectacular; at least if you’re from a country where storms generally last an hour at most and everyone gets excited when there’s a rumble of thunder. Here, we were being warned by road signs and news broadcasts to fill our gas tanks and stock up on water and candles, although most of the locals agreed there was nothing to worry about.

We drove three hours north of Houston on Friday. While driving there was wet but manageable, the further we went the better it got. It was when we turned round to head back that you could really see the storm.

About ten miles from downtown, we tried to get off the freeway. The traffic was stacked up on the frontage road, but we just thought everyone had had the same idea –trucks were still powering down the I45 despite practically zero visibility. It wasn’t until it was too late to turn back that we realised the frontage road was under a foot of water. We were lucky enough that the car directly in front was the same size as ours, which proved to be the only way we could judge which bit of road we could feasibly drive on, and where the dips were. The girl in front put one side of her car on the pavement, which seemed sensible, and which we copied. We didn’t think about the fact that you can’t actually see the edge of the road, and it was only when she sank into a dropped kerb and flooded her exhaust that we realised we should back up, go round, and very slowly make our way back on to the freeway heading downtown.

Despite roads being closed, the police cordoning off drains that were flooding like fountains and cars being abandoned on the side of the freeway in two feet of water, within two days it was all gone, and everything was back to normal. You've got to give Houston credit for efficiency. England would shut down for three weeks for less.