Southern Poverty

I never learned to ice skate, so I cut through a dimly lit parking garage in the middle of an awful, freezing night to rest my legs from the slipping and sliding on my way from the late shift at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to my snow-covered car.  I felt the presence before I saw it, then I glimpsed the shadow moving toward me, growing bigger and bigger.  There are times throughout life we have to prepare to die, and I suppose I was as ready then as I’ll ever be. Out of a deep, dark corner the man came.  Then, he shouted, “Hey, man, what’s up?”  It was Big Al, My Personal Wino.

That was one of the few times I was genuinely glad to see Big Al and not some other crazy person, but I do think kindly about him sometimes, especially on snowy, icy nights such as these, sleeping as he often did on cardboard boxes on the hard city streets, ready to attach himself like some conscience leech.  Big Al was my cross and shield for nearly four years, lurking around my car in the wee hours most weeknights, needing $20 for some imagined emergency but also warding off other creatures of darkness.  Big Al was a pity and a con.  God knows how many dead uncles I gave him money to bury.  His “daughter” was brutally murdered, then resurrected to need money from me to get her driver’s license.  I gave him money in the middle of the night at least twice to take the Greyhound bus to visit his ailing mother in South Carolina; he was always back the next morning, declaring he’d had a real nice trip.  I never actually believed his wild stories — OK, maybe once or twice — but I figured I owed him something for his theater of the night.

On that particular scary, snowy night, Big Al needed a ride home.  He was a homeless man with many homes.  I even met some of his supposed cousins and aunts, though he confessed later that they were perhaps simply drug dealers and pimps — and at least two surprisingly attractive hookers — that he’d gotten to know through the years.  I never knew who they really were, but they took in Big Al from the streets for a night or two, and I could not deny that that was a special kindness, particularly from people who seemed just one illicit deal gone wrong from being out there with him.

I told Big Al the weather was way too bad for me to be driving him into the badlands that late at night.  I had visions of tires spinning on ice in a hail of gunfire.  Big Al was insistent, as always, pointing out that he would surely freeze to death in that parking garage if I left him there.  For once, his scam had validity.  I tried to be firm, suggesting that I drop him off at a homeless shelter.  Unfortunately, he knew that I knew no homeless shelter opens its doors to late-night creatures of darkness.  Before I could come up with another excuse to abandon him, he hopped out of my car and began scraping ice off my windshield.  He never let me forget that small gesture of helpfulness.  Months later when I would be standing my ground against driving him into one more dangerous neighborhood to sleep with a “cousin,” he inevitably would say, “Remember that night I got out in the freezing cold and scraped that ice off your windshield.  We been friends a long time.”

And, in a way, we were.  I can’t say that I ever truly got to know Big Al, nor did I truly want to, but he taught me an amazing lot about homelessness, hopelessness and survival.  We had some adventures, too, and I’ll share a few of those in the coming months.  With a decent education, I’m convinced, Big Al could’ve been a star at Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers.  He was that good a scam artist.

But in a warped way, I think, Big Al preferred the streets.  How he got there is surely a social tragedy that I’m not sure he even remembers.  We never talked much about his past, and no arresting officer or social agency was ever able to repair it.  He lived in a bizarre, practical present.

On another freezing night, he abruptly appeared under the street lights looking like an enormous teddy bear, wrapped in layers of coats and blankets, fresh off the cardboard-covered pavement, wanting his $20, for watching my car.  He had persuaded himself — and me — that watching my car was his job, and that I owed him.  He caught me that night in another weather-related moment of sympathy.

Shivering in the cold myself, I told him I would bring him a genuine sleeping bag the next day.  He said he didn’t want one.  “A sleeping bag, you have to carry around all day,” he said.  “A cardboard box you can just throw away.”

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Ron Taylor

Ron Taylor

Ron Taylor was born and raised in Georgia and worked more than 40 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a reporter and editor and as an online producer for ajc.com and AccessAtlanta. He served for a time as the newspaper's regional editor, overseeing coverage of the South. He is co-author, with Dr. Leonard Ray Teel, of Into the Newsroom:  An Introduction to Journalism and has conducted workshops in the Middle East on feature writing.

6 Comments
  1. Lee Leslie

    Their potential for Wall Street and ours for the street – maybe that is the basis of empathy. Twenty dollars or more often for me, a few dollars, won’t unleash their potential in “productive” society, but may get them something to eat and allow me to sleep knowing they are always in the shadows. It also may buy just enough beer to get them arrested or just enough cash to get hurt in a fight or a Marta ride to a place of safety or the price of admission at a shelter. Complicated stuff.
    I knew sleeping bags seldom last as long as cardboard (we gave all of our sleeping bags away years ago), but it reminded me of our community’s recycling center and the sinister machinations going on – the building owners, Post Properties, have built an expensive cage around and over it so it can be locked (electronic keys, no less) to keep the homeless from taking the boxes (and making a mess) – we won’t even let them have our trash.
    I enjoyed the post and am better this AM for having read it. Hope to learn more of Big Al.

    1. Ron Taylor

      Yes, very complicated stuff. I was always relieved when Big Al got his time-outs in the city jail. They were good breaks for my social conscience and pocketbook, but I never saw that jailtime improved Big Al or society. Big Al hustled me pretty much everytime we met, which was way too often, but I can’t recall that he was ever deliberately cruel to me, unlike many people in much higher positions in our society.

  2. If we really believe in human liberty, then there’s no reason why people shouldn’t live in the street or park benches, if that’s where they want to be. When we acquired our ancient house guest, it was because we asked him if he wanted to come live with us. True, the building inspector had given him an incentive by condemning his trailer. But, my interest wasn’t so much as salvaging a person who’d fallen on hard times as it was in not letting him fall into the clutches of self-important social service workers who resented that he hadn’t welcomed their instructions to “call me,” if he thought he needed something.
    It’s very hard for people not to extract something for whatever they give. Often it ends up being someone else’s dignity. You seem to have managed not to fall into that trap with Big Al. Being told a good story for $20 doesn’t seem a bad deal.

    1. Ron Taylor

      Indeed. A night at the theater costs a lot more these days, and Big Al was often more entertaining than any play I’ve seen, and, in his own peculiar way, a very decent human being.

  3. Ron,
    Thanks for a thought provoking story. I’ve met many Big Als over the past 30 years. I look forward to the next installments.

  4. Bill Phillips

    Great story. I’ve had one good friend who ended up on the streets (a woman whom I’m told still wanders around in Phoenix. She was a highly paid tech-businesswoman in the late 80’s and early 90’s.) And, another close friend had a brother who ended up on the beaches of California (and was eventually killed by a hit and run car accident.) So, I know a couple of stories of where they come from. The California fellow came from a very affluent, Stanford/Berkeley/MIT educated family with 6 kids.
    There have been days, I’ve wondered if I’m next, the stories ring so close to home. Someone needs to go undercover and hang out with these folks for a while and get some stories and write a book. Any takers?

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