Homeless No More: Duval Street miracle, Key West

homeless census
Jesus with leper
Email yesterday re a truly remarkable experience the writer and his wife had with a homeless man during a job/home-hunting trip in Key West. The writer himself is recently and unexpectedly out of work, not his doing – familiar corporate downsizing story. Perhaps someone in Key West or the Lower Keys, or somewhere else, will be interested in Jim’s job background and work skills, which, along with a copy of his story, can been reached via the link he provided to his blogspot. Jim and his wife’s good character are demonstrated in the story he wrote about their experience with a homeless man they met on Duval Street.
Hello Sloan,
Given your interest and interest in “Hidden in Plain View” I thought I might share a true, emotional Key West homeless story that I wrote to share a recent experience.   I hope you enjoy it and find it interesting.
HOMELESS NO MORE: The Long Journey Home

HOMELESS NO MORE: The Long  Journey Home

December  12, 2012
Jim Derochea
121 Westview Drive
Stoughton, MA  02072
My  wife, Kathy, and I had a remarkable experience recently that culminated in a  tremendous spiritual, Holiday blessing that we were privileged to be a part of.  At the behest of close family, I decided to document the story to share with  others.  The intended focus of this story is not us, but is both about the joy  that comes from helping someone in need and, more so, about that surprising  spiritual reward that you receive when you suddenly realize  that your  life has been unexpectedly impacted for the better by the person(s) that you are  trying to help!   Happy Holidays!

Homeless No More: The Long Journey Home

For so many of us, homelessness is a taboo subject.  Everyone knows the  homeless are out there in our nation’s cities and towns, but they often go  unnoticed, ignored for being an apparent annoyance or become a vehicle for us to  fulfill our sense of righteousness and compassion when we give them our trivial  spare change.  The negative perception is especially accentuated in a paradise  like Key West, where some actually feel that it’s more abhorrent to be homeless  amidst such glorious weather and tropical allure of the Keys because of the  perceived lack of hardship in such a climate.  Or they are simply viewed as a  cancerous blemish to the Key West landscape and it’s all important tourist  business.
But every now and then, we learn of their stories, often tragic, which  humanize them and expose them to our once oblivious vision as the pained souls  that many of them are.   And once in a while, after they are exposed, their  walls peeled away like layers of an onion, their stories touch us, move us,  change us.  This is such a story.  A story of a life, wrought with tragedy,  self-inflicted torment and a long, obstacle-ridden journey ending with a chance  at redemption.  It’s a story that my wife, Kathy, and I were blessed to be a  part of. 
To set the background, Kathy and I have been coming to Key West for a  decade.   We have developed many strong friendships over that time with so many  of the folks we’ve met from here and frankly, we have fallen in love with ‘Bone  Island.’   I had been urging Kathy to consider buying a house or condo here for  several years and she finally acquiesced this past year and so began our quest  late this past summer.
In October, we were in Key West for the second time in a month. We were  scheduled to look at several properties as well as to meet with a broker  regarding 2 possible small business acquisitions.   We were not fooling around!  If we found the absolutely perfect business deal, we were ready to completely  turn our world upside down and move from Boston area to the Keys to live here  and to run my own business.   With 2 children in college, it was a tremendous  long shot to move to the Keys now, but one we felt that we needed to  investigate.  At the very least, our goal was to buy a second home that we could  later call our retirement home somewhere down the line.  We christened this  dream, “KWest20” for our desire to live in Key West, at least part of the time,  by the year 2020!
On our next to last night on the island, we were walking down Greene Street  away from Duval Street.  We were approaching the Key West Chamber of Commerce, a  large brick edifice with sprawling stairs that widened as they met the brick  sidewalk below as if they were welcoming arms to those who entered.  There sat 3  or 4 of the Key West homeless.   As we approached them, they smiled and asked  how we were doing.   I was fully expecting them to ask us for money, but as we  answered with in stereo, ‘fine,’ two of them extended their hand to high five us  as one of them excitedly bellowed, “you guys have a good night!”
After a nice dinner at A & B Lobster with one of our Key West friends,  Kathy and I made our way back towards Duval via Greene Street.  As we approached  the Chamber of Commerce, again we noticed that 3 of the same men were still  sitting there, several hours after we’d first seen them.   One of them let out a  gleeful, “hey girl, you’re back” as Kathy high fived him again.   We stopped and  exchanged greetings and introduced ourselves to Glenn, Larry and “Indian” Larry.
