Rare is the person who would wish to leave this life without a trace. Mostof us will not merit the attention of future biographers or have our namesengraved on something other than a tombstone. Still, we at least expect a fondplace in the remembrances of those we leave behind.
Who knows whether Tyrone Douglas Lewis harbored such cares. Certainly, bythe time the end arrived in his 48th year, he had come perilously close to anearthly departure that would be barely noticed and wholly unmourned. That heavoided dying in such utter obscurity -- a phantom whose last years hardlyregistered with another living soul -- was the result of the most arbitrary ofcircumstances.
Tyrone first appeared on the streets of Harford County a couple of yearsago, a hulking, solitary figure in several layers of clothes no matter whatthe weather. No one ever learned much about his life before that time. Becausehe was homeless, though, it seemed safe to assume that at minimum, he was aman short on luck.
Except in one regard. By some stroke of good fortune, when time was runningout for Tyrone, he came to command the attentions, the ministrations and theaffections of a somewhat wizened, determinedly reclusive woman named JanetteGrant. Tyrone died anyway, but -- and surely this must have surprised him --he did not die friendless.
The story of Tyrone Lewis could easily be seen as a parable about anAmerica that, despite its might and its wealth, still fails those who are mostvulnerable. If it were up to Janette Grant, his demise would be seen ascondemnation of a community unwilling to help an unfortunate who was incapableof helping himself.
But experiences are not always reducible to simple morals or to singlestory lines. There is something to rue in any death that is ultimatelyunnecessary, and Tyrone's was surely that. But his last months also arerevealing of something else, something eternal. The workings of the humanheart are implausible, capricious and, above all, mysterious. That too is themoral and the story of Tyrone and Janette. There was no reason the two of them-- a frightened, afflicted black man and a dispirited white woman 10 years hissenior -- would become best friends. Except they did.
Janette did not sense she was in search of a best friend last year when shenoticed what looked like a slightly ambulatory bundle of clothes on the wintrystreets of Aberdeen. She was 57 and shared her shambles of a house with hertalented 30-year-old daughter Davida Breier; Davida's boyfriend, PatrickTandy; and a horde of mangy cats and dogs bearing the physical and psychicscars of careless previous owners. They live in a no man's land betweenAberdeen and Havre de Grace, where Janette had come from Philadelphia a fewyears earlier, hoping to open an antiques store. Instead, she makes a modestliving traveling to weekend fairs and flea markets in the mid-Atlantic topeddle books on antiques.
No stranger to misfortune herself, Janette is a spare, jittery woman withthe desolate look of a bird who remains in these regions during the winter.She has a raw South Jersey accent and the weathered skin and raspy voice of anicotine lifer, the kind who snubs out a cigarette to resume it at a later,more propitious moment. She is a vegetarian, although, as the smoking hints,for moral rather than health reasons. By her own admission, she does not seekmuch in the way of social interaction, although the few friends she hasconsider her the most generous person they know. It no longer surprises themthat she doesn't need an occasion to bestow gifts on them or that sheregularly makes contributions to the cause of a free Tibet. What she enjoysmore than anything is to fire up the VCR to catch an independent film withDavida. The charms of northern Maryland have eluded her.
She had no desire to make the acquaintance of her fellow citizens in thatpicturesque slice of the state, but the homeless man kept drawing herattention. She saw him a few more times, once sprawled asleep on the groundnear the Aberdeen train station. He wore tattered pants and a jacket withstuffing escaping from various slits. Underneath, he had on a sweat shirt withthe hood covering his head. He was filthy, and, Janette could tell, cold.After one sighting, she drove the mile back to her house, raided some clothesfrom a closet used by her older brother and shoved them into a shopping bagalong with a bar of soap and a toothbrush.
He was still on the curb when she raced back. He lighted a cigarette, butshe could see him watching her warily as she climbed out of her car andapproached. "I thought maybe you could use these," she said to reassure himwhen she came within a few feet. She put the bag down at his feet and held outa $10 bill. He took it. "Thank you. Thank you very much," she remembers himsaying. "Have a nice day."
