The Prison Diaries of the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Preston Hubbard
By Preston Hubbard, Fri., Oct. 20, 2000
My name is Preston Hubbard. From 1984-94, I played bass for the platinum-selling, multi-Grammy award-nominated Fabulous Thunderbirds. Besides recording five albums as a T-Bird, I played and recorded with Roomful of Blues and on Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time, Big Joe Turner's last album, Toni Price's Swim Away, Duke Robillard's Swing Time, and Ministry's Filth Pig, and I was the only Thunderbird to play on Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan's Family Style. I was also a heroin-shooting, cocaine-smoking, hard-core junkie.
In just a few years, I went from five-star hotels to living on the run in cheap motels, from king-sized beds in VIP suites to pallets on the floor in dirty junkie pads. I went from hanging with rock stars, politicos, movie stars, and other celebrities to running with street whores, junkies, and crackheads. I was a "playa," and The Dope Game was rough. I lost everything, including my freedom, serving time in a Texas penitentiary.
I neither condone nor condemn drug use, especially heroin. I don't believe in the "war on drugs." It's an expensive sham, costing billions and keeping the gangs and drug lords in business. Police departments, courts, lawyers, rehab centers, methadone clinics, and prisons also benefit from drugs being illegal. Prison is big business now, especially in George W.'s Texas, where 150,000 people are locked up, mostly for drug charges, with thousands more waiting in the county jails. Prison was supposed to be a place for those who were a danger to society. No more.
Keeping a diary in prison was cathartic. It helped me to think, to remember, to pass the time. The Dope Game and prison are such different worlds, so completely removed from the one that we all know, that I needed to put it down on paper in order to put it behind me. When I read back through my diaries, it reads like complete fiction, but many will identify with what I have to say.
I have no regrets, except for hurting the ones who loved me. Fortunes come and go. I shot well over a million dollars into my arms, lost everything I owned, and still I came out with my health. I've been lucky and know it. I know I can never do another shot, another hit, another snort, ever. Next time, I'm dead. I have no guilt about my dealing days, either. People came to me, and I gave them a good, safe product for a good price. I took care of my own, truly, and was never a hustler, a pusher; I made just enough to support my habits and day-to-day living expenses.
"Dope Game ain't no joke" was scrawled above my bunk in Del Valle. Truer words were never spoken. Here is my story.
I was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, a city which contrasted the ghetto squalor of South Providence with the Ivy League university surroundings and the mansions of the east side. There was also a rich music and arts scene; the city had always been a jazz town and was home to the Rhode Island School of Design, where I went to school.
Jazz, Blues, Booze, and Drugs
My mom raised my two brothers and me, having divorced my father while I was still young. We were one of the few white families living in an all-black neighborhood. Since mom was a fanatic for musicals, sang in the civic chorale, and played piano, there was always music in our house. Dad's idols were Gene Krupa (a lowlife drug addict, according to mom) and Benny Goodman, whom he tried and failed to emulate on the clarinet.
I left home at 17, while I was still in high school. "Mom's house, mom's rules" didn't mesh with my desire to get laid and do drugs, so I got my own crib. It was here that I first heard a Muddy Waters record with Willie Dixon on bass, and it rocked my world. I had been playing with cover bands and rock bands, but that was history once I heard Willie Dixon. I immediately bought my first string bass, co-owned with a friend. It was all-metal with fake wood grain, stolen from our high school, and it weighed about 1,000 pounds. I wish I still had it.
After graduation, I attended RISD on partial scholarship for two years; Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz from the not-yet-formed Talking Heads were two of my classmates. I started the Blue Flames with my friend Scott Hamilton. We began as an R&B band, but evolved into a straight-up, hard-core, mainstream jazz band. We were honored to back Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge for a week, Charlie Watts turning up one night to see him. I cut my teeth on jazz and got serious about the bass, especially the string bass.
By this point, Roomful of Blues had morphed into a legendary big-sound horn band and was extremely popular all over the Northeast. One day their baritone sax player's girlfriend told me that they wanted me to play bass but wouldn't ask for fear of ruining the friendship between the bands. I didn't think twice, called to confirm it, and took the gig immediately.
Roomful was a hard-partying, hard-gambling, hard-touring, and definitely hard-playing band. We ran on booze, coke, Quaaludes, and girls. Island Records signed us and put out two albums, but had no idea what to do with us. Disco and Seventies rock ruled then, but Roomful was putting on big shows and backing the greats: Big Joe Turner, Cleanhead Vinson, Helen Humes, and Fats Domino. We even performed at Roseland Ballroom in NYC with Count Basie, our guys bringing a load of coke down for Basie's band.
Around this time, my big brother gave me my first shot of opiates, a quarter of a #4 Dilaudid. I passed out, scaring the shit out of him, but came right to, thinking, "This is it! This is the feeling!" It was like coming home, the best feeling I ever imagined. Heroin became my religion, my peace and tranquillity, the veil between me and everything else. With that first shot, I entered a world that I inhabited for the next 18 years.
