It’s a harshly windy January morning. The Murfreesboro homeless community is gathering under the Old Fort Park pavilion for breakfast hosted by a local church.
Today, I am gathering information about the most experienced drifter in town. She seems to be missing. While investigating, my cameraman plans to film our findings for a documentary.
People attending and serving breakfast are pondering the whereabouts of the absent homeless woman. A rumor suggests she and her boyfriend of a year and a half are arguing. When they fight, she runs away to a place where he could never find her.
This missing woman, Rhoda, has been homeless for 29 years. She has given birth to 12 children, eight of which are still living. She is not allowed to visit her children anymore for various reasons (divorce, past charges against her and addictions).
An overwhelming scent of cigarettes and beer fills the air. A man with scruffy hair sits quietly at one of the picnic tables. As he eats with no utensils, he shyly opens his mouth to speak.
“I know where she is,” says James, “Er, I could probably guess. She’s either at the old concrete barn, the bridge, or . . . well, I have a few places to check.”
James, Rhoda’s boyfriend, claims he can track her down easily. With no expression of worry, he continues eating breakfast with his hands. He looks like a mechanic with grease all over his fingers, but he is just covered in black dirt.
He picks up his plate, lifts himself up from the picnic table and throws his orange backpack over both shoulders. James throws away the plate and says goodbye to a few friends before heading off on a search to find Rhoda.
After five minutes of searching, James makes his way under the Memorial Boulevard bridge near the park. He scales the wall of the bridge and reaches the top of the underpass. There are beer cans and what appears to be an empty, rainbow-colored sleeping bag littering the concrete floor.
“She was here!” James says. “I can tell . . .”
Something inside the sleeping bag shuffles around quickly.
“James!” Rhoda exclaims, “What are you doing here? Go away.”
Rhoda sits up in her sleeping bag with a protective look in her eyes. Her chin is freshly wounded. Staring into her ice-blue eyes is almost impossible through her voluminous hair: spirals and frizz. She has a white dot on her eyelid. Rhoda is suffering from cancer. The white dot is a tumor.
She tells James she found this brand-new rainbow sleeping bag outside of The Journey Home. The Journey Home serves food and provides showers to the Murfreesboro homeless community. She says she found the sleeping bag on a bench yesterday with a cat napping on it. Rhoda couldn’t be more proud of herself for finding a brand-new sleeping bag.
“You better not touch this sleepin’ bag, James,” Rhoda exclaims. “I know you wanna take it. You ain’t sleepin’ in it with me neither.”
After a few minutes, the two forgive each other.
Rhoda and James are now on the way to the Old Fort Parkway bridge, which is where they have set up a tent, fire and grill. This camp is where they stay together when they aren’t fighting.
Under the Old Fort Parkway bridge there are boulders leading all the way to the Greenway and river. The boulders are littered with hundreds of empty Natty Ice beer cans and thousands of cigarette butts, smoked all the way down to the last flake of self-rolled tobacco.
“Whatd’ya think of this place?” Rhoda asks jokingly.
She likes staying underneath the Memorial Boulevard bridge (where she was found) better than the Old Fort Parkway bridge. The view is nicer and the ground isn’t as littered, but she has a whole setup under the Old Fort bridge. Rhoda falls down the rocks occasionally and hits her head on the concrete overhang, but it is “home” nonetheless.
“Will it offend ya if I crack open a beer?” Rhoda asks.
I tell her no, so Rhoda grabs a beer can out of her backpack and cracks it open.
James gathers firewood while she sits on a rock drinking Natty Ice. She adds one can after another to the extensive beer can collection. Although she does drink, Rhoda doesn’t usually lose her temper.
She says their tent used to be closer to the fire, but they usually camp at the top of the boulder wall once the river water starts rising.
The fire burns intensely. Rhoda places her petite hand close to the flames to stay warm as she drinks.
James spots a figure in the woods. With squinty eyes and a slightly defensive stature, James recognizes the person in the distance.
“Hey there, Jason!” says James.
Jason Bennett, an active member of Last Call 4 Grace and a former homeless man himself, comes into their camp with a guitar and some sleeping bags. Last Call 4 Grace feeds poverty-stricken individuals in motels, and shelters homeless individuals during the winter days.
While Jason jams around the campfire with Rhoda, James heads out to “fly” (flying is what the homeless community calls panhandling). Rhoda stays behind to guard their camp, considering all the belongings they’ve acquired throughout the years.
James saunters to Panera Bread, which is where he typically flies. On his way there he stops at Walmart, but he doesn’t go inside.
He picks up an ashtray outside of the store and sifts through the discarded cigarette butts and ashes.
Boy Scouts asking for donations outside the store look at James curiously. The parents of the little boys are stunned, their jaws agape.
“Ehhhh,” mumbles James, not phased by the gawkers. “Time to go.”
He didn’t find any usable butts.
James meanders towards his flying spot, but on the way he stops and picks up a used cigarette off the ground. Relieved to conclude the tiring search for a smoke, he starts inhaling and continues walking.
Within two hours today, he made $11. He takes a break to buy one pack of Marlboro cigarettes, a large fountain-drink cup and three 40-ounce bottles of Natural Ice beer. He says Rhoda has made $180 a day in just a few hours of flying, but she is too embarrassed to beg.
“I’ll make at least $40 today,” says James, “I just know it.”
As James walks back to camp after four hours of begging, he dumps the contents of a 40-ounce beer into the fountain cup. Presumably, this is to make the act of public intoxication inconspicuous. A few flakes of grass fly into the drink. James drinks the beer from the fountain cup as he plucks out a cigarette to smoke from the red package.
