Brave and Selfless

June 1998By Comments

OUR FRIEND JAN REID has never pushed his way into the spotlight. He’s not shy exactly, and he’s too self-confident to be truly self-effacing; but he is reserved and observant, someone you are more likely to find moving around the edge of a party rather than creating a spectacle in the center. He is a large, athletic man with natural grace. You know instinctively you can trust him, precisely because he does not push himself on you or allude to his accomplishments, which are many. He has written countless stories for Texas Monthly, beginning with our earliest issues in 1973 and continuing to the present, as well as four books and numerous articles for other publications. He never writes falsely. His work always rests on sincere belief. I’m sure the thought of fame and riches is as attractive to him as it is to anyone, but he doesn’t write with that thought in mind. He says what he wants to say, the way he wants to say it. After that, his work stands on its own. All this makes it odd that he should now be better known for a piece of bad luck that has become an international incident than for what he has done and believed for 25 years.

About one in the morning on April 20, Jan was shot during a robbery in Mexico City. The bullet went through his left wrist into his abdomen and lodged against vertebrae in his lower spine. He is now in a rehabilitation hospital in Houston, working to restore the use of his legs.

Jan went to Mexico on Friday, April 17, along with Michael Hall, an associate editor at Texas Monthly; John Spong, an assistant editor; and David Courtney, who is a mutual friend and once worked at the magazine as an intern. They went to see Jesus Chavez, a contender for the super featherweight world title, fight for the first time in many months. Jan had written a story about Jesus titled “The Contender” for our April issue that recounted the fighter’s Mexican birth, American upbringing, youthful trouble with the law, and eventual deportation. As the story makes clear, their relationship was much closer than the usual one between an author and his subject. Jan and Jesus are friends. Jan has always liked boxing and boxers and working out at a boxing gym. He had trained with Jesus when the fighter lived in Austin, and the young man’s personal charm and charisma, combined with the ups and downs of his life, appealed to Jan. Michael Hall had edited “The Contender,” and John Spong had checked the facts. The two of them became entranced by the story. As the date for Jesus’ fight drew near, they, along with David Courtney, decided to use the fight as a reason for a long weekend together in Mexico City.

They knew that Mexico City could be dangerous for tourists. They didn’t want to ignore the warnings, but they refused to be intimidated by them. They all had spent time in Mexico and knew enough Spanish to get by. Even when a friend living in the city underscored the warnings by revealing that he had been robbed several times himself, the four travelers still felt confident. Saturday passed without incident. That night at the fight, which Jesus won with a third-round knockout, the crowd was raucous but not particularly threatening. On Sunday morning the four went to Chapultepec Park, the anthropology museum, and the Zócalo. Everyone had told them never to take the ubiquitous green Volkswagen bug taxis. They adhered strictly to that warning and had even found one driver—in a red cab—who took special pains to steer them clear of trouble.

After dinner Sunday night they decided to go to the Plaza Garibaldi to celebrate David Courtney’s thirty-second birthday. They drank and sang with the mariachis until af ter midnight. Although they are four fairly strapping guys, they were now four fairly drunk strapping guys who must have attracted the attention of all the thieves who lurk in the shadows around the plaza. As they were leaving, they were hailed by cabbies. They waved off a green VW bug and took the second cab in line. Although green, it was not a VW bug but a sedan of some kind; besides, the day and the evening had been so enjoyable that it seemed nothing bad could happen after all. Unfortunately, a tourist in Mexico City should never feel safe. Since the beginning of the year, reported attacks on foreign and Mexican tourists in the city have doubled to more than twenty a day. How many go unreported is anyone’s guess. Some residents in affluent neighborhoods will not travel without armed bodyguards. The police provide no safety. In fact, the robbers are often policemen themselves or former policemen. A study of a Mexican police academy that was released a few days after the attack on Jan reported that most police candidates were thugs whose goals once on the force were extortion and taking bribes. If they caught a robber, according to the report, it was only to steal for themselves what had already been stolen.

