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My eight-year-old’s cub scouts served supper to a group of homeless men through Nashville’s Room in the Inn ministry, and I had the privilege of sitting at table with a man I’ll call Roderick and hearing his story. I thought you should hear it too.
Roderick looked to be in his fifties. He was a handsome black man with a well-kept beard and intelligent eyes. He wore a green army coat. His hands, like the hands of all the men who ate with us that night, were chapped and battered, but nothing else about his appearance telegraphed his homelessness.
“Where do you sleep most nights?” I asked him.
“At the Rescue Mission,” he said.
“How many men are there on a given night?”
“About eight hundred,” he said. “Some are there for a couple of nights. Some are there for a months. I don’t know they stories. I try to talk to folks, but a lot of folks at the Mission don’t want to tell anything about theyselves. Some of them’s got something to hide, some of them’s ashamed. Me, I like to tell my story. It does me good. I don’t know what other folks has been through, but I been living on the streets for twenty-one years.
“I come to Nashville in 1989,” he said. “I aint had a home since I got here. Come from Humboldt. A hundred and forty miles west of here.”
“And how did you end up here?” I asked
Roderick thought on that a little while. “Let me squeeze twenty-one years into a minute. Then let me squeeze a minute into ten seconds: I ended up here and homeless because of a judge, a prosecuting attorney, a po-lice, and a landlord.
“I grew up in a shotgun shack. You could see right through from the front to the back. After I was grown my mama got an her apartment in Section 8 housing, and we thought that was going to be a lot better than the shack. But the way we be living in the fifties and sixties, that’s the way my mama living now. The landlord tell my mama what to do, and she got to do it.
“They changed the lease law in 1989, you see, and after that the landlord could do whatever she wanted to do. She could say who stayed and who had to go. It was my mama’s apartment, but she didn’t have no say about it. I come to see her one day. I got there about noon, but she didn’t get off work until three that day, so I set on the steps in front of her door to wait for her. I hadn’t been there long before a po-lice drove up. He started coming up the steps with a white woman I didn’t know. Looked like maybe he was there to serve a warrant to somebody lived in the apartments. I wasn’t feared at all. I sort of scooted over on the step to let them get past, and the po-lice said, ‘It’s you we come to talk to. This woman has some things to say to you, and I want you to listen to her.’
“The woman said, ‘Do you know who I am?’
“I said, ‘No ma’am. I might have seen you around town once or twice, but I can’t say I know who you are.'”
“She said, ‘Well I’m the landlord here, that’s who I am. I own this place, and I get to say who can stay here and who has to go.’ She explained how I wasn’t welcome at Hillview Manor any more, and she waved a paper that said I was permanently barred. I couldn’t come set foot at Hillview Manor again.
“Well I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say. I started to ask a couple of questions, but the po-lice shushed me. This was her apartments, he said, and folks had to do whatever she said. I just wanted to know what I had done to get treated that way, and the po-lice said the landlord didn’t have to tell me.
“I said, ‘But this is my mama’s house. You telling me I can’t come to my own mama’s house?’
“The lady said, ‘This aint your mama’s house. It’s my house, and I’m saying you can’t come back. I got a paper here from the law says you can’t ever come back.’
“I told her, ‘You aint even told me what I done wrong,’ and she didn’t have no answer for that. But the po-lice said, ‘We stood here and talked long enough. It’s time for you to get moving, Roderick.’
“I did come back a few times to see my mama, but somebody called the po-lice every time, and they run me off. The last time I went was eighteen years ago. That time the po-lice really threatened me, and I been feared to go back. I aint set foot in that county or seen my people in eighteen years.”
“So you’ve been living on the street twenty-one years,” I said. “Did you ever find work? Couldn’t you have gotten a job, found a place to live?” I couldn’t help noticing he appeared able-bodied, even after twenty-one years of homelessness. But Roderick ignored the question.
“And now just about everybody’s dead or gone, but I still aint been back. My brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles… My mama’s still there, still in that same apartment in Hillview Manor. Landlord’s gone too. I don’t know if she’s dead or if she just went away. The judge that give me the lifetime ban, he’s dead, and so is the prosecuting attorney.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “If everybody’s dead and gone, why don’t you just go back and see your mama?”
