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The Barbecue Man trades in fast living for grace and giving

TAMPA

The man is so imposing, he could almost break the ceiling.

Cornelius Hamilton sweats in the hot pod of Big Bru's BBQ. He's 300 pounds, with dreadlocks dusting his shoulders. The restaurant fits him like a tight vest. He chops chicken and douses the sizzling fat with tangy mustard sauce, plantains and a white peppermint. It should be his lunch, but nothing is so simple these days.

A kid outside sees smoke pouring from the shop. The restaurant is closed.

The door swings.

"You cooking today?"

Hamilton sighs.

He is trying to do what Jesus would do, what a 32-year-old Christian father should do. He spent his life masquerading as flashier, easier characters. He has more arrests than fingers.

Hamilton trudges into the kitchen behind lace curtains and walls of pictures. Bob Marley and Jesus Christ. Lil Wayne and Chamillionaire. And then there's Hamilton, throwing up peace signs, draped in chains.

A Bible sits on a chipped countertop, passages streaked in orange.

And, behold, there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself . . . And He laid His hands on her: and immediately she was made straight.

He hands his lunch to the hungry kid at the door.

• • •

For two years Hamilton has forged a new identity as a Tampa Samaritan, a gregarious altruist feeding the homeless hot soul food. He's a spectacle on Sundays, standing outside the Salvation Army on N Florida Avenue with his bullhorn and apron.

He has been called a hero on TV news segments that say nothing of his past.

Sundays after church, he loads his white Explorer with bags of worn platform shoes and old T-shirts, pots of spaghetti and chicken and rice. It's not always easy to make himself go, but he does. At 5 p.m., the smell of sauce beckons hundreds down the block.

"They'll be coming from everywhere," says CJ Boyd, who sleeps under the bridge. "Coming off the roof, coming off the ground."

They call Hamilton the Barbecue Man. They don't know what he's done and they don't care.

"Peter, what's up?" Hamilton says. "How you doing, man? How you feel? You went through them clothes? Prayer changes things, baby."

Life brands you from the start. You're suburban. You're rich. You're gospel. You're hood.

Hamilton was lost.

He grew up in Overtown, a Miami neighborhood designated as "colored" during the Jim Crow era. His dad was dead. His mom struggled with drugs. People around him went to church and sold drugs, and there was no disconnect. In his generalized worldview, the blacks who sold the drugs were no worse than the Cubans who acquired the drugs or the whites who took them.

His grandmother taught him to make coconut cake and collard greens. She took him to church, where pastors said he had a gift for preaching. His cousin brought rappers around the house, like Uncle Luke from 2 Live Crew, the man behind the first album ruled legally obscene. They wore track suits and Adidas shell toes without laces. They had swagger. That looked like success.

"I wanted a lot of things a young man living in the city wants," he said. "They were cool. That's what the youth sees. They don't see what some of them do."

Hamilton bounced around group homes and foster care at least 10 times, he said. When foster parents got mean, he ran away. At 11, he slept on the streets around Miami's basketball arena. A volunteer at a homeless shelter invited him in.

He helped prepare the food, stirring soup in big metal pots with spoons that looked like oars.

His mother got clean and moved to Tampa when Hamilton was 15. Hamilton followed. Huge, fast and popular, he played fullback and middle linebacker at Tampa Bay Technical High School. He led the county on tackles his sophomore year. People called him Corn Dog. He felt untouchable.

When he was 17 he ran his mouth at school about a girl he knew.

In the arrest report, she claimed he groped her against the snack room wall. She hit him, she said, and he hit her. He spit on her.

That last part is true, Hamilton said. He spit because she threw his Deion Sanders football cleats on the roof. He said the groping story was a lie for revenge. He pleaded guilty, but only to spitting. The charges were reduced.

He was smoking weed by then. He now had probation and a curfew, things he'd never dealt with before.

"I was mad," he said. "I was super mad. I was a football star and all that was taken away. I was just young. I got the attitude that I don't even care. I couldn't play football. All the colleges were gone."