She returned to see him again the next week and then began coming everyday, bringing him money for food. Every time, she lingered a little longer andthey shared more extended pleasantries. She noticed that he wore his newclothes, but over the old ones. He was polite and pleasant with a shy smile,gentle voice and precise diction. "I think it's going to be a beautiful daytoday," she recalls him uttering early on. Once, he offered to walk to thenearby WaWa Market to buy her a coffee.
She could see he was in bad shape. He walked with a limp and, wheneverpossible, leaned against a guard rail. Although he was big, about 6 feet 3inches, she could tell he was frightened. He did not like other people to benear, and he always tried to plant himself where he had a clear, 360-degreeview.
Nevertheless, she said, "He had this dignity about him. He never askedpeople for anything."
One evening, when Janette and Davida were returning from an Italian dinnerin Aberdeen, they spotted the man -- whom Janette now knew as Tyrone -- on abench in a park near the library. They stopped, and Janette carried him theirleftovers. "Oh, thank you," he said, devouring the food right away. "This isdelicious."
She knew he wasn't getting enough to eat. She began making lunch for himeveryday and bringing it to him early in the morning. Soon, she started toreturn each afternoon with his dinner, too. Sometimes, she visited him four orfive times a day. She brought him a radio and headphones so he could listen toclassical music, his favorite. When she learned he liked to read, she beganbringing him books. He especially liked English writers -- P.D. James, RuthRendell, even E.M. Forster.
She sat with him while he ate, and they talked. Janette didn't try toelicit information. She had secrets of her own. Their conversations wereaimless. Tyrone often surprised her with pockets of knowledge. He went offonce about the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay and the significance of brackishwater. When he spotted a pencil sketch on her living room wall, he readilyidentified it as a portrait of Leo Tolstoy.
Some bits and pieces from Tyrone's past -- or what he said was his past --emerged. Janette had the impression that he had been raised in Connecticut andfor some period of time had lived in an institution of some sort. As a youngboy, he had been sent to a summer camp, which he regarded as the happiesttimes of his life. He once had a car and a girlfriend. He was in Atlantaduring the 1996 Olympics. He'd spent time in a jail cell, and, not long ago,he'd been shot, which he implied accounted for the problems with his leg. Healso complained that the police in Aberdeen harassed him, forever forcing himto move from one spot to another.
How much of what he said was true, Janette couldn't discern, although shewas sure Tyrone was not a liar. If the events he described didn't reallyhappen -- and she didn't care either way -- she was convinced it was a matterof delusion rather than prevarication.
She understood he was mentally ill, even if she couldn't determine theexact nature of his impairment. He was afraid of people, of tall buildings, ofcities, of being indoors. He sometimes mentioned that he was certain thisperson or that -- usually authority figures -- wanted to molest him.Occasionally, he slipped into a rocking motion and his legs twitchedinvoluntarily, which she knew caused him embarrassment.
Janette's attentions to Tyrone did not go unnoticed. After she dropped offa meal to him once and began circling for home, she saw a police officermotioning her to stop. He introduced himself as R.M. Rudy, the Aberdeen chiefof police.
"Aren't you the lady who's been feeding Tyrone everyday?" she recalls thechief asking. He went on to say that he had received numerous complaints aboutTyrone. His appearance scared people and kept them from using the park. Hetold her that he had approached Tyrone to offer help, but that Tyrone hadrebuffed him. He strongly suggested Janette stop bringing Tyrone food becauseit only contributed to the problem.
The chief's last words remained with her: "If you keep feeding the bears,they keep hanging around."
Several months after Tyrone's death, the chief said he had indeedapproached Tyrone several times, once when Tyrone was splayed on a parking lotin a rainstorm. "I spoke to him for 15 minutes trying to convince him heneeded medical care and we could help him. He said he did not want to receiveany help."
