“I Just Keep Coming Up” | An Interview with Mary Branson
One month ago my girlfriend gave me a lead about a colorful lady selling The Contributor at a four-way stop down the road from her townhome. This lovely vendor always refers to her as ‘California’ and beams with a positive energy. I walk down the side of the road and meet Mary Branson. She is dressed in jeans and a light hoodie. I ask her if I can interview her in the near future and she agrees.
Weeks pass and I’ve walked by her more than a few times on the way to the downtown bus. I let her know that I promise I will talk with her but I’ve been busy with clients. So, after all those times of passing her on my way to the bus stop and her reminding me and California to buckle up when we’d drive by, it’s finally time to sit down with Mary. The walk down the side of the road to her is different than the last time I made it. The leaves have changed color and she is bundled up…packing up her “Have A Blessed Day” sign.
“Did I catch you when you were about to leave?”, I ask her.
“Yeah, but we can walk over to the Dunkin’ Donuts right there, baby”, she says, pointing in the direction of the store. She refers to everyone as ‘baby’ with an extra ‘a’ in the middle. It’s definitely endearing.
When I look in the direction of Dunkin’ Donuts I see that the sky is black some miles in the distance. But, this dreary day hasn’t gotten the best of Mary. On our walk she tells me about the times when she had knives held to her throat and guns held to her head and back. Those were the days she was using and selling crack. It was those days that laid down the foundation to get her where she is today.
Mary grew up in a household where domestic violence was part of the routine. If dinner wasn’t ready on Sunday when her father returned home from a weekend of whatever he did he’d beat her mother. Then he’d turn to the kids. She covered her brothers to protect them from getting beat with a dog leash. Her mother kept moving her and her brothers in and out of their father’s house. And, when she was 15 years old she was raped by a 24 year old, “It was my first time. I got pregnant.”
At 23 years old she had two kids but couldn’t maintain a stable home. Her mother ended up taking care of her children while she worked at Hardee’s in Harrison, Tennessee. She moved up from cashier to job coordinating manager. After becoming manager she started selling weed out of Hardee’s.
Mary is the first to admit that she made poor choices. She got hooked on pain pills and began writing prescriptions for herself. Those forged prescriptions ended up costing her five years of her life in a Georgia jail. Following up that jail time was eight more years for forging checks.
Upon moving to Nashville in 2009, she moved into a women’s shelter named The Next Door. She spent six months there and three months in a recovery apartment before moving out. At that time Mary was selling a Christian paper. It didn’t take long for her to quit doing that after working twelve to thirteen hours a day and only bringing home $50.
In March, Mary will be with The Contributor for two years. At least six days a week she is out there selling the papers. Her positivity never falters even though there are heavy things still happening in her private life. Her son lives with her in her room and sleeps on her bed. She sleeps on the floor because he’s still nursing a crushed pelvis a car accident left him with. Her other two children are in jail for drugs. Mary’s daughter is in for 25 years and her younger son will be serving more time than that for methamphetamine.
“I’ve got a lot on me, but I don’t let it get me down”, she says smiling, sitting across from me in the warmth of Dunkin’ Donuts. And, if you ever come across Mary at that four-way-stop in Bellevue you will see that for yourself. When she’s out there selling papers she doesn’t smile and wave just to get you to buy a paper, she genuinely wants you to have a ‘Blessed Day’ (poem below).
Mary is a poet and artist. Her work has been featured in The Contributor on more than one occasion. As I sit across from her I can see it in her eyes that she has come a long way over the years. Those past experiences are what she uses to fuel her art and change of lifestyle. She’s been clean for two and a half years and is ready to be the role model that some of her peers may need. There’s no question that she’s leaving the days of poor choices behind her.
(Photography, Josh Baker, 2014)
When you drive by, you turn the other way.
You can’t even look or even wave.
I only wave to say hi and have a blessed day.
And yet you still look the other way.
Day after day I stand with pride
only to watch you curse me and drive by.
Would it hurt you to look my way,
or even wave and say have a good day
What if I was God just wanting to say have a blessed day?
I bet if I was just for one day, you would wave that day.
Say hi and have a blessed day.
Formerly Homeless Poet