Closer: A Journey with Charles

CLOSER is a multi-year, transmedia documentary project.

By Jonathan Olshefski

The money we get is not what it used to be because people are uncertain about the state of the economy. People who were stopping and giving us money aren’t stopping and giving us money. I get approximately a third of what I got before this crisis hit. To answer your question about how I feel today: I feel like an atom bomb was dropped on me. It’s hard to keep my head up.

It’s not been a good Summer and Fall for us. The worst I’ve seen since I came to live out in the streets. Coupled by the fact that I can’t stand and walk around hardly. It hurts me too. I can’t go up to people and walk up and down on this. They have to come up and talk to me. Most people understand. I apologize for being rude to them. You should have to stand on your feet if you are asking people for things, but I can’t do it. I just need to say my prayers and hope for the best. That’s basically all I can tell ya.

Charles Levy is a well known in South Philadelphia. He is almost an icon near the Home Depot and Walmart complex. He panhandled at the same intersection for over 10 years. He has been featured on the news when the weather gets bad. I first spoke Charles in 2008. I was riding my bike around the city shooting photos and I ended up near Charles and worked up the nerve to approach him. I admit, I assumed a lot of things about him as he would often be seen lying in piles of garbage. I was surprised by his intelligence and wit and really enjoyed speaking to him. I was in graduate school and began to document his life and relationship to another homeless man for a project using photos, video and 16mm film.

This project is a living documentary. Updates will be forthcoming.

I’m the lowest form of life. I don’t have any money. I’m a pauper. I should be hanged. I should spend my life in the gas chamber until I get money. Money empowers in this society. If you took me into the store, say I don’t know McDonalds and you wanted to buy me something to eat. Moreover, you wanted me to sit there and you were going to wait on me. Is that a cool act? It sure is. And the people in the store will think of you, as well they should, as a gentleman, and a very decent man.

However, how much good does this do me? Well it does for my belly. Now as an obvious homeless man, though I’ve cleaned up somewhat if I go in that store waving this five I undergo, like Caligula did, a metamorphosis. I am still the same lovable young man that we know, but I have undergone a change. Can you guess what it was? I’ve become, not a god, the closest thing to a god. Yay! I’ve become a CUSTOMER! What’s a customer? A man with money in his hand. Money empowers. It allows choices, even for an obvious homeless man like myself. Irregardless of the way I speak. It doesn’t matter.

I’m the lowest form of life. I don’t have any money.

My legs are killing me I have peripheral vascular disease with cellulitis. I have large wounds on both legs. Listen two-thirds of the tissue in these areas are affected. The weather affects them. I have to be clean and constantly bandage, which I can’t do because I live on the street. The bandages, it’s on me to get. We have no kind of coverage unless we are admitted to the hospital. Every agency has lied to us. Nothing has happened. From what I understand it’s not from me living on the streets or doing any drugs or anything of that nature. Apparently it is programmed into your body from before birth that you will have this, that or the other thing.

He was my nemesis, my Satan. He went to being my best friend overnight. God took a hand in it. God sent me an angel to protect me in my weakness and my pain. And that’s what he does, he protects me. When you get a dude who you will give all the money you have and he’ll leave and you know he’ll bring it back. I have a friend I can trust. He has my back. He’s got my back. I don’t have to worry about shit like that. I don’t know what started this but Guy has saved my life a couple times. He has done unpleasant things. When I first discovered that I had these wounds on my legs we were in the back and I couldn’t see and he told me, “Charles, you got maggots in your wounds.” I said, “Maggots?” Let me tell you, I flipped out. I have white, wiggling, garbage can inhabitants in my leg. So, he made me sit down, calmed me down, washed his hands, washed my legs and got a matchbook and used it to get out the maggots.

Guy Thompson: "This one joker rides by every day screaming out of his truck: “Get a job motherfucker! Get a job motherfucker.” It’s all the fuck he knows. Asshole. If I could get a fucking job Id have it. Fucking jerk off. But he won’t stop long enough for me to explain nothing to him. So fuck him. I just let him scream, do what he wants."

I’m the luckiest man in the world. Couldn’t get any luckier than I am.

You know, if I meet 100 people doing what I do, 98 of the 100 people I meet it is to my profit and I don’t mean money. I meet some of the best people in the world. Patriotic, decent people, God-fearing Americans. What could be better? I love my country. I love the people the diversity is wonderful. Look who we elected president: Barack Hussein Obama, a black, young man.

I’m the luckiest man in the world. Couldn’t get any luckier than I am. I live in the greatest country in the world where I’m free to sit and read my Bible. If I want to criticize my country I can criticize it and people thank me. If I want to praise it people understand and they thank me. If people disagree they can, but they won’t kill me for disagreeing with them. That is why this is the greatest country in the world. I don’t know what else to say after that. It took a lot out of me.