I will never forget Tony. I learned today that Tony "recently fell in the New River and died". The tears I cry for that man and the way my heart feels, a friend has been lost. Had someone told me years ago that I would trust, befriend and love a drunk, drug addicted, homeless man like Tony I would have laughed. I would have asked if they were on crack. Never would I have imagined to find myself loving, and now crying over a guy like Tony. Our friendship was a special one and one that many others shared in our circle of people who love and serve the homeless in South Florida.
The first night I really met Tony was when we began to gather information for 'Lovebags' in Ft. Lauderdale. I brought my camera and was ready to take pictures of all the homeless people in order to make an online database on Ning (before Facebook) so those who were serving would be familiar with the faces and needs of the individuals. Tony was brought over and introduced to me by Bob, the group's leader. From the red of his eyes and the smell of his breath I knew Tony was on something and I knew from his behavior it was the hard stuff. He was amiable at the beginning, following the command of his leader and obliging to having a photo taken on account that it only be seen by the intimate group of friends who he knew would use it to help him. By helping him, I mean give him the little bits of love he learned to rely on as the little nuggets that helped to get him through the darkest times of his life.
The first photo I took of Tony was in July of 2008 around back of the Woman's Center building in front of the Ft. Lauderdale Public Library. The image that was captured was probably the mask 99% of the people know as Tony, absolutely frightening. I knew it was not the face I could reveal and asked for a few more shots. He did allow me to take a couple more and was pleased with the outcome. He gave me his dob: 6/4/61, waist 32, shoe 9 with a short list of what he needed. Then he became candid and allowed me to take a shot of him and our friend Jules, a fellow Lovebagger. That night the first photo I took and the real Tony that emerged matched as one. I don't even recognize it as him now...
After I shot a few images and took some notes as to his name, age, and a few things he needed I went to the next person. At the time I was very comfortable being on the street conducting outreach to homeless and being with the Lovebags people gave me an extra sense of safety and security. On the same note this special group of people made the population we were serving feel comfortable. Peace was felt by all as they trusted the good Christians were sent to them by Jesus himself for service. Tony came to Lovebags looking for the message of God, as well as the free meal, clean socks, occasional razor and hugs.
Lanky bones looming 6 foot 4 inches with skin that my grandma would say "was as black as night" and eyes that not only popped but at times boiled red - Tony could be intimidating to say the least. At the best of times his hair would be twirled and sticking in all directions from his head like a wild man. Depending on what he had injected or poured into his body, I never really saw Tony straight. It was as if ever chakra was spinning in its own direction as he walked, each dimension of his being shifted in an unbalance. As long as you focused on his eyes and heart when he aimed in your direction, only then could you really see and be ready for Tony.
That first night I broke into Tony's heart within minutes... no sooner did the drug he was on turn him against me. He allowed me to take his pictures and then as I was leaving that night he pulled me aside and asked if I would do him a favor. In the darkness of the park he handed me a small slip of paper and asked me if I "could write some words" for him. Spoken like a true sketchy drug dealer, at first I had to try to understand what he was asking. "Words?" I knew well the game-face and how to play with misunderstandings on the street when it came to lingo... but 'words' I was wracking my brain. For a second I thought he tapped into my secret world and knew I had been a closet poet for a decade and maybe God was telling me to pull that out, or maybe this was some code I needed to decipher to get to the next level of his game. I became aware that I was alone with him and only armed with my camera and a slip of paper stood between us. The tension was intense as he expected a response and I had nothing to give. Just as my mind was looking for an answer to this request for 'words' he went on to say how "Jules, she usually gives them to me".
Of course! Tony was asking me to write him a verse from the bible. He was asking me to write him words of inspiration to hold him until the next Tuesday. Just a few little numbers and some words to help him not take that next hit. A simple slip of white paper in his pocket that would bring him the light and love that he needed during his darkest times. Simple. Yet close to impossible for a person who can not memorize a simple grocery list let alone a quote or words. I remember telling him that I was not the best person to ask for "words", unless he wanted me to write him an original poem. In which case he chuckled a bit and cocked his head to the side in the Tony-way. Looking wide eyed and down as if he spotted an alien. His shoulders squared up a bit more and his arms went wide. He grew about two more inches as his eyes started to bulge. I was watching the monster emerge from a misunderstanding. That moment in time when a demon trusts an angel to rub under their belly, seeing the soft spot. Tony allowed me to see he was in need and when I could not deliver he snapped. He started to scream "You ain't no Christian!?! I thought everyone here was Christian!!!" He went into a full flailing attack screaming in his disgrace as I had somehow been let in and contaminated his sacred bubble with my inability to recite versus.
