I was once a community organizer. For many years, I was quite vocal in a far-larger-than-some-think subculture. I managed a decent-sized group, organized monthly meet-and-greets, the whole thing. I discovered one of the harder tasks was finding essentially free meeting space for groups as large as 30 people. For the record, the hardest task was dealing with non-violent overthrows, but that is another story.
In 1999, while attending graduate school in Lexington, Kentucky, I practically lived at a local coffee shop called Magic Beans. It was more convenient for me to hold my teaching assistant office hours there. I was such a frequent customer, I got to know the young owner Keith and his wife Melinda. One slow afternoon, I told Keith about my space problems. He asked me what the meetings were and as soon as I mentioned the name of my group, his eyes went wide. My reputation had preceded me again! Knowing who I was and what we were doing, Keith offered me a trade. I could have full use, all day, of the normally-closed coffee shop on Sundays. All I had to do was “cover” his lunch four days a week so that he could actually leave the place for a while.
I learned how to run the fancy espresso machine, how to make the amazing hot chocolate, why filtered water tastes best, and how to roast green coffee beans in a popcorn popper. When I say someplace makes a good cup of coffee, I have a passing frame of reference.
It was at Magic Beans that I met “James Brown,” aka Henry Earl. He was a well-known homeless alcoholic, a local anti-celebrity.
He hung around the coffee shop and YATS (which served the most amazing Cajun food) because the staff was kind and well-meaning. Henry Earl could count on some coffee, a muffin, often some rice. “It’s real food, better tasting,” he would say, eating a few bites, “better than that other shit.” Well, he would say that if he was sober, which was exceedingly rare. Henry Earl would disappear for a few days, a week or two, then he would show up, dancing, singing, begging for change. He occasionally scared away the more timid students and better-dressed patrons from local office buildings just a few short blocks away, but he was mostly harmless.
He wasn’t great for business, but some gentle prodding was usually enough to get him to move along to his next stop. Some gentle prodding accompanied with a couple bucks worked even better.
As the weather changed, the wind grew colder, and the thoughts of students turned towards Thanksgiving and final exams, Keith tried again and again to encourage Henry Earl to move to Florida. “Get on a bus, James Brown,” Keith would say. “Go where its warm, man. Stay the winter.” Henry Earl would take his coffee, mumble something about liking it where he was, maybe sing a song for a few coins, and then leave.
Keith would not be put off. Magic Beans hosted a fund raiser. The goal was to purchase Henry Earl a one-way bus ticket to Miami, and get him out of Lexington. The support was, well not amazing, but it was there. A few dollars here, a few dollars there, and eventually enough money was raised for the ticket. Keith successfully put him on a bus heading south; and until last week, that was the last I thought I would ever hear of Mr. Henry “James Brown” Earl.
A few months later, Keith had to close the coffee shop. I moved with the family out of Lexington to a much smaller town, though not that far away. Nearly ten years later, the kids graduated high school and I moved here, to the city with more lawyers per square mile than any other in the United States. I don’t remember ever thinking of Henry Earl in all that time.
Last week, I saw a news headline “Lexington Man Arrested 1,000 Times.” Curious, I clicked the link.
A Lexington man, now famous for how many times he’s been arrested, is again making headlines.
Yesterday, Henry Earl answered to a judge on a charge of alcohol intoxication – a crime he’s now committed one-thousand times.
Henry Earl is a man well known inside the Fayette County Detention Center and well beyond the walls. He’s an internet [sic] sensation for the sheer number of times he’s been arrested.
I double-checked the photos; it was definitely the same man I had met nine years earlier. I could not believe that the homeless drunk we had sent to Florida on a bus was now an Internet star. I googled him. There are 6,840 hits for “Henry Earl”+drunk. There are web pages devoted to his escapades, celebrating each arrest. There are rss feeds for immediate updates. If one really needs to know the status of this guy, the Internet will provide.
I am not interested.
When I moved to DC, just over a year ago, I noticed the homeless everywhere. I was so proud of my ability to see those invisible people, the ones without homes, without sobriety, without sanity sometimes, that I practically bragged about it. I carried dollar coins around with me so that I could give them out as “treats” when I was accosted for change. I bought dollar-meals I didn’t like at fast food restaurants just so I could give them to people who looked hungry.
How I have changed in the last fifteen months. Just yesterday, I was making my way to the sales office for my new penthouse condominium, with my iPod ear buds firmly in place; walking while staring straight ahead. A man dressed in layer upon layer of clothing staggered towards me and tried to catch my attention. I tilted my chin up a little higher, stared at my goal building a little harder, and stepped a little faster. I was passing through the worst part of my short walk and I wasn’t about to stop. As I passed the man, the stench of unwashed clothing and flesh nearly overwhelmed me, he was that close. When I didn’t stop, he shouted an expletive at me. I just kept walking, kept ignoring him.
I am still not sure if I was trying to feel safer, or if I was trying to justify my callousness. I remember Henry Earl. I wasn’t afraid of him, but he was annoying. I remember the invisible people are still out there now, just past my door step, living in the park outside the soon-to-be-mine penthouse condo. I am just having a really hard time caring about them. Sometimes they are really annoying too.
A couple of people have asked me if I could tell why I changed, how I went from helpful to heedless. At first I was going to be all clever and crap. I thought I knew. However, I started reading through my journal, looking for a clue. This is for Idol, after all. I might be able to try and BS the public, but I really can’t be that clever with myself. I found an entry back in June of this year that I had forgotten.
In a nutshell, someone was stabbed, in broad daylight, right at the corner where my building is. I learned this after walking home from the Metro station, through the massive police presence (looking for the attacker who was on foot), past the scene of the crime, and into my building. There, the desk supervisor had explained it all. So, I guess I am scared. I should care about the problems, but I can’t. Not right now. And that is a more honest answer.
Addendum 10/04/08 (for the web publication):
This essay was originally written for a somewhat grueling writing competition called “The Real LJ Idol” (it is scheduled to last for six months, and the last person standing wins). Since submitting it for public view, some of amazing things have happened.
First, as a direct result, an old friend found me, pointed me to fan group for Magic Beans on Facebook, and there I found Keith! This made me quite happy. I had wondered what had happened to him. I still have my old Magic Beans coffee mug in storage; I will get it on my next trip back to Kentucky, and use it when I go to Starbucks.
Second, Keith read this essay. Between my medication and my medical history, much of my long term memory has suffered. He was able to remind me of the details of the Henry Earl’s “trip to Florida” that I had wrong. While I have not changed the entry, as the details do not actually change the point of the story, I appreciate his help. When I write my memoir, it will be nice to have the details correct.
Third (and last), I have had several days to re-evaluate my feelings, to face my fears. I still live in a fairly dangerous neighborhood. I have seen drug deals. I have been stared down by the dealer’s body guards for being a bit too curious. I have been followed by groups as I walked home from the grocery store, and I have been invited to work as a prostitute.
The homeless are still everywhere. I take their photos in parks, and I wonder if I should offer them money for this simple act. This neighborhood, this city, is a scary place, but I do not want to be afraid. I want to care again, to reclaim my small-town innocence. In time, I think I will.