Editor’s note: Just when we were poised to say goodbye to St. Augustine, we’re held over by mechanical demand. My man Joe promised he’d get those motor mounts in by closing today. I showed up at closing time, and the behemoth was ripped wide open. No hood. No left wheel. Job nearly half-done. What the computer estimated as a one-hour job is now at five and counting. Little Ray Liotta, aka Lil’ Allen, said the more difficult side’s up tomorrow. He says we’re making out. I hope it is true. I don’t much care about inconvenience. The only thing that would be bothersome is a $1,000 bill.
I trust the folks at Rick’s. I like all of them: Esther, Rick Jr., Joe and Lil’ Allen. I have a particular fondness for Lil’ Allen. He always looks like he’s fresh off a 24-hour shift in a coal mine. While Allen wrestled with the behemoth, I chatted with Esther, widow of the namesake Rick and mother of Rick Jr. She shared a bit of their story.
Born in Sicily, Rick Sr. grew up in New Kensington, Pa., on the periphery of Pittsburgh. His father had shadowy ties to La Cosa Nostra. Rick served in Korea with the Marines. Spent 18 months as a POW. Taught math and science. Ran guns to Cuba for the government. Illegally. Pulled a five-year stint at the federal pen in Atlanta. As the song goes, more on Rick and Rick’s Muffler later.
Esther set us up with electricity and our very own bathroom. Tonight we camp in style. Tomorrow, we’ll see what happens. Thanks, Esther. See you in the morning.
I wrote the bulk of the story below five days ago, the morning after I managed a doubleheader interview at the McDonald’s at the confluence of A1A and 312, not far from St. Augustine Beach. At this point, I’ve completed enough fast-food interviews to query the marketing poobah at McDonald’s and see if they have any interest in underwriting a book called “Golden Days: Conversations Beneath the Arches.”
I’ve always been ready to sell out, if I could only find a buyer. Max, he’s not so sure. He’s grown wary. He sees me inch toward another stranger, and he says, “Daddy, I know what you’re doing. Interview! Please don’t.”
As for Gary (who asked me not to use his last name), I ran into him and the traveling man, Phillip Bowler, at the same time. While Phil Bowler looks like the walking incarnation of homelessness, he is anything but. If he’s homeless, it’s by choice. He routinely abandons his home in Vermont to travel the world. He sleeps in the comfort of motels and eats in restaurants.
Gary, on the other hand, is not so fortunate. At the end of a long day at McDonald’s, we stowed Gary’s bike in the RV and ferried him to his temporary abode in the tool shed of a nearby church. While Phil is confident and self-assured, Gary is reticent and guarded. There is pain in his eyes. I talked to him after spending an hour in the rain interviewing Phil. Gary insisted I should focus on Phil. He said his story isn’t worthy of this obscure journal. I disagreed.
Here is a bit of Gary’s story:
April 4, St. Augustine – Dawn’s ready to break over St. Augustine after a sleepless Walmart night. A few hours ago it was breezy and comfortable. Now it’s overcast and muggy.
I return to last night. Another day, another unpredictable McDonald’s experience. I had finally broken off my interview with Phil Bowler, shook his hand and dragged my soggy ass back inside the supernatural chill of the restaurant. Flush with post-interview endorphins, I figured it couldn’t hurt to see what Gary, my other fellow traveler here, might say. He arrived here from Savannah recently.
You might say he fell on hard times in Savannah.
For reasons that have much to do with his Savannah experience, Gary asked me not to use his last name. I’ll just call him Gary X.
What happened up north? Let’s see. While riding a bicycle, he got rear-ended by a car driven by a texting teenage girl. He spent three days in a hospital. He lost hearing in his right ear and sight in his right eye. Then he fell prey to a nefarious 300-pound woman who accused him of domestic abuse. He got evicted from his apartment.
He hopped a Greyhound south and now he’s in St. Augustine trying to reassemble the pieces of his life. He’s 54, a painter by trade. He lives in the tool shed on the property of a local church. I asked if he at least had a bed.
“I’ve got a sleeping bag,” he said.
