One man finds peace in life among the dead


ON AN extravagantly beautiful spring morning, with the lilacs and dogwood in bloom, I found Gino Brooks where he spends every night and starts every day -- in the cemetery. He's a self-described "half-dead" homeless alcoholic who makes his bed by the tombstones of long-dead millionaires.

I arrived on the scene in a stylish automobile driven by a man who has operated a business in Baltimore -- he asked me not to say which -- for several decades. He took me to meet Gino because he finds it remarkable, as I do, that a man can live so long by wits and handouts and drink himself to sleep each night among the old-money dead of Baltimore. He has known this Gino for years, always finds him in or near the cemetery -- he asked me not to mention which -- and gives him a few bucks each week. He never bothered Gino with questions about his life. "That's not me," he said when I asked why not. "I don't make judgments about the guy. He is what he is."

It was a warm and sunny day, and we found Gino in a good mood. "Someone once called me congenial," Gino said. "I had to ask someone else what that meant."

He walked awkwardly and with a cane. We sat on a low stone wall across from the cemetery, and he set down a satchel sagging with three bottles of MD 20/20 wine. He lighted a filterless cigarette.

"I'll be 58 years old on May the 7th," he announced.

He wore extraordinary sunglasses -- goldish-green frames with gold-tinted lenses -- under a faded Army fatigue cap, a Mighty Ducks T-shirt, jeans and black vinyl shoes. His puffy face was lobster-red from sun and wine; his nose appeared to have been flattened once upon a fistfight; his whiskers were faded blond and gray; locks of the same colors fell to the nape of his neck.

The cemetery caretakers don't mind that he sleeps there, he said. They just ask him to clear out each day before visitors might arrive.

"I go to sleep when it gets dark, and I wake up when the birds sing," Gino said.

What about rain?

"If it's not too late, I go over to the bus stop and sleep under the shelter," he says. "But if it's too late and I'm already wet, then I just stay here. ... The snow doesn't bother me. I just brush it off."

But he couldn't brush off the frost bite of two winters ago. Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed three toes of his left foot; they also performed a heart bypass. Then Gino went back to the street. He's not inclined to go anywhere else. He stays away from shelters.

"People invite me to their homes to have a meal, and I can't stand it. After a while, I want to get out. I tried it a time or two. I don't like it. It messes up my mind. It gets me thinking too much, and I don't know what I want to do, whether I want to stay out here, which I love, or live that other way. I rented rooms and walked out after two nights because I couldn't stand it."

He figures he's been homeless -- on the road mostly, across the country and up through Canada -- for 25 years.

He's been sleeping in the cemetery the last eight.

"Very quiet, very peaceful," he said. "The only peaceful place around here."

I started asking questions about his life, and most of his answers sounded authentic and plausible, and some of what Gino said seemed dreamlike -- breaking a mustang on a ranch by riding it into a lake; three young girls in a Ford convertible arriving out of the desert sun and picking him up on a Nevada highway -- and some of what he said, the deeply personal, sounded like things he had not said to anyone in many years.

He started out in Canton, in a rowhouse at Clinton and Toone. His mother died when he was 7. ("Trying to give herself an abortion," he said.) His father was an alcoholic. A family from Essex adopted Gino when he was a boy. "Got kicked out of fifth grade," he said. He went to a trade school but dropped out when he was a teen-ager.

He married a woman named Mary Jo when he was 20, divorced her when he was 22. When he was 28, he did time -- 7 1/2 years -- in prison in Jessup for armed robbery of barrooms in Baltimore County. "I had me an old Lincoln and I drove from one bar to the next and held them both up," he said. "Got arrested the next day." He did another 3 1/2 years for assault in Hagerstown. He's been in and out of jail for vagrancy, too.

He did some boxing as a middleweight and some fistfighting as a drunk. He can play the guitar and sing Hank Williams songs. "I'm like an old cowboy," Gino said.

At 39, he married another woman and had her name, Annette, and a black rose tattooed on his arm. He went out West, worked on ranches, hitchhiked from state to state, job to job.

"I done what I did and I ain't in no hurry to get nowhere, and I done things you never did," Gino said. "I'm not too darn swift with numbers, for instance, but I could always figure things out. I could build monuments if I wanted to."

I asked how long he'd been drunk.

"Since I guess I was 20," he said.

A young guy in shorts and a clean shirt -- "Friend of mine" -- suddenly appeared on the sidewalk, handed Gino some folded dollar bills, turned and said goodbye.

The businessman who introduced me to Gino handed him a brown paper bag with a sandwich inside.

A slender young woman with wet-look, shoulder-length blond hair walked past the cemetery. Gino said she was a prostitute.

I said that's a shame.

"Life's a shame," Gino said, and he put another cigarette to his lips and fumbled in his pocket for a match.

I asked how long he planned to live as he has.

"I know I'm gonna spend the rest of my life here," Gino said. "I don't ask much from life, just to live, and so far I done a pretty good job of it. ... I got good things in my mind, but it's the trying to get to them that's ... "

That's hard. Or impossible now.

I got up from the low stone wall.

"When you leave, I'll be alone," Gino said, "and I'll crack the next bottle."

I told him I'd be back to check on him.

"Men are men, and they live like they live," Gino spoke slowly. "I ain't ashamed. I done some good things, I done some worse things. But for the most part, I've been a man, and I'll continue to live my life the way I want to, and God bless America, and I love everybody and I hope they feel same ways about me. Amen."

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