Down But Not Out in Space City

Phil Gammage
16 min readSep 5, 2023

Two young women (best friends) in the early 70s live in a world of music, bikers, rednecks, pigs (law enforcement), and exotic dancers.

© Retrohound Flickr

“Got a light?”

“Sure. I may as well have one too.”

Melissa and Dolores stood together outside in a downtown parking lot. About 20 yards in front of them was a 1930s-era building now known as the live music club Liberty Hall, where they both had worked that night as waitresses. It was 2:30 a.m., and Liberty Hall was officially closed though a few employees and musicians were still in the club having a nightcap. The two friends had stepped outside to have a smoke and catch up with each other.

It was one of those late spring Houston nights that felt like you were already in the depths of summer. The air was so thick with the oppressive Gulf Coast humidity that you felt like you were breathing an ocean. A person could work up a sweat just standing there, even in the supposedly cooler early morning hours before sunrise.

“What was up with that table you had … the one with the guy in the cowboy hat?” asked Dolores.

“Oh that one, that guy is from Austin. He is such a jackass. He shows up here every couple of months with his buddies; I guess they’re all from Austin too. I don’t know what their thing is … they drink a lot and tip well but what pricks, what an attitude. They must know Sean from somewhere before because he puts up with their crap even though I complain about them every time they’re here. I wish they’d stay up in Austin — there’s plenty going on up there … maybe even more than here. Don’t come down here and give us your shit, and make sure you never come back to Liberty again. Next time I’m going to ask Sean to give that guy’s table to you ha ha.”

“No way sista. I got enough troubles for both of us without your spillover.” Dolores laughed. “You think Angela is going to make it with that singer tonight?”

“Don’t know, I think they’re both still talking in there. She was telling me about him earlier. I think they know each other from before.’” Melissa points toward the club in front of them. “He is kinda cute.”

The women took drags off their Marlboros. Both were tired and a little spaced out after being on their feet since 6 p.m. It had been a busy night: not sold out, but almost. Liberty Hall had opened up earlier that year and it was starting to catch on; the crowds were getting larger every week it seemed. For a Thursday night the women had done well with their tips waiting tables and both were happy about that.

“You dancing at Booby this weekend?” asked Melissa. Dolores, in addition to waitressing, was a dancer at Booby Rock topless bar.

“Yeah, definitely Saturday and I think tomorrow too, I gotta confirm that with them in the morning. That’s where I want to work full time eventually. I’m gonna stick around here at least through the summer though.” Dolores took another pull off her Marlboro. “Gotta keep an eye on this joint for Mr. John in San Antone.” She nods toward the Liberty Hall building. John was a family friend who was one of the investors in Liberty Hall. “He put up alotta money to get this place going and he got me this job with Sean. I owe him that much at least. I may go there on Sunday and stay over at my mother’s. She’s been bugging me to visit.”

“Go where … go to San Antonio? How’s she been getting along lately?”

“Not too bad I think, but it’s always good to check in and see for myself every now and then. Otherwise I’ll never really know. She paints a rosy picture of everything even when it’s not.”

“I get it. I’m lucky I guess since my Dad lives here. He’s cool as long as he doesn’t just casually drop in on Sonny and I unannounced. He’s done that a couple of times and I let him know it was not okay. I told him, hey Daddy-o knock before entering!” Both women laughed. “Something I’ve been meaning to ask you — I know you make better money at Booby, but do you have to work harder there?”

“Oh it’s harder at Booby, but when you’re bringing home $200–400 cash a night who cares. Occasionally I’ll make $500. Two different shifts, 11–6 day or 6–2 night. I’ve got some regulars who like me. Then there are the loser types. Some of them are big spenders though and it’s part of the job. At Booby we have waitresses, but not all the clubs do. You get 50% from the drink sales, which start at about $6 per drink. A bottle can be as high as $200. There’s a less-lit area in the back where some of the girls can take a customer for a one-on-one, if you’re into doing that.

But yeah, it’s a different scene than here for sure. One thing the bouncers will do if you ask them is walk you to your car when we close up. I’ve heard some bad stories about dancers getting attacked at other topless places in town, like what happened at Club 21 a few weeks ago.” Dolores was referring to a different Houston topless bar downtown. “I mean, here we are alone outside in the middle of the night and does Sean have anyone out here looking after us?” Dolores gestured toward the two of them.

