I wander into the Lone Star Saloon (1900 Travis, 713-757-1616) on a Thursday night and immediately notice two things: tension, and a plump-lipped transvestite two-stepping with a hipster girl.
I sit down at the bar. Next to me is a guy who, without any prompting, tells me his name is Billy. Billy, it turns out, is hitch-hiking from the East Coast to California and claims to have had his musical ambitions ruined because he attended high school with Jon Bon Jovi. In front of Billy is a half-full pitcher of beer and a full pint glass, the latter of which he occasionally picks up and waves around in tight circles before again placing it on the bar, without having taken a drink.
The bartender comes over, and I order a beer.
The Lone Star Saloon
"You aren't gonna steal my tip jar, are you?"
I rifle through my wallet and mumble, "Well, I'll try not to."
"No, seriously," she says, dropping a can of beer on the bar and pushing it toward me. "Some guy just ran out of here with my tip jar 15 minutes ago."
He had apparently arrived at the Lone Star a couple of hours before me. He was from the same neck of the Tennessee woods as the bartender, Mikki, and was -- by all accounts -- utterly charming. He even bought Mikki a drink in addition to treating the regulars. "The guy spent over $100 in cash," says Mikki. Then he stood up, scooped up a tip jar containing about $35 and hauled ass south on Travis.
"Billy chased him," Mikki says, and smiles at Bon Jovi's arch-nemesis. Pride oozes from Billy's grin. He winks at me, then waves his glass a bit and leans harder on the bar.
"Damn straight, I chased him," Billy pipes up. "That asshole was wrong. You just don't do that to people."
"So I tried to call the owner, but he didn't answer," Mikki tells me. "I called my uncle Archie, instead. He brought his gun."
I look over at Archie, a blue-coveralls-wearing senior citizen whose tall, lean frame is sitting five stools to my right, glaring into space from under a cap. Uncle Archie doesn't acknowledge my presence or even the presence of the bar. I wonder if Archie even knows where he is, and sincerely hope he forgot to load his gun before he came to Mikki's rescue.
This is Mikki's fourth night working at the Lone Star, though she's been tending bar for 24 years.
"Well, you're in downtown now," mutters Billy. He nudges me and points with his chin toward the door. The two-steppers are closing their tab. Billy leans over and whispers, "They're both guys. I bet you anything. Both of them. Guys." He then nods sagely and stumbles to the jukebox.
I take a mouthful of beer and gaze at Mikki, clueless as to how I should respond to all of this.
"And if that thief does come back..." Mikki reaches under the bar. Her right hand comes up with an ax handle. "This happened to me once before, years ago. That time, I was ready. I threw my bottle opener and nailed him right in the back of the head. Fourteen staples."
A Tom Petty tune comes on the jukebox. Mikki cocks her head at Billy, who reciprocates through his haze and serenades her.
"This is my song," she says.
"Thought so," Billy says. Lift beer...wield beer...replace beer.
Mikki's face explodes in shock.
"Oh my GOD!" she says. "Guess what, you guys?"
I pull closer to the bar. Billy leans in, too, along with the bar's only other customers, Joseph and Sarge, a 60-year-old veteran who, at last call, will do flawless one-armed push-ups for entirely unknown reasons. Archie sits in the corner and watches Letterman.
Mikki pulls a slip of paper from her jeans pocket. She unfolds the paper and reveals what appears to be the name and phone number of the thief. He gave it to her hours before the heist.
"What a dumbass," chuckles Joseph.
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"No. He wasn't a dumbass," Mikki disagrees. "He was just high as a kite, that's all."
Joseph scoots forward an empty pint glass. "So he's a drug addict."
"I guess," says Mikki.
This all seems too much for Billy. He slides his half-full pitcher in front of me, with a Ziploc bag of ice sticking out of it -- a beacon of Mikki's hospitality -- and slaps me on the back before hugging Mikki and disappearing into the night.