Cotton rolls on

by Brian Clarey

She’s called for help and she’s called for advice and, sometimes, she calls just to talk. Once she even called for a friend, Larry, who was coming off a bad drunk and needed to get to the hospital before night fell on the doorway he was living in.

Today she called to say goodbye. I met Cotton three years ago in a hobo camp by the train tracks, where she lived in a tent made from blue tarp and bedsheets, subsisted on Mountain Dew and handmade cigarettes, rolled through town in a wheelchair to which she’d been confined nine years earlier after a beating in the basement of a Texas jailhouse.

I’ve watched her become a media darling after my first story ran (“Street level”; Oct. 7, 2009) and the TV news and activist documentarians descended, seen her sort out some of her tangle of issues with social services and finally find the right cocktail of prescriptions to get a handle on her ADD. She called me when she moved into her first apartment in more than a decade, a studio in a former luxury hotel on the wrong side of town, where she accumulated a stack of dog-eared paperbacks and made wine in the kitchen sink.

She called me again when she became one of downtown Greensboro’s 2,000 or so residents after moving into the Greensboro Inn, and when I came to see her she gave me a bag of dried chamomile flowers for tea.

When I get to the Greensboro Inn this morning, she serves me coffee in a yogurt container and tells me Larry is dead.

“They left him out there with nothing,” she says, “and they blamed it on the bottle. They blame so much of this on drugs and alcohol….”

She’s seen so much agony, so much death since she started living on the streets almost 20 years ago. It’s taken a toll — hardened her to the realities of life on the bottom tier of American society while at the same time making her hypersensitive to human suffering and philosophical about the way she and her friends live and die.

“When you get too sick to keep dragging yourself up to your feet,” she says, “you’re Larry.”

She snubs out her cigarette.

“It’s like a pebble in a pond,” she says to me. “Someone asked me once, ‘If something happens here, do you think we need to worry about it 1,800 miles away?’ I stopped for a minute. I think we do. Because what happens to one of us affects us all.”

She starts rolling smokes for the road, splicing together long papers and filling them with the sweet-smelling pipe tobacco she favors. It’s her last day in the Greensboro Inn — there’s a backpack draped over her wheelchair, and she’s loaded her stuff into two boxes that she’ll mail to her new home. She won’t say where she’s going — Cotton still guards her privacy like a pirate’s buried gold — but she will say there’s family involved, a new apartment. And young children — three of them that she’s never properly met.

She pulls pictures of them from a packed box and shows them to me: they’re smiling, climbing all over each other, making faces for the camera. She says she got them in the mail on Mother’s Day.

“I glanced at ’em, then put ’em in my Bible and cried for days,” she says. She’s crying a little bit right now.

I’ve seen Cotton as a hardscrabble survivor. I’ve seen her as a caring friend. I’ve seen her laughing like a loon and angry as hell and forlorn like a little girl lost in the rain.

Today, as she sits cross-legged on her hotel bed, her silver hair swept back behind her ears, I see her as a grandmother.

Not that this is the end of the story — there is no “happily ever after” in real life. There are fences to mend, relationships to build, old patterns that need to be replaced with new ones. But Cotton’s been given something she hasn’t had in all the time I’ve known her: a fighting chance, a real shot at something better.

I ask her if she has anyone else to bid farewell. “There’s nobody,” she says, and admits that it’s possible she’ll never return.

I ask her if she’s bringing the wheelchair. No, she says. “I got a new one waiting for me.”

I ask her if she’ll still feed the birds like she did at the homeless camp and the Heritage House, with feeders made from cutout Mountain Dew bottles filled with discount birdseed.

This one makes her laugh. “God feeds the birds,” she says. “He just gives me the pleasure of being around them. I just share what I have with my friends.

“It makes me happy,” she says. It makes me happy, too. Goodbye, my friend. Here’s to better days ahead.