Two figures darted through rush-hour traffic in the drizzle of a rainy April evening in Longview. With unwashed T-shirts clinging to their backs, they flagged down wary drivers who were attempting to exit a grocery store parking lot, not far from downtown.
“Hey, can you spare a couple bucks?” they asked. “We’re trying to get a bite to eat.”
A few people rolled down their windows and handed over change. Others did not. “All they can say is yes or no,” said Shane Wendell, one of the panhandlers. “If they say no, I don’t hold it against them. But we don’t usually do this because we usually work.”
They had not worked on that day, a Monday. During the weekend, Wendell and his friend, Terry Pate, had lived off their earnings from a roofing job. The money had run out by that afternoon, washed away by pitchers of beer at a local tavern.
So they walked across the street to the grocery store, and they begged.
After scrounging together some cash, Pate and Wendell bought a pouch of rolling tobacco and enough malt liquor to keep the buzz going. They made an unlikely pair.
Wendell was 35 years old. He was tall and easy-going, from the Pacific Northwest by way of Houston, and he wore a baseball cap pulled low over his curly blond hair. He had been homeless for five months.
Pate had been on the streets much longer, and it showed. With a quick temper, intense blue eyes and a face etched by hard living, Pate said he was a former surgeon’s assistant who had divorced a good woman in Malakoff. He had been homeless in Longview for more years than he cared to remember.
“We’re not all bums,” Pate said. “If somebody could just give us a job, we’d be back on our feet like that.” He snapped his fingers: “That quick.”
Pate ordered Wendell to carry the malt liquor from the grocery store, and he tried to return to the bar where his girlfriend was still drinking. Wendell wouldn’t allow his friend to wander off. The rain had stopped, night was approaching, and it was time to go to the place they called home. The men crossed East Marshall Avenue and turned down a side street. They walked past large homes and a business or two, then ducked into the woods and were gone.
ARRIVING IN CAMP
A footpath parts the weeds where Pate and Wendell stepped into the forest. It is all but invisible to the drivers who pass by it every day, but it is well-known among the street people in Longview.
The trail meanders about 150 paces through stands of sapling and brush, over a fallen log and past tall pine trees. It wends toward a campsite in the middle of a bamboo grove.
Wendell and Pate were not the first homeless people to make camp there. They had been sleeping at the spot off and on for a couple of months, adding to the mounds of refuse around the dome tents and campfire as they tossed off old clothes and shoes, food wrappers, empty cans and 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor.
For warmth, they burned canes of bamboo that sizzled and popped in the flames.
Wendell said the camp had been tidier when they stayed there more frequently. Lately, as the weather warmed and the mosquitoes returned, they had been spending more nights at motels and in the Salvation Army.
“It’s not always like this, but it can get that way,” Wendell said.
Pate’s girlfriend showed up. Jill Doss, 42, wore thick glasses and a V-neck blouse. She said she grew up in Longview, married at 16, then divorced and joined a carnival that was passing through East Texas when she was 20. She lived in six states before returning to Longview in 1998.
“I met a lot of awesome people between here and there,” she said.
Doss is the mother of a 9-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl, both of whom live with their dad. She had spent the previous night in a motel room with Pate, and Pate was jealous of her interactions with other men.
“Jill!” Pate barked at her. “Give the writer a break!”
Doss’ story was over.
The friendly shout rang from the trail. The camp’s previous occupants, a couple of guys named Tommy and John, had come calling.
The men were staying in a motel after finding steady work on a trash truck, and they cracked jokes and sprinkled lemon-lime salt into their drinks to kill the bitter taste of the malt liquor.
Pate sidled over to the man named John.
“Did you bring us a little somethin’ somethin’?” Pate asked him.
“Not yet,” he replied. “They’re not giving it to us till the morning, but we don’t feel like waiting so we’re about to go find it.”
Pate told Doss to fetch her Bible. He ordered the reporter to read a passage from 1st Corinthians 13, a chapter that defines love for the Christian religion.
Pate snarled at the chapter’s conclusion. “You can say it, or you can mean it,” he said.
The sun set over the bamboo grove, and Tommy and John left camp. When Doss stood up to follow them, Pate tried to stop her.
