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 circumstances.
Tyrone first appeared on the streets 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 view.
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 delicious."
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.
Janette's attentions to Tyrone did not go unnoticed. After she dropped off a meal to him once and began circling for home, she saw a police officer motioning her to stop. He introduced himself as R.M. Rudy, the Aberdeen chief of police.
"Aren't you the lady who's been feeding Tyrone everyday?" she recalls the chief asking. He went on to say that he had received numerous complaints about Tyrone. His appearance scared people and kept them from using the park. He told her that he had approached Tyrone to offer help, but that Tyrone had rebuffed him. He strongly suggested Janette stop bringing Tyrone food because it 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 indeed approached Tyrone several times, once when Tyrone was splayed on a parking lot in a rainstorm. "I spoke to him for 15 minutes trying to convince him he needed medical care and we could help him. He said he did not want to receive any help."
He discouraged Janette from bringing food to Tyrone, because, he said, that would remove an incentive for Tyrone to accept more substantial help. "Sitting there and allowing someone to merely eat isn't helping," the chief said. (When asked what sort of help he offered, the chief mentioned the Association for Retarded Citizens in Aberdeen, but Tim Quinn, the agency's executive director said that, unless Tyrone was mentally retarded, he wouldn't have qualified for services.)
Whether the chief was giving her advice or an order, Janette wasn't receptive. She was resolved to continue helping Tyrone, although she was increasingly 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 him crumpled on a walkway near the Aberdeen train station, practically incoherent from 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 a van she was considering buying. He was noncommittal.
"If he didn't get help, he was in a dangerous situation. He was so childlike, 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'm sure there had been offers of help," Janette said, "and he wouldn't take them."
Mike Drummond, executive director of Core Service Agency, a social service organization that helps connect needy people, including the homeless, with social and housing services in Harford County, would not comment on what contacts his agency had with Tyrone, but he acknowledged the difficulties posed by someone like Tyrone. "Helping people to do the things they need to do is often a big part of the challenge," Drummond said. "There is a special kind of issue when it comes to mental illness because the decision-making can be affected by the illness."
Unknown to Janette at that time, Tyrone had previously come in contact with some authorities in Harford County. Before he showed up in Aberdeen, he had harmlessly 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 or whatever, but he seemed content to do just what he was doing," said Norman Ross, Bel Air's deputy police chief.
Tyrone eventually migrated a few miles north -- he said police rousted him out of town -- and took up residence on a parking lot alongside the Edgewood Motel. He lived under a canopy that he had apparently stretched between a tree and a shopping cart. The motel's proprietors said Tyrone wasn't a bother -- he kept to himself -- and that he survived on the handouts of good Samaritans who dropped 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 a radio call about a man in distress outside the Edgewood Motel. Tyrone had sewn himself inside three sleeping bags and was asleep or passed out.
Cutting his way into the bags, which were soaked from recent rains, Lannen encountered 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 should have 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." The paramedic added, however, that Tyrone worried that a social worker who responded to the scene wanted to molest him.
After Tyrone was treated, he later told Janette, he was transferred to a psychiatric facility in Havre de Grace. (Neither hospital will discuss Tyrone.) After leaving there, he found his way to the streets of Aberdeen and Janette'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's concerns about Tyrone bordered on the obsessive, particularly in her behavior one day early in July. In a near panic, Janette called Davida at work because she hadn't been able to find Tyrone anywhere, even after hours of driving up and down Routes 40 and 22. Davida knew her mother to be kindhearted, but she worried that Tyrone was becoming an unhealthy preoccupation.
Even so, Davida took to the phones and tracked Tyrone down at the Harford County detention center. He had been arrested the previous day on a charge of littering. He had left a blanket Janette had given him on a park bench outside the library.
For Janette, the arrest was the result of the police department's escalating harassment, a characterization Chief Rudy recently denied strongly. As evidence, he produced a letter that he had written to the Harford County state's attorney two days after Tyrone was taken into custody.
"Our intent with this arrest," the chief wrote on July 10th, "is not to see Mr. Lewis be fined or spend time in jail, but to get him before the court in order that he might be ordered to be evaluated or placed into a social service program that will provide some direction for him."
Janette knew Tyrone would find the experience of being locked in a cell terrifying. 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 dictated terms. "Tyrone," she told him, "you're coming to my house. I can't take any more of this. I'm a total wreck."
