Earl Redux

A few years ago I wrote about a man named Earl in this blog who was the neighborhood homeless guy. He would come around once or twice a week looking to do yard work in return for a few bucks. He always worked hard and, though his efforts weren’t polished, they were thorough. He grew up in rural Mississippi where he learned all about work at a tender age and it didn’t seem to burden him. He never talked about his parents, but he did say that before he was out of grade school, his hopes and dreams had boiled down to this: if he had work that day, there would be food to eat, perhaps a place to stay, maybe some fun. He liked work.

Education was a different story; he dropped out of school after the second grade. All it did was interfere with earning his food. There wasn’t much reason for a young Black guy to get educated at that time and in that place anyway. An education wouldn’t help him get sophisticated work, that wasn’t available to him. He wouldn’t gain anybody’s respect that way (far from it) or build a bright future with it. By the time I entered his life, he had lived for a long time in a world where writing had no place. He couldn’t read a note if I left one, or make plans a long time in advance, nor could he read the news. Yet he made this way of living work out, and he always knew what was going on.

Soon after I met him, he brought a letter around for me to read out loud to him. It was a government form.This one was his least favorite recurring letter; a notification from some agency demanding that he pay long overdue child support to a former wife. The late fees alone were tremendous. Both his wife and child had disappeared from his life a long time back; his son would be forty years old by now. One day the agency threatened to go into his bank account and garnish his wages. That got a good laugh out of him. We whooped over that letter for several days. The only way they could get their hands on that money was to send a person to stand at somebody’s door and snatch the ten bucks he had earned for mowing the yard.

Another recurring letter he didn’t like came from a union he had belonged to when he was a steel worker many years ago.These letters all said the same thing: yes he was owed money but they had lost track of the records they would need to issue him a check. Of course they had. I got clear early along that the big decisions in his life were made by bureaucracies, run by middle class white people who lived in a world whose laws and customs were foreign to him. He couldn’t talk to them successfully without a translator. The only thing they could make clear to him was that they knew the rules and he didn’t. And when I began reading these letters to him they didn’t make sense to me either. I seldom had any good advice for him, seldom had any idea what wall had just fallen all over him.

Earl had his ups and downs. Every one of the ups when I knew him involved a car. One day he appeared, not walking as usual, not even riding a bike, but in a car. This car and those that followed didn’t last long. They were broken when he got them. But he loved them and drove the neighborhood over and over in them feeling good. You should have seen the confidence and pride in his posture and his eyes at those moments. Now he had a place to stay at night, a place to eat his meals in, he could keep dry and warm in it, and he was relatively safe there. All the physical assaults he experienced on a semi- regular basis happened when he slept under bushes in parks or in cardboard boxes in a vacant lot. Occasionally he would disappear for a few days or even a few weeks, and when he returned he had stories of a hospital stay for a broken jaw or a stab wound, or a time in jail.

One of these cars brought him an added bonus: a girl friend. He would bring her with him when he dropped by and she would sit in it and wait patiently while he worked. Then he would return to her and the car and drive off into the sunset to relax for a while.

Last spring he told me that he wanted to get some money together for a trip back to Illinois where his daughter lived. He was going to move in with her and perhaps someone would care for him; he was getting into his 60s and thought it was time. He had tried this the year before and he was back in less than a month. This time he was going to make it work he told me, and he needed money for the bus and food. I hired him to clean up a tree that had been cut down in my back yard and he worked on this for several days, chopping and sawing, perspiring like mad and not flagging in his effort for hours on end. When he finished he said he would come by the next day for his money, a pretty good sum. But he didn’t show up that day, or the next and finally I had to leave town to see a client. I left the money for him, but it was still there when I returned. He never got his money, and I never saw him again.

This time when he went away he stayed away. After not seeing him for four months I began to think he had made this one work. He must be getting along with his daughter, maybe she was taking care of him. He might have a roof over his head, and perhaps regular meals. That would be nice.

I had not thought much about him for some time when my brother went out for gas several nights ago. When he got out of the car, he saw a man and woman panhandling by the gas pumps. As he walked by, the woman said, “Earl passed.”

“What did you say?”

“Earl passed, I thought you should know.”

Then my brother recognized her. Memories of those summer days when she sat out front in the car waiting for Earl flashed through his mind.

”Oh no! What happened?”

“Got back to his daughter’s place and passed pretty soon. He had cancer and didn’t know it. By the time he figured it out he was about gone”

“Thanks for telling me. I’m sorry to hear it. He was a good man”, said my brother.

When he came home and told me, I felt as if someone had slapped me in the face. I never saw the end of Earl’s adventure coming. All I could do was hope she was right that it happened quickly, that he didn’t suffer too much.

When it comes to honoring a life, how do you do it justice? How do I let you know how much he meant to me? How do I tell you about the extraordinary life force that flowed through him? How do I put into words even a fraction of what I learned from him? I didn’t miss him as long as I could assume he was being cared for, but I miss him now. My heart goes out to him, to his daughter and his friend. I would like to think he is riding around in some heaven in the most beautiful car he could imagine, feeling proud, knowing that his life was valuable and that a little bit of his story is being told.

Tony Smith

December 2016


  1. I think we’ve all known some people like Earl. We are so busy with our own problems we don’t stop to realize how even the least among us (in terms of education, riches, etc.) can and do maintain their dignity. Some of us would just give up and roll over. But not the Earls. God bless them, every one.

    • Tony Smith says:

      I agree Reed, and when I first met Earl I was often not as helpful as I could have been. It was only when I saw how hard he worked and how much he knew about getting things done, and then when I got to enjoying our conversations that I began to see him for what he was.

  2. Jodi cohen says:

    Tony, your kindness to him was exemplary. You gave him a chance for some dignity and self confidence. That is a precious gift and I bet he is looking after you from afar.

    • Tony Smith says:

      Thanks Jodi, And Earl brought me a new understanding of how life works, what human dignity is all about and what really matters in life.

  3. Earl was a good man. There can never be enough of them.

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