There's a guy I see three or four times a week. We don't speak. We don't have a relationship. I just see him — usually as I'm driving to work along Vance, somewhere between the MIFA building and Lauderdale Street. He's been walking the same beat for years.
He's very tall, 6' 5" at least. He's thin and dark and quite obviously a lost ball in the high weeds of life. He wears odd, mismatched clothes — sometimes a green hospital shirt, sometimes a sportscoat and shorts. His pants almost always end above his socks.
He always carries something — often a battered black briefcase, sometimes an empty plastic milk crate. His gait is slow. He drags his feet, his eyes staring blankly at the sidewalk. Sometimes he sets the plastic milk crate on the sidewalk and shoots a deflated gray basketball at it. The ball lands with a splat and doesn't move. He slowly walks to the ball, picks it up, and shoots again. It's a cruel parody of Hoop Dreams.
I've asked people here at work about him. I thought maybe he was a former Tiger basketball player who had hit hard times. But no one knows anything about him.
Last week, he was sitting on the curb at a stoplight on Vance as I pulled up to the corner. He looked at me. I looked at him. I lowered my window and said, "Do you need some help?" He stared, expressionless, then slowly shook his head no. It was the tiredest, saddest no I've ever seen.
There's been a lot of consternation about panhandlers downtown lately. And they are a problem. But there's a big difference between a guy with a line of B.S. hitting you up for "enough money to catch a bus to Millington" and a guy who's just lost and sick and alone.
And maybe this man really doesn't need help. Maybe he has a family that takes care of him, feeds him, loves him. But I doubt it. More likely, he's mentally ill, but not enough to be institutionalized. So he shuffles along Vance with nothing to do and nowhere to go — just an unquenchable urge to keep walking in Memphis.
It's deep in a November night in Memphis, and I'm awakened by rain. It's coming down hard, sounding like a million pebbles hitting the roof. The gutter I've been meaning to clean is overflowing outside the bedroom window. A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and I do what I've done since I was a boy: count the seconds 'til the thunder rolls. I get almost to 10 before I hear a distant rumble. Two miles or so. Someone else's lightning ...
In the 14 years I've been the Flyer editor, I've gotten lots of hate mail. It mostly used to come in envelopes filled with pages of scrawled handwriting. I read them and put them in the wastebasket, chalking it up as a natural by-product of writing for a liberal paper in the conservative South. Lately, the angry folks have switched to email, and it comes in waves ...