Sunday, June 13, 2010

Homeless in Georgia



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.

17 comments:

  1. Ron,
    Thanks for posting this story! I remember visiting Pigeon Roost years ago with my Uncle Bob & Aunt Marie when I was a college student @ BJU. The abject poverty was soul-stirring, yet, in their poverty, some of these folks are rich in spirit. The young gal you met asked you to pray for her. I'll be praying for her and for you. We do not understand why God brings us to and through certain situations, but He does nothing without a purpose. Perhaps the memory of your encounter with this young lady will be used by our Creator in ways far above what we could imagine.
    On another note, we visited Toccoa Falls, GA years ago when in the Greenville area. Is this near Toccoa? I purchased a book which gave the history of the dam break in Toccoa Falls which took the lives of many young college students.
    Enjoy reading your blogs.
    Beth

    ReplyDelete
  2. Beth,
    Yes, Toccoa Falls is right next to Toccoa, Georgia. John, Bill and I also visited Pigeon Roost again. Like you we were so taken by the poverty that permeates those hills. But also like you we noted that the people are rich in spirit. I will be doing future posts on our trip to Pigeon Roost. John says he often "takes a run up Pigeon Roost" whenever he wants to clear his head.

    I'll also do a posting on our visit to Toccoa Falls. I'm glad we made the trip. We visited my Mom and the other two trips were to Toccoa (Bill's home town), Johnson City and Pigeon Roost by way of Erwin, Tennessee at the foothills of those mountains. Always an inspiring visit.

    Ron

    ReplyDelete
  3. Going back to our old home can be so difficult. For me it's not the poverty but the fact that the only thing that is still there are the buildings, homes, all the people I knew as a kid are gone. Even my beautiful grammar school has been torn down and replaced with a new sterile school. Last time I was there was ten years ago, I will not return.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Mike,
    I know what you mean about going "home" again. I have the same situation with my hometown of Downingtown. Interestingly it is not the poverty either. In fact, Downingtown has evolved into quite a prosperous bedroom community of upper middle class folks. Like your situation, most everyone I knew is gone. Plus, they tore down our beautiful East Ward elementary school which so fit in with its surroundings and replaced it with (like yours), a sterile lump of a school. That did it for me. I knew then I could never go home again.
    My brother still lives outside of Downingtown so I will visit occasionally but the town I grew up in is gone. It is only a memory. Bill and I are making new memories at our new home in Delaware.
    Another interesting development that since Bill saw how much his old hometown of Toccoa has changed he has a new appreciation for our home in Delaware. That alone made the trip down south worth it.

    Ron

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ron,
    I was surprised and glad to find your blog. I was doing some genealogy research on the Edwards/Brown family from Toccoa. I typed in Norman Tate Brown and your blog popped up. My name is Mark Brown. Your partner Bill is my uncle, although I have always heard him called 'Buddy'. He is my dad's brother. My dad passed away in December 2004 the week of Christmas. He always wanted to find Buddy so this means alot to me. I have 2 sisters, 2 nieces, 1 nephew and his wife. My mother is now 72, retired and doing very good. If you would like I can email you pictures of our family. I also have a photo of Buddy when he was little with mother, brother, and 2 sisters. I will be glad to send you a copy if you if you don't already have one.
    I enjoyed reading your blog and was excited to see pictures of Buddy. I'm glad you found each other and are both happy.
    I wish the best to both of you and mom sends her best as well.

    Mark

    ReplyDelete
  6. Mark,
    So good to hear from you. I don't know anyone in Bill's family. Yes, I would like very much to see a picture of Bill when he was little with his mother. I have no pictures of Bill at that age.

    Bill and I have been together 46 years now. He did tell me he was known as "Buddy" by his family.

    I can share other pictures of your uncle from the past 46 years if you would like. I would also like to see pictures of Bill's family. Bill subscribes to the Toccoa newspaper to keep in touch with family. He plans to return for a visit next year. He is 81 years old and in good health.

    Thank you for your good wishes. Please tell your mother that Bill (Buddy) has been very happy these past 46 years. And he has made my life very happy. I've been very fortunate to meet such a wonderful man and spend my life with him.

    Ron

    ReplyDelete
  7. Mark,

    Send me your e-mail address to me at:

    ronstales@aol.com

    I'll send you some pictures of your uncle Buddy.

    Ron

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi guys,
    Like Bill, Toccoa was a central part of my upbringing as well, though I'm just 30. I am also gay & though years separate, I can relate to being raised in that area as a gay man where God is truly king & that being anything other than white & straight was NEVER tolerated by the community. I was born in the county North of Stephens where Toccoa is in Rabun County in Clayton. At that time in the 80's Toccoa was the "big town" in the area, really the only place to shop in a 50 mile radius, and Clayton was a dying town. While I was growing up a hwy was being constructed that would eventually link Laurencville directly to Clayton bypassing Toccoa all together. It was completed while I was in highschool in Carnesville. We'd moved to Carnesville in Franklin County, the county to the east of Stephens, from Clayton to escape the poverty, though we were very poor ourselves. (You guys probably took the Carnesville exit on I-85 on ur way from Greenville to Toccoa.) After the road was completed in reality linking Atlanta to all the way up to Clayton, the Northern most county in the state, Toccoa & Clayton switched places. Clayton began to grow & expand as $ was pumped into it's economy as it's reputation as a mountain get-away & b/c the county boasted the only ski-slope in GA. Toccoa spiraled down to being a little more than a ghost town b/c it is now off the beaten path, & fewer & fewer people began to remember it or even that it was the town from which the HBO mini series Band of Brothers began.

