An Uncommon Bond

March 02, 2003|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Rare is the person who would wish to leave this life without a trace. Most of us will not merit the attention of future biographers or have our names engraved on something other than a tombstone. Still, we at least expect a fond place in the remembrances of those we leave behind.

Who knows whether Tyrone Douglas Lewis harbored such cares. Certainly, by the time the end arrived in his 48th year, he had come perilously close to an earthly departure that would be barely noticed and wholly unmourned. That he avoided dying in such utter obscurity -- a phantom whose last years hardly registered with another living soul -- was the result of the most arbitrary of circumstances.

Tyrone first appeared on the streets of Harford County a couple of years ago, a hulking, solitary figure in several layers of clothes no matter what the weather. No one ever learned much about his life before that time. Because he was homeless, though, it seemed safe to assume that at minimum, he was a man short on luck.

Except in one regard. By some stroke of good fortune, when time was running out for Tyrone, he came to command the attentions, the ministrations and the affections of a somewhat wizened, determinedly reclusive woman named Janette Grant. Tyrone died anyway, but -- and surely this must have surprised him -- he did not die friendless.

The story of Tyrone Lewis could easily be seen as a parable about an America that, despite its might and its wealth, still fails those who are most vulnerable. If it were up to Janette Grant, his demise would be seen as condemnation of a community unwilling to help an unfortunate who was incapable of helping himself.

But experiences are not always reducible to simple morals or to single story lines. There is something to rue in any death that is ultimately unnecessary, and Tyrone's was surely that. But his last months also are revealing of something else, something eternal. The workings of the human heart are implausible, capricious and, above all, mysterious. That too is the moral and the story of Tyrone and Janette. There was no reason the two of them -- a frightened, afflicted black man and a dispirited white woman 10 years his senior -- would become best friends. Except they did.

Janette did not sense she was in search of a best friend last year when she noticed what looked like a slightly ambulatory bundle of clothes on the wintry streets of Aberdeen. She was 57 and shared her shambles of a house with her talented 30-year-old daughter Davida Breier; Davida's boyfriend, Patrick Tandy; and a horde of mangy cats and dogs bearing the physical and psychic scars of careless previous owners. They live in a no man's land between Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, where Janette had come from Philadelphia a few years earlier, hoping to open an antiques store. Instead, she makes a modest living traveling to weekend fairs and flea markets in the mid-Atlantic to peddle books on antiques.

No stranger to misfortune herself, Janette is a spare, jittery woman with the desolate look of a bird who remains in these regions during the winter. She has a raw South Jersey accent and the weathered skin and raspy voice of a nicotine lifer, the kind who snubs out a cigarette to resume it at a later, more propitious moment. She is a vegetarian, although, as the smoking hints, for moral rather than health reasons. By her own admission, she does not seek much in the way of social interaction, although the few friends she has consider her the most generous person they know. It no longer surprises them that she doesn't need an occasion to bestow gifts on them or that she regularly makes contributions to the cause of a free Tibet. What she enjoys more than anything is to fire up the VCR to catch an independent film with Davida. The charms of northern Maryland have eluded her.

She had no desire to make the acquaintance of her fellow citizens in that picturesque slice of the state, but the homeless man kept drawing her attention. She saw him a few more times, once sprawled asleep on the ground near the Aberdeen train station. He wore tattered pants and a jacket with stuffing escaping from various slits. Underneath, he had on a sweat shirt with the hood covering his head. He was filthy, and, Janette could tell, cold. After one sighting, she drove the mile back to her house, raided some clothes from a closet used by her older brother and shoved them into a shopping bag along with a bar of soap and a toothbrush.

He was still on the curb when she raced back. He lighted a cigarette, but she could see him watching her warily as she climbed out of her car and approached. "I thought maybe you could use these," she said to reassure him when she came within a few feet. She put the bag down at his feet and held out a $10 bill. He took it. "Thank you. Thank you very much," she remembers him saying. "Have a nice day."

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