Charlton (circa 1997)



Written in 1997 about a homeless man in Biloxi, Mississippi, who strongly favored Charlton Heston.

Narrated version


Coming up the road is a man I call Charlton,
walking as he does with that funny kind of gait.
Rigidly he shuffles, kicking though his soles.
Not walking like he’s early. Not walking like he’s late.
He wears the same clothes, but he’s always clean-shaven.
a torn blue sweater reveals a shoulder that’s laden
with an uncertain future and pains of the past.
Why from society was this lonely man cast?
A lifetime of dirt is the second skin
that covers this man with the stick-like step.
A funny man, he waits at the bus stop and then
walks away to some place
leaning into his pace
with random hurry,
as if loved ones are worried.
But no one cares.
In the wake of his walk
curious glances surmount
on faces of strangers
who try to recount
tales of his life
pieced with speculative things.
Some say he’s a drunk,
some say a king.
Once was I told that his real name is Bill.
He drove a cab and then lost his will
to carry on.
But to me he’ll always be Charlton-
A sad, funny man
walking nowhere fast,
wearing out shoes
and lost in the mass
of other souls
searching for peace.
The souls of you.
The soul of me.

Shelley Powers, September 1997


9 Responses to “Charlton (circa 1997)”

  1. suzi-q Says:

    I was delighted to read this poem again after so many years. I loved it then and love it even more now as I read and thought of a person whom I did not know but somehow left a memory. Thanks Shell:)

  2. jenfera Says:

    Hi Shelley – As I have mentioned before, I am not very good with poetry, so I never know what to say when faced with it. I’m thinking maybe some of the other Monkbots are with me on that?

    I do like this line:

    Not walking like he’s early. Not walking like he’s late

    Paints a very clear picture.

    Anyway, I was out of town for a long weekend and I just wanted to pop in and say hi! Nice tomato, by the way.

  3. rowan Says:

    That’s lovely, Shelley. Very poignant and evocative. My fave lines are,

    “a torn blue sweater reveals a shoulder that’s laden
    with an uncertain future and pains of the past.”

    You express the homeless man’s isolation so well, juxtaposed with the compassionate glances of strangers who he has no interface with, and who try, just for a moment, to place him, invent him, make sense of him. I find this particular image very insightful and touching. People don’t always just walk by. They see him, process and percolate, plot him in his parallel universe. Can almost see this as a scene filmed from above; the little human tableau of the old man walking, people parting to let him pass, stopping and watching, recognising his vulnerability. It is a lovely graceful poem, Shelley. Thanks for sharing.

  4. bamaborntxbred Says:

    I love this poem Shelley. I’m definitely a person that invents stories for and about the strangers I see around me. I always wonder about the homeless people I see on the corners in Dallas. There is one particular man…an African American man with gray hair and a walking stick…all stooped over. He haunts a particular corner I stop at every day on my way home from work. I’m not actually sure that he’s homeless. He doesn’t have any signs that he holds up saying he’s homeless…and he’s always dressed appropriately (if shabbily) for the weather. Still, he panhandles. I wish I knew more about him.

    I’ve given him money…and probably will continue to give him and other “street people” money whenever I’m moved to. I don’t care what they do with the money. If they want to walk to the nearest liquor store and by a 40oz. beer…more power to them…b/c that’s what they (feel- or possibly, if they are physically addicted) need most in the world. And, since I’m not willing to put them in my car and pay for treatment, and support them in sobriety…I guess I don’t feel I’m one to judge either.

    Gosh…now I’m feeling kind of sad.

  5. Little Deb Says:

    Beautiful poem. bama, you made me think of someone that I had almost forgotten about. I worked in a physical therapy clinic some years ago and an older black man was brought in in a wheel chair for therapy (I don’t remember what for). He was apparently on kidney dialisis (sp) and was a former homeless alcoholic who had abused his body so badly that he wound up in the wheel chair. He was living in a Salvation Army type place and somehow Medicaid or other public assistance had enabled him to come to our facility. I was manning the front desk and had to do his “intake” and ask him a bunch of questions. I learned that he had been in the wheel chair for quite a few years and did not remember the last time he walked.

    My boss, the head PT (who had a huge heart) decided to try some therapy that would help him gain strength in his legs. This was not what he was sent to us for and she did this part for free while treating him for whatever he came in for. After several weeks of this, he was able to stand and after several more weeks, he walked across the room.

    Well, he cried, I cried, all the other therapists cried, all the patients cried. It was just flippin amazing. He was saying that he thought he could not ever walk again and that doctors had told him that he would never walk again.

    I don’t know what became of this guy, but it was a very moving experience.

  6. leejolem Says:

    Little Deb, what a great story. I work with dialysis patients, and let me tell you having CKD (chronic kidney disease) is no picnic. Your kidneys affect all the systems in the body, and the patients are really worn out by the disease and the dialysis itself (3-4 hours 3x/week).

    Shelley, your poem made me wonder what happened to “Bill/Charlton”. Hope he’s warm, dry and has a full stomach somewhere right now.

  7. Dr. Bob Says:

    Isn’t it funny how we brush up against people and without even knowing it, are changed. And when you share it, the ripples go out further. Thanks, Shelley, for a moment of introspection and for painting a picture of the man. I am reminded of your — was it the dishwasher installer? The man who you wormed a story out of and then shared with us.

  8. rowan Says:

    Little Deb – that was a really uplifting story. How wonderful the man regained the use of his legs by means of a stranger’s kindness.

    Hi Lee! (Waves back to Lee after just seeing her wave on the previous thread.)

    Bama – kind of have a similar response to giving money. And dont be sad!

    Dr Bob – yep – a little unexpected window into someone else’s life can really bring new insights.

  9. sideways721 Says:

    Thanks for sharing this poem.
    bamaborntxbred, when I worked at Union Square in San Francisco, I became acquainted with many people in a similar situation. Sometimes I’d buy them a burger, sometimes I’d give them a dollar. Many of the homeless people were there on the streets because of new mental health rulings in the state. Very sad.

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