From Levi, inspiration and reminders of a blessed life

Published 9:09 am Saturday, December 24, 2011

by Archie Howell

He is something of a fixture around Franklin. I see him occasionally when I’m in town with my father on one errand or another. I don’t remember when I first saw him; I do remember the last. Most people that I know, know him. He is not easy to forget.

I see him moving down streets and alleyways. I see him talking with other people. I see him working at various tasks at different places around town. I see him at the livery stables and mule auction barn, about two blocks off Main Street. I see him at the cold storage place where we sometimes do business.

I see him in summer sunshine and winter cold. I see him up on High Street, and wonder how he got there.

I don’t know how old he is; it’s very difficult to tell from a distance, and no one has shared that information with me. He appears old beyond his years, regardless of how many years that is. His name is Levi, without prefix or family name.

His body is contorted, his neck and back bent. His legs are badly deformed; his eyes look in slightly different directions. About the only parts of his body that are not crooked, bent, or misshaped, are his arms. They reach to either side of a low cart-like board, rather like a mechanic’s creeper, and he propels himself along using his hands balled into a loose fist, wrapped with rags or leather. As he moves along the streets and byways of Franklin, the sound the cart is the sound of roller skates. His feet will never know the freedom of skates. His movement is a determined scuttle.

Occasionally, my father will approach Levi and something will pass between them. I’m sure other similar acts of kindness occur; I like to think so anyway.

Many times when I see Levi, he’s involved in work of some description. He seems to be in demand for picking feathers off chickens. That is his job at the cold storage place. That is his job the last time I see him.

I know it is winter; we have come to town to buy apples from the back of a large, stake-bodied truck. The truck shows up every winter, usually just before Christmas, with the latest apple crop for sale. The truck is usually parked in an unpaved parking area behind Leggett’s Department Store. Transactions are friendly, with aside conversations about “Where’re you from?” and “How long you been here?” and other assorted niceties. ‘Tis the season to be nice.

The truck has a little door in the back, at the bottom, that can be opened for access to the cargo. Usually the truck does a good business and is in town for a few days before it goes to the next town or returns to the mountains for a refill. It’s an annual market thing; we usually buy some apples. Apples are also grown by Mr. White out on Sedley Road, and we buy some from him periodically, but the truck from out of town seems to be something of a tradition.

Today we have parked off Main Street, at the curb on a side street, across from Monahan’s Cleaners.

Levi is in an alley, outside the side door of a business, on a side street in downtown. He is perched on his cart, next to the steps, pulling wet feathers from yet another chicken. He doesn’t look up from his work. Steam rises in the alley beyond him, and a wall of another building closes off the narrow alley further back. I try not to stare. I’m taught that staring is discourteous. I’m sure that Levi has a life full of stares from strangers.

Sometimes my burdens seem endless or inconsequential; sometimes my lot in life seems to be less than acceptable, although I know neither is true. It’s strange how a sense of melancholy can creep up on me from nowhere.

Perhaps it has something to do with my being able to walk, when Levi could not. Perhaps it’s the acknowledgement that the color of my skin has given me opportunities that Levi, even if he were whole and healthy, would not have because of the color of his.

A strong work ethic has stood me in good stead in my life; I can’t imagine the courage of Levi to face each day in his. There was and is much to learn from Levi.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at