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  • Writer's pictureGiacomino Nicolazzo

The Rising...


January 2022

Although it has been more than twenty years now, I can still see Albert Bruno’s face in my mind's eye. It is a memory from what I can only describe as a previous lifetime. Wrinkled skin, as tan and tough as shoe leather. A wild, bushy head of white hair. Teeth yellowed from decades of tobacco. He wore tiny round eyeglasses, usually smudged with fingerprints and always pushed down nearly to the end of his nose. Back when I knew him, he was spending nearly every waking moment out in the hot Florida sun, working on his ‘home’.

Albert Bruno was one of the easiest-going, most amiable people I’ve ever met. Everyone in the marina knew him as Bert. He was a most colorful character...a holdover from the sixties. Every chance he got, he would talk about the good old days of his youth…back in San Francisco in the famous hippie neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury. Do I need say any more? You get the picture.

“I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember,” he told me one night while we were having a few beers on the back of his ‘home’. “But I was never really hurtin’ anybody.”

Home for Bert was a forty-six foot long, 1955 Huckins Linwood. We were neighbors...kinda, sorta! He kept the White Rabbit in the slip right beside my Adagio when I was visiting.

The White Rabbit, most inaptly named, was an old and gray wooden boat that was (at one time) an abandoned wreck off the coast of Cedar Key, at the mouth of the Suwanee River on the west coast of Florida. It was what they called a derelict vessel, in as much as whoever the owner was at the time it sunk, had no inclination whatsoever to raise it and get it the heck out of the channel. This is where Albert Bruno found his way out of homelessness and despair.

Maybe I should explain...but it would be best if I let Bert tell his own story...

“I was born in Gainesville in 1948,” he told me as we sipped on our Ybor City beers. “My mother taught at the university...comparative religions or something like that. Something to do with God as I remember. And to be honest with you, I don’t really recall what my father did for a living. All I remember about him was that he a damn fish. And his hobby was beating the hell out me and my younger brother Pete. Pete’s way of escaping was to join the God-damned Army. And wouldn’t ya know it…they sent his ass straight to Vietnam. And he got it shot off two days before his nineteenth birthday. They shipped what was left of him home in a God-damned aluminum box!”

Bert rolled up both his pant legs and showed me his calves...

“As for me,” he said. “I had polio as a child and of course the Army couldn’t touch me. But that didn’t keep my father from touching I ran away. I ran out to San Francisco with the singular purpose of wearing flowers in my hair and finding as much of that free love as I could.”

But from what Bert had told me over many previous nights and many bottles of Ybor City, what he really found in California was a police record...

“I was arrested for possession of heroin...and a nasty case of hepatitis C from sharing needles with other junkies,” he’d confessed to me. “I did my detox, my medical treatments and a two year sentence all at the same time. It damn near killed me.”

Once Bert was well again, he left California, and the drugs, far behind him. He came back to Florida…

“My parents had divorced in the three years I was gone,” he said. “My mother held my father responsible for losing her two boys and they decided it best if they part ways. She told him that if they stayed together much longer she’d end up killing him. He had no doubt she was serious. I have absolutely no idea whatever became of him or where he went. I’ve just learned to put him and all those beatings out of my mind.”

With his mother’s help, Bert enrolled in the University of Florida and graduated with a degree in sociology. Within a year, he was working for the Florida Department of Children and Families. That is where he met Elaine.

“We were crazy about each other,” he said, “right outta the gate! But that was because she didn’t know anything about my past. I chose to keep it private. We married and tried to start a family, but my hepatitis and drug treatment had made me unable to be a father...if I am saying that correctly. So we adopted twin girls...Martha and Geraldine.”

“Yes,” I answered. “I know what you are trying to say. And I love their names.”

Now let’s fast forward ten years in Bert's story...

“I’d become a district supervisor with DCF and they transferred me to Ocala,” he said. “The promotion meant a raise and the use of a car and other goodies. But this is where the beginning of the end started for me.”

