We'd been approaching homeless people all afternoon, badgering them with pesky questions, and it made a refreshing change when one of them decided to come talk to us. The fiftysomething lady locked eyes with photographer Daniel Kramer and me before we even parked Kramer's Sebring convertible, and abandoned her heavily-laden shopping cart on the east side of San Jacinto Street to totter over to us at our parking place on the west side.
As it happened, we were directly under the Pierce Elevated, and Kramer suddenly realized that filming this woman would be problematic. A thousand cars a minute thrumming past at 70 miles per hour, ka-chunk-a-chunking directly overhead, tends to play holy hell with your audio, he pointed out.
Meanwhile, the lady kept coming. She was positively beaming as she reached us. She offered each of us a hand, and we each grabbed ahold and gently eased her up to the sidewalk on our side of the street. I introduced Kramer and myself, told her we were journalists talking to the homeless about their lives and the one possession they owned that they loved most in the world.
And it turned out we needn't have worried about the audio for this particular interview. The smiling lady, a deaf-mute, answered me in sign language. We gave her a couple of bucks and went on our way.
Sadly, it was all too easy to find dozens of people to give us their hard-luck stories. It practically goes without saying, but the homeless are everywhere downtown — they throng San Jacinto Street pretty much from southern Midtown all the way to Buffalo Bayou and beyond, they are all around the vicinity of the downtown library, and many of them line the bayou's banks at Allen's Landing, and many others make their homes near the courthouse complex.
A few weeks back, we got to wondering what those people carried around with them. What was in those shopping carts some of them push around, aside from obvious salable merchandise like recyclable cans? Did many of them have lucky charms? Sentimental mementos of their lives before the streets? Or were they in flight from ownership and its woes? Did some or even most of them subscribe to Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" maxim: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose?"
Some of the homeless we spoke to didn't want to talk at all. Others, like the cheery lady under the Pierce Elevated, couldn't. But most of the people we talked to were only too glad to tell us their stories, even if what many of them considered a prize possession might not actually be a tangible object at all.
As the recent story of Ted Williams, the Columbus, Ohio, beggar with the golden radio voice, reminds us, every person has a story, homeless or not. While none were as obviously gifted as the troubled Williams, who checked into a Padre Island rehab facility last week, here are a few we found on the streets of Houston.
Picture of girlfriend
A 62-year-old Vietnam vet, dignified, soft-spoken Tim was born in Alabama and raised there and in Missouri and Louisiana. We spoke to him on the loading dock of a decrepit warehouse off Congress near some abandoned railroad tracks.
Many years ago now, he had a wife, a home, a job and three kids. His wife died in 1997, and things slowly fell apart after that. His kids are all grown up now — they range in age from 33 to 47. "They love me still, but I just stay out of their way," he said. "They don't need to see me like this."
Tim pulled from his wallet his favorite thing: a faded, water-damaged snapshot of himself with Leanne, his sometime girlfriend out in the streets. They met at the Beacon downtown about five years ago and still see each other from time to time. "We're both doing pretty bad right now," he said. "But we still get along pretty well."
Daughter's high school graduation photo
It's hard to believe now, but Allen's Landing was once Houston's very nexus of commerce, a place thronged by sweaty stevedores and dapper, haggling cotton factors. Today all that's left are some neglected monuments to mark the spot where the steamboats once took on great bales of cotton and chugged south towards Galveston and thence to the world.
There are also the ruins of a more recent phenomenon, the hulking remains of what in the 1960s was the Love Street Light Circus, home to many an acid-drenched 13th Floor Elevators happening. Today, Love Street's bayou frontage is a latrine, the stairs of the fire escape are rotting, the windows are broken and pigeons flap from out of the gaping holes.
At a nearby picnic table, we found 54-year-old Billy Temple sharing a bag of hot and spicy pork rinds with a buddy. Though neither appeared to be drunk, a cap to a bottle of Cobra malt liquor rested on the table.
Temple is 54 and a native of Pasadena. He spent 21 years as a long-haul truck driver, and then his heart gave out; after five heart attacks, he couldn't pass a company-mandated stress test. With his white-line fever days finished for good, he now lives off a $600 monthly disability check. He said that on some days — like the warm and pleasant one we were enjoying — his wasn't such a terrible life.
Not long ago, he shelled out over half of one of his disability checks to help fund what is now his favorite possession: a picture of his daughter Kay in her deep blue high school graduation robes. He said he sent her $400 as a gift shortly before the photo was taken, and added that his money went toward clothing her for that photo. "That was money real well-spent," he said, beaming.
"And she's in college now over in Beaumont," he said.
"Say, is this gonna be in the paper?" he asked. "Really? Maybe she will finally have something to be proud of me about now!"
