Charles Bradley’s story is so unbelievable that, well, it’s hard to believe. Until, that is, you see the tears forming in his eyes as he recounts – probably for the millionth time by now – his memories of the day, thirteen years ago, that his brother Joseph was murdered. How his mother, whose house he was staying in because he’d just come out of hospital after nearly dying, woke him up asking why there were so many police cars outside. How his mother then screamed because she’d heard the news. How he refused to believe it, even when he ventured two doors down to where his brother lived and his sister-in-law told him, between sobs, that her husband had been murdered. How, after heading back to bed – because it had to be a dream – he looked out of the window again and saw a blue van marked ‘MORGUE’. How, after seeing that, he rushed outside, pushed past the cops guarding the crime scene and burst into his brother’s house to where his body lay motionless in the kitchen, his brains spilled out onto the floor around him.
“When I saw that,” Bradley says in his raspy, world-worn but warm and kind voice, “I went completely insane. I ranned out. I ranned in front of anything that was moving. I can’t tell you how painful that felt. I could’ve run in front of a car and it wouldn’t have hit me. I just lost it. I was at the subway train, standing right here,” here he motions the edge of track with his hands, “and I want the wind to knock me off so I can fall in front of the train. I don’t know what kept me strong. It hurted so much. It hurted that bad I even was thinking about ways I could take my life and get out. Even sometimes now, that burning feeling comes to me and I gotta do something real fast to get myself out of it.”
That’s only one small part of Bradley’s incredible narrative – a history that leaves the sixty-four-year-old with a slew of equally incredible stories. When he was eight, his mother kidnapped him from his grandmother’s home in Florida and brought him to live with her in Bushwick, in Brooklyn, New York. At fourteen, he ran away from home and spent two years on the streets of New York City, sleeping on the subway (“The A Train was my favourite ride,” he says now, “because it was the longest ride. Once it passed 59th Street, it just keep going and I used to love that because I could sleep.”), stealing bread and milk from food carts to stay alive. There were fights and altercations, run-ins with the police, nights and weeks in jail, struggles living in the projects of Brooklyn.
This is an excerpt from the April 2013 issue of Clash magazine. Find out more about the issue.
Words: Mischa Pearlman
Photography: Stewart Bryden