He thinks St. Augustine is a good place to turn your life around. Not too dangerous.
“People are not nearly as friendly up there as they are here,” he said of Savannah. “It’s night and day. “It’s safe around here, a lot safer than Jacksonville and Chicago.
“This area, from the bridge in St. Augustine to the other side of St. Augustine Beach, is pretty unique.”
The hospital bill is in excess $33,000, he said. He has no insurance. What’s a man to do when the world tilts against him and threatens to crush him?
“That’s a lot of money for a three-day stay,” he said.
For what it’s worth, it could have been worse. Far worse.
“I hit the windshield,” he said. “The bike got underneath the car. I hit the windshield, thank God for that. I woke up two or three days later, and I’m in the hospital. I tried to get help down there. Tried to get some help to get some painkillers from some churches in town.
“The whole state of Georgia is redneck. If you don’t have money, they treat you like trash. They think you’re a professional homeless guy, that you’re trying to take money from the government and that you don’t deserve it. They’re just real judgmental.”
Far as Gary’s concerned, the Peach State can go straight to hell. It is to him the earthly embodiment of hell.
“When Charlie Daniels said the devil went down to Georgia, I think he was telling the truth,” he said with a wan smile.
Gary’s guarded. There is hurt in his blue eyes, betrayal in his body language. Yet he’s a nice guy. A smart guy. He needs some new teeth, and his smile is tight-lipped. He has no money for his hospital stay in Savannah, let alone dental work.
His mom, Ica (pronounced Ice-ah), gave birth to him when she was 45. She worked in ammunition plants during World War II. His dad, Vincent, was an Army medic and a volunteer fireman. Gary grew up around Daytona Beach and then Joliet, Ill. He went to Joliet West High School.
Asked if his dad was a good man, Gary does not hesitate.
“Yes,” Gary said. “He was a maintenance man at a trucking company. When trucks broke down on old Route 66, he would pick them up and bring them back on a wrecker. He was in charge of doing that, and also building maintenance. He retired with a teamster’s pension. Him and my mom, they bought a motor home and spent the last years of their lives in Ormond Beach. He was just a typical working man. Mom didn’t have to work, though she did around Christmastime for spending money.”
Gary hopes to get back on his feet and out of the tool shed soon. He hopes to get out of painting and launch an Internet business. He’s been studying keyboard research.
He hopes to find a nice woman to settle down with and retire around St. Augustine. He’s soft-spoken with a wry sense of humor. His face, if you subtract out quite a few pounds, sort of recalls that of George Wendt, who also grew up around Chicago.
He specializes in painting wrought iron. He had a business in Savannah before the roof fell in on him. He talked a lot about the fertile nature Internet business. He’s unsure, though. He tried to entice me with the possibility of easy money.
“I’ve learned a lot throughout the years,” he said. “In Phoenix, I had an import-export company, the Phoenix Trading Company. I exported 4,000 Nike baseball caps to Yokohoma, Japan. I sold some Pentium 166 computer chips to Britain. I was a broker. … I got out of it because there were too many counterfeits going on. Basically I had to fly to where the goods where at and inspect them for being counterfeit.”
Of course, there’s something missing here. An unspoken undercurrent of self-sabotage. But that shouldn’t preclude a second act for Gary, Fitzgerald be damned.
He’s been burned. He is hesitant to trust strangers. After a few hours, it seems I might be an old friend. He suggests it might be a good idea, while traveling the country, to search second-hand stores for hidden art finds. Shouldn’t be too hard, he said, to find at least one valuable piece each month. I wonder. If it was so easy, wouldn’t more people be doing it. The easy money, it ain’t so easy no more.
This, I think, is why Ralph Kramden never struck it rich.
“Nowadays, there’s some bad characters out there, people who like to see other people hurt,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get away from all the lowlife stuff all my life. I’ve seen so much of people spending money foolishly, and a lot of drugs going around.”
I realize I’m shuddering. Before it was just cold. Now I’m cold, wet and chilled to the bone. Gary is bright. He knows he has shortcomings. He knows he gets in his own way.
