Between a Rock and a Hard Place

For one day at least the city turned its attention to the homeless.

by Chris Davis

In 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 city’s 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

After finishing his meal at the Memphis Thanksgiving Dinner, “Ed” rests on a downtown bench.

in letters 6 inches high beneath the optimistic Mr. Malone’s likeness. It looks like a tombstone.
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!” or “Sis-Boom-Bah.”
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 Appeal’s 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 bachelor’s 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 don’t 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.
“Didn’t they feed you?” I asked, and she looked at me like I was stupid.
“It wasn’t 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. “It’s 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. It’s 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, I’ve 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.
“I’m lonely,” she croaked. “Would you like to do something with me?”
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 aren’t 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 o’clock. If you want to buy food you can come back at 4 o’clock.” 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 o’clock.”
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.)

This Week's Issue | Home

Times • Helvetica • n