Friend struggled to find a drug-free future
By Gerard Shields
He walked down the middle aisle of church weeping, his shoulder-length hair matted, his face in anguish.
Robert was the first homeless person I could remember in our Kensington neighborhood. We watched him for weeks attend services in his ragged vinyl coat, begging for money from the elderly and old friends.
Here we were a congregation of 3,000 who couldn't help one man get off the streets. So, at that moment, I vowed to resurrect Robert.
He agreed with his gap-toothed smile to go to breakfast, and I looked for common ground to establish some rapport. I found it in rock-and-roll, remembering seeing Robert at Tower Theater rock concerts.
His breakfast plate was a mess of egg yolk spilling over the potatoes and stained napkin crumpled on top resembling his life: one big mess. I told him of my plans to get him into a drug treatment program.
"It's going to be a great day," he replied.
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Because it's my birthday," he replied.
Robert spent years hanging on a notorious street corner where working-class British rock music blared constantly from a boom box, the scent of marijuana a permanent perfume.
The people there lived their anthem, "My Generation," by the Who: "Hope I die before I get old." Several died of drug overdoses, including Robert's younger brother.
I found a place for him with Gaudenzia, which opened its doors in the region to people with substance-abuse problems in 1969. The day that I planned to take Robert to the appointment, I found out he was stealing money that I had used for tolls from my car.
"This is it!" I screamed. "You get into this treatment program today or you die on the streets!"
Robert entered and I began getting letters like the one where he told me of winning the prize for lip-syncing the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil."
"I had a ball, Gerry, and there wasn't a drug or joint in the place," he wrote.
He completed the program and stayed for a year in a halfway house before going back to the streets, drugging and drinking again. I did what I could to get him back into treatment, but realized that I could only lead him to the water, not make him drink.
Years went by and my job took me to Orlando. I came home one Christmas and spotted him in church. I sneaked up behind him and grabbed him tightly as we hugged.
"Geerrrrryyyyy!!!" he shouted.
It was like watching Lazarus smile. We walked to a diner, where he told me that he had returned to Gaudenzia and had remained clean. He looked great in a sport coat and debonair mustache, his teeth fixed.
We talked of rock-and-roll and joked that we should write a movie together about his life. He would be played by Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino would take my part. I put him on the elevated train to West Philadelphia, where he was living, watching the silver chariot overhead take him into his drug-free future.
Close to 20 years has passed since then, and I thought of Robert recently, wondering what ever happened to him. His brother told me that Robert passed away in 2011 from heart failure.
I spent the following days somber, as if his death were fresh. I was most saddened that I didn't get to say the three words I wished I had been able to relay before he died:
Farewell, my friend.
Gerard Shields grew up in Kensington and now lives in Washington. He is the author of "Phutile to Phinally: 10,000 Losses And One Life As A Phililes Fan." email@example.com