Street level: Epilogue

by Brian Clarey

Street level: Epilogue

Got the call from Don on Friday afternoon.

“We had some trouble out here,” he said. “Three guys came after Cotton this morning.”

Whoa. I was in the video store attempting to procure the new Batman game — which, it turns out, is not available for the antique Playstation 2 with which I have cursed my children. But once the call came through my concerns seemed trivial, to say the least.

“You gotta be kidding me,” I said to Don. I had met him just a couple days before while doing legwork for this week’s cover story (“Street level”; page 14), a gaunt, plainspoken man from Detroit who had taken up residence in one of the city’s homeless camps after being relieved of all his worldly possessions while at the Greensboro Inn.

His case puzzled me, even more so than any homeless case puzzles me. Don’s a capable and industrious fellow, with the kinds of abilities that would prove handy in any endeavor.

“Education compliments of the US Navy,” he said to me after I admired his campsite. “Thirty years later I never thought I’d be using these skills out here.”

Don didn’t seem to live in the prisons of mental illness or addiction that confine so many of the city’s homeless population. He had no visible disabilities, and his mind worked as well as mine or better — we had a lucid conversation about former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and the upcoming Greensboro City Council election.

And he’s a pretty nice guy, or so it seemed to me. Don’s a big reason why my friend Cotton has been able to make it out there by the train tracks.

Cotton’s been on the street 16 years, nine of them in a wheelchair after Texas cops, she says, knocked her around in the basement of the jail.

“My spine is like a dogleg and it’s pinching nerves,” she told me as I sat in her wheelchair, notebook in my lap. “I can hold my legs up, but they can’t hold me up.”

This was just about 24 hours before three men set upon her in her tent.

On the phone with Don, I wanted to know how it happened.

“That’s a real long story,” he said to me. “Real long.” I didn’t doubt it. Even at its best, life on the street can be tough. I don’t know this firsthand, thankfully, but over the years I have had associations with a few homeless folks, some of whom have been very candid with me about their lives.

Roger the Dodger was one such friend, a Vietnam War veteran (“How come there’s so many veterans on the street,” Don asked me last week. No easy answers there) who had beat alcoholism and heroin addiction but still found himself itinerant on the streets of New Orleans.

I let Roger hang around the bar, gave him odd jobs to do and sometimes tried to talk him out of his anger, which he generally carried around like a favorite pet. I once even got him a job, but Roger’s homelessness was of the stripe that did not mesh well with the day-to-day responsibilities of consistent employment.

As far as homelessness goes, Roger had it pretty good.

He was among the most senior of New Orleans’ street folk; at night he bedded down in the Piazza d’Italia, one of the nicest plazas in the Warehouse District. He was also conversant in the area’s fine restaurants because he used to eat from their Dumpsters.

But he impressed upon me how big a problem nutrition was for him — it was hard to get fresh fruits and vegetables, and multivitamins might as well be made of gold for all the trouble he had acquiring them. When you have five bucks in your pocket, it generally doesn’t go for a bottle of One-A-Day.

I once wrote a piece for Where Y’At magazine wherein I panhandled for eight hours in the French Quarter, utilizing Roger as my guide. He showed me where I could use the bathroom without getting hassled, the best corners for flying my sign and the stores that would accept coins as payment for booze, which was handy because about three hours into the experiment I decided to start drinking.

And when I left New Orleans for good, Roger helped me load the truck and stood on the street waving goodbye until we were out of sight.

He died a few months later, in the apartment of a mutual friend where he had been staying while the friend was out of town. My friend came home to find Roger’s body on the couch, finally at rest.

I thought of Roger often while writing this story, and I remembered him to my new friends in the camp by the tracks.

But now I was talking to Don on my phone, and I wanted to know if everything was okay over there.

“I guess so,” Don said, in that understated way he has about him. He and Cotton had defended themselves ably; one of the interlopers went into the hospital and the other two went to jail on assault charges. A happy ending of sorts.

Don called again the next day to tell me that the two guys had already been released from police custody, and that they could possibly return to the camp to exact revenge.

I didn’t know what to say or do, so I listened for a bit and promised to stop by the camp when I could.

After he finished his tale, I remembered something. “Hey Don,” I said. “Yeah?” “Happy birthday.” I remembered from our interview that he turned 49 that morning. He was surprised.

“Well thank you,” he said. I think he may have forgotten.