TAMPA — Isolated within a menagerie of overgrown palms, in a house where windows form walls and furniture is art, born-again rapper Anderson Perry battles another man's demons, his own battle still fresh in his mind.
Perry says his roommate, Nate Flemister, a 20-year-old high-functioning autistic man, sometimes bites and hits him. He cries when Perry leaves the house. He tries to hurt himself, and Perry restrains him.
On this particular day, Flemister, a lanky guy with chin scruff and a child's smile, wanders the house searching for something.
"Yo, Nate, you looking for some socks? They're right here, bro," Perry says, holding a rolled-up pair the friends share because there isn't enough money for two sets of clothes.
Flemister looks relieved. He takes the socks and returns to playing video games.
He has his own room in "big brother" Perry's house and helps mix hip-hop tracks. Perry teaches him how to cook for himself, how to draw.
Perry uses hugs to suffocate the monsters in Flemister's head.
It's nothing like the assisted living facility or the sterile psychiatric hospital, Flemister says. At those places, he took a cocktail of medications and slept a lot.
When Perry met Flemister in spring 2011, Jesus said "not to leave a troubled kid standing on the porch," Perry says. Now Perry sells homemade CDs in parking lots to fund two lives. On the discs, he raps about sacrifice, redemption and obedience — all lessons he learned the hard way.
Perry, 28, says he knows what it's like to dance with the devil. In January 2011, he served 33 days in the Hillsborough County Jail for violation of DUI probation. Before that, he was homeless. He ran a "hustle," asking strangers for gas money. He was arrested in Georgia for forgery and drug possession. He rapped about selling weed and chasing women. He got kicked out of cooking school and fired from multiple jobs.
"I was busy trying to be the bada--," Perry says of life before his rebirth, before the cleansing.
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Perry came to Florida in 2003 to take culinary classes at Johnson & Wales University in Miami. But he and a cousin immersed themselves in the college party life. Their dorm room became the place to buy dope and get high.
Perry's life grew nomadic as he bounced around from Miami to Marietta, Ga. At one point, he lived in his car near South Beach. He landed in Tampa after being arrested in Georgia for passing a bad check. The state agreed to let him serve probation at his sister's house in Tampa Palms.
"I stayed with her for a while, but she kicked me out for being wild and jobless," Perry says. "So I went back to living in my car."
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Perry says it was God who humbled him into holding a sign on Tampa street corners. He panhandled for 12 hours a day, he says. He wore clean clothes and never really "looked like a bum."
"I never lied on my sign," Perry says. "It said, 'In Need of Helping Hand,' and I was. It was my full-time job, and I made enough money to get a room in an apartment. Then I was out celebrating moving in and I got a DUI."
The DUI, followed by a citation for marijuana possession that violated his probation, landed Perry in jail on New Year's Day 2011.
While there, he says, a shadowy figure came to him in a dream and said, "Sin no more."
"I came to Jesus in jail, but it's easy to make promises to God when you're in a box," Perry says. "I got out and I wanted a blunt. But when I lit up it wasn't the same. God was changing me."
Perry went back to holding his sign. He collected $200 or more a week, enough to afford rent, new clothes and an iPad. He didn't see anything wrong with it.
When shopping at University Mall one day, he saw a woman who had just given him money on Florida Avenue.
"She said, 'Didn't I just see you on the street?' and I was like, 'What? Lady I don't know you.' But I knew I was busted," Perry says. "Then she gave me this card for her church and said I should come."
The woman, Sicily Bennardo, says her first thought was, "Man, did this guy just punk me?" But she decided to use it as an opportunity to minister.
"It doesn't matter where a person is at in their life," Bennardo says. "It's about having a heart for people. Christ was that way. He didn't turn anyone away. I thought the way Anderson and I met, maybe that was God's way of saying I needed to reach out to him. So I gave him a card."
The card was for Crossover Church, a hip-hop-themed worship center in North Tampa.
There, Perry says, he found a real home. Members encouraged him to go back to work as a cook. At the urging of his pastor, he began writing and recording music for God. He painted a new sign that said "Jesus Loves You," nailed it to a moped and started sharing the Word with strangers.
"In the last couple years, I've seen Anderson really grow in God," Bennardo says. "He has a huge heart for evangelism and a talent for music. God showed him his love through me, and now Anderson is showing God's love to others."
Unlike his friend Perry, Nate Flemister didn't choose his difficult path, says Chris Marcoguiseppe, a family friend who raised him from age 3 to 15.
