Gary Justis

Gary Justis
Bloomington, Illinois, US
April 04
Gary Justis has worked primarily in the area of kinetic sculpture for the last 34 years. He lived and worked in Chicago from 1977 to 1999. He currently resides in Bloomington Illinois, where he teaches and writes stories about his actual experiences. (please take a look at his "Sculpture" link for more info)


Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 25, 2008 9:48AM

Thighbone Angel

Rate: 57 Flag
thighbone Angel detail 2
Invisible forces sometimes deliver us from events of evil manufacture:

I met an unfortunate robber one December evening in Chicago, at the “L” stop on Halsted Street, just south of Greek Town. I was out at 3 am on a Sunday morning, going home to my studio on 18th street when I saw a lone figure walking up from Greek Town towards the “L” stop where I stood inside waiting for the Halstead bus. The city had gone to sleep several hours before. The lone figure entered the glass enclosed “L” stop where I was waiting.

“Stick-up man, Stick-up mutha fucka” he said, almost inaudibly.

I was still feeling the effects of excessive volumes of beer. I didn’t get scared when I saw the gun; I just got mad. This was a mistake that could have cost me dearly.

I haughtily handed him my checkbook.

“Checks ‘aint gonna do me no good”

I knew that and I stupidly took it back, apologizing.

“I want to see some GREEN man!” His tone was terrifying.

“OK, OK!” I snapped back.

I handed him 55cents (all I had) as the Halstead bus mercifully stopped out in front of the glass enclosure. The young man, stuck the gun in his belt, exited the enclosure and quickly walked south towards Roosevelt Avenue. I was shaking so bad I could barely climb the bus steps, but I managed to climb on board and sit behind the driver.

The incident seemed to happen in less time than it might take someone to read this far. More happened with the Police and Detectives later on, but let me back up to the scene of the interrupted robbery:


I could tell the gun being pointed at my crotch was a 22-caliber revolver. "A silly toy", some might say if they did not know anything about guns. A 22 caliber, probably a Long Rifle style bullet, can easily take a life, even after penetrating a wooden two by four. I noticed how the robber’s nervousness was expressed by an unusual, overly relaxed state. There was a sweaty calm about his face and in his body language. I felt I could have reached slowly to his hand and gently taken the gun. I am grateful everyday since that time that I did not reach towards him.

The gun seemed to hang loosely in his hand, as if he did not really want to carry the robbery through. When I saw his shoes and clothing I thought: “Why rob an obviously poor art student, with a weekly salary that couldn’t buy you a shoelace?”

When I handed him the 55 cents, he held it in his flat palm, looking at it and shaking his head. He gave a short chuckle. I had a strange image in my memory of my brother doing the same thing, reprimanding me for using his best baseball trading cards, for my bicycle spoke engines.

I felt a hint of pious intercession, with the tense mood transformed to dark comedy. I knew he could see me beginning to shake. I was lucky he had that shaming-faced moment. It gave me the precious seconds needed for the bus to come. Other wise I might have been shot. It had been a small, rare miracle coming out of the downside of my sporadic and persistent poverty.

After the robber left the waiting area, and walked swiftly towards Roosevelt Street, I left the cubicle, entered the bus and told the bus driver I had just been robbed. He pulled the brake on the bus and called the police. The police were there in less than 30 seconds. One of the officers ran on board the bus and shouted:

“Where’s the guy who just got robbed?”

I held up my hand, trying to suppress the shaking that had taken over.

“He’s walking up Roosevelt!” I blurted. “Medium build, black male, dark clothes, expensive shoes.”

The policeman left the bus and I could hear the cop-car’s motor scream as they charged up Roosevelt.

The bus driver looked my way. “Are you OK?”

I looked at him for a long time. He showed true concern.

“I’m fine. Can we go now?” I managed to ask.

“18th Street right?”

I couldn’t believe he knew my street, but neighborliness on the Halsted line was one of its distinctions.

“Yeah.” I was very afraid I might go into shock.