Since Roomful had become fast friends with the original Asleep at the Wheel, it was around this time that I first started hearing about Austin. As far as we knew, Texas was for steers and queers! John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had become huge fans of ours, and the next thing we knew, the Blues Brothers were the biggest thing on Saturday Night Live. We played their first live gigs at the Bottom Line in NYC (snorting coke in the kitchen with Belushi) and became the model for their backup band later. We were supposed to be their band, but our guitarist Duke Robillard and Belushi got into some shit and it escalated into a press war until the whole thing fell apart. Major fuckup!
Muddy Waters had told us about a rockin' band out of Austin called the Fabulous Thunderbirds. By the same token, he had told them about us. The bands met in one night Boston, and I thought they were the weirdest bunch I had ever seen! Here was Roomful of Blues, a big, slick, Yankee horn band in three-piece suits and Italian shoes, and there were the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmie Vaughan in an orange jumpsuit, Kim Wilson in a dashiki, and Keith Ferguson sporting tattoos and women's perfume. They were bad motherfuckers, though, and the bond between the two bands was immediate. We started bringing them up to New England, and they brought us down to Texas. Once there, I met Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton, the Cobras, and the greats of Austin blues. Jimmie and I started discussing my joining the T-Birds sometime in the future.
While on Roomful's first major swing through the South, I fell in love with a girl in Atlanta and carried on an expensive long-distance relationship. Roomful called it "musical suicide," but I left the band to be with her. While in Atlanta, Stevie called me to join Double Trouble, but I was settled (and waiting on the T-Birds), so he hired Tommy Shannon. I hooked up with the Alley Cats but couldn't make Atlanta happen. With a tearful goodbye, I moved to Boston to play with a popular rockabilly band, making a lot of money and eventually putting out an album in France. The girlfriend and I drifted apart, mostly because of my darker lifestyle, and so came the second stint with my old family, Roomful of Blues.
I went back on the road with Roomful, and we signed with Rounder Records, putting out five excellent albums. We recorded with the great Big Joe Turner on his brilliant last album, which was nominated for a Grammy. I met my future ex-wife in Toronto, beginning another long-distance romance. My heroin habit was fast increasing, and we started making runs into NYC, leaving at 3am to arrive just as the drug companies opened so we could compare brands, score, and head back to Providence, fixing on the way. I got very good at fixing while I was driving, a skill that would later serve me well on tour buses and in airplane bathrooms. I could fix anywhere, under any circumstances.
The T-Birds and Roomful worked together whenever and wherever possible, and I would always score for T-Bird bassist Keith Ferguson, as he would never venture out himself. Jimmie and I still talked about me playing in the band, but I no longer believed him. Just drunk talk! What I didn't know was that it was about to happen, and would forever change my life.
I was still with Roomful of Blues when the call came from Jimmie to join the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Two years of telephone calls, backstage talk, and false starts, and now it was happening. True to the amazing pipeline between the Austin/Providence music scenes, Roomful's drummer John Rossi knew what was up when I called the boys together to tell them. Now all I had to do was get my ass to Texas in five days. I put my wife and our cat in my '69 Chevy Caprice, attached a loaded U-Haul to the back, and left.
I came to Austin in the middle of an uproar that I was totally unprepared for. Battle lines were drawn between fans and band friends as the news of my arrival hit. It was in many Texas papers -- Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston -- that the T-Birds had hired another Yankee (drummer Fran Christina being the first)! And from Roomful of Blues, no less! Some said that Ferguson was getting royally screwed, while band intimates were saying that they fired one junkie and hired another! This was not the case, as the band had really let Keith slide for a long time. Increasingly, though, he fucked off rehearsals and recordings, and became a constant whiner about touring. His habit left a lasting distaste with the band. There was the Keith faction and the Preston faction, and it was a while before I won over many of the former.
We had a very short first rehearsal, but I had the band's repertoire down, so we were off to the first gig -- an outdoor show in Waco. After that, we headed out on tour. No more rehearsals. Shit, we were kickin' ass from the get-go! Before leaving, we had a quick band meeting. We had a tentative deal with a label, which went very sour and came back to haunt us. Mark Proct, who started as roadie and became road manager, was our new management. The band was something like $175,000 in debt; people saying I arrived just in time for Tuff Enuff is bullshit. We were about to go out and do what the T-Birds did best -- tour and tour harder!
We hit the road in clubs all over the States. The T-Birds held cult status despite four incredible records, but our crowds were fanatical, here and in Europe. I managed to stay largely heroin-free on tour, but not by my own design. I didn't have many connections, but there was plenty of booze and lots of coke. Lots and lots of coke. And, of course, girls. Hundreds of girls. Nameless, faceless one-nighters, gone forever into the obscurity that comes with time, booze, and drugs.