Immediately Kathy gravitated towards Larry, who was a soft spoken man with  a deep, polite southern accent.   Larry was a big man, over 6 feet tall, and had  a round face and a full head of curly locks to go with a surprisingly neat  mustache and chin patch.  He had a teddy bear like quality and somehow, we both  felt that he was unique & stood out, was somehow different than even your  typical Key West homeless person.  We couldn’t put our finger on it, but it made  us want to know more about him, know his story.  We talked to Larry, Glenn and “Indian” Larry for over 2 hours that night.   About their lives, about where  they came from and how they ended up in the Keys.    Both “Indian” Larry and  Glenn seemed to be your typical “running away from something” Key West personas.  That’s what they say, right?  Nearly everyone in Key West is running away from  something or someone?  At least I remember reading it somewhere in Christopher  Shultz and David L Sloan’s book, “Quit Your Job and Move to Key West!”   But  Larry was different.  His story brought him to the same time and place as his  cohorts, but there was something about him that was drawing us in like  paperclips to a magnet.  Everything about him was endearing, genuine &  unique.  Initially it may have been his teddy bear qualities, his handsome round  face with those glinting blue eyes, his ear-to-ear smile and his most unique  belly laugh that intrigued us, but Kathy’s gut was telling her there was “something” special about Larry.  
Kathy is as compassionate as they come, sometimes, to a fault.  To wit, one  of our Key West friends has jokingly told her that she needs to change her  compassionate ways or she’ll “go broke and will never be able to buy a house  down here in the Keys.” As Larry sat there on the steps at 510 Greene Street,  Kathy rested her leg on the second step.  She moved forward over her knee,  leaning into Larry and spoke to him at eye level. A most endearing quality of  hers. “What’s going on?” she asked as she rested a reassuring hand on his  shoulder. “What’s your story Larry?” referring to his homeless plight.
Larry took a breath and looked Kathy in the eye and began to tell his  story, his most compelling and emotional story.   He told us how he had worked  on oilrigs and pipelines ‘all over the place’ when he was younger. “I made me  some good money along the way,” he continued. “I didn’t even start drinkin’ ‘til  I was 34 years old,” he said in a pronounced southern drawl.   Larry explained  that when he’d worked on oilrigs as a welder years ago he was making up to $250k  per year before it all fell apart and he started getting himself into trouble  with drinking.   He then change course and told us that he’d come down to the  Keys a few months prior, chasing some welding work, before the guy he was going  to work for apparently died in an accident.  Larry explained that he’d drank  away what money he had and had been on the streets of Key West ever since.  He  explained that even though some people consider Key West paradise, it was no  picnic for a homeless person.  Between never knowing when your next meal is  coming from, being around alcohol all day, jealousies and in-fighting (between  and amongst groups) and the nightly quest to find somewhere to hide so you can  sleep in order to make it through the night without getting arrested, was  stressful.   Not to mention the lack of hygiene and the sickness one always  seemed to be dealing with.   All in all, it was no paradise.  The only benefit  to being homeless in key West versus most other places, was that you didn’t have  to deal with the cold weather very often.
I’ve heard these stories before, been around addictive behavior enough, to  know that sometimes you’ll get far-fetched stories aimed at garnering sympathy  in order to cull some money to help further enable their addictive behavior.  But Larry seemed different, believable.   His bright blue eyes had turned  solemn and they seemed to tell us his story by themselves.  Yet we could sense  there was so much more to Larry’s story.  We were so right.
Larry went to stand up to get a lighter out of his pocket but he got dizzy  and wobbled back down.   He explained that he had diabetes and his sugar levels  were off a bit. Larry lurched forward, apologizing for the half smoked cigarette  he was about to light.  Kathy pushed him for more of his story as he began to  smoke the second-hand cigarette.  “Why did you start drinking at 34?” she asked  with the intensity of a seasoned reporter.  Larry paused.  His eyes began to  turn glassy and red, he was near tears.   His eye contact waned as he looked  down toward his feet, seemingly fighting tears or perhaps shame.   “That’s when  I lost my family,” he began.   “I was away, working a pipeline in Montana when  my wife, and my two boys and two girls were killed in a car accident back in  Kansas.”  There was no fighting it now, the tears flowed.   He explained how his  foreman called him down off a rig and when he came off the platform he saw a  State Trooper walking toward him.  He sensed immediately that it was bad,  falling to his knees and shaking his head as if to say ‘no, don’t even say it!’  He was hit with the most awful, debilitating and crushing news any man could  ever fathom.   His whole family had been killed in an accident; they were all  dead, gone forever!  
Larry explained how he chose to drink because he was constantly having  dreams about his wife or his kids.  ‘Good dreams,’ he told us, but the pain of  seeing them (in his dreams) was too much, so he drank to forget.  He drank to  get by.   I fathomed that he drank out of guilt as well, having been so far away  from his loved ones when they were killed and for not being able to protect  them…or say good-bye to them. Kathy offered that maybe the dreams were his  family’s way of letting him know that they are ok, that they are happy and in a  good place, Heaven.  He acknowledged that he’d never thought of it that way, but  I’m still not sure how much solace he could take in that, anyone could take in  that, but he seemed to take at least some.  Still, Larry seems to have a Faith  and strength beyond that which most men could be expected to have after such a  devastating tragedy, even despite his desire to drink to ease the pain.  The  tears flowed, Larry, me, Kathy, even “Indian” Larry had tears in his eyes as he  put a reassuring arm around his friend.
