A Country Song from Nashville
NASHVILLE, Tenn.--And yet at times I know indeed, I’ve wanted to give up. But through those struggles I have found, you always lift me up.
The song slipped slowly off the lips of John El, a frail looking man sitting on a couch made from the backseat of a car. As he sang, he seemed to drift to someplace else, looking past the tarp above him and the dirt floor beneath him, seeing something more.
“I wrote a song and Elvis sent his limousine to pick me up,” El had told me a few minutes earlier.
In Nashville’s Tent City, nothing is quite as simple as it first appears and John El is no exception. Ramshackle homes are built using billboards that advertise grand opportunities. And El, who at 5-foot-10 has withered down to 120 pounds, describes a past seeped in grandeur.
He’ll tell you he once had the home phone numbers of Neil Diamond and Cher and that he studied music under a man who helped shape the careers of Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne and Gene Kelly.
“I knew Kenny when he started on a three string guitar,” El said of Kenny Rogers. “I knew Mike Curb when he was 18 years old,” he added of the record company executive.
Whether you believe El or not is up to you. But as I sat on the makeshift couch beside him, listening to him croon, I found myself wanting to believe him.
“I grew up writing under Ben Weisman Productions for Elvis Presley and a few other big named people,” the 62-year-old said. “I have been with the elite and right now I guess you could kind of say more or less that I’m at the bottom of the barrel. But I don’t plan on staying here.”
El has lived in Tent City for about two years, and his life, as he tells it, reads like its own sad country song. He lost all his money – a fortune of “$320 million,” he said– in a bad divorce to a woman he was married to for 34 years. He came to Nashville to try to make it as a country music songwriter but got robbed as soon as he got off the bus, he said. He had asked a couple to watch his belongings while he went to the restroom and they made off with his three designer suits, a watch worth $30,000 and a pair of Lou Casey boots, he said. He tried staying at a homeless shelter but said he left for Tent City after he was robbed there, too.
Now, along with a friend, he has carved out a space in the wilderness beneath the I-40 overpass. It’s a surreal scene where the sound of traffic serves as an alarm clock and a chicken can be found drinking beer from a cup. It’s a place where the line between wild and civilized is blurred. It's a plant growing out of a boot.
“It’s Gilligan’s Island,” Ed Dale said.
The unemployed welder's tent was one of the first built here and is complete with amenities found in any suburban home – shelves lined with collectibles, his daughter’s picture in a frame labeled “Baby” and an electric stove, microwave and television, all powered by a car battery. “I'm just trying to make the best of a bad situation," he said.
His wallpaper consists of the movie screen sized heads of Kenny Rogers and Ron White. They were on the billboard he used to make the tent and the translucent vinyl makes them visible from both inside and out.
The billboards come from an overpass sign and are dropped by crews when they change the ads. (The one this week beckons people to drive to Nashville’s closest casino, where machines have a 97.4 percent payout rate). But mostly, it’s only the older residents who use the billboards for shelter. The newer residents, those hit hard more recently, set up backyard style tents. They are less elaborate, less permanent, leaving the option to leave at any time.
“Last year at this time, we probably had 30 people down here. Now, there’s about 60,” Denis Huey, an outreach worker said. “It’s getting bigger, daily.”
When Michael and I met him, he was sitting on a chair outside the tent of a couple nicknamed “Papa Smurf” and “Mother Teresa.” Their camp has one of the most elaborate set ups, complete with a living room, kitchen, master bedroom and guest room.
“Everyone says I’m homeless. I say it like this, ‘No, I’m houseless. I’m in God’s home,'” Papa Smurf, whose real name is Richard Cole, said. “I like dirt under my feet. I’m a hillbilly, I can’t help it.”
“See where she’s going?” he said, noticing Mother Teresa, whose real name is Teresa Iris, walking away from the camp. “She’s going swimming again. You know why? Because she can.”
The two survive mostly on the generosity of local outreach workers and from the crosses Cole makes from driftwood gathered from the nearby Cumberland river. The religious symbols hang across the camp. Big ones. Small ones. Ones embedded with glass and others smoothed with meticulous care. They dangled in the background when a prayer service was held around the campfire the other night.
“You’re not supposed to come to Him perfect,” Iris said at one point to the group.
She was born at Walter Reed hospital and grew up in Maryland. She ended up homeless in part because she has mental problems, she said. “My mother calls it wanderlust. The doctor calls it bipolar,” she said. “I just know I have a hard time staying in one place,”
When I last saw El, he handed me a business card. It was printed on thin computer paper. “First Choice Music,” it said at the top, followed by “John El, President and CEO.”
He also gave me the lyrics to three songs he had written and a letter addressed from Pat Boone Enterprises verifying he’s an “artist and songwriter of sincere interest and earnest quality.” (I considered, but did not confirm its validity, mostly because I didn’t want to know. Does it matter?)
“I’m hoping the way everything’s going, I’ll make the next CMA awards,” El said of the Country Music Awards. “I guestimate I’ve got a hundred songs already written.”
Through tears I’ve shed and faith in you. You led me on and on. To that straight and narrow path which will soon lead me home.
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