“They’ve still got that paper. It’s a lifetime ban. The new landlord said they still got it in the file cabinet.”
“But who could possibly care?” I asked. “It’s been twenty-one years.”
“I’m feared of them po-lice,” Roderick said. “They threatened me.
“The legal aid called the new judge for me, and the judge said I was welcome to come to his county any time I wanted to. I just couldn’t set foot in Hillside Manor as long as that paper is in force. Except Hillside Manor is where my mama is. It’s the only place in the county I want to go.”
“You’re telling me nobody can do anything about the paper?”
“Judge said I could fill out some papers and get an inquest, and I can go before the court in thirty days and he could probably get it taken care of.”
His passivity was maddening. It was clear he was leaving something out of the story. “Then why haven’t you gotten it taken care of?” I asked.
“My legal aid quit me. Last time I talked to him…I don’t even know why I said this…It just flew out of my mouth…but I said, ‘You aint done a very good job for me.’ And he said, ‘I don’t like what you just said to me.’ And there was a click, and the line went dead. And I didn’t know if he hung on me or if we just got disconnected.
“So I called him back, and I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I said, ‘We got disconnected right after you told me you didn’t like what I said to you,’ and he said, ‘I reckon we did.’ And I said, ‘I don’t even know why I said that thing.’ And he said, ‘I’m finished working on your case. I don’t want no more to to with you.’
“I really don’t know why I told that man he wasn’t doing a good job.”
“But there are plenty of other legal aid lawyers in Nashville,” I said.
“Yeah, but they aint been much help. Ever time I get an appointment with one, I get there and it’s another one there besides the one it was supposed to be. The last time it was was two ladies I hadn’t never seen before. I told them they wasn’t who I had come to see, and we got all sideways, and I told them I’d never step foot in that building again.”
It wasn’t hard to imagine Roderick getting sideways with people who wanted to help him. In this whole peculiar story he had never mentioned any effort to take responsibility for his own situation or solve his problem in any way. The landlord’s antipathy, by his account, was entirely inexplicable; he apparently had chosen twenty-one years of homelessness over getting a job; and now it was the lawyers’ fault that he hadn’t completed the simple process of getting this situation sorted out. “I know it’s aggravating,” I said. “But can’t you push through it? After twenty-one years, you’re so close. If you fill out that paperwork and set things in motion, you’ll be thirty days from being able to go back and live with your mama.”
“That’s right,” he said. “After twenty-one years on the streets.”
“How long ago did you find out that you could get an inquest and get this over with?”
“Two months ago. Maybe three.”
“But you still haven’t filled out the paperwork.”
“I can’t get no legal aid to help me. I’m going to have to get a real lawyer–the kind you pay–and I aint got the money.”
“How old is your mama?”
“Eighty, eighty-one. We thought she was going to die a few weeks ago.”
“Then what are you waiting for, Roderick?”
For the first time since Roderick began his story, there was a pause.
“A while back a legal aid asked me a question. He said, ‘How do you know it aint your mama behind all this. How do you know she aint playing both sides?'”
At first I thought Roderick was just adding to the list of wrongs that the legal aid lawyers had done him.
But Roderick leaned toward me across the table as if to whisper. His eyes were wet. “I believe it is my mama been keeping me from coming home. She been putting it off on the landlord and the po-lice and the judge, but I believe she’s the one don’t want me there. I’ll tell you one thing: every time I ever showed up at her house, the po-lice was right behind me. And I don’t know how else the po-lice could have known if she wasn’t the one calling them.”
I knew he was right. He had to be. The peculiarities of his story suddenly made a kind of sense–this “lifetime ban” honored by a new judge and a new landlord twenty-one years after the fact, the arbitrariness of the landlady’s persecution, Roderick’s delays and self-sabotage. It finally occurred to me how little of Roderick’s version of things needed to be true if that last part were true, if indeed his mother didn’t want him near her. Roderick’s whole story, I realized, was another way of telling that story. I wondered what had happened in that home that made this twenty-one-year exile seem necessary–what wrongs done by Roderick, what wrongs done against him.
Roderick pushed his chair back and stood up to leave. He shook his head and said to nobody in particular, “This here’s a long way from home.”
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.