Poor ol' Foots

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

"Right now, I feel as though I'm still in prison. I feel like I'm in prison in my mind," he says, growing impatient. He sucks on the end of a cigarette and exhales, letting the anger escape with the smoke. "Sometimes, I feel like I'm my own worst enemy."

The Rev. Hatcher asks the woman if she has a statement to make. She says she does. Hatcher puts his arm around her shoulder as she joins him at the podium. In the last two months, she says, she has gone astray. She wants to be a good mother. She wants to be healed.

"The victory is now yours, but I don't want to give you any false impression," Hatcher says, his handsome face bent down upon hers. "The closer you walk to God, the more active Satan becomes."

Morris turns the page and the church sings with him.
"I am on the battlefield for my Lord," he sings, his voice soft and humble.
A snowflake falls outside. Then another. A man walks past the door, clutching a 40-ouncer in his hand. The woman begins to sob again, and the snow turns to sleet.

Ranita Brown wonders about Gregory Morris. "I don't know if he has the desire to enter mainstream society or if he has the courage to want to," she says.

Like her colleagues at the downtown Dallas library, Brown doesn't know where Morris came from or, really, where he is at any given time. When Morris first asked Brown if he could play the library's piano, she didn't know what to do.

The piano is a Steinway & Sons baby grand, donated to the library by the Dallas Federation of Music Clubs in 1955. When fall came last year, the library staff decided that the instrument wasn't doing anybody any good sitting unused in an empty room. They wheeled it into the lobby with the thought that musically inclined staff members could play it over the lunch hour. The library's patrons were not part of the plan.

But then Morris came into the picture and Brown thought, what the hell. The library is public, so the piano must be, too. Why shouldn't some guy be able to walk in off the streets and play it?

When Morris sat down and played, Brown says the occasion was a spectacle.
"After I heard him on the piano, it's like a melody that is indescribable. I knew he was talented," Brown says. "He can do to music what Picasso did to art."

A general reference librarian, Brown works on the first floor, way in the back. Her desk is partitioned off so she can talk on the phone without disturbing patrons. Her job is to answer questions posed by inquiring minds, including such queries as when the sun rises on a particular day, or what ingredients go into an estrogen pill.

"The urine of pregnant female horses. If only people knew," Brown says, rolling her eyes.

When Morris played the library piano for the first time, Brown says a thing happened that had never happened at the library before. And she has been there 15 years.

"It was like a magnet drawn to steel. He was drawing people from their offices on every floor. Everyone that was walking in stopped and listened. Business people would want to know who he was," Brown says. "He had an audience."

After that, Brown and Morris got to know each other. Whenever Morris comes to play, usually after lunch on weekdays, Morris says hello and calls Brown sweetheart or girlfriend.

In turn, Brown gives Morris extra sweaters and trousers. She is still looking for new glasses to replace the ones that dangle on his face. But what she really wants to give Morris is self-confidence. That's why, in December, Brown invited Morris to play four concerts in February to celebrate Black History Month.

"Everyone is born with a talent. You just have to find your talent," Brown says. "If he would ever get really cleaned up and things, he could play at a piano bar or for groups. Anything. I hate to see such talent go to waste."

The unpleasant sound of a man snorting a nostril full of phlegm back into his throat rises up from somewhere in the Fine Arts section. The noise is followed by a deep cough, the kind that is trapped in the lung and cannot be shaken free.

The chord structure to "We've Only Just Begun" copied, Gregory Morris lays his pencil and paper on the table and returns to the lobby and the piano.

Mumbles is wandering there, mumbling something about how she left, and fumbling with a plastic baggy containing a crumpled pack of cigarettes. The security guard turtles past, his arms dangling motionlessly at his side and his mouth agape.

"Boy, I haven't seen you in coon's age," says skid-row Randy, extending a dirty hand to Mumbles. Randy allows that he isn't doing well. Lately, he's been sleeping outside the bus station. Mumbles' voice sounds like wheels on gravel. "I'm not doing much better."

The music rises from the piano, washing the two men's conversation away.
The song Morris plays is "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," by the Beatles, its familiar melody triggering images of the Fab Four wailing away at a crushed crowd of screaming, love-struck women.

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