was new and had not yet learned the ropes. I was working nights,
thinking it might not be as dull as the days. I was driving a sub-leased
cab – a 1977 Plymouth that threw drive shafts every 500 miles like
clockwork. The cab owner seemed to enjoy the frequent breakdowns
and since he had a fleet of 12 identical cabs, he got a lot of practice.
His record for changing one out was 16 minutes.
I was headed away from downtown about 10:30 pm. I was on Franklin
Street driving east (near where the old Purple Martin Station used
to be). Suddenly, as I passed by a vacant lot, I saw a man hopping
on one foot. It wasn’t a hopscotch type of hop, it was more of a
full-bodyweight-on-one-leg-desperate-to-remain-upright type of hop.
I could tell he was injured. I pulled into the lot and got out to
open the back door.
Houston in the 1970s
was full of parking lots – but the razed buildings that created
the empty spaces had been erected at various times over the city’s
150 year history. Therefore, there were often drastic differences
in elevation. In some cases, the variance could be eight to ten
feet. Office workers could see these differences during the day
and avoid them, but nighttime was an entirely different story. A
dark shadow could mask a ten foot drop. After plopping in the back
seat, the man, still gasping for breath, started pulling up his
pant leg. In the glow of my overhead light I could see a gleaming
white bone jutting out from his ankle. No matter what the circumstances,
I’ve seldom been at a loss for something to say. Seeing the splintered
bone, and marveling at its whiteness (not to mention the strange
absence of blood) – I can still recall, these many years later,
exactly what I said that night. I said “Wow!”
I thought of that old song Them Bones and my layman's assessment
was that this man's leg bone was not connected to his ankle bone.
He threw a few rumpled bills on the back seat and asked if that
would be enough to take him to the hospital. Just about this time
another man ran up, but he was standing above us and when I stood
up I could only see his knees. I realized from his shortness of
breath (and the 45 Automatic in his right hand) that he had been
chasing the first man. Evidently my dome light had attracted his
attention when I pulled into the lot.
The second man pointed the gun at the first, but after seeing the
jagged bone, he lowered the gun as he caught his breath. He muttered
– “I guess that’s payback enough” and turned to walk back into the
On the way to Ben Taub, my fare was surprisingly talkative. He was
evidently still in shock, and not feeling the pain that would arrive
shortly. He didn’t seem to mind filling me in on part of the story
I had missed. Perhaps it was relief at not being blown away with
that chrome-platted .45. Maybe it was a confession. I feel it was
more of an explanation.
Desperate for money, after his job prospects had fallen through,
he had entered a downtown bar with just enough change to order a
draft beer. As the bartender counted out the change from a twenty
to a patron standing at the bar – the man (my fare) grabbed the
paper money and took off out the door. “I figured I’d have a lead”
he said. "Even if the bartender could jump over the bar – which
I didn’t figure he could.”
“I ran for two blocks – slapping my feet down 'til the ground wasn’t
there anymore. I even remember thinking: where's the ground?"
I’m lucky you were passing by.”
“Yeah, you’re lucky, all right. Wait 'til tomorrow.”
I dropped him off at the emergency room entrance of Ben Taub Hospital
(with some brotherly advice). Although it was $6.50 on the meter,
I told him to keep his pathetic swag for when he got out. (Surprisingly,
the bartender had not demanded the money back.) I felt sorry for
the guy, a 40ish looking man in a Western shirt who said he didn’t
know what had come over him. He had just wanted enough money to
get out of Houston and
back to Oklahoma.
I shook his hand and wished him luck as he sat in the wheelchair
and I could see that his eyes had teared up. The pain? The shame?
The conversation with a stranger?
As I drove away from the hospital, I decided to give daylight driving
another chance and headed to the airport where I might catch a few
© John Troesser
October 5, 2014 Column
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