Just before Christmas, Larry Galbreath stood in line at a bank. Galbreath, finally, did not stink. He was clean and stood tall as a skyscraper. Galbreath held a paycheck that had been earned on his feet, ringing Salvation Army bells in front of red kettles, in rain and sleet and ice and snow.
Outside the bank, someone had asked a guy in a suit, a businessman for sure, for a dollar.
"I hate homeless people," the businessman said to the guy behind him in line.
That guy in line behind the businessman was Galbreath, just weeks from living in a tent behind a seafood restaurant in Fort Mill, a guy who would get water from firefighters at a nearby station so he wouldn't shrivel up and die.
"The guy didn't know me, guess he just figured I would agree that the homeless are a pain," Galbreath recalled. "Few weeks before then, that homeless guy was me."
All Larry Galbreath wants now, after what seems like a lifetime of wandering, is a steady job. After so many years of aimlessness and construction work that took him from Fort Mill to Florida, Oregon to the Carolina coastGalbreath, at age 61, finally has a temporary roof over his head. He lives in transitional housing run by a church organization. He has a few people who believe in him. Still, Galbreath just needs a break.
"I lived a life where I've seen a man freeze next to me under a bridge," Galbreath said. "Named Melvin, and we got to Portland from Oklahoma. I know what's out there - Melvin died right there. I've had people stop me and ask when I last ate, I was so hungry I couldn't remember. It ain't pretty what I seen. Downright ugly."
Galbreath washes cars in auto parts stores parking lots to make a dollar. He carries a sign board trying to lure people into a fast food restaurant. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas he was the top-producing bell ringer for the local branch of the Salvation Army. He worked construction until the economy tanked and jobs dried up. He's applied for jobs at Carowinds where people a third of his age run rides or sell drinks.
"I just want to live my own life and not be a burden on others," Galbreath said. "I just want to have something that I got myself."
Galbreath drifted for so many years of his life. His parents died when he was 16. He lived in Texas with an aunt. Galbreath spent some time in Fort Mill with another aunt in a trailer park.
He's been all over the country, rarely with more than a few dollars in his pocket.
He said he drank - "I was an alcoholic," Galbreath said, "But I gave it up January the first 1991, just like that. No 12 steps for me."
Even after dropping the booze, Galbreath has not found stability. He returned to Fort Mill a few years ago after trying Florida for construction work. The aunt was dead, the trailer gone, and Galbreath was all alone in the world.
Although Galbreath lived on the periphery of life for so long, some people did not look past his haggard appearance, or sour smell, after weeks in the Fort Mill woods. A pastor saw him and mentioned the Chestnut House, a house for transients attempting to get back into life. The house, at 350 Chestnut St. in Rock Hill, is run by the community development arm of the York Baptist Association. The rent is $50 a week for as many as seven men who call the place home.
The Spartan place, paid for by donations, has bedrooms and a chapel room. For some,the Chestnut House is the difference between freezing in a tent and staying alive.
Most at Chestnut House are former homeless, or out of prison, or fighting drug addictions - or a combination of those, said Mike O'Dell, director of missions for the Baptist Association.
"We try and help them get work, and it gives them a roof and a bed and a mailing address, a place to put on a job application," O'Dell said. "You can't get a job without an address."
Galbreath has never been in prison, state court records show. The people helping him say he does not have a substance abuse problem so common to the homeless.
"Larry is a guy who has been honest with us from the time he came, and we try to help him," O'Dell said. "I never have caught him in a lie, and I respect that."
Galbreath tries to help himself. He carries a folder with letters of recommendation from The Salvation Army, which described his dependability as a bell ringer, and fromlawyer Dale Dove.
Dove, who also has a prison ministry, has helped Galbreath with transportation, odd jobs, and with encouragement.
Dove even baptized Larry Galbreath in the Catawba River - a guy who had been asked to leave more than few churches over the years because he smelled bad and probably hadn't had a proper bath in two or three months before walking into that church.
"Like my whole life was washed away and I had a clean start," Galbreath said of his baptism.
He started going to First Baptist Church in Rock Hill, where he has made friends and allies.
What Larry Galbreath does, say people such as Odell and Dove who defend him, is try.
"We don't want to give Larry money; what we want to give Larry is independence," Dove said. "He's dedicated and dependable. He can be trusted. Larry doesn't need money. He doesn't need pity. What he needs is somebody to give him a shot."
Word of Galbreath's honesty and hustle to try and make it on his own spread, and a car was donated. Galbreath paid the taxes and the insurance and the registration out of his bell-ringing money. But getting that car on the road just about tapped him out.
Pat Blake, another volunteer with the Baptist Association, said Galbreath has earned her trust over the past few months and she would do anything to help him find steady work. Blake knew a shift manager at the fast food place - Galbreath was not too proud to stand there with a sign this week.
"Larry is honest," Blake said. "He's had a hard life. He's not a liar. He tells it like it is."
Larry Galbreath has a room in a transient house, with toothbrush and a shower and toilet. He has a couple changes of clothes. His face is washed, his moustache and gray hair combed.
If he has a dollar, he puts gas in his old car and drives it, looking for a job. If Galbreath doesn't have a dollar, he walks with his folder with the photocopied references in it, asking somebody to hire a 61-year-old man who doesn't want to die under a bridge like his friend Melvin did.