The anger was planted.

Three months later, he rolled his bicycle through a stop sign. A cop stopped him. The deputy said Hamilton pushed him. Hamilton says he only ran away.

"I'm not going to jail!" he yelled.

The cop released pepper spray and Hamilton tumbled to the ground. The little green plastic bags came out of his shoes, holding another component of his artificial life.

Fake crack rocks. Candle wax and BC headache powder.

• • •

Hamilton stood outside his restaurant, staring into the street, when a man on a motorcycle pulled up.

Ricky Navarro was the pastor at the church next door. Hamilton had been curious about the place, called the Walk, but he'd never gone in. The pastor had been curious about the barbecue place too, but passed it a hundred times.

"Something just told me to go in," Navarro says.

They talked for an hour and ate together. Hamilton had tattoos of a fist, a microphone, names of friends who died in the streets. Navarro said people could draw wisdom from their sins without wearing them on their sleeve.

Within a few months, Hamilton became outreach pastor at the modest Christian church. He mingled with white and black people, young and old. He liked the rock music and messages of equality. He organized an Easter fair with free health screenings. Old white ladies began to greet him with hugs.

Now he sits in the front row.

Other people wear jeans. Not Hamilton, a wrecking ball who doesn't know how to blend in. He wears a pressed black suit with diamond cuff links that match his earrings. His dreadlocks are pulled back neatly. His Bible cover says, "The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me."

He's tense today because his 8-year-old daughter, I'kyea, fell off her bike outside their Lutz apartment. She was riding in flip-flops, the first problem. And she was with a boy, the second. Even if a boy is 8, he could be thinking like a teenager. Hamilton knows.

He tries to set an example on the weekends and summers she's around. He knows she's a sponge, and any whiff of trouble could change the trajectory of her life.

"Baby," he says, "it's all about the choices you make."

He closes his eyes and stretches his arms three seats wide. He sings about his soul, how it's overflowing. He says, "Thank you Lord, for being so understanding."

I'kyea comes back from kids' classes, smiling in a pretty green dress. He glares at her.

She is wearing lip gloss.

• • •

Hamilton had everything he wanted.

After high school he became a producer with House of Hitz in Tampa. He worked for Hood Magazine, a source on hip-hop music and Southern street life. He promoted it by taking issues to clubs and posing for pictures with celebrities and hot girls.

In that context, his arrests for holding drugs or shirking probation worked.

"He was going to church every Sunday, but Monday through Saturday, it's a totally different story," said Monica McLaughlin, CEO of Hood Magazine. "He was just trying to find his place in the world. He was trying to put on that persona."

His mom called him Bruno because he was big. He called himself Splurge because he spent big.

Women followed him. He had a child by one woman and got married to another.

He was the House of Hitz hype man. People loved to watch a 300-pound man bounce around like he was half the size.

"I was putting on a show. I was going from Clark to Superman. You walk in the club, DJs know you, they're spinning for you, girls following you. I was known for pulling up in limos and party buses. Here I am, jumping in and out of lines 19, 20 years old. I got big gold chains around my neck. Old-school car, spinning rims. It's literally like a drug. It makes you feel . . . what's a good word for it? Amazing. Happy.

"Everyone wanted to know, who is this Bruno? Who is this Bruno in Tampa? When Tampa came up, I wanted my name to come up, too."

But the euphoria started to spoil, aches crept in. He saw someone do heroin. He saw someone get stabbed. His friends were phony.

He hyped a crowd at a teen night. The kids, 13, 14, 15, were grinding to a song called Dance Like You F---. He stood watching in the dark.

It wasn't an instant, drop-to-your-knees conversion. It was pins, prickling and hot along the side of his body. He finished his job, went home and agonized for weeks.

If he gave up this life, what was left?

"You ever been conflicted about something? You're begging yourself not to think about it. I felt so bad."

He rode down 40th Street with a friend, past a dilapidated tire shop with a sign asking him to accept Jesus. He stopped.

