Weekly Wire
Metro Pulse Street Life

Inside the lives of five people who call the streets home.

By John Clendenon

MAY 11, 1998:  The Click.

You have to be homeless to understand some of the sights and sounds of Knoxville, the drinking town with the football problem. "I hate that sound, but I don't take it personally anymore," says Bernie, a 41-year-old Steven Wright lookalike who, because of a substance abuse problem, has been in and out of the Salvation Army men's shelter a couple times in the past two years. He's a waiter at one of Knoxville's nicer downtown restaurants and an avid reader, but he might as well be a drive-by shooter.

The click is the sound homeless people hear at a Broadway or Gay Street intersection when the car-door locks of normal citizens slam down. If you're homeless, you never really get used to it. "They think we're all armed and dangerous, and morons to boot," adds Bernie, a serious Florida State football fan from Panama City.

Some of the city's estimated 2,000 homeless are criminals and not exactly waiting for a call from Harvard's admissions office, but stereotyping can get you in trouble, too. Some of them are college educated, took a wrong turn, and are on the way back. Like Bernie. For others, there's no hope—throw away the key. They are predators who seem to enjoy being homeless. Knoxville is considered one of the most homeless-friendly cities in the South. With a half-dozen shelters and several food banks, there's always plenty of free food and lodging. And for the predators, the four-letter dirty word to dread is w-o-r-k. They con, they steal, they set their own hours.

There's a strange dichotomy at work here: To the average citizen the crowd of unshaven panhandlers dotting the landscape outside the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission on North Broadway isn't a pretty sight. But get beyond that, and the picture becomes muted. For every alcoholic and crackhead, there's a homeless person who screwed up and is fighting to return to a so-called normal lifestyle.

"We all have to make choices, and they're not always easy ones," says Ginny Weatherstone, the executive director of the Volunteer Ministry Center, a day shelter where the homeless can get free meals, wash their clothes and themselves, and hang out after the Mission and Salvation Army boot them out for the day at 7 a.m. After a year on the job, Weatherstone is a realist.

"I came in with much more of a bleeding heart than I have now," she says. "I didn't know where street people came from, and I wasn't aware how high the percentage of mental illness was—I'd guess about 40 percent. The average citizen has cause to be scared, because some of these people are very dangerous. Should you feel sorry for some of them? Yes. But it should not end there. Knoxville is a very, very generous town, but we need to channel our compassion to help people help themselves."

So the click makes some sense—that might be an escaped convict on foot. But the homeless person in your rear-view mirror could also be a UT grad who will be driving his BMW again on an interstate near you. Stuff happens—there but for the grace of God. Like Weatherstone, you may have wondered where street people actually come from—they couldn't always have been homeless, could they? Here are just some of the personal stories of Knoxville's homeless:

Tango says he's never talked in any detail about the tragedy that marked his life forever. Imagine if this had happened to you: one of your children dying in your arms. It happened in 1992, when Tango was 27 and had just been reunited with 3-year-old Christina.

"My sister [Becky] and I were having lunch on Magnolia when Christina walked outside and I heard a car screech," he recalls, the words coming swiftly and painfully in his gravel delivery. "Then I see my daughter on the ground, and while someone called an ambulance, I picked her up. She was in my arms, and her last words were, 'Daddy, I love you.' It stunned me at first—I had a death grip on her; you know, like when you're a kid and your mother tries to take a toy away from you. Becky said, 'You've got to let her go.' I can talk about it now. I often wonder what she would have wanted me to do. Get on with my life, screw up, drop off a bridge...?"

Well, Tango lives outside under a bridge now, or wherever the 6-foot teddy bear can find some privacy and security on Knoxville's streets. Clearly, the bearded 33-year-old West Virginian has never recovered from the death of his daughter. He had left his family and arrived in Knoxville in 1991, a geographic move forced by chemical addiction, and entered the drug rehab program at the Mission. He was sober for nine months before he started drinking every day. One day he called his sister and she said, "Guess what—your daughter's here."

"[Christina] told me she wanted to come live with me. When I said I was on the streets, she said she still wanted to live with me. My wife had dropped her off at Becky's. I didn't want to say yes or no—why bring someone on the streets at that age? I can barely take care of myself. I figured when she got to the right age, we could try it out. Then my wife reappeared and wanted my daughter back. There was an argument and I slapped the shit out of her. I told my sister to move and hide my daughter. Then we had lunch."