When we got the call telling us the budget for Tuff Enuff had been approved, we moved to London for the recording, taking two flats near Oxford Circus. Our producer was Rockpile's Dave Edmunds, whom we had worked with on a cut for the movie Porky's and who was a good friend. The band had rehearsed more than an album's worth of material, and Kim brought the lyrics to "Tuff Enuff" in on an airline barf bag. In the studio, we molded it into a complete song over a couple of days, never dreaming how successful it would be.
The actual recording of Tuff Enuff went quickly. I stayed clean during the recording of the rhythm tracks, but when I was done it was time to celebrate. I asked our road manager Mick, who was also the Cure's stage manager, to get me some dope. Mick brought back about half a gram, $10 worth, and I snorted a big, fat line, since I had no rig with me. Soon I was rubber-legging it around the flat! Of course, the band had no clue. Mick was discreet, and I was becoming very adept at hiding my secret habit from them.
One night, we were picked up at our flats by two Mercedes limos and driven out into the English countryside to Eric Clapton's estate for his 40th birthday party. Holy shit! We were met at the door by Layla herself, ex-Mrs.George Harrison and current Mrs. Eric Clapton, Patti Boyd, looking beautiful and a bit matronly. Talk about royalty! Inside, talking, drinking, shooting pool, walking around were Barbara Bach, Ringo Starr, Steve Winwood, John Hurt, and who knows who else! Liveried waiters wandered around serving some kind of highbrow champagne and hors d'oeuvre. No dope of any kind in sight, though I was hoping. No matter. It was a wonderful night, mixing with so many idols from my youth.
Back in the studio, our label went belly up halfway through the recording, bouncing a $50,000 check to Edmunds and leaving us stranded in London. When Tuff Enuff became a huge hit with Epic, our former label sued us. Naturally, it was time to return home and hit the road to pay for all this. We needed lots of money and a video. And a record label!
So we toured, paid for an album and packaging, and shot a video for "Tuff Enuff." Tony Martell at CBS decided to run with it, and a memo went out to the company worldwide: The three new priorities were the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The album was released and worked heavily by CBS while we were touring. We hired ICM as our booking agency, Charles Comer (SRV's publicist, who came to this country with the Beatles), and an accounting firm in L.A. that specialized in bands, and opened our own office in Austin. We were ready to rock the world, and that's exactly what we did!
The first time I heard "Tuff Enuff" on Top 40 radio, I was driving my IROC up Congress Avenue. Man, what a feeling! Hearing it would become commonplace over the next year as the record first went gold, then platinum, then multiplatinum. We continued touring, the crowds and venues getting bigger and bigger. Our first big arena tour was with Bob Seger, opening to rabid sold-out crowds. When the tour had a day off, we did our own shows in smaller halls.
Stevie was doing some music for Ron Howard's new film Gung Ho and hooked "Tuff Enuff" a plum spot in the film. He made a splash with David Bowie, released Texas Flood, and was fast on his way up, too. Another film, Tough Guys, picked up "Tuff Enuff," and started a rash of movies, like Bull Durham, that featured T-Bird songs. Eventually, we did "Powerful Stuff" for the Cocktail soundtrack, which went multiplatinum and resulted in the band and their families being flown down to Jamaica for an all-expense paid, eight-day junket. Unfortunately, I was trying to kick my habit and felt like shit most of the trip.
We recorded "Way Down South," the title track for My Cousin Vinnie, and then appeared as ourselves in Light of Day with Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett, playing a song we wrote for the film while touring Australia. Coming back, we flew into L.A., arriving late at night, saw the wives for a couple of hours at our hotel, got up at 6am to shoot Solid Gold (with Stevie as an anonymous guest guitarist in the background), went to an all-day CBS photo shoot where Jimmie fell asleep, then boarded a night flight to Chicago to shoot our scenes in the movie. That was the pace of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Stevie was fast becoming a guitar hero/god. It was only natural that we tour the world together, so we did the States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. It was a rolling party; we would be drunk on the flight or bus in and hit the hotel bars while the road managers were checking in. We would locate some coke, or in my case some heroin, and stay loaded through the show, after which we would go out for more debauchery with the promoter and as many girls as we could corral. And the shows were a thing of beauty! We really complemented each other, ending each night with inter-band jams highlighted by the duo of Jimmie and Stevie playing together on a single double-necked guitar. Truly magic nights! In between, both bands went our separate ways, but we were always touring. Always touring.
Stevie had an Australian road manager who went into the crowd every night with a stack of all-access passes for girls only. He would even walk up to couples and give a pass just to the girl. Every night the dressing rooms was full of beautiful women, but I always made a point of telling them that I was married and a junkie, giving them the option out. They never took it.
At one point, the T-Birds initiated something called "The Malmo Rule," which took its name from the fact that it was first put into effect in Malmo, Sweden. Some nights, the dressing room would get overcrowded with irritating "blues nerds" wanting to talk about whether or not Muddy Waters farted while recording "Queen Bee" in 1957 or some such crap. These guys would keep all the girls at bay, and we were definitely not having that shit! All our dressing rooms had big guards, so one night in Malmo, we saw the blues nerd onslaught coming, and told the guards, "Absolutely no guys backstage!" Beautiful Swedish women packed the dressing room when we got offstage! After that, the Malmo Rule was used often.
