The world my grandkids are growing up in is sure different from the one I knew. They have many more exciting activities and the world today moves with breath taking speed. My world was much slower paced with little in the way of structured activity and no television. I grew up in a small town and was content to play imaginary war games, read the comics, see western movies and observe some of the characters who frequented the streets of my little town. The small towns are now boarded up, and we live in suburbs without sidewalks, porches or streets that lend themselves to the observation of other folks. We now pass people so rapidly in the malls that we hardly notice the eccentricities of others; plus, the kind of folks I’m talking about don’t frequent the malls.
The characters of my hometown were not like the street people of today. There were some who would probably be like today’s homeless but the environment of my time made it different for them. There was a guy we called Paregoric Slim who wandered the streets and would fit into that category. Years ago the drug paregoric, which is an opiate, could be purchased over the counter in small quantities. It was used for colic in babies. Paregoric Slim was addicted to the stuff and used it to satisfy his habit like a shot of morphine. He was a master mechanic but chose to just wander the streets most of the time. It was interesting to watch him and imagine what his world was like. I knew I didn’t want to be part of it. This was in a time before I knew about such things as drugs and addiction, but if kids could observe Paregoric Slim today, maybe drugs wouldn’t be as much of a problem.
Then there was a black lady we called “Black Joe.” She wore an old tattered long black dress and wore a stocking over her hair for a hat. She carried a burlap feed sack over her back filled with her belongs. My mother told me it was filled with little boys who didn’t behave. Seeing Black Joe on the street was enough to put me on the best behavior. I’m sure she was harmless, but my mother used the threat of Black Joe very effectively.
We had another black fellow named Henry. He carried a broom and constantly swept the streets. He apparently had no home and he could be seen in the middle of the night just sweeping the streets. The owner of the grocery store where I worked let us provide him with out of date bread and lunchmeat. I think that was Henry’s only source of food. He wore a long overcoat all year long, even in the hot days of summer. Henry was a benign creature who was harmless but gave a little character to our town and sure kept the street clean without pay.
One of my favorites was a young man named Billy Carr. He was mentally retarded and his larger than normal head indicated that he was an arrested hydrocephalic. He carried his head back in an extended position and constantly rotated it in an apparent attempt to improve the flow of cerebrospinal fluid around his troubled brain. Billy ran errands for the principal of the school, who was my cousin, and was an angel for helping disadvantaged kids. Everyone loved Billy, and even though he spoke with an unintelligible tongue, he had a winning personality. Billy frequently walked the streets and just stood on the street corner. Many years after leaving my hometown, when the stores were boarded and the streets deserted, I took a nostalgic drive through the once busy town square. There on the street corner was the lone figure of man leaning against a street sign just staring into space with a smile on his face. It was Billy, an old man, turning his head. Like me, he seemed to be searching for that lost time of our youth.
All those people are dead now. While in a pensive mood on the porch, I still think about them. I hope they have gone to a better place. Some may question their purpose in life and if it was all for naught, but in a strange sort of way they helped enrich my life. A few teachers and close personal friends have had the greatest impact on my life. I have had conversations with two presidents, done medical procedures on a former first lady and was involved in the care of the King of Jordon. I have known several senators and congressman as well as numerous physicians and various scholars, but the eccentric and disadvantaged folks in my hometown are just as memorable and meaningful to me as the more distinguished group. I even wish my grandkids could have known this street full of folks who were seemingly misfits; but to me, gave character and even substance to a place I still call home. The painting above even gives a deeper meaning to the lives of these outcast from our society.