Tango sleeps inside at the Mission only when it gets cold, but he has goals, and one of them is a home—nothing fancy, "no big house." Unlike most of the homeless, he doesn't get a disability check. "Most of them blow it in two days; most of them are assholes. I exist day by day; I kinda panhandle, but I don't steal. I'll work, if I can find what I want, particularly electrical work. But I'm not flippin' hamburgers."

He remains extremely cynical of the homeless scene here. "I was told Knoxville was a good place for the homeless, but it's not—it sucks. It's all about cheese [money]. The shelters are not sincere about getting people back on their feet. But a lot of the homeless need to get off their ass. All they want to do is smoke crack, panhandle, and sell their bodies. Anything but work."

Cash is Tango's buddy and together—well, the streets make for strange bondings, because Cash, the one they call Redneck, is an African-American from West Tennessee. It's difficult to find someone you can trust on Broadway and Gay. "We just sort of clicked," Cash says of Tango. "Most of my friends are white; I don't see no colors." Cash is a 40-year-old alcoholic with a variety of disabilities. At roughly 5'8" and 170 pounds, he looks like a punch-drunk prize-fighter who has taken about 3,000 unnecessary shots to the head. He is legally blind in his left eye, the result of a nasty wreck, and walks with a severe limp in his right leg, a souvenir of an Army incident 20 years ago he won't discuss.

The wreck still haunts Cash, because it is a not-so-distant memory of "when I had it going on." Just out of 30-day rehab in Memphis, he thought he had his life together in 1989. Then his mother died of cancer and his wife left with their daughter. "I just didn't care anymore," he recalls painfully. "I had bought a new Bronco and I wrecked it, just drove myself right off the road, and it ruined my eyesight." The youngest of six kids, Cash was particularly close to his mother. "She drank, but she was a good woman; I was her baby." The Lions Club job training program brought him to Knoxville six years ago, but unfortunately his life hasn't gotten much better.

Unable to do masonry work ("I was good at it"), Cash gets a disability check, though it is in limbo now until August because of a con man's theft of his ID. He drinks most of it, particularly on the weekends when he gets bored, and he has the potential to turn from one of Knoxville's nicest, most engaging street personalities into an unruly drunk. Cash unplugged is not a pretty sight as he staggers from Market Square to the VMC to the Mission, running his mouth.

He still harbors hopes of reuniting with his wife and 17-year-old daughter, who now live in Morristown. He communicates with his daughter by phone and saw her recently ("she gave me 20 bucks"). Clearly, it is the loss of family that pains him most. "I'm the true homeless person," he says. "I have no family now, no support system, nobody to have Sunday dinner with. The rest of 'em have a place to go. It hurts so bad sometimes. You wake up from drinking with no money in your pocket, broke. And you can't go home."

But Cash does have family. It's just pride that keeps him from connecting with his lawyer brother, for instance.

"I'd go but I don't want them to see me the way I look. They have no idea. I'd call, say something, but I don't know what to say. I'm not going to be on the streets forever, though. One of these days I'll get my own place, get back in touch with the Lions Club. I'm gonna make those calls."

Big Bobby has a good point. "Even Jesus was homeless," he says as he surveys his domain, Market Square, which is devoid of TVA workers and the weekday bunch-for-lunch crowd on this Saturday morning. Everybody in downtown Knoxville knows Big Bobby, the Haystacks Calhoun of Gay Street, who has a slight penchant for heavy drinking.

It's 9:30, and he's had only a couple drinks. Sometimes he starts boozing as early as 4:30 a.m., or "whenever I can get it." At 5-foot-11 and 320 pounds, Big Bobby used to drink a half-gallon of whiskey a day, but at the age of 57, he's cut his daily intake to a fifth. Whatever, his golden rule still holds: "I never drink on Sunday; it's my day to rest, get my stomach straightened out." In Big Bobby's world, rules are rules. When he's barred from the Mission for intoxication, he leaves quietly, without a fuss. And he gets along famously with the cops, who've given him hundreds of public-intoxication and open-container tickets and as many trips to detox and the Knox County jail. "They all know me; they like to see me come. Bud and Charlie at detox, they'll say, 'Bobby, you're back again. aren't you?'"

