Possible Histories of Leroy Paige
By Will McGrath
Leroy Paige sleeps in an ancient RV, a great beige behemoth with siding coming undone and rust creeping from the wheel wells. The vehicle’s name is painted in Old English font, ornate and looping: The Executive. I watched the RV wheeze down the street the day he arrived, watched it slow alongside the shelter—this cavernous former meatpacking warehouse where we serve dinner each night—watched the thing settle into the earth with a sigh, displaying no inclination toward future locomotion.
Leroy Paige has run aground on the far shores of Phoenix, marooned out here in the desert, beached beside the train yard where boxcars rumble toward Albuquerque and then on to the Great Plains. Beyond the RV and beyond the switchyard, South Mountain observes from the middle distance, serene in its deistic remove. Night is coming gradually. Up and down the block people have staked claim, laid out seam-popped sleeping bags and ratty blankets. There are campfires over by the train yard now and the muted sound of someone playing guitar and singing.
Some weeks pass, but Leroy and his RV remain in place.
Amid this patchwork of factories, scrapyards, and sunbaked viaducts—where no upright citizen would venture anyway—the police have decided to let Leroy be, as long as he is under the auspices of the homeless shelter.
It doesn’t seem to matter that The Executive is parked illegally, partially blocking the street and in violation of various municipal bylaws concerning public eyesores. The only people who are driving down here are those looking to cop crack, and thus outside the benevolent attentions of the city of Phoenix.
Leroy Paige is pushing sixty, with a tight afro and a body like an inverted pyramid: thick through the shoulders and chest, narrowing toward the waist, then resolving in graceful dancer’s legs and nimble feet. He seems ready to pitch forward at any moment, due to the combination of top-heavy frame and frequent drunkenness.
Leroy spends much of his day perched against the bottom rung of the stepladder that leads inside The Executive. He chain smokes and calls out to passersby, trolling for someone who will indulge the discursive trajectory of his conversation. When I don’t see him out there, when he is not chatting up the ghosts in the street, I know Leroy is preparing for the dinner hour, pacing inside as he runs through his stump speech one last time.
The evening air is cooling and people have queued for dinner—spaghetti tonight, chili mac tomorrow, goulash the next day—some combination of starch and reddish sauce, whatever is available from the city food bank. Several hundred will pass through the line before the night is done. Now the side door of The Executive knocks open and here comes Leroy, Mayor of Crack Alley, ready to address his constituency. His routine is always the same—same jokes, same patter, same corny zingers—and it is this very sameness that is so deeply comforting, a single moment of consistency to give the day its shape.
He works the crowd as I hand out paper plates and manage influx to the dining room. A woman with two small children is coming through the line. Her two-year-old boy is in a battered collapsible stroller and she carries a nine-month-old in her arms.
“Gonna be a prizefighter!” Leroy says, messing the boy’s blond hair. He winks broadly at the mother, plants a gubernatorial smooch on the baby’s forehead.
Now he sees Reggie coming through the line and the mother and kids are already forgotten.
“Hey, Reggie!” he calls out for everyone to hear, “I saw Julius the other day. You know what Julius said?”
“Naw,” Reggie responds dutifully, grinning slightly, knowing the punch line already. “What Julius say?”
“Said to me, Reggie think he’s so tough, but Reggie ain’t shit. And I said to him, Oh yes he is—”
—A burst of maniacal laughter from Leroy—
“Oh yes he is!”
Reggie shakes his head smiling and shuffles through the gate.
“Leroy,” I ask, scrooging, trying to cover my enjoyment of his nightly performance, “are you going to bark all night or are you planning to eat?”
“You mean wait in line like a chump when I can stroll through at the end of the night? Come on now! I got to welcome these fine chumps—hey!—these fine citizens, I said, to their gourmet dining experience.”
He draws out these last three words with theatrical cadence, does a little jig.
“You hear that, Jonesy? We having steak and lobster tonight!”
Jonesy laughs, but no one laughs louder than Leroy.
