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The respect Choice commands in the camp is expressed in myriad ways. The general neatness of the camp is one, but more telling is the number of people that come by to say hello on any given day. Many bring a cigarette to share or an extra serving from a meal or a drink from the store. It is very rare that Choice will ever be seen at one of the free food spots.
Even more infrequently will he sleep indoors. "I sleep more comfortable right here," he says. Like many of his neighbors, Choice is dismissive of the Dallas shelters with their curfews and rules. "What's the point of me going to pretend when I've got to get back out on the street in the morning?" he asks. "I prefer to just be my own man."
Another factor is his responsibility for overseeing the camp, a duty his friends appreciate. "We kind of hang tough together," Bethea says. "When he can't move around, if he has to keep his eye on things, I'll go get me and him something to eat."
Choice governs the southern portion of a community under I-45 that, if not exactly thriving, is certainly full of life. Its population varies widely from day to day but can be estimated at between 50 and 100. A steady flow of foot traffic emanates from the camp, heading out to stores, churches or jobs. The vast area underneath 10 lanes' width of bridges is bisected by Coombs Street. The smaller area north of Coombs is presided over by Choice's counterpart, Teardrop, named for the tears tattooed under his eye.
For a homeless mayor, keeping a camp population deeply distrustful of authority in line is no easy task. National figures put the level of mental illness among the chronically homeless at better than 50 percent. Alcohol and drug addiction may be even more common. "I have never hurt anybody in here," Choice says, "but if push comes to shove I'll do what I have to do." Choice has been known to add a mythical murder conviction to his record to enhance his reputation for toughness, but the gray in his beard and the wrinkles around his eyes dictate that he uses diplomacy far more than intimidation. "I constantly say, this is not a devil's den. This is not Jurassic Park."
He says he has never asked for money from strangers. "It's not because I have a lot of pride, it just isn't my thing," he says, and then his eyes get that twinkle. "I'd start crying if somebody told me no." Instead, like many in the camp, he collects cans and other scrap metal and sells them by the pound to nearby scrapyards. Thirty pounds of aluminum can bring in $10 to $15. At the same time he scavenges for items to improve his shack. The overstuffed recliner that he found at the curb in a nearby neigborhood is one example. "I picked it up and put it on my old back," Choice says. "It was something to connect to a home. Makes you feel like you've still got a little life left."
Like many of the chronic homeless, Choice also works regularly, pulling custodial shifts with a friend's company. He says he can earn upward of $50 a shift. Much of the proceeds go to his longtime girlfriend, due to be released from jail in July after serving time for prostitution. It's a charge that many of the camp's women have on their record and one they inevitably say is trumped up by police. Bethea says she's been arrested several times but never convicted after simply accepting a ride from what turned out to be undercover police. "It's more of the men in here that are doing prostitution now than the women," she says.
Most jobs that are available to a homeless person with a felony conviction or a substance abuse problem pay minimum wage or less, making it possible to maintain their condition but not improve it. The same applies to the disability or Social Security checks that many homeless receive, benefits that usually top out at less than $600 a month. In other words, depending on your perspective, there is either a surprising or a depressing amount of money in the camp.
Choice readily admits that it is mostly his own mistakes that landed him under the bridge. He had already had a couple run-ins with the law when he was convicted of rape in 1979. He says his only crime was not knowing his partner was a minor, but he was sentenced to 18 years and served seven. Of his drug addiction, the one that finished the job his felony conviction started, he jokingly says, "I'm retired." Alcohol, however, is seldom more than an arm's length away: 20-ounce cans of beer, a bottle of Cisco or a two-gallon orange juice jug topped up with whatever bourbon is the cheapest.
Another constant companion is Choice's dog, Salt and Pepper, an exquisitely trained German shepherd mix. On one recent afternoon, Choice puts Salt and Pepper through her paces for a visitor, rewarding her with chunks of leftover chicken. The dog sits on command and remains stock still despite the morsel Choice waves inches from her nose. "Now I'm going to give you this," Choice says to her, "but only if you tell me that you want it." Salt and Pepper gives a short, soft bark. "When you're done you just let me know again if you want some more," Choice adds. The piece of chicken disappears, and then the dog pauses, as if gauging her appetite. Then she issues another soft bark, asking for more.
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