The bus dropped me at 18th street and Halsted. As I left the bus the driver touched my arm and told me everything was OK. I remember his eyes were warm, and concerned. I walked straight home and got Alex (my dog). The fear was almost overwhelming. I shoved a loaded derringer pistol, a foolish old purchase I had brought with me from Kansas, into my left glove (my second big, stupid mistake of the morning), and walked north into the areas where Alex liked to go. Fear had chased away reason, and I felt an evil conspiracy could overtake me if I was not prepared.

We swung around and came back south towards 18th street. As we stood at 18th and Jefferson, I saw a cop car approaching from Halstead at a very high speed. They spotted me and screeched to a stop at the intersection. As their spotlight hit me, a policeman opened the door on the front passenger side and stood up.

“Hey! Are you the guy who got robbed at gun-point?”

“ I am”

The policeman held up a small revolver, the gun hanging upside down on his index finger from the trigger guard.

“22 caliber Long Rifle, your lucky you’re still breathin’.”


I felt a large lump swelling in my throat.

“We chased the bus after we got the guy. The driver said he dropped you at 18th. Great luck we found you, huh?”

“One chance in ten thousand”, I thought.

The policeman asked me to come with them to identify the suspect. I agreed to. I took Alex home and went with them to the station.
I forget where the station was, but I remember it was quite some distance west of downtown.

At the station, I met with two detectives and agreed to identify the guy. They showed me his arrest record. It was at least 4 pages long. This guy did lots of illegal things for a living. He had two arrests for suspicion of murder. I began to feel less safe than before.

“Why is this guy not in prison?” I asked the detective.

“Oh, we know he capped two guys, we just couldn’t find enough evidence to stick” He cheerily replied.

I suddenly remembered the derringer pistol inside my left glove.
“Holy crap!” I thought.


Butler Derringer-pistol -22 Short


The metal of the gun had taken on the heat of my hand and I had neglected to remove it earlier. I kept the left glove on and made sure the piece laid snuggly inside my palm. I can’t remember if there were metal detection devices at the door of the station, I had passed through not giving it any thought. It is impossible to say how the pistol didn’t trigger an alarm. I remember seeing the cops and detectives surrendering their pistols to the desk sergeant as we entered the precinct.

“You can take your things off and this officer will hang them up for you.”

I felt the blood leave my face.

“I’d like to keep everything on if you don’t mind, I’m a little cold.”

The detective saw my grey complexion and told me I would feel better in a few minutes, after I identified the guy.

I filled out tons of paper work, then the detectives took me to a door with a small window (one-way glass). The door was attached to a large holding cell. I looked in and saw scores of men standing around, some sitting on the floor, others passed out in corners. My guy was frantically pacing. One of the detectives called out his name through a dirty intercom attached to the wall by the door. The guy walked to the window. He was a knot of adrenaline, eyes totally red around intense dark brown eyes.

“That’s him!”

The detective asked, “Are you sure?”

I looked again, the guy spit on the glass as if he could actually see me.


My mind returned to the deep fear of the detectives finding my derringer. I would have been too scared to explain my way out of it and I could have ended up in the holding cell with all the other folks, including my robber. I carefully pulled off my gloves, and stuffed them deep into my coat pockets. It remained my secret.


After the ordeal of the robbery and the identification process at the station, the detectives drove me home. During the ride, the lead detective, who was polite and very smart, was trying to assuage my fears about being hunted down by the robber or his family.

“Hey, Gary, remember he confessed. Our getting him did not depend on your identification. Not solely. He has no other bad relatives. You’ll be fine.”

I was still afraid, trying hard to hide my shivering.

“Thanks Detective. You guys did a great job and I appreciate the sacrifices you all make for us. Please tell the other officers I am very grateful.”

“Heh, heh, you’re lucky, the guy said he thought he might have to shoot you in the thighbone! I’ve never heard that one before. Not exactly a rocket scientist or anything.”

