Midnight with Stoker and the Flower Man
Dallas, Texas
November 20, 2001

It’s a cold, blustery Monday night in Dallas. The hipsters stay away from Deep Ellum in droves. “It’s always slow on Monday”, says Chad the Bass Player. Chad is on the door at the Green Room. He plays bass around town with various bands. He’s a friendly face and a friendly voice in the middle of the night.

Deep Ellum is the cool part of town. Not the yuppie cool of Uptown or Greenville. The true cool. It’s days are probably numbered. The surrounding area is growing thick with artists lofts that house anyone but the artistic. Big, expensive, high-ceilinged affairs that sell for more than any artistic type can shell out. It’s Melrose twenty years ago, right on the edge of becoming too cool for the cool to afford.

The three avenues of Deep Ellum are still intact. The stores are cacophonous and chaotic, and of the kind you won’t find in the respectable part of town. The restaurants are still glaringly independent. The clubs still draw the low rent crowd that lives for the music and the scene. You know it’s still the cool part of town because the homeless haven’t been driven out.

Chad and I hang out in front of the Green Room talking about music and Dallas and people in general. I ask him what’s changed since September 11th. He says it’s hard to tell for him. He’s more in the business of helping people forget, give them some good grooves and let them lose themselves in it. Right after the attacks he noticed that business dropped off a bit and that the folks that did come out were a combination of the too cool to care and those that were obviously freaked and trying too hard to forget. Eventually everyone chilled out and it returned to normal. Deep Ellum hasn’t been hit as hard as other entertainment and retail areas of town. It’s a place tourists drive through or walk along but it isn’t really their cup of tea. Conventioneers don’t congregate in Deep Ellum unless a bunch of them get so hammered they make a drunken late-night run to get tattoos.

Chad points out the American Flag hanging over Dada across the street. “That’s definitely different. It’s a little weird looking but it’s kind of cool…the freaks fly the flag. I see a lot of stuff like that. Flags where you don’t expect to see them.”

We are joined now and again by someone on their way into or out of the Green Room, one of the few places on Elm showing signs of life. Jon joins us. It’s an open conversation, a way to kill time and share a little contact. We talk with him a bit. He’s glad that things have calmed down a bit since the attacks. He’s glad to get his television back from the 24/7 coverage of the explosions. I asked him if anything has changed for him. He said not much but, “I feel patriotic for the first time. First time I’ve had a reason.” I ask him what that feeling of patriotism means to him. “Pride, I guess. Like it’s something I want to belong to instead of just a place to live.”

Down the street I run into the Flower Man. I saw him earlier on the street when he had given me a big hello, like he knew me. It turns out he thought he did. He was convinced I had been down there three weeks ago with my camera. That is how he knew it was me he had seen three weeks ago. He claims that he approached me in a parking lot to sell me some of his flowers and I gave him a buck and told him to keep the flowers. I try to tell him it wasn’t me. He wasn’t having any of it.

He has a dark, angular face. It’s a hard face. His eyes are always narrowed into slits, like he’s peering out at you from behind a secret. He’s wrapped tight in layers of clothing and has managed to secure a heavy, lined coat.

The Flower Man “harvests” his flowers every day and carefully wraps them in newspaper. He then walks around Deep Ellum. He used to go Uptown or to Lower Greenville but the cops kept running him off. In Deep Ellum they don’t bother him. He won’t tell me where he harvests his flowers. I suspect that somewhere in Dallas there are pockets of jacked up homeowners and a spate of unsolved flowerbed heists.

I ask him what he does with the money.

“I know. White boy thinks I’m just another nigger spending any money he get on crack and ripple. I try to get enough so I can get a room. Get out of this cold. Maybe buy a pack a smokes.”

Then he breaks into a lazy grin and makes a motion like taking a nip from a bottle and adds, “…and maybe a little somethin’, somethin’”.

He continually scratches at the thin knit cap he wears. He scratches at it nervously. He scratches at it angrily. He scratches at it bored.

Seeing an opportunity to get a cigarette from me, Stoker joins us. He compliments me on my camera. And asks for a cigarette. Later he compliments me on my camera and asks for a light. Later, still, he will compliment me on my camera and ask for money. It works every time. Pavlovian conditioning at its finest.

Stoker has an incongruously happy, round face, with wide eyes and an easy smile, set on top of a body ripped with muscle and the movements of a caged lion...like he could pounce on you and kill you with his hands, smiling all the while. He looks dressed for the beach compared the Flower Man and shivers in the cold. They ask why I’m taking pictures. I tell them what I’m working on. I ask Flower Man if he thinks about what it means to be an American.

“Not much,” he says. “I guess not ever.”

I ask him if he wants to think about it now. He pauses for awhile, scratching at the cap.

“No. I don’t believe I do.”

“America is a place where the white man makes the rules and robs a black man of his pride,” Stoker volunteers.

This makes the Flower Man angry. “Ain’t no man can rob me of my pride ‘cept for me. Damn sure can’t no white man.”

“White man holds a brother down,” Stoker responds, a little less sure.

The Flower Man pushes him. He scratches at his cap in a mild rage. “When I had that nice place and the money and all those ladies wasn’t a white man gave it to me. When I lost it wasn’t a white man took it. I got it. I lost it. If I get it back gonna be ‘cause I got it back not ‘cause nobody, least of all a white man, get it back for me.”

Stoker turns to me and, plaintively…imploringly, says, “Don’t mean no offense but the white man see a black man with something and he gonna try to put that black man down. That the way it is.”

Flower Man shakes his head and huffs. Scratching, first angry then…thoughtful.

“I’ll tell you what America is. It’s a place where you can see all the changes.”

I wait to see if there’s more. He says it slow and with great seriousness. It sounds profound as hell but I have no idea what it means.

He is amused by my confusion. If it is possible to scratch one’s head in amusement he does so. He pats me on the shoulder and talks to me as if I was a child struggling with a lesson. “You keep your eyes open and you’ll know. Other places they hide what’s going on. Here you can see all the changes they make right out in the open. Or not. That part more or less up to you.”

The Flower Man is done with me. He has some more flowers to sell before he’s through for the night and the Green Room is closing. He needs to get over to the door to catch the stragglers. He bounds down the street, scaring the hell out of his prospects. Stoker tags along after him complimenting the couple that just came out of the club on their fine taste in clothes. I don’t hear what he asks for.

I walked back to my car wondering if I’d just heard words of profound wisdom or the incoherent philosophy of the homeless…or a little of both. I can’t resolve it. But I will be keeping my eyes open for the changes.

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