The Christian Cowboy's Last Song

I can’t remember the last time I saw him. He was a fixture, a perennial, as much a sign of summer on the Circle as the lunchtime picnickers on the Monument steps, his slightly-out-of-tune guitar and deep baritone harmonizing with the background din of traffic and construction and rushing water fountains. And then he was gone.

There would always be stretches, a couple of days, maybe weeks in the summer and early fall when Tom Merl Goins, aka The Christian Cowboy, would be conspicuously absent from his Circle-side post in front of the Chase Tower. It would be too wet to keep rain from collecting on the brim of his tattered felt hat or too hot to bake in that black leather jacket. But just as soon as I began to wonder where he might be, whether he had fallen ill, or had been booted off the corner by the bankers or the cops, or had simply pushed on to the fairer climes of the next town down the road as he had claimed to have done several times in his 60-plus years, there he’d be, smiling behind his dark sunglasses, singing his spirituals in the sun.

But then the weeks turned into months. I would ask my coworkers if they had seen him and they stopped and paused and realized they hadn’t, not for some time. A year went by. And then another. Occasionally it would occur to me that I should look him up, but I always decided I was too busy, just as I had been too busy to stop and talk to him or to even toss a dollar coin in his makeshift coffer. In fact it wasn’t until today that I finally looked for Tom Goins. And I found him—his name, at least—in the Social Security Death Database.

He died December 20, 2010, at the age of 66. The database does not list a cause of death, only his last known address, an assisted living community on the city’s east side.  Who knows what may have happened to his tomcat, Mister, or his mutt, Ms. Sweetie and the puppies he had tried to give away? Who knows if he was alone when the God he had sung praise to finally came? All I know is, the Circle is a much lonelier place without him.

Read IM’s profile of Goins from June 2006

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Rehagen is a writer and journalist. He joined Atlanta magazine as senior editor in 2011. Prior to that, he was staff writer and then senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly. He has been a finalist for City and Regional Magazine Association (CRMA) Writer of the Year in each of the past five years. His April 2012 feature “The Last Trawlers” was included in the anthology Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a Missouri native. He lives in Atlanta with his family.