A gift of love!
It was in the middle of November 2007 very early one morning that I was riding my bike, making my way, my journey on two wheels just before day light, turning the sharp curve at our First United Methodist Church, in Starkville, and then I suddenly saw another human being coming right towards me.
He was completely covered from his head to his waist in a heavy grey hooded tee shirt which was his jacket. It was pulled down over his hands, and he too was making his journey this early morning walking with his feet on the sidewalk, and I peddling with my feet on the side of the street.
Each of us greeted one another with “Good Morning!”
As an artist I am always looking for a subject to place on my canvas, but I kept peddling on towards Mississippi State University Drill Field, through Main Street past The Starkville Cafe, down University Drive.
I kept thinking over and over again as I peddled along, “Oh, Carole, you just passed up the most wonderful subject to be placed forever on your canvas, and he just disappeared into the darkness of the dawn of the beginning of this day.” “Why did I not just stop, get off my bike, and find out who he was and where he lived?” “I have lost him forever.”
This lone figure of a man kept haunting me, and I kept on saying to myself over an over again, “I should have stopped and met him.” “He was a perfect stranger, yet a perfect portrait to be painted.”
Two weeks or so passed, and it was a lazy, hazy Saturday, and I were eating a light lunch of John Lee People’s home-made vegetable soup, a grill cheese sandwich, and a big dill pickle down at the Starkville Cafe on Main Street. I was laughing and talking with my husband, Frank, and we were sitting with the former editor of The Starkville Daily, Brian Hawkins.
For some reason I just happened to glance up and our of the big front window, and there he was.
He had on the same grey hooded tee shirt as his jacket, walking along on the sidewalk. I quickly excused myself from the table, hurried really ran outside of the big red double doors of the cafe, and screamed, “Wait, wait, wait who are you?”
He stopped and turned, and I knew this time I would not miss a second opportunity which had come my way again.
“James Brown is my name cause I can do the “James Brown” dance. And “Yes Mam’ you can come and find me.” “I stays” and “hangs out” at the Pat Salmon Place. “You know on Highway 82 near the University Inn Motel.” “It use to be that old swirly ice-cream place.” “I promise I’ll be waiting for you there, and I won’t leave until you gets there.”
I returned back inside the cafe to quickly gobble down the rest of my lunch to hurry towards my car to gather up my art supplies.
Little did I know what lay ahead of me, and how this one man would change my life forever.
James Brown was sitting in an old broken down plastic white chair just waiting for me. I ask him, “do you remember about two weeks ago on an early morning my passing you on a bicycle?”
He quickly said, “I surely dos.”
I told him that I was an artist, and I wanted to paint a portrait of him on my canvas.
He said, “my real name is Lawrence Johnson, but I am also called, “James Brown.”
He got up from his chair, splitting his legs apart and began to shuffle and dance, dance, dance.
At the end of his dance he was completely down on the ground. His dance was most unique, and he could certainly dance just like the late, James Brown.
Then he said, he wanted to show me where he lived. His very words were, “I lives not too fars from here, and jest up that hill there.”
He not only had one house but two houses. He seemed hesitate to take me since I was a woman, and maybe I would not feel safe. I assured him I was fine, and said, “Let’s go.”
Oh my gosh, the yellow house up the hill was deplorable. The roof leaked, trash was in the front yard which looked more like a garbage dump filled with lots of liquor bottles, beer cans, paper, trash was everywhere, windows were broken, and it was an abandoned yellow house just off Main Street, Starkville and old Highway 82.
He led me into his so called bedroom, and there on the floor was an old ragged mattress. He suddenly lay down on it, covered up his entire body with the foam rubber that is used to underneath our fine carpets in our homes. I was shocked and thought, “this is where he stays and lives?”
I nearly died, and I whispered to myself, “this is America, this is our great state of Mississippi, the poorest state in this union of the United States Of America?”
I have just seen poverty at its worst. I was in shock, and on that November day I had just passed by a home-less man who is also a native Starkvillian as I am too. I was completely and truly in shock. I was so sad in my heart, yet I knew that I would sketch and paint poverty and a homeless human being on a piece of 100 percent cotton canvas.
We left this yellow house because he wanted to get something to eat. He directed me to take him to a cafe and grocery store over by Starkville’s Westside Park. We drove off headed this way. I glanced back to the back seat remembering that we had put his leather shoes on the back seat floor of my car. These were his only leather shoes besides his worn tennis shoes, and they were pressed down in the heals as if they were way too small to even fit his feet. He evidently had walked up to this yellow house to get them so that he could do his James Brown dance for me. I thought I must remember to give him back his only leather shoes he has to his name. We kept driving along to the cafe and grocery store.
We entered, and the owners certainly knew him well. The woman and the man told me that he comes in about three times a week. He always orders and gets the same thing, hog’s sauce, a sprite, and one cigarette. I gave him a five dollar bill, and handed him the change left over.
From here he directed me on down Highway 82 to his second abandoned house. It was as bad as the first yellow house. It too had no electricity, no plumbing, all the windows broken out, and the roof leaked. It too was more deplorable that the first yellow house. I thought to myself, “even rats would not make their way to find houses like these two to live.”
