Louis Popeye Green plays Jim Collins bar in Savannah, Georgia. Photo: Irene Ward
Louis “Popeye” Green
Savannah says goodbye to one of our great characters in the 20th & 21st, Louis “Popeye” Green. He mastered horses, farming, being homeless and the Blues Guitar. As I mentioned earlier to a friend today, although he was “poor,” he had such a rich life and was very much like many of us downtown in the 1990s when we were much poorer and although he was pushing a homeless cart stacked to the gills with lane treasures, we were in solidarity as business dreamers and artists in the making. He represented hard work, dignity, perseverance, never-quit-attitude and much more that was old world human. He suffered much also at the hands of life and for a time with drugs. I always called him Louis in the barn of Historic Horse Tours, but noted that on the streets it was “Popeye.” Of which he became known more when an accident meant surgery with a plate in his head, left it see more strange in shape I suppose. Even before that I once asked him, “Why do they call you Popeye?” He said, “some say its my head and that I look like him.” I never quite saw it because I thought he was cute-handsome and so I always called him by his formal name out of respect. Popeye seemed too much of a street character name, and not that this was a bad thing, but I’d known him as Louis first, and I saw him as fellow resident vs just a vagabond. In my life, Louis became subject of one of my favorite stories that I still continue to share like a sweet morsel. Some 20 years ago, when I drove for Bill Royal and his family’s business, Historic Horse Tours, we were the underdogs in town as the 2nd ever carriage company and were up against the monopoly company in town and we had a barn full of characters like myself, Russell “Rusty” Browne, and Bill’s sister, Twila Delight Royal (real name), and Louis was a barn hand and kind of a side kick to everyone. He had zero body fat and every bit of his body was striated with muscle that looked as if made of barbed wire. As a comic book reader, I compared his handshake to that of shaking hands with Ben Grimm or The Thing” from Fantastic Four. It felt like pumice or a thick leather glove. I’d felt hands like that before with the men in my Kentucky family who’d picked tobacco and had worked the railroads and coal mines. But even Louis’ hands were tougher. And yes, he’d grown up poor and black in the most rural parts of Georgia picking cotton and breaking horses. Or so I’d been told and he’d hinted around too. He was truly “of the land” and shaking his hand was like being greeted by an old tree. And in spite of his street life conditions, was glad to have a job and the little horse family down on the end of Savannah’s Fahm Street. One cold morning, around 7:30, our little crew was in the only warm place in the metal shed barn, the shanty office with its space heater. We were getting ready of course to ride out to City Market to sit for probably what would be hours in the “pre-tourist” town of Savannah, Georgia until we got a fare. Oh my those days when the wind from the Savannah River whipped through the desolate City Market parking garage and iced you to the bone! God forbid if your gloves got wet while filling the water bucket! I remember days when you’d see Rusty Browne in his vintage grey overcoat and laceless combat boots and dirty turtleneck sweater standing in an empty City Market with a fire and boiling pot of water selling boiled peanuts! I’m pretty sure you can’t do that anymore or probably even then! To think he’s the King of The Pedicabs today but it was VERY humble beginnings and these moments amused me now as much as they did then. We were all really Savannah’s Rat Pack and inspired each other even when we might not have known that we were doing that but I’m pretty sure I knew it. None the less, back to this particular morning of subject. I vividly recall Bill Royal, Twila, partner Tom Smith, Ruth Bodek, myself and one preppy art student, Scott all huddled in the office waiting on our reservation sheets. Per routine, Tom, Bill and Twila were smoking of course and I’m sure with the ether of dung and fresh straw in the mix, that the room smelled a little rich. But it was warm and this was story telling boot camp! This was still the days of land lines and barely a working computer so it felt a bit thrown together and by the seat of their pants. The most modern appliance was a Bunn Coffee burner with 2 hot plates and the classic orange and brown tipped glass coffee pots to signify caffeine or that other kind for the weak. Those pots were known to not only break at the slightest tap and cut you deeply, but also reached temperatures above 200 degrees and caused unforgiving burns at the slightest touch of the already life threatening glass. The company probably should’ve been known as Burn Coffee and not Bunn! But as coffee drinkers, we take such risks for the brown manna. Suddenly the office door opened, and with that suction sound that always pulled some air the door’s direction, moved some paperwork and a horse