Bert and Elaine, and their two adopted children, bought a modest home on a golf course in a semi-expensive subdivision, surrounded by expensive and prestigious horse farms. He never told me any of the details about how or why Elaine left and took the children the following year, but he did tell me that was the start of his slide into hell...

“I eventually became homeless when my marriage broke up,” he said. “I had taken on a mortgage that was too darn big to begin with but when the interest rate went up...well, I went down! I went under. I just lost one thing after another. With the marriage over I even lost her income. There was just no way I was going to survive!”

Bert began to drink...a lot. It took its toll on him in many ways but when he wrecked the State car while driving drunk...well, you can imagine what happened next...

“I lost my job because of the accident...because I was drunk," he said. "Now there was absolutely no way I was going make it. I was falling further and further behind with my mortgage and my bills. They cancelled all the credit cards I’d been using to make ends meet. Then the shit finally hit the fan.”

Though he admittedly didn’t know it at the time, he now realizes he was having a mental breakdown…

“I wasn’t able to cope,” he told me. “I started drinking too much. I lost my job but quickly found another. But I quit that one within a month because I wasn’t happy with my boss. He was an idiot and didn't know I told him one day! I figured I would find another job soon enough...but it didn’t work out that way.”

The bank foreclosed on Bert’s home. After that, he lost his will to go on...

“When you get hit by everything at once,” he confessed to me, “it affects a man's ability to think clearly. I was putting out one brush fire after another...they were non-stop! It wasn’t long before my life had become an inferno! Depression set in and sapped all my energy. I could not bring myself to even get out of bed in the even think about trying to put together a rational plan on how I was going to get back on my feet.”

Without a home, and nowhere to stay, Bert turned to a few friends...

“What was supposed to be temporary,” he said, “ended up lasting more than a year. I jumped from one friend’s couch to another. There was a long period of time when I was rudderless, moving from place to place, but really going nowhere. I was adrift in a sea of despair.”

To say that Bert was lucky is an understatement...

“I never had to live on the streets,” he said. “The people who put a roof over my head were unbelievably kind and generous. Never once did they make me feel like I was an intruder. But that didn’t keep me from feeling like one.

Wherever I was staying, I was very aware it was not my home...not my stuff...nothing was mine. I’d lost everything I owned. And being at the mercy and generosity of other people even robbed me of the opportunity to make decisions about anything. I was a guest. I would walk around the mall and the city streets hoping to exhaust myself. I’d walk for hours, looking at empty apartments...wondering if I could live there.”

Bert told me about the feeling of powerlessness that overtakes a person when they become homeless...

“You just feel lost,” he said. “My experience changed how I see homeless people. They probably don’t want to be homeless any more than I did. But you feel powerless. You end up feeling like there is no way way forward.”

After a while Bert told me he got over whatever it was that was going on in his head…

“I found a job!” he exclaimed. “And then an apartment. I got back out on my own and, thank God, the friends who had helped me are still my friends. But I don’t think I will ever get over the fear of being homeless again, that feeling of being nowhere and nobody.”

Bert had taken a job working on a fishing boat that was anchored in Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico. Every day on their way out into the Gulf and every night coming back, they would pass the old Huckins sunk at the mouth of the Suwanee...

“I wonder what it would take to salvage that boat?” he asked his boss one day.

“Anyone who can raise the boat can have it,” his boss told him. “That’s the law.”

That is when Bert’s rational mind came back to him...that’s when he began formulating his plan to really get back on his feet. There was going to be a rising!

“I am lucky,” he told me. “That’s all there is to it. I filled out the salvage paperwork with the State and gave them a small deposit...small, but every penny I had to my name. I had six months to raise the boat and get it out of the water or I’d lose my deposit.

I worked two and three jobs for those six months. I gave up my apartment and became homeless again, but this time of my own choosing. I slept in a camper in the back of a pick-up truck a friend of mine owned. The engine was blown so the truck and the camper sat idle under an old oak tree. He let me move in so I could pay a salvage company every penny I made to get the boat out of the inlet.”

When the Huckins was out of the water and in dry dock, Bert’s boss agreed to help him restore it. Together, they did everything but replace the diesel engines...

