Tom Sawyer is in jail. • Again. • He's well known at the Hillsborough County lockup: trespassing, drinking in public, resisting arrest. Alkie crimes. It's petty stuff, but the record fills 83 pages. And that's just in Florida, since 1993. • At 77, he's one of the oldest guys in the Falkenburg Road Jail. In his mug shots, he's always wearing overalls. Sometimes his thin chest is bare beneath the dingy denim. Sometimes he wears an undershirt. But always, those overalls — except, for some reason, in the most recent booking photo. • The other day I went to see him. • "You want to talk to me?" he asks, shuffling into a holding room. "Why?" • Why? • Because it's a slow news day. Because I want to know how he got here — not just this time, but generally. Because anybody named Tom Sawyer must have a story. • Because I'm curious about the overalls.
Slowly, he sinks into the plastic chair. "I'm the born loser," he says. "People tell me that all the time.
"Somebody broke into my stuff the other day, stole my teeth and my hearing aids. I can't talk so great without my teeth.
"But I'll tell you my story," he says. "See, I got a problem."
Folks call him all kinds of names, he says. Pop, Old Man, Motormouth, Skinny Minnie. His wife used to call him J. His son hasn't called him since 1969.
"Being from the hills of the great state of Tennessee, we had four girls and four boys in my family. Plus Mama had two miscarriages. We had so many children, by the time they got to me, Daddy ran out of names. He said he called me after my granddaddy, who was Thomas James. But he only gave me the initials."
Growing up, he said, he was never Tom Sawyer. Just T.J.
"I worked on the farm with my daddy. Oh, he'd do discipline on us boys all the time.
"That man would get on you like ugly on a monkey."
• • •
He was first arrested when he was 18. Some nonsense involving a buddy, a girl, and a '48 Mercury. Believe me, you don't have time.
At 23, he started drinking. He was in the Air Force, working as an aircraft mechanic. In the military, he says, "it's either fight, drink or sleep. There's nothing else to do."
His first drunk was with two other enlisted guys from Tennessee. They shared a pint of Old Crow. "It 'bout ripped my mouth up," Sawyer says. "But that's what got me started.
"Found out later that my sergeant loved the hooch too. He'd say, 'C'mon, Skid, let's go get a drink.' He called me Skid. Like Skid Row."
He married a teacher named Pat. Had a son, Michael, then a daughter, Janice. Got out of the Air Force after 13 years and bought a Laundromat.
"I worked so much, I never really saw the wife or kids," he says. Came home one day and they were gone. "She took everything that wasn't nailed down, except a can of noodles — or maybe it was beans — and a 45 record: Your Cheatin' Heart.
"She brainwashed the kids, told them I was an alcoholic and a womanizer. I found out later about her.
"She was a manizer, that's what she was."
• • •
His cousin was a preacher, lived in Arkansas. Sawyer moved there, "and that man kept me sober nine years." After the cousin died, Sawyer headed for Florida to track down his kids.
That was in the mid '90s. His daughter lived in Tampa, worked at a beauty salon. He moved into a trailer park and let her keep his Buick. When he demanded it back, "she threw the keys at me," he says. "Girl's got a temper. Just like her old man." He hasn't seen her since.
He heard his son lives in Dade City, training horses. Who knows?
"Easy come, easy go," he says.
He stays mostly in Ruskin, in trailers and $25-a-week rooms. He cleans up outside convenience stores, gets paid in crackers and cigarettes.
"I'm not homeless," he says. "I was living, for a while, with my sister. But her phone's disconnected now, and someone said they took her to a nursing home. I can always go to the old soldiers' home."
Or come here and get another picture taken.
• • •
"Drinking and trespassing," he says. "That's all they ever get me for."
It's enough. Enough to get him three meals a day, a warm shower, sheets and a mattress. He's safer inside than on the streets.
"Last time I was out there, just before I came in here, this guy beat me up and robbed me, busted my head and blacked my eye," he says. Sawyer had $10 in the left pocket of his overalls; $3 in change in the right. The guy tore the jeans right off him.
The next day, Tom Sawyer got locked up for trespassing.
People say he's killing himself, living this way, but if so, it's taking a while. His only concern is getting out of jail.
Where will he go? Where will he get that next drink and a new pair of overalls?
The guard motions it's time. Sawyer stands slowly, offers his bony hand.
"I hope I gave you what you wanted," he says. "I know I talk a lot, but I don't always have someone to listen. I ramble — and I think and I laugh. I'd rather laugh than cry. Wouldn't you?"
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.