I was hit with another wave of convulsive fear. From that surprising little detail of the detective’s interrogation, I felt a sharp pain start just above my left knee. I thought, “thighbone? What the fuck? He was pointing the gun at my crotch the whole time.”

At least the “thighbone” autosuggestion had switched the pain away from my testicles to a bodily local I could live more easily with and maybe recount with far less embarrassment.

“Another thing Gary; don’t’ go carrying a gun around. Not a very smart thing to do. This is not the Old West you know.”

To this day, I have not been able to figure out how he knew about the derringer tucked in my glove. He was pretty smart, but unless he had x-ray vision, there was no way he or the other detectives could have known. If they did know, then it told me volumes about how they dealt with circumstances that tested their levels of fear and duty. I would have been in the deepest shit of my life.

Now I was totally penniless, and I had been robbed, coming very close to death. I was exhausted, and still quite afraid. The detectives had been gone for an hour, and I collapsed onto my old, grimy sofa. It was 8:30 am. I slept for thirteen hours. It was unusual that Alex didn’t wake me in that time. Perhaps she had nudged me once or twice, but when I finally came too it was dark again. The time was 9:30 pm. The extreme fear I had felt hours earlier had lessened slightly. With the rumble and pain in my stomach, I would have sacrificed dearly for a cheeseburger. I tried to conjure a mental image of the steaming, succulent phantom.

After a few moments of my futile meditation, I heard a noise. There were steps just outside my studio entrance. The sound was moving away. Alex ran to the door and stood in point. I placed my ear against the wood and listened. I heard nothing except the roar of the expressway, and a lonesome wail of a far-off river barge. I removed the large 2 x 4 bolt from across the door and opened it slightly. Cool air slipped in. It felt good. I looked down and saw a folded piece of paper laying on the stoop. I picked it up and re-bolted the door. The paper was a hand-made card of some kind.

thighbone Angel

An angel hovered over a house. The paper was folded. I opened it.


thighbone Angel inside
"Sing, Angels are watching over You!"

I sat down, almost collapsing into my chair, as I looked at the writing.
There was suddenly warmth in my feet, moving up my legs, eventually enveloping my chest and other extremities. It was a very pleasant feeling. I forgot how hungry I was.

Alex trotted up to me and pushed her head as far into my lap as she could. Her tail was moving so wildly; it caused both of us to sway. Her brown eyes were so large.

My Alex 1976 copy

Alex (Snally-Cat) 1979

“OK Snally-Cat. I think we can go out now.”

The next morning I looked at the card again. It was a sweet gesture, one given anonymously, and with quiet grace. I thought back to the trial of the day before. With the way in which the acts of the robber were delayed, even with his small surrender to the humor in the pathetic amount of coin I had given up, I wanted to believe in a munificent force, able to intercede, saving my life, and perhaps the robber’s as well.

When my phone rang I grabbed it right away and I heard a small voice on the other end.

“Gary, this is Kathleen. You know, from the New Museum in New York? Are you OK?

“Yes, I had a long couple of days. I’m okay. Do I sound bad?”

Kathleen ignored my question. “Have you checked your mail today?”

“Hold on, I’ll run around and see.” I dropped the phone and went around to the front of the building and found some envelopes stuffed in my small box. I grabbed them and ran back around, leafing through them as I picked the phone up again.

“I see a letter from you guys in New York.”

I opened it. It contained a check for six hundred fifty dollars. I let out a howl that echoed against my walls and caused Alex to run to her bed in the corner of the studio. I jumped up and down elated, barely able to contain my joy. I picked up the phone and I heard laughter and applause on the other end. I knew they were listening to me on their speakerphone.

“Gary, we had money left over from the October exhibition so we decided to give it to all the artist who were in the show.”

Kathleen’s voice was strident, and her colleagues, still laughing and cheering in the background, echoed her delight.

“This is a God-send, in a true sense, bless you people. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”

I was going over in my mind trying to figure out the fastest way to get to my bank. My eyes were welling up.

“We are so happy for you Gary. We have to go now and call some others. Wow! You were so excited, for a minute there we thought you’d been shot!...Are you there?”