After we all composed ourselves, Larry went on to explain that he had been  living in Arkansas for a few years prior to coming to Key West and that he’d met  a woman while living there that he said loved him unconditionally.  “She is such  a good woman, but I just haven’t been able to ever bring myself to let anyone in  or to love anyone since,” he paused, “I ain’t never told another woman I loved  her since I lost my sweet Shelley,” he confessed, referring to his departed  wife.   “I just never wanna go through that pain ever again!”  
Larry’s walls had grown very thick over the years and for good reason, but  we could sense that he was fighting to tear them down.  He talked about Helen,  the woman who he said loved him, back in Arkansas.  A smile reappeared on his  face and his eyes lit up again as he talked about her.  They’d met when he was  frequenting a shelter a few years back while she was serving there as a  volunteer and they just clicked from day one. He talked about Helen for  seemingly an hour as he hinted that he felt strongly about her, falling short of  saying that he loved her.  
Kathy held her right hand to his left cheek and told him that he was a  lucky guy; that yes he had gone through the worst tragedy that anyone could ever  endure, but that he was here, alive, he’d survived and had a second chance.  He  nodded and smiled.  He seemed to not only absorb what Kathy was trying to get  across to him, but he seemed grateful for her perspective. Based on the fact  that after Larry tragically lost his family in 1994 that he’d been transient and  not gotten close to too many people, I imagine that he hadn’t had anyone tell  him that it was ok to go on with his life. At least not recently.   He hadn’t  had anyone point out what he had to look forward to and that his heart may never  love like that again, but there was still plenty of room and time, to love.    Kathy put her arm around him as she sat down beside him and looked him in the  eye and asked him if he knew the best way, the only way to honor his family’s  memory?  He shook his head ‘no.’   “To go on with your life,” she explained, “to  not let your life as you knew it, end on that day too. And to live, to live a  good, happy life.   I know that your family would tell you that if they were  able.  You need to live, for them, for you!”  The tears flowed again!  Larry  looked at Kathy as he squeezed her tight and told her that she was right and  that she was his “God-sent Angel.”  Kathy looked at Larry and said, “We can’t  make any promises, but we’re going to do whatever we can to get you back home  (to Arkansas)!”   Larry squeezed her again, “Oh my God, you don’t know what that  would mean to me.”
As they unwrapped from their hug, he admitted how much he missed Helen and  hadn’t talked to her in at least a month.   Kathy looked at me and I knew what  she was thinking as she pulled out her phone and snapped, “What’s her number? Do  you have her number?  We’re gonna call her right now!’   Kathy proudly  exclaimed.   Stunned, Larry fumbled through some papers in his pocket, then  through his wallet then pulled out a small scrap of paper with a phone number on  it.   Kathy dialed the number, well, entered the number, does one really dial a  number on a cell phone?   Suddenly she blurted into the phone, “Helen?  This is  Kathy.   I am in Key West and I am with someone that misses you and really wants  to talk to you!”  
Standing about five feet away, I could hear Helen’s uncontrollable sobs of  disbelief as Kathy handed the phone to Larry.   “Hi babe,” he grinned, “It’s me!   I just wanna tell you I miss you.”   Larry listened as Helen was apparently  telling him how much she cared for him and loved him.  He kept telling her, “I  know you do, I know you do,” as she continued to sob.   Larry lamented, “Coming  here (to Key West) was the biggest mistake I ever made.  I shoulda never left!  As soon as I can rustle up enough money for a bus, I’m coming home, (pause) but  it’s gonna take a while.   There ain’t no work down here for me!”   Larry  listened again then started talking about Kathy as if we still weren’t standing  there, telling Helen that Kathy was an Angel and she was going to try to help  him get home somehow. 
Something in Larry’s face had changed since we had begun talking with him  hours before.  It’s hard to explain, but it was like a peace had come across his  face.  Even his posture had changed.  At first, I wondered if maybe it was the  booze kicking in or maybe, maybe, he’d actually felt a sense of awareness and  reality around his life, an epiphany allowing the guilt to slip away, even  slightly. I hoped.   Then he shocked us and later admitted, shocked himself, “Helen, I have to tell you something, I wished I never left, but when I get  back, I promise to marry you!   I do love you, Darlin’!”   It was the first time  he’d told her that, told any woman that, in over 18 years.  
He looked at Kathy with the biggest smile as he squeezed her again.  After  he’d finished the call and we talked with Larry for another twenty minutes or  so.  As we began to wrap up to head back to the hotel, we noticed that Larry was  looking a little paler than he had earlier, apparently from his sugar levels  being askew.    I’m sure having a few beers didn’t help the cause either.  We  promised Larry and his friends that if they’d meet us at Simonton Beach in the  morning, we’d bring them something to eat.   We parted ways with hugs and for  good measure, “Indian” Larry threw in a big “God Bless you guys for that,” referring to Kathy’s caring interaction with Larry.
Larry’s story had captivated us, enthralled us, touched us deeply.   How  could one man endure that much anguish?  Obviously, it had taken it’s toll over  the years and drove him to drink and to homelessness, but when not intoxicated,  Larry was a handsome, bright, warm and genuine man who seemed to have so much  more to offer life.  There was just something about him, that as Kathy later  said, just drew her to him as if by fate.