John 3:16 medallion
A sensitive young man from Pittsburgh who somewhat resembled the young Laurence Fishburne, Chandler said celebrating the Steelers' last Super Bowl win sent him on a downward spiral that landed him in the streets.
He cadged a dollar off of us on Main near Preston Street. After hearing we were journalists, with no preamble Chandler asked us about the latest developments in the recent case of Jonathan Foster, the 12-year-old who was kidnapped on Christmas Eve and whose burned body was later found in a Northside ditch. Chandler was absolutely haunted by the case — he said it had been keeping him awake nights. He was enormously relieved that the killing could have been the result of a drug debt. "That's still evil, but not the kind of evil that is just plain mean," he said.
He took us to his sleeping place, a spot on the sidewalk under an air vent around the corner, and there he told us of his prized possession — one he no longer owned.
It was a John 3:16 medallion, and it had been given to him by an outreach worker. "This guy handed it to me and told me the Lord had a plan for me and never to lose the medallion," Chandler said.
And then Chandler lost it. For days he was consumed by what he saw as an overwhelming setback. The one thing he loved — indeed he now claims it was the only object he had ever loved in his whole life — was gone.
And then one day he finally found relief, if not the medallion. "I realized it wasn't the coin that mattered, but the message," he said. "That's something nobody can take away from me. It's within me."
He had finally learned to forgive himself. Chandler is all about asking for forgiveness, a concept he distinguishes from merely apologizing. "What does it mean to tell someone you're sorry?" he asked. "I know you're sorry. Ask me to forgive you. That's some real Old Testament stuff there. You can have that for free and carry it around for life."
Transistor radio lanyard
We found Richard as he was eating his lunch on the sidewalk near the back of the downtown HPD headquarters. Cool Ranch Doritos flecked his abundantly Tolstoyan beard, and his skin was so brown and wizened, you could only guess as to his ethnicity — he could have been white, Hispanic or black.
All our questions were answered with absolute economy. He'd been on the street for 20 years, he thought, and was once a bricklayer. Not long ago he found a little lanyard transistor radio in the trash, and he just loves it. He wears it around his neck and stuffs the earphones in his ears and listens to all kinds of music now: country, rock and roll, and classical. Such radios can be bought for $6 or so; if you're looking to go out and do some random acts of kindness, handing out a dozen or so of these some dreary day on skid row might make you and quite a few recipients much happier.
Astride a battered one-speed bike, laden with a bedroll and backpack, there rode Jerry Howell, a vision out of the Reconstruction-era Piney Woods backcountry. His lined face was all but hidden behind a billowing, snow-white Confederate general's beard, and his long, lank salt-and-pepper hair hung beneath a bright red cap that read "I Jesus."
He wanted to fill his water bottle at the fountain in the County Administration building at Main and Preston, but he took a few minutes to share his peculiar theology with us, his eyes afire when he talked about Jesus, and twinkling when he discussed a supernatural being unique to his own experience: a man named Rah-Rool.
He told us his heart was his prize possession, for it contained his love of Jesus, best exemplified by what he described as "the seven words that God hummed in the Bible." Though more than seven words, in rolling deep East Texas preacher cadence, he could recite the King James version of 1 John 4:2-4 from memory and with utter conviction. It begins like this: "Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God..."
And then there is the matter of Rah-Rool. Where the Internet has Chuck Norris, Howell has Rah-Rool, the Renaissance Man's Renaissance Man: a builder who puts Gerald Hines to shame, the lawman Wyatt Earp dreamed of being and a guy whose wealth makes Warren Buffett look like a low-level north Jersey loan shark by comparison.
Rah-Rool, said Howell, carried a badge and gun as a federal agent for 90 years. He built One Shell Plaza and just about every house in The Woodlands. He was, or is (Howell said Rah-Rool's coffin contained not a corpse but "a rubber man") also a heavy-equipment magnate:
"I had a whole company stolen from me that Rah-Rool built," Howell said. "Out there on Katy Freeway, it was called Incorporated Howell's — my name — Equipment. They built red backhoes — they called them the 'Hoes of Hose.' Because he's been a builder for so many years, Rah-Rool designed his own backhoe. And he had that company out there and when he left, they buried a rubber man. He faked his death. He's a billionaire-billionaire, Rah-Rool is, and he left me everything he owns."
Rah-Rool constantly tempted Howell with great riches: From 1974 to 2004, he presented Howell with a brand-new Harley Davidson every year, not to mention Corvettes and other cars. "It's all in a house he built in The Woodlands somewhere," said Howell. "A mansion." He's fine with leaving all that stuff out there, as Howell has little interest in wealth himself, he explained.
