The passenger I would know only as Bozo turned out to be the only Anglo I ever picked up at the Green Spot, the only hippie and the only fare from there who was waiting outside when I pulled up. Later I found out how he had just committed Austin’s most newsworthy act of the day. The best part of the official story that came from his act is that I was never officially a part of it.
It was a little after noon on a weekday and I had just stopped by my apartment on Bouldin Avenue for a quick snack and radioed in vacant, short south. The dispatcher asked if I wanted a downtown call.
“Ready to roll,” I replied.
I appreciated the reluctance and apology in her voice when she responded, “Pick up the Green Spot, Ninety-seven.”
The Green Spot was a dive on East Sixth Street frequented exclusively by Hispanic men from the barrio, just on the other side of IH-35. The average fare out of there was less than two dollars. The Green Spot’s cab company of choice was Roy’s Taxi, which we drivers appreciated the same way we appreciated a dollar and forty cents. The Green Spot also functioned under some kind of unwritten code that forbade customers from waiting outside for their cab. The code carried an option of being a drunken pain in the ass, an option most patrons exercised with great vigor.
Bozo’s relative sobriety further distinguished him from other Green Spot fares. He greeted me with a hearty “Hey, dude!” as he bounced into the backseat.
My initial impression was of a construction worker blowing off work for the afternoon to drink himself broke. He was a little under six feet and stocky, with long curly blonde hair and a red beard. He had on work boots and railroad overalls, the kind with deep pockets running along the front. He was friendly enough but unable to answer right away the existential question of the moment: Where to?
“That depends,” he said. “How much to go to New Braunfels?”
“A dollar a mile,” I said. “Call it thirty-five dollars.”
He reached in his overalls and a fifty dollar bill fluttered onto the front seat. That inspired me to take the car out of Park and pull away from the Green Spot and the long line of honking cars behind me.
I explained to him that I had to take the money to The Stand (the Roy’s Taxi office) and drop it off there because Austin’s cab ordinance was enforceable only within the Austin city limits. A New Braunfels cop couldn’t prosecute an Austin fare jumper and neither could an Austin cop if the fare was out of APD’s jurisdiction. Out-of-town fares had to pay up front. Roy’s insisted that drivers leave the money for an out-of-town fare at The Stand in an envelope, just in case. I explained all this to him on the way to Roy’s office while he protested and writhed in obvious agony over the prospect.
“Let’s just skip the goddamn office, dude. It’s a trap! They just want to get a good look at me!”
I told him to relax, it was just a silly rule I had to follow and I’d be right back. I left him moaning and wailing like a bluesman in the backseat and took the fifty inside, put it in an envelope, autographed it and placed it in the sacred drawer reserved for our lease money. The cab looked empty when I walked back outside. This was not a bad thing. If Bozo got scared and ran way and no one ever saw him again, I still had the fifty. Money for nothing! But no – he had hunkered down on the floorboard like the sky was falling. Nothing suspicious about that. No reason to suspect this guy of anything. Right? But what the hell – I still had the fifty. After I got in the cab and pulled out of the lot and hit the freeway, heading south, I heard muffled curses from the backseat floorboard.
The feeling of motion must have had a soothing effect on Bozo because his mood changed in the course of the 90 seconds it took to drive across the Colorado River. He sat up in the backseat like a normal person and chirped, “Dig it!”
“See, nothing bad happened,” I told him. “We’re on our way to New Braunfels. I got paid and you’ll be in New Braunfels in half an hour.”
“Dig it. On the road, man. We’re on the road. Road trip! How ‘bout we stop somewhere so I can get a six pack?”
We pulled into a grocery store at William Cannon and the interstate where he asked me to go inside and buy the six-pack for him. I told him he looked old enough to buy his own beer. He whined with all the persuasive powers of a spoiled six-year-old about how he had given me fifty dollars and the least I could do was go inside and buy him some damn beer after he had to hide in the backseat and “everything else.” So I went inside and got him a six pack of Budweiser, deducting the cost from my mental calculations of the day’s pay.