As a toddler, Flemister banged his head against walls. His biological mother and grandmother didn't know what to do, so Marcoguiseppe became his legal guardian. She quit her job as a teacher's assistant to homeschool the boy others said could not learn. She taught him to read. He was creative, loving and funny.
The autism diagnosis came at age 5. Then came the therapies and, by middle school, the medications to control his mood swings. As a preteen, Flemister started to wander off, leaving home or school to walk alone. He punched holes in walls.
It wasn't until a 15-year-old Flemister threatened to harm Marcoguiseppe that she reluctantly called the state, concerned for the safety of her other children. She remained in touch with Flemister as he bounced around in foster care. She didn't know how to help when he got arrested on misdemeanor charges.
Florida lacks living facilities for autistic adults, Marcoguiseppe says, so when Flemister turned 18, he went to live at a Tampa facility occupied mainly by senior citizens. His doctors prescribed antipsychotics.
When Marcoguiseppe visited Flemister, he acted incoherent. The medications sedated the Nate out of him, she says. She worried about the times he wandered from the group home, looking for someone to talk to.
Flemister describes his meeting with Perry as "the day the miracles started to happen."
One Tuesday at 5 a.m., after a night ministering to souls in Ybor City, Perry bought food for some homeless people he saw near his house. He was passing out breakfast sandwiches when a well-dressed kid came "bebopping down the sidewalk."
"What you doing around here?" Perry asked.
"I just need a friend," Flemister said. "Where do you live? Can I come to your house and hang out?"
Perry didn't really want to give a stranger his address, but he says Jesus kept nagging at him to do it. He told Flemister to come by the next day, but two hours later he knocked on Perry's door.
Perry answered in his boxers thinking, "This kid is crazy," but again, he says, Jesus intervened.
"People tell me I was off my rocker on the meds then," Flemister says. "But Anderson let me in, and then I just started going over there."
Perry says he knew "something was off" with Flemister but he never made a big deal about it. The then-teenager spent hours on Perry's couch watching movies and playing first-person shooter video games. Perry took his new friend along to Crossover and out evangelizing.
When a day came that Flemister didn't knock on the door, Perry found him in a hospital mental health unit. He had checked himself in for suicidal thoughts.
"He was just sitting there, spaced out and severely depressed," Perry says. "I said, 'Man, you don't belong here. Leave this place and you can stay over at my house as much as you want.' "
Soon Flemister told Marco-guiseppe he wanted to live with a friend. Marcoguiseppe came to Tampa from her home in Port Charlotte to meet Perry and discuss the full extent of Flemister's situation. She questioned why Flemister called a stranger his brother.
"I thought, 'Who is this person?' But then I met Anderson and I saw how Nate looked up to him," Marcoguiseppe says. "I saw improvement. He was happier. He had someone to help him but not tell him what to do, like a mom or dad."
After the meeting, she told the assisted living facility it was in Flemister's best interests to leave their care. He packed his bags.
Since then, Perry has helped wean Flemister off his meds.
"His medicines used to make him sick," Perry says. "We would be on the bus talking and he would fall asleep midsentence, or out bowling and he'd pass out with the bowling ball in his hand.
"The way I see it, the medications' job is to make it easier for the people that take care of him. So I figure, if I can deal with the crazy, I might as well."
These days, Flemister goes wherever Perry goes, whether it's to church or on a camping trip.
When Flemister wanted to learn break dancing, Perry learned too. When Perry decided to paint used coffee tables and a mirror to decorate the house, Flemister drew a picture to hang in his room.
Some nights, the friends watch movies, read the Bible or talk music. But there are also nights when Flemister goes missing and Perry has to look for him.
"It's really rare that people care for someone else that's not their blood like Anderson cares for Nate," Crossover senior pastor Tommy Kyllonen says.
In September 2012, Flemister began receiving Social Security benefits that cover his basic living expenses. On a good week, Perry collects about $500 selling CDs, enough that he doesn't need a day job. He sells recording time to friends using his company name Black Rock Studios. Flemister is learning to use production software. They live a different kind of life but it works, Perry says.
"I don't know what life is like away from Nate anymore," Perry says. "Most parents don't know their own children as well as I know him."
Perry recently performed at the Women of Destiny Christian women's conference in Tampa and will compete in a freestyle competition on Aug. 11 at Crossover.
Perry tells Flemister that when the right person hears his music, they won't have to share clothes anymore.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected]