Rare is the person who would wish to leave this life without a trace. Most of us will not merit the attention of future biographers or have our names engraved on something other than a tombstone. Still, we at least expect a fond place in the remembrances of those we leave behind.
Who knows whether Tyrone Douglas Lewis harbored such cares. Certainly, by
the time the end arrived in his 48th year, he had come perilously close to an
earthly departure that would be barely noticed and wholly unmourned. That he
avoided dying in such utter obscurity -- a phantom whose last years hardly
registered with another living soul -- was the result of the most arbitrary of
Harford County a couple of years
ago, a hulking, solitary figure in several layers of clothes no matter what
the weather. No one ever learned much about his life before that time. Because
he was homeless, though, it seemed safe to assume that at minimum, he was a
man short on luck.
Except in one regard. By some stroke of good fortune, when time was running
out for Tyrone, he came to command the attentions, the ministrations and the
affections of a somewhat wizened, determinedly reclusive woman named Janette
Grant. 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 an
America that, despite its might and its wealth, still fails those who are most
vulnerable. If it were up to Janette Grant, his demise would be seen as
condemnation of a community unwilling to help an unfortunate who was incapable
of helping himself.
But experiences are not always reducible to simple morals or to single
story lines. There is something to rue in any death that is ultimately
unnecessary, and Tyrone's was surely that. But his last months also are
revealing of something else, something eternal. The workings of the human
heart are implausible, capricious and, above all, mysterious. That too is the
moral 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 his
senior -- would become best friends. Except they did.
Janette did not sense she was in search of a best friend last year when she
noticed what looked like a slightly ambulatory bundle of clothes on the wintry
streets of Aberdeen. She was 57 and shared her shambles of a house with her
talented 30-year-old daughter Davida Breier; Davida's boyfriend, Patrick
Tandy; and a horde of mangy cats and dogs bearing the physical and psychic
scars of careless previous owners. They live in a no man's land between
Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, where Janette had come from Philadelphia a few
years earlier, hoping to open an antiques store. Instead, she makes a modest
living traveling to weekend fairs and flea markets in the mid-Atlantic to
peddle books on antiques.
No stranger to misfortune herself, Janette is a spare, jittery woman with
the 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 a
nicotine 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 seek
much in the way of social interaction, although the few friends she has
consider her the most generous person they know. It no longer surprises them
that she doesn't need an occasion to bestow gifts on them or that she
regularly makes contributions to the cause of a free Tibet. What she enjoys
more than anything is to fire up the VCR to catch an independent film with
Davida. The charms of northern Maryland have eluded her.
She had no desire to make the acquaintance of her fellow citizens in that
picturesque slice of the state, but the homeless man kept drawing her
attention. She saw him a few more times, once sprawled asleep on the ground
near the Aberdeen train station. He wore tattered pants and a jacket with
stuffing escaping from various slits. Underneath, he had on a sweat shirt with
the 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 clothes
from a closet used by her older brother and shoved them into a shopping bag
along with a bar of soap and a toothbrush.
He was still on the curb when she raced back. He lighted a cigarette, but
she could see him watching her warily as she climbed out of her car and
approached. "I thought maybe you could use these," she said to reassure him
when she came within a few feet. She put the bag down at his feet and held out
a $10 bill. He took it. "Thank you. Thank you very much," she remembers him
saying. "Have a nice day."
She returned to see him again the next week and then began coming every
day, bringing him money for food. Every time, she lingered a little longer and
they shared more extended pleasantries. She noticed that he wore his new
clothes, 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 day
today," she recalls him uttering early on. Once, he offered to walk to the
nearby WaWa Market to buy her a coffee.
She could see he was in bad shape. He walked with a limp and, whenever
possible, leaned against a guard rail. Although he was big, about 6 feet 3
inches, she could tell he was frightened. He did not like other people to be
near, and he always tried to plant himself where he had a clear, 360-degree
Nevertheless, she said, "He had this dignity about him. He never asked
people for anything."
One evening, when Janette and Davida were returning from an Italian dinner
in Aberdeen, they spotted the man -- whom Janette now knew as Tyrone -- on a
bench in a park near the library. They stopped, and Janette carried him their
leftovers. "Oh, thank you," he said, devouring the food right away. "This is
She knew he wasn't getting enough to eat. She began making lunch for him
everyday and bringing it to him early in the morning. Soon, she started to
return each afternoon with his dinner, too. Sometimes, she visited him four or
five times a day. She brought him a radio and headphones so he could listen to
classical music, his favorite. When she learned he liked to read, she began
bringing him books. He especially liked English writers -- P.D. James, Ruth
Rendell, even E.M. Forster.
She sat with him while he ate, and they talked. Janette didn't try to
elicit information. She had secrets of her own. Their conversations were
aimless. Tyrone often surprised her with pockets of knowledge. He went off
once about the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay and the significance of brackish
water. When he spotted a pencil sketch on her living room wall, he readily
identified 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 and
for some period of time had lived in an institution of some sort. As a young
boy, he had been sent to a summer camp, which he regarded as the happiest
times of his life. He once had a car and a girlfriend. He was in Atlanta
during 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. He
also complained that the police in Aberdeen harassed him, forever forcing him
to move from one spot to another.
How much of what he said was true, Janette couldn't discern, although she
was sure Tyrone was not a liar. If the events he described didn't really
happen -- and she didn't care either way -- she was convinced it was a matter
of delusion rather than prevarication.
She understood he was mentally ill, even if she couldn't determine the
exact nature of his impairment. He was afraid of people, of tall buildings, of
cities, of being indoors. He sometimes mentioned that he was certain this
person or that -- usually authority figures -- wanted to molest him.
Occasionally, he slipped into a rocking motion and his legs twitched
involuntarily, which she knew caused him embarrassment.