As his arms and voice rose so did the eyes of those who protected. Luckily three of the biggest guys there were watching and showed up behind him. Calmly and with grace they plucked Tony from me and all was silent. I don't want it to sound as if Tony tried to attack me, although that is sort of what happened. I never saw it as that, I saw it as he felt betrayed and I always understood. I will never forget catching the eyes of those who grabbed him and pulled him away from me, calming him down and removing me from the scene. There was more laughter than shock. More of a joke 'How did you set him off?' than a concern. Crack is everywhere on the streets, if you can't laugh at it you can't be out there. Tony felt that I was a traitor, that I was exploiting him because I was not up to par with what he expected. I understood and respected him for that. For weeks when he would see me it would set him off on an outburst of anger and more than once I had to leave or he had to be removed. I will admit, I was terrified in one way but knew in another he was just like any other crackhead out there. I made a choice to help people on the streets and crack is a part of that choice. Tony taught me to see beyond that. The collective love of Lovebags helped Tony to see that as well. This allowed for all of us to grow.
Eventually we learned to avoid each other. I had the advantage, because I don't use crack, so when I would see him coming through the darkness I would usually take off so he could have his space. Time went on and we were relocated from the Library to various other places. It wasn't until one night when we were in the inside parking lot of Holiday park that Tony and I made amends. Armed with baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables I set up a 'Free Farmers Market' for our homeless friends. Crates of carrots, apples, oranges, peppers, grapefruit, celery, everything... even radishes. It was the radishes that broke Tony. I was holding handfuls of radishes in bouquets of some 20 red bulbs held by little blue elastics. I can remember my hands full as he approached my stomach flopped. All that was between me and crackhead Tony were about a hundred rubbery radishes. I remember looking down at them and praying hard. He aimed straight for me with his whacky hair and ghetto smooth gait, his eyes mirroring the color in my hands. I was not ready for him and was nervous. He stood in front of me completely calm looking at my hands with wide eyes and wild hair, arms by his side. A minute that lasted pretty long passed and then he broke out into peel of hysterical laughter. "Now THAT is something I've never seen. Radishes on the street. Hahahaha... What you say your name is again?"
That was it. I did not need a white flag, I just needed that red bouquet. From then on I became 'The Radish Lady' to Tony and each week we would talk over vegetables. Handing over a bouquet of ruby red radishes to Tony that night, and so many nights after that, bonded our friendship. I could not give him Peace in the written word but I could feed him memories of childhood through wilted roots. There was a certain sense of acceptance as I had shown my worth to him standing behind my bounty. Standing behind my baskets I would position myself before the food line started and tell each man he needed to eat his vegetables. It was the pre-dinner show and entertained all of them. They each tried to out do the other by preforming great feats - like biting into a fresh pepper or eating a tomato whole. So many of them just stared in awe at the colors, which they never get to see on the street. My best customers would tell me stories of growing up and gardens from their childhood. I would watch their eyes sparkle in nostalgia as they held a simple green pepper. Tony, he would just come over with a huge smile and ask me "Got any more of those radishes?" laughing wholeheartedly he had a way of holding that bouquet and eating from it, plucking the head from its wilted greens.
Another connection between us was Rufus. Tony loved to say his name and had a special way of doing it so it mattered and made people laugh. Rufus was the shortest and Tony the tallest. Rufus the lightest and Tony the darkest. They reflected each other brilliantly. Many a time when Rufus, the smallest and shortest of the group, would be walking around investigating he and Tony would happen upon each other. Rufus would stare up at Tony and Tony would say his name real loud and look down at him. They would have their little moments of understanding and contemplation. Tony would laugh at Rufus's hair when it got long and wild like his. After Rufus died Tony still would say "I remember Rufus, he was a good dog." There was an equally special bond between Rufus and Tony as Rufus did not like many men. It was Tony's other side Rufus did not like and would be the first to react, however Rufus also seemed to respect and understand Tony and his addiction.
