It took nearly four hours of combing King and Market streets to find Byron, even after giving random bums dollar bills to go look for him. He finally turned up on his own near O’Malley’s, and when he heard he’d won the category again, he went ahead and shouted the news for a while to inform whoever was in the vicinity.
After King Riley, Byron might be Charleston’s most well-known figure. Like the mayor, not everybody loves him, but they’re so used to him being around that he’s usually greeted with a smile. Byron’s retained his Best Street Character crown for most of the past decade, so we figured that earned him a meal on us.
It turns out Byron’s a pretty smart guy, and not your typical bum. The man’s even got a cellphone, but someone cut his charger cord when he left it plugged in at Marion Square. The search for Byron concluded with a working dinner at Peking Gourmet on King Street (his choice), to get the lowdown on his past, how to treat a lady, and life on the street.
City Paper: So how long have you been in Charleston?
Byron: I’ve been here for awhile. A little minute. I grew up in Arkansas.
CP: What brought you here?
B: The United States Navy, believe it or not.
CP: No shit. Have you had any other jobs here since then?
B: I’ve had all kinds of jobs. Legal ones, illegal ones, all kinds of shit. But I’m an urban outdooorsman. That’s what I am. I survive. I’m a nuclear reactive cockroach.
(A friend of Byron’s enters the restaurant and he politely excuses himself to discuss something outside, returning after about five minutes.)
CP: How often do the cops give you trouble?
B: Man, last night I’d been sitting for 15, 20 minutes, dazing pretty hard right? I do my shit in my own way, whatever, so be it, but I’m really not a bad person, and this cop, instead of saying, “Are you okay? You all right?” he says “I’ll shoot your ass.” I flipped the fuck out. It pissed me off instantaneously. Number one, you never threaten nobody who lives on the street. They will fuck your ass up. They ain’t got shit to lose. I ain’t got shit to lose. That upset me so much I actually started crying. That’s how pissed off I was.
CP: You seem like a pretty reasonable guy.
B: Well, not many people actually know me. A lot of people just heard of me, seen me, or socialize with me. It’s amazing how many people think they know me. I’m a pretty nice guy. I like to be happy and to see people happy. I like to make people smile. And you might get laid if you smile in Charleston. I’ve seen weirder shit happen. The drunker smile you got, the best chance you have of getting laid.
CP: So what advice would you give to someone looking for love?
B: It’ll try to find you first. Beat you upside the head, knock your ass out, then you come to and realize that shit fucked you up bad for no reason. Just be nice, be considerate, quit trying to be a badass, and don’t let your alcohol talk for you, or drugs talk for you. Whatever you’re on or under the influence of, don’t let it control your mouth, or it’ll fuck you up. I read somewhere that men desire women, and women desire to be desired. At first I thought that was a crock of shit, and then I thought about it and thought, “That makes pretty damn good sense.” Women, in my opinion, are like God’s artwork presented to man. They should be appreciated. They shouldn’t be beat up on, abused, or cursed and all that shit. That’s bullshit.
CP: I agree. Sounds like good advice.
B: I grew up in a house with nine women, and I’ve seen all the bullshit a woman goes through dealing with a man who ain’t worth a fuck anyways. It gave me the insight into what a man should and shouldn’t do, and to respect the shit that a woman goes through. I’ve seen all kinds of bullshit. One time I even had to address one guy, actually, beat his ass. We had a physical disagreement because I did not appreciate how he was carrying himself with the young lady who he called his companion. Unless she’s a motherfucker, a real woman does not ask that much, and I do not see why it’s so hard for people to be compatible.
(Another friend enters the restaurant. Byron tells him he won Best Of again.)
Friend: Byron, you the man!
B: I ain’t the man, I just know the motherfucker. Next question.
CP: Ever been married?
CP: Do you have a girlfriend?
B: Nope. No comment. Don’t even ask me that question.
CP: There have been some nasty rumors about you in the past, stuff that wouldn’t indicate respect for women.
