After graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1972 with a history degree, I landed a job in my home town of Columbia, South Carolina, at a government-funded program called the Midlands Community Action Agency. (This was one of the federal programs that sprang up during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration as a result of his War on Poverty program. Community Action Programs (CAP), as my section was called, ultimately failed and the funding was rescinded.)
Like many young folks from my generation, I wanted to do something to make the world a better place. After some rather cursory training, I was assigned to one of their outreach centers at an African-American church near the USC campus.
There was only one other person in that office, a really nice older woman (name forgotten) who was also a member of the church. I was raring to go but soon became discouraged because I realized that not much was happening on behalf of the poor in our area. After a few weeks of just hanging around, my coworker mentioned a disabled elderly man named Abraham McCoy who needed help. Excited by the prospect, I hopped on my motorcycle and ventured forth on my first quest.
After stumbling around amongst several run-down, three-story brick homes (long since demolished), I finally found his basement apartment. I knocked on the door; a feeble voice invited me in.
In retrospect, it is difficult to describe the order of sensations that assailed me. Was it the sight? Perhaps the smell? A combination? I honestly can’t remember, but what I witnessed was a vision of an earthly hell. His “apartment” was roughly a twenty-by-twenty-foot space carved out of a decrepit building by some heartless slumlord. There was no kitchen. Most of the area was used as a bedroom but there were two closet-sized rooms to the right.
Mr. McCoy was lying on a bed at the far side of the tiny room. He lifted his arm, waved a friendly greeting, and motioned me over. The floor was sopping wet from a leaking water pipe; I sloshed over to his bed. After some small talk, he pulled back his sheet to show me his legs. They were swollen to an enormous size and were obviously quite useless. He had been in this condition for around twenty years.
I asked him if I could look around and he motioned for me to go ahead. I walked over to the closet-like rooms and looked inside. They were both bathrooms. Why there were two of them in such a small space is beyond me. The toilets no longer worked and were topped off with feces. There were tufts of toilet paper stuffed into the mess. The floors were little ponds of urine, explaining the stench that permeated the entire abode. Having grown up in a comfortable middle-class environment, I had never imagined the living conditions I was now witnessing.
Around a beat-up bureau that sat against the wall were a jumble of open drawers, filthy clothes, knick-knacks, a small amount of food, and legions of waterbugs. [For the uninitiated, water bugs are giant, big-as-your-thumb cockroaches that folks in the Carolina Lowcountry refer to as “Charleston Butterflies.” We call them that because once they climb to a high enough spot they may just jump off and glide down at you like a flying squirrel with eight legs.]
Mr. McCoy told me that his only income was $100 per month from social security. “How do you cash your check?” I asked. He replied that he depended on a white merchant who came to his place every month. The merchant paid the $25 per month rent and electric bills and pocketed the rest, minus a tiny allowance for the old man. (Later I learned the leech operated a mobile business whereby he would find folks like Abraham, appropriate their government checks, and sell them overpriced goods out of the back of his station wagon.)
This bottom-feeding “entrepreneur” had found a niche in the lowest level of exploitative capitalism and I would not be surprised if he is still plying his trade in hell.
Abraham also revealed that, when he got his pitiful “allowance” from this despicable merchant, he was besieged by the neighborhood liquor-heads to help them finance their addiction. (Of course, after his money was gone, they disappeared until the next round.)
Returning to the office, I asked my coworker to help me acquire a wheelchair and a van so I could transport Abraham to a free medical clinic. Within a few days, I got both and picked him up at his place. The doctor who examined him said that Mr. McCoy’s legs were swollen due to untreated syphilis. He was hospitalized and treatment was initiated.
Determined that he should not have to return to his filthy living quarters, I called the Columbia Housing Authority and spoke with a counselor about Mr. McCoy’s situation. She said that, at present, there was “nothing available” but she would “put him on a waiting list.”
I contacted my sister, Jan, who was a reporter at The Columbia Record newspaper. She wrote an article about the situation and, because Christmas was around the corner, the article was well received by the public. Evidently, the Columbia Housing Authority was assailed with a few irate phone calls because they decided to find a place for Mr. McCoy after all.
I went to the hospital to check on his status. In a matter of days, they had drained the fluids from Mr. McCoy’s legs and, although he couldn’t walk, he was much improved. “Ready to move into a new place?” I asked. He nodded his approval.
Having acquired another van and a donated wheelchair, I took him back to his old place to gather his belongings. While packing his clothing, the Waterbugs were stirred and came out in full force, so I suggested to Mr. McCoy that perhaps it would be best if we just left it all behind. He agreed and settled on carrying just a few items.
We set out for his new home in a brand-new high rise complex across town. When I opened the door of his apartment, he glowed with joy. So did I.
I never saw him after that. Personal travails interceded and I had to take some time off to wrestle with my own demons. My job was done. Abe was in good hands.