Lukes, William (photographer). “Downtown Houston photographs 1970–1972.” (1970) Rice University

“Really though, despite all the bullshit I have to put up with there the money is sooo much better at Booby. Why — are you thinking about dancing?”

Melissa laughed “No, not yet anyway. I’ve always wondered about it …it is tempting.”

The two women again drifted off from their conversation, standing together smoking, relaxing, and enjoying each other’s company in silence. They were tight friends and could tell each other anything — almost anything that is. Melissa started to think apprehensively about a meeting she had that coming Sunday with a narcotics detective from the Houston Police — a result of her pot bust a couple of years ago. One of the requirements of her probation was that she meet with him every couple of weeks and update him on her efforts to find out who the big-time drug dealers were in the city’s hippie community. She was to report them to him, and the police would then arrest them.

She struggled with doing that and though she knew of a couple of local dealers she could never get it together to report on them. For the first several months the detective had been laid back and put little pressure on her, but recently he’d been putting the screws to her and had become extremely pushy. He told her the police needed to start seeing results from her information and he was starting to make vague threats about revoking her probation. She was disgusted with herself for having to be an undercover narc informant for the police, but felt she had little choice and that she was backed into a corner. She would be in prison doing time if she hadn’t agreed to be a narc, she knew they’d had a strong case and could easily have convicted her for marijuana possession. No one, not even her best friend Dolores, knew about her arrest and probation. All of this had gone down a month or so before she met Sonny. She imagined he must have some suspicions that something was up, but he had never confronted her about it. She hoped he never would.

“Hey what’s going on with you girl?” Dolores asked. “You were in another place out there.”

“Oh I was kinda zoning out there for a sec. Got a lot on my mind I guess.“

“Anything going on with Sonny and his garage plans?”

Sonny was Melissa’s live-in ‘old man’ as she called him. They’d been together for a couple of years and he was in love with her. She often debated in her mind how she felt about him. She knew she cared and had strong feelings for him, but she never felt she was as devoted to him as he was to her. Still, she couldn’t imagine life without him. He was a tall, lanky Texan, originally from southwest Houston with some years spent living in Lake Charles. Everyone liked him: her father, her brother, and even Dolores, who in the past had always been critical of her boyfriends. Sonny was a gentle soul who was easygoing toward everyone and he was always there for her, but Melissa was not certain whether he was ‘the one’ for her. She wasn’t sure what the future held for the two of them as a couple.

Sonny had joined the Army when he was 19 before Vietnam had escalated, and was lucky to have been stationed in Germany and not ‘Nam. While stationed in Stuttgart, he’d learned to be a mechanic and he brought those skills back with him to Houston after his tour ended.

He worked at his friend Charlie’s auto and motorcycle repair shop a couple of blocks in from their house in Montrose. Melissa liked Charlie, but his shop had become the go-to place for the local biker gangs and their bikes in repair. Unless it was some sort of emergency and she had to talk to Sonny in person about something important, she made it a point to stay away from there.

Melissa took one last drag of her cigarette and answered Dolores’ question about Sonny. “Not too much actually, just the usual talk. He wants to do it but he needs a kick in the ass to make some moves — that’s just how he is. Charlie treats him real well … he’s doing okay there and doesn’t have to work too hard unless one of those Bandito assholes shows up and wants some work done that very day on his bike. One of them … Terry, well he’s not in the Banditos but he runs with them … he’s coming to stay with us for a couple of days later in the month. He just got out of Huntsville a few weeks ago and is an old Army bud of Sonny’s. I’ve never met him but I wish he wasn’t coming over. An ex-con biker … Jesus, just what I need in my life. Most of Sonny’s friends I like, but his type I can do without.

Lukes, William (photographer). “Downtown Houston photographs 1970–1972.” (1970) Rice University

I don’t know, maybe Sonny isn’t cut out to be a boss and run his own shop. He needs a partner, an investor to help him get it started up. I can’t see him getting a bank loan, but who knows … he should probably go and ask. He’s a veteran for Christ’s sake, that has to be good for something right? It’s that or work for Charlie for the rest of his life.” Melissa sighs. “The thing is he’s really a good mechanic, one of the best in town at what he does. The bikers all know that and they’re always requesting for him to be their mechanic. He’s making Charlie a lot of money, but he could be doing better for himself at his own garage. Maybe someday … .” Melissa’s voice trailed out at the end.

“What was this dude Terry in Huntsville for?”

