Mid-afternoon, a man in a cream-colored Lexus pulls up in front of a homeless shelter.
A boy is sitting on the concrete steps. He stands up and says goodbye to his mother, then slips into the shiny car, settles on the tan leather passenger seat.
Soon the man and the boy who seem to have so little in common are talking about the one thing that connects them: airplanes.
Robert Utley is 15 and wants to be a pilot. Right now he and his mother, Cyntthia Sterba, are homeless. For the past year, they have spent nights in a church alcove, in homeless shelters and on the couches of friends and relatives.
Mike Cariello, 49, flies Boeing 757s and 767s for American Airlines. He was once an F-18 fighter pilot for the U.S. Marines and an instructor at Navy Fighter Weapons School, featured in the movie Top Gun.
They are miles apart in life, but Cariello sees a little bit of himself in Robert. Once, a long time ago, he was lost and needed some help too.
"You're a good kid," he tells Robert. "This is just a temporary situation. You'll get through it."
• • •
A few weeks ago, the St. Petersburg Times published a story about Robert and his desire to become a pilot.
The morning after it ran, dozens of people called the church where Robert and his mother volunteer. They offered money, clothes, gift cards, airplane magazines, flight training books, even flying lessons.
At the shelter where Cyntthia and Robert were staying, they became celebrities. Several of the homeless people staying at the shelter walked up to Robert and gave him a dollar. Someone taped a piece of paper over Robert's bed with the word Maverick.
Over the next few weeks, Robert was invited to MacDill Air Force Base to meet the Blue Angels. He clocked his first flight hour with a local pilot school. He also flew to Venice with an accountant and to Lakeland with a periodontist.
Robert got a behind-the-scenes tour of Tampa International Airport. Brian Rumble, TIA's deputy director of operations, drove him out to the grass strip between the runway and the taxiway.
All around him, half a dozen jets lined up, took off and landed in a swirl of jet fuel fumes. Robert aimed his digital camera at the planes and recited their makes and models. A Southwest plane was a Boeing 737. A Delta was an MD-88. An ExpressJet was an Embraer ERJ-145 regional jet. A Southwest plane emblazoned with Shamu was "special livery."
"Take pictures of that, Robert," yelled his mother.
• • •
Robert and Cariello, the American Airlines pilot, drive to the Clearwater Main Library and sit together in front of a flight training book.
Cariello talks about takeoff distances and engine performance and airspeed. He draws a stick airplane on a sheet of paper and tiny dots to explain air density.
Robert listens attentively. He's polite. But he doesn't say much. His face displays little emotion. That's the way he is.
Cariello sits back and smiles at Robert. He is 5 feet 6 but he seems 6 feet tall. He has thick arms, a commanding presence.
"Flying's easy, isn't it?" Cariello asks.
"Yeah, once you are in the air, it's not that hard," Robert says.
Cariello asks if he wants to go grab something to eat. Robert nods. He hasn't eaten all day. They head out into the sunlight and Robert puts on a pair of Ray-Bans that Cariello gave him.
"Every aviator needs a cool pair of Ray-Bans," Cariello says.
• • •
Inside the sandwich shop, Cariello tells Robert that he knows what he's going through.
When Cariello was 14, his family moved to Bradenton from New York. A few weeks later, his mother choked on a piece of food and died. His father didn't have a job and he and his four siblings struggled. Cariello didn't get along with his father, so he moved out and slept on the floors and couches of friends for a year.
Then the family of a high school wrestling buddy took him in. They encouraged him to go to college. He joined the military and became a fighter pilot. He has accumulated 10,000 hours as a pilot with American Airlines.
"It can work out very well," Cariello tells Robert. "It worked out well for me. But there were a thousand times along the way that my life could have changed. At least a thousand. You do what you have to do to make things work out. You stay out of trouble."
Robert listens. But he is eating. Quickly.
"What do you eat?" Cariello asks.
"We have food stamps," Robert answers. "We go to Publix."
Cariello pauses, takes a bite of his sandwich. He's thinking Robert's a good kid. A respectful kid.
"Are you able to eat well?" he asks.
"Yeah," Robert says.
"You inhaled that."
Robert smiles. For a half a second.
Cariello catches it, smiles back. It's good, he says, to see a smile on the boy's face.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.