“I run out of money,” he said. “I had to put my dreams on hold for a year while I made enough to buy two used engines. But I did it. And now I have a beautiful home. It’s a bit unconventional, I know, but hell…I'm very happy being a boat-nik!”

Bert lives aboard his White Rabbit. It is still gray though. He is safe and secure and living a lifestyle he truly enjoys. It is not as if he is with regrets however…

“I miss Elaine,” he said, holding back emotion. “I miss my children. I don't know where they are. I don’t miss that old life though...or DCF. But I miss my family God-awful!”

Bert had even lost track of his mother for a while. But once he was settled into the boat and his job, life got back to semblance of normal for him. He went back to Gainesville to find her. They resurrected their relationship over a lunch in a diner, promising to stay in touch with each other…

“Come visit me when you can,” his mother asked of him.

“I will Mom,” he promised. “I will come get you and take you out on my boat, OK?”

“You know I don’t like being out in the Gulf, Albert,” she answered. “And I don’t like you going out there either.”

It’s my job mom,” he answered. “It’s my job and I love it.”

“All that money wasted on your education,” she answered. “What do you have to show for it? No job. No family. No future. This is not what I wanted for you Albert.”

After that, their visits became fewer and further between.

Bert received a letter one day from an attorney in Gainesville, telling him that his mother had died. In her will she had provided for him. All he needed to do was come to Gainesville and pick up the check...

“It wasn’t much,” he admitted. “About $25,000. But to me, it was a small fortune. I have learned over the years to live quite frugally, if you haven’t noticed.”

We each opened up another beer. The sausages he was grilling were just about ready...

“I get lonely at times,” he confessed, “but being retired and living on Social Security...and an old boat, is not something that attracts a lot of women my age. But for the first time in a long time, I am living a lifestyle that I can afford.”

My memories of Bert are still crystal clear. Like I said, he was the easiest-going, most amiable guy I’d ever met. Shortly after I moved here to Italy, I received word that Bert had died. I felt a sincere sadness in my heart. I often wonder whatever happened to that old Huckins. It will stand forever as a testimony to how we can raise ourselves up from the ashes.

There is something beautiful about a blank canvas, don’t you think? The nothingness of beginning something brand new is so simple and breathtakingly pure. It’s the painter’s brush on the canvas that changes its meaning. The writer’s hand that creates a never-before told story. Every piece of art and beauty begins the same way, but in the end they are all uniquely different.

Sometimes the death of our dreams can in fact be the very impetus that impels us to find a brand-new canvas and start over. We start over with the hopes of growing and maturing with a reinvigorated confidence. From failure can come a fresh flow of ideas and a new and splendidly satisfying painting emerges. It is in the power of our creativity that we find the wisdom to understand that failure need not mean the end of us, but rather it can bring forth a brand new and better person.

Lee Iacocca, when he was trying to put Chrysler back on it’s feet, is quoted as saying...

“So what do we do when everything falls apart? We do anything. We do something. So long as we just don't sit there. If we screw it up, we start over. We try something else. If we wait until we've satisfied all the uncertainties, it will be too late."

Starting over can be the scariest thing in the entire world. I have come to find this out personally. Whether it’s leaving a lover, a marriage, a job or anything else that feels like a core part of our identity, it’s not easy. But when your gut is telling you that something isn’t right or doesn't feel safe, I’ve learned it is best to listen and trust in that voice within each of us. Starting over may just be the very best thing you've ever done!

My old friend Bert had a motto to which he ascribed and lived by…

“We are where we are and it's the perfect place to start.

We have what we have, what else we need we find in our heart.

We create what we create by what we think and say and do.

We are going where we’re going, and a thousand angels come with us too."

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2 comentários

01 de jan. de 2022

Happy New Year. Very appropriate for the New Year. You make me think! You make me smile!

Giacomino Nicolazzo
Giacomino Nicolazzo
02 de jan. de 2022
Respondendo a

And the happiest wishes for the New Year to you to Max!

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