He doesn't panhandle and, he says, "nobody takes advantage of me." That includes his sister in Greeneville, his hometown, who receives his retirement and disability checks and sees that Big Bobby gets money when he calls and requests it. He has three children; one of his two daughters is a beautician in Greeneville, the other is a psychiatrist in Nashville. He hasn't had any contact with his son, a newspaperman in Atlanta, for 10 years. Not coincidentally, he's been homeless for the last decade, ever since Austin Tobacco Company closed its doors for good in Greeneville.

Big Bobby collects his pension for 25 years of service with a steel mill in DeKalb, Ill. He retired with asthma, high blood pressure, and a failed marriage at the age of 45 and returned to Greeneville for the job at Austin Tobacco. His drinking had started in Greeneville when he was 13. "My dad was a pro boxer, and he ran a gym. I would go get 25 bottles of rubbing alcohol at 10 cents a bottle, get a can of beer, hide in the woods, and be high as a kite."

Now, clad in his signature denim overalls, he's the unofficial mayor of Market Square.

Michelle One says all the right things, can charm a career grump, has the potential to do well at any upstanding career she chooses to embark on. She has the look of a winner temporarily down on her luck. Michelle Two flits around town, using just about any man she meets with a few dollars in his pocket to get a nice buzz going, whether it's with a free drink or a joint, or worse.

At 32, Michelle is a hometown girl who's occasionally stuck on the Knoxville streets because of a relationship problem, usually fueled by her chemical addiction. Raised in a black middle-income family, she graduated from Austin-East, where she sang the National Anthem at basketball games. She is cute, personable, and smart, a 5-foot-3, 110-pound dynamo. Until recently she resided at the New Life Inn, a shelter for homeless women opened on Gay Street a few months ago by the Knox Area Rescue Mission. In her third week she failed a random drug test and broke the 9 p.m. curfew by nine hours. The latter led to a 10-day grounding. Three days after the penalty was lifted, she left and moved in with a new male acquaintance.

Shortly after arriving at the New Life Inn one moring, she puts aside the latest John Grisham bestseller for a few minutes and talks about her dreams and frustrations, her accomplishments ("I made straight A's in two years at San Diego City College") and failures ("Basically, I've had a string of dead-end jobs, four in the last two years in Knoxville"). Upon graduation in 1983 (she was pregnant the last semester), she married and had a child, separated, moved to San Diego with a boyfriend, broke up, married a second time, returned to Knoxville to help her grandmother, moved to Anaheim, then came home again in the spring of 1995 after another failed relationship. Her 14-year-old daughter lives in the suburbs with Michelle's mother-in-law.

"I feel like I'm just getting started," she says. "It's really weird, being in my hometown and nowhere to go. Being a homeless woman in Knoxville is hard. I know that I've mismanaged my life. I need to establish a stable home for my daughter, but my main immediate goal is to get back in school, finish my degree in political science, then go on to law school. For now, I think the rehab program at the New Life Inn is just what I need."

Drugs are the immediate roadblock for Michelle, who admits she became a heavy crack cocaine user three years ago. "I've been around drugs all my life; I smoked weed with my mother when I was 8 years old, and my father was a closet user. I was an alcoholic at 16. I would come home from school, and he had a bar downstairs. I was an unhappy kid. I realized something was wrong, coming home and drinking alone like that. Then I started hanging out with friends, drinking and drugging."

The past three years in Knoxville have not been pleasant. At times she has been depressed, even suicidal. She has no relationship with her father, and her mother has emotional problems after being severely injured in a car wreck 20 years ago.

At 32, Michelle is at a crossroads. It could be worse, though. She could be 67.

Papa John—cane in one hand, brown paper bag with two fifths of whiskey in the other—glides ever so slowly down Gay Street. He looks like Santa Claus after five years on a Jenny Craig diet. He's 67 now, 20 years removed from riding the rails across America, with a monthly routine that is quite predictable. Unlike most of the city's homeless who draw a disability check (roughly 70 percent), he makes his money last the month. The alcoholics usually last a week, then end up panhandling after a few days at a motel. The crackheads spend their allotment in a couple of days before preying on others. Papa John lives in a motel, eats at the Mission, and drinks at about the same rate he has for the last 44 years.

