I’ll get this part out of the way first—Billy was murdered where he slept behind a gas station near my house in Grant Park. Local media reported the cause of death was believed to be blunt force trauma to the head.
“Neighbors told Channel 2 that customers and workers at the gas station loved Bethune, who they said held the door open for everyone and did favors for people,” the short blurb in the AJC read as if trying to humanize someone whose life was already made meaningless by the headline: “Homeless man found beaten to death in Grant Park.”
Not that I am any better. Billy not only held the door for me but he knew my name and what I did for a living. He knew my son and where he went to school. He had a rough idea how much I gave him the last time I gave him something and when that was.
The last time I saw him was a couple of weeks before his death. I was running into the convenience store for junk food late one night and I remember being visibly irritated with him. He reeked of high-butane beer and insisted on hugging me. I tried to give him a look like, Leave me alone when you’re in this condition, Billy. There’s no way I’m giving you cash so you can get even more wasted.
I didn’t say those words, but I know I rolled my eyes, and I know he saw the look of disapproval on my face—that snide look that only the righteous, the-holier-than-thou, the would-never-stoop-so-low-myself kind of sneer that I’m really not proud of. Even as I blew him off—and didn’t take up for him when the store clerk warned him to “leave the nice lady alone”—I had the distinct thought that it would really suck if, the last time Billy asked me for something, I were too stingy to give it.
The righteous, of course, are never without a defense. I’m a widow. You’re only going to spend it on booze. You’re toasted. You’re dirty. You don’t care. I work so hard to care.
I don’t know Billy’s story, though over the years I spent a total of hours on one neighborhood sidewalk or another listening to variations on Billy’s life—tales of checks coming for disability and visits to Grady, the charity hospital downtown.
About a year ago, on a beautiful summer day, I was out for a walk in Grant Park and came across Billy. He was singing and crying—emotions jumping from sincerely happy to genuinely sad in short succession. He wanted to tell me about a trip to Savannah that had gone wrong but turned out okay because he’d gotten a lot of songwriting done. He wanted to read his lyrics to me and sing.
No doubt impatient and not thrilled at the idea of trying to follow his often nonsensical logic, I listened for a polite moment and then cut him off: “I don’t have any cash with me, Billy.”
That might have been the maddest I ever saw him.
“I got money!” he yelled. He proved it, rifling through his pockets until he produced a stack of folded green bills. “I got money. I got my check. I don’t need your money,” he said. “I need someone to talk to. I need someone to listen to me.”
Shamed, I stopped and listened a little longer, though I didn’t understand much. I think part of my connection to Billy was that we were roughly the same age, and it was clear I either got some breaks when he didn’t or somehow I had managed to bounce back at the critical stages when life can take you down if you let it. Billy had not.
Whatever happened, the result was that Billy worked sweeping the floors and taking out the trash at the two convenience stores near my house. He was an adept panhandler, someone who got to know his clientele with impeccable timing and charm like some high-end salesperson—someone who would not hit you up more often than he felt you could take it.
I met Billy in 2011 not long after my husband died and I had just moved to Grant Park from Avondale Estates in the midst of the Great Recession. My grief was so tender and so profound that to admit it at all was more than I could bear at the time. Maybe because of that, I was also keenly aware of the lack all around me. The sheer number of the unemployed and people who had lost everything made my own losses—however great to me—minor by comparison.
The last time I saw Billy, he reeked. He was loud and embarrassing and, when he hugged me, I was visibly exasperated.
I found out about his death a week after it happened from my brother, who’d seen it on the news. Be careful on your walks in the neighborhood, Sis. Stop going to the convenience stores late at night—a homeless man was killed at one last week.
Billy immediately came to mind. My brother confirmed. Billy Bethune. Billy had a last name.
Later that afternoon, a friend of Billy’s took me around back of the Chevron to show me the crime scene, where Billy was when he could no longer wake up. The friend then walked to the memorial at the edge of the parking lot. A white cross with a beer can and his picture, the gathering place where his friends had gotten together to hold a service. To speak of his life and what it all meant.
I took a couple of quick snapshots of the memorial and noticed that a few yards beyond it, behind a broken fence, were officials with orange, reflective vests and tools, a truck, cleaning up the small homeless village there, sweeping up the evidence, removing the reason to be nestled in the scrub.
Shoveling out old blankets and trash. Like cleaning out a bird’s nest from your chimney. Like boarding up the holes in your foundation so the rats can’t get in.
And Billy? I sent an email, asking a church friend to include Billy on a printed Sunday prayer list. Something tells me he might appreciate that.