He discouraged Janette from bringing food to Tyrone, because, he said, thatwould remove an incentive for Tyrone to accept more substantial help. "Sittingthere and allowing someone to merely eat isn't helping," the chief said. (Whenasked what sort of help he offered, the chief mentioned the Association forRetarded Citizens in Aberdeen, but Tim Quinn, the agency's executive directorsaid that, unless Tyrone was mentally retarded, he wouldn't have qualified forservices.)
Whether the chief was giving her advice or an order, Janette wasn'treceptive. She was resolved to continue helping Tyrone, although she wasincreasingly worried about his well-being. As the days grew warm -- then hot-- Tyrone continued to insist on wearing his many layers of clothes. In May,temperatures spiked to the upper 90s, and still Tyrone dressed the same,despite Janette's entreaties. It wasn't a surprise, then, when she found himcrumpled on a walkway near the Aberdeen train station, practically incoherentfrom dehydration.
The status quo was too perilous. If Tyrone wouldn't come live in her house,she suggested that he stay in a gazebo outside her house or that he sleep in avan she was considering buying. He was noncommittal.
"If he didn't get help, he was in a dangerous situation. He was sochildlike, he didn't know how to protect himself."
She tried calling social service agencies but said she didn't get anywhere.One of the problems she faced was exactly what the chief said he had run into.Tyrone was afraid of people, and adamantly refused to consider a shelter. "I'msure there had been offers of help," Janette said, "and he wouldn't takethem."
Mike Drummond, executive director of Core Service Agency, a social serviceorganization that helps connect needy people, including the homeless, withsocial and housing services in Harford County, would not comment on whatcontacts his agency had with Tyrone, but he acknowledged the difficultiesposed by someone like Tyrone. "Helping people to do the things they need to dois often a big part of the challenge," Drummond said. "There is a special kindof issue when it comes to mental illness because the decision-making can beaffected by the illness."
Unknown to Janette at that time, Tyrone had previously come in contact withsome authorities in Harford County. Before he showed up in Aberdeen, he hadharmlessly spent at least a year on the streets of Bel Air to the south."Almost every contact, we suggested that he go to a shelter, take a meal orwhatever, but he seemed content to do just what he was doing," said NormanRoss, Bel Air's deputy police chief.
Tyrone eventually migrated a few miles north -- he said police rousted himout of town -- and took up residence on a parking lot alongside the EdgewoodMotel. He lived under a canopy that he had apparently stretched between a treeand a shopping cart. The motel's proprietors said Tyrone wasn't a bother -- hekept to himself -- and that he survived on the handouts of good Samaritans whodropped off food from time to time.
For someone with judgment as impaired as Tyrone's, it wasn't enough help.Early last winter, a Harford County paramedic, Richard Lannen picked up aradio call about a man in distress outside the Edgewood Motel. Tyrone had sewnhimself inside three sleeping bags and was asleep or passed out.
Cutting his way into the bags, which were soaked from recent rains, Lannenencountered a terrible stench. Tyrone had been living in his own excrement,apparently for weeks, and now had serious infections all over his body,particularly on one calf. "There was a hole where his Achilles tendon shouldhave been," Lannen said. "I thought he was going to lose the leg."
That infection -- and not a bullet -- was the cause of Tyrone's limp.
Lannen took him to a hospital. "He seemed very intelligent," Lannen said."He spoke like he had some education. He made a lot of sense, really." Theparamedic added, however, that Tyrone worried that a social worker whoresponded to the scene wanted to molest him.
After Tyrone was treated, he later told Janette, he was transferred to apsychiatric facility in Havre de Grace. (Neither hospital will discussTyrone.) After leaving there, he found his way to the streets of Aberdeen andJanette's attention.
So Janette was right that Tyrone's existence was precarious. Nevertheless,her daughter, Davida, a graphics designer and writer, feared that her mother'sconcerns about Tyrone bordered on the obsessive, particularly in her behaviorone day early in July. In a near panic, Janette called Davida at work becauseshe hadn't been able to find Tyrone anywhere, even after hours of driving upand down Routes 40 and 22. Davida knew her mother to be kindhearted, but sheworried that Tyrone was becoming an unhealthy preoccupation.
