Everyone back in the game had a nickname and Edward McMillon’s was Wizard. He was an Eastside dope fiend for almost 30 years, surviving 21 gunshots and three stints in prison. If that doesn’t make you a ghetto Merlin I don’t know what does. Sometimes when he’s trying to talk some young hustler off the street he’ll take the kid’s hand and run it against the back of his head where there’s an opening in his skull where a bullet went through.
Wizard’s childhood started in the country, near East Bernard, TX, where he rode cutting horses as an 8-year-old. Five years later, a different “horse” would take over after his mother bought a house on Lyons Road in East Austin next door to a heroin dealer. “When the laws came and broke the door down, the Mexicans would throw bags of ‘heron’ out the window and into our yard,” Wizard recalls. “Neighbors help each other out, so I’d bring the drugs back when the cops left. But one time I kept a bag.”
A 13-year-old McMillon didn’t know what to do with the heroin until he went to an R&B package show at City Coliseum the next week headlined by Ike and Tina Turner and John Lee Hooker. An older junkie named Killer Jack was there and, for a taste, showed McMillon how to shoot up in the bathroom. You don’t forget your first time, in fact the memory starts to rule your existence. Wizard vividly remembers smack’s euphoria engulfing him as opening act Gene Chandler sang “Rainbow ’65,” his latest hit. “C’mon now, baby, stop this rainbow in my heart.” Wizard was hooked.
When he was 16, in October 1969, Wizard was walking to “Mexican Town,” over at East First, to score and decided to take a shortcut through “the Bricks,” which is what everyone called the Booker T. Washington housing projects. “It was the first time I’d ever gone that way,” says Wizard, who picked up a couple of friends named Sam along the way. They came to an apartment ablaze and quickly rescued two kids, whose 19-year-old mother had left them home alone. Then, Wizard heard a baby screaming on the second floor. The stairs had collapsed, so he shimmied up a pole behind the apartment, smashed a window and climbed inside, the Statesman reported. “I found the baby, put him to my chest and zipped up my jacket,” says McMillon. He jumped and when he landed on his feet, he quickly unzipped the child free, then rolled on the ground, a tactic he learned as a Boy Scout, because his jacket was on fire. The 18-month-old baby was safe, though his two-month-old brother perished in the flames. “I don’t know why we decided to take that shortcut on that particular night, but it ended up being the only good thing that ever came out of being a junkie,” McMillon says. The three 16-year-olds, including Sam Anderson, now a minister, and Sam Arnold, received plaques from community leader Berl Handcox (who would become Austin’s first black City Councilman since Reconstruction in 1971). But after that splash of goodness, Wizard remained a bottom-feeding addict for the next 24 years.
He did two years in prison for aggravated assault, then three years for theft, but after he was arrested for badly beating a guy who tried to steal his drugs in March 1993, Wizard fell to his knees in jail and gave his life to Jesus Christ. “I’ve never wavered,” he says. During the next 17 years in prison, the only time he missed church services when when his cellblock in Beaumont was hit hard by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and he spent Sunday enroute to his new home at Gatesville. He was reunited at Gatesville’s Hughes Unit with his old runnin’ buddy from E. 12th Street, Otis Bell, who they used to call “Trouble,” but he, too, had found religion. The two prisoners were as thick as reformed thieves. “Jesus gave me hope and Otis gave me strength,” says McMillon. “He was there for me when my brother died. We did a lot of soul searching together.”
McMillon was paroled in 2010 and returned to a greatly changed East Austin. “When I got out of prison, my friend took me to East 11th Street, my old stomping grounds,” he says. “There was a brand new bank next to a two-story building. I knew every inch of East 11th coming up, and I was asking ‘Where are we?’”
Joining the Greater Love Baptist Church on Manor Road helped him get his footing on the outside. Among his many tasks at the church is running the sound system for services. One Sunday, about three years ago, a minister from Round Rock came up to the pulpit and talked about how God puts people in your life that make a difference. He talked about surviving a terrible fire when he was an infant and looked up at Wizard. “If it wasn’t for Edward McMillon, who’s over there in the sound booth, I wouldn’t be alive today.” Rev. Wilbert Justice had tracked down the junkie who had saved his life and surprised him. Sam Anderson confirmed that it was Carolyn Justice’s boy that Wizard rescued.
Wizard, 62, spent yesterday feeding the hungry outside the church for its monthly First Tuesday fruit and vegetable giveaway. He’s always driving to Manor and Springdale to unlock the doors of Greater Love for someone. But he loves helping people, he says. And he loves reading from the Good Book. Later this month, the Wizard will be ordained a deacon of the church. “It wasn’t just a coincidence taking that shortcut,” he says of that Saturday night in October 1969. But he took the long way around for his own salvation.
“What’s Goin’ On at 12th and Chicon?” is an occasional series about ex-cons returning to a gentrified East Austin after many years of forced absence. In later installments we’ll tell the stories of Otis Bell, 68, who returned in July to his house near after 27 years in prison, notorious ex-pimp Selma “Lil’ Sam” McLennan, 70, who just finished a 28 year bid for murder, and Richard “Austin Red” Wilson, 73, who’s been to prison seven times.
When you’re incarcerated, you’re tied to the past, both legally and spiritually. And then, after all your children are grown and having kids of their own, you go home to a neighborhood you barely recognize. This land that had little value before, conveniently where the black folk lived, is now hot real estate and you’re almost as lost as you were running the streets in the ’60s and ’70s.
Most of the interviews took place on the phone or at Bell’s house on E. 12th Street, where the Pleasant Inn, then the Aristocrat Inn, used to be. At the first interview, Bell had a Marvin Gaye album playing in the background, as if Quentin Tarantino curated the moment. It was What’s Going On, Gaye’s concept masterpiece about a black man from the streets getting drafted and sent to Vietnam. When he returns he can’t believe what’s goin’ on back home.
PART TWO: OTIS & LOLA