From the staff

McDonald: A rainy encounter with downtown's downtrodden

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2013 

Thomasi McDonald, staff writer with The News & Observer. (Photo by Takaaki Iwabu)

It was a rainy night a couple of days before Christmas.

Instead of going home and firing up the lentil pot, I decided to go around the corner to The Raleigh Times bar and have a beer.

The rain was misting when I neared the entrance. Out front was a stocky man wearing a dirty blue jacket, work pants, tumble-down boots and a greasy cap. He was asking two men for spare change. The men, both well-dressed professionals, ignored the man except to look at him as if he were less than human.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the one wrinkled dollar bill I had. “Hey,” I said, motioning to the big guy. I stuck the dollar bill in the palm of his hand.

Disappointment wrinkled his forehead. “Can’t you spare more than this?” he asked.

“I only have that one,” I answered. “I only have a credit card.”

“Well,” he answered. “Can’t you at least buy me and my friend a beer?”

I looked over at his friend. He smiled and waved. “Sure,” I said.

I walked into the Raleigh Times and ordered three glasses of PBR.

Ronnie and Rick

The big guy told me his name was Ronnie. He had recently returned to Raleigh after spending 27 years in prison. He implied that he was homeless by choice. After being locked in a cage for nearly three decades, he wanted to be out and about.

Ronnie introduced me to Rick, his diminutive friend. Rick had a black toboggan pulled down over his ears. The word “THONG” was printed across the front in white letters. Ronnie said he used to work all over downtown with his brother, who owned a masonry business.

He asked whether I could use my cellphone to dial a number for him.

“It’s my sister,” he explained.

No one answered, and he told me to hang up when the rings went to voicemail. “Aight, aight, dial this number here,” he said while reciting a new number.

“It’s my daughter. One of the most beautiful women you ever seen.”

No answer. Again, Ronnie told me to hang up when the rings went to voicemail. “Aight, aight, this the last one,” he said. “This my brother. He lives in Zebulon.”

No one answered, but then there was an incoming call. It was his sister.

Pre-holiday sorrows

I could almost hear the strains of the violins playing as Ronnie told her how he was living outdoors and didn’t hardly have anything to eat and how maybe, just maybe, he needed to commit a crime just so he could go back to prison, where at least he had a place to stay and food to eat.

I tried to ignore Ronnie’s litany of pre-holiday sorrows and made small talk with Rick, who was enjoying his glass of beer.

“I don’t have to live outside,” Rick quietly told me. “When I get ready to leave here, I’ma call my Daddy and he gone pick me up.”

Meanwhile, Ronnie had started crying and was reciting Bible verses to his sister.

“I’m out here in the cold and rain right now,” he sobbed. “You ain’t got to believe me. Just ask the man whose phone I’m using.”

He handed me the phone, and I said hello.

“Put Ronnie back on the phone,” his sister said by way of reply. “I don’t need to talk to you. I know my brother!”

I handed the phone back to Ronnie. At the conversation’s end, he announced that his sister was coming to see him.

“Here on Hargett Street?” I asked.

“Naw,” he answered. “She gone meet me at the Cook-Out on New Bern.”

“You staying with her for the night?” I asked.

“Naw,” he answered. “She bringing me a blanket.”

Ronnie and Rick didn’t have money for a bus out of downtown. I offered them a ride to the Cook-Out.

As Ronnie and I walked up Hargett Street to my car, Rick had fallen nearly 100 yards behind. I turned around and saw that he was hopping as if he were in a sack race instead of walking.

“He have to move like that because some boys beat him up real bad and robbed him when he was young,” Ronnie explained. “His spine got messed up.”

We waited for Rick at the corner of Hargett and McDowell streets.

As Rick got closer I noticed he was hopping really fast. Hop. Hop. Hop.

“Slow down bruh,” I said. And he did. Hop. Pause. Hop. Pause.

I hear all the time from people who say they will not give the homeless any money because they will just use it to buy wine or drugs. I always think, well hell, if I was sleeping outside I would probably drink me some wine, too.

I thought about those two well-dressed men who looked at Ronnie as if he were lower than a footprint when he asked them for spare change.

Seems like, even if we can’t pass the city’s downtrodden a lowly buck from time to time, then maybe we can give them a piece of ourselves by way of a kind word.

A nod of recognition.

Something.

Thomasi McDonald covers crime and public safety for The News & Observer.

tmcdonald@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4533

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