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The Great Street People of Charleston

Author: 
Cullen Murray Kemp
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I love street people. When I say street people, I’m not talking about the rapper who glorifies selling drugs and murdering rival gang members, while probably knowing less about both those things than I do (don’t get me wrong, I love rap). I’m talking about the guy who may or may not be addicted to drugs. The guy who has worn the same clothes for months and has slept on the ground for years. The real, the hardened street people who don’t mind setting dignity aside to panhandle, “Ay lil’ bubba! Can I get a nickel?” I get asked every time I walk into my apartment on Spring Street.

 

I’ll usually reply with a smile, “Man, I’m trying to make this money just like you. Ask me again next time.” He will, and next time I will toss him a nickel.

 

These people who call the concrete sidewalk a bed nightly, and the stoop their couch daily, are often disregarded as lazy and no good. “I don’t know why they don’t all just get jobs,” my friends will often say. As if getting a job is a legitimate option for these street folk.

 

And really, I don’t fault my friends for being turned off by street people either. I guess I’m just different, or weird, or whatever. But if you listen closely, nobody is as honest and genuine as street people. They will tell you their life story at the drop of a dime (no pun intended). They will talk about whatever you want to talk about—and I’ve found their stories far more interesting than mine. 

 

Street people are also “neighborly folk.” They do things like befriend the parking-ticket lady, and if you give them a few moments to at least acknowledge their presence, they won’t let her leave a ticket under your windshield wiper blade. A pretty good deal if you ask me, considering they have saved me hundreds of dollars worth of tickets.

 

It’s a street code: Quid Pro Quo.

 

I have seen them break up fights between college kids, stop traffic to let the elderly cross, and find my neighbor's lost dog. I have also seen them sell and use drugs, drink in public at 10 a.m., and fight amongst themselves. Yet, I have found them generally big-hearted people who constantly interact with the public, and more than anything just want your acknowledgement of their existence.

 

One of Charleston’s most popular street people is named Kenneth Robert King, aka Tin Ten. Tin Ten will always offer a stranger his words of wisdom, and also has been known to rap for fans in his spare time. One day, he literally walked in front of my friend’s car with his hand out in a “halt” motion. My friend stomped on the brakes as I simultaneously yelled obscenities not fit for Grit. Tin Ten motioned for us to roll down the window, “I love y’all and want y’all to live forever. So please, please (insert about ten more “please’s”) put on ya'll’s seatbelts!” Confused, we muttered our "thank yous" and put our belts on.

 

What I like most about the street people of Spring Street is their accepting nature and their natural disposition of being helpful. The other day I was sitting on my front stoop talking about how I wanted to get a haircut. A local street person named Henry overheard me: “Ay big man!” In a baffled gaze, I looked in his direction. “Yeah you! Come wit me. I know the best haircut place in town.” 

 

Since it was after noon, and I am a writer, it was okay that alcohol played a role in my decision to follow him.

 

A newly entitled Henry strutted past his fellow street comrades a few blocks down the street to neighborhood barbershop (Think the Charleston version of Ice Cube’s Barbershop). The place was traditional in style and had good vibes. Henry directed me to sit in the waiting chair as he struck up a conversation with the barber, “Ay dis my friend uhm,” nodding in my direction.

 

“Cullen,” I interjected.

 

“Yeah Culor,” Henry continued. “He good peoples so hook him up right!”

 

The barber responded coolly, “I got you.”

 

I was a bit timid at first, but quickly warmed up to the barbershop folk when NFL football was brought up. The banter was simply splendid.

 

Initially there were only three or four people in the place, but it was as if the neighborhood had an alert system that alarmed everyone when a good conversation was going on. Person after person began streaming through the barbershop door, while I, the only white boy, sat right in the middle of all the action.

 

“Man the Cowboys flat out stink,” said an elderly man who looked like he ran the place.

 

I saw my opportunity. “You right on that one. Tony Romo looked like he was playing for the Bears last week!”

 

The barbershop erupted in laughter.

 

“White boy, what you know about some football?” asked a heavyset woman with an inviting smile.

 

“I know that the Ravens are gunna win the super bowl this year,” I responded.

 

“Maaannnn you crazy! Billy Cundiff is a choke artist,” said my barber who had completely forgot about the task at hand that was my haircut.

 

Well, I thought, Billy Cundiff doesn’t play for the Raven’s anymore, but what came out was more of an agreeing, “Yeah, you right.”

 

For over half an hour the banter continued. The arguments in the barbershop that day were right, wrong, hilarious, entertaining, sometimes even personal, but were ultimately all out of love, respect, and admiration. And somehow, in the process, I wound up with a halfway decent haircut.

 

By the time I walked out of the barbershop there must have been 35 people in there all yelling about how much the Dallas Cowboys sucked. It was glorious.

 

After about 50 handshakes that made me feel like the white Obama, the elderly man who had commenced the entire conversation spoke up. “Hey white boy,” everyone got silent as I turned around in the doorway to face him. “You part of the family now. Don’t go gettin’ your haircut nowhere else,” he uttered with a stone cold demeanor.

 

I awkwardly mustered up an “O.K.”

 

“Ahh I’m just messin’ wit ya big man,” he told a relieved white boy with a fresh hair cut and a new family.

 

“F*** Dallas,” I responded evoking a final bevy of laughter.