Poor ol' Foots

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

"Poor ol' Foots," Seitz says, chuckling at the moniker, which Morris earned because he walks with such a limp and always looks like he is in pain.

Seitz has watched Morris pass through the food line for five years. At the Stewpot, that counts as a friendship. "I like him because he's personable, he's affable. He makes friends easy. And he's always the same. If you had known him five years ago, you'd know him as the same person today," Seitz says.

Wearing his torn jacket and green baseball hat, Morris slides his plastic tray onto a table and sits down. "I partied hard last night," he says, lowering his voice to a whisper as if he were telling a secret.

Morris digs into his plate and listens to his neighbor, who talks about aspirations of becoming a fiction writer. Rocky, who won't give his real name, says he's homeless because he was a state's witness in a homicide trial four years ago in San Francisco. He can't discuss the details.

His belly full and bones on his plate, Morris rises and walks to the piano. He delicately stations his water cup atop the instrument and begins to play. Unlike the library's lobby, where the hush is mandatory, loud conversations about the weather, wounds, and lack of work swallow Morris' song.

Two Dallas police officers begin working the crowd. It's 12:30--closing time--and everyone doesn't have to go home, but they can't stay here. "Foots, let's go," one cop says. Morris knows the rules. He promptly heads for the door, where Seitz is handing out blue crew hats and white gloves.

Temperatures have dipped below freezing outside, and a winter storm warning has been issued. Morris accepts a hat and joins a sea of blue heads bobbing and weaving down Park Avenue. "I've been thrown out of better places," he says.

When the Beatles arrived in America, they struck a chord in Marshall, Texas. The county seat sits about 25 miles west of Louisiana. In the 1960s, the town's residents weren't exactly ready for the British Invasion. Gregory Jerell Morris, born August 7, 1952, was.

"When I was young and the Beatles first came out, I was the first cat to have Beatles boots, a Beatles hat," Morris says, tilting his head back and laughing a laugh that comes so easily. "I was down for my crown."

Morris is on the fourth floor of the downtown library, on aisle 74 in the fine arts section. He runs a bony finger across the spines of song books, searching for new material.

"Are you into Paul Anka? I know I'm not," he says, his hand skipping over a John Denver book but pausing on one featuring songs written by Burt Bacharach. The name Joan Baez catches his eye. He stops, shrugs his shoulders, and pulls that book out, too.

"I try to pick songs for my piano and my talent that's not too extravagant. It's better to play something that's simple and you can play it, rather than something that's too complicated and you can't make sound worth a damn," Morris says, extracting the Beatles Fake Book from the shelf. "This is my favorite book," he whispers. "I told you I was a fake piano player."

With a stack of books tucked under his arm, Morris searches for a quiet place. Four men chatter quietly at a table, whiling away a frigid January day. The faint smell of alcohol hangs in the air; a pair of crutches lies hazardously on the floor. They belong to the man who says he got hit by the DART train.

Morris takes a seat at a narrow table against the back wall. His long legs jut out into the aisle. He is armed with scrap paper and half-used pencils with no erasers, which the library gives away. A Karen Carpenter book open before him, Morris spreads his hands across the pages to smooth the wrinkles, and begins his study.

"I write out the guitar chords, measure for measure. I already know the melody in my head, so then I just match the two up," Morris says. "Once I get the mechanics of a song down, then I can put my heart into it and it becomes my song. I consider myself a scientist of sound."

Some songs are more complicated than others, but Morris says it usually doesn't take long to learn. "If there's a song that's really hidden in my heart, I'll work on it and work on it until I get it," he says. "It might take a day. It might take two weeks."

Morris has played the piano ever since he was a little kid growing up in Marshall, though he resisted his grandmother's admonitions to take formal lessons. Then, like now, he preferred to play by ear. Ozella Washington says her grandson was a natural talent.

"I had a piano in the house. He played it then. He just got on there and played," Washington says, her voice faint over the telephone from Kansas City.

Carrie Robinson says her nephew was a performer from the time he was seven.
"Music was his thing. If he came across something new, he would listen to it. Then he would get on the piano and he would transfer it to other instruments," Robinson says. "At one time, he could play just about any instrument he had in front of him--horn, piano, bass guitar. He had all of those instruments."

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