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HOMELESS NO MORE: THE LONG JOURNEY HOME

A true story for the Holidays...

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.  This purpose of this story is not about us but is about both the joy that comes from helping someone in need, but, more so, about that surprising spiritual reward you feel when you suddenly realize that your life has been forever impacted for the better as much as you have impacted theirs!

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 oil rigs 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 verse 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 he was ashamed.   “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 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 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.  He wrapped up 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 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.   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 always 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 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 stood 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 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, 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.   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. Early the next afternoon, we contacted 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, he called Kathy.  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 cal 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.  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 4 am, 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 of 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.   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 I touch!”  Larry promised.    “And that 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.  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! 

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Snyder's Stoughton December 17, 2012 at 12:44 AM
An amazing story, Jim and Kathy. Thanks for sharing. I plan on sharing it with everyone I know on Twitter and Facebook.
Lacy King December 19, 2012 at 06:37 PM
You are the most inspirational and beautiful couple! Your story is absolutely incredible. I am rooting for you Larry! I am currently trying to initiate a homeless project in my hometown and your story has given me so much inspiration and motivation to NEVER give up, regardless of the ridicule. Thank you for sharing this emotional, yet uplifting adventure. I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Keep spreading love!!
Jimmy Derochea December 20, 2012 at 09:11 PM
Thank you for the kind words, Lacy and best of luck with your quest to initiate a homeless project in your town! Happy Holidays! Jim & Kathy

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