The Driver's Tale

An Encounter with Tommy Latino
By Mike Wojnowicz

Approximately 1,140 miles away at a country home in small, sylvan Rockford, Ill., Tommy Latino paused behind his wooden garage door. He paused because he didn't know whether leaving for Florida was worth the sacrifice of his friends, his belongings, and his 52-year-old father.

Tommy, a skinny Italian kid with sideburns and cheap eyeglasses, had lived for the past three years in Rockford — "kind of like a small town, but not really," according to an assistant at the Rockford Public Library named Jean Lyphgoe. On one hand, "it's a wonderful place to raise children," a park is never more than a mile away, and the public school system avoided outlawing segregation and racial discrimination until 1989. On the other hand, Rockford is the state's second-largest city, hosts quite a few modern theatre performances drifting northward from Chicago, and produces On The Waterfront, a gigantic party on Labor Day weekend attended by people from throughout the state of Illinois, the U.S., and even Europe.

Despite Rockford's allures — and despite the existence of Beloit College on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin, merely 18 miles away — Tommy, 20, dreamt of going to the University of Florida, and had been accepted for the Fall 1999 term. But Tommy never thought seriously about leaving until the day when his father told him "he'd never cut it" at the University of Florida. That, he says, is why he left.

So Tommy no longer paused — even though he didn't know a single person in swampy Gainesville, Fla., didn't have a roof to sleep under, and didn't have to cash to pay for one. Tommy scribbled out a good-bye note to his father, stuffed $82 into the pocket of his jeans, and strapped on a blue Jansport bookbag stuffed with the necessities: Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear, two knit collared shirts, a pair of Levi's shorts, deodorant, tooth care supplies, and a few cans of tuna. He opened his garage door, stepped outside, and started walking to the Greyhound station, where he would hop on a silver-lined bus and arrive in southwest Gainesville more than 28 hours later.

Like an elm leaf flipping around in 90 mph hurricane winds, Tommy didn't travel toward his final destination with any great efficiency or initiative.

When Tommy arrived at the East Rockford Greyhound bus terminal long after midnight, sweaty, tired from his walk, his large eager brown eyes didn't greet a faithful Greyhound employee, but a small square sign saying "closed." So Tommy spent the night at the Rockford Super 8 Motel, a ten minutes' walk from his house. He hardly slept. He arose at 5:30 a.m., and since he recalled that the bus should leave at 6 a.m., he hurried through his morning routine (taking a shower, brushing his teeth), checked out of Super 8, and rushed over to the Greyhound station only to discover that the bus didn't leave until 8 a.m. Luckily, that gave him plenty of time to stop by the ATM for a $20 withdrawal, emptying his bank account and (as he later told us) giving him exactly the $102 he needed for the ticket, which he'd whip out of his pocket at any time as proof that his story was real.

Tommy never was the kind of guy to waste time planning — everything just kept on "working out."

Brian, a friendly-looking Lebanese guy with a goatee and broad shoulders, spent Saturday, Aug. 21 in the small space between the pink Hurley House and St. Augustine's Catholic Church, eating barbequed hamburgers with the Newman Club, a Christian organization sponsored by UF. Of course, as Newman Club Treasurer, Brian also had work to do. He was in fact adding water to Lipton's tea bags when Tommy approached and introduced himself.

"Tommy told me his story — how he was homeless, how he was from Rockford, Illinois. He had no real plan. He said he was drifting toward the YMCA when he saw our barbecue sign. He said it was an act of God."

Tommy offered to help out, so Brian put him to work moving the tea canisters to the wooden picnic table. Afterwards Tommy ate his free hamburger, met a pretty blonde student named Anne, and sang along as best as he could with the powerful vocal crescendos of Kelly Minter, the night's performer, flown to Gainesville by the Newman Club.

That night, Tommy slept on our couch in the Apartment Residence Facility, sleeping underneath Brian's blanket, an ugly pastiche of lavender, white, brown, and green.

According to Brian, the blanket "still has Tommy juices on it."

My second roommate is named Umar Syed, a dark-skinned Moslem from West Palm Beach. I asked him whether he thought Tommy was telling the truth.

"Well," Umar says, "I didn't believe his story. At least not at first. It was like, whoa, what's going on here? But then I realized that Tommy's just kind of dumb. That's why he's doing so many weird things."

