A longer version of this essay won a Ten Spurs Award from Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in 2021 and will be published in this year’s Ten Spurs Journal. The Texas Observer is helping sponsor the Mayborn’s writing contests this year.
Joe lived on a grassy area at the edge of the parking lot of the Creative Arts Center of Dallas. All the regulars at the community arts school knew the handsome, slender, gentle man in his 70s with the gray beard, who often could be found tinkering with the tools he scavenged or resting on a cushion on top of a concrete block. Joe would greet them with a big smile and raise two fingers in a peace sign. Students and teachers would bring him something to eat or drink and hang around to talk. Joe would ask about how their children or parents were doing.
Joe had been a fixture there for at least 15 years. Nobody knew exactly when he began living on the school’s grounds. At one time, he lived in one of the modest wood frame houses on the same street, Laughlin Drive. The neighborhood was his home, and he did not want to leave. Not even to stay with family members who ached to get him off the streets.
So, there he was, living outside in the rain, freezing winter, and suffocating Texas heat, one of at least 500,000 estimated homeless people across the United States, a disproportionate number of them Black men like Joe.
I met Joe on a near-freezing night when I went with a friend who took classes at the school to check on him. As we parked, we could see Joe sitting in the cold and the moonlight. He stood up, walked over and smiled. We shook hands, and he cupped his hands over mine.
“I am blessed,” he said, pointing to the heavens. He said God was taking care of him.
My friend asked if he could call Joe’s family so he could have a warm place to stay. Joe declined, saying his phone was charged if he needed to call. Joe spent his small Social Security checks on his phone and storage units to house the treasures he found on his walks. Even when his family convinced him to visit, he didn’t stay long. He said he needed to go back to his “empire,” leaving his family heartbroken and baffled.
“We slowly began to accept and understand, he’s at peace with himself on Laughlin Drive, this is his happy place,” said his sister, Linda.
From behind the short chain-link metal fence that ran along the street, Joe was the school’s unofficial night watchman, shooing away potential vandals, thieves, and intruders.
“I never, ever felt threatened by Joe; I felt protected,” said Diana Pollak, the center’s executive director. “When my car was stolen from the parking lot one day, he helped identify the kids who had been hanging around the sculpture garden–it was them.”
Joe watched over the school, and the school watched over him. Students and teachers brought him sweet potatoes, clothes, shoes, blankets, and cake on his birthday. In turn, he gave tools to one instructor and taught her how to scavenge. He insisted on giving a neighbor a bottle of water from his cooler on a hot day. To many, Joe was more than a guardian; he was a guardian angel.
Joe also became a highly sought-after model for figure drawing and clay sculpture classes. He would show up in double-starched overalls or a suit, tie, and hat, which he kept in storage units he rented, looking like he belonged in a jazz quartet.
“He had so much character and soul,” as one of the teachers put it.
Joe was the second oldest of eight kids, a “young man with responsibility,” his family remembered, as he took care of his younger siblings while their mom worked nights after their parents separated. Joe shined shoes to help feed the family. Later, he moved to Los Angeles and worked in construction and as a commercial-licensed driver. He married, had a son, divorced, and ended up back in Dallas. He graduated from ATI Technical School in 1985 as a licensed certified mechanic, earning the honor of being a “perfect attendance” graduate.
Nobody knew why such a smart, kind, hardworking, successful man, who had a loving family, ended up living on the streets. Former President Ronald Reagan famously said that many homeless people “make it their own choice” to sleep outside on the ground instead of going to shelters. Was Joe really living the life he wanted? Or was he unable to make the best decisions for himself?
By late 2019, years of living outside were taking a toll on Joe. After experiencing pain, he agreed to see a doctor, who found he had kidney stones. Joe needed surgery but first needed to clear up an infection. He stayed with two of his brothers in their impeccable South Dallas home. As soon as his infection cleared, Joe headed back to Laughlin Drive. Over the next several months, he missed so many medical appointments, complicated by being on the streets, that his surgery got postponed.
Months passed. The weather got colder. Joe stayed outside while his family and friends worried, unable to guard the guardian. By this point, the school asked Joe to leave after receiving complaints about the growing collection of scavenged goods he brought to the property. Joe moved across the street, sleeping outside the house of a woman who tried to help.
The night of February 13, 2020 was one of the season’s coldest. Joe slept outside, next to the neighbor’s house. The next morning, she brought him coffee and breakfast. She tried to wake him up, but he didn’t respond. He had died sometime during the early morning hours. It was Valentine’s Day.
On a cold, cloudy afternoon later that month, Joe’s family and friends from the art school gathered at a memorial service at a Dallas funeral home. Photos showed Joe, smiling, wearing pressed suits, with his mom, sisters, and brothers from happier times. Joe’s family members talked about their struggle to do the only thing we can do sometimes for the people we love: accept them without trying to change or “fix” them.
“We loved him where he was,” his sister, Cheryl, said.
As his brothers, sisters, and friends took turns speaking, Joe was remembered as the devoted big brother and the kind friend.
“It is a blessing to have a brother with integrity and honesty like Joe,” his brother, Larry, said later. “Since the time I was a young boy to the day he passed, Joe never stopped being a steady rock in my life and the life of others. He was always there in difficult times and never let us forget we will get through this together.”
Pollak, the arts center’s executive director, spoke about how Joe “taught us all about creating a sense of home and community, but who had no home himself.
“To me, that was the irony of Joe,” Pollak said.
Joe was remembered as a man who lived life on his own terms, for better or worse. “He’s still our guardian angel,” one of the teachers said at the memorial. “He’s definitely watching over us. I don’t think he’s ever going to leave.”