That next morning, Kathy and I went on our usual morning bike ride then  headed down to Simonton Beach. “Indian” Larry, Glenn and a few others were there  and we gave them some bottled waters, juice and muffins that we’d brought them  for breakfast.  We didn’t know it at the time, but that started a semi-regular  morning ritual for us in Key West.  When we arrived, we found out that Larry had  been put into Protective Custody overnight because his sugar levels had “crashed” during the night and he needed medical attention.   Later in the day,  he was released and we finally tracked him down in the early afternoon.  He had  received his medical treatment overnight to stabilize his blood sugar and was  now back to his alert and spry self.   We talked with him for another hour or so  as he divulged more details about his family and the accident that claimed them  as well as his desire to go home to Helen in Arkansas.   We told him that we’d  check on him later that night and sent him away with a sandwich to fill his  belly.
We spent most of that last afternoon in Key West at the Lazy Gecko, our  favorite Key West hang out that our friend Lizzie’s owns with her ex-husband,  Peter.   Kathy and I contemplated whether there was something we could do to  help Larry get home, be it by bus, plane or otherwise.  But really, it was just  semantics . . . It was a forgone conclusion. Kathy was on a mission!  She was  going to find a way to get Larry home!    
We tracked down Larry one last time late that night.   Kathy had just  received a call from Helen a short while earlier and Kathy told her that we were  going to do whatever we could to help get him home.  We repeated the same to  Larry once again.   He was incredibly grateful and could not thank us enough as  his eyes became glassy again.  But, he explained that he had lost his wallet and  all his identification when he was taken away for medical treatment the night  before, so he wasn’t sure if he could travel by bus or plane without it.    We  realized that since we were leaving the next morning, there wasn’t much we could  do right then and there, to make plans to get him home.  He had no phone, no ID  and we had no way to contact him, so we told him we’d try to get back down  before Christmas, to get him home and left him with one of my business cards so  he could contact us, if he found someone willing to let them use his  phone.
Over the next few weeks, Helen called Kathy on a daily basis to talk about  Larry or to ask if we’d happen to hear from him.  Early on, we had not.   We did  keep an eye on the Monroe County mug shots via the Internet, to see if he’d been  arrested as a way to confirm his whereabouts and frankly, that he was still  alive.   We worried about his diabetes and his drinking and hoped that neither  got the best of him before we could get him home to Arkansas where he’d have  someone to take care of him in Helen.   But less than a week after we returned  home from Key West we saw his picture on one of the Mug Shot sites after being  arrested for a Municipal Ordinance Violation, aka for vagrancy.  We felt both  guilty and relieved.  Guilty that we hadn’t been able to help him get home when  we were in Key West but relieved because at least we knew he was alive and  getting better care than out on the streets if he was at the Monroe County  Detention Center.
Kathy continued to get calls every day from Helen before or after Helen  went to church.  She was a recovering alcoholic herself who admirably turned her  life around a few years back.  She has since embraced religion and serves as a  volunteer at a local shelter to keep her focused, so she, better than most, knew  what Larry was going through in regards to his drinking.  I am sure that the  common bond of fighting similar demons was part of their initial connection, at  least on Helen’s part.   She later admitted to being drawn to him the moment she  had laid eyes on him, just as we had.
Helen is a sweet, caring woman with a deep southern drawl that sometimes  made it difficult for her and Kathy to communicate, not to mention Kathy’s  Boston accent, to boot.  But they figured each other out.   Kathy had little to  tell Helen after Larry’s October 23rd arrest, but getting to know her and how  much she was in love with Larry and prayed for his return home only solidified  Kathy’s resolve to get him home.  Each call ended the same, with Helen sobbing  and telling Kathy that she (Kathy) was “Heaven-sent” and was the answer to her  prayers.    I do believe that sometimes, things happen for a reason and meeting  and befriending Larry, was one of those times.  
Over the next few weeks, the story was the same, calls from Helen, but no  word from Larry.   Despite not knowing if Larry was still in key West, we pulled  the trigger and booked a flight to Key West for the morning after Thanksgiving,  November 23rd.  Shortly thereafter, around November 12th, Kathy got a call from  Helen who was distraught because a friend of hers had claimed to have heard from  Larry and told her that he’d been kicked out of Monroe County and was homeless  in Miami.   Kathy and I pondered whether to cancel or change our flights because  of this revelation.   But what chance would we have of ever finding a particular  homeless person in a city like Miami?  We decided to simply ‘wait and  see.’