Even so, Davida took to the phones and tracked Tyrone down at the HarfordCounty detention center. He had been arrested the previous day on a charge oflittering. He had left a blanket Janette had given him on a park bench outsidethe library.
For Janette, the arrest was the result of the police department'sescalating harassment, a characterization Chief Rudy recently denied strongly.As evidence, he produced a letter that he had written to the Harford Countystate's attorney two days after Tyrone was taken into custody.
"Our intent with this arrest," the chief wrote on July 10th, "is not to seeMr. Lewis be fined or spend time in jail, but to get him before the court inorder that he might be ordered to be evaluated or placed into a social serviceprogram that will provide some direction for him."
Janette knew Tyrone would find the experience of being locked in a cellterrifying. She raced to Bel Air. When Tyrone was released into her custody,he rushed over to hug her and told her how afraid he'd been. She dictatedterms. "Tyrone," she told him, "you're coming to my house. I can't take anymore of this. I'm a total wreck."
The decision was impulsive -- and unusual for Janette -- she hadn'tbothered to consult Davida. "Usually, I would not go up against Davida, but Iwas like, 'This is the way it's going to be. Nobody is going to hurt himagain.' "
So began their lives together, a period of contentment for the two that wasto last exactly five weeks.
They stopped to pick up Chinese food that first night, and she installedhim in a small upstairs bedroom. He later told her that he was afraid all thatnight that she would storm in and order him out of her house. The next day,they returned to the jail to pick up his meager belongings. Then, unsure whatto do, she asked if he'd like to go to the movies. "More than anything," hesaid.
She let him pick the film, and he chose The Bourne Identity. Sheprovisioned them with popcorn and soda. "He clapped at the end of the movie,"she said. "Like a kid. That's what hooked me. He was very, very childlike."
Later, Tyrone said to her, "Oh, this has been a good day."
Like Janette, Tyrone loved movies, so the two made a point of going tomatinees at least once or twice a week. She put a television and VCR in hisroom, and they watched together sitting on opposite ends of his bed withpillows propped against the wall. Only in the room would he make his onesartorial concession: He pulled the hood of his sweat shirt off.
He loved to discuss the movies afterward, and it surprised Janette that hecould offer sophisticated critiques of character and plot while oblivious tohow bizarre his own behavior could seem to others.
He could not, for instance, transfer his comfort with Janette to others. Inthe house, he stayed in his room with the door closed. Janette served theirmeals there, and she brought in an ice chest so he would always have somethingto drink. He never initiated conversations with Davida and Patrick, and triedto keep out of their sight. Once, when Davida was working at home, she askedTyrone to turn the television down in his room. He later confided to Janettethat he was terrified Davida would put him out.
His presence especially required the forbearance of Davida and Patrick,whose room shared a small landing with Tyrone's. (Janette's bedroom is on thefirst floor off the kitchen.) The house is so small, it is impossible to be onthe second floor and not be aware of the presence of someone else there, letalone a largish stranger. They also had to accustom themselves to seeingJanette less. She spent much of her time with Tyrone in his room.
The first weekend he lived with her, Janette had a show just outsideWashington, in Chantilly, Va., and she invited Tyrone to come along. He madean odd sight, in his layers of clothes. "What, are you here to work in themeat locker?" one antiques dealer asked him good-naturedly.
After helping Janette set her booth up, Tyrone retreated to the van. He wascontent to watch the people pass by the windshield, just like in the movies.
For the nights, Janette got them a hotel room -- Tyrone's first ever, itturned out -- with a folding bed for him. He pushed it underneath a table andset up barricades of furniture on all sides. "Tyrone, I'm not going to attackyou," Janette objected. "I know you're not," he replied, "but somebody elsemight."
He went into the bathroom, and she heard the shower running. When here-emerged, he was completely dressed but his clothes were sopping wet. He hadtaken his shower without removing anything.