Austin's Riverfest was just about my favorite gig every year, with a few exceptions. We were the promoters, we were home, we were the headliners, and we could flat-out tear it up! At its peak in the mid-to-late-Eighties, the festival drew something like 18,000 people to Auditorium Shores, not counting the thousands of fans outside the gates. Stevie always came; guests included Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Los Lobos, Robert Cray, Nick Lowe, and on and on. We also brought in up-and-comers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sweethearts of the Rodeo.
One year, our friend and "fifth T-Bird" Dennis Quaid came to hang out with a very pissed-off Meg Ryan in tow. She did not approve of the company he was keeping. The festival ran from noon to midnight, and after a full day of drinking, drugging, and listening to great music in the sun, the crowd would be fully primed when we hit the stage around 10pm. I will never forget the deafening roar that went up when we would walk out and launch into "Tear It Up." Talk about a rush! Un-fucking-believable!
Between touring dates, we made videos, cut albums, and taped TV shows. And we did all of them: The Tonight Show, Arsenio Hall, American Bandstand, David Letterman, Good Morning America, and MTV as guest veejays. We opened the envelope to announce Bruce Hornsby as "Best New Artist" at the 1988 Grammy Awards, and were nominated ourselves for two. We didn't win, but being in L.A., I was well fixed through my downtown street connects.
The "Tuff Enuff" video was in power rotation on MTV, so it was time to make another. We shot "Wrap It Up" in L.A. on the manicured lawn of Liberace's house with a cast of buxom super-vixens! Later came the video for "Powerful Stuff," from Cocktail, shot one night on the beach in Malibu and intercut with shots from the movie.
The next two albums were recorded in Memphis. I started Hot Number kicking on clonidine and did Powerful Stuff on methadone as a transfer patient. Memphis was always a party, what with Joe Walsh in the next studio, Ron Wood hanging with us in ours and laying out lines of coke on the bathroom toilet, Jerry Lee Lewis getting loaded with us at the Peabody Hotel, and our friend Dennis Quaid in town shooting Great Balls of Fire.
On our final tour of Australia for Powerful Stuff, Jimmie spun out after a three-day coke-and-booze orgy and staggered offstage during the second song, leaving second guitarist Doyle Bramhall II to finish the show. Stevie was soon to collapse on another stage across the world in London, leading to the rehab of the Vaughan brothers and the seeds of Family Style, their only album together. Shortly after our return from Down Under, Jimmie gave notice, citing complete burnout. With record sales declining, our old CBS team scattered and the new one focusing on whatever the current trend was, the gigs downsizing, and Jimmie gone, morale was low. We had to make a decision about whether or not to continue as a band.
The Thunderbirds decided to forge ahead, bringing in ace guitarslingers Duke Robillard, yet another member (and founder) of Roomful of Blues, and Kid Bangham out of Pennsylvania. Walk That Walk, Talk That Talk, from 1991, is in my opinion about the best record the band ever released. Epic laid down on us in the face of grunge and let it die, but we did what the T-Birds always did: tour, tour, tour.
I was clean from heroin much of that time. Crossing the Swiss Alps on a tour bus in midwinter, sick or not, is never to be forgotten. We went to then-Soviet Estonia and played in front of 250,000 people at an outdoor festival, the biggest audience I ever played. We played another huge outdoor festival in Peer, Sweden, where we didn't go on until 2am because in the summer it got dark for only three hours. Back home, we were still playing to sold-out crowds, but in increasingly smaller venues. And so it went.
So, too, went Duke. Walk That Walk was floundering, so he gave notice. Meanwhile, my wife and I had split, and I was burning out, slowly easing into The Dope Game by leaving my consumer-only status behind. I embraced heroin addiction fully, along with my new rock habit (cocaine prepared for smoking) and stopped caring who knew or what consequences could come of it.
My final gig with the T-Birds was a two-week stand in Reno, from where I would bus into the Bay Area every few days to score. Because of my increasingly open drug use and my own dissatisfaction and disillusionment with how things were going, it came to a head between me and Kim one night backstage. I said "fuck it," and turned in my walking papers. Ten years. Truly the end of an era.
After leaving the band, I had a big decision to make: 1) quit doing dope entirely, 2) keep a habit according to my funds, which meant going back and forth between being high and being sick, or 3) sell to support my habit. At the time, junkies could only buy balloons of weak dope cut with lactose, so I started selling $20 pesetas of pura chiva -- pure tar heroin. I caught flak from local dealers claiming it would put heat on the street, but really, it just meant heat on them from their customers. I started selling $20 foils.
The Dope Game
When word spread, it snowballed. Going into business for myself, I moved in with Patty, the red-headed spitfire wife of Ministry's Al Jourgensen, both of whom had been getting ripped off by other dealer roommates. Soon I had a growing contingent of customers, including the rock & roll elite of Austin and their friends.
