Southern Legitimacy Statement: We were a prototypical southern nuclear family. My Papaw came up in the Great Smokey Mountains, near Farner Tennessee and Cherokee North Carolina. When he was nine, he lost track of the time one summer evening, squirrel hunting up on the mountain, and he avoided a sound late-for-dinner whoopin’ by running away with the circus. He didn’t see his own mother again for almost five years; she took him for a drifting mendicant child when he appeared in their doorway one night begging for leftovers and a place to sleep. He stayed home and worked on the family farm, and in time he got married and filled his own home with six children, all of whom were taken early by TB, among other ailments, along with his young wife.
To escape the tragedy of the loss of his family, Papaw left the Smokies altogether, and he eloped with the young English/Cherokee girl who had brushed his late wife’s hair before their wedding. He worked on the railroads as a cook, and he worked in the coal and zinc mines in East Tennessee and West Virginia and Kentucky. Their first born child was my mother, and they had five more children after that in a little government-issue stick-frame house on Alabama Avenue, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where Papaw fibbed his way into a life-long career as a machinist at Y-12 and K-25. Papaw died of intestinal cancer in the late 1970s, though had he survived it, he would have died eventually from complications related to moonshine and general orneriness.
Since Mamaw’s Cherokee showed in her cheeks and in her hair in ways that were impossible to disguise, the only job made available to her in the Secret City was one washing radiation suits; her government-issued safety gear was a pair of Rubbermaid gloves. She died of a brain tumor almost forty years ago. Beneath her name, Julia Bryant, our family tree reads like a medical encyclopedia from an apocalyptic future, but we tend to wear it proudly as a clan. To quote Peter Benchley’s Cpt. Quint, “Anyway . . we delivered the bomb.”
James and Diane wintered on the north side, among the bedbug motels clustered at the north end of Azalea Avenue; they summered in Shockoe Bottom, sleeping in the open vestibules of the abandoned shops along the pear trees between Weiman’s bakery and the end of Franklin Street. James had a military pension, and though they were able to supplement that considerably with Diane’s disability checks, their combined income was nowhere near enough to both get the rent and feed the monkey. To make their nut, they panhandled close to camp; in Shockoe Bottom, that comprised everything south of 18th Street, from East Main to Broad Street.
Diane was the understood designated panhandler, since James lacked the necessary social grace for any roles requiring direct contact with the general public. Diane was a postcard straight from Pathos. She was frail, and tiny, and her frame looked as fragile and light as a songbird’s skeleton. Watching her inch around the village behind her walker, you’d swear each step was going to be her last, but it never was. She was a kind lady, too, and she had a universally friendly face; complete strangers stopped rush-hour traffic to give her money, even when she wasn’t asking for any, and all of the restaurant managers and shop owners took good care of her when she made her rounds in the mornings and early evenings.
James had a pronounced under bite, and when he got angry it got even more pronounced, curling forward in a way that made him look just like Popeye the Sailor Man, only crazier. He was short, and seemed even shorter because he walked hunched up with his head down, pointing in the direction he wanted to move. But he was all momentum. You could feel it whenever you saw him approaching you up the sidewalk; there was an intensity to the focus of his forward movement that bordered on suppressed rage, and it preceded him by half a city block wherever he went. When you saw him, you half expected a cartoon burst of smoke to blow from his ears. His eyes burned like moonstone set in quartz beneath a prominent ridge that spanned his head from ear to ear, and they were only further accentuated by his bushy white eyebrows and beard.
Diane usually left James back at the wall outside the Franklin Supermarket while she worked her circuit. James was sensitive, sensitive the way a bomb with a mercury switch is sensitive, and the wrong comment or facial expression could send him straight into a towering, knife-waving rage. When that happened, the cops came, and Diane knew she couldn’t afford that. She and James were a team. She worked the hook, and took any necessary preventative measures to ensure the absence of police; James managed security, and secured medicine and sleeping quarters. It was a solid arrangement. They were a good team.