That night, Janette woke up soaked in sweat. Getting up to investigate, shediscovered that the heat had been turned on full blast. Tyrone must haveswitched it on during the night.
Sometimes, and for no apparent reason, he would become sulky anduncommunicative, and would sit in the van rocking and shaking his leg andrefusing to answer her questions. Other times, he was loquacious.
However peculiar his behavior, Tyrone was unfailingly solicitous ofJanette. Quickly, they developed the habits and banter of old friends. Healways asked how she slept and was fretful when the answer was not very well.He insisted on carrying all the gear and supplies when setting up her booth atfairs and was irritated when he found her violating his dictum. He chided her-- gently -- whenever she used profanity. And, after she confided to him abouther fear of bridges, whenever they approached one in her van, he asked if itwould help if he held her hand. It did.
She, who was comfortable with so few, relished the time with him. Davidaremembers a scene at a flea market in Dundalk. While Janette browsed someclothes, Tyrone was nearby, gleefully circling around a rain puddle. ToDavida's amusement, she saw her mother hold a red turtleneck under her chinand call, not to her, but to Tyrone.
"Do you think this would look nice on me?" she asked a man dressed in layerupon layer of clothes. He said that he thought it would. Very much.
One day, the two went shopping for produce in Dover, Del. Janette had ahard time identifying the feeling she was experiencing. "I realized that wewere happy, that for the first time in a long time I was happy because we werejust doing this simple thing of buying produce."
If Davida found her mother overly preoccupied with Tyrone, she alsorecognized the good that he was doing her. He rescued Janette from despair,Davida believed, when no one else could. "I never would have suspected thatTyrone would have been her path back, but he was."
Always Janette had made a practice of bottling up her past like a dangeroustoxin. Box it in, contain it -- that was how to prevent it from doing furtherharm. Even Davida did not know all the details.
Only with great reluctance did she reveal her biography, and then -- monthsafter Tyrone's death -- only because she believed it helped explain heropenness to him. Janette's mother had been mentally ill and a drug user, inand out of institutions in and around Atlantic City during Janette'schildhood. She committed suicide by the time her daughter was in hermid-teens. Janette never knew who her father was, but was all too wellacquainted with an abusive stepfather. At 13, she had fled home; by 14, shewas pregnant by a man in his 50s; by 15, she was homeless with her infantdaughter. When authorities discovered her living in a bus station, they tookher into custody and removed her child from her care.
Somehow, she managed to dig herself out of the pit. She worked, she becameself-sufficient. She had another child -- Davida -- and raised her by herselfinto a strong, beautiful and sensitive woman. (She also virtually raised afamily friend, a boy about Davida's age.) The past, well, that was gone. Goodriddance.
Except it came back three years ago, when the daughter who had been takenfrom her tracked her down. But there was to be no heartwarming reuniting. Herdaughter, now in her 40s with two children, was unhappy and troubled herself,alternately resentful and grasping toward Janette. Davida, who only thenlearned of the existence of a half-sister, saw her mother breaking down underthe strain of trying to accommodate that daughter. Ultimately, Janette decidedshe had no choice but to break off the relationship with her first child.Afterward, she was inconsolable.
"It's very hard when someone is hurting so much, but you can't do anythingto help," said Davida. "No one knew what to do anymore."
Tyrone came into her life during the culmination of those events. Hebrought her back.
"She couldn't keep dwelling in the place where she had been and still takecare of him," Davida said.
The relationship was a salve to both of them. "It's one thing to giveshelter and food," said Davida, "but she gave him something I'm not sure heever experienced before: friendship and understanding.
"And Tyrone's gift to her was bringing her back from the bad place that shehad been."
Maybe Tyrone was simply the uncritical companion Janette required at thatpoint, but without ever broaching the anguishes of her past, she believed heunderstood her. "Because of my own childhood, I don't talk about these thingswith anyone, but he seemed to sense this stuff had happened."
