Living Legends

Are there alligators in Houston's sewers? Does a mysterious lady haunt Dallas' White Rock Lake? You'd better believe it.

I ALWAYS HAD MY DOUBTS about the jackalope, and I figured out early on that Pecos Bill hadn’t really roped that tornado. But I admit I have fallen for my share of a newer form of folklore: the urban legend. One story in particular first masqueraded as grandmotherly wisdom. Back in the seventies, when I was a college student, I often visited my grandparents in Bay City. Every time I got ready to leave, my grandmother Mimi would tell me, with great solemnity, a horrifying tale: While traveling alone at night, she said, a local woman pulled into a service station to get gas. The attendant filled up her tank and took her cash but then told her there was a problem with the car and asked her to step inside for a minute. She balked at first, but he was insistent. Once both were safely in the office, he said, “Sorry, ma’am, but I had to get you out of your car. There’s a man hiding in the back seat.”

At age eighteen, I was petrified by this story—but not for long. Soon I heard the very same thing, breathlessly related during a late-night dorm-room gabfest. I oohed and aahed along with everyone else, but I also heard the faint sound of my bullshit detector going off. The story was obviously just that: a story. I’ve enjoyed keeping up with the backseat-bad-guy tale as time has passed; it continually morphs to keep its plausibility rating high. In one newer version—adapted to reflect the rise of self-serve gas pumps—a woman at a filling station slides her credit card through the card

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