One afternoon I walk out into the street and Leroy is smoking against the bottom rung of the stepladder, his usual roost. He stares at me, then his cigarette, flicks the butt into the gravel and calls me over.
“I want to show you something.” He steps out of the doorway and gestures for me to enter. “Welcome to my abode.”
The Executive is narrow and dingy inside, much smaller than I anticipated. Past the cockpit is a small living space, then a kitchenette and a shower like a telephone booth. At the rear, in the boudoir, the bed is unfolded. Janine is drowsing there, one bare leg hanging out from under the sheets. She sits up a bit when she sees me and then returns to her reverie. Janine spends most of her days yelling at the walls in our parking lot, sometimes wanders the streets clapping her hands.
“Don’t mind her,” Leroy says to me.
Suddenly I realize why The Executive feels so cramped. The walls are densely lined with books, row upon row, row behind row, filling specialized handmade shelves that keep the volumes in place while the vehicle is in motion. In a quick visual skim I register The Bhagavad Gita and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War mixed in casually with airport potboilers and tatty romance novels. No particular curatorial efforts seem to have been made, but the sheer breadth of Leroy’s library is impressive.
Toward the end of one of the shelves I come across a cache of sports books, several of which are about Satchel Paige, the oldest player to pitch in the Major Leagues.
I pick up a copy of Paige’s autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, trying to make small talk, trying not to look back in the direction of Janine or her languid bare leg.
“You got a thing for Satchel Paige?”
“Yeah I got a thing for Satchel Paige—that’s my daddy.” Leroy taps the cover. “Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige.”
I stare down at the book, my skepticism apparently less hidden than intended.
“You think I’m lying?” Leroy grabs the book out of my hands and flips to a small headshot of Paige, holds it up beside his own face. “See?”
I’m trying to do the math in my head. Paige was born in, what? Early nineteen hundreds? Would’ve had kids at twenty? Twenty-five? Fifteen? Forty? And if Leroy is maybe sixty, then—
“Go on, test me. He played in the Negro Leagues from 1926 to 1947. He played for Cleveland and St. Louis and Kansas City. He was pitching for the Athletics when he was sixty goddamn years old!”
I’m trying to read his face. Leroy is a smart guy, can probably recite verbatim from any book on these shelves.
“You think I’m making this up?”
I don’t know why I say it. Later I will realize that my question doesn’t come close to making sense. But it is out of my mouth and it is already much too late.
“If Satchel Paige was your father, then what are you doing out here?”
Leroy stares at me for a moment, a look on his face that is impossible to read.
Then he sighs.
“Man, why don’t you just go.”
Leroy doesn’t talk to me anymore. I have irreparably trampled on matters of good faith and hospitality.
I apologize but he won’t listen. He still does his nightly routine, but when I’m out at the gate he acts like I’m not there. I try joking, I try groveling, nothing works.
And then one morning The Executive is gone. Overnight it has disappeared, this monolith, this fixed element of the landscape, which Leroy swore to us could never run again.
Leroy reminds me of Trey in some ways.
Trey—a hefty white guy with a wide sunburned face—appears at the shelter one day and tells me he is the son of Olivia Newton John. He tells me he is out here on the streets because he wants to be free, because he can’t live within the material constraints his mother has chosen for herself. But, Trey assures me, there has been a reconciliation. He has contacted his mother’s assistant and he is going home. The assistant has booked a flight to Australia so he can rendezvous with Ms. Newton John on her current tour.
Several days later Trey is gone, never to be seen again. His departure is marked by the same silence that announced his arrival.
And maybe he really is the estranged son of Olivia Newton John. And maybe Leroy really is the long-lost scion of Satchel Paige. Or maybe these are men forging their own histories, willing more glamorous lives into existence.
Fact loses its solidity out here, becomes slippery. Truth is often aspirational. Some days it seems that the only reality is in action and deed, movement and motion.