“Sonny told me a few days ago, but I can’t remember exactly. Breaking and entering … or burglary … something like that? I don’t think it was drugs. He got out early on parole so he has to behave — you know how that is. I’ll tell you more about him after I meet him; who knows — maybe you’d like him. We can all hang out sometime if you want.” Melissa was always trying to find a man for Dolores, and usually it was a friend of Sonny’s that she would try to set her up with.

Dolores sighed. “My friend from high school Robin is living with one of them. The stuff she tells me, their parties and so on. He beats up on her too, I see the marks on her all the time, even with her makeup. I think she’s crazy, but she’s too far gone for me to talk any sense into to her. No way I’d put up with that kind of shit. Why don’t the pigs hassle them instead of people like us? They’re dealing crank and stealing bikes is what I’ve heard.

I don’t know … I’ve heard they like hippies and hate rednecks, but I haven’t seen them treating anyone real well. Bikers and rednecks, who needs ’em. I sure don’t!” Both women laughed.

Melissa thought for a minute and then said “You know, something really odd happened to me the other day I gotta tell you about. I can’t get it out of my mind … still trying to figure it out. I was riding my bicycle down Hazard, coming back from the store with some groceries. It was late afternoon. This pig starts following behind me and then he puts on his lights so I had to pull over. Me on my bicycle and he’s driving his patrol car.”

“Out of the car steps this younger guy, and I gotta say he was one hunk of a man. Not my type of course, but man, he was built in the right places. He reminded me of that actor Burt Reynolds, do you know who that is?” Dolores nodded.

“Anyway, I’m standing there next to my bicycle waiting for him and he walks up and says ‘Hello miss are you aware that you just ran that red stop light back there?’ He’s pointing toward Westheimer Road behind us. I said no and that I was sorry if I did, thinking I better be extra polite cause I sure didn’t need a ticket. But what kind of pig would pull me over for some bullshit thing like that … a bicycle running a stop light on a side street like Hazard? Is that even against the law? And if it is, is it even enforced?

Then he asked to see my license and at the same time he started to chat me up and get a little friendly. I was nervous and played along with him but I’m thinking to myself, what the hell is going on? He’s standing there holding my license and we’re chatting about nothing important. Just making the gab about what I’m cooking that night with the groceries, how much more he likes Houston than Dallas, how he doesn’t like giving traffic violation tickets to bicyclists but the department makes him and he doesn’t want to get in any trouble. That went on for a few minutes. Then he got a little more friendly, and he asked me if I have a boyfriend or if I was married. I was thinking, this pig is hitting on me, a hippie chick from Montrose on a bicycle. Is this for real? I was almost laughing except I had to stay calm and keep it in control. He could have been some kind of psycho for all I knew. But he was kinda nice.” Melissa giggles.

“I ended up telling him I was married and I had a baby waiting for me at home, just to get him off my scent. He seemed to buy it — I mean why wouldn’t he believe me? He stood there for a while, not saying anything and looking down at the ground. After for what seemed like ages he still hadn’t said anything and I kept waiting for him to tell me I could go. Finally I asked him if it was okay for me to leave as I needed to get moving and get back home to my baby. He seemed to snap out of it then, and he returned my license to me. “Yes ma’am, you do that. Just remember to watch those red stop lights in the future.” Can you believe that happened?”

Dolores stood for a few seconds with her mouth open and then started to laugh. “Well look at you girl. Ain’t you the little red hot tamale. You nearly roped yourself a stud movie star law man and you weren’t even trying to do it. He could have come in handy for you someday if you ever needed a little help down at the precinct house … should you get hauled in for something or another.

You did the right thing; you don’t want to get mixed up with a man like that. They see a cute hippie girl and they instantly think they’re always ready to put out. Can you imagine it … ‘The hippie and the piggie. The romance that was never meant to be’.” Dolores found Melissa’s story extremely funny and was laughing so hard she could barely talk. “They ought to make a movie out of it … starring Burt Reynolds!”

No one could make Melissa laugh like Dolores, but she shuddered when she heard the words precinct house. What Dolores didn’t know and could not find out was that Melissa had already spent a night in jail there after her arrest. After that anytime she interacted with any police she was uptight as hell.

“I don’t know what his deal was other than he was just another good looking horny dude, only this time with a badge. The whole thing creeped me out. I was too wound up and couldn’t go home right away afterward so I rode over to El Cid and drank a margarita to calm my nerves. In fact, I drank two.” Both women laughed.

