News » Cover Story

Nashvillian of the Year

How a former prostitute overcame addiction and then dedicated her life to helping those in need



In an abandoned house on Eastland Avenue, Clemmie Greenlee withered to a frail, gaunt 85 pounds. Smoking crack cocaine incessantly, she sometimes went days without eating, sleeping or bathing. Consumed by addiction, Greenlee was living for the next high, as she had for years. When her supply dwindled, she would sell her brittle, worn-out body until she earned enough money turning tricks to replenish her stash.

Brutality and violence were occupational hazards Greenlee had come to expect. She was thrown from moving cars, pistol-whipped, stabbed in the back, beaten until barely conscious and raped. Despite these horrors, prostitution was her only means of getting the fix she so desperately craved. It was a vicious cycle, and it was killing her, but she couldn’t stop.

After more than two decades of selling sex in dark, dank crack houses, filthy motel rooms and dimly lit alleys, all to feed an unrelenting addiction, Greenlee was exhausted, feeling utterly alone.

It was a cool morning in early spring when Greenlee scanned her grim surroundings—a boarded-up house infested with vermin, fellow addicts passed out on the floor. It was the first time in years she had seen her life clearly, and what she saw both sickened and saddened her.

“One day I just got up—I probably hadn’t even been to sleep—and I just looked around at all the men I slept with. I seen all the dope on the table that I continued to smoke, I seen all the feces from all the rats and dogs and some of us,” she says. “There was just something about that morning. I just didn’t want that life no more.”

Clean and sober now for six years, Greenlee recalls this chapter of her life without a hint of shame. It’s part of her history, and she believes it’s the path God intended for her.

Not only has Clemmie Greenlee turned her own life around, she’s since dedicated all her energy (of which she seems to have an unending supply) to helping others in desperate situations do the same. Whether teaching classes to homeless men at the Union Rescue Mission, arranging rehabilitation services for addicts, talking to young gang members in search of a way out, or walking the same thoroughfares she once worked, urging prostitutes that there is another path, her goal is the same—helping the hopeless find hope. For these reasons, Greenlee is the Scene’s 2007 Nashvillian of the Year.

“All along I had this in me, I just didn’t know how to bring it out,” she says, talking excitedly with her hands, which jingle as the gold bracelets stacked on her wrist clang together. “Once I got back on the right trail, I found out that I was capable of not only having the love and compassion that I have for others, but knowing I can make a difference and I can speak out.”

Sitting among a bustling lunchtime crowd at a café in downtown Nashville, the 48-year-old Greenlee recounts the harsh realities of her past. Even while relaying heart-wrenching stories, she manages to find humor in the present, like the sight of a man dressed as Nashville’s famous “Snowbird” strolling by. “Oh my God, it’s Snowbird,” Greenlee shouts, before breaking into a boisterous laugh that seems too big for such a small woman. Every few minutes a wide smile emerges on her round face, which is framed by dangly gold-coin earrings. Twice during the conversation a passerby on the sidewalk knocks on the café window and waves, mouthing the words, “Hey, Clemmie!”

Not once does Greenlee notice the occasional glance from a stunned patron overhearing the conversation, or if she does, she doesn’t care. She talks openly of the poverty she experienced as a child; the first time she turned a trick at the age of 13; the first time she took a hit from the glass crack pipe, leaving her limp and wanting more; sleeping in abandoned houses, or worse, on the streets.

The only time Greenlee’s self-assurance seems to fade is when she talks of her son, who was born when she was still a child herself, and left in her mother’s care. By the time she kicked her addiction more than 20 years later, her son was grown and had become immersed in a life of crime on the streets, where he was fatally shot in 2003.

“I’ve beaten myself up so much, blaming myself for his death. I think if I hadn’t shown him this or that, things would be different,” she says, warning that at any moment she’s likely to break down. But she doesn’t cry, and instead goes on to talk of her son’s pretty white smile, his devotion to his own son, and how although he was caught up in crime, he had a loving heart and tried to steer others in the right direction. She’s comforted by the fact that before her son was killed she was a positive presence in his life, if only for a short time. “Not only did I corrode him with the wrong stuff, but I embedded him with the good stuff,” she says. “He saw me clean, he saw me powerful, he saw me speak out, he saw me come back to the community.”

Holed up in a crack house right next door to her mother’s East Nashville home, Greenlee, accompanied by her older brother, spent her days and nights in a drugged haze. Because there was no electricity or running water, a few times a week Greenlee’s mother left soap and washrags and buckets of water on the front porch so her two eldest children could bathe.

