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DOWN and OUT // Changing Fortunes

Part 1 of 4

The weather for December turned unusually frosty as a cold front passed through Florida. A chilly blast of air cut through the dirty alley, adding to the icy feeling of the men who huddled around the fire in the trash can.

This alley was not different from a lot of the alleys that were in this part of St. Petersburg. You had to be careful to walk here, avoiding the broken glass bottles, rocks and other litter. The garbage cans were overturned, and the rats ate the spoiled food. The smell was hard to take. Every now and then, wild dogs ran through the alley, chasing the rats.

The only place the men around the fire could take shelter was in the abandoned stripped cars left there to rust.

Three of the men gathered found their way to this same alley every year, like the birds that flew South. They worked odd jobs or panhandled up North until the weather began to cool, and then they returned to Florida.

The fourth man was a newcomer. His clothes were dirty, brown-stained and ripped in many places. He was wearing a raggedy Braves cap, a torn satin Yankees jacket and a wool navy coat to protect him from the wind. His pants were held up by a piece of rope and held together by patches. He had on messed-up, no-name shoes with worn-out soles.

The other three were all pretty skinny, but this newcomer was fat and his stomach hung out of his shirt in jelly rolls. His teeth were rotten, and he had two different color eyes; one was blue and the other brown. The brown eye didn't seem to move, as if it was made of glass. The men noticed that when the stranger walked, he limped as if he had a wooden leg.

"Who are you?" asked Jack, who was the leader of the three."Where you coming from? We never seen you around here."

"My name is Bill. I just got in from Chicago."

"What did you do up there?" asked Bobo, the shortest of the three.

"I was a lawyer, but I got caught cheating one of my clients and got fired. My wife divorced me and took everything I had. I went from job to job and was caught stealing. They had me serve two days, so I thought it was better if I just left after that. Why are you guys here?"

"I lost the job I had when they closed the factory," Jack answered. "I couldn't pay the rent, and they threw me out. There were no other jobs in town, and I've floated from one odd job to another since."

"I was in Vietnam," Crusty explained. "When I got back, instead of people honoring what I had done, I couldn't find any work. When I did finally find something, I kept getting flashbacks of the war and couldn't keep a job."

Bobo said, "I started drinking when I was working for the city. I was up for promotion, and they picked someone younger for the job. Drinking helped me rest my nerves when I thought about it. I've been drinking ever since, and it's cost me my job and family."

"It's been rough living on the streets since I lost my job. How about you guys?" asked Bill.

"I got nothing but a cardboard box and a mattress. On cold nights like this, I look through the garbage cans to find some tore-up sheets," Bobo said.

"I stay over at the Salvation Army shelter. They give you a blanket and a cot. The food is kind of nasty, but it's worth it," Crusty said.

"They got any openings over there?" asked Bill.

"Yeah! Last night they had two beds left, but you better hurry. On a cold night, the place fills up pretty quick."

"If you can't get in there, you can join me under the bridge at 275 and 35th Street S," Jack said. "We got three of us up there, but we can fit in a couple of more."

"I'll see you guys later on tonight," Bill said as he left the three standing by the fire.

Making his way toward the shelter, Bill hadn't traveled long before he met someone else. Passing through the neighborhood, he heard a man threatening someone angrily. His voice was real loud.

"You better keep on what you got, 'cause you ain't goin' back in that room and get no clothes."

"But I need my clothes," came the response, a high-pitched scream.

Bill turned to see a man and a woman on the front porch of a house that was badly in need of a new paint job. The roof shingles were falling off. The lawn was overgrown with weeds.

The woman was wearing flip-flops and blue-and-white jumper overalls with Velcro straps. On her head was a pink-yellow-and-green flowery, wrinkled hat.

The man disappeared into the house and returned with a stuffed pillowcase.

"If you want your stuff so bad, here it is. Now just get out of my house!"

"This is my house, too. You can't kick me out!"

"Woman, yes I can!" he said as he slammed the door shut.

The woman sat on the steps of the house and cried.

Bill walked up to her.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Ain't none of your business, and why should you care, anyway?"

"I'm just trying to help," Bill said.

"How you gonna help me when you can't even help yourself?" she asked.

"Look, I'm sorry. We just started talking, and we don't even know each other's name. My name is Bill. May I ask yours?"

"My name is Quonya, but I don't need your help. I can take care of myself."

"Sometimes it's better to talk about a problem than to keep the anger in," Bill said. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"

"My boyfriend came home and got mad because I was not cookin' nuttin' fo' him. He started telling me I didn't do nuttin' but sit and watch soap operas, an' he started tellin' me I needed to get a job or hit the road."

"Have you ever tried to get a job?" Bill asked. "What kind of work can you do?"

"I can't do much. I didn't go to school. I dropped out when I was 15 'cause I started doin' drugs. I moved in with my boyfriend, Clyde. Fo' six years, I never had to do nuttin'. He makes good money, but he spends it all on other women and drugs."

"Do you know where your family is? Maybe you can go back to them," Bill said.

"I know where they are, but I don't think they want to help me," answered Quonya, shivering.

Bill took off his heavy coat and put it around Quonya's shoulders.

"Thank you very much," Quonya said quietly.

"You're welcome. Look, why don't you try going over to the shelter? They might be able to help you, at least for a little while. Why don't we try them?"

Bill helped Quonya with her pillowcase of clothes, and together they went to find her a place for the night.

Next week: The junkyard man.

"Changing Fortunes" was written by Alvin Scott, Janita Pressley, Todd Matthews, Elisha Bright, Duane Sherman, Ernest Betsill, Ray Weil, Jason Kramer, April Hartman, Ieasha Ervin, Shaneka Lee, Roger Vandenburgh, Caemeka Flowers, Cartez Rentz, Jacobi Flowers, Quinton Norris, Moses Atkins, Edward McCollum, Charlene Walls, Corey Isaac, Zenaida Smiley, Carlos Stephens, Johnathan Burkepile, Jamie Butler, Octavius Cooper, Thomas Duckworth, Rashonda Merriweather, Christopher Rindorf, Shareka Mixon, Demetrius Everette, Ethan Young, Christopher Schaer, Jerel Walker, Pete Baxter, Shanetra Wells, Kendra Anderson, Chiquita Anderson, Anthony Hall, Dexter Adams, Kiva Pittman, Siey Boatmen, LaShawn Hudson, Jason Vandenburgh, David Andre and Edwin Villanueva.