Lukes, William (photographer). “Downtown Houston photographs 1970–1972.” (1970) Rice University

“Hey look — is that the new girl? She’s walking our way.” Dolores nodded toward a woman headed in their direction. She had long straight blond hair parted down the middle and was wearing a halter top with hip-hugger bell-bottom blue jeans. It was Sarah, the new employee who had started working with them last week.

“Hi ya’ll. What’s shaking?” she asked in a thick southern accent as she stepped up to join them.

“Hey there. Just chilling and having a smoke. Long night. How’d it go for you?” inquired Melissa.

“Kinda slow in the beginning, then it got busy, and then it got slow again at the end. Sean hasn’t given me too many tables yet. I can understand … I just started.”

Dolores looks around the parking lot and remarked “You’ll get in the flow of things soon enough. Sean’s a good boss but he can get a little moody sometimes. When he’s like that I just avoid him as much as I can. You’ll get good at reading him. You’re from Mobile, or Houston, or both? Sorry, I can’t remember our conversation last week.”

“Well yeah, I’m from both I suppose. I was born here and lived with my mother and brother growing up. We lived off Richmond and I went to Lanier for junior high. Then I moved to Mobile and lived with my father through high school. Now I’m back here with my mother except she’d moved and now has an apartment in Westbury. It’s a big drag out there, nowhere I want to go to and none of my friends are close. I’m hoping to get my own place this summer. You two let me know if you hear of anyone that’s looking for a roommate, okay?”

“Yeah sure. So what’s the plan, to be a professional barmaid at Liberty or get your PhD from Rice?” Melissa chimed in, laughing.

“Oh you’re a funny one, listen to you.” Sarah said with a grin. “Honestly, I don’t know yet. I’m kinda getting myself reacquainted with it here. I was gone for five years, but damn, it sure has changed a lot. Everyone seems paranoid and uptight. A good friend of mine was busted for one joint over at Allen’s Landing last month. He could end up getting twenty years. It’s nuts … the pigs versus Space City… it’s like there’s a war is going on.”

Melissa nodded in agreement and added “The last year or so it’s gotten to be a heavy scene with the pigs. If you’re a guy with long hair and they get their hands on you they can beat you up pretty badly, I have friends who’ve had it happen to them. I was just telling Dolores before about this weird pig who was hassling me a few days ago. We gotta stick together. It’s gotten bad and it’s getting worse.”

Dolores looked for something in her purse and asked sarcastically “My dear Sarah … you’re not a narc, are you? Are you an undercover policewoman for Commissioner Herman Short?”

“What the fuck?” Sarah didn’t get the joke. “What the hell are you talking about? No … is that supposed to be funny? Cause it’s not.”

Dolores pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette and showed it to the other two women. “Well speak of the devil. Mr. Reefer has been in my purse all day and he’s asking us to get lit up. Anyone care to join?”

“Oh lord help us, look what the sister brought to the party. Why don’t we step over near the wall where it’s darker.” Melissa motioned for the other two women to walk toward a brick wall with her on the other side of the parking lot. One never knew when a patrol car could come cruising around the corner. “Fire her up, lady.”

For several minutes the three women stood there in silence, passing the joint around, taking their drags, and feeling the effects kick in. It felt good to just stand there after a busy night.

“Whatcha got going this weekend?” Dolores asked Melissa.

“I think Sonny and I are going to Milby Park on Sunday afternoon — taking a little wine and smoke with us. Nothing too ambitious, just kicking back and listening to some bands. In a few weeks it will be too hot to go there; it already is actually. What are you doing Saturday night? Maybe we’ll meet you at Booby when you get off and we’ll go to the Family Hand. Lightnin’ has been playing there lately, I bet he’ll be there … or whoever. They always have good people playing. They stay open late, like till 4 a.m.”

“Yeah, I know, I’ve been there at 4 a.m., too many times to count.” Dolores chuckles and rolls her eyes. “Sure, it sounds like a plan. I’m working the night shift that night. I should be finished by two.”

The three women stood in silence together, passing the joint between them. Melissa pulled a pachouli oil bottle out of her purse and dabbed a little on her neck. Many of the local young women used it to mask the odor of pot smoke on themselves.

“Hey — let me have a little of that,” asked Sarah.

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Phil Gammage

Artist, producer, songwriter, excellent Mexican food enthusiast, collector of assorted memorabilia.