Rose Post from 1984: Friends give thanks for toes and life

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 25, 2011

In memory of Rose Post, who died Oct. 20, the Salisbury Post is reprinting some of the stories from her 56-year career with the paper. This story originally appeared in the Post on Nov. 23, 1984.
So who had more to be thankful for yesterday than Raymond Pharr?
He still has his toes — and his life.
That ought to be enough for a big dose of gratitude on Thanksgiving Day, right?
Yesterday was just another Thursday to Raymond, just one more day on the streets, even if all kinds of people everywhere, including maybe the president of the United States, got worried about his toes about six months ago and caused such a brouhaha that stories about Raymond appeared on the AP wire service and his picture was on television and all kinds of things happened.
But Raymond didn’t think about being thankful yesterday.
If he ever heard of Thanksgiving, he’s forgotten.
And if he was ever going to lose his toes, he didn’t believe it.
So where’s the need for special thanks, except to that doctor, maybe, who looked after him out there at the hospital when they took him in an ambulance and cleaned up his toes because gangrene was about to do him in.
But no more.
“I’m feeling all right now,” he said when the weather turned cold this week. He was in the alley behind Bernhardt’s Hardware on North Main Street, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, his head protected with a double layer of caps (“one for the flaps,” he said) and his body by a great coat carefully buttoned over two heavy jackets and goodness knows how many layers beneath.
No closets
Since street people have no closets, they have to wear the clothes folks give them. And considering the weather, Raymond wasn’t complaining. His cigarette wiggled at my next question.
“Naw!” he said. “My toes didn’t drop off! They’re getting along better now. They’re still sore on the inside, but they’re well on the outside.”
In fact, he’s still not sure what all that excitement was about last April when he was served with a subpoena addressed to “Raymond Pharr, Salisbury Streets, Salisbury, N.C.,” telling him to appear in court.
He knew he didn’t want to have his toes cut off, even if the doctor said he should.
“I couldn’t hardly carry that out,” he said then. “I ain’t got that much nerve.”
But friends in the first block of North Main — Paul Bernhardt and John Lingle at the hardware and Rudy Nasser around on West Innes — and John Thomas of the Rowan Department of Social Services were worried. Paul Bernhardt went around everywhere asking, “What are we going to do about Raymond?”
No drinking
He’s known Raymond, who just seems to belong to the first block of North Main, longer than he can remember, and he knows him to be a kind and gentle man who doesn’t drink. In fact, he won’t sleep at the Salisbury shelter when the weather gets bad because he’s not anxious to sleep around all those drunks.
He sleeps on benches and in a Bernhardt truck if one is parked behind the store and under the railroad pass, down on East Innes, “and he does little hustles,” Bernhardt said. “He sweeps alleyways and stores and shakes newspaper racks. He pushes the button and sometimes, when people didn’t get their change, the coins come falling out.”
And he made it, getting just enough money together to eat, until his toes were frostbitten.
Then he started to limp. John Lingle noticed and got concerned; he called in the Rowan Department of Social Services and people went down all kinds of avenues to do something about Raymond’s toes. A psychologist from Tri-County Mental Health Complex evaluated Raymond, but proved only that he is borderline retarded, probably illiterate, but aware of person, place and time — and therefore legally capable of taking care of himself.
Except he couldn’t.
Gangrene diagnosed
By mid-March he was hobbling. Lingle finally got him to the hospital, where the doctor diagnosed gangrene and worked on his toes. His layers of well-used clothes disappeared. A nephew brought a new suit. Raymond put it on and left.
When people found out he had gangrene, they were even more concerned; but they couldn’t get him back to the hospital, so he was subpoenaed to appear in court.
He carried the subpoena buried deep in one of his numerous inside pockets until the court date came, and then he went and sat there more stoically than anyone else in the courtroom while the judge pondered the morality of the situation.
Just what was right?
The Rowan County Department of Social Services wanted protective services because it was obvious his physical condition was poor and the gangrene was threatening his life.
Bones were exposed on both feet, Dr. William T. Mason testified.
The best thing that could happen was that his toes would fall off and his body would heal itself spontaneously.
The worst thing was that blood poisoning would set in and he would die. Somebody could find him under the overpass or in the truck or in the street, dead.
A neglected adult?
Raymond, social services said, was a “neglected adult” and needed someone to get him help.
But Cecil Whitley, appointed guardian ad litem for Raymond, argued the testimony proved Raymond was “neither abused nor neglected.” He had a sister who wanted to look after him and all those friends who were worrying over him.
The judge pondered — and let him go.
“I realize everyone here has his best interests at heart,” the judge said. “It would be in the best interests to comply with the doctor, but the court cannot find that he is … in need of protective services.”
And so Raymond left — he had an alley to sweep — and paid no attention to the pleas to have his toes removed that came from all the media attention, not even to that letter he’s convinced came from the president, since it was from Washington. The president doesn’t carry as much weight as a man’s father.
“My daddy told me my toes would heal up,” he told me when we went checking on him for Thanksgiving. “You know that,” he added, admonishing me slightly. “You was with me when he told me.”
I didn’t argue.
He did tell me months ago that his daddy told him not to have his toes operated on, but a relative said his daddy has been dead 22 years.
But Raymond obeyed his father’s order, and he’s still got his toes.
“I just keep watch on ’em. I keep ’em washed down with alcohol and maybe a little mercurochrome that I keep there in Bernhardt’s,” he said, gesturing toward the store, doing his washing out on the back stoop, no matter how cold it gets.
Not worried
He’s used to the cold, he said, and he’s not worried.
Paul Bernhardt still is, a little.
“He’s walking better,” Paul said. But he’s convinced they did the right thing last spring, when the toes were so bad, “in view of the situation, but I’m delighted he has survived. But he still walks with a limp and with a cane and winter’s coming on. There’s always the danger of his toes’ getting frostbitten again, especially when they’ve been frostbitten one time.”
In the meantime, Rudy Nasser makes sure he has enough quarters for breakfast every day, and Paul gives him a small daily allowance. His notoriety has helped.
“Other people come by. His collections have picked up considerably since people learned about him,” Paul says, “and at some of the restaurants, if he doesn’t have any money, they kind of fix him something. He belongs to our block.”
And you say thanks for what is yours at Thanksgiving.
“We gave thanks for Raymond’s toes,” Paul said, “and hope he survives the winter.”
Raymond Pharr died in 1990.