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The disappearance of a homeless man

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Crime log, The Herald-Sun, March 1, 2007: Durham police are trying to locate Anthony Harris "Concrete" Graham, who has been missing for several weeks. Graham, 48, of no known address, often frequents the area of Ninth Street and the area around the Durham County Jail. He is described as a black male, 5-foot-8 with a medium build and salt-and-pepper hair. Anyone with information on Graham's whereabouts is asked to call Detective Delois West at 560-4440.

Concrete was ageless and he was an institution; if you were paying attention he was always around, the one thing you could count on. Conceding that his way of living couldn't be endured for all that much longer, it still didn't seem feasible for him to not be there anymore. Nonetheless, we accepted the news and did what we could. I heard of a Duke student who dedicated a class project to him; another homeless man took up a collection to buy flowers.

While first writing about Concrete for the Indy a year ago, I heard rumors of his past and spent hours with microfiche trying to confirm them. But just as he had changed his name and wouldn't let on to what it had once been, he had shed his past, and his present state was his way of moving as far from it as he could. I learned all I needed to know with Concrete at night, sitting on the bucket he would insist I take while he himself sat on the ground, talking and slowly beginning to laugh some, putting his hand up on my shoulder to let me know he wasn't unaware I cared. Concrete was letting me find what I was looking for then but I still didn't get it, and so I took comfort in that at least he was generous enough to allow me to laugh with him.

Concrete had a lot of friends along Ninth Street, and word spread quickly of his disappearance, rumors moving in the swift way they often do when people want for closure. His death is unconfirmed; as far as the police are concerned, Concrete is just another missing person. For now, all that we can say for sure is that, one way or another, Concrete is no longer where he used to be. If you need to, seek solace in how many people are asking about him.

This is perhaps a fitting close to Concrete's story. There was always mystery about him: When we weren't simply calmed and comforted by his restful presence, we were intrigued by who he was and where he came from. If ever I were to answer these questions publicly, Concrete would lose some of himself, stripped of that guarded part of everyone's sovereignty where they decide which secrets to protect. Perhaps it's the one thing he demanded of us, however silently: You may wonder, and you may even ask, but please, let it be. Concrete's disappearance carries as much mystery as did his life; his absence sends questions reverberating down Ninth Street.

It was something of a legend that Concrete had seven bouts with frostbite. They called him Concrete for his toughness. Or at least, that would make sense. And he was resilient no doubt, but Concrete carried a lot of pain; he had resigned himself to the fact no one would understand it and so he didn't burden anyone with it, he didn't complain. He talked about his affliction only once with me. It was the world, he said, that aimed its ill will toward him, that prevented him from being with a woman, that put him where he was and made sure he stayed there. I fairly dismissed him. It all sounded vaguely conspiratorial, so in my mind I diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic and prescribed ample doses of respectful nods.

Then a professor told me it seemed to him the best people die because they take in the pain of the world. Living the way he did, Concrete had kept himself pure—or remade himself that way, and to me he always seemed to be absorbing the hurt from around him, taking it from us. This all made his a poetic kind of pain, the kind that is always most evident in the way one moves.

Concrete allowed others to see him as they needed to, most often as incurious of our relative good fortune and in that way an absolution of our guilt. He never wanted to trouble anyone. He didn't ask for money. I gave him a few dollars the first time I met him; he gave it back when I next saw him because he hadn't done anything to earn it. The staff at Bruegger's Bagels looked after him like family, but he always tried to pay for his coffee.

He made sure his presence was never burdensome to anyone. Now we see his absence is to everyone.

Read "The Family," Jeff Stern's March 29, 2006, cover story about Concrete.

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