Diane and James were the only ones besides Dancin’ Pops who made any money panhandling the intersection of 18th and Franklin. There were rules, and some of those rules were universal. The first rule, for instance, was the right of Dibbs, which is every bit as binding on the street as it is on the kindergarten playground. Dancin’ Pops had Dibbs on the intersection, and there simply wasn’t enough intersection to go around; still, James and Diane got a pathos pass for Dianne’s illness. They got another pass because Diane worked a daytime circuit instead of posting up at any one given spot, which left the intersection clear for Pops in the evenings, when the daddy-rich young marks came down from the university.
They got yet another pass because James was like a jack in the box, and you never knew which version of him was going to pop out of the little trap door once the music stopped playing. You could hear that music if you had the right ears for it, that jingly, metallic, pop-goes-the-weasel music-box melody, barely audible under the sound of the passing traffic, playing from just on the other side of those twinkling, impish eyes, and you learned to always listen for it if you had to deal with James on anything like a regular basis, for the simple reason that you never wanted to be the poor son of a bitch caught with his hand on the crank when that music stopped playing and Bad James popped out. Bad James had a thought process that jerked around like early Faulkner, and issues with impulsive rage that made him exceedingly difficult to reason with. You had to learn to forecast that, because the little knife he carried in his front pocket was sharp enough to shave your balls with; when you saw that knife, it meant nothing but negative sitrep alpha sierra for you and anyone else inside the radius of his reach. If you heard him repeat the words dinky dau, then you knew things were about to get even more interesting than they already were.
In the Spring of ‘07, Diane was in the hospital frequently for extended treatments. During her longer stays, James was left to fend for himself. He could move much faster without her, and he could call all of his own shots, though neither of those conditions proved advantageous to him. Watching James loose in the wild without Diane was like watching a three-legged cat trying to bury a turd on a frozen pond. Everyone pitched in to babysit him at some point, Rob the Pitcher more than anyone else. It was a community mitzvah, even a matter of public safety, but it was more than that for Rob. James and Rob were as tight as any blood brothers, and Rob felt responsible for him. The simple truth of the matter was that James was utterly lost without Diane; without her, the only possible state of being for him was “amok.” Whenever he was amok, Rob the Pitcher had his back.
Rob the Pitcher was a promising minor-league ball player from Tappahannock who took a couple of years off from his baseball career to focus on maintaining the rule of law among those who claimed the intersection as their home or headquarters. Rob was the cooler head, the wiser counsel; that was understood, and the rest of the Boys deferred to him, if not for his sense of fairness then for his size and relative sobriety. Rob was either the least drunk among them or simply the one who could hold his drink the best. It could be hard to tell sometimes.
In his free time, Rob hung out with the Boys on the Wall in front of the Franklin Supermarket, especially with Buster and James and Pops, or he dry-pitched from the mound he had created in his mind on the corner in front of Julep’s. Some nights, he’d pitch nine full innings against a team only he could see. You could walk out to the corner to smoke a cigarette at three or four in the morning, and there he’d be, standing tall atop the mound that wasn’t there beneath the street lamp, nodding almost imperceptibly to acknowledge his ghost catcher’s signals. That was one of the saddest things you could ever hope not to see through the fog of a late-November dawn in the river bottom.
While Diane was in the hospital, James had to shoulder some of her duties, however reluctantly. Most importantly, he had to take over the panhandling. His VA checks covered the nut without Diane, but there wasn’t much left to party on. If he wanted to party, he had to ask for it. James hated that more than just about anything, hated what he saw lingering in the eyes of the people with whom he was obliged to engage in polite conversation, conversation so polite it strained at the edges sometimes. He had earned the right not to be judged; that was among the few things he brought back with him when he came home from Vietnam. He’d tossed his medals over the White House fence, along with all the other awakened Vets, and he’d torched his formal dress uniform and all the ribbons and bars that it bore, the ones that he would continue to bear proudly in his heart, never to discuss again, neither them nor what he’d done and seen to earn them. All he kept from that time were his boots (he’d planned on doing some walking), his tags, his vaccination records, and the right not to be judged.
