One of the goals of our recent trip down south was to visit my partner Bill's hometown of Toccoa, Georgia.
Bill was born in Toccoa 81 years ago. At that time Toccoa was a thriving southern town. The big company in town was the thread mill.
Bill's father died in an automobile accident when Bill was a little over one year old. Bill's mother remarried Norman Tate Brown, a man who worked for the local railroad.
When Bill became a young man he left Toccoa, Georgia and entered the Army. Later on he joined the Air Force. After serving seven years in the Air Force, Bill had to leave the service of his country to take care of his mother. Bill's mother died suddenly in February of 1964 of a brain aneurism. She was only 52 years old. I meet Bill in July of 1964. I never met his mother.
Bill has only been back to his home of Toccoa twice since we've been together. We visited once in 1965. I vaguely remember that trip. At that time of my life I was all caught up in visiting as many gay bars around the country as I could squeeze in during our all too infrequent vacations.
Bill visited his hometown of Toccoa again by himself about thirty years ago.
During the planning of my recent trip to Greenville, South Carolina I suggested to Bill that we could take a side trip to visit Toccoa. We could make it a day trip since Toccoa is only 70 miles west of Greenville.
On June 8th, this past Tuesday, we rolled into Toccoa in our rented van (compliments of my brother John.) We were immediately struck by the contrast between the two cities of Greenville, SC and Toccoa, GA. Whereas Greenville is a thriving, pulsating, and vibrant, Toccoa is a sad, lonely, and dying.
As we drove down the almost deserted ghost town like streets of downtown Toccoa, Bill pointed out a house that belonged to a childhood friend of his. We pulled over and parked on the overgrown grass in front of the now abandoned house. We got out to take pictures.
Almost immediately I saw a young woman step off the front porch and approach us. She said "Yes sir?" I assumed she lived there and wanted to know what we were doing taking pictures of her house. Bill started to talk to her. After every one of Bill's sentences she would say "Yes sir?" I thought this was very odd. I soon found out why she was so polite in her questioning. She thought we were there to throw her out. You see, she was homeless.
She told Bill she was homeless and had been living in the house before she was thrown out by the owner of the house who said he didn't "want her there." The owner boarded up the door so she couldn't enter the house. She said she was living in the tent that on the overgrown lawn next to the house. Her belongings were on the porch, to prevent the rain from getting them wet. She was barefoot.
Bill explained to her that his childhood friend used to live in that house. As I took pictures, Bill walked around the property pointing out areas that he and his friend used to play. One area that was of particularly fondness for Bill was a big tree out in the back yard that he and his friend used to climb in their youthful play.
The young woman followed Bill around the property as Bill reminisced. I stayed apart, taking my pictures as I am wont to do in any situation. The sadness of her situation began to overwhelm us and we both wanted to leave. But before we left Bill told the young woman that he felt sorry for her. He took out his wallet and gave her his last $20. The young woman was overwhelmed and said "Oh God bless you sir! Thank you! Thank you!" and she gave Bill a big hug. I managed to get a picture just as she was pulling away from Bill.
Bill told her again, "I feel sorry for you and I hope this can help you I wish I could give you more." The young woman said "Don't feel sorry for me sir. Pray for me."
We left her and her tent and the abandoned property of Bill's childhood friend. I asked Bill to take me to the nearest gas station. While I was taking pictures I had stepped on a plastic bag and immediately smelled a unique odor. I had stepped in a bag of feces. The unique odor told me that this was not dog poop but human feces. It didn't take me long to figure out that this is how the young woman handled her bathroom needs. I had to get to the gas station rest room so I could scrub off the smell from the heel of my previously pristine white sneaker. I didn't want that smell and memory of her sad state to accompany me the rest of our trip.
I managed to scrub the evidence of our encounter with this poor young woman from my sneaker but I have not been able to erase the memory of her plight from my memory.
We do not know why she was homeless. Perhaps she has a drug problem. Maybe she was thrown out of her house by her husband or boyfriend. All we know is that she is living in a tent on the abandoned property of Bill's former childhood friend. The rest of our trip through Toccoa, Georgia would be haunted by the memory of this poor woman.
We continue to think of her to this day. Maybe someday we will forget her. If anything good came of this encounter it is the reminder of how fortunate we are to have a safe and comfortable home. Bill has come a long way from Toccoa, Georgia. It was good we visited. Bill had this idealized, bucolic memory of his hometown. This past Tuesday he met reality. It wasn't pretty.