It's human nature to want to expand our consciousness, but I think more so with artists, writers, and especially musicians, who exist in an environment that lends itself to excess. Over the years, I sold to doctors, dealers, street junkies, prostitutes, rich kids -- the whole gamut -- but a large percentage of my customers were always musicians, local and touring, rock stars and unknowns, running the entire musical spectrum from punk to country. Drugs make no distinction.
Word that I was dealing spread quickly. I had a pager, something I never would have had or even considered having scant weeks before. As a joke, I started selling what I called "The Daily Double," a foil containing two $20 pieces. It was around this time, while I was still selling small, that I picked up my first bust. A dealer friend, drunk, ran a red light on the way to our hotel room at 3am, and a squad car in the intersection pulled us over. They searched us and the car and found my paraphernalia and my friend's sawed-off shotgun in the trunk. The sawed-off was legal, so they let him go, but they took me down to the cop shop.
Austin City Jail is barbaric, a true shithole, built when the city was small and Bush's new prison economy wasn't in full swing. The noisy tiers contain dirty, smelly, two-man cells in which they regularly put four and five people. Someone always has to sleep on the floor, half under the bottom bunk, while another sleeps with his head right next to the toilet. Around noon, Patty arrived to get me out, having picked up $1,000 from Al to make my bail. We immediately went back home so I could score, do a big fix, smoke some rock, and take care of my people. A lawyer was recommended, the court dates would be set later, and that was that. For the time being.
Patty bought a house in South Austin and we moved in. At that point, I was selling more than I ever had dreamed of to a small army of street dealers, prostitutes, titty dancers, and musicians. Things would start slowly each afternoon, increase in the evening, and peak at about 2:30am as my pager would go berserk with calls from Austin's night minions getting off work. Junkies and vampires have much in common: Both are nocturnal, both become extremely ill when deprived of what they need, and blood plays a major part in both their lives. Selling was now keeping Patty and me in dope and money. My dealer friend had started making cookies of primo rock to keep up with demand; a "cookie" is an ounce of coke cooked up to resemble a sugar cookie, and cut into $20s. Soon we were keeping a safe place, a small apartment in which to leave dope and money and occasionally stay. I was busted there the second time.
I had pulled into the apartment parking lot and nodded out; I was awakened by a knocking on the windows. There was a cop on either side of the car, looking in on the $1,200 that was scattered across my lap, front seat, and floorboard. Someone had called APD, thinking I was dead. These cops were older, more chill than the newer breed of youngsters who are trying to come up via drug busts. I told them I led a band, always got paid in cash, and was on the way to the bank when I succumbed to holiday exhaustion.
Everything was fine until they ran a check and found hot-check warrants out on me. Back in cuffs, back to city jail. One cop found two stems (crack pipes), totally coated on the inside with "push" (rock residue). Being old-school, his partner told him to toss them out. When I picked up my van from impound, both stems were under the driver's seat, fully intact. Chill cops!
Ministry had bought an immense, lavish compound in Marble Falls, complete with private landing strip. Many a time, Patty and I would drive down for a couple of days of rock & roll debauchery. It was a shooting gallery 24/7. One night Al, having broken a needle off in his arm, chased it up the entire length of his arm with a razor blade, bleeding everywhere. Patty couldn't stand it anymore and dragged him to the emergency room, where they succeeded in removing it.
Al and the boys worked hard in the studio, recording Filth Pig, which I played on. I also performed at the one and only appearance of Buck Satan & the 666 Shooters, another of Al's side bands, at Liberty Lunch, the rehearsal for which was more a dope-shooting party than rehearsal. The sold-out gig was wonderful, but the much-talked-about album never came to be. Al was later busted, lost the compound, and moved back to Chicago.
Patty lost her house and everything in it, and burned off to Chicago, following Al. I took up with a tall, tattooed blond beauty named Christiane. She was the girlfriend of a local drummer who bought from me, and there was an immediate attraction. After a few weeks of circling, we finally consummated one night and officially became a couple, well known to the local junkie circles and with the APD.
Christiane and I began a life on the move, staying with various friends and in hotels. My Boston terriers, Boo and Ghee, made us an easily identified foursome. Absurd rumors abounded about how vicious I was, how I didn't want to meet anyone new, and that I always answered the door with a loaded gun. All bullshit! It's true that I had started a small arsenal of bought or traded weapons, mostly for my own amusement, but you never know when you're deep in The Dope Game. Everybody is packing out there, and Christiane and I were constant targets for rip-offs. I had a Tek-9, three .380s, a .45, a sawed-off gauge with hair-trigger pistol grip (with which I almost blew my foot off), and my cherished collection of switchblades, all brought in from Europe during T-Bird tours.