Whether people label the na´ve purity in Tommy's character as "an honorable steadfastness" or "mere stupidity" probably depends more on their respective moods and tastes in semantics than anything real about Tommy — because if you close your eyes just right, 20-year-old Tommy, sitting on that black bus seat, heading Deep South, dreaming of tanned Florida women and God knows what else, but something else, the flimsy $102 computer-print-out ticket he held his sweaty hands symbolizing his empty bank account, but not worrying about money at all, Tommy is glorious, the apotheosis of humanity, the temporary embodiment of pure, unbridled, unearthly desire, the person Greg Allman might have been imagining when he sang:

Lord, I was born a ramblin' man
tryin' to make a livin', and doin' the best I can
when it's time for leavin', I hope you'll understand
I was born a ramblin' man.

As for me, I loved to romanticize Tommy, but first I had to decide whether I bought his story — could someone truly leave home like thunder with the direction and cause of a whisper?

After all, Brian — who, besides laying claim to an intensely Christian demeanor, was also studying sociology — had a history of bringing home the down-and-out. Just six months ago, we'd invited in Dan — a scruffy looking veteran of homelessness, probably 40-years-old or so, not like Tommy at all — and we fell in love. At least I did. He thanked us often and profusely; we changed his life. When he told us about losing his plumbing job, getting mugged in the street, and his wretched divorce, we sighed. When he told us about the importance of maintaining a positive attitude, and his plans to return home to Tennessee, we cheered. Then he conned Umar out of $140.

"But that didn't effect my attitude towards Tommy," Umar said. "I was just thinking here we go again, it's another comical adventure — but this time I'm not giving out any money."

Tommy's visit frightened me and brought out my own horrible coldness. Since Tommy didn't know anyone in town, the four intimate connections he had in Apartment 203 were his gateway not only to free housing and an occasional meal, but also to new friends. So every time I walked up the stairs to my Apartment, I'd frown at the thought of how he'd probably be lying on the couch, waiting for me to provide the night's activities.

Usually, I'd open the door, mumble a quick "whassup," and head straight for my bedroom, never turning my head, never slowing down. Then I'd study or make phone calls from behind a locked door, although sometimes words like kindness, or helping, or sacrifice would plug up my head, and I'd emerge from my room like Mother Theresa to ask Tommy how his day was, although listening to his words often gave way to daydreams about tomorrow's chores, naked girls, or re-establishing freedom in our apartment.

A perfect example of our relationship — one night, I was playing guitar in my room, trying to learn the jumpy chromatic sax opening to John Coltrane's "Good Bait" — a difficult task for any musician, especially a relative novice like me. Tommy walked in, and stood by the door. Just stood there. Five minutes must have passed without me looking up or saying a word to him. But he just stood there, those skinny pale arms folded behind his back, leaning against my wall, watching. God knows what he was thinking. He was probably lonely. But I just wanted him the fuck out.

I was too busy to baby-sit Tommy.

By Tuesday, lacking approximately $1,200 in tuition money, Tommy gave up on the idea of attending UF as a student. So Tommy redirected his energy into finding jobs, and quickly found two — one at Subway, one at the Florida Career Institute. His schedule had him working from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Tuesday.

Although we were all impressed with the Tommy's immediate success finding jobs — it was hard to think of him as a quack when his brow was beaded with sweat — we couldn't say this erased all traces of thoughtlessness from his plan to live in Gainesville.

A conversation with Tommy during the commercials of a late-night Simpsons episode left Umar dumfounded.

"Okay," Tommy said. "I'm just gonna work this year, you know, earn money and live somewhere. Then, when I file for my FAFSA for next fall, it will say total earned income $4,000. And that will give me financial aid up the wazoo."

"Well that's great, Tommy," Umar said. "But why don't you just work until spring semester, and then apply spring semester?'

Tommy hadn't ever thought of that.

When I'd heard that Tommy kept Tuesdays free for the Newman Club, I wondered if this signaled a justification for our troubles, that the kid had finally recognized, first-hand, the meaning of Christianity.

Brian informed me otherwise.

"I don't think it meant anything to him. He was just going for the girls. When we got back that's all he'd talk about. That's what would make him the most excited."

The Newman club, after all, was where he'd met Anne, a blonde who offered him her phone number and some company for Friday night. Tommy had plans to dress up real nice and cook her a tasty meal, but all he had to wear was the same purple knit-collared Polo shirt he'd been wearing all week, all he had to cook was a box of pasta salad given to him from the St. Francis House, the homeless shelter downtown.

But Tommy did the best he could.

And the next morning, he jumped right into recounting the entire night to us: the pasta salad dinner, the giggles, the kiss outside the dormitory.

"Is that a date?" Tommy asked. "Tell me it is, because that would be my first one."