"It was raggedy," he said. "I got a vision from it. It was fast, like the Matrix."

He'd been pulling away from the rap game in 2008, losing money, getting scared. But he had some savings and his grandma's recipes. He rented the tire shop, left the Jesus sign up, converted it to a restaurant. The landlords cut him breaks when his rent was late.

He found a couple of gallons of paint abandoned in the back of the building and mixed them.

"It came out to a funky color, like a brown," he said. "Slowly but surely it started coming together. I was like, wow, I did it. It was an overwhelming feeling."

But that was just the shell. Hamilton assumed his friends would have spread word of the barbecue and kept business bustling. But they ignored him. They thought he was too good for the street life. They thought he'd gone gospel.

Hamilton had no experience running a restaurant, advertising, building a clientele. His savings ran out. He couldn't afford to put gas in his tank. And on top of that, the quiet life hurt his ego. People asked what happened to Bruno, the guy dripping with women and jewelry.

"I was out of money. I was so desperate."

An undercover police officer met him in a parking lot. Hamilton handed him a bag of crack and took $160 in return.

• • •

When you've spent your whole life teetering, you don't just suddenly stop.

"He only knew the streets," said McLaughlin. "When you only know that, it's hard for you to transition into being the good person and doing good things and knowing that you don't have to go down that road. He almost felt like he had to be on the streets."

The crack arrest wasn't his last. That came in April 2009 when he showed up late to a court appearance.

He kept his restaurant going with help from his lawyer and mom. He hosted Hood Magazine events, car shows, Christmas parties. He added a catering element, serving vats of Caribbean chicken at parties.

He worked events at liquor stores. When people bought Seagram's Gin, he gave them free barbecue. One day, he went to collect his gig money from a club promoter. On the way out of a club, his pocket lumpy with cash, he saw a mom and two children on the corner sleeping on a cardboard box. He went to Checkers where he spent $10 on burgers and fries and came back holding the oily bag.

"She was so grateful," he said. "She scarfed it down."

He felt different this time. Happy, yes, but also at peace.

He was throwing away food at the end of every night at the restaurant. He realized he could save it, reheat it and pass it out after church.

When homeless people tasted his corn bread, his spaghetti and chili, his jerk chicken and barbecue ribs, word spread. Hamilton partnered with another Tampa church called the Soul Authority to help with supplies and manpower.

The food was warm, comforting, filling on a long night.

Hamilton felt full, too.

He stopped violating probation.

• • •

Hamilton lumbers to the corner and switches on a bullhorn.

"Free food! Free clothes! Hot food!"

When he stirs the food with big spoons like oars, he remembers when he was homeless, before he was Splurge and before he sold drugs. Maybe he was always meant to be here. Maybe God was preparing him for something bigger. Something that takes time.

"I consider myself the turtle in the race," he says. "Every time you see the turtle, he's trucking along."

He scoops chili for CJ Boyd, first in line. He gives his phone number to someone looking for a job. When the people get sullen, he says any day alive is a good day. When they get quiet, he hollers.

"Come on," he says. "Are you hungry?"

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

85,907 The number of homeless people in Florida.

23,990 The number of homeless people in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

1865The year William Booth began the Salvation Army, preaching in the slums of London to thieves, prostitutes, gamblers and drunks.

12Percent of households in Florida that lack sufficient food.

Sources: Pinellas, Hillsborough and Florida homeless coalitions, Feeding America Tampa Bay, the Salvation Army

85,907: The number of homeless people in Florida.

23,990: The number of homeless people from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

1865: The year William Booth began The Salvation Army, preaching in the slums of London to thieves, prostitutes, gamblers and drunks.

12: Percent of households in Florida that lack sufficient food.

Sources: Pinellas, Hillsborough and Florida homeless coalitions, Feeding America Tampa Bay, the Salvation Army

The Barbecue Man trades in fast living for grace and giving 08/06/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 6, 2011 6:05pm]

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