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Despite rags, Charley was very rich

Maybe you saw him. He was an unofficial institution, a part of the Buffalo landscape nearly as familiar as the Anchor Bar.

He hung out on the grass near the Elm Street overpass, flanked by two shopping carts filled with everything from notebooks to rags. He shuffled along downtown streets, the carts tied together by rope. He was easy to file: a homeless, mentally unstable guy; a square peg to society's round hole.

He was that, but he was more than that. Charley Portis was homeless, but he was surrounded by family. Charley Portis lived on the streets, but it was by choice, not necessity. There was a method to his seeming madness, a purpose to his poverty.

Charley Portis wanted to live the way Jesus would have.

"My brother said he did not like Corporate America," Idella Abram said, "because it forgot about the little people."

To Idella, Charley Portis was the big brother who taught her to tie her shoes, to read and write, to swim, to throw a ball. She is one of five siblings who fed their street-dwelling brother, washed his clothes, sheltered him -- when he would accept the kindness -- and, above all, loved him.

He, in return, played with his grand-nieces and -nephews, showed them card tricks, shared simple wisdom and laughed in his odd, huffing way.

For a long time, the family tried to force him, as his niece Katrina Arnold put it, "to have a normal life." But "normal" meant nothing to Charley Portis.

He graduated from Lafayette High School. He spent two semesters at the University of Buffalo. Then he left -- Bible in hand -- to work in a homeless shelter in Richmond, Va.

"He called himself a soldier for the Lord," Idella said recently at an Elmwood Avenue restaurant. "A lot of ministers won't live with people on the street. He was willing to take that step."

The fact that Charley became one of those whose lives he strived to touch was not lost on him. He was a bright guy who played chess, wrote poetry, haunted the downtown library and recited Bible verses from memory. When his sister -- trying to tame him -- bought Charley a TV, he took it apart. The next day, he had it back together -- and working.

"He thought people threw away too much," Idella said, "and didn't appreciate what they had."

Some of those who seem lost have, in a sense, actually found themselves. Portis believed that happiness does not lie in fast cars or fancy clothes. Life's substance is in one's soul.

Yes, doctors said he was mentally ill, schizophrenic. And he smelled like a bull. There is no sentimentalizing it. But there was a logic in his choices, sense in his sensibilities. He understood more about life than some folks flying around in corporate jets.

Still, having a "bum" in the family is not easy.

"He was out there because he chose to be," said Idella, an ex-Buffalo cop. "It took me a long time to accept that."
She learned to add compassion to her crust and patience to any patrol.

"He reminded me that people who call 911 are desperate," she said. "Understanding that, I saw things differently."

Life on the street is hard enough for a young man. Decades of it took pieces out of Charley Portis. He looked older than 54 when an infection took his life a few weeks ago. Or maybe his ancient appearance merely reflected accumulated wisdom.

There is now just an empty space on Elm Street where he liked to settle. His shopping carts, and whatever they contained, are lost. Like a landmark torn down, like an edifice obliterated, Charley Portis is gone.

Like anything familiar, he lives on in memory. Like anyone who is loved, he survives in many hearts.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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