As we turned off Twiggs Street onto a narrow and particularly abject strip called Hopkins Street, Mr. Brown's mood turned sombre. The façade of a brick house on the corner was spray-painted with the words "Fuck the world," and farther along the real estate grew more dismal: tottering clapboard bungalows, half of them burned out, and the rest, he said, "probably crack houses now—you come from that, you use crack." In this setting, the limo looked like a spaceship, but none of the street's ragtag residents expressed any surprise. They waved from sidewalks and porches, and although they couldn't see through the rain-streaked one-way glass, they called out, "Hello, Mr. Brown," and "God bless, Mr. Brown." The vehicle could belong to nobody else: every Thanksgiving, he comes through passing out turkeys, and at Christmas he brings toys. Now he said, "They want me to help build this place back. What can I do? Get on my knees and pray, and ask, 'Mr. President, come—Mr. Bush, come in here and clean it out and put decent homes in here'?"
He told his driver to stop outside a broken-down shack, where an emaciated woman and two young men sat on a porch surrounded by household debris. One of the young men stepped forward in the rain, and Mr. Brown lowered his window and held out a fifty-dollar bill. The man bowed, and withdrew. "Wait a minute," Mr. Brown called after him. "Y'all split that. Give that lady some, too." When he rolled his window up, he told me, "I'm not doin' this because you here. I wasn't gonna do it today. I didn't want you to see me handin' no money out there. I wasn't gonna do it. That's the honest-to-God truth." He sounded embarrassed. "You look at this, it kinda take your breath," he said.
At the end of the block, we reached James Brown Boulevard, and he said, "Out here on these same streets, you may see my daughter, and she has no business out here. She don't have to be there. I give her a home, she got a new Mercedes, and her Mercedes just sitting there. I can't give it to her, 'cause I can't—'cause she shrug off everything I do."
Family life has never been Mr. Brown's strong suit; he has been married four times, divorced twice, and made a widower in 1996 when his third wife died from complications following plastic surgery; he had three children with his first wife, two with his second, none with his third, and on the day before my visit to Augusta his current wife (then still his fiancée), Tomi Rae Hynie, a thirty-three-year-old singer of Norwegian descent, who has performed and lived with him on and off for the past four years, gave birth to a son, James Joseph Brown II. In addition to these relationships, throughout much of his career he maintained a succession of girlfriends and mistresses, with a couple of whom he sired children, including the daughter he was keeping an eye out for on the street named after him. "She's got worse than a habit," he said. "When a person is just spooked, we say she got a monkey on her back. She got a gorilla on her back." He fell silent for a beat, then said it again, "She got a gorilla on her back."( Collapse )