Marcello’s case is trickier still. People out here call him “The Professor”—he knows five languages, he wears glasses—but his real name is Marcello. He is Italian, something I discovered when he read aloud what was printed on my shirt, a crude expression written in Sicilian dialect.
“Go fuck yourself?” he says to me as I hand him a plate.
“Yeah, sorry,” I say, looking down at the joke souvenir shirt. “I don’t run across many Italian speakers out here in the desert.”
Marcello is Italian by birth, with a light norditaliano complexion, but he considers himself Spanish, having spent most of his life on the Iberian Peninsula. Ten years ago he left Europe for America, wound up in Atlanta, has now been in Phoenix for a few months. I am trying to keep the details straight but Marcello is talking quickly, his explanations veering off in odd directions. He is out here to get his commercial driver’s license, he says, but when I ask why he can’t get a CDL in Atlanta, he instead takes a picture out of his wallet.
It is a glamour shot of a young woman, soft focus against light blue matte backdrop. His girlfriend, he tells me, handing over the smudged image. And then another photograph: a small sturdy house hidden back in leafy shadow. His house in Atlanta, he says. He keeps the pictures close so he can remember what is waiting for him outside this desert.
I want to believe him. I want to know that he is a world traveler, a cosmopolitan expat with a nice house and a girlfriend. I just can’t figure out why he eats and showers at a homeless shelter in Phoenix, Arizona.
Each time Marcello comes through the line he looks a bit more defeated. He has clearly been using. I ask him when he’s heading back to Atlanta and every time it’s soon. But everyone says this—Soon I’ll see my family, soon I’ll kick the rock—everything is soon and nothing ever happens.
Then one day I ask him and he says three days. Then two days. Then tomorrow. In the days approaching Marcello’s alleged departure, I want to believe so badly—but I’ve seen this show before, seen the same faces resurface over and again.
On his last day he walks around the building shaking everyone’s hand. He is giddy, at least as giddy as a homeless Italo-Iberian junkie can get, thanking us all for helping him through a difficult time. When he comes to me, he presses a 200 lire coin into my hand, worth about fourteen cents before Italy went to the euro. It’s his good luck charm, he tells me, his talisman.
And that’s it—Marcello is gone—on the 2:00 AM Greyhound out of Phoenix and gone.
Two weeks later a postcard arrives. There is a picture of a museum on the front, the back clearly postmarked Atlanta, Georgia. This is what it says:
My friends, you can never know how much you gave me. I will always remember you with gratitude. The picture on the front is the Museum of Contemporary Art in Atlanta. I live nearby and spend many hours inside. Please think of me there, in the presence of so much beauty. ~Marcello.
I’m staring at the postcard, rubbing it between my fingertips. Even with something this concrete before me I’m still prodding at its veracity. Everyone out here always has proof—pictures and books and hand-written documents—hard evidence. But even Cool Hand Luke knew how to fake a postcard, knew how to give hope when there was cause for none.
This is something that happened later:
I am out in the shelter’s parking lot talking with Andrew, an old man whose notorious wooden cane has accidentally cracked my shins a number of times, always in the wake of some denied special request.
“My eyesight,” he says to me smiling. “Don’t even know where this damn cane goes sometimes.”
We are passing the time as Andrew waits in line for the afternoon showers. He is sixteenth on the list today and likely won’t make it into a shower. Suddenly it occurs to me to ask.
“Andrew, you remember Leroy Paige?”
“Leroy? That fool with the big-ass van?”
“Did he ever tell you anything about Satchel Paige? Like he was Satchel Paige’s son?”
“Leroy told me lots of things. Leroy told me he was cousins with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.”
I mull over this information as we bake in the shade, the sheer mass of the midday heat pressing down against our chests, flattening and compressing.
“I miss that guy, though,” I say after a while. “He was a good guy.”
“Good guy? Leroy was the biggest crook out here. Steal your shoes off your feet if you weren’t looking. And maybe if you were.”
Andrew stops, looks at me for a second, shakes his head.
“Some folks gonna believe everything they hear.”