“Yes, bless you all. I’m here.”

“Merry Christmas Gary!”

Now this was supreme enchantment.

More astonishment in the noble face of happenstance! True and Saintly forces had owned those days, and darkness was receding.

The moment was odd, but good, so graceful and good.

Christmas Tree 2 1979

My Christmas Tree in the studio 1979 photo by Jane Smith

The detectives had talked the guy into pleading guilty to robbing me of 55 cents. The guy was totally humiliated. He was sentenced to 8 years. I never got my 55 cents back, it remained evidence, but it didn’t matter.
At his hearing, he pleaded with the judge to help him find a way to make sure his wife and kids would be OK.

The judge was indignant.

“I’m not your custodian. That’s your problem!”
Regardless of his act against me, I was moved by his predicament, and I felt so deeply sad for his family. The detective told me later his family was with in-laws, and would be fine.

I ran into my guy 5 years later (he had obviously served only a partial sentence). I was leaving Carson’s in downtown Chicago through the revolving door as he was coming in. I think he saw me, but he pretended not to recognize me. I pretended the same. His dapper attire was immaculate. And I was still poor, but breathing, living a busy life with some successes, remembering how important it is to sing as the gentle forces hover over our rooftops.


Eliz Apt

Southeast corner of Jefferson and 18th Street, Chicago 

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I am glad you have angels. Anyone who would steal 55 cents really deserves some kind of punishment.
Spellbinding. I believe in guardian angels. I'm glad yours was with you that day. Alex looks a bit like the weasel!

Thanks for sharing. Paws way up as usual!
Makes you stop and wonder exactly what forces are at work in our world. There are polar opposites, forces of darkness and forces of light. It is always wonderful when there is a confluence, when the light helps shield us from the reaches of the abyss.

You're supposed to be here, now, doing this: writing, using your skills. I'm ever grateful that you are. :-D
Another wonderful story, Gary. You have lived an amazing life. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Keep those angels around, you hear?!
You guys,

I really appreciate you reading this with Thanksgiving preparations pending and all.

I do believe in these good forces, wherever they originate.
Lauren, I do keep them close.

Bill, you are very kind with your sentiment and comment about the strange confluence of light and darkness.
Mary, Alex reminds me a great deal of the Weasel!

Thanks Dorinda. and thanks also for the kind note.
Greg, I am anxious to get back to your stuff. I'm a little behind.
Good man my friend.
I just recalled some lines,

God's in heaven and all is right with his world.

Great story.
Damn Gary. It's not often I get so involved in a narrative that I get electrically, emotionally as involved as this. I think it also has to do with my friendship and affection for you, for the time we spent together in Chicago not knowing we would meet 30 years later, but it is also the power in your words, your voice that is so moving.

You write beautifully, as an artist who isn't confined to a medium; a flowing from brain to two dimension, often to three and then to include the dimension of time. There is an odd anachronism in this though, no constraint of time that aids in capturing the reader.

Glad you made it too. And well told.
This one brought tears, Gary. Your writing, your sensibilites...I need some new're just blowing my mind...

Gary, you have a magical life. You know that don't you? Another absolutely amazing story. I can't imagine the terror and the relief. But the anonymous note. That is the magical, chills down my spine part. What a great story and life you have. Thank you!

This was a moving and transforing story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Wow, Gary. What an amazing story of survival and awareness. I am numb from your intricate details and feelings of stark fear of iminent near death. Solidifies one's belief that there are angels looking out for us in the darkest moments of our lives.
I don't think I drew a breath while i was reading this. what a story. Amazing.
Great, great story, Gary.
I just couldn't stop reading. I love the way this tale circles around itself adding more focus and images. I love your style and skill. And I am grateful that you are ok and still here to tell your tale.

The angel is priceless. You have so many extraordinary iconic images in your life, things that speak of you - things that speak to you.

