By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Maybe it was the Beatle boots, but Morris says the other kids didn't appreciate his gift. They tried to make a "punk" out of him, and they laughed because he wore glasses. When he was a teenager, Morris tried to shake his bookish reputation.
"When I went to high school I wanted to play football," Morris says, shaking his head at the memory of his brassiness. "The first time I ran out onto the field, the coach called me over and said, 'Son, I think they have a place for you in the band.'"
Morris smashed cymbals, pounded drums, and slid trombones until, in his senior year, he picked up an instrument that no one else would: the tuba. The ancient Roman war horn was big and awkward, just like Morris. It was also a gold mine. Playing tuba, Morris landed a four-year scholarship at Texas Southern University, where he joined the marching band.
"I got it down pretty good," Morris says of the tuba. Yep. He nods his head. But the recollection isn't a fond one. His buoyant laugh disappears, and he sinks into his chair, a frown hidden behind his graying beard. The subject of his college days is taboo.
"I did pretty good until I turned into a wino and stopped going to class," Morris says, explaining why he dropped out of TSU in the summer of 1975. "Back then, all I wanted to do was drink moonshine and raise hell."
The news that Morris had left school and started hanging out in Houston pool halls didn't go over well back in Marshall. But it wasn't a complete surprise.
"He tried very hard, and he tried his best, until he got disgusted. When he got it out of his system, he would go back and hit it hard," Robinson says. "He finally decided, 'I'm going to finish my education.' He was hoping to straighten his life out."
For a short while, Morris fought off his demons and enrolled at Wiley College in Marshall. On July 10, 1980, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in music.
What waylaid Morris is something he will not discuss. Moonshine, or wine. Drugs, trouble. Whatever it was, it still has its hold. "I regret it a whole lot," he says. Especially the part about grandma.
On January 24, Ozella Washington celebrated her 85th birthday in Kansas City, Missouri, where she now lives under Robinson's care. In recent years, Washington has suffered several strokes, and her health is fragile. She raised Morris from a baby, but Alzheimer's disease is now stealing her memories.
The one thing Washington remembers clearly, though, is the day Morris graduated from college. It was an event she anticipated for 10 years.
"It was fine," she says. "I was excited at the march. I was proud of him."
Gregory Morris has come to hate homeless shelters. Most are run by administrators who need people like him to keep the beds full so they can keep their jobs, he says. But Morris has been staying in shelters for years. It is the lesser of two evils.
"It's a small price to pay. If I froze to death it would be like a dishonorable discharge. Suicide," he says. "When I'm through here, I'm going to need an honorable discharge to get through the pearly gates. I'm still on the battlefield."
At 2 p.m., Morris joins another line of bodies, this one filing into Compassion Outreach, located a couple of blocks down homeless row from the Stewpot. Compassion Outreach is another place where Morris can practice piano, and he often fits the shelter into his daily schedule.
A Kawai piano occupies a corner of the room, which is otherwise furnished with classroom arm desks and a couch. Ginger snaps and iced tea are available. Morris plants himself on the couch, holding a meager baloney sandwich and a plastic bag stuffed with coconut cookies. He doesn't care for coconut, but he'll eat anything when he gets hungry.
"I'm beat. I'm tired. I don't know if I'm going to work tonight," Morris says. "Last night wasn't a late night. It was all night."
A teenager takes a seat at the Kawai and begins to play "Lean on Me." Morris closes his eyes and nods to the melody, seemingly lulled to sleep. The song is one of his favorites.
Kenneth is also seated on the couch, twirling a Kool cigarette in his fingers and frowning restlessly. Dressed in a sharp pair of black trousers and suspenders, Kenneth looks like he's waiting to go somewhere important. But something is holding him back.
"Do you believe in death?" he asks, his eyes masked by a pair of fake Ray-Bans, the kind that Tom Cruise wore while dancing in his underwear in Risky Business. "You can't understand this until you believe in death."
Morris opens his eyes, his sleep stirred by a sour note. The boy is struggling with the melody and shakes his head in frustration. Morris extends his long arm and places his hand on the boy's, guiding him to the correct key.
"We all need somebody to lean on. I just--same chord--lean on, I just," he says, repeating the refrain to etch it into the boy's memory. Morris withdraws his arms and closes his eyes, nodding his head as the boy begins the song again. When the boy reaches the troubling refrain, he plays the notes correctly. "You got it," Morris says, singing. "We all need somebody to lean on."