Then came Friday, November 16th; a terrible day that threatened to pull the  plug on the quest to get Larry home.   I was informed that the division I worked  for was in trouble and our main client was scaling their budgets back  considerably in 2013 and the company had no choice but to lay me (and others)  off.   I was suddenly and shockingly out of work, but more so, I had to break  Kathy’s heart.  Break her heart regarding our desire to buy a vacation home in  Key West and break her heart because it likely would put an end to hopes of us  getting Larry home.   I struggled about how and when to break the news.   I  decided to wait until the weekend was over.  Three agonizing days of keeping  that painfully big secret to myself was pure torture.   It was made even more  torturous Saturday morning when Kathy found Larry’s mug shot online confirming  that he’d been arrested the night before and thus, was in Key West after all!    She immediately called Helen and the both of them rejoiced and stoked the fires  of hope all over again.   I, on the other hand, was bathing in a sea of guilt  and fear as to how my news would potentially crush that hope.   
I ran the scenarios through my head a hundred times over the weekend before  finally deciding to just let it ride.  “I’m all in,” I thought to myself!   This  is just another test, an obstacle to test our resolve, our commitment to this  quest.  A quest so much nobler than our “KWest20!”  I vowed to myself that no  matter what the cost of the quick trip to Key West, it paled in comparison to  the reward of getting Larry back home to Helen.   On Monday morning, when I  finally broke the news of my layoff to Kathy, I vehemently emphasized to her  that we would not change our plans, our rescue mission.  It was full steam  ahead!
Fast forward to the day after Thanksgiving.   Kathy and I had just landed  in Key West and we rushed right to Duval Street to find Larry after dropping off  the luggage at our hotel.   It didn’t take long for us to find “Indian” Larry  who Kathy spotted as he and Glenn past the Lazy Gecko.  He agreed to track Larry  down for us and would have him meet up with us an hour later.    An hour later,  as we drove our bikes to meet them, we could see Larry’s big smile from 100  yards away as he spotted us coming down Simonton Street.   After greetings, hugs  and catching up on his recent hospital stay for his diabetes, we proclaimed to  him that we’d come back to Key West to get him home.   He sat there dumb-founded  as a couple of his friends patted him on the back in support.  Teary eyed, he  got to his feet with the help from his new (temporary) cane and hugged us both  again, sparking stares from a few tourists passing by.    We told him we planned  to take him with us when we headed up to Fort Lauderdale a few days later (to  catch our plane home) and that we would buy him a bus ticket home from there to  Fort Smith, Arkansas.   It was a done deal!  We told him that all he had to do  was stay out of trouble and away from getting arrested and he’d be home free.   
Over the next few days we’d show up each morning with breakfast that  included donuts, muffins, waters, Gatorade and bananas for the group.  The core  group of Larry, “Indian” Larry and Glenn were part of a larger group of 10 or 12  strong that looked out for each other.    Most were friendly folks that we’d  gotten to know or would get to know over the next few days.  One or two were not  so nice and were always looking for a selfish angle that would just benefit  them.   Amongst the homeless that we met and befriended were Dave, Jacquie, Bob  and Ed, who we found to be a warm, inspirational man.  Ed has terminal cancer,  yet his outlook is so positive and accepting of his fate.  Most likely he will  not make it through next Spring and most people around Key West will be  unaffected by his passing, but Ed has left a profound impact on both Kathy and I  that we will never forget.   His courage combined with his nurturing and caring  for the rest of the group is both remarkable and stirring.  These new friends  epitomize the good that can be found in anyone that “we” meet, even the one’s we  choose to ignore and treat as invisible, like the homeless. Their stories are  varied and some tragic, but I, for one, am a better person for having gotten to  know them all.   Kathy & I can’t help them all, nor do most even wish to be  helped.  They choose to live on the streets, but they have stated that they  appreciate our attention and friendship and they greatly appreciate what we were  trying to do for Larry.   No, we can’t help them all, but if we can help one of  them that desperately longs for help and has been through so much in his life  and it enlightens the spirit and hope for him along with his friends, then it is  definitely worth it.
After spending the day researching job possibilities online back at the  hotel, Kathy and I grabbed dinner and met up with friends.  Later that night, we  headed down Duval Street to check up on Larry.    On the way, we stopped and  bought a couple of subs, assuming Larry and friends would be hungry.    Afterwards, we found Larry alone on some stairs on Duval Street near the corner  of Front Street.   He was bleeding from his nose, which had apparently been  broken badly and which was now practically facing his right cheek.  He also had  a large bump and gash on the top of his head.   Apparently, upon hearing that he  was “going home,” one of the outliers of the group (who shall remain nameless)  had beat him in a jealous rage, kicked him in the face and beat him over the  head with his own metal cane.   Larry was a disheveled mess.  Bloody face, jeans  covered in blood, he was a spectacle.   And not a good one at that!   He ate one  half of a sub we had just bought as 3 or 4 of the other guys from his group came  along.   We asked them if they knew what had happened and a couple of them had  witnessed the beating and told us about it. They claimed that it was an  unprovoked attack.   One of them told us this would have never happened to Larry  if “Indian” Larry had been around at the time.   It was unfortunate for Larry  that he wasn’t there because apparently, “Indian” Larry is the enforcer of the  group and he looks out for Larry.  We offered the rest of the subs to the guys  as we consoled a beaten and dizzy Larry.   He refused medical treatment and said  he would ‘run the other way’ if we called someone to take him to the hospital.    We left him with his friends, asking them to take care of him and told them that  we’d be by in the morning with breakfast.   Poor Larry!
