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STREET LEVEL

by Brian Clarey

Cotton is not a hard woman to find, if you know where to look.

Parkyour car in the gravel lot, walk down a crumbling slip of asphalt thatpasses over the tracks and follow a thin trail tramped down into theknee-high grass. As you approach the treeline start calling her name.She’ll hear you, but she may not answer.

Bringsome tobacco — she prefers hand-rolled cigarettes — and a bottle ofMountain Dew, a big one. Maybe some aspirin. She needs more than this,of course, but she’ll appreciate the creature comforts. And this womanhas done without the things she really needs for so long that an ounceor two of tobacco and a couple cut-rate painkillers seem like mannafrom heaven.

She’ll thank God for His blessed tobacco and expertly roll a smoke with her knotted but capable fingers.

“The tobacco has kept me from killing a couple a people,” she says, “including myself.”

Sheis not joking. Then maybe she’ll crunch a couple aspirin to ease theaches in her gnarled back, wash them down with a swig of the Dew.She’ll pull down the smoke, carefully tapping the cinders into a glassapothecary lid she uses for an ashtray, pinch out the butt and drop itinto an old can that once held cherry pie filling.

She’llset the can on an upturned white cardboard box that is in pretty goodshape — it serves as her nightstand, dinner table, craft bench….Perhaps come winter it will become fast-burning fuel in her quest tokeep out the bitter cold that even here in the upper South blowsthrough fast and hard.

Cottondoesn’t have much; she lost her food stamps two months ago, she says,and she has trouble getting medication for what she calls “my ADD.”

Shehas the clothes on her back: a Goodwill sweater in two cheery shades ofgreen and the pair of Levi’s she says she’s been wearing since theadvent of spring. She has her home, a domicile made of blue plastictarp she got from a church and a few sheets and blankets salvaged froma Dumpster downtown, all elaborately tied together among the thin treesin this little thicket beside the railroad tracks. She has a few jugsof water lined up neatly by the entrance to her hut, and a collectionof empty Mountain Dew bottles, some fastened to a neighboring tree in adecorative fashion and others hanging from low branches, panels cutinto their sides so they turn in the wind. She’s got a knapsack full ofkeepsakes — a few extra pieces of clothing, a stack of business cards,a knife in a plastic baggie that may have been used in a stabbing acouple weeks ago out here by the tracks, a green plastic watch running10 minutes slow. She has some smokes… for now. And she has a dog-eared copy of A Separate Peace by John Knowles. “Reading is my drug of choice,” she’ll tell you.

And she has the wheelchair, a narrow ironsides with thin wheels and a sloping seat parked next to her tent.

Ifshe likes you she’ll let you sit in it while she tells you about herlife, of her childhood in Chicago, working construction in Texas andtraining horses out in California. She’ll tell of running a couplesmall businesses, working stints in bars, restaurants and strip clubs,a couple years of college in Illinois, her two marriages, both doomedfor failure, four years in a Texas jail. She won’t talk about the onechild she birthed — “My life might be a fishbowl but I wouldn’t wish iton anyone else,” she says. But she’s candid about the last 16 years,all of it spent on the street, nine of it in the wheelchair.

“Sixteenyears,” she says. “People think I’m joking. It ain’t no joke. Peoplecome out here and say, ‘Glad to see you’re doing alright.’ Do I looklike I’m doing alright?”

Above: Cotton’splace in the woods is not much, but it’s home. Below: The writerinterviews Cotton and Don at the Freeman Mill Campground in downtownGreensboro.

Cotton prefers hand-rolled cigarettes. “The tobacco has kept me fom killing a couple of people,” she says, “including myself.”

Residentscall this place the Freeman Mill Campground, a privately owned piece ofwilderness along the tracks of the Norfolk Southern Line. It’s indowntown Greensboro, a couple hundred yards from city hall, ourrevitalized downtown, all those glass and steel monuments to order andprosperity.

Thereare maybe a dozen folks living hard out here by the tracks, Cottonherself won’t disclose exactly how many — “I don’t like to talk aboutmy neighbors,” she says — and they are but a fraction of the thousandor so homeless living within the city limits.

But “homeless” doesn’t quite describe the situation in which the residents of this campground find themselves.

