Willie Davis was as predictable as the sunrise. Each day, he leaned on his crutches at the corner of South Roxboro Road and Morehead Avenue in Durham cheerfully greeting the thousands of people who drove by. Several of the motorists gave him money, and in return he gave them the comfort of consistencyand a human touch during an otherwise isolating commute.
Willie seemed unfazed that he had one leg. He reportedly was born with a withered limb that was later amputated, yet his disability didn’t hamper him from ambling around downtown. But it did mean that he couldn’t flee his attackers two weeks ago when, about an hour after sunset, Durham police found him lying partly in the intersection of West Piedmont Avenue and Scout Drive, four-tenths of a mile from his corner. He had been fatally stabbed in the chest, apparently after an argument.
With a gun, you can shoot someone from a distance; it is a remote act of violence. But whoever stabbed Willie most likely touched him. It was personal.
Several of us at the Indy felt personally connected to Willie, as our office is a few blocks up the street from his corner. One morning, Maria was riding her bike northward up the gentle yet strenuous slope of Roxboro Road. Willie was coming down the street on his crutches. “You’ll make it,” he told her.
Grace’s route to work took her past him nearly every day. Sometimes she’d give him money, sometimes not: “He wasn’t aggressive about money. He was more interested in greeting people.”
“It was the only time I’ve ever driven when I wanted to get stopped by the red light,” she said, as we sat on the office floor and talked about him. “There were four straight times that I got the green light. And we’d look at each other and say ‘Oh well.’”
When Leslie got a new car, Willie seemed as pleased as she was. “Lady, you’re driving that new car like it’s a Cadillac!” he told her. When she had a wreck a block away, he shared in her disappointment. “That was you? Damn!”
With so much of his time spent in the company of cars, it’s to be expected that he would have the opportunity to help a motorist. One day, a car had stalled at the red light, and huddled underneath the hood were the woman driver, Willie and a police officer, trying to fix the problem.
Willie’s nickname was Hood Hop, although we’re not sure how he earned it. Homelessthe police report listed him as having no known addresshe centered his life on that concrete slab near the N.C. 147 overpass: a cacophony of blaring horns, rattling mufflers and booming stereos, clashing in an invisible cloud of exhaust. Yet he did have a home for a time, a year or so ago, when his number finally came up to receive subsidized housing. “Two more weeks until I get my place,” he told Grace.
“There had been a delay,” she said, “so it was a big countdown.”
For unknown reasons, Willie stopped living in his apartment and took to staying somewhere near St. Theresa’s, one of Durham’s roughest neighborhoods. His was the seventh reported murder in the city this year. There are no suspects. And if anyone saw Willie bleed to death in the street that night, nobody’s talking.
Ten days after his murder, Willie’s corner was decorated with flowers and mementos: A penny. A candle. A sole black, white and red leather tennis shoe, Converse, men’s size 11. Inside, a folded note from a man named Malcolm: “I would like to help with a fundraiser for Hood Hop.” Between the pink and purple petals of a large wreath, someone had tucked a brochure, “How to get to heaven from Raleigh, North Carolina.”
Willie was unafraid of death. That’s what his friend of three years, Martin, who briefly manned the corner after the murder, told Derek, an Indy photographer. Willie and Martin were drinking buddies, and they had talked about death a couple of weeks before Willie was killed. “He’d made his peace with God,” Martin told Derek.
The side of Willie we saw each morning was a different Willie than the one who had to navigate the treacherous terrain of the streets. One of Willie’s rules of living, Martin said, was “not to take any shit from anybody.”
If Willie got shook down that night on Piedmont Street, Martin said, it is unlikely he would have given up his money, no matter how small the amount.
I confess that I failed Willie. One brutally cold morning, I saw him stopped at the corner near our office. From the driver’s seat, I could see his breath. I thought to myself that I should bring him a cup of fresh-brewed coffee from the kitchen. I went upstairs. And then the phone rang. And I had to check my e-mail. And then I got caught up in my day. I never gave him that cup of coffee. And I missed my chance for a human touch.