Even though Tommy theoretically had a home, it was up in Rockford. Strangely, this 20-year-old kid who was enrolled in the University of Florida, just like the rest of us, had moved to Gainesville with nothing and now legally and sociologically qualified as one of the town's 700 homeless.

Bob Tancig, executive director of the St. Francis House (the major homeless shelter in Gainesville), says that three competing descriptions are used to define homelessness: spending the night in a facility not normally intended for human habituation — such as a jail or abandoned house, spending the night in a place one doesn't have control over or doesn't have a key to, and spending the night where one makes no contribution to the cost of the household.

Tancig said he considered Tommy to be homeless because "he was just staying there in your good graces…he didn't have control over that space."

The true homeless population differs greatly from the public stereotypes, according to Tancig; for example, 60 percent to 70 percent of the homeless do not abuse illegal substances, many of the homeless are women or children, and many homeless are working but simply cannot afford their own place.

In some senses, then, Tommy represents the homeless person who exists in real life, but not in the imagination of the public.

But had Tancig ever encountered someone who, like Tommy, jumped headfirst and smiling into homelessness, as if homelessness were a backyard swimming pool on a sweltering August afternoon?

"Obviously, sometimes people make choices that are bad choices. Some people probably don't realize at the time that if they do what they are about to do, they could become homeless…[For example,] some people say, 'I'm gonna quit my job, I'll just get another one.'"

But what's the difference between this adult — who quits his job, can't find a new job, and loses his house — and Tommy — who willingly flees his father's wings with no visible destination but homelessness?

We, the four roommates, agreed to kick Tommy out of our apartment by Sunday, Aug. 29, nine days after he arrived. We were worried that if we didn't set a specific date for his departure, weeks would roll into months and Tommy would move from "couch rat, temporary" to "couch rat, permanent." But this fear of longevity was perhaps built on something a bit more personal than mere principle.

Jim Rodenburg, the third (and hithero unmentioned) roommate said, "His story, at the beginning, at first, was really cool and inspirational. But I didn't think about all the annoying realities, all the shit we'd have to do to help him out.

"It's impossible for anyone to have a normal relationship with a person in his situation...By its very nature, the relationship has the weird dynamics of slave and slave master."

Jim didn't like having to alter his lifestyle to accommodate Tommy, and in fact purposefully "forced" himself to be less friendly.

"I didn't want to be the one he came to for clothes in the a.m. I didn't want to be the one who had to give up his milk."

So on the targeted Sunday morning, Tommy quickly re-packed his Jansport bookbag, thanked everyone for letting him stay, and accompanied Brian to the St. Francis House, where he'd sleep until he found a better place.

Tommy gave his name to Alyssa, the lady behind the counter, the way he always said it.

"Tommy. Tommy Latino."

Alyssa's eyes widened. "So you're the infamous Tommy Latino!"

Then she pulled out a fax with his picture on it.

As Brian says, "Tommy just got super excited. He was always overreacting to everything...When Tommy started reading the letter from his father, he was like 'Oh no. No you didn't Dad!' He was leaning over the counter with his hands on his head, saying, 'I can't believe he put this in the letter. I gotta call him. I gotta call my dad."

When he was on the phone with his Dad, and needed to write down a number, he snapped his fingers at Alyssa.

Alyssa just stared.

Brian later posed a question to some of his friends: How would you react to someone who was completely egocentric?

Two weeks later, I called Tommy. I had to figure out exactly what happened, exactly why he came. It took me nearly three days to make the call — how could I ask Tommy to retell his "story" over the phone when I'd had so many chances to hear it when he lived with me, and never cared?

I finally called. The conversation consisted mainly of short, clipped replies and painful silences.

"So Tommy," I'd say. "Did anything cool happen on the train ride over?"

"Not really."

"Oh...well, then, are you glad you came? I mean what did you think of the whole experience?"

"It was alright."

"What was your favorite part?"

"I don't know."

Although Tommy's voice perked up a bit at the end of the conversation, when he told me about his new political science major at Beloit College, and how his college was in the top tier for the liberal arts and sciences — and although Tommy would later write me many enthusiastic e-mails detailing his day-to-day status with girls ("Hey, I have to tell you about Kevall. She is a sophomore and is from Jamaica. And boy is she fine!!!!!!!!") — he has left me with a certain subdued acceptance of my role, or should I say non-role, in his life.

Tommy's blanket is scrunched up in the corner of our living room somewhere, unused but still within reach.

Not as much can be said for Tommy.

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