He has a steel plate in his right hip, which he broke while walking on June 17, 1997. Drunk, he wandered into the street and was hit by a car. At least he didn't get hit trying to catch a ride on a train. The third time that happened, he gave up train-hopping. Papa John is a South Carolina native who labored at a machine in a textile factory for 27 years before retiring with a pension in 1962. He caught his first train—the Seaboard Coastline—in 1955, Chattanooga to Jacksonville. It was love at first leap.

"I met a lot of nice people all those years," he says, "particularly the railroad people, the brakemen...I lived job to job, traveling the country. Nobody bothered us. The farthest I went was Washington State and California. In California I stayed at Hobo Jungle, near Oakland. You had to know the password to get in. I'd say on an average stay there would be about 90 people. It's still there. I really missed the life for a while, but I don't anymore."

Papa John seems to enjoy his life in Knoxville, where he settled in 1978. "I like the people, and they all know Papa John. I don't mistreat them, and they don't mistreat me. That's how I've survived. I have no family, so the homeless people are family for me. They're good people. Just because they're homeless, people think they're all tramps. A lot of them are intelligent and educated."

The Writer never thought it would happen to him. He was involved in a relationship that brought him to East Tennessee ("Pigeon Forge sucks"). While the lady's new career in real estate took shape, he struggled to make it as a freelance writer after 20 years in the newspaper business, mostly managing sports departments in places like Atlanta and Pittsburgh. His newspaper career nose-dived when a substance-abuse problem in the mid-'80s forced his exit from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The editor didn't take kindly to a couple of DUI's sandwiched around a 28-day rehab in the summer of '86.

When the relationship completely soured ("She liked Rush Limbaugh"), the Writer came to Knoxville in August of 1995 with 10 bucks in his pocket and landed at the Salvation Army, where the fancy resume and journalism degree from the University of Florida earned him a cot and three hots a day. Thirty-one months later, he is still struggling financially, but life has gotten considerably better and, as his 49th birthday looms, little things like cable TV have restored his enthusiasm and creativity ("people often mistake me for Robert Redford"). Cocky by nature, he found being homeless a humbling and eye-opening experience ("a year without your own place to live will do that to you").

His freelance writing career has started to take off ("I wouldn't kiss ass...never felt at peace in the corporate world. I should have been doing this all along, being an independent contractor"). He doesn't have the sports car or luxury apartment he was used to in the newspaper days, but being homeless gave him a chance to reassess his life, have an out-of-body experience that forced him to prioritize his values. ("My two young adults in Baltimore, my writing career, the part of the country where I live—quality of life, climate, friendliness of the people—count most now. I used to be a selfish jerk, blowing the good money I made on myself—trivial pursuits.")

The Writer points out, "You know, people don't basically change their stripes, but they can still improve as human beings, and that's where I am right now—a work in progress. I'm not any better than anyone else just because I was born with some smarts, have a college degree and a solid resume. If I do something stupid again [he quit his last newspaper job in 1994 in a huff, without giving notice], I could be right back out on the streets."

Because the Writer worked last year at a shelter in downtown Knoxville, he has some definite observations/opinions on the city's homeless scene:

  • "A lot of the street people are just plain lazy and are satisfied drifting through life at the expense of others. Some have the gall to criticize the quality of free meals, and others routinely turn down opportunities to work with excuses like 'it's not enough money'; then they panhandle. I'll be a happy man if I never hear 'gimme a cigarette' again.

  • "People who donate money, food, clothes, and their time to shelters should take a more up-close and personal look at the organizations they contribute to. At one shelter, deskmen routinely take the best clothes donated and keep them or sell them to the homeless, and the powers-that-be know about it. And donors to some of the shelters are under the impression there are legitimate work programs designed to get the homeless back on their feet. The next one established will be the first one. At one shelter, sponsored by a wealthy religious organization that collects $42 a week rent money, the so-called work program when I was there consisted of deskmen telling the homeless to check out a temp agency. At another, a desk person in the shelter currently rips a few stale classified ads out of the Sunday newspaper and posts them on a bulletin board, I guess so donors can see the list when they enter the shelter. You're either serious about helping people who want to work or you're just a money pit.

  • "Never do your Robert DeNiro impersonation from Taxi Driver in front of a shelter. 'You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?' almost got me grounded for life."
Of course, those are just MY opinions. And so is this one: What happened to me could happen to you.


Clendenon was the executive sports editor for the Atlanta Constitution, the Baltimore Evening Sun, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among other papers.

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