“I make things too complicated a lot of times, and I need to quit overthinking stuff. And analyzing and just do it,” he said.
Yes, he’s not had it easy. He’s dyslexic, and experienced a lot of difficulty learning to read. My mother, she had high blood pressure. I used to go into comas when I was a little baby,” he said. “She took me up to Shands teaching hospital up in Gainesville. I remember having an EKG done. I had to have a special tutor in grade school to teach me how to read. If it wasn’t for that one person in my life, I wouldn’t be reading today.
“My brother, who’s 64, can’t read.”
In the background, Linda Ronstadt croons an old Warren Zevon song.
Poor, poor pitiful me
Poor, poor pitiful me
These young girls won’t let me be
Lord have mercy on me
Woe is me
Gary’s got some colorful family history. His mom grew up in the Ozarks. His dad was raised around Chicago. His dad’s dad was an Irishman, a tough-minded cop who walked the beat in Joliet. His mom’s dad, Elvis, left the Ozarks during the Depression and went to Chicago, where he worked as a night watchman on the railroad.
Ica’s brother Herb once told Gary he’s related to Sir Francis Drake, He doesn’t really believe it’s true, but it makes for a good story. He doesn’t lack his share of stories.
Uncle Herb lost his arm in a sawmill accident at 18.
“He liked to tell fibs,” Gary said. “I still remember as a little boy, jumping into the pickup with him. He had another piece of property, and we’d go feed the ponies. He had to stop in the middle of the road and light his pipe.”
Uncle Herb ran a general store. He also ran the local post office. He retired with a federal pension.
Uncle Herb also raised livestock, cattle and hogs. Gary learned a valuable lesson on his uncle’s farm.
The lesson: A man should never approach a mama pig who’s laying on the ground with her babies.
“I was about his age,” Gary said, nodding at Max. “I wanted to take home a baby pig. She didn’t want me to do that. A 300-pound hog, she gook off after me. I ran toward a barbed wire fence. I had my cowboy boots. When I cleared that fence I could feel her breath getting that close to my legs. She wanted to eat me alive.
“It’s amazing how fast you can clear a fence when there’s a big mama piggy chasing you.”
The more we talk, Gary returns to what shape up as his twin themes: There’s gold in that thar Internet; and you’d be a fool to place your trust in another man. Not now. Not in the post-Wall Street meltdown. The world is a hard place.
“You can’t trust anybody in this country,” he said. “I’ve known many millionaires; they don’t want like they do nowadays. Greed has corrupted everything. America has went from one extreme to another. We need to balance the budget. We just don’t need to balance it on a bunch of widows, old ladies and old men.”
He’s a bit of an Amazon evangelist. Get a Facebook page, accumulate “likes.” Doesn’t matter what the subject. Gardening. Home repair. You name it.
Just a little know-how and watch the money start rolling in.
He goes out for a smoke. Says he’ll tell me the story about the pelican and his diaper when he returns. He says it might not be 100 percent accurate, but it’s short.
“I was playing at the beach, and this pelican just saw me walking down the beach started running after me and grabbed my diaper and pulled my diaper off,” he said.
A funny old bird is the pelican.
“They do stuff like that They’re funny creatures. That’s another reason I don’t want name included! Boy would my friends get a kick out of that.”
Before we pack up, the conversation takes one final turn to the dark side. Another nightmare rattling about his brain.
“When I was a teenager, I tripped one New Year’s Eve and land on this big rock and popped a hole in my intestine,” he said. “I went to the hospital. They thought it was too much beer. The pain persisted after I went home. They took me back to the hospital. They operated on me that night.”
He remembers his roommate, a college kid who’d been involved in a beach accident. He was making love to his girlfriend when a car ran them over.
“He lived and she died,” Gary said. “He was all messed up.”
On that note, we packed up our computers and got out of there. In a few minutes we were outside Gary’s shed. I pulled his bike out of the behemoth, handed him his bag and said goodnight.
Then he disappeared behind us as we made it out onto U.S. 1 and headed to the relative luxury of the Walton Family General Store.
Godspeed, Gary. Godspeed.