Bizarrely, many things you write of have details I can personally relate to. Like the guns in this one. My guns and encounters were in Puerto Rico, but that, my friend is a tale for another day - there are so many things I'd write given the time.........
I'd like to know if you have a theory, Gary, about who might have given you the angels watching over you card.
What an incredible narrative. And a happy, amazing ending. I'm so glad I read this.
Gary: I believe angels walk this earth. I truly do. If not how could I be alive? Thank you for this lovely story. I'm glad you didn't get shot in the thighbone.
What a great story, Gary. A riveting read. *Love* the angel picture. Grace is everywhere if you have eyes to see it, (and you do....). Happy Thanks-giving :)
Gary - that was absolutely brilliant. Interestingly enough, I live and work right in the heart of where that all happened. Anyway, absolutely fantastic piece.
Engaging. For a few shining moments, I couldn't hear the kids screaming. That's my highest compliment.

(Thumbified for divine intervention and intact thighbones)
Two posts back to back that have left me almost speechless. Gary, you, well, you just know how to do it, that's all. Thank god you're alive and here with us to tell us about it all.

Everybody, please go read Tom Cordle's song Everybody Dies Too Soon ... a perfect complement to this Justis Gem and other stories going around today.
Ok Gary, now that I've had time to digest this well told tale, I will comment.

First of all, thank God you're alive. The world is better for it.

Secondly I'm glad to hear a story about police officers doing their jobs.

Thirdly - your dog was a champ, you can see it.

You paint a vivid picture my friend. This may have well been fiction straight out of a novel. I definitely felt like I was there, living it vicariously through you. I wonder how often in the 20+ years that this event enters your mind. I would guess often. I would hope not.

Not to sound like a "kiss-ass", but I look forward to your posts more than anyone else on the OS. NO offense meant toward the other brilliant posters on here, with you I just know it's going to be spectacular.

Now, send me my $20.00. ;-)


There is so much good writing here on OS, and so little time to really enjoy it, that I have a tendency to skim. Gary, I read every word. This was riveting. Having had a knife at my throat on two occasions, this story brought back all the fear along with all the adreneline accompanying the moment of release and stupid things I did following.
Excellent. Thanks Gary
Once again, the hair on my arms is standing. :0 Your testimonies are amazing and I think they are meant to be shared. They send a note right to the soul.

I am a believer, and I believe someone is watching over you. :)
You are all dear, supportive friends. When I lived in Pilsen, just south of the Loop in Chicago, it was a marginal neighborhood, full of gangs, bohemians, homeless folk, and societal misfits. Life there was edgy, and had I not been so young, I would have taken less chances, stayed in at night, been much more conservative,.........but I was a "punk", part of that movement of the 70's and 80's. Life was ruled for the most part by emotion and want. I found myself in many strange situations. Trouble and weirdness always seemed to find its way onto the street where I walked, the cafes where I ate, the taverns where I relaxed, and the studio where I worked. there was never anything normal about it. After a while, it all began to harden me. I escaped before it subsumed everything.......

I'm so grateful to all of you. Please let me respond to you all by catching up with your posts and thoughts and threads. It is a continual joy to be a part of this talented and fascinating community.
I absolutely believe in angels ...

Amazing job ... as always!!!
You are an incredible writer.
I always find myself at a loss for words whenever I read your posts.
Thank you for sharing this.
Amazing & wonderful!!!!!

P.S Happy Thanksgiving to you & yours.
Superb story, Gary.
Did you ever find out who made the card?
Thanks again everyone for visiting the story. I'm grateful you all took the time with the holidays approaching.
Several folks have asked if i ever found out who made the card.
To this day I do not know who made the card and delivered it. It is obviously a child's drawing. There were several children who used to visit the studio and hang out while I worked. Sometime their parent would visit and we would have beers and share stories. I think one of the parents encouraged their child to make the card and place it on my stoop. I would imagine they did the same for friends and family in the neighborhood. In my case, the timing was significant. I treasure that card more than most things I have preserved from those days. I feel the benevolent forces at work might still reside to an extent in the card. Maybe it is foolish to feel that way, but the thing that inspired my foolishness delivered me a miracle.

