Walking the dog: The trials and tribulations of being homeless in Haywood
Standing next to Louis “Louie” Bing, you’d never know he was homeless.
While waiting for a cup of coffee at City Bakery in Waynesville, the 65-year-old stands patiently alongside tourists, retirees and locals. His clothes, shoes and beard are well kempt.
He holds his head up high and there’s a smile on his face. These don’t seem to be your typical characteristics of someone homeless. But, then again, Bing isn’t your typical man.
“In seven years of being homeless, I’ve found people are generous. People are so kind to me and my dog,” he said. “I wasn’t planning on doing this during my twilight years. People say they envy my freedom, I say ‘Well, if you woke up freezing, starving and lonely, this wouldn’t have so much romance.’”
Bing is well known around downtown Waynesville, for good or ill. People either avoid him because he represents something they disagree with and don’t understand, or they respect him as another piece of the community, one whom they look forward to interacting with and getting to know.
“It’s strange, you never think things will happen like this, when you’re desperate and just grasping for straws,” he said. “But it came to pass and I’ve gone from being a casualty in the [societal] war to becoming somebody to these people — the street people, the jail people, people who go to church and go to work.”
Bing has indeed become a fixture of downtown, someone who will stop and talk with just about anyone. With face-to-face communication a seemingly lost art these days, the notion that all friends were strangers at one time echoes loudly. And always straggling along a few yards behind is his faithful dog Sid, a five-year-old Australian pit bull. Bing took him in as a puppy after the dog was found under a trailer in Hazelwood.
“He was sick and full of fleas. When I brought him a can of food, he almost ate the can, too,” he chuckled. “But, I’m a firm believer in reincarnation, and he and I have known each other for a long time. We were together before.”
Short for “Siddartha” (the birth name of Gautama Buddha — the founder of Buddhism), Sid waddles along the sidewalk with his barrel chest, tail wagging without a care in the world. With his friendly, almost cartoon like shape and demeanor, people are immediately drawn to the dog. Once they stop and pet Sid, a conversation is soon struck with Bing. Thus, another friend is made as Bing simply takes his “dog for a walk.”
“You want to see a well-trained dog? Well, follow a homeless man with one,” he said. “When I walk down the street and he’s not following immediately behind, people always ask where he is, and he’ll soon show up. We’ve always been on the same wave length.”
It’s been a long and constantly evolving journey for Bing. Born and raised in a blue-collar Irish-German Catholic family in post-World War II Philadelphia, he was the second oldest of seven siblings. He lived in a row house, with both his parents working as nurses. It was a simple childhood, filled with parental rules and rigorous Catholic schooling.
“My father and mother were hard working people who provided for all of us,” he said. “This was all before rock-n-roll, when there was still a boom of work and opportunities after the war.”
Towards the end of high school, Bing started to realize he was different from other people, a sentiment that would follow him all of his life. He listened to The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, started to grow out his hair and soon fell into the counterculture. In those days, if you didn’t fit the mold, you were either a hippy or a freak, and he became known as the latter.
“It was the dawn of the Age of Aquarius and I was a ‘freak,’” he said. “You could feel it, something was happening. It was the beginning of the revolution.”
The political and cultural revolution of the late 1960s was in full force and he was in the thick of things as a student at Temple University in Philadelphia. He found himself in the presence of the infamous Black Panthers movement, city police brutality and peaceful civil disobedience through sit-ins and be-ins. He was standing at the forefront of history, trying to make sense of it all.
“I wanted to see the movement for peace and equality come to something,” he said. “But, here I was seeing the Black Panthers with their guns and city police with riot gear. I wasn’t out there because I was a political animal, I just had no intention of getting killed in Vietnam.”
Eventually though, Bing was drafted into Vietnam, but soon was released from his duties after being deemed unfit to serve due to mental instability. Now it was the early 1970s and he headed for Colorado, chasing job prospects that never seemed to pan out. But, with those connections, he landed in Connecticut opening up a health food store — a business venture as radical as it was ahead of its time.
