Squinting into the Unknown: Courage and Survival on the Streets

Ray, Photo for Tenx9 Story

Tenx9 (ten by nine) is a Belfast-originated monthly storytelling night where 9 people have up to ten minutes each to tell a real story from their lives. This story was told at Nashville’s Tenx9 on June 27th, 2016.

I shuddered as I pulled out the letter from the Fulton County jail in Georgia. After another restless night, I was up again before the sun so I went to my drawer teeming with correspondences. I found one of Ray’s letters and unfolded the soft, lined paper. His handwriting was distressed and the letters scrawled across the page as if they were trying to escape. I remembered the last promise he made to me frantically over the phone before he was locked up again, before he wrote this letter. “They’re not gonna take me alive,” he said. “I’ve gotta get back to Nashville. If they try to take me, it’s over.” But they had taken him. The police found him sleeping in a dumpster in the rain and locked him up. As I re-read the words, the feeling of powerlessness flooded through my chest again like a kind of heaviness or grief.

I imagine the panic that must have coursed through Ray’s blood. His letter described what happened when they took him in. He wrote, “I ran my head, head first, into a solid steel door, and that didn’t work. Then they got the blanket around my neck I was going to use to hang myself. And after coming out of the padded cell,” he continued, “I tried to beat my head on solid brick.” I put the letter down, stared off into space. How many times had I wondered if he would ever make it back to Nashville alive?

As an outreach worker and street chaplain with Open Table Nashville, trauma and despair are part of the waters in which I swim. Death is always on the move, haunting me and licking the heels of my friends on the streets. And when Ray wrote this letter, death was clenching his ankles, dragging him into the familiar pit where he felt worthless and alone, angry and utterly defeated. “Ray,” I had told him on the phone, “I want you to know that you have friends who care about you. We want you to come back home in one piece. We love you.”

I folded up the letter and put it back in the envelope. I looked at the date—nearly two years ago. Most of the men and women I meet on the streets are in my life for a brief time—a few weeks or months until they get back on their feet, move on, or pass away. I’m part of a chapter in their lives and then the page turns. But then there are people like Ray—people I connect with deeply, who become my friend, part of the fabric of my life, and transform me.

My phone buzzed from the side table and my heart lifted. It was Ray who was also up early, letting me know that we were still on for morning coffee. After being extradited to Georgia on an old warrant in 2012 and then trapped in the revolving door of their prisons and dumpsters, he was finally free. He and his friend Steve had just hitch-hiked back to Nashville and the first thing Ray wanted to do was get coffee together… a ritual we shared often before he was dragged back to Georgia.

I pulled up to meet Ray as sunlight was shifting through the clouds and almost didn’t recognize him. He was tanner and leaner than before, and in the place of his familiar handlebar mustache was a dark, scruffy beard. He wore a faded cap low on his head, his myriad of tattoos hidden by long sleeves. And when his eyes caught mine, he sat down his backpack and shouted, “There’s my friend!”

Ray, coffeeRay treated me and Steve to coffee and we reminisced about old times. We laughed as we tried to count how many times we had nearly been arrested together. There was the time we were doing tenants rights organizing at a slum in Madison and were almost caught by the slumlord. In order to escape, some of us had to jump out the back of the building from a second story window and I had a bruise on my arm for months. Then there was the time that we occupied Legislative Plaza for five months during Occupy Nashville. During those long months on the plaza, where we saw both the best and worst of humanity, I learned more from Ray than nearly anyone else. I can’t count the times I saw him take in stray, abused dogs and care for them with a kind of love that left me in awe. I can’t count the times I saw him give his last blanket or the coat off his back to someone else as the cold pushed its way across the icy granite.

Ray chimed in. “And I remember when I first met y’all. Down by the river at our old camp,” he said. “I knew y’all were for real when I saw the bags under y’alls eyes.” “Were they that obvious?” I asked. “Oh yeah!” he continued. “And I knew y’all really cared when you said you’d get arrested with us.” I smiled. In the spring of 2010, my homeless outreach team received a call that the police were going to close the camp. When we went to see what was going on, we found the most beautifully landscaped camp, complete with a communal kitchen area and a beach. We told the police that if they closed the camp before the residents found housing, they would have to arrest us, too. We held the camp for months, and in the end, it was the hungry waters of the Cumberland that took the camp during the flood. “Ray,” I said, “I’m so glad you’re back.” His eyes, the color of the muddy Cumberland, gleamed.

I imagine Ray as a young boy, scrawny and determined like an alley cat who knows what it takes to survive. I imagine the weight of the world crashing into him at the tender age of 9, his childhood ripped from his hands like a playground toy. I imagine him hitting the streets at the age of 14, building a wall around his heart to protect him from all the hurt, the broken promises, the shattered dreams. He told me in a letter that he first began lowering his walls and defenses, when he met us at the camp. Something in him had shifted. Something in him had opened up like morning light pushing through the heaviness of clouds. “I wanted to join y’all,” he said. “I  wanted to be a part of what y’all were doing.” And he did. He not only joined us but became one of our friends, our teachers.

“So how are things now?” I asked Ray. His eyes squinted and his brow furrowed beneath his cap. He listed the things he wanted to work on: getting health insurance, getting medical care for his Parkinson’s and the torn ligament in his knee, establishing a new campsite, and eventually finding housing. “And my vision’s getting worse,” he said. “I get so frustrated cause sometimes I can’t see. I can’t see what’s off in the distance and everything is real blurry.” I sat back in my chair, the last of my coffee growing cold against the porcelain. Ray’s health was wavering and he couldn’t see what was ahead. His horizon was smudged, uncertain, unclear. Yes, he needed glasses. But even more than that, he needed to see that there was still hope for a better future—a future that wasn’t as unreachable as it seemed.

We made plans, sipping the rest of our coffee. I told Ray that he and Steve were back just in time—that the city was threatening to close another encampment, this time in the woods surrounding Fort Negley. “Whatever we can do to help,” they both said, “count us in.” In the next weeks, we would nearly be arrested together again.

Recently, a friend asked me about where I see courage in my work. The first person I thought about was Ray. What is courage? Courage is taking the blanket from around your neck and wrapping it around the shoulders of someone else. It’s taking in stray dogs when you can barely feed yourself. It’s risking arrest when getting arrested means more than a night in jail because of your background. It’s taking down the wall you’ve built around your heart brick by brick until you can feel again; until you are able to love and to let yourself be loved. What is courage? Courage is peering, squinting, into the unknown and mustering the strength to hobble into it anyway.

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