Sunday, November 02, 2008

My Evening with the Wino Posse

I lived in Austin, Texas for part of 1981 and 1982. Man, I loved it there. I've always loved live music, even mediocre live music, and Austin offered an amazing level of live entertainment for a town its size. Even on a Sunday or Monday night, a good band was easy to find.

One of the great sorrows of my life is that I didn't move to Austin in time to visit Armadillo World Headquarters, the focal point of Austin's Redneck Rock/Progressive Country/Texas Troubadour scene of the 1970's. I never made it to an Austin City Limits show either, but that's a secondary tragedy.

Sixth Street found the highest concentration of live music venues in the Hill Country. During my breaks away from working as an offshore helicopter pilot in the Gulf of Mexico, I spent many nights wandering about Sixth Street, drinking beer, listening to music, and avoiding anything resembling a productive life.

One night I exited a place called Steamboat Springs on Sixth Street, only to come upon a fight getting started. They were two big guys, and from their dress and age I guessed them to be University of Texas students.

Back in those days, when I hung out in bars and taverns a lot, I was what you'd call a happy drinker. Never once did I get in a bar fight. Stupidly, though, I seemed to feel that it was my mission in life to break up fights.

So there I was, standing on a sidewalk on Sixth Street, watching two guys fight, making mental transition from Mr. Good Times to doing something. I wasn't feeling at my most physically capable: I'd severely sprained an ankle and was encumbered with a walking cast. The guy with his back to me clocked the other one solidly. I yelled, "Yo man, hold on there," and lunged forward to restrain him. As I did, the guy drew back to punch his "friend" again, and his elbow caught me right between the eyes. Boom.

That stunned me, yeah. But what really got things going south for your would-be honky-tonk hero was tripping as I stumbled backward. Damn walking cast. I avoided falling down, which was good. However, I avoided falling down by smashing against the brick wall behind me with the back of my skull. That was bad.

Things went kind of gray, and I found my knees buckling. I slid down the wall to a sitting position.

The guy who'd kicked my ass with his elbow hit his friend again, and the friend went down. Then Elbow Guy kicked the other guy in the face.

"Hey!" I yelled. "HEY!" Elbow Guy paid me no mind. I told myself to stand up, but my legs weren't obeying me. Elbow Guy kicked the prone guy on the back of the head. "NO!" I yelled.

That's when things got a little surreal.

Five middle-aged men seemed to come out of nowhere. They swarmed Elbow Guy. "C'mon man, you got him down. He's all done," said one of the rescuers. "GET THE F*CK AWAY FROM ME," shouted Elbow Guy. He then hurled a series of racial epithets at the men. Seemingly unfazed, the five black men, slight and underfed looking, all began talking at once. "He's your friend, ain't he? Why you wanna hurt him more? C'mon, it's time to let him be and go home."

I continued to sit on the sidewalk, transfixed. The five men didn't need any help from me.

Anger fled the scene. Elbow Guy's face went slack, as if a certain realization had washed over him: he'd been about to seriously injure a friend. He muttered something to the men, then  simply wandered away. The men turned to the guy on the ground, now sitting up. "Hey man, you okay?" Kicked Guy's lip was bleeding, but he looked okay, considering. He answered, "Yeah. Got a loose tooth, but I'm okay. Thanks. You guys saved my ass." They all shook hands, and Kicked Guy wandered away too.

It was over. I was still sitting on my butt on the sidewalk, no doubt with mouth agape. The five guys turned to me. Two of them lifted me by the arms, struggling. My legs were working again, but still shaky.

"Thanks guys," I said. "Man, what you guys did was really something." One of them, the guy who seemed the spokesman, replied, "Ain't no thing, Cracker." The rest of the guys laughed. "We're the Wino Posse, out to rescue honky college students." They all laughed again. I laughed too. Mr. Spokesman had a comic's delivery. He had kind eyes. They all did.

I shook hands with the five of them. Since they looked impoverished, I expected them to ask me for money. They didn't. I started walking toward the all-night deli restaurant at the a few blocks away, as was my habit at the end of a night on Sixth Street. I turned back toward the guys. "Hey, can I buy you guys breakfast at the deli?" Mr. Spokesman, who looked a lot like Scatman Crothers, answered, "Thanks Brother Cracker, but we ain't exactly dressed for the place."

One of the other men spoke up. "But you know, if you wanted to thank us, you could buy us a couple bottles of Mad Dog." I smiled. "What, no Thunderbird?" There were snorts of derision, and comments like "that stuff'll rot your brain." "Okay," I said, "you guys gonna be here when I get back?" Mr. Spokesman answered, "Naw, Brother Cracker, we get too much attention around these high-class places. Look for us a few blocks east. And hey: if you go to that place a few blocks west, ask for some paper cups. These winos may be my brothers, but I ain't into sharin' spit with them." The guys laughed again.

I got in my car, drove to the nearest liquor store, and bought a few bottles of Mogen David 20/20, the low-end fortified wine of discriminating winos. I drove to the east on Sixth Street, and found the guys on one of the darker corners.