“We were pioneers, learning along the way, and there I was a vegetarian, a cosmic cowboy,” he smiled.
It was there in Connecticut where Bing met his wife. They had two daughters and by the mid-1980s found themselves in Western North Carolina. A friend from the health food store had moved down to Waynesville to live and survive in the woods of Southern Appalachia. Bing found the notion tempting, packed up the family and headed for Haywood County.
“Back then, all the old-timers were still alive here,” he said. “I always hung around with them, just listening to their stories. They weren’t trying to put anything over on you. They were survivors of the Great Depression and World War II, they were just happy to be alive and share their wisdom.”
In search of a career, Bing had learned over the years how to be a carpenter. He found decent work all the way into the late 1990s during the housing boom. But, a lifelong dark cloud of mental illness always hung overhead. Well aware of his constant battles with manic depression and bipolar disorder, Bing’s career advancements always seemed to take a backseat to his mental state.
“I learned how to do all of these things, but I could never develop enough self confidence to go out and do things on my own,” he said. “It was hard to do a hands on job you know you can do when all the time your mental illness makes you think otherwise.”
From there, the house of cards began to fall. He was thrown out of his house with a divorce after 34 years of marriage. He was thrown into jail for a list of offenses, regardless if he was guilty or not of the charge. Bouncing around between the homes of friends and strangers, he ended up flat out on the street with empty pockets, a hungry belly and nobody to call for help.
“I was freaking out that first night out here. I had no survival skills, no backup plan, nobody except for street people who robbed me,” he said, misty eyed. “I had never been homeless, never been hungry and all of a sudden there I was on the street, and here I’ve been for the last seven years.”
But, after that first night, and every night thereafter, Bing gets up from his sleeping bag, sometimes near the railroad tracks, sometimes in the woods outside of town, and tries again.
“If you can’t be honest with yourself, then you can’t be honest with anybody else. When you get up in the morning, and brush your teeth or comb your hair, when you look in that mirror, you want to be able to look yourself in the eye, and I have,” he said.
And over these seven years and counting living outside, Bing has made amends with not only his past transgressions, but also himself as a person. If there were a list of sins he committed, each one was erased for every frozen night under a blanket, huddled with Sid and trying to keep warm.
“I would reckon I’ve done enough in this life to burn in hell, but I haven’t destroyed my heart and soul, so hopefully I’ve put up some good karma, but who knows?” he grinned.
These days, he survives on a small Social Security check and random acts of kindness he crosses path with. He showers, readies himself and gets advice at the Meridian Behavioral Health Services in Waynesville. Of what little money he does receive, he tends to quietly hand it to those even less fortunate than him, people who end up on the street with needy children and nagging medical problems.
“We’ve lost a lot of good people out here on streets to drugs and alcohol abuse, to violence,” he said. “Waynesville is really a great town to be in, but it can have its drawbacks for people in my situation.”
When asked if he ever considered moving elsewhere and starting fresh, Bing points out he’ll never relocate as long as his children and ex-wife still reside in the area. Though they aren’t necessarily on speaking terms, it comforts him to know they’re close and he’s nearby if they ever do need him.
“I don’t leave here because I have a purpose here,” he said. “I’m here to listen to people, hear their problems and talk to them when nobody else does. I’m here because I’m on good terms with the police, and it’s always better to know your law enforcement officials than not. I don’t leave here because my family is here.”
Bing finishes his coffee and readies himself to exit City Bakery. Sid is outside, keeping warm on Bing’s carefully placed jacket, eager to continue their daily stroll. There’s a lot of new people and new things still awaiting them on their trek around Waynesville. Before he walks out the door, he recites one of his many poems he writes on whatever paper he can track down, pieces ultimately stuffed into his pockets until someone asks him to read one.
“Striding towards the great finality, amidst the imitations of mortality, some few recognize the banality, of this thing we call reality,” he said. “At homes, in our jobs, in our families too, all mean different things to me and you, friends and lovers now long lost, can help us direct the final cost, but when I’m in my grave, and my ashes are scattered, my soul will still know, that love is all that mattered.”