Poor ol' Foots

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

Morris says people assume he's a nobody because he is homeless. "People look at me and they've already got me stereotyped," he says. "They see me on the outside, but they don't know me on the inside."

But judgment passes both ways.
"The kids down here, they haven't even got to their daddy's money yet. They're still spending granddaddy's money," Morris says. "I meet some people, they say, 'I stay down here. I'm hip.' Well I stay down here, too. You got a loft. I don't, but I'm pretty sure I was here before you."

The sweet wail of a saxophone spills onto Elm Street from a pair of Bose speakers mounted outside Sambuca. Morris stops in front of the club's glass windows. From the outside looking in, he sees a horn player and a drummer. A man wearing dark glasses is seated behind the piano, its elegant black varnish reflecting the club's soft lights.

"It's hard to beat them blind musicians. They're so sensitive to sound," Morris says, placing his cup and ribs on a newspaper stand so he can give the band a standing ovation.

At 11 p.m., the people aren't humane yet, and Morris is growing tired. The shelters closed an hour ago, and the cold is beginning to set into his bones.

"I guess I'm going to have to go with the flow tonight," he says, rounding the corner on Commerce Street and heading for the Oakland Avenue Bridge.

Morris sees two teenage boys and asks them if they'd be willing to make a donation to the homeless. Their baseball hats are turned around, and their pants are falling off their behinds. One says he doesn't have any money, but he reaches into his pocket and pulls out an object.

"I got this at a church. Sister Mary gave it to me," he says, dangling it above the cup. "You can have it, but you have to promise that you'll keep it."

Morris says he will, and the boy lets the object fall. Morris reaches into the cup and pulls out a silver key chain. A plastic owl dangles at its end.

A cluster of bodies is gathered around a pit fire that struggles against a brisk January wind whipping across the vacant lot. The land here, just beyond the Oakland Avenue Bridge, is littered with discarded shopping carts and gutted couches. Mounds of plastic garbage bags round the terrain's edges, and jagged tree stumps jut out of the ground in impossible directions.

A pair of car headlights illuminates the hunched back of a man, who turns his bearded face and scowls into the light. A prostitute appears beneath a streetlight, her raunchy step exaggerated by high heels.

Other bodies roam the deserted streets bordering the place. This is where Morris sleeps and prays. The sounds of Deep Ellum buzzing at his back, the owl in his pocket, Morris walks into the darkness.

Born in November, the Oasis Fellowship II church is like a crack baby, feeble and uncertain, its undersized congregation struggling to grow. Worship is held inside a storefront at the corner of Oakland and Grand avenues, across the street from the lot where Morris sleeps. The church shares a wall with the C&S drive-in, which sells "Beer, Wine, Hamburgers, Groceries," according to a sign over the doorway.

"There is a war going on. Not a war of flesh and blood. A war of principalities," the Rev. Leonard Hatcher tells his congregation. "Satan will like you. He'll tell you to go out there and hit that bottle, 'It'll make you feel good. It'll make you want to sing and dance.' But what he doesn't tell you is that it causes problems."

"That's right," says Morris, sprawled out in the first of three wooden pews in the one-room church.

A woman sits on a nearby folding chair, dressed in an eggshell-white dress which is barely visible underneath a long cloth coat. A space heater at her side glows red, a vain effort to expel the cold. The carpet needs cleaning, and the water-stained ceiling is weeping.

"You might have no food in the refrigerator, but STAND FIRM," Hatcher exhorts, his strong frame dwarfing the wooden podium. "You might not have good clothes on your back, but STAND FIRM. You might not have a job, but STAND FIRM."

Morris rises from his pew and takes a seat at the piano. The piano is scratched and sorely out of tune, its tiny frame unable to accommodate Morris' legs.

He opens a Baptist hymnal to number 240 and begins playing "Just As I Am." Men's voices rise in discordant harmony, and the woman in the cloth coat begins to tremble. Soon tears pour down her face, and her petite frame convulses with sorrow.

Morris comes to this church because the need is great. There are no critics, and Morris tires of critics. His whole life, it seems, has been full of them.

He has lost jobs and disappointed family. In 1993, he wound up in prison. A judge tried to be lenient after Morris was convicted of a felony for taking his aunt's car. But mercy didn't inspire change: When Morris stopped reporting to his probation officer, he was sent to prison.

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