B: Well, that’s one thing about Charleston. Rumors tend to carry a lot of weight. Somebody could start a rumor saying “I saw Greenberg and Riley inside of Dudleys, making out together.” Total bullshit, but tomorrow it’ll be true. Everybody will start believing because one dumbass started a rumor, and it comes true. You know the rumors I’ve heard? I’ve been shot, I’ve shot at people, I’ve killed a person, I’ve been killed, I’m dead, I’ve even got a goddamn house on the Battery. Where is that motherfucker? Tell me, I want to know. Rumors. “Byron, you okay? I heard you got shot?” Well goddamn, I must be bulletproof now. Rumors carry a lot of weight in Charleston.
CP: You’ve been to jail. Can you say what for?
B: Paraphernalia, trespassing, drugs. Whatever, it don’t matter. It’s not a big deal, so what? I stay for awhile, rest, eat. I’m on vacation when I go to jail. It gives me time to look at things. Gives me a break from street life. Put a positive twist on a negative aspect.
CP: What’s the longest you’ve been in?
B: Seven months. That’s the year Jerry won (Best Of).
CP: What did you do for New Year’s Eve?
B: I don’t remember.
CP: But you don’t drink?
B: No, I don’t. I didn’t say what I did do though.
CP: Why don’t you drink?
B: It’s the same when people look at me and say “Damn, I’ll never do drugs. Look at him.” I seen some stupid shit happen when people be drunk.
CP: Do you think you’ll stay in Charleston forever?
B: This is just Byron until Byron gets his shit together.
CP: If you could get any job, what would you do?
B: I’d be a drug counselor. A lot of people don’t realize that the majority of drug habits start at a young age, from fifth grade up. I think it’d be a better battle against the war on drugs, ugh, better battle in the war on drugs if you caught them while they were younger. You stand a better chance of winning them to the better side.
CP: Do you wish you didn’t do drugs?
B: If I didn’t do drugs you wouldn’t be talking to me right now. But of course, for selfish and personal reasons, sure. But I have met a lot of damn good people in this sorry ass life that I have. Because of that I don’t regret doing one thing that I’ve ever done. True story. That’s like the ‘hood way of saying, “That’s the honest-to-god truth.” When you print that, write “true story.” No bullshit on bullshit’s side.
CP: What do you eat in a typical day? Not Chinese every day?
B: You know, I think I’m the only person that keeps Little Debbie in business. I’m a Little Debbie eating motherfucker. Debbie Cake, Coburg, and Butterfingers. I know I got stock in Coburg chocolate milk. I love that shit, dog. That shit’s fucking good.
CP: You don’t seem to spend much time begging.
B: Life’s only as hard as you make it. A lot of people need to step back and look at shit without trying to make shit so damn difficult, and they’ll finally realize that life’s really not all that hard. God did not give us life to make it difficult. God made life easy. We make shit hard. That’s true.
(Another friend enters the restaurant. Byron gets up, waddles around, upsets the owner by yelling “Git ‘er done Bo!,” does a funny dance, then returns.)
CP: Byron, you’re obviously a smart guy.
B: I’m an idiot.
CP: It seems like an act.
B: I’m an idiot.
CP: Well you sit here with me and talk normally, then you get up and act like one.
B: That’s my evil twin.
CP: Well I had a hell of a time trying to find the two of you today.
B: If you don’t see me, just be still and I’ll walk right by you. Don’t ever look for me. Be still and I’ll end up walking right by you. I’ll see you on King Street. (pause) Did you get the King Street part?
CP: Got it. You want a fortune cookie?
B: I don’t do fortune cookies. Anytime you have an interaction with anything in this world, subconsciously it has a bearing on your mind. That’s because you unconsciously make or do things certain ways. By reading those damn fortune cookies, it’ll make you think about it and change the way you would naturally act. Believe it or not. It’s called subliminal thinking. Subliminal mind control. Anything you do or react to will subconsciously go in your mind and overrule your actions you would have naturally made.
CP: Right on. Well, I’ll see you at the Best Of party.
B: How many guests can I bring?