When she slept, which was rare, she passed out on a rancid mattress dragged in from a nearby alley. A steady stream of men drifted in and out of the crumbling structure, paying for sex and smoking crack. At night the only light came from a few candles on the floor, or from the fleeting glow of the glass crack pipe as it was lit.

It was a living hell that seemed to drag on uninterrupted for an eternity. At the age of 41, Greenlee had spent more than half her life trapped in a cycle of seedy sex and illicit drug use. If she was going to change, she needed help from someone who could relate.

Then came a knock at the door that ultimately would change her life.

Outside on the front porch was an old friend, Regina Mullins, whom she hadn’t seen for several years. Assuming Mullins had been serving time behind bars, Greenlee initially believed her friend was back looking for drugs and a place to crash.

“But when I opened the door and saw her, she was fit and had some weight on her,” Greenlee recalls. “She was smiling, eyes glowing, looking healthy.” Mullins explained that she’d been through a two-year treatment program called Magdalene House, and she urged Greenlee to go there for help.

But Greenlee wasn’t ready, and she angrily chased her friend away, warning her not to return. But Mullins came back the very next day, and again the following week. For the next six months, Mullins showed up again and again, often yelling inside the house, “I love you, Clemmie. We’re waiting for you to come to Magdalene.” Each time she visited, Mullins threw a balled up piece of paper through a broken window with the contact information for Magdalene House.

The visits haunted Greenlee, who came to expect them, and whenever her friend skipped a day, her heart sunk.

Then came the morning of March 24, 2001.

Coming down from a weeklong high, Greenlee was in a haze and sleep-deprived when, for once, the stench of her surroundings made her ill. “I looked down and I saw the big pile of notes that Regina had left me and I grabbed one and I went out the door,” she says, recalling how, after spending weeks cooped up in the darkness, the sunlight was blinding. “I made it to my mom’s porch just being as poor and skinny and hungry and as fragile as I could be. I showed up at her door and said, ‘Momma, please dial this number,’ and she said, ‘No. You dial it.’ ”

Had her mother retreated inside to make the phone call, Greenlee admits she probably would have changed her mind. But she made the call herself, and when her friend Regina Mullins answered, she sobbed, “I’m ready,” and within an hour she was on the road to recovery.

As Greenlee recounts the events of her life, she breaks down at the mention of Magdalene House. “These are good tears. I just didn’t ever think I would have a chance to do anything right in my life,” she says, pausing for a moment as she regains her composure. “I can’t apologize for my tears. I just can’t explain this feeling. I was going to die out there on the streets, but God saw fit that he wanted me to come out here and do his work and lead people to the places where they can get help. Ain’t no way I shouldn’t be dead.”

The next two years at Magdalene were spent getting clean and learning how to live in society again. There was job training, stress management and even a class on personal hygiene. Having to teach grown women to bathe properly sounds ridiculous, Greenlee admits, but she says when you’re on the streets, high on drugs, the thought of washing your face or brushing your teeth escapes you for weeks or even months at a time.

Greenlee welcomed the fresh sheets, warm water and hearty meals Magdalene offered. But not surprisingly, after a few weeks in the program she felt the itch to get back out there. Past attempts at rehab had proven to be more of a vacation, giving Greenlee a chance to regain her strength, put some meat on her bony frame, and then leave a little healthier. But this time, for some reason, her conscience wouldn’t let her go.

Almost one year into the program—Greenlee had 11 months and 29 days clean—she recalls skipping out on a 12-step meeting early, but instead of heading back to Magdalene, she ended up in an old haunt looking for a fix. She spent the next few hours smoking crack, but says she never got high, no matter how much she smoked. “God wouldn’t let me enjoy it. God had something else for me for real to do.”

Although she knew she probably could return to Magdalene and no one would know she had slipped, again she says her conscience wouldn’t let her lie. She had spent most of her life manipulating others, and for once she wanted to earn something honestly.

Greenlee called a friend to pick her up, and she returned to Magdalene, ashamed and expecting to be kicked out of the program. But she wasn’t kicked out, at least not for good. The program required anyone who relapsed to spend 14 days outside the house. If at that point the woman wanted to return, she would be welcomed back. During those two weeks Greenlee realized she wanted to escape for good the life of addiction and all that came with it, and she prayed. “I said, ‘God, I don’t care what you have to do, you take this taste, this desire, this thought, all of it away from me.” And so she returned to Magdalene and graduated the following year. Although the temptation to use has subsided, she still prays to stay clean. “I’m not saying you go through life and not think about a drink or think about a hit. It comes through my mind, you know. I’m an addict. But now it’s just a thought, and that’s all it is.”

