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.
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.
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.
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.
An angel hovered over a house. The paper was folded. I opened it.
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.
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.
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.
Southeast corner of Jefferson and 18th Street, Chicago