ST. PETERSBURG — The sun rises and the wind blows over the bay into Vinoy Park.
It’s so windy that it’s hard to walk, and the whoosh of the palm fronds drowns out everything. The pelicans strain against it and fly in place.
Al Nixon’s fedora rests perfectly still on his head.
Lounging on a bench near the sea wall — his bench — Al’s legs are stretched out straight. His arms are propped on the backrest. A 305‘s Ultra Light burns in his fingers.
“Hi Al!” say the passers-by, wearing athleisure.
“Have a good day!” says Al, wearing a sport coat and immaculate jeans with a single cuff over black loafers.
Al stands out among the yoga pants, dog-walking crowd if you’ve never seen him before, but for park regulars between 6 and 8 a.m., he’s as reliable as the squirrels or the water fountains, from the Yanni playing aloud on his phone speaker, to his travel mug of Maxwell House.
Many who pass stop to chat. Many just give and receive a little wave. Over and over. Day after day.
Al has watched the sunrise from his bench, seven days a week, for years. Everyone seems to know him. No one seems to ask him why.
But since you asked.
About seven years ago, Al needed to clear his head. Trouble at work, mostly.
He found the perfect bench in a thicket of cabbage palms near the sea wall and watched the sun come up. It worked, and he started showing up for sunrise three or four days a week.
One day a complete stranger came up and told Al something he’ll never forget.
I know, when I see you sitting there, that everything is going to be alright.
That floored Al. Still does.
“It was probably the nicest thing anyone ever said to me,” Al said. “I told her, ‘I’m overwhelmed.’”
The woman told Al, don’t feel overwhelmed, just keep coming.
“For the first time, I knew there was more of a purpose to me being out here than just soothing my own woes,” he said. “We have an impact on other people, unwittingly, and I’m sure it can be both good or bad.”
Not only did he keep coming, but it became every day, even weekends. He had to do his duty.
A friendly “hello,” Al believes, can change the course of someone’s life, but even the park-goers who’ve never spoken to him find the elegant man in the hat a totem of soothing consistency.
Al says something else happened when he showed up every day. People started confiding in him. They told him about their children, their own childhoods, their finances.
“Their marriages and relationships,” Al said, “especially that stuff.”
Sometimes people just wanted to sit directly next to him and not talk at all.
Once, a distressed young woman he’d never seen before sat down and told Al cigarettes weren’t good for him. He told her, “I don’t think that’s what you came here to say.”
She burst into tears. She told Al she wanted to leave the city, alone, to try something on her own, but was conflicted because she loved her boyfriend.
Al has rules. He doesn’t judge, and he doesn’t offer advice, unless it’s asked for.
The woman asked, so Al advised her to leave town. If she stayed, resentment could ruin her relationship, but if she went, maybe there’d be something to come back to one day.
At the height of the pandemic, people told Al about loved ones they lost. He never stopped showing up.
“Mostly people just want to be heard,” Al said. “I’ve heard a thousand stories. I don’t consider myself all that smart, or debonair, but I’m a good listener.”
Al has another rule. He does not burden people with his own worries, or talk too much about himself.
But since you asked.
Al is 58.
He was born and raised in St. Petersburg, went to Lakewood High School, then St. Petersburg College, then the University of Florida.
His parents are still around, still living in the same house he grew up in. He has three children, all grown.
He works for the city, in the Water Resources Department.
He left for a few years to try Atlanta, but moved back to St. Pete in 2010, not because he grew up here, but because it’s the best place to live.
He prefers sunrises over sunsets, because a sunrise is the possibility of a fresh start, and “if you’re going to have a shot at a good day, you must start it well.”
His phone contains more than 1,000 photos of sunrises.
He is not married, but he does have someone.
Last fall, Al had not shown up at the park for a few days.
Someone affixed a small, metal plate to his bench with an engraving:
AL. A LOVING AND LOYAL FRIEND AND A CONFIDANT TO MANY. FOREVER AND ALWAYS.
Someone posted on Nextdoor, “What happened to the guy who sits on the bench?!” There were dozens of sad replies.
Al logged onto the website while he was out of town and discovered that he’d died.
“I reposted on Nextdoor, I’m the guy, Al, and I’m not dead.”
But to Al, it was a blessing. “It’s a wonderful thing to make a person know they’re appreciated like that, while they’re still alive”
On that recent windy morning, Al’s fan club thinned out, and he sat alone on the bench — his bench, says the plaque. It was quiet, except for Yanni and the whooshing palm fronds.
At 8 a.m. sharp, an alarm sounded on his phone. Al stood up, and walked off. He headed to work, feeling like his job was already done.