By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
Editor’s Note: This was the first in an occasional series entitled Homeless in Apopka. The article was first published in The Apopka Voice in March of this year. The series features the stories of the homeless population in our community and how they deal with their lives on the streets. The first feature was of Roosevelt, a homeless man who asked me not to photograph him or use his last name in the article. I have not seen Roosevelt since the article was published, but I always look for him when I am near the park.
“Sir, my name is Roosevelt… after the 32nd President of the United States, but you can call me Rosie. Everybody does.”
I met Rosie at Tom Staley Park behind the Main Street McDonalds. I told him I was a writer doing features on people in Apopka, and that I wanted to tell his story. He, like so many others at this park, is homeless. He says it is by choice.
“My whole life I have made my own way, for good or for bad. And I can say in all honesty that I don’t owe nobody nothing. People have shown me kindness in my life, and I have returned the kindness when I could. But as for myself, I am debt free, and that’s a great feeling to have this late in my life.”
I tell Rosey I’m on my way to The Catfish Place for lunch and ask if he wants to join me.
“I’m buying,” I say to him.
“No sir, I won’t do that,” he responded. “But for the price of a fish dinner and a coke, I will tell you my story.”
It was money well spent.
I bring back two fish dinners to the park, and Rosie tells of running bootleg rum, and whiskey aboard sailboats from the Bahamas to the Indian River, Sebastian Inlet, Mosquito Lagoon, and many other waterways along the Eastern Seaboard.
“Lord, it was dangerous, but it was fun,” he says with a belly laugh in between bites of his fried catfish. “Lord, yes the fun. Money had little to do with it, although a case of fine whiskey could be had for $25 in the Bahamas and sold for $125 not too far away.”
Rosie’s stories drift off in different directions but seem to have a cohesive theme. He confesses to a sense of smallness one afternoon 50 years ago a few miles off the coast of New Smyrna Beach when he realized he had a 3,000-pound great white shark on his fishing line.
“We had to tow it,” he said. “Our boat was too small. I used a 7-foot shark for bait and about five miles of chain. Yes, sir, that was a big fish,” he says with pride.
They come like waves, the stories of his life, once-upon-a-time stories, fish stories, stories of a man who drank of life’s rich experiences in living color adventures. Stories that are probably never the same from one telling to the next, but always pounding, and ebbing, washing clean and muddying, evolving, and ravaging the senses of anyone listening.
Isn’t that how most of life’s stories are?
There is a muted joy in his words, a bridled enthusiasm. He is more than a historian; he is an eyewitness. And he always has a salty earful to share I would expect. In patch quilt style, he stitches together a life commandeered by a bigger-than-life soul, a pirate, a cowboy, the free spirit who survived the rocks and sandbars, and sharks and Federal agents in hot pursuit.
The only adversary Rosie could not outrun was time.
“I got the sun poisoning,” Rosie says.
Skin cancer has desecrated him. He also struggles with a cataract in his left eye, and arthritis in his right hand.
“I don’t get out in nature anymore,” he says. “My grip is bad. I can’t throw a cast net no more. And ever since I had my eye go bad, I can’t shoot. No more fishing or hunting, I can hardly stand it.”
I ask if he is seeing a physician, but Rosey doesn’t want to talk about his medical condition.
“My doctor checks me and scrapes my barnacles and tells me I’m doing all right,” he says. “I could’ve told him that. I feel good. I’ve got the sun and the moon and the stars, and I’m my own man. Nobody owns Rosie. I’m beholding to no one, and there ain’t a lot of people who can say that.”
He shrugs and resumes his tale, yet another sliver of adventure, a random selection from the most remarkable eccentric life.
He is surrounded by yesterday in his thoughts, but hopeful about tomorrow. Rosie faces the twilight of his life head-on as if he was not an aged homeless man with multiple ailments. He stares it down with his one good eye.
The wind rustles through the trees that share space with the homeless population at the park, and we hear a screeching bird fly by.
“Sounds like he’s warning us of danger,” Rosey said.
If Rosie has any regrets in his life, it’s the changes his beloved Florida has experienced.
“Old Florida is vanishing,” he said. Even this town is different. Used to be lots of places us old hobos could camp under the stars. Now it’s just building and cement. Building after building. The land is disappearing.”
And characters like Rosey are part of the disappearing act.
I ask Rosie if he goes to any of the non-profits that help the homeless or any local churches, but his day-to-day life is private. He shifts the conversation to a commentary on spirituality, religion, and nature.
“I listen to people talk about religion. But there are so many wars with religion being the cause. I believe it’s going to be the cause of the world ending. We’re going to blow ourselves up trying to impress God. My religion is knowing right from wrong. It’s watching a fishhawk teach its babies how to catch something to eat. Ain’t no way it can do it. But it does. That’s God. He’s all around here if people will leave them alone.”
Rosie’s attention moves to the sounds of chattering squirrels barking down at something – possibly a stray cat in hot pursuit. Rosie watches the squirrels for a few seconds and then laughs in a booming larger-than-life explosion of happiness.
“They sure are nervous creatures,” he says, still laughing at their antics. “Nothing in nature is more nervous than those little guys. I watch ’em all day.”
Before we finished our lunch, I asked him about his family, about friends or living relatives, where he lives or goes during the day or sleeps at night. All the questions modern society asks an 80-plus-year-old homeless man. But those questions are not on Rosie’s agenda. He seems almost put off by them as if everyone asks him this on a daily basis. He may be homeless, but it’s not in his identity to be a victim, to be pitied, or to be anything but a self-made-man living out his life in the fashion he determined.
Roosevelt is his stories.
“Those questions are for another day,” he says. “Maybe for the price of a fish dinner and a coke, I’ll tell you about my childhood next time.”
I gave Rosie my card in case he needed anything, and we agreed to get lunch now and then if I saw him around.
He smiled and thanked me for my time and the lunch, and then went back to basking in the nature of Tom Staley Park. His is a rare warmth that is both eternal and on the endangered species list at the same time. And it becomes apparent that, at least from one man’s viewpoint, what the world could use is a few more Roosevelts in it.