U.S. Army beret
John Cates told us that "fighting for the United States Constitution" was his favorite thing to do, and symbolic of that struggle was the black Army surplus beret he wore over his watery eyes and flushed and blood-flecked face. Though Cates never served, his dad had been a military man. Cates said that after he fought the Japanese, the French offered the elder Cates the chance to keep on fighting in Vietnam, but he chose to come home instead.
Cates has long loved to sport vintage military regalia. He did so on what was very likely one of the worst days of his life. He told us some of the details, and old newspaper articles furnished more. Back in January of 1989, he was very upset about getting fired from his job at a wrecker company on Broadway down by Hobby Airport. So Cates, then 24 years old, decided to do something about it. He strapped on a bulletproof vest and buckled on a Wehrmacht blitzkrieg helmet and headed to the dispatcher's office. In his hand, he clutched a .38 revolver, and in his soul, a grievance was gnawing, specifically: He didn't think it fair that he had been fired and his supervisor had not. Witnesses called police after they said he was menacing his former co-workers and talking "strangely."
After the police arrived, Cates fought off a cop who tried to cuff him and managed to get in his car and flee. A short, wild Gulf Freeway car chase ensued — several police cars were after him, along with two tow trucks which had joined in the pursuit for reasons of their own. Eventually, the cops and wreckers forced Cates's car to the shoulder of the Gulf Freeway. Cates got out with his hands up, but then changed his mind and went for his pistol.
He shot one of the wrecker drivers in the side. Though police fired at Cates 24 times, he was hit only once, luckily for him, in the leg. (The wrecker driver also survived his wound.) And yet Cates was still not done: he hopped in the wrecker belonging to the guy he had just shot and continued heading toward his boyhood home — a modest ranch house off Edgebrook.
Cates, whose car was allegedly found to be littered with Nazi propaganda, was finally apprehended and charged with attempted murder. He was later acquitted by reason of insanity. Cates told us he wound up doing two years in mental hospitals in Vernon and Rusk.
Today, Cates's kampf appears to be kaput, as his choice of headgear would seem to indicate he is now on the American side of World War II. Cates said he found his beret through "the AT&T Yellow Pages." He lived with his parents until he was 40; they died in 1999. Awhile back, his wife kicked him out of their house, and here he was, on a bench near Main Street Square.
Gideon's New Testament
We found Really Real in a vacant lot between a crumbling warehouse and the Eastex Freeway, not far from Minute Maid Park. Here is how he said his street name came about: "'Cause I keep it 100."
In his shades, ball-cap and black windbreaker decorated with a pattern of interlocking images of Kermit the Frog, he had as much style as anyone we saw out in the streets. He could also run some serious hustlin' game: He said he would tell us a great story if we paid him cash up front. Since he was the first guy we talked to, I agreed, and then after insisting on no less than $10, he told me that a Gideon's New Testament he salvaged from the trash was his favorite thing. I asked if he had a favorite verse, something that guided him through the long, cold nights out here in Houston's spooky, derelict Warehouse District. "Uhh, hmmmm, 'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,'" he said. He added that God had brought him into the world for a reason. "But I haven't found that reason yet," he said. "This isn't the reason."
A few minutes later, he came back to where we were talking to some other guys and asked if he could trade sunglasses with me. I let him try mine on. "These are cop shades," he said, and handed them back to me. He already had my $10. This deal was off.
His nickname was most apt: By his own estimation, the hulking, blue-eyed, blond-haired behemoth from the West Virginia coal country stood 6'5" and weighed in at 230 pounds. We found him at Peggy Point Park, across the street from the Midtown Sears, not far from the Wheeler MetroRail station.
He said that he's a trained electrician with 18 years experience but can't find a job here. He misses the mountains of his home state, but can't go back because the only jobs are in the coal mines, and he never picked up his father's all-too-often lethal trade. It might not kill you fast, but the black lung will come calling sooner or later.
Big Country said his favorite possession was his sleeping bag, which he keeps in a U.S. Army duffel bag. He has served in the military, but was tight-lipped with details: "That ain't worth talkin' 'bout," was all he'd allow in his deep, gravelly voice.
And then there's his second-favorite possession, which he fished out of the pocket of his jeans: a four-inch pocketknife. "People 'round here like to cut people," he said, disgust in his voice. "I ain't had to cut nobody yet or nothin' like that..."
We found Kathy near Allen's Landing charging her cellphone in one of the outlets embedded in a power pole — generally, these power sources are used by municipal workers. She's been in the streets for a little over a year, and she said that she and her husband were literally put there by the storms of life. In a voice rasped by Pall Mall reds, she told us how black mold ruined their home in the Northline area after Rita, and they rode out Ike while living in a hotel. And then their money ran out, and now they are on the streets.
Though she's a Baptist, Kathy loved the rosary she wears around her neck most of all. She loves it because it's sacred, and the San Antonio native believes it brings her luck.
