Well, we couldn’t help with Houston, but a ride across town Saturday and a return Saturday evening(if we finish early enough) or Sunday(you’d be welcome to crash at our place, spare bedroom is probably taken, but there are a couple of comfy couches) may be doable. Sorry we can’t do more to help, but you’re welcome to join us for an evening of escapism if your other commitments allow. We’ll help in any way we can.
Oh, as to car advice. You’d be suprised at what kind of repairs you can do yourself. Get a copy of the Chilton’s manual for your car. Whenever you get an estimate, ask for a detailed description of what they plan to do. Compare the tasks they say they will do with the Chilton’s manual. Even if you can’t do the repair yourself, don’t just trust them to be fair with you(even an AAA shop). Knowing what is involved in the repair will help you out a lot. If the manual estimates two hours of labor for a task and they say they’ll charge you six, thank them for their time and look somewhere else. Chilton’s manuals are often considered the authoritative work on the subject and used by mechanics themselves. They’re a really good resource, even if you never fling grease yourself.
Get a second opinion. For less than 1,200 you could probably buy a rebuilt engine and have it installed. Heck, you could buy a NEW engine and have it installed for something close to that figure. A repair on an existing engine should not be that high, or if it is, then the shop could recommend replacing the engine. A friend of mine at work was a mechanic in his former life and I bounced an intake manifold repair off of him. He said 1200-1500 seemed pretty high for a manifold repair. I’d look into a couple of other shops at least. You might also want to consider looking at smaller shops, recommendations from friends and such. I used to go straight to a dealership for everything that went wrong with my first car, but I later learned that, as the car decreased in value, that this simply wasn’t worth it. Go to a smaller shop, get the work done for less money and just keep the car on the road for the time you need it.
There was a recall(recall number 97M91) on the '96-'97 model year Thunderbirds with 4.6L engines because of a manifold that would crack. The recall was limited to cars which were manufactured at a certain plants in specific timeframes and a lot of people have had problems with getting it honored. They seem to have filed a class action lawsuit about it. Anyway, I found this page at the Ford site where you can enter your VIN and find outstanding recalls for your vehicle. You said yours is a '95. It may not fall into this recall/lawsuit, but most of the people in the thread I linked to above(with the picture of the cracked manifold) quoted $500-800 repair costs. Definitely calls for some more investigation.