Metropolis: Wednesday, June 5, 2003
Begging No Pardon

Charlie Joyner’s sad story has a rough flip side.\r\n


Residents are rallying around the legless Charles Joyner in his quest to sit in a wheelchair with cup in hand at the downtown corner of Houston and Third streets. Television and print media ran heart-wrenching stories about Joyner’s travails — a Fort Worth police officer has cited him twice since March for loitering with intent to beg, citations that could add up to more than $500.

“I’m rooting for you!” a man shouted from a passing pickup last week.

“Tell them to leave you alone,” a pedestrian said.

“Hey, celebrity!” said a woman as she slipped a dollar in his cup.

The encouragement delighted Joyner, 52, as he sat in front of the Reata Restaurant. For 10 years he has held down this corner, accepting handouts and responding in a gentle singsong voice, “God bless you,” “Hi, darling,” or “Have a great day.”

None of those folks, however, had upset him. Joyner can be a cussing, contentious problem to Reata employees and to those he thinks are muscling in on his corner. His story has more shades of gray than have been painted by feel-good news stories.

Joyner is gracious to pedestrians, whether they give money or not. Many people give, including this reporter, who has donated money several times and been warmed by Joyner’s pleasantries. He doesn’t verbally solicit, but his cup beckons. To keep the cup from overflowing, Joyner regularly takes out money and tucks it away, leaving only a bill or two for display.

Police have given him free rein for a decade, even while they have scattered other downtown beggars — a seeming double standard of enforcement.

Joyner denies he is a beggar. “I never ask for money,” he said.

Police don’t know whether his actions constitute begging. “Generally we would feel that if they’re just sitting there, it would be difficult to make a case of panhandling,” said police spokesman Lt. Jesse Hernandez.

City staffers call it begging. “Just the fact that the cup is there implies that he wants something put in it,” said Lillian Porter, administrative technician with the city secretary’s office.

Fort Worth Police Officer R.V. Desselles works after hours as a security officer for the City Center firm that patrols the Bass family’s downtown property around Sundance Square. Most of the security officers don’t write tickets; they call police if they spot lawbreakers. The handful of Fort Worth police officers who work part-time for City Center can respond as they typically might while on regular duty. Most officers give Joyner latitude. Desselles broke tradition.

“Charlie normally does not present himself as a nuisance,” said Joel Glenn, head of City Center security. “We’ve just told [security officers] that we don’t necessarily consider him to be a real nuisance. Charlie is one of those unique cases. No harm, no foul. There are a lot of us that, from time to time, a dollar goes his way, and probably should.”

Recently, though, Glenn said he has received “a few” complaints, although he declined to name the complainants. Joyner blames Reata.

For years, Joyner’s spot fronted the Caravan of Dreams, a venue that showcased music at night. The club closed in October 2001, and the building was leased to Reata. “I didn’t have no problem from nobody until those people moved there,” Joyner said.

Reata managers, sensing a public relations nightmare, said this week that they support Joyner. “Charles is a friend of Reata,” said co-owner Mike Evans. “I’ve talked to Charles in the past and I’m on a first-name basis with him. We’ve talked about helping him and assisting him in getting prostheses.” Thus far, Joyner hasn’t accepted. “Charles is happy doing what he does,” Evans said.

Reata’s valets refused to talk publicly about their troubles with Joyner, saying the media is biased in his favor. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for instance, described Joyner as an “angel” in a Christmas Eve 2000 story: “For Charles is the sort of person whose good cheer starts deep in his belly and explodes through his shining eyes and his hearty salutations to all who pass. ... The place seems empty when we go downtown and Charles is not there,” the story read.

Privately, the valets acknowledged that they complained to Desselles on May 11, which led to Joyner’s ticket. A one-legged man in a wheelchair had taken Joyner’s corner spot, and after Joyner arrived, the men argued over squatting rights. It wasn’t the first time they have clashed. “We’ve seen those guys throwing punches at each other,” a valet said.

The other man wouldn’t budge, so Joyner parked his wheelchair next to the curb, blocking patrons from their cars, the valets said. “We don’t normally care if he’s on the corner, but he was in the way this time,” said one parking attendant.

Desselles told both men to move along. “Charlie began to give the Fort Worth police officer a talking to, a tongue-lashing, and said that he had no right to make him move and that he was doing nothing wrong,” Glenn said.

Desselles insisted. Joyner moved about 50 feet, but soon gravitated back to the corner. Desselles returned and again told Joyner to leave. Joyner gave the police officer “another tongue-lashing” and then threatened to go to the media, Glenn said. “When he threatened him with the media, the officer wrote a ticket and said, ‘You can go to whoever you want.’”

The valets characterize Joyner’s sweetness as artificial. “It’s an act to get money, and he does make a lot of money doing it,” one of them said. “Most people only see one side of Charlie. He’s cussed out our general manager; he’s cussed out everybody.”

The valets were unaware that the Weekly had spent 45 minutes talking to Joyner earlier that day. Joyner was generally soft-spoken, but his tone became sharp and his lingo spicy when he didn’t like a question.

The Star-Telegram on May 27 reported that Joyner lost his legs trying to hop a train in 1988. He became angry when the Weekly asked for details. “No, I wasn’t hitchhiking or hoboing or nothing like that,” he said, even though those possibilities hadn’t been suggested. Then, he launched into a profanity-laced lecture about personal questions. When someone would pass by, he’d slip into his soft voice: “Hi, darling, God bless you.” As soon as they left, he returned to his harsh talk.

The question that most upset Joyner was, “Since people are starting to complain and police are starting to write you tickets, have you ever considered moving to a new corner?”

“I’m a fighter, I ain’t no quitter,” he said. “Why would I go somewhere else? I’m tired of talking to you. I ain’t talking to you no more.”

Later that day, the Weekly spoke with a homeless man asking for money at the intersection of Throckmorton and Fourth streets. Terry Lee Jones, 46, was gaunt but muscular, and wearing dirty clothes. He grew nervous when a City Center security officer pedaled past. Police are seldom nice to him. “They run me off from downtown — they say, ‘Go that way, go south,’” he said, referring to the homeless shelters near East Lancaster Avenue. “As long as a person ain’t stealing or taking nothing, I don’t see nothing wrong. It’s in the Bible — ask and ye shall receive.”

Joyner’s court date is set for July. Many downtown folks back him, although they disapprove of people such as Jones. Some think red tape shouldn’t be so rigid that a legless man can’t sit on a corner, despite the double standard, and even if upscale restaurants with multi-million-dollar investments get queasy.

“He needs to be on that corner,” said Steve Kilborn, a graphic artist who works nearby. “That’s his place. He’s a fixture in our city, and that’s where he belongs. He’s a breath of fresh air. He has no reason to be, in a lot of ways, but he is.”

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