Between a Rock and a Hard Place
For one day at least the city turned its attention to the homeless.
by Chris Davis
n Court Square you can nosh on a Lucky Dog, feed the pigeons,
or buy The Memphis Flyer for a dollar from a motley old man who
claims (erroneously) the proceeds go to get children off drugs.
You can watch the day laborers, cafeteria cooks, and janitors,
as well as countless other members of our citys working poor
enslaved to a wretched mass-transit system, come and go. You might
choose to take a look at a curious monument on the west side of
the park facing out toward the mall. Rising from a mound of monkey
grass, the monument bears a picture of Walter Malone, and a poem,
whose title Opportunity is stamped
in letters 6 inches high beneath the optimistic Mr. Malones likeness.
It looks like a tombstone.
|PHOTO BY ROY CAJERO
After finishing his meal at the Memphis Thanksgiving Dinner, Ed
rests on a downtown bench.
They do me wrong to say I come no more/ when once I knock and
fail to find you in/ For every day I stand without your door/
And bid you wake and rise to fight and win
With its spirit of a bygone era naivete and breezy intimations
of violence the poem lacks only a strategically placed GO TEAM!
Each night I burn the records of the day/At sunrise every soul
is born again
Tell that story to the man looking at a Saturday-night special,
a single thought pounding inside his sleep-deprived mind: Just
one more hit. Tell it to a welfare mother of nine, who falls
asleep praying for a miracle and wakes up in labor. Tell it to
her illiterate boyfriend the dishwasher.
It was at that monument I began my Thanksgiving as a homeless
man by pulling produce bags over my feet in lieu of socks and
heading toward the Cook Convention Center for free turkey, clothing,
and medical assistance, as well as warm, genuine smiles and hospitality
that lasted at least as long as the cameras were rolling.
The JobLINC bus was parked outside the convention center, and
I went on board. A simple brochure was provided, as well as a
cheerful but brief explanation of how it could help me find a
job. I was offered The Commercial Appeals Employment Today section,
shown a bulletin board with various job listings, and was then
left alone. I never indicated whether or not I could read. There
were some general labor positions listed on the bulletin board,
but most of the jobs required at least an associate degree, and
often a bachelors degree, or advanced technical training and
experience. There was literature concerning education on one of
the shelves, but it was never offered, so I wandered off.
There were surprisingly few people milling about the lobby of
the convention center, and I noticed that the escalators had been
turned off. A string of happy greeters (some of whom were members
of the Tiger basketball team) wished me happy Thanksgiving and
directed me toward the turkey. The second floor was packed with
people, and above the roar came the amplified voices of a gospel
trio singing a cappella. I was whisked in and fed in a matter
of minutes. It was a traditional meal right down to the pecan
pie, with volunteers bringing pitchers of soft drinks by regularly.
It was tasty, hot and filling, and the service was better than
any I have ever gotten in a Memphis restaurant. Every refill came
with a smile and a chipper, Happy Thanksgiving.
There were news crews everywhere, and reporters walking about
with memo pads. I declined being filmed or interviewed on no less
than five occasions. One especially perky reporter from WPTY (Channel
24) seemed to get a little miffed by my refusal to be interviewed
on camera, and asked, But dont you want to be on TV? with the
pained expression of a cheerleader who has smelled something bad.
Waiting to see the doctor, I overheard the woman sitting next
to me declare, I wish they would hurry up so I can get up out
of here and get me something to eat. She was bouncing her grandbaby
on her knee.
Didnt they feed you? I asked, and she looked at me like I was
It wasnt enough.
Behind me another woman showed off a tiny baby. This is number
nine, she said. The twins are 18 now. I would have never guessed
her to be more than 25 herself.
The medical exam was quick but not rushed, and I was offered flu
and pneumonia shots, given medication for congestion, and provided
with a plastic card with the name, address, and phone number of
a clinic that offered free medical treatment year-round.
You need to get you a winter coat. A man said to me, touching
my thin jacket. Its gonna get cold.
Are there any left? I asked, but he was too busy trying on his
new coat and checking out the other goodies in his box to respond.
By 12:40 the crowd had thinned and the news crews were gone, as
were the last of the winter coats. Only a few thin suit jackets
remained. Individually wrapped pieces of pie were being handed
out, and volunteers had begun to hastily strip down the tables
and stack the chairs. Several people gathered around the stage
to sing along with the Watson Singers. Out in the hall, another
group hovered around a bank of cellular phones to make free long-distance
calls to family and friends. There was a woman from Portland waiting
to call her oldest son. She had two little girls with her.
I hitchhiked into Memphis 13 years ago. Its an easy place to
get into, she said, shaking her head, and a hard place to get
out of. A hard place to get out of. The little girls clapped
when their mother got her turn at the telephone.
Do you know the number? a volunteer asked.
Well, I ought to, Ive been calling it for 30 years.
I left the convention center and headed south on the mall toward
Beale Street, where it was reported that the Hard Rock Cafe was
also putting on a spread for the less fortunate. As I passed Court
Square, another tattered man called to me. Are they still feeding?
They were packing up when I left, I told him, but if you hurry
you might be able to get something. His face dropped into his
hands, and I moved on.
Take it easy, brother, I heard him call, and turning back to
wave, I saw that he had climbed into the monkey grass to relieve
himself on Opportunity.
Handy Park was full of others who had migrated from the convention
center, rifling through the bags of T-shirts and boxes of new
pants. I sat down on a bench next to a woman named Lisa who was
taking off her shoes.
I know how it is when those dogs start barking, said the man
taking up a collection for some quarts of beer. Sometimes you
gotta pet them.
Lisa laughed and rubbed her scaly feet. In a voice that was little
more than a raspy whisper, Lisa explained that she had gotten
stranded in Memphis the night before, and had slept too late to
go to the convention center. When I asked where she had slept,
she answered, You know, and nodded her head in the direction
of the river.
Im lonely, she croaked. Would you like to do something with
I invited her to join me at the Hard Rock for some food, but she
declined the offer, making me promise to come back when I was
done. We could do something.
Four or five members of the Hard Rock wait staff danced to Twist
and Shout in front of the entrance to the new club. As I moved
to go inside, one of them stopped me with both arms extended to
keep me from coming any closer. We arent serving anymore, he
said, in a voice which was not mean, but certainly not apologetic.
What if I want to pay for my food?
We open at 4 oclock. If you want to buy food you can come back
at 4 oclock. Two shabbily dressed men came out grinning and
slapping each other on the back. I thought I would go ahead and
tell the waiter that I was a reporter and ask if I could just
go in for a minute to talk to the stragglers, but when I moved
toward him he extended his arms again and said, with considerable
attitude, I said 4 oclock.
When I turned to leave they all broke into laughter, and when
I looked back they had resumed their dancing. n(Chris Davis, who is not homeless, works for The Memphis Flyer.)
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