Running on Empty
During this time, one of my connections and I got very proficient at pulling overdosed junkies back from the dead. EMS wasn't an option since they always brought APD with them and APD loved trying to pin murder charges on whoever they could. The drill, when someone was turning blue and not breathing, was to immediately get them on their back, loosen their clothes, and start mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I'd pack their armpits and crotch with ice, thereby shocking the system, and administer a milk shot if necessary. Once they were alive and conscious, it was into a cold shower and then walking them until they became lucid. One Christmas Eve, Christiane and I spent an hour bringing a friend back to life in our motel room, wondering how we would tell her little girl that her mommy had died. The friend came out of it cursing and calling us liars. What a fucking life!
My third bust led to my first time in prison. Christiane and I had been living for over a month in a pay-by-the-week hotel suite on I-35. While waiting on six grams one night, I got a call from a friend who was outside, frantically telling me the APD was at our door. Although out of heroin, we were holding almost two full cookies of rock. To their credit, two of the cops were fans of the Thunderbirds and truly cared about Christiane and me, wanting to help, not just rack up a bust and put us away. There are good cops out there, and these two earned my lasting respect and gratitude.
Back to city jail and withdrawal. Christiane, under arrest, went to Brackenridge Hospital. She had developed massive open sores in both arms and lost half the blood in her body, bringing her close to losing both arms and ultimately death. Neither APD nor the hospital staff had ever seen anything like it and tagged her "The Gangrene Girl." Unable to find a vein, the staff had to clip an artery in her leg to administer IV. She was only 20 years old at the time.
After being charged with possession of a controlled substance, I went to county jail and stayed there until my connection helped make my bond and sent a lawyer to get me out. We immediately went back to the hotel, where I fixed, gathered all the rock, and went to pick up my dogs. Both Christiane and I were convicted and sentenced to probation -- two years for me, five for her. Christiane and I got back down to the daily business of being junkies, speedballs (a mixture of cocaine and heroin) now being our main focus. During this period, I burned out the veins in my neck, having already collapsed those in my hands and arms. I will carry these scars to my dying day.
Not conforming to the guideline of probation, Christiane and I were officially fugitives and on the run. We started living in hotels and at friends' places for a few months, always moving. We were living in a junkie shithole deep on the Eastside when APD caught up with us again. I avoided a new case by getting rid of a bunch of rock that I had on me, but having broken probation, I went back to city jail without possibility of bond. They caught up with Christiane the next day, put her back in Brack under arrest, and we both ended up at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle. We both got six months' county. With county time, working trustees get their sentence reduced, so I became a cook. I lived in a 32-man dorm in the trustee building, working from 2:30am until 11:30am. Two days before Thanksgiving Day 1998, the guard instructed me to pack my stuff. I was going ATW (All The Way). I soon found myself outside the main gates at 5:30am, walking down the road in the pitch dark, with my property in a paper bag, a bus pass, and nowhere to go.
Six hours later, I was in a hotel room with the kid who had been running things while I was gone. I fixed, moved to another hotel, and jumped back into The Dope Game, waiting for Christiane to be released in 10 days. Upon her release, she managed to stay away for one week before we took up our old life again: shooting, smoking, moving from place to place. All of this led to my final bust in June of 1999.
Because of my two busts since January of that year, my luck ran out. I had scored and served my people in a parking lot when five cop cars whipped in, surrounding us from all sides, and scattering everybody else. I stuffed a half-gram up in my gums, which was never found, but they did find one piece in the back seat and put it on me, naturally. The two other guys got paraphernalia charges and were released the next day, but APD wanted me!
Having been to court three times already, still kicking, still naive, and told by my lawyer that I had better take the offer, I signed for my time: two years' Texas Department of Corrections time with a one-year state jail sentence running concurrently. I then settled into my routine at Del Valle and waited for the TDC chain.
This time I was going down. All the way down.
After gathering my property, I went to a holding room where 45 other inmates were waiting. We went through the usual bullshit paperwork, got sack lunches, and waited until the bus pulled up and three big, sunburned TDC guards came strolling in like kings of the world. Two set up at a table to do paperwork, while the third gave us each a thorough strip search and an ill-fitting white jumpsuit. Many of us, including me, were barefoot. We were cuffed in pairs, loaded onto the TDC bus, and were off, watching our home recede into the black night. Our destination was the Middleton Unit in Abilene. The date was 9/9/99.
Though it's now officially called TDCJ, or Texas Department of Criminal Justice, everyone, including the guards, still calls the Texas Department of Corrections simply TDC. Both are blatant misnomers. Try prison. Penitentiary. I was going down GP, general population, just another number in the system. No protective custody, no special privileges, no rehab unit, nothing. We rode through the night, arriving at Middleton in the harsh noonday sun, surrounded by screaming guards, buzzing around us like angry hornets. Yes, sir! No, sir! Marine Corps boot camp with five DIs instead of one. Strip down, take a pair of boxers off the pile, and go sit in the holding cages. Inspect hair, ears, and mouth, lift nuts, spread cheeks, left foot, right foot -- I would hear this litany almost daily. What type of person would want a job like this, looking up men's assholes and under their scrotums day in and day out? What a career move!