The following day, Sunday, we met up with Larry twice.  Once in the  morning, when we brought him and his friends donuts, bananas and waters, then in  the evening, around 8pm.  Again, just as the night before, he was alone on the  same stairs on Duval Street.  This time he seemed depressed.   Apparently  another one of the outliers had threatened to “set him on fire” and viewed him  as a traitor for wanting to go home and for getting the help to do so.   Larry  is a good-sized man, but slowed by age, booze and a bad foot from diabetes.  He  says that he is a shell of the 270-pound man that once allegedly toiled on the  football field under Coach Switzer at Oklahoma University; otherwise, he’d have  no problem “taking care of business,” as he put it.   He was afraid of being  burned alive or beaten to a pulp in his sleep.  On top of that, his sugar levels  were erratic and his foot was a mess as a result of his diabetes and quite  truthfully, from lack of hygiene.  What a mess!  But he was a proud man and  insisted that he’d be fine.  All Larry had to do was get through one more night,  and then he’d be in our hands and on his way back home. Kathy and I pondered  whether to bring him back to our tiny hotel room, but regretfully, we did not.  ‘There just was no room,’ we rationalized at the time. On the way back to our  hotel, we bought a phone and an accompanying phone card, good for 1,500 minutes  of use that we planned to give to him the next morning to make it easier to keep  in touch with us and with Helen on his long bus ride home.  The quest was so  close to becoming a reality as long as Larry stayed out of trouble and out of  harm’s way for one more night . . .
Later that night, after trying to avoid his usual sleeping locales in order  to “stay out of trouble”, he found a cozy corner on Mallory Square to drift off  to sleep.   But, then at 3am he was arrested, again for a Municipal Ordinance  Violation, apparently for sleeping in a public place after hours. We were going  home the next day, he was in jail with a $500 bond over his head and there was  little we could do to fix things in time to take him with us to Fort Lauderdale.   Could it end like this?    Through all it took to get us to the point of being  one day from bringing him home, how could it come to this?  The emotional let  down that Kathy and I felt that morning was as dramatic as it was traumatic.  This ending was so anti-climactic.  Helen bawled her eyes out uncontrollably  when Kathy broke the news to her over the phone that morning.   We were so  close, but it just seemed like it was just not to be! Something always seemed to  get in the way.  24 hours or so later, we were back in Boston and Larry was in  the detention center on Stock Island.  More precisely, he was in the sick ward  in order to stabilize his blood sugar for the time being.   And our quest seemed  all but dead!
Once home, we licked our wounds.   As a result of having been recently laid  off, we knew it wouldn’t be prudent to plan another rescue mission to Key West  anytime soon, but we kept all options open.   The next morning I wrote Larry a  letter, addressed to the Monroe County Detention Center, telling him we wouldn’t  give up on him.  I included our phone numbers as well as Helen’s, hoping he  would eventually call one of us to let us know how he was doing. 
After making a few calls to the Public Defender’s office, we found out that  his hearing was going to be more than 2 weeks later, on December 13th and that  he wouldn’t have an assigned Public Defender until 5-7 more days.  We decided to  search online for an inexpensive flight, just in case.  We figured a quick “in  one day, out the next” would suffice and wouldn’t break the bank.  We actually  found flights in and out of Fort Lauderdale for under $80 each way and were  seriously contemplating pulling the trigger on that deal the following day.  It  all depended on the outcome of our call with the Public Defender’s Office we  planned to make that next day. Early the next afternoon, we did indeed contact  the Public Defender’s Office, but found out that once Larry got out of the sick  ward, his assigned Public Defender got him an immediate hearing and he was  subsequently released, with time served.   Oh no! Not another twist!   Once back  on the street, we feared for him, for his safety and feared that he’d fall right  back to drinking and perhaps, lose that fire to get home to a new beginning.   
We were nearly 1,700 miles away with no way to contact him.  The minutes  dragged on like hours as we stressed over his whereabouts or how to get in touch  with him.  We even considered contacting one of our Key West friends to see if  they could track him down for us.   Then, suddenly, Kathy’s phone rang . . . it  was Larry!  He didn’t stop for a drink, he didn’t run back to his old routine,  he borrowed a phone from a tourist once the bus dropped him back into town and  he called Kathy.  He’d obviously gotten our letter while in the Detention Center  with the phone numbers and immediately put it to good use.  And now he was  adamant about not going back to the streets of Key West, to his old lifestyle.  He wanted to go home!   Kathy knew that every day he remained in Key West, the  more likely he was to lose that desire and the more likely he was to fall back  into his bad habits that would eventually kill him.  Kathy told him that she was  going to call Greyhound so we could purchase him a bus ticket for the next day,  (Saturday November 30th) but he had to promise her 2 things; First, to call (us)  back in the morning to get the details about the bus and second and most  importantly, to hide away and stay away from trouble so he could make it through  the night, clean and sober and without getting arrested again!   “I made it this  far, darling, I ain’t gonna screw it up!” he promised.  “I owe you guys so much.  You don’t know what this means to me and I ain’t never gonna forget it!”
