29 November 2007

The Anonymous Dead

The annual list of homeless people who died during the year was posted recently. It is not all inclusive, but it is long. Two names I recognize: Earl Mann and Dewitt Battle. Mr. Mann had been living at a Tender Mercies building these past few years. If you recall seeing a black man in his seventies, with a shoulder bag, a duffle bag, and a briefcase, teetering down the street, that might have been Earl Mann. He favored wide brimmed hats, and tended to dress inappropriately for the weather, especially in summer, when he wore tweedy sport coats, often with a sweater underneath. His sojorns outdoors in July and August were rare. Earl Mann tended to repeat the last word or phrase you spoke to him. If you asked, "Hey, Mr. Mann, would you like some coffee," he responded quietly with, "Coffee, coffee, coffee, yes, yes, coffee, gonna raise that caffeine level, caffeine level." He didn't rave. He was conversational. He did a lot of magical thinking about things like gravity, which he believed could be counteracted locally, causing whoever was near the counteraction to fly high into the sky. He believed that the U.S. banking system and the Federal Reserve became "stressed out" if people use too many large bills. When he cashed his SSI check he requested mostly singles. Of course, he created the impression that he was carrying more money than he actually was. Once he was mugged after exiting the bank, and his assailants became vexed when they realized that the thick wad they took from him was all one dollar bills. They returned to where they left him lying and kicked him several more times for the inconvenience he caused them. He spent a couple of days at UC, and ate more charity meals than usual that month. After that, Earl requested fewer singles, but he still worried about contributing to the stress under which the Federal Reserve struggled. Dewitt Battle, another Tender Mercies resident, had good days and bad days, depending on whether he was taking his meds. When not taking his meds he held the belief that he was the love child of Fidel Castro and an afro-carribean voodoo priestess named Chantel. Dewitt, when in this state of mind, hewed assiduously to the communist party line. "When we take over, y'all gonna be gone! I'm a communist! I'll be sittin' at the chairman's right. You all be sittin' in a eight by eight!" He would toss his head back and cackle, displaying the two teeth that remained in his head. He walked with some difficulty. Years ago, when Dewitt was still living on the street, he made the mistake of getting drunk in January. He fell asleep on a bench in Washington Park. He awoke the next day at UC, with most of his toes having been amputated because of frostbite. Naturally, after his feet healed, he had some trouble keeping his balance. He was fitted for special shoes which conformed to the shape of what remained of his feet, and for awhile these shoes enabled him to walk more easily. But Dewitt got involved with a younger woman --- he loved younger women --- who turned out to be a crack addict. One night, after he fell asleep, she stole his special shoes, believing that they would fetch a good price, that she'd be flush with cash to buy many days worth of crack. Of course, she was mistaken. The shoes' orthotic design conformed only to Dewitt's toeless feet, and were useless to anybody else. Dewitt was also notorious for his bawdy verse. Sometimes he would talk in exuberant, metrically-challenged rhymes. His sudden and extremely loud poetic outbursts usually included much profanity and graphic sexual references. Sometimes he would begin singing old songs in his resonant bass-baritone. He remembered song lyrics from forty years ago, but he couldn't recall what happened earlier that morning. He said he played drums, hard bop jazz, when he was in his prime. Dewitt smoked prodigiously, and occasionally had to be reminded to bath and launder his clothing. A few weeks before he passed, he claimed to be seventy four years old.

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All original text (C) 2007, 2008 David J. Carney. All rights reserved.

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