We went through all the paperwork and property checks, then were given sack lunches, or jonnies, while we were all still packed naked into the cages. Afterward, we got our heads shaved and took showers, always surrounded by screaming guards. I began to get a vague idea of what incoming concentration camp victims must have felt like. We were all being herded around naked, with a half-dozen female clerks and guards nonchalantly going about their business -- something else I would get used to.
I settled into prison life, which is everything you've heard, seen, and read. It is entirely different from anything you've ever known. You might as well be on the moon, which is why they call outside "The World." Once you've been down, though, it isn't such a scary deal anymore. Don't get me wrong -- it's brimming with predators and sociopaths who should be there. Rape, as it is in "The World," is more about power and especially revenge than sex. I was never beat up or turned (punked) out. I also rode solo as far as the gangs were concerned, and the boys, including the gang members, always respected that.
Most of the new prison units consist of two rows of cheaply made structures containing four 50-man dorms which face each other down a central concrete slab called the sidewalk or bowling alley. The dorms enclose a locked guard picket, or control room, and outside is a walkway for another guard. In back is a recreation yard, and the whole unit is surrounded with barbed-wire fences, watched over by one or two heavily armed guard towers, and circled by a road where a Land Rover roams 24/7. In the absence of a war and given the proliferation of gangs, prisons struck me as the modern coming-of-age for too many youngsters. Doing time was synonymous with entering manhood.
The dorms are loud and wide open, everything, including bathroom activity, is done in view of your cellies, guards, and the many female gray suits. Two mounted TVs run day and night, but you can barely hear them for the noise. One thing that surprised me was the number of cons who are soap opera fanatics; big, tattooed criminals who know every little detail about their particular favorite and line the benches watching every day. Jerry Springer is big, too. At night, various cellies get together and eat a communal feast, usually with a base of Ramen soups to which anything and everything is added and then eaten on tortillas. "Spreading" is a major nightly social function. Domino games, either partners or singles, are ongoing day and night, with the accompanying shouting and slamming.
TDC is also full of gangs on every unit. Aryan Circle, Texas Syndicate, Mexican Mafia, Barrio Azteca, Pistoleros, EPT, White Knights, etc., and a whole lot of Crips. All have their own tattoos, signs, and special handshakes. Aryans sport "third eye," "lightning bolts," and "100% wood" tats, and "hit bolts" when they shake hands. Texas Syndicate has a dagger tat overlaid with a lightning bolt. Pistoleros have gun tats on either side of their abdomens, so that the handles show over their boxers. Every unit has GI, or Gang Intelligence, but they're not very effective at diagnostics beyond documenting the tattoos. White boys are universally called "woods," from "peckerwoods," or gueros by the Hispanics, who are in turn tagged as eses. Blacks are known derogatorily as "toads."
There are also plenty of punks, or homosexuals, usually drag queens. Two in our dorm were called Sweet Pea and Miss Apples. Every day, they would apply make-up made from colored pencils and a mixture of Kool-Aid and go swishing around the unit. Sweet Pea's voice constantly shouted, "Oh, baby, look!" Curiously, the cons always let them make it, almost watched out for them, while the guards constantly harassed and badgered them. Sweet Pea was a constant target for shakedowns in which they would completely toss her house. Lot of homophobic guards not yet out of the closet, I think.
Everyone at TDC works, and for no pay. If you refuse, or lay it down, you get locked up in Administrative Segregation, or Ad Seg, losing all privileges. Work time and good time for not fighting are supposed to reduce your sentence, but it's all signed away when and if you make parole. In most states, it all accrues and you walk out with no paper. The main job on most units, to which most cons are assigned, are the field squads, or hoe squads. Strutting bosses on hosses sporting cowboy hats and spurs, while toting sidearms and 12-gauges. In other words, legal slavery with convict squads, each with its own caller/chanter sung while picking vegetables and cotton.
Head high, head high,
Lemme see you touch the sky!
Smokin' crack and smokin' weed,
Now I work for TDC!
Straight out of Cool Hand Luke! It was a tedious existence, and the guards at Middleton were straight-up trailer trash. Middleton was a transfer unit, so I became restless, waiting to catch the chain to my home unit. Be careful what you ask for; I wanted out of there, and they gave it to me. I was on my way to RZ Rogelio Sanchez State Jail in El Paso. It was on the Mexican border about as far from home, family, and friends as they could send me.
We skirted El Paso and arrived at the back gates of the Sanchez Unit. Juarez and the mountains of Mexico sat tantalizingly behind the rec yards. Through the gates, into an outside cage, through the ritual TDC dance and the welcoming committee complete with barking sergeant, quick chow, and then sit in the sun for the rest of the day. There were the rules and regs of Sanchez, the most ironclad of which was that we always, always moved around the unit single-file with our hands behind our backs.
