The Men Who Sit on My Spring Street Stoop

Cullen Murray Kemp

Sitting at my computer late Sunday night awake with insomnia, I began to type. This is what transpired…


I want to talk about the men who sit on my stoop.


For many hours on many days I’ve sat by their side, listening to them banter about everything and anything. As we shared countless stories over hotdogs and beer, it seems that I have gained their trust as a friend. Since I moved into my house on Spring Street a year ago, I have come to know the people who sit on my stoop on the most intimate of levels. 


Some have shared with me their life’s trials. For example, one man had his wife and daughter slain during a robbery while he lived in Baltimore. Another man lost his son in a hit-and-run car accident, and now goes into daily alcohol-induced fits (we think he is bipolar) where he speaks to imaginary listeners for hours on end about everything from street philosophy to the death of his son. I have come to the conclusion that most every street person has had something, at some time, in their lives go so wrong that they were not able to fully recover from it.


And for the ones who don’t share their personal tragedy with me, I can’t help but wonder what caused them to fall into their current life situation.


Was it some sort of bad mistake, like hitting their wife after a night of hard drinking? Was it a familial catastrophe like losing their parents at a very young age? God only knows what the hell I’d be like if I ever lived in an orphanage, without the sanity of real parents. Were they the product of a harsh environment? Did they help a friend to steal a car (like in Leon’s case)? Did they get caught selling drugs? Have they suffered from addiction? Have they been institutionalized? As Leon said, “In jail, people are changed.” Whatever it was, something severe, sinister, and life-changing must have happened to the men who sit on my stoop.


They are all black. Could this be a reason for their life struggles?


Black people and the South have never really gotten along, right? That’s why Django Unchained was so riveting, and perhaps that’s why Harry, or Stanley, or Eat-Em-Up (use your imagination for the origin of that nickname), or Other Stanley are all well into their 50s but don’t hold consistent jobs. Instead, they now live off the land. They live off the street. Find odd jobs at odd hours to fill the approximate $8 (I’ve estimated) they spend on beer from our corner store everyday.


But with reduced ambition comes reduced responsibility and a less complicated thought process. They have no self-doubt, no anxiety, and no concerns for how the outside world perceives them (must be nice). They don’t dwell on the Asian police officer that harasses them on a daily basis; he bullies them and they cower submissively, because, well, “That’s just the way it is” (Other Stanley’s words not mine).


This wretched insomnia has my mind wandering. Almost as if some Native American peyote induced this trance, I float over to the abandoned house next door and peer down at the man sleeping amongst nails and filth and sweat from the hot summer night.


Harry is dirty—the type of dirty that doesn’t wash away. As I float, suspended above the man who is lying on the broken mattress wrapped up in old cloths I can’t help but wonder what travels through a mind like Harry’s? Does he think in terms of the future, past, present, or are those times foreign to him? Does he hurt? What emotions does he feel? Bad? Good? The questions pile up in my mind about that man sleeping 25 feet from where I’m currently plugging away at these keys. One thing is for sure: Some sort of horror had to have transpired for Harry to be there in that abandoned house. Somewhere, sometime, he lost a sense of where and who he was/is.


And now years later, he is a lost man with eyes so glazed over that they are difficult to look into. His three teeth are hanging on to old, worn gums by rotten skin. He carries a stench that, although I’ve never smelled death, smells like what I imagine it to be. But still, he wakes up every morning, puts on his boots, and trots about Spring Street ordering folks around in lovable Harry fashion. I guess a man’s spirit is hard to break, or so they say.


As I’m wrapping this piece up I look down at my iPhone and over to my Mac Book Air and shake my head, like “fuck, I’m lucky.”


And until something so catastrophic shatters our lives to an unrecoverable means—like the lives of the men on my stoop—I think we all are pretty damn lucky.