St. Augustine, Fla., April 5 – It’s been 12 days. I still can’t get Tony Eugene Reid out of my mind.
We’ve traded the Atlantic Coast for the Gulf Coast. We were in the McDonald’s on U.S. 1 south of town. The one near the Working for Jesus garage. There were times I thought we’d stay in St. Augustine forever.
It was Friday night in McDonald’s. That’s what it’s come to. Friday night in McDonald’s.
Too depressing to dwell on. I was typing something about Roger Ebert, who had died the previous day.
Tony stopped by. He said hi. We talked for a bit. He left. Then he returned.
He wanted to sell us some new socks he’d picked up to get a little spending money. Walgreen’s, he said, had screwed up his SSI check. Fourteen hundred dollars.
He could use it. He’s broke.
We gave him a few bucks and he gave us his thoughts. He threw in a pair of socks.
He talked about the people he’d loved. He talked a lot about the woman he loved, a “white girl” named Kathy Elmore.
He talked about his brother, William Michael Reid. He said William is the greatest brother who ever lived.
“He’s the best brother in the world,” Tony said again.
He offered $5 to use our phone to call his brother. Said he’d be happy as hell if only he could talk to his brother, the greatest brother ever.
He said the phone number aloud. Repeated it twice. At first I didn’t understand. Then I understood. Then I hung my head. Five bucks to use a damn cell phone?
I dialed the number. I handed Tony the phone.
A glint of hope flickered in his eyes. The phone rang. And rang.
He got a voicemail message.
His face sagged. The hope had vanished from his eyes.
Tony said he has twins in Charleston, S.C., and a daughter from Kathy Elmore in his hometown, Statesville, N.C. He really loved that white girl.
She made him do the right thing. Then she did the wrong thing.
Then he followed.
“It’s some kind of woman that makes a man do the right thing,” he said. “She was old-school. She messed around and got on the rock and got me on it for a little while. I think she was shooting dope. She never went to jail.
“I said, ‘if you went to jail, it would save your life.'”
The white girl, she never went to jail.
Tony, he went to jail.
Tony is 54. He said he’s been homeless since age 16.
And yeah, he has done some time.
Maybe he stole a car or two. Maybe he messed up. I’m sure he didn’t want to.
He’s living at the St. Francis House in St. Augustine. He doesn’t much like it. Said it’s “about like jail.”
At least you get your own room in jail, he said.
I asked about his mother.
“She was very strict, a beautiful woman,” he said. “She had a bad tick-tock. She drank some liquor.”
Tony said he’s an artist.
“I draw on wood, T-shirts and paper,” he said.
His daddy, Gordon, was an auto mechanic. Gordon was a bit of a playboy.
“He was part Indian,” Tony says. “He messed around with a lot of women. My aunt said, ‘I used to like your daddy Gordon in school, but your mama got him.’ He fathered two other kids with other women.”
But Kathy Elmore, she haunts his mind.
He really loved that white girl.
“The white girl, I shoulda married her 20 years ago when I was young,” he said. “Kathy Elmore. I shoulda married her. I was too young, too wild. I messed up.
“I wish I could find her and talk to her.”
It’s time for us to return to the our six-wheeled home at Walmart.
We prepared to say goodbye.
Tony was wiping tears off his face.
He thanked me for talking to him.
He thanks me repeatedly. For talking to him.
I shook my head. I thanked him for talking to me. Still, I don’t know how to take it.
What do you say when it gets to that point? When another man thanks you for the simple act of talking to him.
“I feel good to get everything out,” Tony said. “I’m telling you the goddamn truth.
Here is a short, three-part video of Tony:
And Part 3