By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The Count of Five Points is playing a tape of himself reading Edgar Allan Poe in a sonorous voice:
"From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were--I have not seen
As others saw--I could not bring
My passions from a common spring--
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow--I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone--
And all I lov'd--I lov'd alone."
That's all of Poe's 1829 poem "Alone" that the Count remembered, but he kept talking to himself on the tape: "I first learned it when I was in jail"--a thirty-day excursion from many years ago that he doesn't go into--"and it dawned on me, this poem applied to me 100 percent. And I remembered it through all the years. Edgar Allan Poe must have been a pretty lonely man, also."
Count Bacon, the 71-year-old sign-making impresario of Five Points whom everyone on Welton Street knows, likes his lonely-man status. "If I lose sleep over what happens in the world, I'd go crazy," he says. "It doesn't pay to get involved in too much of it. Now it's just me and my little black hole."
Since he started receiving Social Security benefits six years ago, the Count paints signs only occasionally. He walks with a cane now, and his mobility is limited. Mostly he keeps to himself, and it's possible to walk past his storefront and miss the gaunt, wizened man inside. Chances are, however, that he's watching you.
Count Bacon seems to prefer the solitude of his dilapidated storefront, which he's converted into a home, to the streets of Five Points, where a much younger, much wilder Count used to frolic--when Five Points itself was bustling, too. He spends his days in a rickety chair next to his unwashed front window, listening to one of dozens of classical composers he's taped off the radio: Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin, whose "Funeral March" the Count finds especially moving. As he listens, he watches people pass by on the street: Men and women, old and young, students and merchants and bums and parents and dopeheads, engaged in their own dramas and dreams and hustles.
"I'm in the front row of watching the world," he says. "The good, bad and ugly." He should know. His own life has been equal parts of all three, and something of the mystique of the Western hero--adventurous yet solitary--surrounds him. Western paraphernalia such as hats and holsters fill his home; his favorite movies are Westerns (particularly those with Clint Eastwood); and the Count once was an accomplished performer in rodeos--motorcycle rodeos, that is. The self-taught Count's cultural sensibilities range from poetry and music to Westerns and bottom out at porn flicks.
He's sort of an anti-hero and actually looks a lot like a black Lee Van Cleef, the villain of many spaghetti Westerns, with his thinning hair, wiry frame, Western shirts and leather headband. He's so thin that his muscles and face have a hard, hollow edge to them. His eyes are by turns cold and, if never really warm, then at least sadly sympathetic to the demands of living.
A silver-plated .22-caliber handgun nestles in a holster that's nailed to a table; all he has to do, when his passions collide with those of his neighborhood, is lean forward from his chair to be armed. He claims to have two other weapons in the place--his grandson Joel says he has seen a shotgun under the bed--and the Count warns you that if you piss him off, he has a shotgun booby-trapped to blast a hole through you.
"If you fuck with me, I'll blow you right out the door," he says with menace, walking, as always, a line between truth and hyperbole.
There's some basis for his fear of intruders. In the mid-Eighties, he recalls, he was shot four times by the jealous boyfriend of a young woman he was seeing. The Count says he was shot with a .357. ("Knowing him," says his son Carlton, "it could have been just a .22.") One bullet shattered his leg and almost forced an amputation; another went--perhaps in some cosmic irony--through one of his testicles. He was laid up in the hospital for eight weeks, says his daughter, Donna Burrell, but he refused to see anyone but his ex-wife. "He wouldn't let anybody come to visit," Donna says. "He always insulated his family from anything that happened to him down there."
The Count even insulated the guy who shot him. "Daddy knew who it was and didn't turn him in," Donna says. "He's very protective of those people down there. He'll give you the sense he knows why they came to this point, because he's been at that point. I don't know--it's like the loyalty of the street.
"He's always taken people in. He would not let anybody lay out in front of the shop on a cold night. Now, he might be sittin' there with his shotgun pointed at 'em the whole time, but he won't leave 'em on the street."
The Count is quick to shoo away loiterers who stop for more than a few seconds outside his shop, usually muttering something about how "there are too many niggers around here." On any given day he may throw you out if you get on his nerves, or he may let you stay but refuse to talk.