The beginning of the end was a weekday and my 13thth robbery with a handgun. Austin, Texas, 1977 on Burnet Road, where all the chain restaurants — McDonald’s, Church’s fried chicken. I walked into a gas station, an older generation, postage-stamp Texaco shop with two pumps, a small office with a counter, a table-high coke machine with a glass top, and a couple of snack racks — the kind of place where you pump, pay, and leave. It was a logical mark since there weren’t any large windows.
My car — a little white Datsun B210 with the hatch back — was parked a block away, just around the corner. I’d left the keys in the ignition and the door unlatched.
The clerk — the only employee on board — was about a-hundred-and-twenty-five pound, 5-foot-tall redneck. Pointy-toed boots. Blue jeans. Probably a Wrangler shirt with the gusseted, ornate pockets and mother-of-pearl snaps on it. I don’t think he was wearing a hat. There probably was a cowboy hat sitting on the counter.
I wore a pair of soft, blue, bell-bottom dungarees that could pass for Texas business slacks in those days, the same Levi’s jacket I used in almost all my robberies, my dingy-white, off-brand Converse sneakers because I knew I’d have to run. I didn’t bother with a mask. By now so many people had seen my face that I didn’t consider it worth my trouble to bother with a disguise.
I’d considered a ski mask at one point, but usually just wore a black knit cap because I didn’t want anyone to start freaking out the moment they saw me coming. Without the mask I had the element of surprise. Plus, anyone crazy enough not to wear a mask was probably crazy enough to pull the trigger.
Then I did something that I’d perfected, and had been very successful with: I reached into my back pocket and pulled out a small, brown paper lunch sack and popped it open with a quick shake of my wrist. I held it out to him with my right hand. And with my left hand I opened the left panel of my Levi’s jacket so he could see the gun.
I’d previously used a non-working, CO2 BB gun to bluff the other robberies that I’d committed. But this time, and the time before, the gun I had was a Navy Colt .45 that belonged to the father of one of my close using friends. It looked straight out of a Western — mid-1900s with a wood-grain handle, a long barrel, and a coarse patina. It was a relic, but a real handgun. Even then, it probably had a collector’s value of several hundred dollars, maybe even a thousand.
In order to make it look loaded, I had two .45 automatic bullets pushed up to the front of the top two visible chambers that would load with a trigger pull so that if somebody who really knew something about guns looked at it closely, they would think: There’s three bullets in there that have my name on them. I put a wad of balled-up toilet paper in both of the chambers with bullets in them so they didn’t slide, move around, or have the opportunity to strike the firing pin. It was heavy and awkward, clutched under my arm.
He looked at the gun. Then he coolly studied my face: Caucasian, early 20s, mustache, shoulder-length, dishwater-blonde hair.
I said what I always said. I tried to be polite. I thought of myself — even at that point — as polite. Polite made it easy. No one had ever cried, resisted, screamed, or pressed an alarm. I’d said it to people like him behind cash registers on the other side of convenience store counters just like this one a dozen times already.
I said: All the cash, and you will be safe. You won’t be hurt. I need you to put all the cash within your reach in this bag right now. And I don’t wanna hurt you.
But this guy just kept staring at me, looking me over. Then he said: If you want that money, you’re gonna have to shoot me.
Nothing like this had ever happened before in my short, fast robbery career. If he was bluffing, he’d fooled me. And before I could think better of it and run, I realized this little guy was a real badass and wasn’t about to let me empty the cash drawer on this watch. Then, quicker than a rattlesnake, he lunged over the counter at me and grabbed me by the arms.
I was bigger than him, and, of course, already full of adrenaline. I spun and I shook him off me like a dishrag. He landed against a wire rack, and potato chips went flying.
With the Colt still tucked awkwardly inside my jean jacket under my arm, I bolted.
Cowboy Clerk was a good 10 seconds behind me.
I looked over my shoulder and saw him run out into the northbound lanes on Burnet Road, trying to flag a car down to help him catch me.
I figured I had enough of a jump on him to get away. But when I rounded the corner to get in my car, I slipped in some mud and the gun went flying off into a clump of weeds. I looked back up toward Burnet road. That little redneck dude was pissed and running toward me.
No time to retrieve the gun. I got in my car.
Did he see me get in my car?
Fumbled the keys into the ignition, turned it over, and smoked those tires with all the ferocity that the tiny little 4 cylinder, 1200 cc engine in my B210 could muster. I drove to my sister’s house, checking the rearview mirror and listening for sirens the whole way.
She lived in a rental on the North side of Austin in the 4500 block of Avenue A — 45 blocks from downtown Austin, a one-story rancher with two bedrooms like pretty much any other house in the suburban 1970s. I’d been staying with her while I was in Austin on a family business trip. My sister had just finished nursing school and had been working as a psychiatric nurse at an Austin hospital. We’d shared a couple of meals together recently, but I was really kind of a ghost.
It was certainly a safe enough place for me to stash the car and not wonder if I was going to be discovered.
When I got there, the place was empty all but for Buster, a dopey German Shepard puppy my sister had picked up at the pound. I spent a little time with him while I caught my breath and calmed down.
Then I sat, and I contemplated, and I went through the ruminations that all addicts go through in that position — the position we all find ourselves in if we don’t OD first – trying figure out if this mess would be big enough to make me stop getting high, while simultaneously trying to figure out how to get high.