Inside the green cab, Michael Hall sat in the front, next to the driver. In the back, John Spong sat behind the driver, David Courtney on the passenger side, and Jan Reid in the middle. They were staying at a friend’s apartment and had been to and from it enough times that they knew what they should see along the way. Instead, the driver took them through a dark, unfamiliar neighborhood. Jan said he was uneasy, but after a while they seemed to be on more familiar streets and they relaxed.

But without their noticing, they were followed by a green VW bug. After about ten minutes, their cab stopped suddenly, and two armed men burst from the VW and into their cab. The men made a point of showing off their guns. One, grossly fat, with dark hair and a dark mustache, sat on David in the back seat. He said nothing and tried to hide his face in his shoulder. The other squeezed in over Michael in the front seat. He was clearly the leader. He looked to be in his early thirties and was wearing a red shirt. He had long, defined features and was, according to Jan, “handsome in a street-thug way.” He spoke English fairly well. Amid much confusion, shouting, and profanity, he demanded their money and watches. Jan had money and a watch, and Michael had a watch. They handed the robbers their meager take. As they did, the man in the front kept shouting “Shut up!” and then, incongruously, after drawing the gun across Michael’s eyes, he would shout “Go to sleep! Go to sleep!”

The cabdriver was speeding through unknown streets of the city. At some point he got on a freeway. The ride went on and on. “What’s the point of all this?” Jan started asking the robber. “Todo. You’ve got all you want.”

“Shut up! Shut up!” the robber shouted, hitting Jan several times in the face with his pistol. Then Jan thought he said, “We’re going to separate you.” The cabdriver pulled into a dark neighborhood and stopped.

There now arose a kind of technical problem in that two men were trying to control four. The leader got out first and then Michael. The fat robber in the back got out. As David got out, the fat man hit him on the head with his gun, but David managed to elude his grasp and ran across the street to relative safety. John got out on his side of the cab with no one paying him much attention. As Jan got out, the main robber grabbed his arm in a tight grip. Their positions were awkward, and just outside the car, Jan felt the man’s grip loosen. He shook his arm free and took a quick step or two as if to run away. The robber lunged after him. “Then,” Jan says, “I made the worst mistake of my life. I threw a punch at him.” It sailed in the air, missing its mark. Enraged, the robber fired his pistol once into the ground. He looked Jan right in the eye. “His expression was as cold as a snake,” Jan says. “It said, ‘This bullet is going right where I want it to go.’ I’d heard what a gunshot flash looks like. I’d even written about it. But it was an unbelievable thing to witness. And then a freight train went through me.”

Jan cried, “I’m killed,” and fell to the ground. Michael first thought that Jan had gone down on purpose to fool the robbers. The cab and the two robbers vanished. Not one of the four has any idea how they left or where they went. A ring of people from the neighborhood materialized around Jan. Blessedly, one was a paramedic who must have called an ambulance. One arrived in just a few minutes and took Jan to a hospital. Doctors there operated on him to stop the bleeding and to remove the bullet. Afterward, Jan was stable enough to travel. Dr. Red Duke arranged for a jet from Hermann Hospital in Houston to pick up Jan, and by Wednesday morning, he was in intensive care in Houston.

Now, in the aftermath, each of the four men wonders what he might have done that would have helped. To have taken a different cab seems obvious, but how could they have known that this cab was so bad or that the next one would have been better? No clear opportunity ever presented itself once the robbers were inside the cab. Grabbing at a gun, pushing open a door—who knows what mayhem that might have produced? Jan calls throwing the punch the worst mistake of his life, but it seems to me to have been a brave and selfless act. If the robbers had separated them, as Jan believed they were going to, it could only have been with the idea of shooting them all and leaving them to die. Jan prevented that. Jan has spent many sweaty hours in the boxing gym learning how to land his punches. One he threw and missed, I believe, saved four lives.

JAN IS A FREELANCE WRITER. UNLESS HE writes, he has no income. He faces a lengthy rehabilitation whose final result is uncertain. If determination and hard work turn out to be all that is required, he will certainly walk again. Most, but not all, of his medical expenses will be covered by insurance, and he faces a long period of little or no income during recuperation. A fund has been created for his benefit. Its address is: Jan Reid Rescue Fund, P.O. Box 13151, Austin, Texas 78711-3151.

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