Photo by Kamala Lee.
Between eventide mid-September showers and amongst sudden outbreaks of heavy metal or the mechanical grinding of an espresso (depending on which store-front door is fleetingly opened and shut), a man clad in tie-dye bearing a generous beard of grey perches aside an entire watermelon on a brick wall as customers, regulars, students, beggars, visitors, the disgruntled and the jubilant amble by on sidewalks or damp tarmac. The scene is nothing shy of normative for Tate Street once the sun goes down, a series of shop-laden blocks nestled abreast the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s campus and the cusp of a bustling downtown, rife with abundant happenstance meandering step by step alongside boisterous familiarity. Some habit the strip starved for live jazz and a venue for book study, some are there ravenous for draft beers and loud camaraderie, but some are there just hungry for a simple meal. The sitting man clad in tie-dye is James Knight and tonight his watermelon is for this latter group of Tate Street tenants.
Knight is forthcoming when I introduce myself and question his evening’s purpose. “Anytime I know there is going to be some leftover food that is sanitary, fresh and safe for consumption I try to bring it to as many people as I can,” he says, “and I encourage others to do the same.” Numerous individuals experiencing homelessness frequent Tate Street in the evening and night hours, and Knight knows firsthand how far a meal or even just some fresh fruit can go for someone in such a situation.
“I’ve been without a home before,” he reveals, “but now that I have a home I’ve tried to turn that around to benefit others. I let those who are homeless or hungry know that they can get more than just medical care [free of charge]. If they need it, they can get a meal as well. They don’t have to worry about that.” Knight had given his friend and fellow meal sharer Buddy the watermelon earlier to bestow elsewhere, but since Tate Street was particularly populated that evening Buddy decided to return and distribute the melon across from New York Pizza with Knight. Buddy had briefly departed to fetch a knife to slice the watermelon into serving-sized portions.
Knight usually spends time on Tate Street to assist with what are affectionately referred to as Fruit Sundays. “For a couple of hours everyone gets to enjoy fruit, from watermelon to kiwi fruit, cantaloupes, grapes, strawberries, you name it,” he catalogs, “And when I say everyone, I mean people I’ve seen and known down here for a long time or people who are just passing by. We share with people from all walks of life.” Knight remarks that it is not uncommon for a man experiencing homelessness to share a meal beside a businessman in a suit or a professor, and during his description a conglomerate of youth gathers nearer.
“It’ll be watermelon tonight, James?” a college-aged gentleman asks as he strolls by. Knight grins and replies with a soft-spoken yet welcoming, “Yep.” But, the watermelon will not be cut for another few minutes, as Buddy must first return with a knife.
During the interim, Knight and I speak about the source of his communal ardor. “I got interested in helping out when I noticed that people came down here and they’d be asking for change for a beer, but I’d offer food instead,” he explains, “I knew they needed something to eat, so I brought meals. I’ve been bringing them meals and fighting hunger ever since then for a little over fifteen years now.” By this point in our conversation, a veritable crowd has collected around us. Buddy returns just in time with the necessary carving tool, and the servings commence. Piece by piece, the watermelon is distributed to eager outstretched hands and a public feasting ensues.
“I learned from others who helped guide me when I was in need,” he informs me as college students, a few children no older than ten who had been riding their bikes and a man smoking a pipe under a bowler cap all sit together eating on the sidewalk. “Sharing is something worth doing,” Knight continues, “It helps people understand that there are things to be happy about, and that you can have good fun times together for no significant reason other than sharing something with somebody.” A man visibly experiencing homelessness wanders up to the crowd, clearly accustomed to both Knight and his practice of meal sharing. Again sporting that hospitable grin deep within his beard, Knight warmly tells the man, “You’re welcome to have a few slices.”
Intrigued, I inquire about how often Knight sees and serves returning sharers. “There are a lot of people who do come back,” Knight replies. “Sometimes newcomers get a little skittish if they don’t know of me and the food is free, but a lot of them try it anyway. And, they always walk away happy.” He also discusses the importance of letting anyone and everyone join, as well as inspiring others to take up similar posts around the city in order to fight hunger. “Some people partake because they see it’s a beautiful thing, and even some of them want to try giving to others as well,” Knight explains as he hands me a slice of watermelon so that I, too, can share in the experience.