She believes she needs all the help she can get out on the streets. Pointing to some rough-looking young men down by the bayou, she said, "Their habits are not my habits," but did not elaborate.
Still, she said that being homeless has not been an entirely negative experience. "I used to be an executive, but there are things about life out here that are better than working in an office," she said. "I've made some great friends, and they are people I never would have met if I still worked at my old job."
"I'm a people person," she added.
"Careful now," said John Parker. "I'm wanted by the FBI."
He laughed, and it soon became clear that Parker was decidedly not laboring under any of the grandiose delusions we found in some of our other subjects. In fact, Parker hardly matched any of our other subjects in any way, shape or form.
He was in the streets by lucid choice. "I enjoy being a drifter around the country," he told us as he sat on a park bench near the reflection pond in front of City Hall. Nearby, another homeless man swung a baseball bat and dug in against an imaginary pitcher. The American flag snapped in the warm breeze above the Art Deco city hall, as the aquamarine waters flashed bright sunshine in the ornamental pool. Parker pretty much defines the word "grizzled" — with his olive skin, bushy moustache and wavy long white hair, he looked like an old Turkish bandit. (He told us his mother was of Middle Eastern origin, even though he himself was as Midwestern as they come — a native of Des Moines, Iowa.)
Parker seemed straight out of the pages of John Steinbeck, a philosophical Depression-era hobo, albeit one with a high-tech twist.
We say high-tech because John Parker's favorite possesion was the sleek black laptop he unsheathed from the computer bag at his feet. He charged it on plugs at the public library and used the city's free WiFi to log on, and he said he spent most days chatting with women all over the world on a site called Tagged.com. Kramer, our photographer, was quite taken with Parker's life. "Man, I might just get rid of my apartment and sit around chatting with Russian women out in the sunshine all day," he would later say. "Homelessness with a laptop doesn't seem bad at all."
You might think keeping a laptop among the homeless would be more trouble than it was worth, but Parker said he was more than capable of taking care of it. "Don't let my disposition fool you," he said. "I might seem like a calm guy, but I spent three years in the Army. I can take care of myself, believe me." He added that he had to break a young guy's knee just the year before. Parker also said that the laptop serves as his pillow every night — so it's unlikely that anyone could snatch it while he was asleep. The only scenario in which he could imagine losing it would be if he walked off and left it unattended somewhere, and he said he wouldn't do that.
The laptop had been a gift from another homeless guy, he said. Having it enabled him to avoid all the lines for computer time at the public library, but he wishes the free city WiFi would work a little better: Pages took forever to load when he tried to show us his favorite sites and online global harem.
Like a snowbird sans RV, Parker comes to Houston every winter — each year, he comes back to the same spot under a bridge near Sam Houston Park, and every year, the other homeless recognize his claim. Parker summers in the northwest — places like Montana and rural Washington state, where he picks up ranch work. In a previous life he had been a family man, and he has adult kids. He recently found out that he was a grandfather via social networking sites. He hasn't contacted them, as he fears what they would think of his homelessness.
She told us to call her Sister Jay.
We found her pushing an overloaded shopping cart near the pink-and-lavender Navigation underpass/gateway to the barrio. Near her feet I found an empty bottle of codeine pills. "Hey, y'all wanna Diet Coke?" she asked as we approached. "I found these out behind Lucky's Pub. They're expired but I am sure they're fine. They let me recycle back there, but not the men. The men are too messy." She didn't ask for payment — it was her gift to us.
Her love of God was her prized possession. It wasn't always so, she said. "When I fought Satan off, it felt like there was a two-ton brick on my arm when I tried to raise my hand to accept Jesus."
Symbolic of that love is, or was, her favorite material object. A Bible, and not just any Bible, but, as she elaborated, a "New American Standard edition, published in Wheaton, Illinois, in either 1968 or 1972." She said her copy was stolen down around Freeport by a Captain Roger Thorpe of the Salvation Army.
"That was the best-written Bible ever," she said.
"And it controls part of the White House," she added casually.
And then she was off. She claimed to have written something called "The Ultimate Power Case," a staggering legal treatise containing 269 laws that have since been enacted from coast to coast. She further claimed to have penned every bicycle law and to be an expert in "non-contestable death penalty cases." Beyond her legal skills, she said she had devised a devastating military tactic capable of winning enormous battles with minimal loss of life.
As suddenly as she slipped off on these tangents, she came back to Earth. She said that "the free food people" should pass out cans of Slim-Fast and make the coffee with good water. "Some hot chocolate would be nice too," she said. (Good ideas all.)
And she wished more people would shop at La Familia Meat Market on the corner of Canal and St. Charles, because the people there were very kind and the food was good.
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