The utterly fascinating story of Ted Williams, the homeless man with the great and golden-trained radio voice—resonated around the Internet and world with dazzling speed. After a Columbus Dispatch reporter "discovered" him panhandling on the side of the road, he quickly went from homeless drug addict to being offered a role opposite Jack Nicholson, various commercial gigs, and a teary reunion with his mother on the Today show Thursday morning.
I briefly met Williams once back in the '80s when he worked as a DJ here in Cleveland—before his descent into the world of addiction, petty crime, and eventual homelessness. He struck me as one cool dude even back then.
He was a man that was comfortable in his own skin—and he carried himself that way. That voice, he knew he had it and he had fun with it. He was handsome and talented, but not "stuck on himself." He was truly down to earth.
I was already deeply embedded in the "street life" at the time, and his presence at the after-hours joint we met at portended bad things to come for him. This was not his environs. The place was a high-class dope den and crack was in its heyday. Few people had seriously attempted to stop abusing it at this point, so even fewer were aware of its ironclad addictive powers—how hard it was for some to quit.
Many so-called squares were to eventually lose family, fortune, and friends … locked in a battle we dubbed "Fighting That Giant." And hustlers were not above sic-ing their fast women on naïve guys like Williams. "Daddy, buy me just one more rock," was the anthem that resonated in darkened basements all over the country back then, and people from all walks of life were answering the siren's song.
There were two dudes who were legendary in Cleveland dope circles around that time for the loud thud they made when they eventually hit bottom ... still tightly clutching a crack pipe when the ATM quit spitting out $20 bills. One was a black dude who had built a very successful chain of inner-city supermarkets with the sweat of his brow. The other a white guy whose father had left him a successful chain of furniture stores.
One lawyer I knew—a bodybuilder—went berserk and tore up a dope house when the houseman wouldn't take a personal check… you really can't make this type of shit up.
Williams' story resonates on so many levels because it is so intricately layered, and he certainly is not the only person to fall from grace due to addiction. As we enter the era of "second chances"—President Obama recently spoke out in regards to Michael Vick's second chance —his appearance on the American stage is almost Biblical in proportions.
It could be that we are finally—at last—moving toward a more compassionate, forgiving zeitgeist in regards to our nation's disadvantaged. After all, even Tea Partiers claim to be Christians, right?
However, for this tale to have a happy ending Williams has to stay straight once he's got two dollars above bus fare jingling in his jeans pockets—no mean feat once someone has been bitten as hard as he. What's the old joke, "I can quit [insert whatever your drug of choice in here] anytime I want. I've done it dozens of times." I certainly don't wish the brother ill, but (for his own good) he bears close watching for awhile. Believe me, nothing on God's green earth is as empty as a junkie's promise.
Hustlers were not above sic-ing their fast women on naïve guys like Williams. "Daddy, buy me just one more rock," was the anthem.
The lawyer I mentioned had been clean for close to a decade, living in an upscale community, with a beautiful wife and two adopted kids. "One day I was driving home after leaving court and the car just started driving itself," he now laughs. "It went straight to the dope house." Within six months he was flat broke and on the verge of being disbarred. After two years he again has it back together, but he now knows where he made his mistake.
"I didn't give anything back when I got my own life together … I didn't go into the jails, into prisons and halfway houses and try to take someone under my wing. I didn't join Narcotics Anonymous, I didn't try to mentor anyone."
Right now Williams is wearing his religion on his sleeve…it's his protection, his talisman against the evils and temptations of the world. And religion can indeed be a crutch when in need—in fact, it can be a wheelchair if necessary. But there is an element to redemption some never get: there is also an element of obligation that goes with it.
Some folks are already caustically saying that he only got a break because he was "light, bright, and damn-near white," to which I respond, "What about his talent?" The man, at one point in his life, spent time acquiring a marketable skill… so he had something to sell once he got his act together. Many of his homeless brethren are not so equipped.
He might not know this yet—but I, along with many others who have been lost souls do know it—his success ultimately depends on his willingness to give something back; to use this second chance to not only get his own life together, but to unselfishly reach back and help others, to try to assist them in climbing out of their lives despondency, degradation, and despair.
This is what we—ex-junkies, whoremongers, lawbreakers and hopeless reprobates—do … this is how we stay straight. Hey Ted, don't forget where you come from … where you been. In the words of poet Amiri Baraka, spoken in the film Bullworth, "You got to be a spirit, don't be no ghost."
Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.