A few days ago I was walking along East Oltorf Street here in South Austin when I noticed a shopping cart filled with clothes and plastic bottles shoved behind a Valero gas station. Out of curiosity I decided to walk over to it and see who owned it. An elderly black man popped out from behind it and squinted at me, not sure of my attentions. I smiled at him and he smiled back, and I let him know that I didn’t mean any harm.
He said his name was Robinson Fenton Robinson, from New Orleans, Louisiana. Hurricane Katrina had blown him out of town, and after a brief stop in Houston he’d been dropped off in Austin, where he sheltered until the funding ran out. Now, he was struggling to survive out on the streets. I mentioned that back in the day I’d played a lot of gigs in New Orleans, Tipitina’s, Mid-City and a few other joints. Once I’d told him that, he began beaming. Mention music to a New Orleans native and you’ll have their attention, and they’re most likely to continue the conversation, even if they’re currently undergoing major surgery while they’re talking to you.
I told Robinson Fenton Robinson that I’d like to photograph him and upload the images on to the internet, so people could see what his life was like. He agreed to pose, and I shot a few quick images. I didn’t want him to feel more self-conscious than he already seemed to feel. He looked hungry, so I slipped him a five dollar bill, both because he needed it, and because anyone with a name as beautiful as Robinson Fenton Robinson’s deserved to have five dollars.
He kept telling me that “Austin is a nice place,” a mantra that he seemed to have polished to perfection, wanting, I’m sure, to gather as much goodwill from the local citizens as possible. But I knew from personal observation that life on the street in Austin wasn’t much different than in a lot of other towns with supposedly good reputations for looking after the homeless.
Robinson Fenton Robinson squinted at me again, sighed, and told me that late at night he usually managed to slip behind the large Baptist church just a few blocks away from where we were standing. A few evenings ago a couple of cops, one white and the other black had found him there and jacked him up. After they’d finished frightening him half to death, the black cop looked at Robinson Fenton Robinson and said, “If I catch you here in my area again, I’ll make you wish you’d never been born.”