Wednesday, November 22, 2017
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Homer's odyssey: For cartoonist living in shelters and on street, home is where the art is

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By LANE DeGREGORY

Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG

Every morning, after he packs his pillow from whatever beach or bridge has been his bed, after he pedals to the Salvation Army to get a free cup of coffee, after he parks his old bike outside the Mirror Lake Library, Rick Lewis walks into the air-conditioned sanctuary, plops down at an empty table, pulls pencils from his battered backpack and begins to draw.

Sometimes he sketches animals: a tabby copied from a paperback, a chocolate Lab posing in a Pet Pages pamphlet.

Sometimes he does portraits of people he wishes he had known: Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe.

Most of the time, though, he draws scenes he never wanted to see, parodies of himself on "this blessed hell ride."

He calls his character Homer. Homer the Homeless.

"He's a loser, sure. But he's cool, unabashed," says Lewis, 52. "He's gotten to the point I guess where all he can do is keep hanging in there and try to find the humor in his situation, so he doesn't get so damned depressed."

Once, Lewis says, he had it all: a job, an apartment, a family. But four years ago, he hit bottom — and landed on the streets of St. Petersburg.

Though he's mostly sober now, able to draw and work and contemplate his situation, he still struggles to find that next step. He thinks he's stuck, like his cartoon counterpart.

Homer is a little more hairy, a lot more haggard than Lewis allows himself to become. Like Lewis, Homer is balding. But Homer lets the sun beat down on his dome; Lewis always ties a black bandanna around his head. The cartoon man has a long, dark, scraggly beard; Lewis trims his red-blond goatee. And while Homer limps along in one beat-up hiking boot and one flip-flop "like I guy I know out here on the streets," Lewis wears matching black high-tops someone gave him.

His drawings are mostly in pencil, layered and carefully shaded, peppered with flies and trash, brick walls and fences, menacing rats and empty bottles of booze.

In one, a rat fights Homer for food. "Back away from the can," says the rat's sign, "and nobody gets hurt."

Lewis doesn't try to sell his art; he doesn't think people would pay for pieces of his broken world. He draws for therapy, he says, to keep himself sane and sober.

And because drawing is the only thing he has ever loved — except for drinking and his daughter.

• • •

Like most of the 85,000 people living on Florida's streets, Lewis never meant to be there.

He was 1 when his mom left him and his big brother. He doesn't know why or where she went. "The only thing they told me about her was she could draw," he says. "So as soon as I could hold a pencil, that's what I wanted to do."

Lewis grew up outside Evansville, Ind., and was raised primarily by his dad's parents. He doodled his way through high school, dropped out and joined the National Guard. But after basic training, he dropped out of that, too. "I never really wanted to be anything," he says. "I just floated."

He worked as a welder, got married, had a daughter, Sarah, got her name etched across his left arm. "We moved back to Indiana, got ourselves a little apartment," Lewis says. "I had family, a home, I had everything."

By the time Sarah was a teenager, Lewis' drinking had spiraled out of control. The divorce came in 2008. Lewis says, "That was the beginning of the end."

He wanted to travel, so he joined a carnival. He cooked corn dogs and Polish sausages, fried fritters. In March 2009, he landed in Tampa for the Florida State Fair.

"We were heading north to the next gig. I'd been drinking, like some of the other guys, and we got into a fight," Lewis says. The truck driver left him at a gas station in New Port Richey. "I had the clothes on my back and $20 in my pocket. I got on a bus I thought was going back to Tampa, but I wound up here."

For almost four years, he has bounced between shelters and the streets. Pinellas Hope, "where you're stranded too far from everything." St. Vincent de Paul "on the ground with all these other guys, stacked so close you can smell their socks." He tried camping under an overpass, "but people kept driving by throwing trash at me, yelling at me to get a job."

• • •

Every day at the library, after he draws for an hour or so, Lewis waits in line for a computer and logs on to Craigslist. He searches for odd jobs, janitor jobs, dishwasher jobs. "I'll do anything," he says.

The last time he slept in a bed was two years ago, when he was washing dishes at Café Alma and earned enough to rent a $30 motel room. "But I came to work drunk and got in a fight and blew that one," he says. The last time he ate in a restaurant was a year ago, while he was a dishwasher at Feola's and the manager served him pizza. "That was a great gig," he says.

But after working there every weekend for four months, Lewis says, his bike was stolen, so he had no way to get to the eatery near St. Petersburg College. He didn't call, didn't let his boss know. Just didn't show up. "I still kick myself for that," he says.

His only arrests are for three open-container violations. "He's a great guy but a bad drunk," says Cory Jones, his former boss at Café Alma. "He's really funny and talented. I still have some of his art."

The last time Lewis got drunk, he says, was last summer. After an evening of vodka and High Gravity beer, he passed out in an alley. When he woke up his glasses and his Social Security card were gone. "I decided I couldn't keep doing that to myself."

For a while, he stopped drinking. "Cold turkey," he says. He has a beer or two every once in a while. "But I never let myself get out of control."

