Battle Scars

Big John hustles on the streets of Montrose. He's been there since he was 13. For now, there's no plan B.

We've just walked up and down the Montrose on an August day so hot you can hear the heat, and Big John is sitting in a bar with his shirt off. He leans back in a crappy chair, half-finished Busch in hand, and starts talking scars.

"Surgery," he says, tracing his hand lengthwise across his stomach. He's been laced up like a football, complete with a center stripe and two rows of dots. It's from a fight that started right outside the same dive we're sitting in. This is where John works his hustle, looking for johns, with a lower-case j.

It happened about six weeks before, with plenty of onlookers. A friend had come in asking John to find him a drag queen.

Big John prefers to work his hustle indoors…
Daniel Kramer
Big John prefers to work his hustle indoors…
…but sometimes a conversation is just a 
Daniel Kramer
…but sometimes a conversation is just a conversation.

"He promises 40 fucking bucks cash money to me if I can hook him up," he says.

Lucky for his friend, there was a drag queen just across the bar, talking to some older dude John had never seen before. John wasn't paying them much attention, he says, but then the dude came around the bar and started shouting, "What's my name? What's my name?"

Now the dude was either crazy drunk or John did something to provoke him, and he's not telling. The world may never know.

These two took it out in the street, away from John's place of business. A bunch of hustlers gathered around as shirts came off and dukes were raised.

"I throw him up," says John. "The first time I hit the guy, he's dazed and he drops everything in his hand."

That's when he noticed the knife on the guy's keychain. The blade was open, and it was bloody. John had been stabbed twice, once in the stomach and once in the spleen. He would eventually end up at Ben Taub Hospital, after refusing the ambulance once -- "too expensive" -- and calling for it again. But at the moment all he wanted to do was kick that guy's ass.

John's boys had the guy surrounded when the po-po rolled up. A cop got out of the car and asked John who had stabbed him.

"The only motherfucker out there with his shirt off and a knife in his hand, screaming," he replied.

The guy with the knife told the cop he wanted John dead, guaranteeing himself an aggravated charge, and got hauled off to jail. John went to the hospital and was laid up for ten days.

"See, I don't have a belly button anymore," he says, flexing his sweaty abs.

Big John's got plenty more scars and plenty more stories to tell, but he gets distracted when a chubby guy walks up to the table and gives him a big wet kiss on the forehead. John groans and grabs the guy's upper thigh. They start licking and rubbing each other, and I can't help but wonder if some of this is for my benefit, to see if I'll flinch.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's go back to the beginning.

The Montrose has been a bohemian neighborhood since the early '60s, back when a bunch of queer folks moved in and started fixing up the area's bungalows and other houses. With the arrival of the hippies a few years later, the place became the Southern Mecca of Never Say Never.

Street culture was a natural by-product of this freewheeling milieu, and gay and lesbian kids began immigrating en masse, a lot of them runaways or throwaways. They came to the Montrose for the clubs, but they often stayed for the drugs.

So it was for decades, until the urban real estate boom of the '90s, the boomerang effect of white flight. The yuppies rolled in and started "cleaning up the neighborhood," lobbying for something to be done about all the people on the streets and all the crime in their backyards.

For many purists, the final stroke came in 2000 when the Westheimer Street Festival was relocated to Allen Parkway after a dozen residents complained about trash and illegal activity. WestFest had been a Montrose staple for 29 years.

Now homeowners in Avondale, the subdivision smack-dab in the middle of the gayborhood, have obtained enough signatures to petition the city to enact a "civility ordinance." It would be similar to the measure passed three years ago for downtown and extended last year to Midtown, a tactic that basically just moved the homeless population down the road. What Avondale homeowners say they want to see is an end to the prostitution and drug-dealing.

These sentiments hit a crescendo two months ago when the owner of a Pacific Street apartment complex circulated a flyer saying, among other things, "We all share in the problems of litter, prostitution, drugs, and worse…We need to STOP THE ENABLERS. Stop Interfaith Ministries, Covenant House, and other community services from enabling homeless young people to stay on the streets."

The flyer announced a town hall meeting, which was attended by Mayor Bill White, City Councilwoman Ada Edwards, Police Chief Harold Hurtt and several hundred Montrose residents.

At that meeting, representatives from the area's social service agencies said they were doing all they could, that they definitely were not doing more harm than good. They'd set up shop in the area because that's where the problems were, they said, and not vice versa. They couldn't understand how anyone could fault them for giving out sandwiches and offering free medical advice.

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