As I eat, more than just hunger is staved off. Social stratification seemingly dissipates into the joint crunching, juice-sipping laughter in which we as sharers are partaking. For such dreary weather on an otherwise ordinary evening, all of this sharing is just as Knight proposes: beautiful. The crunching, the occasionally unruly slurping, the laughing, the espresso machine, the heavy metal thunder and the incessant footsteps of urgent nightlife are in total harmony.
Upon asking Knight how he feels when orchestrating these humanitarian banquets, he shakes his head. “I don’t want any focus to be on me personally,” Knight clarifies, “there are more organizations and individual people that help fight hunger in Greensboro than I can count. They all deserve recognition.” He then begins to ardently list some of the organizations with which he collaborates. “The Salvation Army, Muir’s Chapel United Methodist, NightWatch, StreetWatch, Urban Ministries and the Interactive Resource Center (IRC) have all contributed a lot of food along the way when they had extra,” Knight discloses. “They give to families, and not just a cooked meal or some fruit. They’ll provide food that could go into a household for a family that is sustaining but doesn’t necessarily have enough money to keep groceries on the shelf.”
Another group of students approaches who graciously offer Buddy and Knight assistance with distributing most of the remaining melon. “I try to let others know about these services so they know they can get help. We’re fortunate [in Greensboro] in comparison to other cities and towns because locally we’re trying to make sure that everyone is being looked after in some kind of way. Even if that someone is totally drunk, we’ll just sit there and talk with them and make sure they have something to eat. It’s a matter of importance,” Knight illuminates. Undeniably, the whole street has become abuzz with a sense of generosity, everyone cognizant of those proximate. No one is being overlooked. “Here, people come together to be able to laugh and have the pressures of life taken away. They come here on Tate Street to be able to safely socialize and be a part of something bigger,” he says. Knight waves his hand, indicating the remarkable cooperative that spontaneously formed over a single watermelon. “They come here to get inspired to be creative and share in their own way.”
Knight, Buddy, the other countless unnamed volunteers taking initiative to fight hunger, the aforementioned organizations and even those just taking the time to participate in these communal meals around Greensboro are certainly part of a creative movement spanning grand aspiration and determination. But, Knight knows that homelessness and hunger in general is a constant battle and that sustaining a community is more than momentarily diminishing life’s pressures.
“It’s not just food,” he prompts, “There are a lot of ways to improve our community. I know somebody who if a person needs a pair of shoes, they’ll go buy one and bring it to them. It does not matter if [the person in need] is working for the shoes or not. If they’ve got holes in their shoes, they need new shoes.” Again hailing local organizations, Knight details, “I remember when the IRC started off on Bessemer Avenue in the basement of a church. Some of the same people who started the IRC help run NightWatch to make sure people have clothing as well something to eat. There are a lot of smaller churches that provide transportation to where meals are being held. There are a lot of aspects we’ve got to consider.”
He could not be more correct. Reparation is more than just filling the holes in a community: it’s making the individual people in the community whole again. Ground movement initiators such as James Knight and Buddy are crucial for aiding the individual and Knight knows this; that is why he is so passionate when rousing others to join in the sharing spirit. “We do our best to make sure nobody is hungry,” Knight reflects, “but sometimes we overlook spots. And, that’s where I come in and the people who get inspired come in—we’ve got to work together to make sure we don’t miss anyone.”
The magnitude of such organized generosity is nigh indescribable. As we continue to watch the feast, further words elude me. Truly, we were witnessing the birth and subsistence of a temporal community, one wholly devoid of discrimination or judgment right there on Tate Street in Greensboro, North Carolina. We stand together not speaking as the crunching, sipping, laughing, espresso machine and heavy metal carry on in all of their aggregate magnificence around us. After a few moments when I thank Knight for the interview, he thanks me genuinely for my time and closes with, “Remember you can’t have just one. Come on back sometime and have seconds.”
The rain begins again as I walk away. I turn around to see Knight undeterred by the two wet Tate Street tenants left requesting the remaining slices of watermelon. One of them is an enthusiastically shirtless youth, the other is the homeless man from before now inquiring for more fruit. Knight is smiling as he hands each of them a piece.