Bozo opened a can and offered me one, which I declined. Halfway through his first beer (he finished the six pack on the way) he began conversing in gibberish about his mamacita in Mexico and how good people sometimes did bad things for good reasons. Then the son of a bitch started singing.
“Cab driver, once more ‘round the block…Cab driver, once more ‘round the block…”
He sang the same line about two dozen times. When I asked him to stop he said it was the only words of the song he could remember, which I had already figured out. He started singing it again.
Again, I asked him to stop. He stopped singing, which was a good thing, but he started talking, which was not. He said, “They’re going to ask you about me tomorrow. I’m kinda curious what you’re going to say?”
“For starters, I’ll tell them you can’t sing worth a shit.”
Then he asked how much more it would be for me to take him to San Antonio to see his mamacita, a strange way for an Anglo to put it, I thought. I set the price at another fifty, which was gouging a little but the annoyance factor was running faster than the meter. Another Grant landed on the front seat after I assured him we wouldn’t be heading back to The Stand to drop it off. He leaned up and spoke to me in low, ominous tones, as if Roy’s and the FBI were listening in on the two-way radio.
“Tomorrow they’re going to ask you what I looked like. You’ll tell them I have a beard, right? They might ask if it’s a real beard? They might say it’s a fake beard. They might say it’s part of a disguise.”
“They might be right.”
“Here.” He thrust his chin over the front seat. “Pull on it. See if it’s real.”
“Ready?” I gave it a good tug.
“It’s real, all right.”
“Goddamn, man, that hurt.”
He retaliated by telling a series of what he described as jokes, many of them racist in nature. When I failed to react he started singing that damn Mills Brothers’ song again. I winced and whimpered, I’m sure, and may have cursed him and his mamacita.
“You’re not very impressed with me are you?”
I said I wasn’t impressed, depressed, repressed or oppressed; I was just a cab driver and too good a person to have to listen to his racist comedy and off-tune singing act any longer.
“Maybe this will impress you.”
The way he said it made my heart skip a beat and then stop while my temples pounded and all was silence except for the roaring in my ears. For those few moments only, when I thought he was going to pull a gun out of those overalls, I regretted criticizing his sorry attempts at entertainment. In the rear-view mirror I could see him reaching into the front pockets of his overalls. The gun I visualized him pulling on me turned out to be several packets of money, all wrapped with brown paper bands identifying them as fifties and hundreds. Even at first blush I could see that he had in his hands several thousand dollars, or about a cab driver’s annual salary.
“Does that impress you, cab driver?”
I started breathing again and told him I wish he hadn’t shown me that.
Then I had a flashback.
* * *
Some other bozos burglarized my apartment a few months prior to this. The officers who came to investigate noticed right away that the burglars – a former fare of mine and her family of hoodlums – had neglected to take my TV. Actually, the television wasn’t mine but I had long since forgotten that inconvenient fact. Among the missing items was a pistol, a bag of weed and a tape recorder, but my typewriter and the television remained.
I stepped out on the porch. With more time to wonder why they hadn’t taken my TV I might have considered ditching it before fetching the cops, but two officers were already investigating another burglary at an apartment complex on the other side of the street.
Unlike those victims, I was pretty sure I knew who did it. I actually expected the cops to thank me when I provided the tip that led to the apprehension, arrest and conviction of the inconsiderate sociopaths. I anticipated the return of my pistol (which a cop had given me because another cop took mine), my weed and tape recorder. Everybody would live happily ever after, except for the burglars.
Instead, when the cops came up to my apartment their eyes locked on the TV. They paid special attention to the inscription “U-Rent-M” wood burned into the top.
“Where did you get the TV?”
“Oh, that. Ha. Ha. Well, I got that a long time ago. I took it in exchange for a fare because I didn’t want to bother you guys with a five-dollar misunderstanding and, well, I should’ve taken it back to the folks at U-Rent-M but I didn’t have a TV and it was football season and, well, I more or less forgot it really wasn’t mine. Until just now.”