He had no family left because they had all died. He said that he was only 48 years old, and gave his date, month, and year of his birth. His grandmother had raised him, and would “whoop” him, and told him every day, “now Lawrence Johnson you must respect white and black peoples, and Lawrence you must always respect your elders, and I mean it or I’ll ‘whoop’ you.”
I left him at this second abandoned house where he wanted to eat his hog sauce, drink his sprite, and smoke his cigarette by himself. I told him I would be happy to take him back to the spot that I had found him that day to the old Pat Salmon fish house where the old swirly ice-cream place use to be, but he said, “I’ll just stays here, but “thank-you, Mam’ anyways.” I reached out my hand to shake his, and then I leaned over to hug him.
As I drove away waving my hand good bye, what I had experienced that day on that day riding along before day light on my bike had haunted me for two weeks, but what I experienced again on another day during the light of day would be in my heart and soul the rest of my life. That night we had a hard rain, and I was awakened in my own warm bed, safe, comfortable home by the thunder, lightening, and rain drops.
I silently cried thinking of “James Brown,” Lawrence Johnson as he lay on his cold hard floor covered up with the foam rubber that is used to go under our fine carpets, and the cold rain hitting his cheeks and body. The next day would be Sunday, and I took my story to my church, Trinity Presbyterian Church, and during our announcement time after the sermon, I got up, and I told my story to our congregation. They listened, and several people responded with some old clothes, a back pack, and a warm blanket several days later.
I delivered these to him along with the old leather brown shoes with the two heels turned down in the back because they were too small for his feet to fit into them. I had forgotten to give them back to him when I failed to spot them in the back seat on the floor of my own car. He told me then that he was suppose to be receiving $500 from the Welfare Department and the U.S.A. Government each month, however a drug dealer who was as he said, “sorta his cousin took his money each month, and gave him $10 to live on month after month.”
I spotted him picking up cans along busy Highway 82,and we were eating breakfast early one morning at The Starkville Cafe. “James Brown,” Lawrence Johnson opened the door and came inside. Frank and I bought him a warm, hearty breakfast that morning, and gave Shirley Ross, the waitress, money to keep on hand whenever he came back for breakfast or lunch again whenever he might return to eat. Shirley told me that she too would take out of her own pocket her tip money to pay for his meals. She had witnessed seeing him across the street near Montgomery’s Jewelry Store his leaning over and almost falling into the big metal garbage cans digging out any left over food and thrown away things to salvage for himself.
It was February 7, 2008, that I decided to get out my paints and my canvas to attempt to paint “James Brown” Lawrence Johnson on my white blank 100 percent cotton canvas.
I started long before day light. I took the home phone off the hook, turned my cell phone on silent., bowed my head and ask a higher being, GOD to use me as HIS instrument to express my deepest feeling within my own heart and soul this day. I just kept on thinking over and over again about the words on is grey faded tee shirt jacket that he had found inside a garbage can on Main Street of “our” hometown, since we are both native Starkvillians.
These words had almost faded completely and almost torn off of that old worn out fabric fleece material. These powerful words were written by Jamison Parker, “You Cling To Every Thread That Clings To Me.”
We all cling to each other, we are all human beings, and “James Brown” Lawrence Johnson is simply a human being. I felt for him, and this painting is a painting that I hope you, my viewer will reach out your hand and rub and feel with your eyes and your finger tips his eyes, white, grey, and black beard, his almost purple lips, his hooded faded worn-out grey tee shirt, his zipper that was almost zipped up for warmth, his nose and his hood.
Feel this painting with your EYES and your heart and soul. Look into his blood shot eyes, look at his fear within his eyes, listen to his soul and hear his voice saying, “Where shall I find my next meal? “ “Which abandoned house shall I sleep shall I chose to sleep in tonight? “Will either house be there tonight?” “Will ‘they’ tear them down soon?” “Where shall my home be next?” “How shall I stay warm and dry from the cold rain and wind this winter?” “How shall I stay cool in our awful heat we have this summer?”
YES, we all cling to each other every second, minute, and hour that we live on this place we call earth, and this tiny spot we call, Starkville, Oktibbeha County, Mississippi State University. We are all our brother’s and sister’s keepers. Somewhere in a book called, The Bible there is a verse that says, “When ever you have done it to the least of mine, you have done it unto me.” “James Brown” Lawrence Johnson is after all just merely a human being making his way, his journey by foot in this life walking on the sidewalk as I was that early long before daylight morning, making my way around that curve down at the First United Methodist Church riding my bike peddling on the street.
There are no words to describe what is it is like to create a painting like this one. I am grateful to God above for allowing me to share with each one of you what I saw, heard, and then felt that day that I painted this particular painting. I am like a mere thread, and I too cling to each one of you too. I really don’t know what has happened to “James Brown” Lawrence Johnson. I have not seen in couple of years now, but I bet he is out walking on a sidewalk long before day light wondering about a roof over his head and food for his stomach.
We were all created to be a part of what we simply call, HUMANITY, and all of us are simply human beings, and may GOD help us all to love, care, help one another, and never ever break that thin thread that holds us all together as we CLING very tightly to EACH OTHER.