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Last night, I stopped a homeless man from choking a crack ho.
When my roommate Adam Brimer and I came out of Barleyâ€™s after swapping stories about our transformative wilderness experiences and our girlfriendsâ€”rest assured, there were no measuring tapes or trophy cases involvedâ€”we heard shouting.
An older man was chasing a heavy-set woman wearing heels and a gold blouse around my 4Runner.
â€œGimme back my money! You stole my thirty dollars!â€ He was brandishing his cane in the air. He must have had bad knees because he kept his legs straight, and that caused him to wobbled from side to side as he hurried after her.
â€œI didnâ€™t do nuffin!â€ the woman shouted back, beating a hasty retreat down the sidewalk.
â€œYou took it out of my pocket!â€
This kind of shouting match is no extraordinary occurrence in the Old City. The shelters and ministries like Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries and The Volunteer Ministry Center on Broadway and Central are less than a mile away, and many of the homeless men and women hang out and panhandle on Market Square or along Jackson Avenue. Men wearing several musty layers of mismatched clothing and missing several teeth are a part of the landscape, the same as the historic brick warehouses and the famous JFG sign.
At first, I slid into the driverâ€™s seat and started the car while Adam stood on the running board and watched the fracas.
She underestimated how quickly the old man could move even without his cane to steady him. He caught up to her, pinned her up against Adam Fultonâ€™s white sedan, and clamped both of his hands around her neck.
â€œUh-oh,â€ Adam said.
I looked over my shoulder and saw what was happening.
We both sprinted over there.
Adam grabbed the manâ€™s backpack and one of his arms. I grabbed one of his thumbs and used it to wrench that hand from the womanâ€™s neck.
She was wimpering, â€œHelp me, help me.â€
After a few moments, we got the two separated. The woman adjusted her clothing, then turned around and walked away.
The old man was beside himself. â€œDonâ€™t let her get away. She got into my pocket and took my $30.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t take nuffin from you,â€ the woman said.
â€œWhat reason would he have to accuse you then?â€ I asked.
She just looked at me then kept on walking away.
At that point, I was pretty sure the old man was telling the truth. He was probably only in his fifties, or maybe early sixties, but life on the street ages people prematurely. His lips curled in over his gums, and his eyes had that rheumy, yellowish look of constant irritation and addiction.
I learned in a course in college that the vast majority of people on the streets end up there on account of mental illness, substance abuse, or a combination of both.
â€œMan, she stole my money, man!â€ he threw his metal cane on the ground. At least while it was down there he couldnâ€™t whack me with it.
I asked him to tell me what had happened, but he kept saying over and over, â€œShe got in my pocket and stole my thirty dollars and, man, you just let her get away with it.â€
â€œWe werenâ€™t just going to stand there and let you choke her,â€ I said.
â€œShe stole my money, man.â€
â€œI believe you, but it wasnâ€™t right for you to choke her.â€
â€œWas it right for her to steal my thirty dollars?â€
â€œOf course not.â€
â€œMan, itâ€™s not fair,â€ he said and stamped his foot.
At this point, Adam Fulton and Cade Benedict came out of Barleyâ€™s. When they walked up, they were wide-eyed, looking back and forth between Adam, the homeless man, and me.
â€œDo you mind if we take my car?â€ Adam said, so we took a few steps back. They left.
â€œCall the Po-lice,â€ the man said. He just wasnâ€™t going to let it go.
â€œIâ€™ve got three dollars,â€ I said. â€œYou can have it. Itâ€™s all Iâ€™ve got. What do you need?â€
I offered him food.
â€œI want my money back. Letâ€™s go find her.â€
â€œYou know sheâ€™s long gone.â€
â€œMan, if you hadnâ€™t come along, Iâ€™d have my money.â€
I realized we werenâ€™t going to get anywhere. He was going to blame me for stepping between him and what he saw as the quickest way to get his money backâ€”depriving that woman of oxygen. I understand that people on the street live by a different code of ethics, one based on survival, not niceness. If Adam and I had simply driven away, however, my conscience would have eaten at me.
What was the right thing to do? Simply not get involved?
The theme of Sergei Bondarchuk’s Soviet film adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace has something to say about such situations:
â€œAll that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.â€
I handed the homeless the three dollars, and said to Adam, â€œCâ€™mon, this conversation is over.â€
â€œMan, whyâ€™d you get involved, man? She stole my money, and you did nothing. Call the police, man. You came in, and now I ainâ€™t never gonna get it back.â€
I think having compassion for the homeless, for the down-and-out, for the bums, whores, and junkies, is a rare trait indeed. I donâ€™t claim to be the most compassionate man living in North Knoxville. More rare than compassion, though, is the willingness to speak truth to people who are accustomed to being ignored, or at best, bribed to go away. I hope that’s what I did.
I turned back around.
â€œListen,â€ I raised my voice this time, â€œI donâ€™t know what happened before we got out here, but I do know that when I saw you choking a woman, I wasnâ€™t going to stand idly by and let you do it. I donâ€™t care if itâ€™s you or anybody else, itâ€™s never right to choke a woman. She may have stolen your $30. Iâ€™m not saying thatâ€™s right, but what I am saying is that it was wrong of you to do that to her. Youâ€™re not going to blame me for what happened. She stole your $30, huh? Well, you must have given her the opportunity.â€
Once we were in the car, all Adam and I could do was laugh at the incredulity of the situation. Adam works for Knoxville News Sentinel, and one of his gigs was shooting a prostitution sting. He now knows one when he sees one. We had just wrestled a toothless homeless man with a cane off of a prostitute who probably outweighed him by fifty pounds.
That just doesnâ€™t happen every day, so we laughed.