Murderer in the Breakfast Line

The alarm went off today at 5am, just like every Monday.  I rolled out of bed, happy to have the two new coolers I bought yesterday – they’ll help keep 100 pieces of chicken hot – but sad knowing what I would have to announce today.  I put the first two pans of chicken in the oven, followed by the second two pans around 6:15, then hopped in the shower.  When I got out of the shower, there was a voicemail from my friend, Rock.

I hit “call back” and waited for him to answer.

Rock: “Hello?”

Me: “Hey, my friend, this is Amy.”

Rock: “Who?”

Me: “The Chicken Lady.”

Rock: “Oh!  Hey, Miss Amy.”

Me: “Rock, I am so sorry.  I don’t know what to say to you.”

A minute of silence, then Rock, in a clear voice: “Ms. Betty said you wanted to know about the funeral  arrangements for my son.”

Me: “Yes, I’d like to make an announcement at breakfast this morning.”

Rock: “The funeral will be today at 1:00, then there will be a memorial service from 5-7pm on Wednesday at the IRC.  The funeral will be at Lowe’s Funeral Home in Burlington.  We had the wake last night.”

Me: “I am so sorry, Rock.  Are you makin’ it okay?”

Rock: “Yeah, I’m just sittin’ here, lookin’ through all the sympathy cards.  I can’t believe how many people love me.  And how many people loved him.  It’s amazin’!”

Me: “Yes, they do love you. We all do.”

Rock: “And I’m goin’ to work.  My bossman keeps tellin’ me to go home, but I need to stay busy.  I have to.  Keeps my mind off of things.”

Me:  “Sounds like a good idea right now.  Sounds like you’re taking care of yourself.  Good.  Remember all those people who love you.  And I’m sure a bunch of us will see you today and Wednesday.”

Rock: “Okay, Ms. Amy.”

Me: “I better get this chicken downtown.  I’ll see you Wednesday.”

Rock: “Okay, sounds good.”

Me: “I love you.”

Rock: “Love you too.”

And we hang up.

Rock’s son was killed last Wednesday, shot on Gate City Boulevard, close to the Greensboro Urban Ministry, where everyone gathers to eat lunch.  According to the News and Record, his son did not have a permanent address.  Rock is housed and has a job, and has been a guest at Monday breakfast for years – and for the last two years or so, has helped serve.  He calls out numbers, and grinning, says to me almost every week, “I’ll call out the numbers today. It’s my yob.”  The “y” is not a typo.  Rock is funny, but not today.  The shooter is still on the lam.

I load up the coolers full of hot chicken, get in the car, and take off downtown around 7am.  When I drive up, there is Thomas, my friend, the self-professed HIV/AIDS activist, waving his arms in my usual parking space, grinning from ear-to-ear with his flame red hair and beard.  He’s a great guy, and is a speaker everywhere about his life as “a former crack addict who has had HIV, Hepatitis C and genital herpes for 20+ years.” Awesome Thomas, I love this man.

Once we are ready to serve, I make the announcement about Rock’s son.  Sorrow in so many faces.   So many.   And tears, some of them mine.  A man volunteers to pray, and he does, beautifully and from his heart.

Since Rock is not there, I call out the numbers today.  As I’m hugging folks when I call their numbers, a couple of people tell me they need to talk with me once I’m finished serving.  Another guy is stoned out of his mind and is behaving very erratically.  A friend who has HIV (he shall remain nameless) is still talking about getting surgery that he needs and I encourage him to go and see his caseworker.  He says he will, but that’s what he always says.

The line finishes and I grab some coffee.  The first guy who said he wanted to talk to me comes over.  He is dressed in a uniform and I ask if he just got off work.  He says, “No, I’m going to work.”  I ask where and he responds, “K&W.  I’m working there, but not sure if I’ll be able to keep my hours.  There’s somebody on sick leave and they may be able to come back.  I need some help – I may be outside again for the winter.  I need a tent and blankets.  Can you help me?”  I tell him I don’t have tents and blankets, but give him the name of someone I know who does.  He thanks me, and now my friend, Gaither, is waiting to talk to me.

Gaither: “Hey, you got a minute?”

Me: “Sure.”

Gaither:  “Did you hear about the man who was stabbed in front of the courthouse last week?  That was me.”

My mouth hangs open.

Gaither: “Yeah, it was me.”  He shakes his head.

Me: “You were stabbed?”

Gaither: “Yeah, five times, once in the side – he nicked my heart, once in the neck, once in the finger because I was trying to get the knife away from him, once in the back, and once here, “ pointing to his side.

I can still hardly speak.

Me: “What happened? Who did this? Did they get the guy?”

Gaither: “Yeah, they got him.  It was a guy who’s been coming through your breakfast line for a few weeks now.  He just got out of prison.  He had been camping over near where my friend and I do, and he didn’t like us.  He had said he was going to kill me, but I didn’t take him seriously.  I know now I should have.  I was just sitting there in front of the courthouse, cleaning out by backpack, so I had all my stuff strewn out.  I noticed he was looking at me, but I wasn’t really paying attention.  Next thing I knew, he started stabbing me. “ He points again to the wound on his side. “They sewed this one up and put staples in my neck.”  Gaither is wearing a hood – it was chilly this morning – and I notice his jaw and neck are swollen.  “Yeah, he left me for dead, just laying there in a pool of blood.  I stopped remembering at some point, ’cause when I woke up, somebody was telling me not to get up.  So somebody came and called the police.  When I woke up, the fire department was there, already rinsing the blood off the concrete slab.  I guess I almost bled out.”

Me, speechless for a while, finally: “And they got the guy?”

Gaither: “Yeah, they got him.  It wasn’t very hard.  He was covered in blood.  I’m glad they got him.”

Me:  “Yeah, me too.  He belongs in prison. “

Gaither: “Yeah, he’ll be charged with attempted murder.”

And we talked for a while more.

Gaither: “Pray for me, okay?   Can you pray for me?”

Me: “Yes, I will pray for you.  And I’ll see you next week.  Love you, friend.”

Gaither: “Love you too.  Stay safe.”

And he walks away.

I get in the car and call my friend, Shirley, “The Coffee Lady,” as our friends call her.  I tell her about the conversation.  And then I take a long walk, thinking and thinking.

So that brings us to right now.  And here’s what I have to say:

What in the world are we thinking?  Who do you know that does not deserve to be safe? What about the man who serves food and washes dishes in restaurants like K&W, where hundreds of people dine every week?  Just because you messed up at some point in your life, or you have a substance abuse issue, or you are not socially or mentally capable of getting your own housing, do you deserve to not be able to lock your door and sleep in a safe place?

When I was on the trail, I was thinking about Woogamonster, my twelve pound dog.  A pair of large owls have moved into the neighborhood and I won’t let him go outside alone at night now.  I couldn’t help but see the contrast.  Safety.

There has been a person capable of murder, the heinous act of stabbing Gaither multiple times, coming through our breakfast line on Monday mornings for the last few weeks.  And the other folks in line sleep outside, unsafe and exposed, every night.  I can’t wrap my head around that.  I just can’t.

Y’all, if we think it’s less costly to put people in the hospital, the revolving doors of the jails and prisons, and all the other services that are needed for folks dealing with homelessness, we are simply not thinking.

This is the United States of America.  We can afford to house every man, woman and child in this country.  So far, we haven’t had the will to do it as a nation.  But we could do it as a city.  Would I be willing to pay more taxes?  Yes, I would.  Would you?  Will you contact your City Councilman and ask them to figure out a way now to house people who are dealing with homelessness?


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