The decision was impulsive -- and unusual for Janette -- she hadn't bothered to consult Davida. "Usually, I would not go up against Davida, but I was like, 'This is the way it's going to be. Nobody is going to hurt him again.' "
So began their lives together, a period of contentment for the two that was to last exactly five weeks.
They stopped to pick up Chinese food that first night, and she installed him in a small upstairs bedroom. He later told her that he was afraid all that night 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 what to do, she asked if he'd like to go to the movies. "More than anything," he said.
She let him pick the film, and he chose The Bourne Identity. She provisioned 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 to matinees at least once or twice a week. She put a television and VCR in his room, and they watched together sitting on opposite ends of his bed with pillows propped against the wall. Only in the room would he make his one sartorial concession: He pulled the hood of his sweat shirt off.
He loved to discuss the movies afterward, and it surprised Janette that he could offer sophisticated critiques of character and plot while oblivious to how bizarre his own behavior could seem to others.
He could not, for instance, transfer his comfort with Janette to others. In the house, he stayed in his room with the door closed. Janette served their meals there, and she brought in an ice chest so he would always have something to drink. He never initiated conversations with Davida and Patrick, and tried to keep out of their sight. Once, when Davida was working at home, she asked Tyrone to turn the television down in his room. He later confided to Janette that 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 the first floor off the kitchen.) The house is so small, it is impossible to be on the second floor and not be aware of the presence of someone else there, let alone a largish stranger. They also had to accustom themselves to seeing Janette less. She spent much of her time with Tyrone in his room.
The first weekend he lived with her, Janette had a show just outside Washington, in Chantilly, Va., and she invited Tyrone to come along. He made an odd sight, in his layers of clothes. "What, are you here to work in the meat locker?" one antiques dealer asked him good-naturedly.
After helping Janette set her booth up, Tyrone retreated to the van. He was content 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, it turned out -- with a folding bed for him. He pushed it underneath a table and set up barricades of furniture on all sides. "Tyrone, I'm not going to attack you," Janette objected. "I know you're not," he replied, "but somebody else might."
He went into the bathroom, and she heard the shower running. When he re-emerged, he was completely dressed but his clothes were sopping wet. He had taken his shower without removing anything.
That night, Janette woke up soaked in sweat. Getting up to investigate, she discovered that the heat had been turned on full blast. Tyrone must have switched it on during the night.
Sometimes, and for no apparent reason, he would become sulky and uncommunicative, and would sit in the van rocking and shaking his leg and refusing to answer her questions. Other times, he was loquacious.
However peculiar his behavior, Tyrone was unfailingly solicitous of Janette. Quickly, they developed the habits and banter of old friends. He always 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 at fairs and was irritated when he found her violating his dictum. He chided her -- gently -- whenever she used profanity. And, after she confided to him about her fear of bridges, whenever they approached one in her van, he asked if it would help if he held her hand. It did.
She, who was comfortable with so few, relished the time with him. Davida remembers a scene at a flea market in Dundalk. While Janette browsed some clothes, Tyrone was nearby, gleefully circling around a rain puddle. To Davida's amusement, she saw her mother hold a red turtleneck under her chin and call, not to her, but to Tyrone.
"Do you think this would look nice on me?" she asked a man dressed in layer upon 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 a hard time identifying the feeling she was experiencing. "I realized that we were happy, that for the first time in a long time I was happy because we were just doing this simple thing of buying produce."
If Davida found her mother overly preoccupied with Tyrone, she also recognized the good that he was doing her. He rescued Janette from despair, Davida believed, when no one else could. "I never would have suspected that Tyrone would have been her path back, but he was."
Always Janette had made a practice of bottling up her past like a dangerous toxin. Box it in, contain it -- that was how to prevent it from doing further harm. Even Davida did not know all the details.
Only with great reluctance did she reveal her biography, and then -- months after Tyrone's death -- only because she believed it helped explain her openness to him. Janette's mother had been mentally ill and a drug user, in and out of institutions in and around Atlantic City during Janette's childhood. She committed suicide by the time her daughter was in her mid-teens. Janette never knew who her father was, but was all too well acquainted with an abusive stepfather. At 13, she had fled home; by 14, she was pregnant by a man in his 50s; by 15, she was homeless with her infant daughter. When authorities discovered her living in a bus station, they took her into custody and removed her child from her care.
