Reflections on an ex-homeless man
By Steven Malik Shelton
Special to The Michigan Citizen
His name was James Thomas, but few ever called him that. He was known by friend and foe by the diminutive nickname Pee Wee.
Contrary to the impression his name gives, he was a big man — around 6 ft. three, weighing about 230 pounds. There was nothing tiny or retiring about his personality either. It was bigger than life.
I first met him many years ago, back in the mid-sixties, when I was barely out of adolescence. There was no formal introduction; he was the first cousin of my best friend and sometimes he would appear in our small world, compelling our attention and awe.
He was only two or three years my senior, but he exuded knowledge and wisdom far beyond his years and charged our surroundings with excitement and energy.
One of the first qualities I noticed was his infectious humor. He had the indescribable gift, shared by great comedians, to take something mundane and ordinary and describe it in way that reduces you to watery-eyed, side-splitting throes of laughter. This required a sharp, analytical mind and cutting powers of observance that few attain.
Pee Wee was very dark skinned, at a time in when it was not fashionable to be so, yet he wore his dark skin like a badge of honor.
When angry or in one of his “funny” moods, however, he woud occasionally refer to someone as a “Black” something or other, but even then it sounded as natural as falling rain (he once warned a Black cop who was hassling us to be mindful that the police badge he was wearing only covered so much of his chocolate behind).
After Pee Wee moved from his grandparents house (he never had a parental relationship with his father and mother) he became homeless. Although he usually managed to stay with a lady friend — when he wasn’t in jail. Yet it was difficult to think of him as homeless — or a jail bird or a convict — for he soared above such limiting descriptions.
Although I considered myself privileged to be in Pee Wee’s company, it was always tinged with tension and eminent danger.
I remember we were walking down West Jefferson Avenue one night. A car drove by and then made a U-turn. Then someone in the car, while shouting expletives at Pee Wee, began shooting. We dived for cover and escaped down a side street.
Another time Pee Wee had the temerity to flimflam a dangerous band of outlaw motorcyclists out of several thousand dollars in a scheme in which he was supposed to purchase firearms. It was working fine until the Detroit police spotted the incongruous spectacle of Pee Wee and me riding in the car with White bikers.
They pulled us over and promptly informed the murderous gang that Pee Wee was the most notorious liar and con man in Detroit, and they hoped that no money had been exchanged.
Then they drove off leaving us to await our fate. Pee Wee was told that he had exactly three hours to return the money, and I was taken to the gang’s club house on Livernois as security.
Pee Wee was also told that if he didn’t return in the time allotted that I would be “dealt with.” In what seemed like ages, the time elapsed and the bikers were debating about the best way to dispose of my body, when the police showed up saying they had received a 9-11 call of someone being shot.
It was, of course, Pee Wee who made the call in a last ditch effort to rescue me.
Another remarkable quality about Pee Wee was his generosity. Although he could rob and steal from residents of the city without compunction, he never forgot to share what had with me. Even if he bought so much as a Hostess Twinkie, he would unfailingly offer me half.
But he could also explode in smoldering rage and violence, as when we were riding in the car with an unwanted passenger. Pee Wee told him to get out, but the man refused to bulge. Pee Wee calmly directed me to drive down a side street, then an alley, then another side street, then another alley. He told me to stop the car. Then he nonchalantly went into the trunk, retrieved a tire iron and proceeded to beat the stubborn passenger senseless.
The years passed and we grew apart. I was still in high school and had to divest myself of street life to pursue my diploma. Pee Wee continued his scams and his periodic episodes of violence, interspersed with his incredible charm.
Years later, when I was in my early twenties, he was incarcerated at the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson. Shortly afterward, someone showed me a newspaper article that described his daring escape on the way to the funeral of his four year-old son. Not surprisingly, he facilitated his escape by smooth talking the guard into removing his restraints.
After a two year run, he was captured and returned to prison. He was eventually paroled after a ten-year stretch.
Pee Wee died not long after his release from prison. Not by the street violence that most (including myself) would have predicted, but in a hospital bed of complications brought on by lobar pneumonia.
Steven Malik Shelton is a journalist and human rights advocate. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org