Cotton grows indoors

by Brian Clarey

I brought the Mountain Dew, the big bottle, and a pouch of cheap tobacco, She had taken a swig and was rolling a smoke before I sat down in the chair by the window.

Cotton’s got a place of her own now, what might generously be described as a studio apartment at the former luxury hotel now known as Heritage Homes. She’s got a bed — a mattress, actually — pushed into the corner on the floor, a couch that’s a bit ratty but still perfectly fine for sitting on, a small desk by the window loaded down with paperbacks. Her windowsill is loaded with plants in soda bottles and in her sink, in two glass jugs, she’s making a little wine.

“It’s just grape juice, sugar and yeast,” she says. “It’s actually pretty good.”

She’s even got a new wheelchair — a newer wheelchair, anyway, with a seat that doesn’t slope forward, wheels that still grip and a chassis that still shines like chrome.

“They were throwing them out at the nursing home,” she explains. There’s a full bathroom where she can shower regularly, a small kitchenette suitable for all kinds of things other than bootlegging and eastern exposure that allows the morning light to stream through her single window. And there’s a lock on the door, just in case someone thinks about invading her jealously guarded privacy.

“Mostly the neighbors are pretty nice,” she says. “They mind their own business.”

Oh, things aren’t perfect. Not by a long shot. She’s here by the grace of her disabilities, both mental and physical, which qualify her for free rent, but she’s got no source of income, no transportation save for the chair she’s been confined to for the last 10 years, no phone, no computer, nothing to do all day but read paperbacks, repurpose cigarette butts and wait for the wine to come around.

It’s better than the Freeman Mill homeless camp where she lived when we met, but it’s no weekend in Vegas either. Like this week, for instance. She got hustled trying to exchange her food stamps for cash — 50 cents on the dollar — so she could buy things not covered by government assistance: tobacco, for one, which she says has saved her own life more than once. Toiletries like soap, toothpaste and toilet paper — she’s currently wiping her ass with the pages of a book titled Making the Most of Your Money perched on the bathroom sink. Cleaning supplies. Kitchen items like plates, cutlery, aluminum foil. Birdseed — she likes to feed the birds. Aspirin. Band-Aids. A cheeseburger. And books. Books, she says, are her only escape.

Right now she’s working her way through Airport, by Arthur Hailey, the story of a troubled airport manager trying to land planes in a snowstorm. She herself has not been on an airplane in many, many moons, but she knows something about snow. She survived the past 15 winters on the streets, the last couple in a tent by the train tracks on the Norfolk-Southern Line. She has known frustration and despair. She still knows.

But things definitely look better from the second floor of Heritage Homes.

Yes, in an economy that seems to be pushing most people downward, Cotton is one of the few who is upwardly mobile — a new set of castoff clothes here, a suite of scavenged furniture there… a lot of things have fallen into place since we last met in the parking lot of Greensboro Urban Ministry where they still let people smoke.

Of course, to say things have fallen into place belies the struggle she’s endured, like a prehistoric marine animal lurching from the ocean, crawling inch by inch on land and gasping to take her first breath.

She’s got some breathing room now. Things are better. But still she’s got empty pockets to contend with, a disability that keeps her confined to her wheelchair, virtually no hope of employment or anything resembling complete self-sufficiency. And then there’s that copy of Making the Most of Your Money on the sink in her bathroom, disappearing one page at a time.

“What do you think?” she says. “You think someone would sponsor me for like 50, 100 bucks a month? Do people do that?” “I don’t know,” I say. I truly don’t — even the logistics of such an arrangement are too beyond my ken. I tell her so. She shrugs, pushes herself off her couch and hoists herself into the wheelchair.

She wants more books, and she knows just where to get them: the free pile in the corner of Edward McKay’s, where she’ll load up a dozen or more musty paperbacks: thrillers, romances, biographies, mysteries. I’ll take her there myself. It’s the least I can do, to be sure. But up here on the second floor of Heritage House, where the houseplants grow in sawed-off Mountain dew bottles and the wine is cooking in then kitchen sink, every little bit helps.