Remembering Larry Major
I met William Larry Major on my first day of work at Urban Ministry Center. It was May 2010, and Dale suggested we take a walk downstairs to see the soup kitchen gearing up to serve lunch. We had barely entered the lunchroom when Larry came barreling towards us, all long limbs and drunken giggles. Dale said, “Meet Larry. He’s been homeless for years, and he’s probably going to come live at Moore Place.” I was soon enveloped in a big and messy bear hug, accompanied by the flashing of Larry’s trademark peace sign. For the next 18 months, Larry stood as a symbol for me about why establishing Moore Place was so urgent for our community. He - like so many others – was believed to be “unhouse-able,” and the prevailing wisdom was that he was simply choosing to be homeless. I would often see him on the streets in my East Charlotte neighborhood and think “Hang on, Larry…it’s coming.” And by “it,” I meant a chance at a different kind of life.
Larry was scheduled to move in to Moore Place on February 14. One of our social workers had spent countless hours getting Larry to the point of move-in, including a long and somewhat comical day at the DMV obtaining a needed ID card. Throughout the process, Larry had seemed enthusiastic, if not incredulous, about the idea of moving to Moore Place. But when the scheduled time to sign his lease arrived, he was nowhere to be found. The social workers got in the car and searched all of his usual haunts to no avail. We were disappointed but not entirely surprised. It fit with the stereotype that Larry really didn’t want housing. Then 90 minutes later, I heard “Larry’s here!” He apologized for being late and asked if he could still move in. He had just left detox. Keep in mind - at no point had we ever told Larry that he needed to go to detox in order to move in. But he had decided on his own that he wanted to be clear-headed for this big day. Sober and proud, Larry sat down to sign his lease. He was an indelible part of Moore Place for the next eight months.
The thing that constantly surprised me about Larry was that he stayed. In my experience working with individuals who have experienced long-term homelessness, housing – as much as it is desired – can often feel overwhelming, to the point that sometimes the first or even second housing attempt is unsuccessful. Continued outreach, support, and encouragement are often needed to help individuals bridge the chasm between life on the streets and life inside. I was certain this would be the case with Larry. I was completely wrong. His key and his building ID card were like gold. “I’ve got my key, I’ve got my card, I’ve got my apartment” was his popular refrain. Just a few weeks before his death, we had to issue him a new ID card. The original had cracked from being clutched so hard and so long in his hands for eight months.
Every day at Moore Place for Larry was not easy. Although he stayed in housing, he struggled sometimes with being in his apartment, and it took him months before he was finally sleeping in his bed. He got lonely at night, and it was not infrequent that I would come in the next day to hear “Your voicemail is full” as Larry had left me multiple messages throughout the night when it was too quiet and he wanted to talk. He possessed great insight into himself and in his clearer moments, he would freely admit that he needed and craved attention. Larry had become such a celebrity of sorts on the streets of Charlotte. At Moore Place, he struggled to retain that “famed” identity while living in community with 84 other men and women. Yet Larry had a way of getting his needs met. He was a fixture in our outdoor pavilion, serving as the unofficial greeter for visitors and passersby. I once even lost a tour group to Larry’s charms. I had excused myself for just a moment to tend to a building issue, and when I returned, my visitors had disappeared. Someone said “I think I just saw them going down the hall with Larry.” Sure enough, I found the group in apartment 104, being regaled by Larry and getting the grand tour of his home.
Larry loved Moore Place, but alcohol was still his mistress. He had great insight into this as well. “It’s not me, it’s the alcohol,” he would plead on the days when hard conversations needed to happen. And there were certainly a lot of those days. The thing was, it really was the alcohol. Liquor turned this man who would describe himself as “free-hearted,” who would ask nearly every day after my mother’s health, who would tell young people to stay in school and stay away from booze, who would grasp hands and pray with any visitor that was willing – well, it turned him into a person that you simply did not want to be around. That was the great struggle of Larry. He had a visceral need to be with other people. He also had an addiction to alcohol. It was hard to have them both.
With Larry’s passing, I have had a great deal of time to reflect upon the mental promise I had made to Larry in passing all those times before Moore Place opened. Did he really get to have a chance at a different kind of life? I’ve been re-listening to some of those late-night voicemail messages, and I think the answer is a resounding yes. Larry said:
“I’m proud of myself, and I’m enjoying every minute of my apartment. I’m keeping plenty of groceries in here, I’m eating good, and I’ve slacked down on a lot of my drinking. And I’m doing very well now. I’m bettering myself a little more. It’s gonna take a little more time, but I’m working with it. It’s hard to deal with, but I’ve come this far. I can go a lot further and I’m going try to maintain doing a little better than what I been doing. Well a lot better. And I appreciate everyone here working with me because it makes me feel like a person again. And I do feel like a person now.”
In the days after Larry’s death, I received an email that was ironically poignant. The writer said “I will never forget Larry’s extreme gifts of hospitality when I was at Moore Place.” Imagine that - Charlotte’s most famous formerly homeless person was now known by his hospitality.
Larry was at home. He will forever be missed.
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