Mostof the men live on the far side of the path, over a chain-link fence afew feet into the woods. They’ve pitched tents in the clearings underthe trees, built residences from found lumber and salvaged constructionsurplus. One, made from castoff roofing materials, looks like it couldwithstand gale-force winds. Clothes hang from tree boughs, drying inthe fresh air. Jugs of water — for cooking, for washing, yes, fordrinking — sit in the shade. At the base of one tree, many, manyBudweiser King Cans make a small, haphazard pyramid.

Cotton’splace is across the way, tucked in among a few other sites. One tentover here exists in a small alcove created by the greenery, with afront yard of neatly raked gravel and an inviting sofa under theleaves. The woman who lives here lost her home to a fire a few monthsago and was unable to collect on the insurance. Cotton’s friend Donlives a ways around the bend in an orange and yellow tent he got fromWal-Mart.

Theyfind themselves out here for myriad reasons: mental illness, addiction,bad luck, bad timing, bad circumstances, bad attitudes. Some areunemployable, others just socially insecure. And some are like Cotton,who has been out on

the streets so long she barely remembers what it’slike not to be.

“Sixteenyears is a long time, and there’s no end in sight,” she says. “I beenlaying out here dropping dead. I don’t want a whole hell of a lot, butI need a little bit of something.”

Donis a veteran, a former Navy fireman who saw action when helicopterscrashed or torpedoes activated unexpectedly in the years between 1979and 1985. He made castings for Chris Craft boats in Michigan and workedfor a time in Alaska.

Now he collects cans and turns them in for cash. He hefts a 15-pound bag of them, crushed down for the weight.

“I can get maybe three dollars for it,” he says. “It turns out to about a penny a can.”

Hespends many of his days volunteering at local homeless facilities,cooking soup, fixing things, offering counsel. Don likes to keep busy.

There’sfirewood neatly stacked between two thin trees at his site, a rebuiltbicycle leaning against another trunk, clothes drying in the trees likelow-hanging fruit.

“Lifewas probably harder up in Alaska,” he says. “You go out hiking, theland is unforgivable. You go out searching for someone, it could bewhiteout, 20 below.”

He’swearing a thin T-shirt and a pair of police-issue navy-blue cargopants. Shadows play across his gaunt face and a freighter rumbles alongthe Norfolk- Southern Line. He says it comes by so frequently he’sgotten used to it.

Don moved to Greensboro from Detroit because of the economy.

“Iresearched it,” he says. “I do an awful lot of woodworking, furnitureand all that. I figured I’d have a better chance of employment.”

Fourhours after he arrived in town, after setting up lodging at theGreensboro Inn downtown, he was robbed of pretty much everything heowned.

“They took my ID and all that,” he says.

With no ID and no fixed address, steady work is hard to come by.

In three days Don turns 49. He’s been out here about a year.

“Sofar, so good,” he says. Now he picks burrs off his pants and flicksthem to the ground in front of Cotton’s place. “Don’t throw those inthe yard,” she admonishes. He bashfully picks them up.

They’refriends. Don brings her food when he can — Cotton says she hasn’t leftthe campground but three times since April, and since her food stampsran out she’s been eating whatever she can get her hands on, including,she admits, some of the food people leave out for the dogs whosometimes run through these woods. He’s helped her tie off the tarpsfor her shelter, makes sure she has some of the bare staples she needsto get by. And he’s handy to have around when things get tough.

Justa few weeks ago, Cotton says, a kid named Romero “got cut to pieces.”She believes she found the knife used in the stabbing, has it in herpack in a baggie.

“I talked to the cops about it,” she says. “They were supposed to come get it.

I’d like to get rid of it.”

Cottonherself been attacked out here several times, the last resulting inkicked-in teeth and bite marks on her torso. She’s tough, but it’s hard.

“Thepredator factor is awful,” she says. “I been out here 16 years; mostpeople wouldn’t survive it. I’m here fighting grown men off withshovels.”

Thisweek Don made her a candle, a cylinder of purple wax in a Natural Lightbeer can; come winter it will bring the temperature up inside her tenta good 10 or 15 degrees.

Now she throws a packet of tobacco to him, tells him it’s his. He tries to give it back.

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