Somehow, she managed to dig herself out of the pit. She worked, she became self-sufficient. She had another child -- Davida -- and raised her by herself into a strong, beautiful and sensitive woman. (She also virtually raised a family friend, a boy about Davida's age.) The past, well, that was gone. Good riddance.
Except it came back three years ago, when the daughter who had been taken from her tracked her down. But there was to be no heartwarming reuniting. Her daughter, now in her 40s with two children, was unhappy and troubled herself, alternately resentful and grasping toward Janette. Davida, who only then learned of the existence of a half-sister, saw her mother breaking down under the strain of trying to accommodate that daughter. Ultimately, Janette decided she 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 anything to help," said Davida. "No one knew what to do anymore."
Tyrone came into her life during the culmination of those events. He brought her back.
"She couldn't keep dwelling in the place where she had been and still take care of him," Davida said.
The relationship was a salve to both of them. "It's one thing to give shelter and food," said Davida, "but she gave him something I'm not sure he ever experienced before: friendship and understanding.
"And Tyrone's gift to her was bringing her back from the bad place that she had been."
Maybe Tyrone was simply the uncritical companion Janette required at that point, but without ever broaching the anguishes of her past, she believed he understood her. "Because of my own childhood, I don't talk about these things with anyone, but he seemed to sense this stuff had happened."
Several weeks into Tyrone's stay, Janette made a decision, which she shared with him. "I told him that he could be here as long as he wanted. I had made a commitment. I'm going to take care of him the rest of his life. If I have to do a couple more markets to support him, I will. If I have to get a part-time job, I will."
Making him happy gladdened her, and she looked forward to giving him all the things she assumed he hadn't experienced, particularly Christmas.
On Aug. 13, Tyrone did not emerge from his room. Janette knocked and called to him about 11 that morning. She could hear the television, but he didn't respond. This wasn't the first time he stayed in his room and wouldn't acknowledge anyone at the door, although it had always worried her. She knew that he hadn't felt well during the last week, which had been quite hot. He still refused to take off the layers of clothes, no matter how much she beseeched him. She also noticed that his room was always at least 15 degrees warmer than the rest of the house. She suspected that he kept the windows closed.
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 to him from outside the door again. When he didn't answer, she retrieved the skeleton key and unlocked the door.
She and Davida had to push their way into the room because something -- an ironing board, it turned out -- was pushed against it from the inside. The room was sweltering, the windows closed with stacks of books piled on the sills. Tyrone was lying on his side facing them. His eyes were closed. She touched him where his jeans and sweat pants had pulled up at the ankle. He was cold. 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 the tape had snapped.
Davida rushed out to call 911, while Janette stayed behind and held Tyrone's hand. By a stroke of coincidence, Richard Lannen, the same paramedic who had treated Tyrone outside the Edgewood Motel, was the paramedic who responded that night. Later, the autopsy showed Tyrone had died from hyperthermia -- excessively high body temperature, caused, no doubt, by the four layers of clothes. Tyrone had, in effect, killed himself.
Janette was again inconsolable and months later, questioned whether she had done right by Tyrone.
Police Chief Rudy suggested that was a good question. Even though Janette blamed the police department for harassing Tyrone, the chief said Tyrone might have 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 arrest him and get him in front of a judge that might have extended his life?" the chief 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 and that 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 to Janette'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 to understand that she did much more than anyone else was capable of."
Why him? Why her? You could say that Janette recognized in Tyrone the frightened child she had once been, that at that point in her life, she needed someone who desperately needed her. And you could say that Tyrone was drawn to Janette because, unlike virtually everyone else, she recognized that there was something in him to value.
But then again, why should their bond be any more comprehensible than the ties uniting any two people who enjoy each other's company? Maybe it's enough to say that they found each other, and were both better for it.
Janette has suffered from depression since Tyrone's death and has slipped back to her isolated ways. But she says she is struggling not to allow herself to fall too far this time. "I think about Tyrone, and that if I go back to being the way I was before, it would be like letting him down."
On her scratchy dining room table, she recently laid out the few belongings Tyrone 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 had kept mementos from their time together: the menu from the Chinese restaurant where they stopped after she collected him from jail, the card from the hotel where they stayed in Virginia, and ticket stubs from movies they attended. After examining the items, she returned them to a big cardboard box along with the container that holds Tyrone's cremated remains.
She has no intention of scattering the ashes. Tyrone's days of being out alone in the world are over.