It was only natural that upon graduating from Magdalene she wanted to pay it forward. For about a year she drove a van for Magdalene, picking up women on the streets, just like her friend had done for her two years earlier. Although she now divides her time among a handful of other causes, Greenlee continues to be a vocal advocate for Magdalene. Occasionally, she returns to talk with women currently going through the program, in part to share her own inspirational story, but also to gain inspiration from them.

“Clemmie is a great ambassador for Magdalene. She reminds people that you don’t have to live on the streets forever, that there is a way out,” says the Rev. Rebecca Stevens, founder and director of Magdalene House. Stevens was ecstatic upon learning Greenlee was chosen as Nashvillian of the Year (Stevens was named in 2000), saying her friend has a powerful message and a gift for making people listen.

“I think Clemmie has traveled farther than most people will ever travel in their life,” Stevens adds. “She’s traveled to the depths of hell, she’s been to the mountaintop, she’s gone into the desert, she’s stood in the courtroom in front of the judge. She’s done all those things, so she can speak the truth, and people just need to listen.”

Greenlee speaks on a national level, traveling to other states to share her story. Last summer, she made her third trip to a small town in Missouri where she spoke to young girls at a facility for at-risk youth. After her first visit in 2005, Greenlee was bombarded with letters from the girls asking her to return, and she plans to continue making the annual trip.

Along with her older brother, Lonnie Greenlee, she also runs a nonprofit called Galaxy Star Drug Awareness. The pair launched the program after getting sober and spent several years operating as many as five drug recovery houses. The Greenlees have helped dozens of addicts achieve sobriety, and although it’s been a success, they’re now redirecting the mission of Galaxy Star to curtailing violence in the community, particularly among young black men.

“We’ve done everything together. Good and bad, through addiction, and getting clean, and now helping people together through Galaxy Star,” says Lonnie Greenlee, sitting at a boardroom table in the living room of his East Nashville home, which serves as the headquarters for Galaxy. “I don’t think God could have done anything better than what he did for me and her, because we get a chance to go back and show some light.”

The makeshift office is cluttered with file cabinets, and a few inspirational posters line the wall, along with a dry erase board outlining future goals. On the top of the list is next month’s release of a rap CD entitled Let’s End the Violence, which will spread a message of peace and raise money for their mission.

“Clemmie is excited. She has so much energy. She’s found out that she can make change, and now you just can’t stop her,” says Lonnie, who’s wearing a beige three-piece suit and paisley tie. His slightly graying dreadlocks bounce with him as he talks about his sister’s enthusiasm, which he obviously shares. As the two banter back and forth about their work—a recent mock funeral organized to raise awareness about the rising murder rate, recruiting volunteers from local colleges—they barely stop to take a breath.

With an army of volunteers, they walk the same streets they once inhabited, talking with teenagers, explaining that they too have lived a life of crime and drugs and violence, but that there’s a better choice.

After seeing her two oldest children immersed in a dangerous life of crime for so many years, Greenlee’s mother Mary Pointer says she’s “overjoyed” by their turnaround. “It’s just an absolute blessing for a mom to see her kids end up getting out of all the dope and the prostitution and all that other stuff,” says Pointer, who for a long time feared her oldest daughter might die in the streets. For years, Pointer says drugs masked her daughter’s beautiful personality. “I’m just so proud, really. Thankful and proud.”

Although plenty busy with both Galaxy Star and Magdalene, in 2006 Greenlee joined the full-time staff of Nashville’s Homeless Power Project, a grassroots group that educates the public about the causes of homelessness and advocates for Nashville’s indigent population.

“Clemmie is both tough and flexible at the same time. She will stand her ground with the mayor, but she is also willing to listen,” says Matthew Leber, co-founder of the Homeless Power Project. Leber recalls first meeting Greenlee in 2004 while protesting proposed cuts to the state’s TennCare health benefits, saying he was impressed with what he describes as an amazing energy. “She has people who will follow her on a moment’s notice because they know she is for real and that she will hang in there with you. She tells it like it is in a way that will cut through a mountain of studies and statistics.”

One of Greenlee’s first assignments with Homeless Power was to facilitate a three-hour workshop with Metro Police cadets. While Greenlee told her life story, Leber says the class was in tears one minute, then laughing out loud the next.

At a recent reception celebrating Homeless Power Project’s release of a book telling the stories of homeless men and women, Greenlee, feisty as usual, works the crowd, and it seems everyone wants to talk to her. Greenlee finally quiets the crowd with a clap of her hands and a whistle, and she’s greeted with hoots and hollers from those gathered in a marble corridor inside City Hall.

