The Commercial Appeal
‘GENTLE GIANT’ f inds a HOME
LEE BROWN SURVEYED the site of New Hope Ministries, where he was scheduled to present a police safety skit for children as part of a crime -prevention event in South Memphis.
The competition was formidable: A two -story inflatable water slide beckoned the two dozen children on an evening when the temperature was still 98 degrees.
But Brown, who has faced challenges that were far more difficult in his life, was not worried.
“I have the ultimate secret weapon,” he said with a nod to his long-armed, brown hand-puppet. “A talking monkey. Chimmy the safety monkey.”
Brown and Chimmy quizzed the kids on bicycle safety, crossing streets and emergency phone numbers, finally cutting the National Night Out
program short and surrendering the antsy young audience to the water slide.
All in all, however, not a bad evening for a man who lived on the streets of Memphis for 20 years and seven months.
In 2009, just two years off the streets, Brown passed a criminal background check, graduated from the Citizens Police Academy 10week course and now acts as a liaison between police and his Midtown community.
At the graduation ceremony, an officer gave special recognition to Brown, attracting a round of applause from officers and classmates.
“I turned about as red as a fire truck,” recalled Brown, 40, who after nearly four years in an apartment still is adjusting to life with walls. “The main reason I was out there so long was my mindset was that I deserved that. My selfesteem was zero. My self-worth was zero. Even though I’m not still on the streets, there’s a part of me that’s still out there.”
After long relying on alcohol for his escape from the street life, Brown said he’s been sober for three years.
He still wears his hair in a buzz, about the same length as the stubble of a beard he sports.
Brown survives on a monthly disability check for a variety of ailments, none of which keeps him from working as an unofficial security man, greeter or handyman at several Midtown nightspots.
“He’s worked for us as a doorman, he sings karaoke and he’s been in and around to help out since we first opened in 1994,” said Frank James, owner of The Edge CoffeeHouse at Overton Park and Watkins. “He has never been a panhandler or a bum. He’s always wanted to earn his way and pay for things. His appearance is different, but he’s a smart guy.”
After a difficult home life, Brown lived in foster homes and group homes, dropped out of school after the 10th grade and began running with a rough crowd, which resulted in a number of contacts with Juvenile Court.
Before his 20th birthday, Brown joined the city’s 1,500 to 2,000 homeless, surviving by his wits and whatever aid strangers might offer, including some in blue uniforms.
“We actually got quite a few calls on Lee, but it was always because he was sleeping out in the open; never for anything violent,” said police Sgt. Kathy Gooden, who has known Brown for some 20 years. “When I was on patrol on the midnight shift, I would go around and check on him because I knew where all his little sleeping holes were. Most of the time we just talked about his personal problems and demons he was fighting with.”
When Gooden was promoted last year, she was told by her commander to attend a monthly meeting of the Neighborhood Watch ambassadors where, to her surprise, she was presented with a plaque by the street friend she hadn’t seen in years.
“He actually broke down because he was so thankful that I was one of the officers who cared,” recalled Gooden, who now works in the Missing Persons Bureau. “Lee is just a special person. He’s a gentle giant .”
Brown’s witty stories from the streets sound like standup comedy material.
He tells of a winter morning when he woke up on the back porch of the old Scruggs Lighting at Union near McLean to find three raccoons nestled up against him for warmth.
Another time, according to Brown, he fell asleep on a bus bench after a rain and an overnight freeze left him stuck to the bench. Unable to pry him loose, firefighters had to take him and the bench to the emergency room to thaw.
On a warmer evening, he settled down for a Friday night’s sleep by a building at Union and Kimbrough, but when he awakened the next morning there were red laser sensors criss-crossing just above him. Fearing he would set off an alarm, Brown stayed in the spot all weekend until the security system was turned off on Monday.
“He has a treasure chest of stories,” says longtime friend and supporter Joe Birch. “He may give the uninitiated the idea that he’s a little dull, but he’s smart as a whip and he’s street savvy like you wouldn’t believe.”
Birch, the news anchor for WMC-TV, first met Brown when he was asleep on the station’s parking lot years ago and urged him to get off the streets, mostly to no avail.
“I would try to take him to a homeless shelter and sometimes he would leave 10 minutes after we got there,” said Birch, who also helps Brown handle his money and medicines. “He was institutionalized, and so he simply will not stay. If he would see any authoritative figure telling him to do something, he would run. It hasn’t been easy for him. It was a big deal to get his own place and it was a hard choice.”
Birch introduced Brown as “my formerly homeless friend” when he had Brown in a suit to sing a gospel tune he wrote himself at a fundraising dinner this year for the Calvary Rescue Mission.
“He does cartoon voices, has a great sense of humor and he’s going to be doing our puppet shows for safety for children,” said Kate Sides, Neighborhood Watch coordinator for the Union Station who accompanies Brown to the events. “He’s as pure -hearted as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Others who know him talk about his uncommon generosity.
“Lee is hands-down one of the most loyal people I’ve ever known,” says Josh Ross, preaching minister at Sycamore View Church of Christ, who has known Brown for three years. “I’ve seen him take the only $5 bill in his pocket and give it to someone else who needed it. I’ve witnessed Lee talk people out of suicide, alcoholism, drug addictions, and I’ve seen him help people choose peace instead of violence.”
So now the once -homeless man who used to keep all his earthly possessions with him in a shopping cart — “my mobile home” — is entertaining children and doing what he can to help those still on the streets, saying he gets as much as he gives.
“I do it now because I get something out of it and someone else gets something out of it.”
— Lawrence Buser: 529-2385