“You understand that we will have to take this?”
“Yes sir,” I said, smiling and nodding to the men with badges and guns. “I absolutely understand.”
What I did not yet understand was the extent of my losses. That evening as I sat at home not watching Monday Night Football, a man named Lester Something from the town of Manor called and asked for me by name and then started talking about a deal I supposedly made with him earlier that afternoon. To hear Lester tell it, I had bought a car from him that very day and made an offer on a washing machine, which he had called to accept.
“How did you get my number?”
“Why, it’s right here on the check you gave me. Five hundred dollars? Ford Galaxy?” He read my name, address and phone number again, as if reminding me of who I was and where I lived would make me remember buying a car from him.
“Hold on a second, Lester.” I went and looked in the drawer where I kept my checkbook, then back to the phone. “Lester, I got some real bad news for both of us.…”
The angry and threatening calls commenced a few days later. In less time than it took me to collect rent money in the cab I was a wanted man all over the state of Texas for writing hot checks. I heard from detectives and district attorneys in Abilene, Amarillo, Brownwood, Corpus Christi, San Angelo and Nacogdoches. My sorry-ass bank even honored a hot check written for cash at a drive-through.
I called the sorry-ass bank and I called the police and I had to call Lester more than once because for an unreasonably long time he wanted to kill me for supplying the burglars with the checks they used to steal a car from him. I submitted my own handwriting for analysis at the police station where the handwriting expert told me that the signatures on the checks bore my own sloppy handwriting. While I hadn’t signed any of them, every signature was exactly the same every time. That, he told me, was as sure a sign of forgery as a signature that doesn’t match at all.
I thought that settled it. The bank knew and the police department knew all they needed to know about me and the hot checks. Figuring my ass sufficiently covered, I paid scant attention to the continuing streams of registered mail and threatening phone calls.
“It’s been taken care of,” I assured the callers, who argued the point. The percentage of callers pulling for me to go to prison was downright hurtful.
The bank vice-president assigned to make my life a living hell finally agreed to a face-to-face meeting. She was surprised, I think, that I showed up without a lawyer at my side, but she quickly warmed to the idea. With a lawyer at my side she probably wouldn’t have told me I had to pay for all the hot checks and the penalties or else face criminal prosecution and maybe prison. With a lawyer at my side, it’s doubtful that I would have told her that I would go to jail, die there and rot before I would give her sorry-ass bank one goddamn penny of my money. She promised to see me in court. I promised to see her in hell.
At home, still in a festering rage, I called the detective at APD and told him what I had just been through. He said “Oh!” real quick-like then told me once again not to worry. He assured me, “It’s been taken care of.”
Sure enough, the registered mail and angry phone calls slowed to a trickle and eventually stopped, but the experience made me a marked man for merchants everywhere. I wouldn’t be able to write a check in Texas for another year.
When I picked up Bozo at the Green Spot that day my name was still on every Hot Check list in the state. Deducing that this idiot had more than likely just robbed a bank was, to my way of thinking, a clear illustration of good cab driving karma in action.
* * *
We cruised into San Antonio and I pressed Bozo on his drop-off location.
“Going to see my mamacita,” he said.
“Where does this alleged mamacita live?”
“A long way from here. Mexico.”
“I’m not taking your ass to Mexico.”
Ahead of me, a San Antonio police car had stopped in the right lane of traffic, its cherry top flashing. A driver passing on the right shot me the finger for the crime of going too slow to suit him. Pissed me off. “Yeah, go ahead. Run into the back of that cop car, you’re in such a fucking hurry,” I hollered. “Tell the cop about it.”
Bozo hadn’t seen the police car but he ducked at the mention of one.
“What? Cops? Where?”
He spotted the flashing lights.
“Oh man oh man oh man.”
I assured him the cop car had nothing to do with us and was in fact making someone else’s life uncomfortable at that very moment, but when we passed the police car the cherry top went off and the cop pulled into traffic right behind us.