By 7 p.m., James makes his way back to the bridge camp to meet up with Rhoda.
Jason left camp, but he plans to return later in the evening. An older man they call “Crazy” is sitting with Rhoda around the fire. When asked why he is called “Crazy,” he says he once got angry and gauged out a man’s eyes.
James doesn’t disclose how much money he made when Rhoda asks, but she assumes it is enough to eat tonight.
“We’re gonna be eatin’ good tonight!” shouts James.
A young man in a red hoodie who looks about 20 years old, climbs down rocks to meet with James. He takes James aside to talk quietly. The boy keeps his hood up and rarely smiles, but intermittently he lets out a laugh or two while speaking with James.
Rhoda says they try to hide things from her, but she always knows what’s going on.
“I heard ’em say he can help James get some,” says Rhoda, “I know what he means.”
This boy in the red hoodie is James’ drug dealer. He typically deals James synthetic marijuana and cocaine, which can cause elevated mood, altered perception and paranoia.
The boy moseys away from the camp as if nothing happened. Rhoda doesn’t look happy.
Although James doesn’t spend his money wisely, Rhoda is fed and doesn’t partake in drugs today. She eats an apple and some chips for dinner.
As night falls, Jason returns with his guitar and his homeless friend, Michael. Rhoda’s spirits are lifted as Jason sings her favorite song, “Wagon Wheel.” James, Rhoda, Michael, Jason and Crazy are all gathered around the campfire happily.
James vanishes with the drug dealer, who has returned as Rhoda is singing around the campfire with her friends.
The smell of burning cocaine surrounds the camp.
Upon James’ return from the meeting, Jason leaves with Michael to visit the Coldest Nights Shelter at First Baptist Church. Coldest Nights Shelter is a place for the homeless men to stay when the weather is below 30 degrees.
James and Rhoda and Crazy congregate around the campfire. The fire starts to go dim.
“What you got that crazy look in your eye for?” Rhoda asks James suspiciously.
“I ain’t got no look in my eye!” says James. “I swear I ain’t done nothing. You’ve done somethin’, though.”
Crazy is curled up in his sleeping bag next to the fire with his whole body covered, even his head. Rhoda and James argue loudly about “the crazy look in his eye” and who has done what. Crazy is annoyed and sits up angrily. He curses and emerges from inside his sleeping bag.
“You and you,” Crazy says, pointing at Rhoda and James individually, “Go up to your tent, lay down and sleep!”
“But she went out on me!” yells James, “She’s my woman! I saw her up there with Bill before.”
“Who cares!” shouts Crazy. “She’s yours now! Let it go!”
Rhoda is a strong woman who knows how to defend herself, but she tries to maintain her aggression by quietly backing away from James.
“You’re getting too active now, James,” says Rhoda. “Besides, I ain’t no one’s woman.”
In jealous rage, James jumps up and down as he threatens to fight Crazy. James violently pulls off his coat and sweatshirt. Crazy stands up screaming about how he will fight him easily.
While following the homeless, I typically bring a male along. Luckily, my cameraman is here tonight.
Rhoda looks afraid, so I call out to her that we should go to Walmart to “pick up some s’mores.” This is my attempt at getting Rhoda to a safe location tonight.
As my cameraman distracts James and Crazy, Rhoda grabs her rainbow sleeping bag and comes with me to the car.
James follows closely behind and hops in the silver 2010 Dodge Avenger next to Rhoda.
“She’s gonna run away again, man!” James says. “Ain’t no way I’m leavin’ her side.”
Rhoda’s drowning eyes overflow as we arrive at Walmart.
“Hmm,” I say, “I have never been to this Walmart before, Rhoda. Where is the restroom?”
Her eyes light up as she begins to understand the plan.
“Oh, I can show you!” she says. “James, go away. Women’s bathroom.”
Rhoda scurries off, leading me inside. James is close behind. As Walmart workers watch James attempt to enter the ladies’ room, he stops and waits outside.
While hiding in the women’s restroom, Rhoda explains to me that the cut on her chin is from James pushing her down the hill of rocks at the camp. She took off her gloves to show me gashes on her hands. Life on the streets is extremely different for a woman. She relies on James for food and other necessities to survive as a homeless woman, no matter how he treats her.
My cameraman tricks James into the men’s room as Rhoda and I make our great escape to the car.
“Your cameraman is going to be so confused!” says Rhoda.
She is enjoying the thrill of escape and the thought of being away from James.
I press the lock button on the car remote so we can find the car quickly in the packed parking lot.
“Let’s go!” I say with a smile.
We both run to the car.
I try to make this escape an adventure for Rhoda, but in the back of my mind I can’t help thinking James might figure out the plan.
I ask Rhoda where she would like to stay tonight, but she just wants to go back to the Old Fort Parkway bridge. She primarily wants the beer she left behind, and in her heart she still sees that bridge as home.
I suggest we swing by and grab the beers, and then we could find somewhere else to stay.
“Shoot yeah!” she says excitedly.
Parked at Coconut Bay Café, Rhoda jumps out of the car and runs down under the bridge. Crazy is sleeping in her tent. She takes 15 minutes to return, but she got the goods.
We race to The Greenway at 50 mph, just to make sure James isn’t on our tail. The park closes after sunset. It is now 9 p.m., so Rhoda has to move quickly.
She steps out of the car, grabs her sleeping bag and stops before she closes the door.
“Hey,” she says, “You’re pretty slick. I like you!”
She winks at me with a smile as she closes the door. All I can see is her silhouette. She is walking into the woods, rainbow sleeping bag in hand, as she disappears into the night.