“I don’t like her,” one young lady in debate class says about the ninety-year-old mother of Ted Williams, the homeless man with the golden voice. Williams was recently “discovered”on the side of the exit ramp off Interstate 71 in Columbus, Ohio. Journalist and web producer Doral Chenoweth III saw his sign, which read:
I HAVE A GOD GIVEN GIFT OF VOICE, I’M AN EX-RADIO ANNOUNCER WHO HAS FALLEN ON HARD TIMES, PLEASE! ANY HELP WILL BE GREAT-FULLY APPRECIATED AND THANK YOU AND GOD BLESS YOU, HAPPY HOLIDAY.
Chenoweth stopped and lightly challenged Williams to demonstrate his talent. Williams complied, as if on cue, and his crisp baritone was, indeed, a heavenly gift. Video posted on The Columbus Dispatch and then YouTube propelled this unknown panhandler with the famous ballplayer’s name back into existence. Appearances on national programs like The Early Show and Entertainment Tonight ensued. Job offers followed, and his new agent estimates Williams could earn over one million dollars doing voice-overs and the like.
A televised reunion with his mother, whom he had not seen in a decade, aired on The Today Show, followed by a larger gathering on Dr. Phil with five of his nine children, now grown, who have only a dim memory of their distant dad. At fifty-three, Williams also seemed a bit shell shocked as he discussed his past forays into addiction and petty crimes.
“Why don’t you like her?” I ask the student. “She’s his mother. This must have been hard on her.”
“She just didn’t seem like she was too happy to see him,” the young lady explains. “She kept saying, ‘Please, don’t disappoint me.'”
I remind my students that we, the public, are only privy to a small piece of a larger story. Surely we have considered the complicated and twisting pathways that lead to a life holding a handwritten sign on the side of some road. In the Bible, the Prodigal Son only returned home once. Would he have received the same lavish reception if it had been his nineteenth time?
We make a list of traits and circumstances that might sabotage a life journey. It is a familiar catalog: addiction, mental illness, incarceration, abuse, short-sightedness, fear, laziness, ignorance, shame. Then I ask my students to suggest remedies for these human frailties. Treatment, parole, education, employment, confession, family, and faith are all prominently mentioned.
We discuss Mr. Williams’ recent admission of a relapse, and his subsequent decision to enter rehab. “How many of you think he will make it?” I ask. A few hands go up. “How many of you think he will fail?” I continue. More are raised. “How many of you think this could happen to you?” Almost all lift their voice in protest.
“Not me. Never,” one popular male student says. “Did you see his hair?”
“And his teeth?” laughs another.
Then I get that look on my face that tells my students a speech is coming.
“I think all of us have a moment like Ted Williams is having now,” I say. “Not one of those big, happy moments, like graduation or your first real job. We get those, sure, but we also have to deal with other times when something shakes us so hard we have no choice but to stop and consider the weight of the thing.”
Then I move to the point of the exercise. For a few classes now, we have been preparing to debate the topic of gentrification in DC. It has been easy for students to obtain data on a host of positive trends in the city since the 2000 census. Tax revenue is up, along with the population. New retail and shopping options abound (ten new supermarkets alone in as many years). All areas of the city have grown in population and housing options. Crime rates are plummeting. The newspapers report a white majority is projected by 2014. There is a sense of forward movement in the city.
It has proven more difficult to argue against gentrification. Displacement of the poor and a reduction in affordable housing and homeless shelters are chronicled, but my students do not see themselves directly in the path of these consequences. Some bemoan the loss of “Chocolate City,” and claim a lack of connection with the newcomers walking dogs in their neighborhood. But most nod when one girl confesses, “I want to live in one of those apartments downtown. They look nice.”
“What would have happened if Ted Williams lived in DC?” I ask. “Forget the television part. I mean before, like those men you see sometimes off the 395 overpass. The ones with the signs. What do you think happens to them?”
“They die,” one offers.
“Maybe. Maybe not,” I respond. “Maybe we need to think about gentrification differently. Think of how it shapes city policy and resource allocation. Many like Mr. Williams, who has a criminal record, have a very difficult time reintegrating into the community. Who wants them? Who will hire them? Where do you go for help? In fact, why would any city want to help its poor who pay little taxes, need assistance, and often don’t vote?”
It’s always fun once you open a window in a classroom. Our discussion weaves around a number of issues, both political and personal. A few have relatives lost in one cave or another, and all know of at least someone scarred by poverty. Most conclude the city should stay just the way it is now, a blend of ages, races, and incomes. None think it better to reside in a place where everyone lives the same, or owns the same. “So argue that,” I say.
I end the class with another story. I speak to them about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s last speech on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination. Against the advice of many of his closest associates, he had come to Memphis to rally against the pay scale and work conditions of sanitation workers. We used to call them “trashmen,” the lowest of the low.
King stayed in his hotel room that evening. He was tired, and he asked Reverend Ralph Abernathy and others to handle speaking duty at the Mason Temple that night. But the crowd insisted. They wanted to hear Dr. King, and he, once informed they would not relent, left his room to join them.
In the speech, he spoke about economic justice and human dignity. He talked about the time he almost died after being stabbed ten years earlier, about how he didn’t sneeze, about progress, connection, and his own death. He talked about the mountain top and the promised land. Colleagues later said they had never heard him so prophetic, and Dr. King was so drained at the end of his speech that he had to be helped from the pulpit.
I read the last paragraph of his speech aloud to the class:
“”Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day, when he died, DC erupted, I remind the students. I tell them about the riots, and the looting, and the neighborhoods ablaze. Some are only now regaining their past glory, though the faces of the residents have changed.
“Gentrification,” I say, “is complicated. Like most things–even addiction and recovery, pain and redemption, fragments and foresight–sometimes it just depends on who you talk to, and whether you’re looking down or up.”
“So,” I ask, ending with the learning reflection exercise now mandated in all classes, “what did we learn today?”