Tragically, these details were lost on most passers by, who heaped small abuse upon small abuse with each downward glance, each whispered quip, each brow furrowed in guilty disgust disguised as concern. In the end, it was a community decision to confiscate James’ knife. There had been too many close calls with panhandling marks; he’d see that judgmental look in their eyes, and that was all it took. Someone, usually Rob or Rasta John or Dancin’ Pops, always caught him in the nick of time as he leaped up to trail his abusers, like some impromptu postmodern hashashin, mirroring the rise and fall of their stride, scanning their backs for optimal insertion points, vital organs, arterial conduits. Even the marks who stopped to engage him wore that same judgmental look in their eyes, even the ones who made substantial donations – especially them. There is an air of superiority that overcomes so many well-meaning American sleeple in the very act of expressing compassion, and the result is a compassion that, however well meant, feels and smells a lot more like simple judgment.
Since Diane had been away, well-meaning passers by had gotten fewer and farther between. They were getting downright mean, too, almost as if their disdain were emboldened by the new ordinances restricting panhandling to predesignated areas. It was as if The City had hung a neon sign saying, “These people are Scum. Feel free to treat them like Scum. We have designated areas for Scum. Keep Richmond beautiful, throw some Scum in the James!”
It was under the conceptual glow of that sign that James and Rob the Pitcher clung to the last of the shade in the vestibule of the abandoned storefront next to Julep’s one particularly lazy mid-June morning. The three Wise Men had long-since finished the morning’s work over at Chinaman’s Produce, and one by one they had drifted to other ports, leaving the intersection to James and Rob, who, having drank enough wine to enjoy a nice mid-morning nap, were doing that very thing when they were awoken by the approach of a passer by, one austin (“I spell that with a lower-case ‘a’”) Testapene, a millennial attorney specializing in gadgets; if it happened on a tiny, hand-held screen, then austin-with-a-lower-case-a knew exactly where and how it fit within the framework of The Law. In fact, it was his own tiny screen that he was focused so intently on that morning – super cool tumblr post of a really amazing pocket knife that doubled as a scanproof credit-card holder, perfect stocking stuffer for today’s more-effectively multitasking mouseketeer – as he clip-clop power walked toward his appointed brunch meeting, each step sending a distinct, intense little vibration up his spine, through his neck and out the frayed end of a duck tail that he would one day nurture lovingly into a full-on man bun.
“Excuse me, sir,” came James’ voice, quietly, from the shadow of the storefront, “but it would really help me out if you could –”
“Fuck off, man . . Get a fucking life,” said austin-with-a-lower-case-a.
Even before the man had finished saying “Fuck off,” Rob could hear that jingly, metallic, jack-in-the-box melody stop playing, and he knew, without even having to look, that Bad James had popped out of the box and had already closed the distance to Mr. Testapene, Esq. by half, drifting up fast and low in a sideways creeping posture, like a side-winding injun in an old cowboy movie. Rob swore, later on, that he hadn’t even seen the pipe until that very moment. It was a good two-foot section of hollow, one-inch iron pipe, and Rob was still trying to sort out how James had managed to hide the damned thing from him when –
PIIIIIIIIINNNNGGG . . .
Rob’s very first thought, conditioned by ten-thousand hours on a baseball diamond, and wholly automatic upon hearing James ring the sweet spot on the back of austin-with-a-lower-case-a’s skull, was – that’s at least a triple.
“Dude dropped like he was all-a-sudden fascinated by the pavement,”Rob said later, “and do you know the last thing that went through that muthahfuckah’s mind? . . His aaaaasss! Baaaaahahahhaha!!”
James and Rob folded Mr. Testapene, Esq., yuppie at large, flip-phone style, and they hoisted him up into the gaping mouth of a big green city garbage can at the mouth of the alley. Then Rob used austin-with-a-lower-case-a’s phone to call the police, while James threw the pipe oooonce, twiiiice . . third time’s a charm . . onto the roof of Papa Ningo Bistro.
“Yes, good morning” Rob the Pitcher said,” I would like to report a man outsmarting himself at the mouth of the alley next to the Franklin Supermarket on East Franklin Street . . (beat) . . outsmarting himself . . . Out-smarting himself, yes ma’am. . (beat) . . no, ma’am, it ain’t an emergency . . he seems Ok overall. I believe he’s passed out though . . (beat) . . I don’t understand it either, ma’am; just doing my civic duty’s all. Outsmarting himself, yes ma’am. No. Thank you . . thank you very much. Good Bye . . .”