The sad ballad of Moses Corley
By Tom Poland
We all cross paths with a person we can’t forget. And so, a man by the beautiful name of Moses Corley lingers in my mind. If every life is a song, then Moses’ life was a sad, sad ballad. Moses worked as the janitor in the library of a college where I once taught. He loved his job. Said it was the best job he ever had. Hoped to retire there. He called me as “Mr. Tom” and peppered his speech with “Yes sirs” and “No sirs.” It was a habit I couldn’t get him to break. He’d laugh at my jokes and slap his knees and his infectious laugh was unforgettable. That was long ago. Even now I see him sweeping the lab in the library basement where I taught. His snow-white Afro was stately and a cataract gave him an owlish gaze. His left eye, white as milk glass, stared into space. But he was memorable for his sweet nature, a prince of a man. His wife was his sun, moon, and stars. She was bedridden and her chief joy in life was watching TV. Back then I taught Audio Visual Methods for aspiring elementary education teachers. Computers were light years away and the technology was embarrassingly simple. One method I taught was how to make colored overhead transparencies. My students use colored acetate to give transparencies impact. They’d cut out shapes and the acetate would cling to the transparency thanks to static electricity. At the day’s end, colored scraps of acetate littered the carpeted floor like some image from a kaleidoscope knocked askew, a colorful mess. Just before Thanksgiving a few students were working late when Moses came in to clean the lab. I noticed how closely he watched one student work on a food group presentation: red apples, yellow bananas, oranges, and so forth. He watched her position the acetate and after a while he began to clean up the scraps. Each day, Moses had done just that: clean up the scraps and trash them. So when I noticed Moses was picking up scraps of acetate and placing them in a box, I was curious. “What are you going to do with those?” “Mr. Tom, my wife’s got one leg and has the diabetes. All she can do is lie in bed and watch TV. I promised her I’d give her a color TV some day. I’m gonna make her one for Christmas. I’ll take these home and stick ’em on the TV and she can see in color!” He’d figured a way to make good on a promise to his beloved wife, a special Christmas gift. Not long after that, Moses asked me if he could borrow $10. “Sure,” I said. He asked other faculty members too but one ratted him out. He was fired. A few months later I got my first writing position and began working downtown. I assumed Moses was working somewhere else too. A few years went by. One cold, windy November day close to Thanksgiving I ventured out for lunch. As I walked past the old bus station on Blanding, I saw legs sticking out of a green dumpster. Out popped a bedraggled Moses Corley. Seeing him was a joy, tempered by the fact that he was in dire straights. “Moses,” I shouted, “it’s me, Tom!” Slowly he walked over. He had lost his home and his wife had died. That infectious laugh had died too. We talked a bit and parted ways. He was exiled to the streets because he had asked the wrong person for $10. I never saw him again. I drove past a group of homeless people once, a pretentious woman alongside for the ride. “You’d think those men would get a job,” she said. “Any job.” In a way she was right, but I knew that for some there is that job that’s the best you’ll ever have and if you lose it … well, life can sure go downhill. So here it is Thanksgiving, and I know other Moses Corleys are out there, homeless, hungry, and heartbroken. I’m sure the Moses I knew left this green Earth long ago to join his wife. They’re together again, up there, watching the biggest, most colorful flat screen TV ever imagined. It’s warm, food’s on the table, and there’s no need to borrow money and even if he did no one would care. The full version of this column appears in Poland’s latest book, “Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It,” available from the USC Press.