Now that he's more or less sober, he feels the shame that he had buried for so long. Lewis won't call his dad or brother. He doesn't want his daughter to know how far he has fallen. Sarah is 23, studying in Indianapolis to be a veterinary assistant. Lewis hasn't spoken to her in four years. "I don't want to interfere," he says. "I'd only be a thorn in her side."

And though he is trying to stay straight, though he got a new Social Security card and wants to work "more than anything," he is embarrassed to ask any of his former bosses to take him back. He's tired of being turned away, of being insulted.

"Hope is a four-letter word," he says. "It's dangerous. It gets you feeling good. But then, when it crashes, everything is so much worse.

"I've gone through that whole phase of beating myself up. I know I sabotaged myself," he says. "You have to find a way to live with yourself, even when other people don't respect you. You have to look for little moments that amuse you."

That's where Homer comes in.

• • •

Lewis chose his cartoon character's name because he's hapless, like Homer Simpson. "And because it works well with homeless." He has never read The Odyssey. "It's Greek, right?"

He doesn't know about the hero's homeward journey, has never heard of lotus eaters or sirens. "But I know lots of users out here, and hear plenty of cop cars."

Since he has no home to return to, Lewis' quest is for art supplies. Discarded file folders become canvases. He traded someone food stamps for a pack of colored pencils.

He stores most of his belongings in a bin at St. Vincent's (a pair of black Levi's, frayed denim shorts, two T-shirts), but he keeps his art supplies and drawings with him always. "They're what keep me alive in this graveyard."

For a while, he didn't show his cartoons to other homeless people, worried he might offend them. But when they started staring over his shoulder, watching him work, they all laughed. One guy said, "You got that right!" and gave him a cigarette.

His cartoon character is too jaded to care what others think, or about finding that other flip-flop. Sometimes Lewis tries to convince himself that he's past that, too. He regrets burning bridges, but doesn't dare go back and try to fix them.

If you don't put yourself out there, you can't be rejected. But is it as bad as Lewis thinks?

Greg Ratka, 42, is a driver for Feola's pizza who used to work with Lewis. "He was awesome, a great worker, a really good-natured, self-deprecating, funny guy," Ratka says.

"He never asked anyone for anything. And he was always making drawings for people. He's really good. I still have some of his cartoons."

Ratka says he worried when Lewis stopped showing up for work. He knew that his friend was living on the streets; he often dropped him off under a bridge.

"I looked for him there but never found him," Ratka says. "And without a cellphone, I had no way to call."

If Lewis asks, Ratka says, he's sure he could get his old job back.

"I always encouraged him to do something with his art," says Ratka. "I wanted to get him a booth at Wagon Wheel (flea market) where he could draw and sell his work."

Lewis insists his sketches aren't good enough to sell; he doesn't think anyone would buy them. As for that old dishwashing job, he says he'll call.

The next day, he says he left a message. Ratka never got it.

• • •

On a recent morning, after packing his pillow from where he slept on Spa Beach, after pedaling to the Salvation Army for a free cup of coffee, after locking his bike outside the Mirror Lake Library, Rick Lewis settles into an empty table and pulls a framed portrait of a baseball player from his backpack.

"What's that you got?" asks the security guard, walking over.

"I found this frame in a Dumpster," says Lewis. "It fits this new drawing just right."

The guard stares at the picture: a Rays player making a miracle catch in the outfield. Movement, light, victory from a game Lewis never saw, captured in Dollar Store colored pencils.

"Incredible," the guard tells Lewis. "You are so good."

James Randolph has been a security officer at the library for eight years. Every day, he sees up to 30 homeless people trudge through the doors. Some come to sleep in the air-conditioning, some come to read or chat with friends. Many, like Lewis, use the computers to search for work.

"Rick is different; he's a rare beauty," says Randolph, who has known Lewis for a year — ever since he got sober. "He stands out from all the others because of his talent and his outlook. He doesn't blame anyone, doesn't ask for anything. He tries to find meaning in his depraved situation, to look at the bright side."

Lewis grins. Sure, he says, he dreams of ordering a hamburger, watching the Discovery Channel, taking a hot bath. He'd love to know where he will sleep tonight, to be able to sleep through a night without worrying himself awake.

But he tries to concentrate on the good: seeing the sun rise above St. Petersburg's silver skyline, watching it slip behind the sailboats. Palm trees and pelicans. Enough breeze to blow away mosquitoes. A pad of paper someone tossed in the trash can.

"In some ways, I know I'm lucky," he says. "Not a lot of people get the privilege of trying to figure out whether they can make it out here. I know God is looking out for me, that he has something good in mind. I haven't been beat up . . . yet."

As for Homer, he will have lots more adventures. "I have all kinds of ideas," Lewis says. Homer writing to his mom, "Send cans!" A trash truck scooping Homer from a Dumpster. "I'll call it: Homeless alarm clock."

But on this morning, Lewis shelves his alter ego and turns to his baseball sketch. He takes the drawing out of its found frame, signs the bottom right corner, resets the glass. Then he walks to the front counter and tells the security guard, "This is for you."

Randolph smiles, then shakes his head. "I can't take this. You should hold on to it, try to sell it outside the stadium or something."

The homeless man presses the drawing to the officer's chest. "No," he says. "I want it to have a real home."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.

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