From the Notebook: Going to Jail to See Tommy

This is the first in a series of posts backgrounding my history with the Reese and Pope garden. This one, and the next one, are about Tommy, a native Athenian who helped start and maintain this urban oasis in downtown Athens. Some background can be found here.

I have a lifelong habit of staring out windows when pissed off, confused or stressed. As a kid I'd glue my forehead to a pane and watch my friends scamper outside after school, me trapped indoors for some now-forgotten infraction. I find an evil zen behaving like this, just staring, channeling bad mood into furrowed brow. It's not helpful, but it helps.

It poured the day I went to see Tommy in jail, the day I went to meet him for the first time. I'd been staring out my back door window, a rhombus-shaped aperture, and the mid-fall chill that my rickety house always amplified had my palms slipping into my jean pockets for warmth. I zoned out, trying to come up with an excuse to avoid going to see him.  

I'd hunted Tommy for two weeks. Karen and Wray, his friends and my connection to him, wanted me to interview him about the garden Tommy and Karen had built in a ravine behind an African-American Baptist church. They hoped all the contributors could have a voice in the story. Karen told him to meet me at the garden one afternoon, but he didn't show up. Karen then told me to wait at a neighborhood coffee shop between 7:30 to 9 a.m. They gave him coffee, and he usually sat at an outdoor table and drank the cup empty, no matter the weather. He never showed up. Not the next day, either. I told Karen; she hadn't seen him. Twenty-four hours turned into 48. People finally started talking. He'd been arrested.

Tommy is homeless, was then and still is. He'd grown up on the other side of downtown, across the Oconee River, but now lived under abandoned awnings that leaned off boarded-up wood frame houses. He wasn't alone. There was a lost generation, some of the nearby church deacons described them, of men and women living drunk and often outdoors in the Reese and Pope area. Some have homes, or couches, or a relative's shack to sleep in. They all looked to be in their 60s, perhaps younger, but not by much. 

Sometime in the past few days, as I'd been attempting to catch up with Tommy, a cop arrested him as he was being fellated by a woman. He called her his girlfriend; the cops called her a prostitute. Didn't matter. They were outdoors, getting it on, and were therefore charged with public indecency. I read the police report and imagined which steps to which house Tommy was sitting on when the cops busted him. They were hidden on one of the neighborhood's small alleys that run parallel between major streets. Somebody had to have called them in. 

Tommy, I didn't know at the time, had earned the nickname Wolfman for a reason. He was tall, at least six foot. He wore a skull cap. A thick mat of grey beard lit his dark eyes. He mumbled. When he wasn't drunk, his speech was inaudible beyond a gravelly rumble, almost like a growl. When he is lit, he howls; he bellows and becomes courageous enough to ask you for money. Sober, he won't move for long stretches of time; he'll lean on a rake or hoe, one foot willshift, you'll hear some kind of rustle, but his torso just rotates.

Tommy had been drunk for a very long time.  

But he also worked hard when sober, and had earned the respect of Karen and Wray, helping the duo out on their anti-kudzu exercises. Tommy connected with Karen and Wray in ways I was yet to discover. They needed each other.

But a blow job had landed him in jail.

Karen called to deliver the news about Tommy, and told me that, if I wanted to, visiting hours for inmates A through L were Tuesday and Thursdays after lunch. I said thanks, uh huh, but didn't say I was going to visit him, though she certainly hoped that I would. 

At this point — fall 2009 — I'd hardly published a thing, maybe three stories, two of which were soft feature profiles. I'd interviewed neighborhood folks, church deacons and others in figuring out if these white people's urban garden was just gentrification with a sheen of dirt and sweat, instead of the louder version: demoed houses and renovations, the kind of stuff people like me are really good at doing. I'd become convinced that Karen and Wray's mission was just and true, and perhaps I didn't need to visit some homeless guy in the jail for a quote. I'd been to jail twice. The first time I didn't go inside, just waited in a car while a friend was released. The second round I bailed out a friend from a holding cell, well before he donned the orange jumpsuit. Karen wanted me to sign in, get frisked, sit behind one of those thick panes and chat to a complete stranger through a phone, just like in the movies.

I called Karen back to discuss. I'm not sure how I feel about all this. She understood, of course, if I didn't feel like seeing him. He was a criminal, after all. But think about how Tommy lives his life — outdoors, on display, no privacy — and consider that he might deserve another set of rules to live by. Not different guidelines, but more open to interpretation. A grey tone. She didn't say much else, though I knew she was holding back something; how I acted would determine what shape it would take when let go.

The deacons at the church were less kind when I called to talk about Tommy. Chester and his crew weren't welcome in the neighborhood anymore. Church members had pushed hard to install a new plastic park exactly on top of the Lost Generation's outdoor bar, and now they wanted them gone for good. The church desperately sought to keep a foothold in the neighborhood as students moved into the houses its congregants once owned. If the neighborhood wasn't going to look the same, meaning African-American owned, it could at least look nice, perhaps attracting the new white neighbors to worship. Karen and Wray, though they lived a modest life, connected the old black church to the established wealthy whites living only blocks away. Together maybe they could fight off irrelevance.

Working in the garden had been the best thing for Tommy, a deacon told me. But he didn't feel sorry for Tommy. 

It was still raining outside and I still wasn't moving. I didn't grab my coat. I just looked out the window in a selfish, selfish zone. My story didn't need Tommy speaking in it. It would be fine without him.

I certainly wasn't thinking about reporting when I finally decided to go to the jail; I couldn't think of a single question to ask him. (I haven't quite rid myself of journalistic laziness almost five years later.) I went, I think, to rid myself of the guilt I could feel creeping.

I wanted Karen and Wray's respect, and they respected Tommy. It was time for me to do the same.