“Honor, Terry!” she shouted. “Where’s your honor?”
He watched her walk away in the firelight, then bolted after her. Wendell shouted as he ran past. “Terry!” It was no use. Pate reached his girlfriend on the trail outside of camp.
“You want to use me like this?” he said.
“Get away from me!” she screamed. “Get your hands off of me!”
Tree branches snapped and leaves rustled in the confusion. A rapid fire of fists on flesh pounded in the darkness. Pow! Pow! Pow! Wendell ran to break up the fight.
When he walked back into camp, Wendell said Tommy had ambushed Pate and beaten him for confronting Doss.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I just know they were fighting in the brush, and I broke it up. All I know is they’re both my friends, and I stand behind my friends.”
Beaten in the fight and fuming about it, Pate stumbled toward the street. Tommy returned to the camp to ask whether anyone had noticed a cell phone that had fallen from his pocket during the scuffle.
“He went down like some kind of kung fu move, and I caught him at least seven or eight good times,” Tommy said, demonstrating with a series of sharp uppercut jabs.
Wendell sighed. “I need to get out of this town,” he said.
Wendell had been breaking up a couple of fights a week in the camp. He said he drifted into Longview from Houston after he was laid off from his job and his wife left him with a mortgage and other bills. He had found work in Longview through a temporary labor service but lost the job when he misplaced his contact lenses and could not see to work.
He was thinking about hitching to Fort Worth to enroll in a course to become a commercial truck driver. It was hard to make plans when living day to day, though.
“I don’t know how else to explain it,” he said. “I don’t have a set plan for every day. I wish I did. I used to. I get up every morning. I try to get me something to eat. There’s always Newgate,” a homeless ministry in town. “You can get some doughnuts and coffee. I try to work every day. Sometimes I work, sometimes I don’t. If I don’t work, then I wander the streets, try to make something happen. If not, I have to eat at the shelters.”
That morning, Wendell said he had awakened alone in camp shortly after daylight. There were beers left over from the night before, so he started drinking. He said he had been drinking all day. That wasn’t a typical day, though, he said, because he more often tries to find work.
“Do you know how hard it is to get back on your feet when you’re down? It’s not easy,” he said. “It’s not, man, because when you’re dirty, you ain’t got no place to shower, you don’t have clean clothes, who’s gonna hire you?”
As he spoke, Wendell kept glancing into the darkness of the trail beyond the campfire. Finally, he called out to the woods: “I hear somebody out there!”
“I heard some footsteps,” he said.
When Pate returned to camp, he was still furious about the tussle.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said. “I’ve got a woman that I have cared about and walked out on me, and I had to wrestle some little punk out there because I’m too (messed) up, but tomorrow we’ll do a rematch.
“We better get a rematch,” he repeated. “You get me a rematch.”
Wendell scolded his friend.
“If you want to fight, fight in the street,” he said. “You do not need to be fighting in camp.”
Pate pleaded for money to buy crack cocaine, and when turned down, he spent the rest of the night muttering about the rematch, speaking in tongues, cursing the people around him, preaching from the Bible or, especially, calling out for his girlfriend.
“Where’s Jill?” he yelled.
“I don’t know!” Wendell replied. “Quit asking me that!”
Even at around 3 a.m., Pate awoke in his tent and called out her name.
“She’s gone, man!” Wendell said. “Let her go! You’re better off without her.”
Wendell and Pate arose early the next morning and rustled through their belongings.
“Let me guess, we’re out of cigarettes,” Wendell said.
“Hup!” he exclaimed, finding the pouch of rolling tobacco. “We’re not down and out yet.”
After rolling a couple of smokes, they walked to the Newgate mission for coffee and doughnuts. They left before the preaching started.
It began to rain, and the friends quickened their pace as they made their way to the Labor Ready office a mile or two away.
If the rain would let up, they had scored a job repairing the roof of a restaurant near the grocery store. Then they’d have enough money to get a motel room, take a shower.
Pate’s girlfriend was at the day-labor site, milling around with the men waiting for jobs. Wendell feared a confrontation, but Pate only spoke to her and watched her walk away.