to look up somewhere, in coasts Louis who was in search of the freshly brewed elixir. We all say, “Morning Louis,” and he replied in his usual chipper tone, “Morning every-bawdy!” Being that we were all so jammed into the room, and that such an action moment is thus hard to miss, we were all just unconsciously watching Louis shuffle through this small room. It was literally about 100 sq ft and yes, some of us had to shift to let Louis get past. What happened next will forever remain burned into my brain and I have told the story often with a great tone of amazement and like someone who’d seen something epically freakish. I liken it to the same feeling someone has when witnessing a magician’s illusion that defies reality and leaves you speechless to the point that you hear your brain thud against your skull while trying to decipher the physics. And let me say this. We might argue that when these glass coffee pots are full they are supremely hotter across their glass surfaces than they might be if just partially full. Hence why most of us, ok, 99.9% of us know the value of the thick plastic handles on those pots. When Louis found himself in front of these coffee pots, I had a perfect eye line on the unexpected super human feat about to occur. In the same manner one might just pick up a pen in which to write? Louis picks up the coffeepot with both hands FROM THE BOTTOM — then slowly walks over to the other side of the office (maybe 10 feet), like he’s holding an average object, and proceeds in a very gentle, pouring type manner, turns the coffee into his cup like he can’t spare a drop and when done, he about faces, walks unhurriedly back to the hot plates as if more concerned by breaking the glass than the atomic heat on his hand and then rests the pot softly down, picks up his coffee cup and walks straight out the door without a wince or a word and a smile on his face. When the door once more did its sucking noise, there was silence across our faces. Scott actually looked nervous. We were frozen with dumbfoundedness and for a moment stared at each other in silent disbelief and I think there then came some “Holy shits” and nervous laughter and I seem to recall that Twila with her raspy smoke laced vocal chords exclaiming a, “Fuck man, that Louis has worked hard his whole life!” Louis sure did. And I knew that although I’d worked Illinois farms and painting barns, that it would be unlikely I’d ever work as hard or suffer as much as Louis Green. And I don’t like to use the word suffer around such a man. He wouldn’t want to me associate that with him either. Even though he was hard knocks, he did it with an impish smile and an infectious sweet, gritty laughter. He was also very very loved by me and some great souls around him and hope he passed on feeling content and blessed for sowing some seeds. He definitely planted one in me as a human being and I’m especially grateful now. As years went by I would see him around Savannah and seemed like he was doing better even if he seemed to like what the streets gave him a sense of, which was being real and keeping it real. I respect that. There’s too much fluffy anymore and that wasn’t his style. Funny but I get that. Sometimes staying just above homeless gives you an edge of charge and challenge and motivation that being a fat cat can’t. I remember seeing Louis at an “old folks” home on Tybee some years ago and thought, “well this is cool, he’s near the beach. He deserves this.” I don’t think that probably lasted as that was probably too soft of a life for him and although Louis looked well aged, he looked younger than his age and never struck me as a guy who’d ever “be old.” His body was bent over years ago by a hard life but he made that cruel human form of his own a beautiful machine. It would also be later that I learned Louis was a master guitar player and yes, even with those calloused hands. I bet vibration was all they could still feel and maybe God made them that way so they could slide more perfectly around them as he transmuted all of his soul through them. When I heard he’d play in City Market or jam out at some bars with people this caught me off guard and prompted some momentary disbelief. Yet any disbelief was replaced quickly by more awe of Louis and made my heart extremely happy. I’m one of those people who loves to be surprised by human nature and then am never surprised what human souls can do. Which makes me even more sorry to hear of his passing and that Louis will play no more. You see in the star chart of The Savannah Universe, there are these distinct planets in our solar system of personalities, and Louis Popeye Green was a huge star and the rest of us in the galaxy feel dim today even if we will all shine a little more brightly for the rest of our days for having him near. He made beautiful music and made an instrument of himself and gave of it fairly and freely. Rest In Peace Louis. 10/12/44 -8/29/16
Special Thanks to Rusty Browne for his letting us know of his passing and being a constant for him on behalf of all of us…
Video Credit Rusty Browne.