I jumped out and delivered the bottles. Only then did it strike me that they might need some food. "Hey guys, could I go get some burgers or something?" Mr. Spokesman piped up. "Naw, Brother Cracker, we've already had dinner. We're winos, but we ain't homeless." The other guys laughed. One of them asked, "Care to join us?"

So, for about an hour, I became a wino. I normally avoided mixing beer and wine, since that would usually lead to a volcanic stomach situation, but that night, the Mad Dog went down just fine. I decided then and there that if I ever became a wino, I'd stick to Mogen David.

Damn, those guys were funny. Stories flew about, as well as jokes and good-natured insults. I tried to find out more about the pasts of the five men, but they seemed kind of evasive. In fact, they gave me the impression that I was being rude. All I remember learning was that Mr. Spokesman had once been a teacher, and one of the other guys had once been a truck driver.

An hour or so went by, and it dawned on me that I was wearing out my welcome. I shook hands with the five of them, and they all joined in to promise that they wouldn't spread it around that I'd had my ass kicked by a wall. We all laughed one last time. I walked to my car while they all called out for me to be careful and to watch out for those ass-kicking walls on Sixth Street. I started the car and noticed Mr. Spokesman walking to the curb. I rolled down the passenger window, and he leaned down to speak to me. "Hal, steer your life. Don't let life steer you." I shook hands with him again, and drove away. When I got near the all-night deli, it suddenly hit me that I probably shouldn't be driving. I pulled over and went inside to have breakfast.

After eating, I called a cab to go home. It was only then that it hit me: Mr. Spokesman had called me "Hal," and I was almost sure that I'd never said my name. I'd been "Brother Cracker" to those guys. In fact, the etiquette of the evening seemed to involve avoiding the use of given names.

Over the following weeks, I looked for the five men while frequenting Sixth Street. I asked bartenders if they'd ever noticed them or heard from them. None of them had, until one evening, at a place called the Paradise Cafe, one bartender acted like he'd been slapped when I brought them up.

"The Wino Posse? Yeah, they got me out of a jam one night."

It would make a better story if I could tell you that the bartender guy related a detailed account of his encounter with those five men. But, he did no such thing. In fact, when I pressed him, he seemed irritated, and snorted, "Some things are better left unsaid."

I never saw the Wino Posse again. I never heard of them, either, except from that one bartender, who made it plain that he didn't want to elaborate.

I think about them often. I think about their kindness, their bravery, and about how they seemed to have a common desire to be winos with class. I think about how so many people in more fortunate circumstances could learn a lot about life from those five alcoholic street denizens.

I think it's likely that they're no longer walking upon this earth.

Funny thing: it's early morning, and I seldom drink at home, but I'd like to have a glass of Mogen David right now. I'd toast bravery, kindness, and the Wino Posse, as the words from the song "Midnight Choir" coursed through my head: "Will they have Mogen David in heaven?"


Kelly said...

Geez, Hal..... you have some of the best stories!!!

Enjoyed this one.

Uncle E said...

That's an amazing story, Hal. People surprise you, and your story is a good reminder of the good that actually IS out there. It's not often that you run into these types of situations, but when you do they tend to shape your life in surprising, positive ways.
Just the fact that you recognize this speaks volumes regarding your tolerance and character.
Thanks for sharing.

Roland said...

Great story and good advice from your friend.

Debby said...

That's one of the nice things about getting older. The collection of our stories gets larger. Of course, if you ask my children, they'll tell you that's the bad thing about me getting older. I think it makes us more fascinating. The younger generation thinks it makes us more boring.

Redlefty said...

This one is definitely fascinating, not boring!

Debby said...

PS Hey Hal...we should get to hear about Dylan and trick or treating. Trick or treating is not allowed out in the boonies, where we live. Probably because it would be dangerous. So we went down and sat on the steps of the new house to hand out candy with the townies. OH MY GOSH! We had identical triplet little girls, about 3. Each one of them wore a little leotard with a pastel netting overskirt, and little teeny tiny wings, little matching ballet slippers and golden head bands on their little blond curls. They were fairies, and just the cutest things you ever saw in your life. What fun.

Hal Johnson said...

Debby, I was planning to post some photos on the morning after Halloween, but I've misplaced my memory card reader. We went to my sister-in-law's house and used it as home base while Dylan and his friend Brian went trick 'r treating around the neighborhood.

Not much trick 'r treating goes on in our, er, neighborhood. It's pretty rural, unlit, and there are two registered sex offenders who live a half mile away. They live next door to each other. How convenient for the parole officer.

But, we had a grand time in my SIL's subdivision, even if we ran out of time to meet up with Uncle E and his family.

Scotty said...

Great story, Hal - there's still some good in the world after all.


Annie said...

Wonderful story, Hal....and how did he know your name? Hmmmmm.

DAVID said...


Pam said...

Love the story!! I lived in San Antonio from about 1980 to 1991 or 92.

My friends and I frequently made the trek to Austin to do Sixth Street. Been to Austin City Limits. Took in any number of concerts large and small there.

Sting, U2, Springsteen come to mind.

I genuinely loved my years of
living in the Hill Country area. Even been to Luckenbach.

My daughter went to college in San Marcos, so we burned up I35 between San Antonio, San Marcos and Austin.