As excerpts from the book are read aloud, tears well up in the eyes of many in the crowd, including Greenlee. As she listens, a homeless woman named Shawana sobs and lays her head on Greenlee’s shoulder. Greenlee puts her arm around the woman, rubbing her shoulder to comfort her as she cries. When the reading is finished, Greenlee is glowing as she walks down the line giving high-fives to all those who helped with the book.

“I think she’s a good advocate for what she believes in, and I think she does it in a way that’s very positive,” Mayor Karl Dean says of Greenlee, who served as his guide during an event this summer called the “urban plunge.” During the recent mayoral campaign, Greenlee and other advocates for the homeless invited the candidates running for mayor to spend an entire night roaming the streets with no place to sleep, to experience what it’s like to be homeless for a night. Dean says he “lucked out” by getting one of the most personable and funny leaders hosting the event.

These days, Greenlee’s become somewhat of a fixture at City Hall, attending meetings whenever an issue affecting the homeless—or any other marginalized population—is on the agenda. Usually ready and willing to voice her opinion, Greenlee’s candor eventually landed her a seat on the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission, of which she’s been a member now for nine months.

“I think she keeps us on our toes and keeps us conscious that we’re dealing with human beings and not just a circumstance and a situation, says former Vice Mayor Howard Gentry, chairman of the commission. “Clemmie’s presence allows us to never forget that. She just hits you head on. You can like it or not like it, but I think she is a necessary presence that some people would rather not have to deal with at times. But I know the spirit in which she approaches things, and it’s not about Clemmie, but it’s about the issues and the people she is championing.”

Born and raised in Nashville, Greenlee grew up in neighborhoods once considered the poorest, most crime-ridden parts of the city. As the second oldest of five children and the oldest girl, Greenlee cared for her younger siblings while her parents worked. The family ate bologna sandwiches or beans for dinner night after night. For curtains, her mother hung bed sheets in the windows. Although gifts were unusual, any small tokens that might be given on birthdays or Christmas were shoved in pillowcases or paper sacks. For years, all five siblings shared a tiny bedroom.

An already dire situation worsened when Greenlee’s father was laid off from his job as a truck driver for Pabst Blue Ribbon. Unable to find work, he became increasingly depressed, and eventually began drinking heavily. Men and women from the neighborhood often came to their house to drink and party, and Greenlee was not yet a teenager when she first tasted alcohol. And it was during this time that Greenlee first had to fight the unwanted sexual advances of an older man who frequently visited the house. Although she was determined not to let her little sister be victimized, Greenlee was unable to protect herself, and she became the victim of sexual abuse.

Greenlee’s mother—who already worked as a maid—took a second job cleaning houses to provide for the family. Often working 16 hours a day, she had little time to care for the children, so Greenlee took on more responsibility at home. At just 12 years old, she dressed and bathed her younger siblings, washed and ironed their clothes, cooked their meals and got them off to school.

But with little supervision at home, Greenlee and her brother, Lonnie, soon began to rebel. Only one year apart in age, the two were close, and when Lonnie dropped out of school in the eighth grade, his sister wasn’t far behind.

“We both hit the streets. They were the streets of older people, and we got introduced to all the fast life,” Greenlee says. “We started out with cigarettes and beer drinking. I got to feeling real good and I figured out at a young age I was gonna be a drunk and a good one. And that’s what I chose to do, to be the best drunk I could be instead of the best doctor or lawyer.”

Even as Greenlee veered in a dangerous direction with an older, rougher crowd, she still felt compelled to help her family, particularly to lighten the burden on her mother. She managed to land a job as a maid at a motel off Dickerson Pike. Barely 13 years old, Greenlee was too young to work legally, so she was paid a menial sum in cash. She spent her afternoons making beds, scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets.

That’s when Greenlee met Debbie, a call girl who frequented the motel. Greenlee was mesmerized by what she thought was a glamorous lifestyle, recalling how Debbie always wore new dresses and smelled of perfume. “She told me I could make $200 a day doing what she did. She’s the one who turned me out.”

Debbie taught Greenlee how to turn tricks. When a john was on his way upstairs, Debbie would hide the young girl in the closet so she could watch, listen and learn.

As Greenlee became more entrenched in the world of prostitution, she began drinking to numb the pain. It wasn’t unusual for her to down a bottle of gin or whiskey before selling her body—it made the act less painful, both emotionally and physically.

Meanwhile, Greenlee’s older brother started selling marijuana, a path that proved to be both profitable and dangerous. Greenlee recalls hiding in the bushes as a lookout while her brother sold drugs.

