The last time I saw James Griffin was on Friday morning, August 12. A friend was picking me up in front of the Weld offices on First Avenue North for a drive to Louisville to attend a funeral the following day. I was loading my stuff into the car, and here came James, making his way up the street with some downtown resident’s rambunctiously cute puppy on a leash. As was his wont, he hailed me loudly from well up the block.
“Big Brother Mark!”
I stood and watched as this incongruous pair — the bedraggled homeless man and the well-groomed canine — approached. The dog sniffed at my shoes and I reached down to pet it.
“What’s up, James?”
“Man, I’m starvin’ like Marvin. I came by yesterday, but you was gone.”
This was James to a “T.” He had a way of making you feel that if you missed one of his customary drop-ins at the office, or even if you just hadn’t intersected with him on the sidewalk for a week or two, that you were somehow at fault, and just might owe him a good deal more than the few dollars you were about to hand over. In the event that you declined his request for money — because you didn’t have any cash on you, or perhaps didn’t have those few dollars to spare just then, or, as sometimes happened (especially if you’d known James for more than 20 years, as I did), you were less than thrilled to have him pop up at a particular moment — he had a stock reply that somehow captured every bit of the comedy and pathos inherent in the whole situation.
“There goes the neighborhood,” James would intone with mock resignation. And then he’d head off along his self-appointed rounds, in the direction of the next potential source of whatever cash he needed for the day, for the week, for keeping himself alive and mobile.
In retrospect, it was amazing that James kept himself alive on the streets of downtown Birmingham for as long as he did. Not that he didn’t have plenty of help, especially as the number of people living downtown (indoors, not out) has climbed steadily over the past 10-15 years. At bottom, though, homelessness was a lifestyle choice for James, and that he found as many ways as he did to support that lifestyle — walking dogs, washing cars, cleaning windows, emptying trash — probably is a better tribute to him than I or anyone else can hope to write.
Still, some people just beg to be remembered.
James was a man of good humor, possessed of a sardonic wit that was spiced with the fatalism that, one assumes, comes with surviving on the streets for two decades. He was also a man of standards that were sometimes more, shall we say, exacting than you might deem advisable for one in his position.
Not too long ago, on one of the occasions when James caught me short of ready cash — I sometimes kidded him that if I’d wanted three children to spend all of my money on instead of two, there was a better and more fun way of obtaining that child than by adopting him — I offered to run up to my residence and make him a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. He accepted the offer.
I’m not just trying to make myself look good here when I tell you that I prepared that sandwich for James with loving care. Thinking that he’d need something to stick to his ribs for a while, I slathered the peanut butter on extra-thick. I drizzled on some honey and sprinkled some cinnamon. I sliced up and baggied a Granny Smith apple and put that and another whole apple, along with the sandwich, into a paper sack. I put the sack into a plastic grocery bag, and threw in a large bottle of Powerade to wash it all down. I put in about half a roll of paper towels, and then headed back down to where James waited.
He thanked me and headed off down the sidewalk. I next ran into him a few days later, when he yelled at me from across the street and pedaled over on a bicycle.
“What’s up, James?”
“Man,” he replied, “that sandwich had too much peanut butter on it.”
And now James is gone. He was murdered last week, beaten and shot and left to die near the spot he’d staked out in the homeless encampment under the Red Mountain Expressway. I guess I’d long ago banished most of my thoughts of any harm that might befall him, most especially being killed, because he just seemed too smart and streetwise to allow such a thing to happen. I guess that every day and every year he’d survived since I’d met him made it seem that he’d go on surviving that way indefinitely.
And then I thought about a conversation James and I had some months ago. He’d stopped in at Weld and was sitting in my office. We’d shot the breeze for a while, he’d asked after some mutual longtime friends and told me to say hello to my kids (whom he’d known since they were babies, and who always had hugs for him, right up until the last time they saw him, just a couple of days before my own final encounter). And then James said something to me I’d never heard him say before.
“I need a job,” he said.
“You mean a real job?” I asked. “A real, job-type job?”
“Yeah, man. I’m getting too old to live like this.”
He never mentioned that conversation again, and neither did I. But as I think about it now, James had to know that he was drawing ever closer to the limit of his ability to fend for himself, to do what he had to do to live the life he’d chosen. I’d told him a hundred times over the years that if he’d clean himself up a little and temper some of his less socially acceptable qualities, he was way more than intelligent enough to hold down a regular job of some kind. But he didn’t want that — until, perhaps, he knew that it was too late to want it.
As it happened on that Friday a couple of weeks ago when I saw James for the last time, I had a little cash to hand his way. He took it, thanked me, and wished my friend and me a safe journey to Louisville and back. Walking away with the puppy in tow, he looked over his shoulder and said something I’d heard from him well more than a hundred times.
“Hug those kids for me.”
I’m going to miss James Griffin. I do already.