With her legs shaking and her hands clutching a cardboard sign that reads Homeless. Anything helps, ahh. Please help, Marguerita is not easy to ignore.
Although her wrinkled face and slouching stature draw attention, just about every driver whizzes past the intersection of Memorial and Broad in Murfreesboro in attempt to escape her gaze.
It’s 11 a.m. on a 44-degree Friday morning. The 54-year-old Marguerita, whose three teeth and profound wrinkles suggest she is far older, waves politely at each passerby.
“Hi! Hi there. Hello,” Marguerita yells happily as cars race past her.
She says she suffers from severe anxiety attacks and multiple disabilities that keep her from working. Marguerita receives $750 a month from the government on a debit card because she is on disability. The money, she explains, goes towards occasional motel stays and meals other than what the Journey Home offers. The Journey Home offers food, some housing and showers to the homeless.
Marguerita and her boyfriend, Donny, spend roughly four hours panhandling on this Friday, standing on the curb of Murfreesboro’s busiest intersection. Typically, they average $20 in cash each “fly” (that’s what they call begging).
“One time, a lady gave me a $10 bill and a blanket,” recalls Marguerita. “Oh, it just tickled me pink! I love that blanket. That’s my blanket.”
The simplest things please Marguerita.
She remembers the time a woman once gave her $100. She and Donny spent the money on a motel room and food for the night. The woman is a “regular” who once gave Donny $100. They say that 9 out of 10 times an African American or Hispanic citizen gives them money, and only rarely does a Caucasian contribute.
Panhandlers in the city of Murfreesboro have three rules to follow: Don’t make a mess, don’t step off the curb and don’t stop traffic. Marguerita has received two tickets for soliciting on Church Street. She says she happened to be walking across the street with her sign both times when she received the citations.
In order to pass the time, Marguerita occasionally counts the people who are ashamed to be near her. She even wrote a poem called “Please Don’t Look Past Me.” She loves to write poems and “make art” in her spare time. She mentioned wanting to sell bead necklaces someday that would hang on rear-view mirrors in exchange for donations.
“My goal is to make money off my art wood burnings,” Marguerita explains. “I don’t have nothing to work with no more, [though].”
Marguerita dropped out of York High School during her senior year. She says English was too difficult for her to continue learning. She tried to go back to school to earn her GED, but English prevented her from completing that as well.
Homeless people like Marguerita rarely have a chance to tell their story. And, in Marguerita’s case, it isn’t easy to tell.
Marguerita is a lovely, unique name given to her by her mother.
“My mama watched a movie with a belly dancer in it when she was pregnant with me,” Marguerita recalls. “I’d kick and dance in her belly to that movie. Now I dance all the time!”
Marguerita was forced to move from Northeast Tennessee. The Northeast, she says, isn’t as accepting of homeless people as the South. Her family and friends refused to take her in or give her help, so she had to brave the elements on her own. She has been homeless for eight years and Donny has been homeless for six.
“I gots no family,” she says. “My mama died in . . . what year is it now? 2014? OK, she died in January of 2010. I always got her birthday wrong. I even got it wrong on my tattoo here . . .”
Marguerita pulls up her sleeve to show a tattoo of “October 2010” on her left arm. She shakes her head.
“When I got this [tattoo], I said, ‘See, I did it again, Mama.’ I bet she’s laughing at me now.”
When asked about the rest of her family, Marguerita breaks down crying and runs away from the corner where she is “flying.” Donny explains that her sister was murdered by a gunshot, but that’s all he knows.
Now Marguerita has a new family that she calls her own. At The Journey Home in downtown Murfreesboro, there are plenty of friends for her to connect with. She calls her Journey Home family the “Homeless Gang Family Circle.”
“They call me ‘Mama’ down there at the Journey Home,” Marguerita announces proudly as she lights up a smoke. “I have lots of [unofficially] adopted kids now. We’re a family. If you mess with the family, I will burn your tent down. We gots proof of dat, don’t we, Donny?”
Donny laughs and gives her a kiss. People driving by the couple crane their necks like owls to see their public display of affection.
“It’s like people ain’t ever seen homeless people in love before,” Donny says. “Like, ‘What is that? What is that?’”
An elderly, snooty-looking woman stares at Donny and Marguerita disgustedly as the intersection light turns red and she comes to a stop.
“People stare at me,” she says. “I just wave and say ‘Hi!’”