“We got so caught up with being mad for being poor, when we should have been appreciative for that bologna and Kool-Aid. But we wanted more. We should have been appreciative that our mom and dad was living trying to do the best they could scrubbing floors and driving a beer truck, but it wasn’t enough for us and we took off.”

It didn’t take long for Greenlee to become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son in 1974. Greenlee, just 13, didn’t even know she was pregnant until she went into labor, and admits now that she didn’t fully understand what was happening.

After giving birth Greenlee gave her newborn to her mother—who adopted him and named him Roderiquez—and she didn’t look back.

That’s when Greenlee says the real life of addiction and prostitution began.

In sleazy motels, busy truck stops and dark alleys along Dickerson Pike, prostitution became a way of life. Already dependent on alcohol, Greenlee eventually experimented with drugs and her addiction spiraled out of control. First she tried powder cocaine and pills, and then it was on to smoking crack.

Addiction overtook her life, and for the next decade she found herself living on couches or in abandoned houses, selling sex for drugs, occasionally landing in jail. Living with other drug-addicted prostitutes, Greenlee became known as the “babysitter,” and she often was left to care for the children of other women. There was a time when she recalls being the primary caretaker for 13 children, none of whom was her own.

“Making that money like that, by sleeping with all those men, it saddens my heart that I had to go that route,” she says. “But in order for me not to go insane by what I’ve done with my life, I look at some of the kids who come to me know and thank me for doing something for them.”

The first time Greenlee tried to get clean came after her first serious brush with the law when she was 26 years old. In the midst of a crack binge with her boyfriend, an argument turned violent when the man broke a beer bottle and sliced Greenlee on the back, leaving a 5-inch gash. Too high to feel the pain, she managed to wrestle the bottle away from him, and then stabbed him five times. He spent several weeks in intensive care, and meanwhile Greenlee sat in jail, waiting to learn if she would be charged with attempted murder, or possibly murder. She told herself if she ever got out, she would change her ways.

The man survived, Greenlee was released from jail, and she went on to enter a 30-day treatment program. Soon after getting out of rehab, however, she learned the lure of drugs and alcohol was too great. In the following years she repeatedly sought treatment, and even tried rehab in other cities, hoping that by leaving behind the Nashville streets, maybe she would be less tempted to relapse. But with liquor stores and crack houses in every city, she always ended up back where she was before.

In 1995, Greenlee once again tried to get clean, and this time she even attempted to fulfill a lifelong dream of pursuing a career in health care. She took classes toward becoming a nurse, and eventually landed a job as a nursing assistant. For the first time in her life, she felt worthy of a better life. She bought the necessary uniforms and medical textbooks, and recalls having a real rapport with the patients.

But a few weeks into her new job, the management uncovered her long rap sheet, and Greenlee was fired as a result of the past she was trying to escape. “I was devastated and humiliated,” she says. “I thought I was a nobody before, and now I believed it more than ever.”

After this setback Greenlee hit the streets again—hard.

By this time Greenlee’s own son was grown and, just like his mother and uncle before him, was living a dangerous life of crime. For the first time, Greenlee finally got to know Roderiquez, not as a mother, but rather a partner on the streets.

“He had no choice,” Greenlee says of her son, suggesting it was inevitable that he became trapped in that life. “How can he have a choice when his mother is smoking crack with him? How can he have a choice when his mother is out there prostituting? How can he have a choice when his mother is having a good time every time he brings her $500 or $1,000 that he done made? No, he didn’t have a choice, because I didn’t let him have a choice.”

Dec. 8, 2007, marked the fourth anniversary of her son’s death. With each passing year, Greenlee says the anniversary is more difficult.

This year, on that mournful day, Greenlee says she didn’t take any of the dozens of phone calls from friends and family trying to console her. Instead of trying to ease her heartache by getting her mind off the loss, she spent the day—all day—thinking about Roderiquez. She recalled the details of the day he died, which will never fade, and how she received a phone from Vanderbilt Hospital at 1 a.m. telling her that her son had been shot in the head. And how by the time she arrived he already was dead. Greenlee also says can’t help but dwell on her belief that she is partly responsible for his death.

But Greenlee also thought about her 5-year-old grandson, whom she sees most every day. Then she recalls a conversation she had with her son just days before his death.

“He came around and gave me this big old hug that just took my breath away. He said, ‘Momma, I’m coming home. I’m tired,’ ” Greenlee says, then pauses for a moment as she closes her eyes. A few seconds elapse, and she finally adds, “But see, it wasn’t his decision on what home he was going to. It was God’s decision.”

Add a comment