“Oh man oh man. Where is he now?”
While he repeated man oh man over and over he bounced up and down in the backseat like a third- grader all jacked up on Mountain Dew.
“Yes, there is a police car behind us, and a jacked up hippie bouncing up and down in the backseat of an out-of-town taxi is bound to make him a little curious about us. You know what I mean? He might want to talk to us. So stop it.”
“Really, you need to stop bouncing up and down like that. You really do.”
The cop took the next exit off the freeway, a development I shared with Bozo. Then I proposed a deal. I told him to tell me where he wanted me to drop him off or I’d drive him to the police station and drop him off there.
“Man, you’re really a prick, aren’t you?”
“So they say.”
“Just take me to the fucking Alamo, dude. Yeah. Drop me off at the Alamo.”
Sure, I could have found signs pointing to the Alamo, or I could have stopped at a gas station and asked directions like normal people do – but this was neither the time nor the place to act normal. Instead, I pulled up alongside a walking beat police officer and rolled down my window.
“Oh man oh man oh man.”
The officer was very polite and gave good directions. Five minutes later, Ninety-seven was idling in front of the Alamo of legend and lore. Bozo repeated his prediction that “they” would be asking about him the next day and wanted to know what kind of response “they” would get.
“I’ll describe you as being about six feet tall with curly blonde hair and a red beard – definitely real –and the last time I saw you was outside the hallowed gates of the Alamo. You were wearing overalls and carrying around a shitload of money. And oh yeah – you were on your way to Mexico to see your mamacita.”
A hundred dollar bill whispered onto the front seat.
“Really, dude? After all we’ve been through … that’s what you’re going to tell them?”
I picked up the bill and stuffed it in my pants.
“I’ll tell them you weren’t funny and you couldn’t sing worth a shit. I’ll describe you as ‘possibly Hispanic.’ Beyond that, well – you have to trust me to think of something.”
The last time I saw him he was wobbling into the Alamo like he was Davy Crockett and the Mexican army had decided to go home and forget about relocating to Texas.
* * *
The front page of next day’s Austin American-Statesman carried a story about a downtown bank robbery, accompanied by a police sketch of the suspect. It looked a little like Bozo but not much. The story said the suspect had waited in line at a walk-up banking window – my former sorry-ass bank – on San Jacinto Street during the lunch hour. He was wearing overalls and had a bandana tied around his head. When his turn in line came he handed the teller a note.
“Give me all your money or I’ll blow your goddamn head off.”
The teller gave him all the money she had, about $5,000, most of it in hundreds. All the teller could remember was that the robber had his hands buried in the pockets of his overalls and she assumed he had a gun in there.
Other than Bozo, I was the only person who knew the rest of the story. I deduced that after the stick-up Bozo had strolled half a block north and then half a block west to enter the first bar he saw, the Green Spot. There, he drank beer there for an hour and then he called a cab. Ninety-seven showed up and I hired on as his wheelman, his getaway driver.
It wasn’t something I was likely to put on future resumes but I liked the sound of it. I’d tell my grandkids about it. “Yeah, I used to be a wheelman. Back in the day. Ever heard of Bozo the Bank Robber? Yeah, well, I was his wheelman – Bozo’s wheelman. That was me.”
Bozo’s prediction that people would ask me about him did not come to pass. Nothing more appeared in the paper about the robbery until several months later when police caught another bank robber in the act. The story mentioned that police were questioning the suspect in connection with several other unsolved bank robberies, including Bozo’s.
There was a picture of the robber who didn’t get away, and it wasn’t Bozo. I followed the story long enough to learn that this guy got convicted of the one robbery but not Bozo’s.
Thanks to me, his wheelman, Bozo got clean away.
Clay Coppage © 2018
Clay Coppedge is a freelance writer, former contributor to the Austin Sun and a former cab driver. He lives on the outskirts of Walburg, Texas and is a proud supporter of the statute of limitations.