Several weeks into Tyrone's stay, Janette made a decision, which she sharedwith him. "I told him that he could be here as long as he wanted. I had made acommitment. I'm going to take care of him the rest of his life. If I have todo a couple more markets to support him, I will. If I have to get a part-timejob, I will."
Making him happy gladdened her, and she looked forward to giving him allthe things she assumed he hadn't experienced, particularly Christmas.
On Aug. 13, Tyrone did not emerge from his room. Janette knocked and calledto him about 11 that morning. She could hear the television, but he didn'trespond. This wasn't the first time he stayed in his room and wouldn'tacknowledge anyone at the door, although it had always worried her. She knewthat he hadn't felt well during the last week, which had been quite hot. Hestill refused to take off the layers of clothes, no matter how much shebeseeched him. She also noticed that his room was always at least 15 degreeswarmer than the rest of the house. She suspected that he kept the windowsclosed.
She went out on errands for a few hours and returned home after dark.Patrick reported that Tyrone had never come out of the room. Janette called tohim from outside the door again. When he didn't answer, she retrieved theskeleton key and unlocked the door.
She and Davida had to push their way into the room because something -- anironing board, it turned out -- was pushed against it from the inside. Theroom was sweltering, the windows closed with stacks of books piled on thesills. Tyrone was lying on his side facing them. His eyes were closed. Shetouched him where his jeans and sweat pants had pulled up at the ankle. He wascold. She felt his head, tried to find a pulse at his wrist.
A video, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, spun on rewind where thetape had snapped.
Davida rushed out to call 911, while Janette stayed behind and heldTyrone's hand. By a stroke of coincidence, Richard Lannen, the same paramedicwho had treated Tyrone outside the Edgewood Motel, was the paramedic whoresponded that night. Later, the autopsy showed Tyrone had died fromhyperthermia -- excessively high body temperature, caused, no doubt, by thefour layers of clothes. Tyrone had, in effect, killed himself.
Janette was again inconsolable and months later, questioned whether she haddone right by Tyrone.
Police Chief Rudy suggested that was a good question. Even though Janetteblamed the police department for harassing Tyrone, the chief said Tyrone mighthave been better off if Janette had left him to the cops.
"Would it have been better for him to do what he did or for us to arresthim and get him in front of a judge that might have extended his life?" thechief asked. "Someone who might have gotten him to take off his clothes."
Mike Drummond of the Core Service Agency offered a more compassionate view."We were very happy to hear she had established that relationship with him andthat he was living in her house where he felt safe and part of things."
Davida lay on the floor beside her mother's bed that night, listening toJanette's sobbing. Though pained for her mother, she was proud of her, too."It kills her that she couldn't have done more, but she doesn't seem tounderstand that she did much more than anyone else was capable of."
Why him? Why her? You could say that Janette recognized in Tyrone thefrightened child she had once been, that at that point in her life, she neededsomeone who desperately needed her. And you could say that Tyrone was drawn toJanette because, unlike virtually everyone else, she recognized that there wassomething in him to value.
But then again, why should their bond be any more comprehensible than theties uniting any two people who enjoy each other's company? Maybe it's enoughto say that they found each other, and were both better for it.
Janette has suffered from depression since Tyrone's death and has slippedback to her isolated ways. But she says she is struggling not to allow herselfto fall too far this time. "I think about Tyrone, and that if I go back tobeing the way I was before, it would be like letting him down."
On her scratchy dining room table, she recently laid out the few belongingsTyrone left behind, most of them her gifts to him: sweat suits, Walkmans,bottles of cologne and lotions, a watch. She found after his death that he hadkept mementos from their time together: the menu from the Chinese restaurantwhere they stopped after she collected him from jail, the card from the hotelwhere they stayed in Virginia, and ticket stubs from movies they attended.After examining the items, she returned them to a big cardboard box along withthe container that holds Tyrone's cremated remains.
She has no intention of scattering the ashes. Tyrone's days of being outalone in the world are over.