Realizing that Larry still had a long, intricate trip ahead that included  36 hours of bus rides with 4 transfers and layovers along the way, we needed to  get him a phone so we could guide him through it.   Kathy had an idea on how to  get Larry the phone that we had bought for him, but it would take a lot of luck  and a huge favor from a kind-hearted stranger. Knowing that CVS on Duval Street  would be open early in the morning and was going to be easy for Larry to find,  Kathy called the store and ultimately reached Nancy, the Manager on duty.   She  explained that she needed to get a phone to a friend in Key West who was  homeless and needed somewhere local to send it via overnight service so he could  pick it up the next day.  Nancy told Kathy that she would like to help but she  couldn’t be responsible for the phone or ensuring it would get to him, but after  Kathy told her more about Larry’s story and why it was so important, Nancy  eagerly agreed to help.  “If you can be that unselfish and can help a stranger  like that, then I can do the same for you,” Nancy said.  They then planned out  the details together.  Nancy was not scheduled to work that next day, Saturday,  but said she was so moved by the story, that she was going to go in on her own  time (to CVS) to make sure she got the phone into Larry’s hands personally.    What a peach!!
Early Saturday morning, Larry called us from a borrowed phone.  Not knowing  what time the bus left Key West, he had made his way down to the Greyhound  Station at Key West Airport by 9:30 am.   We gave him the details on the  departure, which was scheduled for 5:30 pm and told him about the package with  the phone in it that was going to be delivered to CVS for him.   We quickly  arranged for a cab to pick him up and bring him across town to CVS to pick up  the phone.   Again, this took the kindness of a stranger, this time at  Five-Sixes Taxi.   After explaining the predicament to the woman who answered  the phone at Five-Sixes, she agreed to set it up at a discounted rate and put it  on our debit card over the phone!
Around 10:30am, Kathy’s phone rang.  It was Nancy at CVS who had indeed  come in to CVS to ensure the plan went off without a hitch.   She told us that  she had no sooner received the package when a “very sweet gentleman” came in  asking if she had received a package for him.  Nancy said that she was so  touched by the story, but was touched even more so once she met Larry and saw  what a warm, kind man he was.   She said she was so excited (to help) that she  cried after he left.   More tears, more good tears.   As they continued to talk,  my phone rang and a familiar name lit up my Caller ID, it was Larry, calling  from the phone he had just picked up from Nancy at CVS. After he confirmed the  obvious, that he had received the package with the phone, some snacks we’d  packed and full instructions with schedule detailing the times of all of his  stops and transfers, he thanked us over and over and over.  He had nearly 6  hours to kill before the bus departed which worried us, but he wanted to assure  us that he was going to make us proud.  “Y’all have done so much for me and I  come this far, there’s no way I’m gonna mess this up!” he stated.  I believed  him!  Six hours to go and he’d be on his way home!
At 3:15pm he called again to let us know he had made his way back to the  Greyhound Station at Key West Airport, despite the logjam caused by a race that  was going on that day on the Island.  Then he called again at 5:20pm to let us  know that he was literally getting on the bus!  We told him we’d be with him  every step of the way.  He was downright giddy, his dream, now so close to  becoming a reality.  I set my phone alarm to alert me 15 minutes before he  reached each transfer stop and 15 minutes before his connecting bus left it’s  respective terminal.   Over the next 36 hours Kathy or I called him every time  the alarm went off to make sure he didn’t sleep through his stop or fall asleep  on a bench during a ‘layover’ and miss his connecting bus.  Whether it was 2pm  or 4am, we called him and we talked and we laughed.   If he had any skepticism  about our intentions or our ability to get him home, they were long gone now.  And again, he expressed his gratefulness, over and over each time we spoke.  After each occasion that we talked to him during his trip, Kathy would  immediately call Helen to update her, who was getting more and more excited with  each call.  We have never met anyone more appreciative than Helen and Larry,  making it even more gratifying to help make their Holiday dream come true.  Their incredible happiness was our satisfying gift!
The journey was going without a hitch until Sunday.  Larry was nearly 24  hours into his journey when he professed that his sugar levels were off and he  was getting light-headed.  He had no money and had eaten the snacks we packed,  earlier in the trip.   Kathy ‘jumped’ on the Internet and came across Unique  Pizzeria in Atlanta, that happened to deliver and tried to set up a delivery to  the Greyhound Station.   But there was one problem; Larry was suddenly not  answering his phone so there was no way for the delivery person to locate him to  deliver him his food.    Again Kathy explained to the Manager the story of how  we were getting a homeless friend back home to Arkansas.  The Manager was more  than happy to help.   Another Angel!  She asked for the number of his bus route  and told Kathy that she would have the delivery person wait until the bus  boarded and then notify the driver that he had a delivery for Larry if they  hadn’t contacted Larry by then.   A perfect plan!  About 10 minutes before  Larry’s bus was scheduled to leave Atlanta, he called Kathy to let her know that  he had just received the food, was on the bus and on his way to his next stop,  Memphis, TN.   Another potential obstacle averted!