    My major link to Toccoa was family so I know the place well though I never lived there myself. My grandfather lived there in a shak and I watched it decline. It is a truly sad situation b/c the people living there didn't create the situation. It was thrust upon them by those who likely have never been there. I was last there in spring 2009 just after the nation's financial decline and conditions were bordering on sub-human. I can only imagine the peril existing there now.

    It took joining the Navy to get me out. I now live in Seattle while my family remains in Carnesville. I don't think I could ever go back, not to live & I rarely visit.
    .
    I empathize with ur partner greatly. The town that was such a central part of my life for so long seems doomed now to be a rusty skeleton of it's past.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi guys,
    Like Bill, Toccoa was a central part of my upbringing as well, though I'm just 30. I am also gay & though years separate, I can relate to being raised in that area as a gay man where God is truly king & that being anything other than white & straight was NEVER tolerated by the community. I was born in the county North of Stephens where Toccoa is in Rabun County in Clayton. At that time in the 80's Toccoa was the "big town" in the area, really the only place to shop in a 50 mile radius, and Clayton was a dying town. While I was growing up a hwy was being constructed that would eventually link Laurencville directly to Clayton bypassing Toccoa all together. It was completed while I was in highschool in Carnesville. We'd moved to Carnesville in Franklin County, the county to the east of Stephens, from Clayton to escape the poverty, though we were very poor ourselves. (You guys probably took the Carnesville exit on I-85 on ur way from Greenville to Toccoa.) After the road was completed in reality linking Atlanta to all the way up to Clayton, the Northern most county in the state, Toccoa & Clayton switched places.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Clayton began to grow & expand as $ was pumped into it's economy as it's reputation as a mountain get-away & b/c the county boasted the only ski-slope in GA. Toccoa spiraled down to being a little more than a ghost town b/c it is now off the beaten path, & fewer & fewer people began to remember it or even that it was the town from which the HBO mini series Band of Brothers began.

    My major link to Toccoa was family so I know the place well though I never lived there myself. My grandfather lived there in a shak and I watched it decline. It is a truly sad situation b/c the people living there didn't create the situation. It was thrust upon them by those who likely have never been there. I was last there in spring 2009 just after the nation's financial decline and conditions were bordering on sub-human. I can only imagine the peril existing there now.

    It took joining the Navy to get me out. I now live in Seattle while my family remains in Carnesville. I don't think I could ever go back, not to live & I rarely visit.
    .
    I empathize with ur partner greatly. The town that was such a central part of my life for so long seems doomed now to be a rusty skeleton of it's past.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Jacob,

    Thank you for your comments. I will relate them to my partner Bill, who is from Toccoa. I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, a Northerner.
    This visit to Toccoa was the first for me. I was truly shocked at the ghost town like quality of this once vibrant Georgia city.
    We are planning on visiting Toccoa again this Spring.

    Ron

    ReplyDelete
  12. Anonymous10:47 PM

    I asked you a few days ago about some of States and live in America, since that time I continue to read your blog, I like your style in writing
    I like you

    FH

    ReplyDelete
  13. FH,

    Thank you very much!

    ReplyDelete
  14. That was an intersting story. I looked this up because, a few months back we took a trip to GA to look around at some of the towns. We went to see Toccoa falls while we there there, and then got hungry. So we went into town to get something to eat. It didnt take long to realize that our country's current depression has hit that town HARD! The place was virtually a ghost town. We couldnt find one open resturant, and it was the middle of the day!!! We ended up going to Cornelia GA to eat. Cornelia was in much better shape. I am still strying to find out Why Toccoa is turning intoa ghost town. It doesnt make sense to me. I thought that tourists liked vacationing in the mountains. I dont understand why people are moving out. Surely retired people who dont need to wory about finding a job should like it there. DO you think it will ever recover at all?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Frank,
      When Bill and I were in Toccoa (we're going back this year also) we had trouble finding a restaurant in town. The main street was almost deserted. However, we did find a good restaurant on the main street. It is called "The Retro Cafe". It is in the same building as the antiques. The food was pretty good. Of course just the locals were in the restaurant. The problem with visiting Toccoa is that there isn't any place to stay unless you want to stay at a bed and breakfast, which we don't. Last year we stayed in Helen but that's too touristy and beat up. This year we're planning on staying in Cornelia.
      Toccoa is turning into a ghost town. The problem is that there is no business in Toccoa other than the college at Toccoa Falls. And Toccoa is off the main road. "Big Red", the main road that goes through Toccoa isn't enough to enable Toccoa to grow. Toccoa is slowly slipping into irrelevance. It's a shame. Bill is always so sad after he visits. Now where we live now, the Rehoboth Beach, Lewes, Milton area of southern Delaware; is the exact opposite. So much growth so fast. In the summertime Route One if gridlock. From one extreme to another.
      Thanks for you comment.
      Ron

      Delete
    2. Ron, we stayed at the Lake Russell Recreation area for only $12 a night! Just bring a tent or a camper. They have running hot water and all the privacy and quiet you could ever need, right in the forest! Here is a review I made on it:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pyda5vgvlnQ
      When you go back, if you want to save money, thats how to do it.

      Delete