I saw Larry Major a couple weeks ago. He was sober and pleasant. Not many people have seen him that way. Most of us here in Charlotte know him as Chilly Willy. He was our city’s most famous alcoholic.
He died Thursday night, hit by a car.
I first remember seeing him over on East Boulevard, harassing people on the patio at Brixx Pizza. For the last couple of years he liked to hang out on Central Avenue, not far from our house. He rarely asked for money. If he did, and you didn’t give it to him, he cussed at you. Most of the time he just cussed at you.
One afternoon, driving down Central, I swerved to avoid a garbage bag in the edge of my lane. As I got close I saw it wasn’t a garbage bag. It was Chilly, passed out in the gutter. I started to turn around, then saw a car pulling over to check on him. I drove on. I wish I’d gone back. But I didn’t.
He was famous enough locally that every once in a while somebody would put him on YouTube. If he was clearheaded enough, he could pick and sing a little. I’m not surprised he knew that Charlie Daniels song.
If you don’t like the way I’m livin’,
You just leave this long-haired country boy alone.
He had wild hair and mangled hands and the Harley wings tattooed on his forehead. Some people get silly drunk. Some people get mopey drunk. Chilly was angry drunk. He scared a lot of people. Other ones just laughed at him.
The Urban Ministry Center decided to help him.
I’ve been doing some work for Urban Ministry lately, talking to homeless people so I can tell some of their stories at True Blessings, Urban Ministry’s big fundraiser next month. At this point I’m going to quit calling him Chilly and start calling him Larry, because that’s what the folks at Urban Ministry called him. They saw Chilly Willy as a character. They tried to get to the real person.
They put Larry in an apartment at Moore Place, which was built to take homeless people off the streets and give them a place to live. That sounds expensive, and it is. But it doesn’t cost nearly as much as the drain on police, fire and medical resources when a homeless person goes to the ER, or to jail, again and again and again. You might have heard Malcolm Gladwell’s story about Million-Dollar Murray. Larry was Charlotte’s Million-Dollar Murray.
We had decided not to make Larry part of the True Blessings program because he liked the spotlight a little too much. Also, it was impossible to tell what mood he’d be in. One day, I was walking into Moore Place with Urban Ministry head Dale Mullennix as Larry was walking out. “Having a good day, Larry?” Dale said. “WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT?” Larry hollered as he walked by.
The people living at Moore Place can come and go as they please. They can drink, because drinking is legal. The idea is to bring people in, get them safe and settled, and then slowly set boundaries and deal with their issues. They have social events over there, sandwich-and-soda sorts of things, and they had told Larry he couldn’t come if he couldn’t behave. A staffer told me she saw him standing outside the glass doors one day, watching the party inside, not knowing if he’d be welcomed. Finally a couple of the other residents fixed him a plate and led him in.
The last time I saw him, a couple weeks ago, we were at Moore Place to talk to a few residents. Photographer Mark Edward Atkinson had a couple of people come out in the lobby, where the light was good. Larry wandered by and noticed this. He kept edging in closer. Mark asked if he would mind having his picture taken. He knew that’s what Larry wanted. So Larry leaned on a chair and started talking, clear-eyed and polite. He talked about photography, and music, and tattoos, and the streets, while Mark took pictures. He came over and shook my hand. He thanked all of us for spending time with him.
Charlotte knew Chilly Willy. I’m glad I got to meet Larry Major. I wish more people could have gotten to know him. I wish he could have been that person more.