We spoke to Larry 2 more times overnight, at 12:00am just before his stop  in Tennessee, then again at 3:15am when Larry called to let us know that he was  loading up for his final leg of the long road home.  He sounded exhausted and  apparently had not slept to that point in the journey, but he was one transfer  away from getting home. 
It was early morning, the sun had hours to go before rising, but we  couldn’t sleep.  Couldn’t sleep because of the adrenalin rush, knowing that this  long roller coaster ride was nearing it’s happy-ending and more so, knowing how  much it would mean to both Larry and Helen when they were finally reunited.  Kathy and I were laying in bed, wide awake, like 2 kids on Christmas morning,  waiting for their parents to awaken so they could finally romp downstairs to  tear open up their Christmas presents.   That next phone call couldn’t come  quick enough as we anxiously awaited the pinnacle moment when Larry and Helen  were reunited!   We would have given anything to be there when Larry bounced off  the bus and into Helen’s arms!
8:55am, my phone sang out with Alan Jackson’s “I’m a Country Boy” ring tone  that I’d set and assigned on my phone to Larry’s new phone number.  He had  reached his destination!  “Hello Jimmy?” a female voice with a deep Southern  drawl asked.  It was Helen.  She went on, “Larry told me you made him promise  that we’d call you guys as soon as he was in my arms.  Well, he’s in my arms and  I ain’t never lettin’ him go!”   I could hear Larry talking to Helen and telling  her how happy he was to be home and how he wasn’t going to mess up this new  chance.   “God Bless you and God Bless Kathy, shouted Helen.   “God answered my  prayers and He brought my Larry home.  You guys got him home but it was God who  put you in Larry’s life ‘cuz he knew it was going to take Angels like y’all to  make this happen and you guys are Larry’s guardian Angels.  Thank ya, so much.  I love you guys,” Helen blubbered, barely discernable by the end as her  emotions and tears burst all at once like a large balloon.    She handed the  phone to Larry and again, he thanked us over and over as he tried to express how  much everything we’d done for him meant to him and how especially grateful he  was that we never gave up, no matter what.   “You are my brother and I ain’t  going nowhere, I am gonna make sure we stay in touch!”  Larry promised.    “And  that girl Kathy, I just love her!”   And I did as Kathy took her turn talking to  them both.
As my eyes welled with tears, an incredible wave of both satisfaction and  relief came over me.   The long, meandering roller coaster ride was finally  over.   Their incredible joy I could ‘feel’ on the other end of the phone  transcended the distance between Fort Smith, AR and Stoughton, MA and  overwhelmed us like a lightning bolt jolting us through the phone line as our  bodies tingled with excitement, literally, tingled as we listened to their joy  on the other end of the phone.   And it tingled with pride.  Pride in my wife,  the most unselfish, compassionate person I know, who swatted away the possible  ridicule of others to help out someone in need.   She took the lead and she got  Larry home.  There were obstacles at every turn and the odds were stacked  against her, us against us fulfilling that quest, but she never wavered, because  she knew that it could change someone’s life dramatically for the better.  From  all the challenges that go with trying to coordinate and communicate with  someone who’s homeless, to Larry’s arrest and through my layoff, she was  determined to not let it deter her/us from giving Larry and Helen the best  Christmas gift possible, each other.   And now, the joy that they were sharing  together and the promise of a renewed life was the perfect ending and perfect  gift for Kathy and I.   We soaked in their happiness & bathed in the joy of  accomplishing something special.  But more so, though we expected nothing in  return, we realized that we’d received an unexpected gift.  Our lives had been  surprisingly impacted for the better though this experience, through Larry and  Helen.  As we said our goodbyes that day, Larry asked how he could ever repay  us, I told him there was one way . . . by making us a promise to someday ‘pay it  forward.’  
He vowed to keep that promise; I believe him!  
It’s been almost two weeks since Larry arrived in Arkansas.  He calls Kathy  and I every day, to thank us and simply because we’re his friends.  He tells us  how he is doing, fills us in on what is going on with Helen and he tells us  about his plans going forward. Each time he begs us to come visit.  Kathy and I  promised each other we’d find the time to do just that, shortly after the  Holidays.   I don’t know if Larry is on his way to turning his life around, no  one does, but in a short amount of time, he has impacted our lives and made  Kathy and I better people, individually and as a couple.   But at least for now,  he is homeless no more!

About Sloan

Darn, that would take a while. Try the autobiographical pages in the header. Ditto for header menu pages at www.goodmorningbirmingham.com. Hatched and raised there, eventually I ran away from home. Here's a short list: Born 1942; male; spoken for; accused of all sorts of imaginable and unimaginable things, perhaps some true. Live on Key West of Weird asteroid. Publish something most days at goodmorningkeywest.com, been at that since July 2007. That's heaps of catch-up reading, probably not recommended.
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