RIP Sharon Branham, Whose Life Challenged Our Complacency

Featured in an RFT profile this summer, Branham was a fixture at Skinker and Forest Park, flying a sign

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click to enlarge Sharon Branham, known as "Sherry," was a regular at Kaldi's on Skinker for years before her recent death. - THEO WELLING
THEO WELLING
Sharon Branham, known as "Sherry," was a regular at Kaldi's on Skinker for years before her recent death.

Late last month, Sharon Branham died, apparently of natural causes. A Lindbergh High graduate and former secretary for Brown Shoe Co., Sherry spent recent decades panhandling at the corner of Forest Park Parkway and Skinker Boulevard. As Branham explained to a RFT reporter this summer, she became homeless after her partner died from liver cancer, but later obtained an apartment in the Metro East, cobbling together the rent money through a combination of Social Security, disability and what she could earn at the corner. She took the MetroLink into the city daily.

It was in the city, on and around her corner, that Sherry struck up a friendship with Wash U grad student Clark Randall, who ended up organizing her memorial. He shared this tribute to her life.

Dear Sherry,

Predictability is a concept I grow more and more fond of over time. Like how you could predict the time my bike would roll down Skinker to Kaldi’s, and I could predict that you would have been there for 10 minutes already, having caught the train that arrives at 7:40 a.m. You’d be a quarter of the way through your coffee, third chair on the right facing the window looking onto Skinker. You’d wake up around 4 a.m., just to be on the corner before 9 a.m., trekking here from the last stop eastbound in Illinois on the Metro. 

It’s been two weeks since you passed. The other day I went to Kaldi’s; drove by Lindell on Skinker and I felt your absence in that small grassy patch you stood on for all those years, leaning on your worn-down walker, greeting another line of cars as they pulled up to the light. It hurt not seeing you there. The city feels like a lot less than it did the day before. 

I think some people exist in cities, in part, to organize them. Some people have a way of making places make sense, gifting the rest of us a chance to better understand where we live, if we are open to it. 

For others, Sherry, I think you were a challenge to their complacency. I’d see it on people’s faces when the car pulled up to the red light. They stop with their eyes trained ahead, avoiding a moment of mutual recognition, and then the car would pull up another few feet. This was often a signal for you to move on; there was nothing here to give — no smile, no dollar, no words. You told me of the others, often the businessman, who would roll down the window and flip through a wallet of 50s, 20s, and 10s, just to apologize for not having any bill small enough to pass you. 

A lot of times, when people die, those who remember them reach for the extremes, noting only the most incredible or unique aspect of the person one wishes to honor. I don’t agree with this conception of life — or death. Sherry, you were a beautifully ordinary person. Your life was hard but you managed; you loved people and you got mad at them, too. You were consistent, honest and uplifting. What a failure on our part that we don’t see this as the height of human accomplishment.

To be honest, I don’t know what we talked about all those mornings. It was a lot of small talk and wandering thoughts. Our last conversation, the day before you passed, you went on about how you wish you could have raised children, but a condition kept you from having your own earlier in life. “I’d adopt 100 now if I could, if I had the money.” I’ve spent my twenties working in cafes, and what I believe is that small talk is the fabric we all use to sew a city together. And what I do know, Sherry, is that our small talk kept me from unraveling more than a few times — after a breakup or another botched exam. I don’t know if you saw that in me, but I wish I had taken the time to tell you. Then again, maybe it was already understood, the deep interdependence of warm acquaintances. 

Missing you already, 

Clark

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