I decided I wanted to say thank you – for stopping me.
I got out the phone book and found the number to that gas station—the one I’d just tried to hold up. This was before caller ID, so no problem there.
My finger, in the holes of that rotary phone, slowly, slowly dialed for my redemption.
Part of me — the part of me that considered myself polite above all else — wanted to thank that little redneck in the pointy-toed boots for stopping me.
The phone rang. And rang.
I figured I’d only been at my sister’s house for half an hour or 45 minutes catching my breath, getting my composure.
I waited. No answer. I felt redeemed anyway. Redeemed and grateful. Thank you.
The plan I came up with from there was based on the kind of circular logic that only a dope-fiend could square: I’d go back, find the gun, and get a quick robbery in before at Jack’s Ice House would close in San Antonio a few hours later. Then, if I couldn’t find the gun at the scene of the crime I had just committed, I figured, there was a shotgun there at the house that belonged to the guy my sister was dating.
And if I took the Guadalupe drag down to the center of Austin and it wasn’t there, I’d have just enough time to get to back to the house, get the shotgun, then get to Jack’s Ice House on the west side of San Antonio — another 45 minute drive — where I knew I could trade the shotgun for a couple balloons of dope.
I’d traded guns for dope before. Why didn’t I just take the shotgun and head straight to Jack’s Ice House in San Antonio? Junkie logic.
I mapped out the plan in my head. Then I got out a city map and picked an intersection along Burnet road a full mile north of the gas station to park the car. I got a clipboard, changed shirts, dusted the mud from my fall off the knees of my dungarees, and left the house just after dark.
It was Sunday, February 13, 1977, so that would’ve been around 6:30 p.m. Jack’s Ice House would close at 10.
I took side streets as far as I could, parked the car, and walked quickly, clipboard in hand so as to appear like a student or some other person with a purpose greater than a dope-fiend looking for a Colt .45 at the scene of his own botched holdup.
It was full dark when I got to the corner where the gun had fallen out of my jean jacket and skidded off into the weedy easement. My heart sank.
Of course it wasn’t there.
I walked back to the car and got in the car and thought: OK, I have just enough time go back and get my sister’s boyfriend’s shotgun and make it to Jack’s Ice House in San Antonio before they closed at 10.
To say that I wasn’t thinking is to say that the only thing I was thinking about —the only thing any junkie who hasn’t fixed in over 16 hours thinks about — was how to score.
And before I realized I wasn’t thinking about what I should’ve been thinking about — that I had returned to the scene of a crime I had committed only hours earlier to try to find the weapon I’d used to commit that crime in order to hock it for dope — I realized I was driving right down Burnet Road — right past the gas station I’d held up just a few hours earlier in the same car in which the man I’d robbed had probably seen me get away.
And I stopped at a light. And to my left was a neon-lit coffee shop with booths in the windows. And in one of the booths: two policemen having a coffee. And there I was: Caucasian; early 20s; dishwater blonde, shoulder-length hair, feathered; mustache. Little white car.
They got up, jumped in their squad car and pulled me over.
I was shaking inside — off the Richter scale. I remember the siren lights in the driver’s patent leather shoes as I watched him step of the squad car in my side mirror. To this day I have no idea how I managed to calm myself down before they got to my car.
But need — true heroin need — (though it makes you stupid) has its own genius. It takes over your mind and your body when it’s most threatened. More importantly, it silvers the tongue. It takes the loosest yarns of the truth and crochets them into blanket of lies you’d be proud to wrap around your mother. Even today I’m baffled by how smooth and articulate I was.
They said: There was a robbery attempted in this neighborhood just a little while ago, and you very much match the description.
I had business cards in my pocket for my job in the family business, and I showed them the cards.
I’m a business man for goodness sake, I said.
They said: Our robber fell on his hands and knees in the mud, and you have crusty mud on your knees.
I said: We have a puppy at my house, and I was playing with him in the back yard earlier today. I was done with work and I didn’t bother to change.
I had explanations — elaborate explanations — for everything they had to say.
I had changed shoes. But again — junkie genius — I’d left the sneakers I’d worn for the robbery back at my sister’s place. They took the shoes back to the site where I had lost my balance in the mud and fallen to try and match them with the footprints that were left there.
By the time that they finished interrogating me — I was with them 20 minutes — there had to be four or five squad cars, all silent with their lights going. And me, just internally convulsing with repeated, mini-mal seizures; my heart about to stop through all of it.
At the end of the questioning, they brought up a Polaroid camera and asked: May we take a picture of you?
I had the distinct awareness that if I’d shown even the slightest amount of resistance, they would’ve arrested me and taken me in for further questioning.
I wouldn’t’ve been able to weather it. In fact, I know I would’ve confessed. Instead, I somehow helped these officers feel guilty for even pulling me over.
They snapped a picture of me and said: Don’t leave town.
I said: Of course not. I’ve got a busy workday tomorrow. I have appointments scheduled, and I have no cause.
I went back to my sister’s empty house. She was working a late shift.
Even if I’d taken her boyfriend’s gun, it was too late to make it to Jack’s Ice House now. So I got on the telephone, rustled up some cash options with friends, and took off for the friends’ place, and ultimately the Greyhound bus station in San Antonio.