Tony was there during pinnacle points of my life working street outreach. I saw the many faces and personalities of Tony and learned to play with each one of them with great care. He taught me a lot about feeling energy and knowing the vibe of the street. One night he came to me so drunk he hardly recognized me, our time I spent scolding him like a mother would a child. That night I surrounded him with words and support, prayers and communion. We were afraid we lost Tony that night. The next week when he showed up all happy and said "you know, its been a while since I have seen you" I replied without breaking a smile, "Yeah, I have been hanging out with your twin brother a lot. Let me tell you about that guy Tony..." I would speak very open and honest with Tony and several times I told him how his 'brother from another mother' was breaking my heart with the way he abused himself. I would tell him these things in front of our mutual friends and he would hear my concern and knew it was from my heart. He would take it to his own. Tony loved this. This was better than the radishes. He would throw his head back and howl while holding his stomach, slapping his knee and doing a little jig. "Ah-Ha-ha, Ooo... That guy! Hahaha..." It was this play that really brought us to a whole new level of understanding. For years after that it was "Hey, you see my brother?!" in which I would always say "I hope not, that guy is bad news!" We would laugh and hug each other like old friends.
One of the last times I saw Tony I remember we were sitting under a tree by the fence off US1 near the place Lovebags gathered that night. We were with a young man who was the same age Tony was when he hit the streets. Coincidentally this young man left his house, much like Tony did, to go to the corner store to pick up something and instead fell into an old addiction of Crack. This young man had been away from his home for 28 hours, with a girlfriend, young son, and mother all wondering and waiting for him. Wearing the same clothes, having been up, high and outside the whole time, he needed to go home. Tony was his Angel that night. That night under that tree, hiding from the eyes of everyone he felt was judging him, that young man got Tony's story. Hardcore reality sometimes hits home when you need it most. Tony told of his lost son because of his addiction. He wanted more than anything to see the family he left behind, but every day became a week, a month, a year and he got lost. After hours of sharing, crying and hugging each other, that young man was driven home and brought into the arms of his crying mother who thanked fellow Lovebaggers for their deed. We all saw first hand the power of forgiveness and love through our actions with that young man. That night Tony told me he was done with it all. That night, he believed that young man was a messenger for him to reconnect and get back what he lost. I will never forget the amount of hope I felt that night for both those men. I believed Tony wanted out that night, I believe if the addiction wasn't so deeply rooted he could have been free that night. That night I saw the truth of these two beautiful, strong, loving men held away from their hearts by a drug.
Over the years I watched how the food and support, love and 'words', of this group of people helped save Tony. He was becoming more sober and straight. His conversations were clearer and more focused on tangible things. He never told me his problems, unless it was that he needed a new pair of shoes or a new t-shirt, which he only asked of me once or twice in all those years. He always came to me asking how I was. Asking how Rufus was. He always came wanting to know how he could help or he would just stand there and sort of add weight to a conversation with someone else. He always would laugh and smile, if not by directly bringing light into the circle, he would mumble under his breath in a funny way 'Radishes, I remember them radishes" as he needed to connect the light of it all. He was the guy who stuck by our side as we started our own personal journey into the unknown on the streets with Lovebags. For he taught all of us to love a crackhead, which honestly is what our mother tells us NOT to do. Tony was that guy. We loved him so much. He loved us all just as well. I know he shines down on us and will continue to be carried in many hearts as we live on.
Although Tony is no longer with us in body, I certainly can feel him in spirit. He is finally free of what kept him enslaved in his darkness for so many years. If Lovebags did not exist, Tony would have never made it as far along his path with such love and light in is heart. Without Lovebags, Tony's passing would have gone unnoticed. Thanks to this group of people Tony left with peace in his heart and will be remembered. I feel so blessed to have been friends with him and to cry for the loss of his life. For I know he changed me and my ways of thinking. I will miss you crackhead Tony.