The people of Sixth Street have been in the forefront of my thoughts lately, so I’ve decided to republish my story — one of my favorites — about two remarkable people I encountered on the street in 2007.
The sun had disappeared behind a shroud of fog that scudded by in great swirling drifts, like the sails of a phantom armada. What had been a warm day was quickly becoming cold. Sixth Street between Market and Howard was all noise and hubbub. The roar of sirens and rush-hour traffic assaulted my ears. Not to be outdone, the Hydra’s voice of inner-city street life roared even louder. Shouts, cries and raucous laughter punctuated a thousand simultaneous conversations. I was glad to finally reach Howard Street, for there the chaos subsided and the sidewalks were empty. As I walked past the rotting hulk of the Hugo Hotel, I overtook a lone pedestrian, a man with a cane, burdened by a backpack and a duffel bag. Moments later, from behind me he cried out, “Hello? Hello?”
The man sounded desperate, so I retraced my steps to see if I could help. Even from a distance I could see he was troubled. I saw it in the lines of his dark-brown face and in his eyes, but when I stood before him, he seemed hesitant. He tested the water by asking me how I was feeling. Then, encouraged by my friendly response, he said, “I’m still Bill.”
Whether that meant his name was Still Bill or that he remained Bill, I couldn’t tell, so I just asked, “Still Bill?”
Bill’s response left me speechless. As he spoke, I memorized his words. (Bill pronounced “Lucille” and “Mobile” with the same soft “i” as “Bill.”)
“I’m still Bill, always was, always will.
“Had a wife named Lucille,
“Had a home down in Mobile.
“Come the war in Vietnam,
“They sent me off and made me kill.
“Come back a broke-up man,
“Weren’t no more home, no more Lucille.
“She’d gone and left me, but I’m still Bill.”
What could I say to that? I told Bill his poetry, though sad, was beautiful, much like the Blues. Also, standing there in shirtsleeves in the damp wind was giving me a chill. How could I help him? It turned out Bill had become lost trying to find a nearby shelter someone had told him about. I said I would show him the way, offering to carry his bag as we walked.
Once in motion, Bill lurched and wobbled, forcing us to stop several times as I helped him regain his balance. The poisonous fumes of cheap, fortified wine hung in the air around him. Fearing he would stumble into the path of a speeding car, I put his arm through mine when we crossed the street. I had to fight back tears when Bill expressed gratitude, he deserved so much more than I could give him. As we drew near the entrance at the back of the municipal shelter, an old industrial building at Fifth and Bryant, I asked Bill if I could photograph him. The only other person in sight was a Native American woman walking toward us along Fifth Street. Though a stranger to both Bill and me, she soon blithely joined us.
A private moment was instantly broken, but strangely I felt no remorse or resentment. Just to behold this woman was to like her. The light of kindness shined in her eyes. Her smiling countenance was open and serene. She was thickset and earthy, yet her hands were slender and sensitive and she moved with the suppleness and grace of a dancer. Seeing that she was curious, I explained I was photographing Bill to commemorate our encounter. When I suggested that I could also photograph her, she went straight to Bill’s side and gently put her arm around his shoulders.
Tbis was too much for Bill, who was suddenly nervous and fidgety, his shy smile replaced by a self-conscious grimace. I had to distract him, so I played the fool while I shot numerous frames to capture him in an unguarded moment. Manifest in every photograph I took are the woman’s radiance and warmth and her compassion for Bill. Before I departed, she told me she would look after Bill inside the shelter. Knowing what I do of shelters and the way they are operated, her words in retrospect seem naively optimistic, but when she spoke, I believed her with all my heart.
I don’t know her name. For all I know she doesn’t have one. I never thought to ask and probably would have forgotten it anyway, because most names in and of themselves are largely meaningless. We remember people by their actions. I will always remember her for the light and love she shared with Bill and me that cold and foggy afternoon, on a lonely, windblown sidewalk south of Market.