Poor ol' Foots

Gregory Morris has nothing but his musical talent. He gives back more then he gets on the streets of Dallas

There are infinite uncertainties in the life of Gregory Morris. But he knows this one thing for sure--that selfishness circumscribes his creativity.

"In order for me to choose a song, it really has to mean something to me. It has to be relevant to my life in some form or fashion," Morris says, his lazy left eye glimmering in its constant half-open state. "I don't play to satisfy no one except myself."

With elephantine moves, New Balance sneakers tied loosely about his feet, Morris takes his place behind the pretty baby grand piano in the lobby of the downtown Dallas library.

A green baseball hat rests precariously on his head. The green jacket he never takes off is thin and torn. His large, square glasses are bent, promising to slip off his nose at any moment.

Morris begins playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb," picking the notes one at a time, conjuring images of cookies and nap time. Then he starts again, draping the bare melody with a bouquet of notes, transforming the time-worn nursery rhyme into a creation of his own.

As he plays, Morris loosens his shoulders and rolls his head from side to side. He holds each note like a father holds a baby. Closing his eyes, he lets the plebeian surroundings disappear.

Watching him play in the lobby of J. Erik Jonsson Central Library are some of the regulars at the People's University, where information is free and staying awake a challenge.

There is Mumbles, a bow-legged man whose crooked back strains under the weight of a purple knapsack holding all his worldly belongings. Another man bears a striking resemblance to Randy Quaid, in skid-row character.

Linda saunters though the lobby carrying two teddy bears in a dingy sack. She's headed for humanities, where she surfs for God on the Internet and awaits the return of her husband. Linda nearly bumps into a silver-haired security guard protecting the public's knowledge. He shuffles about the lobby like a tortoise, scarcely disturbing rays of sunlight which stream through the building's glass walls.

As Morris continues to fill the library with music, his audience grows to more than a dozen.

An elderly man dressed in a charcoal suit and clutching an umbrella takes off his hat and sits down next to Mumbles. As Morris seamlessly rolls into his fast-tempo version of "The Entertainer," another man stops dead in his tracks, clasps his large brown hands behind his back, and begins tapping his foot to the candy-cane melody.

Two garrulous boys saunter up to pay phones near the piano. One peers at a beeper on his belt, lifts a handset, and deposits a quarter. Morris casually steals a look at the pair, then begins playing "The Little Drummer Boy." The second boy wheels around and gazes, his head cocked like a pup's.

When the song is over, the boy claps and Morris rises to his feet. As he takes a bow, his glasses begin to slip. Morris catches the frames in mid air, pushes them back on his face, and accidentally knocks off his baseball cap.

It is a funny sight, and Morris laughs at his own clumsiness, which comes as no surprise to him. "I don't like a lot of spectators," he whispers, explaining why he is cutting his performance short.

The audience is still gathered, but selfishness commands that the performance end. Morris limps away, leaving the piano behind.

A retired Dallas cop, Rod Seitz has seen most everything the city's streets can belch forth. Seitz inhales the last of a generic cigarette and tosses the butt into the street, sparking panic among a pack of scrawny pigeons.

"Everybody down here has got a fatal flaw. Be it drugs, alcohol, or no self-esteem at all," Seitz says. "Most of the people have the opportunity. If they've got the talent, there is somewhere they can go."

Seitz's day job is keeping the clientele in line at the Stewpot Community Outreach Center, a branch of the First Presbyterian Church and probably the city's best-known haven for the homeless. At the moment, Seitz looks like an unshaven maitre d' for the proles.

A line of about 100 musky bodies snakes through the Stewpot for the daily lunch special, featuring leg of chicken, mixed greens, white bread, and doughnuts. Pencil-sketched portraits of Dallas homeless men--some alive, some dead--stare down on the fast-moving food line.

The clients, mostly men, sit in plastic chairs at card tables. Mumbles is here. So is skid-row Randy. A man on crutches says he got hit by a DART train.

The Stewpot's free lunch program is by far its biggest draw, but there are also health professionals, counselors, and social workers on site. The center allows the homeless to use its mailing address as their own. For years, Gregory Morris has listed his address as 408 Park Avenue.

Morris shows up for lunch at the Stewpot about three times a week. Almost always, he plays the upright George Steck piano sitting in the corner. People at the Stewpot call Morris the Piano Man, but he is also known as Foots.

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