Escaping the wet chill of a rainy day

Lonnie did hate the cold drizzle of a rainy day
Lonnie did hate the cold drizzle of a rainy day

WHEN THE DAYS grow chilled and wet and bleak, and nights seem to grow a darker shade of black and last forever, I remember Lonnie.

He had the world whipped.

Didn’t know it.

But he did.

Lonnie was a spry little man, aged somewhere between thirty and seventy. For men like him, it was difficult to tell. He was thin as a splinter, had given up more teeth than he kept, wore clothes he found in a dumpster, and walked the streets in sneakers that didn’t match. The hair on his head was curly. It might have been straight. Lonnie didn’t wash it much.

His life had been hard. It would have killed most men.

Lonnie only laughed about it and said he didn’t remember much of it, but he did, during a few sober moments, remember the armed robbery at a service station on a hot Saturday night in 1952, except he couldn’t recall if was holding the shotgun or driving the getaway car.

It didn’t matter.

Twenty-five years, the judge said.

Lonnie simply grinned at him.

The gavel fell, and he felt a sigh of relief.

For once, Lonnie didn’t have to worry anymore.

For the next twenty-five years, he would have a roof over his head at night and three fairly warm meals in his belly each day.

He would be warm in winter.

He would be cool in summer.

Might have to work a little. Then again, might not. Didn’t make much difference to him one way or the other. It was as good a life as Lonnie ever had.

He was a model prisoner.

Never complained.

Didn’t cause any trouble.

Stayed out of trouble.

Was a friend to any man who didn’t have one, and that was Lonnie’s downfall.

He was too good a prisoner.

The Parole Board turned him loose in ten years, and poor old Lonnie was back on the streets.

No money.

No job.

Wasn’t looking for either one.

Lonnie mostly hung around the police station while I was working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The police had badges.

They had guns.

They had jail cells.

Police were the only friends he had.

When the summers were too hot, the police picked him up on Monday mornings while the air was still cool, and the day had not yet quite begun.

No charges were ever filed.

Mostly they picked him up on suspicion.

Suspicion of what?

Take your pick. The police didn’t care.

Neither did Lonnie.

He was comfortable for the week.

The wicked heat stayed outside. Lonnie remained inside and played checkers with the jailer. He was a damn fine checkers player. If he could have made money playing checkers, Lonnie would have been a rich man.

When the harsh winds of winter blew, when ice was in the frosty morning air, when the cold rains struck the streets of Fort Worth, the police were on the lookout again.

Where’s Lonnie?

Got to pick up Lonnie.

What for?

Suspicion.

Of What?

Doesn’t make any difference.

Lonnie spent the cold, bitter winter nights in the warmth of his jail cell. I don’t think it was ever locked. I think he had his own personal cell.

Lonnie wasn’t going anywhere during the week, but on late Friday afternoons, summer or winter, rain or shine, cold or hot, he always asked to be released.

The jailer put away the checkerboard. He glanced through the charges, and since there were none, Lonnie was a free man again.

Before he left, Lonnie, without fail, asked to borrow five dollars from the jailer.

The jailer would, without fail, pull five wrinkled ones out of his desk drawer, hand them to the spry, little man with a few gaps in his mouth where his teeth should have been, and Lonnie would be on his way.

On Monday morning, here he was again.

If the police couldn’t find him, Lonnie would give himself up.

What charges?

Suspicion.

Of what?

He grinned and said, “You’ll think of something,” and the police always did.

As soon as he reached the cellblock, Lonnie sauntered straight to the jailer and gave him back the five wrinkled dollar bills.

He never spent a cent.

He and the jailer kept trading the same five dollars back and forth for years.

“Why do you do it?” I once asked Lonnie.

“What?”

“Borrow five dollars every Friday.”

Lonnie simply sat back in his cell and grinned. “You know how it is,” he said.

“How’s that?”

“A man don’t like to be out on the town for a Friday night without any money in his pocket,” he said.

“What about Saturday and Sunday?”

Lonnie shrugged.

“What about them?” he said. “If you have a good enough time on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday will take care of themselves.”

They always did for Lonnie.

He was a friend of mine.

My latest novel, Night Side of Dark, takes place in the chilled rains and snows of Poland and Germany during World War II.

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  • Don Newbury

    This piece got me to thinking about the outlandish birthday party we threw for Elston Brooks. It was held in a parking garage; we served “garage temperature” Dr Pepper, and I remember it was a hot day. For entertainment, I gave a 10-spot to the poor old couple that used to sing in front of Leonard Brothers. As I’ve grown earlier, I have felt guilty about taking them lightly. Elston, used to covering affairs where tuxedos, dazzling dresses and expensive jewelry adorned, greatly enjoyed the event. BTW, we arranged for him to be delivered to the upper floor venue in a limousine furnished by Lucas Funeral Home…..

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Don, I love any story about Elston Brooks. He was a legend at the Star-Telegram, a genuine friend who all who turned out copy at he paper. If you needed help of any kind, Elston would go out of his way to help you. And, even though he covered events in tuxedoes, he was at home wherever he happened to be, parking garages included.

    • Roger Summers

      Don,

      Looks like that couple made at least $30 for showing up and performing at the party.

      My assignment was to make arrangements for them to do so.

      I went to Leonard’s – where they were singing outside the store — the afternoon before the party, made the request, offered them $20.

      They seemed puzzled – and even in disbelief – but I finally convinced them the offer was the real deal.

      Next day, got a cab, and we went to Leonard’s to pick them up. (The S-T probably paid for the cab, since in those days we would get cab “slips” from an editor to go on assignment.)

      Arrived at the party to much applause.

      They strummed the guitar, sang some tunes.

      Gave them their Jackson.

      Party, party.

  • Carol Toberny

    You met some real characters on that beat, didn’t you! It’s touching that the police, and others, looked out for him so well.

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