Marguerita and Donny start making their way to Walgreens to get her medication for anxiety. They made $20 together today. Marguerita spent some of it on her medication and Mountain Dew.
Marguerita drank three medium-sized cans of Mountain Dew in a six-hour time period. She loves Mountain Dew, and even wrote a song about it.
“Dew Dew Dew Dew Dewwww,” Marguerita sings as she walks to the bus stop.
Of course, most medication and soft drinks don’t cost $20. Marguerita says she will give the rest to her pregnant “daughter” whom she met at The Journey Home.
At the bus stop, a young African American girl comes running towards Marguerita. The toddler hugged Marguerita’s legs while looking up at her with a huge smile. The exasperated mother pulls the little girl away from Marguerita.
“Hey!” squeals the mother. “You do not run away from me like that, Anastasia! What are you doing?”
Marguerita is awestruck.
“Did you see that, Donny?” asks Marg. “She just ran to me! To me. Why did she choose me, ya think?”
A woman pushing a large cart of groceries overhears Marguerita’s question and responds before Donny has a chance.
“Because you’re special,” the woman says.
Marguerita lights up with a smile, then trots onto a bus labeled “Mercury.”
“Didja hear dat?” asks Marguerita. “I’m special.”
On the Rover bus to the Mercury Walgreens, Marguerita sits in the third row with Donny.
“I love your hair!” Marguerita says excitedly to the man sitting behind her.
She makes such an impression on the man behind her with the nice hair that he offers Marguerita and Donny a shower, clothes and a place to stay. His name is Champ.
“I don’t have a lot of amenities, but you are more than welcome to come to my house,” Champ says.
Marguerita is shocked, and her eyes light up.
“That’s OK! I don’t even know what ‘amenities’ mean! Let’s go!” she hollers, as she hops off the bus and onto the street.
“Stuff, it means stuff,” Champ says, as he gets off the bus to follow her.
Donny and Champ laugh as they make their way with Marguerita to the house on First Avenue, which is about a mile away.
The small, cluttered, one-bedroom house is gray. Everything inside is also very gray.
“Sorry, I wasn’t really expecting guests,” Champ says.
Marguerita looks dumbstruck to see a house with . . . stuff. She is overwhelmed. She starts poking at the stained glass on his door and skipping around to check out the rest of the place.
“That’s OK, man! It’s your house,” Donny says politely.
Both Marguerita and Donny head to the bathroom to get the long-awaited shower. Marguerita chooses not to shower in The Journey Home because she has severe anxiety around large amounts of people. So she sincerely appreciates this kind offer from Champ.
“Oh, wow! Look at the bubbles, Donny!” Marguerita giggles from inside the bathroom.
After stepping out in fresh clothes, Marguerita and Donny explain that they both need new socks. They’ve been wearing the same dirty socks for three weeks straight. Champ gives them both some socks and hands Marguerita a new leather coat.
“I can put my lucky rock in this coat! Wow!” Marguerita laughs as she puts on the coat on and rifles through the pockets.
Every time Marguerita gets a new gift, she says “Wow,” then “Thanks,” and skips off to show the others around her. No matter what the gift, she is always thankful.
Later, with a friendly goodbye, Marguerita and Donny hop into a van with Marguerita’s “sister.” They then ride off to the camp in which they live.
Marguerita’s home is a place called “Margueritaville.” This camp is identical to the camp in the documentary Tent City. There are eight homeless people living in this camp in the woods. They all care for each other and have fun together.
Nights in Margueritaville consist of campfire songs, soda and snacks. And, yes, that includes Jimmy Buffett’s famous song “Margaritaville.” The group of homeless people chimes in with tunes as others play guitar.
They have permission from the city to live in this location, but they have to keep the location clean and private. If other homeless people find this camp, it could be ransacked.
The camp consists of an enclosed room with a bonfire, a handmade shed (which is someone’s home), eight tents (one inside the shed), a storage structure and a shrine of a cross.
As soon as a visitor walks in, a man they like to call “Preacher Man” (legal name Sean) greets the newcomer with an abrupt greeting. He is the ringleader of this homeless community.
“Hi there,” says Sean brusquely. “Welcome to my camp.”
Marguerita shuffles over to a log in the enclosed bonfire room. She starts to sway to the music while smiling. Although she lives in camp Margueritaville, Marguerita doesn’t drink much. She does admit to being a “Dew-a-holic,” however.
“I don’t need no drinks or drugs,” she says. “I’m high off life, baby!”