Word was spreading quickly about who I was via the convict grapevine, which is just a little faster than e-mail. Soon, I was signing autographs for all mi homitos, even signing them for moms, girlfriends, family, and guys on other units, while bearing the inevitable "Don't Mess With Texas" jokes, which everyone seemed to think was original to himself. Word also spread to the administration, and after a little over two months with the hoe squads, the sarge came over to me one evening and said, "Hubbard, when you're done, go see the chief!" meaning the chief of classifications. Holy shit! What had I done?
Turned out the chief was an amateur bass player, a big T-Bird fan, and nice guy to be hooked up with! I got a great job processing all the daily maintenance work orders in an air-conditioned office. Life in the trustee building was much better, and I settled comfortably into my routine. Routine is what gets you through doing time, as any convict will tell you. Of course, there were still the inevitable shakedowns, fights, and even one major lockdown because of gang wars in other units, but the days were passing much more easily. There was humor and camaraderie in the dorm. I loved my cellies, my house, my job, my co-workers, and my boss.
Things were again good with my family, whom I had understandably alienated, and I was making amends to old friends, including my former girlfriend from Atlanta. I was very lucky -- I had a big support network, got money in my prison account, and received a lot of mail, which is extremely important in prison. Getting mail can make or break your whole day. My heart always went out to the guys who had no one out there in The World.
Out in the desert, we got sandstorms that would hit like a wall, stinging our eyes and faces and coating the dorms with a fine dust. Rain was rare. We knew when it was coming, and it was delicious when it fell. The clouds would obliterate the distant mountains in Mexico, and we could smell it, heavy, cool, and sweet, even in the dorms. Rain was always a good excuse for the rec bosses to keep us in. But one time a storm hit as we were walking in, and elated, we just gulped it in like thirsting men.
The sunsets over the desert were spectacular. There was a ring-tailed cat, a beautiful desert creature that lived on the unit for a short time and came out at night, nests of baby birds in the rec yards, and a roadrunner that lived behind maintenance. We also got a beautiful snowfall on Christmas Eve, and although we weren't allowed out, we clambered up to the windows, in shifts, to watch. In this most desolate of worlds, I found beauty.
One night, my boss told me that I was leaving, a surprise to us both. I was too short to go to a pre-release and had too much time left to go to the house, but this was TDC, so we said our goodbyes and I was gone that night.
The Last Dance
After the usual TDC dance and cage time, I found I was there to see INS. Migra! What the fuck? I was there four days, walked into migra, and was told immediately that it was a mistake. A computer error. Someone in Huntsville was punching in the wrong codes! Pinche TDC! That night, I was taken back to Middleton, with a quick stop at Robertson to drop a killer off. He was in a neck brace and arm cast, completely chained from head to toe, and separated from the rest of us. After the TDC dance and litany, it was in and out of Middleton, and we were on our way back to Sanchez, by way of the Wallace Unit, soon to be a war zone between Texas Syndicate and Pistoleros. I was relieved to find my old house and job waiting for me.
My last few months passed routinely as I awaited my release. You spend forever thinking about it, counting the months, and all of a sudden it's upon you. We had my "going to the house" spread, all the boys signing my handkerchief decorated with my T-Bird tattoo, said sentimental goodbyes, and I was once again on my way to Middleton. Same routine -- the dance, cages, waiting naked. We left that night, heading for Holliday (Inn) by way of Hughes, same drill save for one difference: I was goin' to the house!
Talk about time standing still! I spent the longest five days of my life waiting at Holliday. When the day arrived, it was more of the usual TDC bullshit, waiting in cages, and the dance, all that. The last transfer was a quick one, just across town to The Walls, through which everybody goes to The World.
On the bus to The Walls, I was both elated and afraid. I had decided months earlier that I didn't want the drug life anymore, but all of Austin could potentially trigger my drug craving. Every neighborhood, hotel, motel, and store was somewhere I had lived or where I had met my connections or customers. Prison is no deterrent for junkies. It sucks, and once you've been there it's not that big scary place, but it was no life for me. Some of my homeboys there were planning to jump back into the game the day they got out. I didn't, and still don't, want that life any longer.
The original TDC unit was an ancient and filthy shithole. More getting naked and in cages, then to the old, noisy, filthy gym for processing out, which took hours. The last litany: "hair, ears, mouth, lift nuts, spread cheeks, left foot, right foot." Guess they had to give me one last dance! At this point, I was close to delirious from stress and lack of sleep but so excited that there was no way to relax!
Upstairs through ancient cell blocks and outside into a little courtyard for final parole paperwork and to get my clown suit -- horrible, ill-fitting polyester pants and shirts. George W. was fixing to kill Gary Graham the next day, and all the Huntsville units (and maybe the whole system) were to be locked down. The press was everywhere, surrounding The Walls like an army laying siege.
The mood was euphoric as our group donned their clown suits, clutched their $50 checks, parole papers, and commissary bags of personal property. I walked out of The Walls and into The World.
Preston Hubbard was released from prison in June of 2000. He currently plays bass with Lou Ann Barton and can be reached at Preston@78704.com.
Margaret Moser edited Preston Hubbard's diaries and additional writings for this article.