Journalism

Lost in America Pts 3 & 4: Outtakes from the Bel-Aire

“Henry James Branlett, Jr.” Says it slowly, loudly, holding out his ID.

Branlett’s one of the only black people at the Bel-Aire. He lives on the far end, away from everyone. That’s where everyone wants him. He’s a troublemaker.

50 years old, alone. No job, no social life. A bible. He keeps his room busy but tidy.

Branlett is fucking furious. He got hit by a truck in Chicago in 1968, when he was 5. He’s been on disability ever since. Never had an opportunity.

Alone always. Always alone.

No shirt, black Brooklyn hat, black bandana, black sunglasses, black pants, black socks. Covered in rolling beads of sweat, towellette on neck. Hot.

His landlord: “She don’t give a fuck about me.”

The white whore below: “I used to sell drugs on Spruce St. Cops were always watching me. How the fuck does she get to do that here?”

The city: “The city, they gonna do whatever they want.”

People stay away from Branlett. He’s had enough with the owners. With everyone.

“Those are called slumlords. Those are people that don’t give a fuck about anything except money.”

“Just call me the Voice on the Side,” he says, venting.

* * *

A man with carved out wrinkles sits folded over a plastic chair outside his motel room. A miniature grill cooks three patties before him.

“You want some dinner?”

He doesn’t have a refrigerator, so when he treats himself to meat he ends up having to give most of it away. He’s fine with it. Meatloaf cheeseburgers.

“Come on inside. I got the room cleaned up finally.” Mr. Smith (that is his real last name) lives with his girlfriend, who is blotto every time I see her. When they’re separated, his room is clean.

Tropical punch Kool-Aid.

Smith will be out of the Bel-Aire Motel by Thanksgiving. He hopes. He’s recovering from alcoholism and a previous breakup. Starting from ground zero. That’s what the Bel-Aire is for.

“Just being here and starting my job at the beginning of July, I had to buy clothes, feed myself.”

Now he’s an auto mechanic downtown, five days a week, and he’s grateful. Someday he’ll have a car of his own. The Bel-Aire is the only place close enough to get there by 7:30 without one.

Things are very slowly moving back into place. But still precarious. A few days ago he spoke to his 19-y/o daughter for the first time in a long time. “I’m still riding high from that.”

Rent at a motel is day to day.

Redemption is hour by hour.

Recovery is minute by minute.

* * *

For Mr. Smith and many residents, the Bel-Aire Motel is the last line of defense before shelters and the streets. The city wants to shut it down. Smith is an outtake from the upcoming feature “The Slumlords We Love.” Published soon.

“I’ve been living in Springfield since ’89,” Smith says. “There’s two things I’ve heard since then. The governor’s going to live in the mansion, and they’re gonna shut down the Bel-Aire.”

We’ll see.

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