the good and bad of people, you see it clearly- I love reading you
You reek of excellence ;) Love the story! Thumb for not getting shot, especially where you "thought" you were about to be shot...ouch.
A really fascinating read, Gary. I wish you'd asked that cop how he knew about the gun - that fascinated me. That gun, somehow, felt more real and frightening than the one the robber pointed at you, if you know what I mean. And btw, love the title - Thighbone Angel sounds like a gritty old blues tune.
Thank you for taking me to places I honestly haven't traveled. Beautiful story, beautifully told.
Gary - we are all very lucky you are still here, because we get to read your prose once in a while. I wondered who made the card too, but that is now one of your life's imponderables. Maybe better not to know.

Thank you, guardian angel. Ya done good that day.
Oh, PS - agree with the police about the gun. But if it made you feel empowered for that day, I understand your impulse.
that is a amazing story i love it!
I totally agree with what Greg said...Wow! This is written so well, I was so drawn in. The world went away as I was reading this.
Phenomenal! A true mystery story.
I love your writing and your way of integrating so many threads into a full and complete story.
Good writing, you had me right there with a pistol stuck in my crotch. The NRA won and I am to worn out to get into that argument again, and have gone onto other issues. But would it really have made any difference if you had been carrying a gun at the time? I hardly think so. If someone has a gun pointed between my legs I hardly think I would pull a gun on him.
I forgot to add that it is commendable that you took the time to perform your civic duty. It takes time to cooperate with the police, to fill out the paper work, to confront the perpetrator, to offer to testify. And it takes guts to confront your fears.
Awesome story Gary. Glad you are still with us!
Somewhere Algren is giving you the nod my friend. You just nailed it. This just sings. Way to go!
Yet another incredible memoir. I love it, Gary. Thanks.
Wonder-filled. And loved the added photos.

Happy Giving Thanks!

Gary I was shocked to see this top rated for 3 days. (wink, smile).
Just keep on enlightening us, please...
Happy Holidays,
Oh, and by the way my friends, I wrote earlier today about kindness and humility, Gary comes to mind.
Gary, I missed this! A real Thanksgiving treat for me.
Hello everyone, I appreciate all of you commenting and making a wonderful thread of support for this piece.
Each and every one of you are tops in my bring a great deal of goodness to this community.

Some had asked about the derringer pistol I foolishly carried in my glove. This was a small Butler firearm I had purchased at Sears in the early 70's in Wichita, Kansas (imagine how loose the process was then, although I know there are still states where getting guns is still quite easy).

During the time I was in the station, I thought about ditching it in the station's bathroom. I excused myself and found the bathroom to be stark, with no hiding places, and with the hour being so late, I was one of very few people filing reports that morning. I knew they would find it, and naturally know it was mine. I think they just thought I was odd, because I kept my gloves on. As I had said, I eventually slipped them off and stuffed them into my coat pockets. The detective's comment later on was either coincidental, or he felt my jacket earlier without my knowledge, either way, the comment was chilling.

I hope I can connect with each of you through our email.
Thanks again everyone.

Another wonderful story, Gary. I'm truly thankful for you.
Gary, I'm a little late getting around to this, but add me to the growing list of glowing admirers. Magic. Absolute Magic. (The writing.) As to the facts as you lived them, you know where I am coming from: Its called grace.

Incredible. Believable, but incredible in the awe-inspiring sense. Wow! Whatta story. Thanks.

Thank you for sharing your heart with us--I can so clearly see your fear in the story and admitting to your fear is a humbling thing. Blessings to you and many more angels alongside your paths.
"Wow" and "spellbinding" from me, too!
Shows you the power of FB. Rated, of course. Helluva piece, Gary. Nice l'l Christmas blessing. Cheers.
This was divine, in many ways. I'm so glad I had the good luck to catch it. That sudden warmth you felt - when I got to the end I felt it too. And I love your 1979 Xmas tree. Good tidings to you.