After the dramatic Memorial Day, 1974 turnaround in sales that I mentioned in last month's installment of this column, I was thrilled to escape from the Minneapolis show with $300 in my pocket, and a slew of back issue comics that my Colorado customers had not yet seen. I certainly didn't get rich at that show, but after arriving with less than $2 in my pocket, I most assuredly felt upon leaving that I had dodged the proverbial bullet of insolvency. I not only had enough money to purchase gas to get home to Colorado, but also enough to pay for the table I had reserved at the upcoming convention in Houston. Success was starting to come my way!
When I arrived back in Colorado, I immediately visited with a few of the more avid comics fans, and sold them a few of the books I had picked up in Minneapolis. I also wholesaled a few issues to the four comics shops that had sprung up in Denver by 1974. One company, in particular, figures into this story, as the Middle Earth Comics shop was an offshoot of the infamous Middle Earth portfolio publishing company. I use the term "infamous" because Middle Earth eventually left hundreds (if not thousands...) of comics fans with unfilled prepaid orders for portfolios that Middle Earth vigorously advertised, but never actually got around to printing. During the summer of 1974, however, Middle Earth was riding high on the success of their first five portfolios, all of which had sold out in very short order and were commanding a significant premium in the secondary market.
My relationship with Middle Earth was a bit tenuous, as the owners never really took me seriously. They knew I was sleeping at night on top of my comics inventory in the back of my old 1963 Chevy Impala, so I guess I can't really blame them for thinking that I was relatively insignificant. They liked me, however, so they let me sleep in the hallway of one of the rooming houses they owned in Denver a couple of times. Not a great situation, but better than sleeping in the car... There was one unexpected side effect, however, of my relationship with Middle Earth. I later heard that the rooming house that I slept in was under FBI surveillance due to some other activities that the Middle Earth owners were alleged to have been engaging in during the early 1970's. That meant that I apparently had my own FBI file, complete with pictures. I've never seen it, but I was told it was there. Not fun.
While the Middle Earth guys will figure in much more a little later in this story, I want now to tell the story of getting slashed with a knife in Houston. After spending time in Colorado, I drove at the end of June, 1974 to Houston. As per usual, I arrived in Houston with almost no money. Blessedly, however, I found some other dealers willing to let me sleep on the floor of their room in the swanky downtown hotel where the convention was located. I had a single table in the second floor auxiliary dealer's room, but that worked out pretty well on the Friday of the show, so I had no complaints. In fact, thanks to the camaraderie of my roommates, I was actually having a very enjoyable show. On Friday evening we left the convention together to find cheap food, and located a fantastic little taco place just three blocks from the hotel. Life was good.
On Saturday the convention opened up to decent crowds and sales off of my one table were brisk. At 1 PM, however, the convention organizers closed down the dealer's room so as to focus everyone's attention on an auction they were holding in the main ballroom. Now I can't imagine a convention that could get away with closing down the dealer's room at a show during such a premium time period these days, but things were quite different in 1974. In any event, since I really didn't have any money to piddle away at the auction, I decided to return alone to the cheap taco stand in order to grab a cheap lunch. That turned out to be a big mistake, as I was accosted by a very aggressive panhandler on the way back to the hotel. He demanded that I give him a quarter, which I declined to do. He then accused me of being a racist, and only not giving him money because he was black. I told him that race had nothing to do with it, but rather that I was poor myself, and never gave away my money.
As I walked away, I thought that was the end of the incident. That proved to be completely wrong, as I suddenly heard running behind me as I got to within a block of the hotel. I thought the guy was going to snatch my wallet, so I instinctively reached behind me to hold it in its pocket. To my shock, however, the guy instead used a large pocketknife to slash me down the back. At first my reaction was one of complete amazement, as I simply couldn't believe that anyone would attack me over a quarter. When I moved my hand up from my wallet pocket to the back of my shirt, however, my hand came away covered in blood. I turned around to face the guy, and he stood there glaring at me holding a bloody knife. While I was desperately trying to figure out whether to fight or flee this incredibly surreal moment occurred, as a businessman in a suit carrying a briefcase walked by our little mini-drama on the sidewalks of Houston without even batting an eye. His brief presence did seem to break the spell of the moment, and with no warning the panhandler turned away from me and ran away.
While the cut in my back stung a little, it wasn't particularly deep. It was deep enough that I still carry a thin white scar down my back, but mostly it just cause me to bleed all over the back of my shirt. It was in this condition that I returned to the hotel. I immediately went to the front desk and asked the man at the counter to call the police. He asked me if I was staying in the hotel, and when I answered "No," he told me that he couldn't call anyone to help me, but that I could use the pay phones on the other side of the lobby. My adventure didn't end there, as when I called the Houston police to report the incident I ended up in a heated exchange with the dispatcher. She insisted that she had to send an ambulance for me, and I insisted that I didn't need one. She finally shut up when I told her that I had absolutely no money, and that I would never pay the ambulance bill.
When the policemen finally arrived I found that his sympathy was almost nonexistent. He didn't even want to take a report, and when I insisted that we go for a drive to try and find the guy who sliced me his main concern was that I was going to get blood all over the seats of his cruiser. He finally found a plastic covering to put over the seat, and drove me around the block a few times before dumping me out in front of the hotel. He seemed not at all interested in the fact that the guy who slashed me had on a work shirt that had the name of a business, and his name. Clearly, since I was an out-of-town kid with no money, he wasn't going to waste his time trying to solve such an insignificant case.
Once I got back to the hotel I returned to the dealer's room, which by this time was back open. Since my back didn't hurt very much, I was determined to go ahead and work through the rest of the day. My fellow dealers came to me about 15 minutes after I arrived, however, and asked me to please go upstairs and clean up. It seems that my oozing back wound was freaking out some of the customers. With another dealer (Bob Wayne?) watching my merchandise, I ran upstairs to wash my wound. I managed to stop most of the bleeding with cold water, so that when I returned to the dealer's room my shirt only had a small bloodstain in the middle. My back did hurt like heck the next day, however, and it was a very uncomfortable return drive back to Colorado. I survived, however, and ended up with enough money to buy a table at the upcoming San Diego convention. That would be the show that really changed my life.
As a postscript to this story, the Houston convention organizers were so incensed when they heard that the hotel refused to help me that they walked out on their contract, and never again returned to that hotel. Some later Houstoncons did lease that particular hotel, but that was long after the original organizers quit the business.
To be continued...
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