Photo by Max Cooper
Day after day, Earl Grey sits in his wheelchair on Biltmore Avenue, his Veterans Affairs ID card taped to the top of a red Folgers coffee container.
“Would you help a Vietnam veteran?” he asks nearly everyone who passes by. It’s raining this morning, but Grey just smiles. And though he’s been posing that same question for the past four years, the man known to most by his cheery nickname, “Happy,” received some truly joyful news at the beginning of August, when a disability check finally landed in his mailbox.
“I come out here on the streets every day — seven days a week, 365 days a year — because me and my family stay in a motel. I’ve got to pay that bill every day,” he reveals. “I’ve got diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, done had two heart attacks, two strokes, and I’m going blind. I’m falling apart, but the peoples out here on this street, to me, are just like Super Glue. Y’all are holding me together.”
But keeping it together on the streets isn’t easy, says Grey. He used to do landscaping and home repairs by day and worked as a caterer at night. But after a spider bite got infected four years ago, Grey had to have his right leg amputated about 6 inches above the knee, and he found himself out of work. Around that time, says Grey, he received a letter stating that his disability benefits had been discontinued due to missing paperwork. Grey says he sent the paperwork again but continued to get the same response.
Left with no steady source of income, Grey wheeled himself down to Biltmore Avenue, just a few feet away from Doc Chey’s and Hannah Flanagan’s. That’s where Joshua Martin crossed paths with the former Army medic and gradually got to know him. Eventually, Martin wanted to do more than bring Grey food or throw a few bucks in a Folgers container.
“I knew he’d been out there [on the streets] a long time, and I’ve seen him go through a lot of his medical struggles,” says Martin, adding that the two men connected over the fact that both have twins. “That was part of my motivation: Seeing him out there in the rain and snow and also the day-to-day of getting to know him as a person.”
In July, Martin and some other concerned locals decided to help Grey track down the missing paperwork so he could start receiving disability checks again.
“It’s so interesting, because it’s not like any of us talk to each other. There was no Happy ‘strategy meeting.’ We’re just all independently impacted by our relationship with him and wanted to see if we could do anything to help,” Martin explains.
Martin knew someone in Sen. Kay Hagan’s office. After they got involved, he says, Grey’s case was expedited, and the veteran’s first disability check arrived Aug. 1.
“My office is always ready to help North Carolina’s veterans in any way we can. I encourage veterans who need help cutting through the red tape of federal bureaucracies to contact my office,” Hagan said in a prepared statement.
For Grey, who’s been living in the Thunderbird Motel, those checks signal a new start.
“I’ll be able to get off this street and get me a place to live for me and my family,” he says. “I want to get my independence back so that I don’t have to depend on people. That was my crawling point. You know, you have to crawl before you walk. Sure, sometimes you’re going to stumble and fall, but just don’t lay down: Get back up. It’s my time now to get back up.”
The first step, he says, will be finding affordable housing.
Martin, meanwhile, has no illusions about what awaits Grey. “I can’t imagine that just one check coming is going to make his day full of rainbows. I’m sure he’s going to continue to struggle with his health issues and getting himself into permanent housing. But I’m cheering for him, and I know that hundreds of other people are cheering for him as he goes into the next phase of his life.”
And even though he’ll be receiving regular disability checks, Grey says he still plans to wheel himself down to Biltmore Avenue every once in a while, not to beg for money but to thank the folks who’ve helped him during the last four years.
“I’m trying to schedule out maybe one or two times a week, and that’s it. And basically, that’s to say hey to my friends, because I don’t want them to think that because I got my disability, I’m going to change. I’m still going to be H-A-P-P-Y. I’m still going to be Happy. Always.”
Caitlin Byrd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 251-1333, ext.140