Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Friend struggled to find a drug-free future

He remembers an old friend from church. (iStock)
He remembers an old friend from church. (iStock) S.Gnatiuk

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.

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  • 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."

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