This story first appeared in Houston Metropolitan magazine in September 1989.
It is 3:25 this recent morning and I’m about to become a Houston robbery statistic. Nearly 10,000 of us will be robbed here in 1989, but few while sitting in a convertible reading People.
The car sits in front of a 24-hour supermarket, bathed in fluorescent lights. I’m flipping through the magazine, oblivious to a pair of guys intent on making the store – Safeway – not so. One wears an expensive designer sweatshirt. He came up a moment ago asking directions. Now it’s 3:27 and Sweatshirt’s back waving a $5 bill. He wants to buy a ride. I know it’s 3:27 because I look at my watch (for the last time) and say no.
Sweatshirt’s partner appears. He wears a designer version of the hat Gilligan wore on his TV island, but this little buddy now points a shiny semiautomatic pistol at my ribcage.
I’m used to pistols, because I cover the nighttime cops beat for The Houston Post. Until this minute, I believed my nightly anointment in the blue lights of patrol cars exempted me from personal brushes with violent crime. But no one is exempt. Each day for the last five years, an average of 27 people have been robbed in this city. A quarter were injured or killed.
“Gimme your watch,” says Gilligan. I submit. The pale spot on my wrist gleams like the gun barrel next to it. “Be cool, be cool,” he says. “Now gimme your wallet.” I think: “Not again.”
Five years ago this very morning, a handful of animals robbed and beat me, breaking my nose on a ghetto street in Baltimore. I remember the animal screams that escaped me, how I kicked and threw punches at the air and begged them not to kill me. I want no repeat of this at Safeway, so I elect to give up my wallet. Unfortunately, I can’t find it. I pat my shirt pockets feverishly. I tear comically into the car’s console, heaving cassette tapes, press credentials, my beeper, pens and notepads onto the passenger seat. The wallet sits in a bag of corny dogs and chili in the backseat, but my fear won’t let me find it.
Gilligan and Sweatshirt are clearly perturbed. I hear: “Where your keys?” and hand them over. I mailed my third payment eight hours earlier. I survive on corny dogs to afford these wheels. I have often said, “I love my car more than life itself.” I’m about to be tested.
“Get out,” says Gilligan, pushing past as I climb from behind the wheel. If they’re going to shoot me, they’ll do it now. “Don’t look at us,” Sweatshirt yells. “Turn around.”
I can’t turn around. I’m having a cruel out-of-body experience. I’m watching an idiot yuppie who looks just like me pleading with a pair of armed robbers: “Aw, man, you’re not gonna take my car?!”
But Gilligan can’t seem to start the car. As he studies the dash I’m back in my body, sprinting for the door in flip-flops. Inside, I find a half-dozen store clerks taking a break. I yell, “Two four-syllable expletives are trying to steal my car.” The clerks race outside. I’ve neglected to mention anything about a gun.
I phone 911 and hear myself shout a tangled narrative. The dispatcher says police will arrive in 10 minutes or less. Response times are at issue these days, so I decide to time them. But, uh, my watch is gone.
I dash outside, where my car is surrounded by store clerks. No sign of my robbers. I make a feeble attempt to thank them.
Two patrol cars arrive. One makes a perfunctory search of the neighborhood. I tell an officer my watch cost $17; it’s no great loss. “Realistically, officer,” I say, “any chance of getting these guys?” His eyes dance away like the musical ball in an old cartoon. I say, “That’s what I figured.”
For the next week or so, just like five years ago, I daydream about how I’d have done things differently: I drop my car keys on the Safeway lot. As the gunman reaches for them, I kick him in the face, snatching the gun as it topples in the air. Like Nick Nolte, I order the crooks onto their bellies and turn them over to the authorities.
I’m always the hero of my daydreams, those fleeting lapses into the cinema of a wounded pride. Nothing can stop the paranoia that prevails – and maybe should prevail – in my post-robbery Houston.
And then this: I’m at an all-night convenience store two months later. I’ve just purchased a roast beef sandwich, a popsicle and an Esquire magazine and have walked around the corner to my car, when I see the shadow. I look up and see a man resembling Gilligan stalking toward me purposefully. He is on me now, and there’s a flash as he swings his hand from behind his back – a gun? A gun?! I rock back onto my toes, getting ready to pounce. When his arm completes its pendulum, I see he is holding my Esquire.
“You forget this?”
The Grand Coulee dam has washed into each of my thighs and I’m anchored to the parking lot, a monument to rigor mortis. My head reels, as I reach for the magazine. “Thanks,” I say. My voice sounds like Don Knotts.
“Do I get a tip?” he asks.
It will be a long time before I trust the face of nighttime Houston.
Addendum June 11, 2019: From 1989 to 1993, thieves in Houston twice made off in my Camaro and another time slit the convertible top and stole my laptop. Once, while driving through one of Houston’s toughest neighborhoods, a patrol officer pulled me over. The nervous cop glared at the custom rims on my Camaro ragtop and gave me the onceover – from my shaggy long hair to my cargo pants – as I explained that I was a journalist. He let out a deep breath and said, “Man, I thought you were the mothership hauling in the cocaine!”