Tony’s gift

24 Jul

When the news about singer Amy Winehouse’s death broke yesterday, a friend posted the story on FB with the comment, “It seemed so sadly inevitable.” He was referring, of course, to her struggles with alcoholism and drug use.

The story mentioned Winehouse’s “drunken belligerence,” eerily the exact words I used earlier in the day when I started jotting down notes for this post about a friend whose death also seemed sadly inevitable. While I refer to him as “friend” here, I didn’t do so when he was alive. I should have.

Tony died June 11, 2000, struck and killed by a pick-up truck while walking at night down the middle of a busy, dimly lit road in Pine Bluff. The driver saw him too late to stop. Tony’s death was tragic but not unexpected; it seemed the only possible end to the darkness and insanity of his life. He was an alcoholic, the obnoxious, black-out kind of drunk who can be charming and bighearted while also secretive, self-centered and manipulative.

I was Tony’s editor several times during the 15 or so years of his off-and-on employment with the Arkansas Democrat (now the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette).  I didn’t really like Tony, who, when I first met him, struck me as a redfaced, blustering hulk who liked to hear his own considerable voice. He spoke in surround sound that was never muted. When he entered the newsroom and greeted the receptionist, we all heard — and felt — the sonic boom of his hello.

I confess that I didn’t try to get to know him. I had my own alcoholic charmer at home and didn’t really want to deal with one at work. We never hung out or became buddies. Our conversations focused on writing, issues and people in the news. Tony was brilliant, insatiably curious and well informed, and always had something interesting to say — but he could also be rambling and pedantic so I often tuned him out.

So it’s strange that he has been in my thoughts lately. It started in June — exactly 11 years and 5 days after his death — when I found myself touring the Billy Graham Museum at Wheaton College in Illinois.

***

In 1989, I was an editor and Tony a reporter when we were assigned to produce an 8-page tabloid about the life and work of the charismatic evangelist, who was bringing his crusade to Little Rock. Tony wrote the stories while I pulled together art, edited Tony’s writing (at that time, a joy), laid out the section — old school with paper, pica pole and photo wheel — sent it to composing, read proofs and annoyed the gruff composing room men by watching over their shoulders as they cut and pasted corrections.

Tony didn’t require supervision or direction. He was deeply interested in religion on an intellectual level — perhaps personal, but we never talked about that — so he was excited about studying Graham’s life and teachings, and interviewing local ministers. He’d come in jazzed each day, sit down and pound out insightful, thought-provoking pieces — not your typical famous-person-coming-to-town previews.

He was sober when we worked together, but I heard the stories of his after-hours binges, drunken belligerence, black-outs, vitriolic arguments with friends and co-workers. I remember the day a kindhearted reporter told me she was writing him off; she had found him drunk on her doorstep one too many times. I understood. Like I said, I had my own drunk at home.

My husband, a lawyer, “worked” out of our home. Actually, he drank more than he worked. Paying the bills was tough and I was usually behind.

One day, my husband called to tell me the electricity had been cut off and he demanded that I have it turned back on immediately. We were a couple of months behind, but I thought — wrong, obviously — I had a few days to work something out before the electric department shut off the lights.

I called the electric department, tried to be calm and professional but ended up pleading with a clerk and promising to pay the bill in increments if only they’d turn our power on. That wouldn’t do, I was told. So I hung up. I put my head in my hands, exhausted and worried and not sure what to do next. I dreaded going home.

Then I felt someone standing behind me. It was Tony. I hadn’t heard him come up, the only time that ever happened.

“How much do you need?” he asked. He had heard my half of the entire humiliating conversation about my electric bill. Wrung out and feeling desperate, I told him.

“Alright then,” he said, his voice oddly quiet, and walked away.

About 20 minutes later, he was back at my desk with a bank envelope. “Pay me back when you can,” he said when he handed it to me. I started to protest, but then I saw the look on his face and knew I had to take the money. Not only because I needed it but because he needed to give it.

***

Almost 10 years passed before we again worked together as editor and reporter. During those years, Tony was arrested I don’t know how many times for drunkenness. He was no longer a full-time employee of the paper but still contributed as a freelancer.

During this period, Tony’s father died. I didn’t see Tony for a time after that, but when he walked into the office one day, I expressed my condolences and asked how he was. He thanked me, then told me what he had been doing that week.

“I made all the arrangements for my funeral,” he said. “It’s all planned, paid for. I don’t want my mom and sister to go through this when I die.” Tony wasn’t yet 40.

***

Sometime about 1998 — the years run together —  the newspaper’s executive editor called me to his office. He asked me to sit down, then went on about people sometimes having to do unpleasant things for the good of the paper and I was about to be one of those people.

“We want you to take over supervising Tony,” he said. He explained that this was to be Tony’s “last chance” with the paper. (Tony had had many last chances.)  Then he sat back and waited for my reaction. It wasn’t what he expected.

“OK. I have no problem working with Tony.”

Over the next year or so, I was Tony’s editor. He came up with ideas, wrote features and I edited them. He called me often, sometimes drunk and rambling, other times sober and engaging. At the end, he was barely understandable, usually argumentative, full of sly promises.

I hated answering the phone and hearing his voice. But all the time, I remembered how Tony had bailed me out years before.

So when he called one day, sober for a change, and said he needed money, then asked to be paid in advance for a story due the next week, I said yes. Despite his problems, he had never let me down on a story.

There’s always a first time. Tony didn’t turn in that story and every time I talked to him, he assured me it was coming. But I knew I’d never see it so I confessed to my boss that I had paid Tony for a story he would never turn in. I offered to repay the money, but my boss said it wasn’t necessary.

Only a week or two passed before I heard Tony had again been “fired” as a freelancer for the paper. But, about a year later, true to pattern, the paper gave him another last chance, this time as a political columnist.

I believe he wrote only two columns before his death. He was 41. When we got the news he had died and learned the circumstances, no one who knew him was surprised. It seemed sadly inevitable.

***

Since he died, I haven’t thought much about him. But lately there have been reminders. The Billy Graham Museum was one. Another came when I opened the paper a couple of weeks ago and saw a photo of people filling out applications for government assistance with their electric bills. I flashed to Tony holding out the envelope of money, the look on his face.

It’s still so vivid.

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4 Responses to “Tony’s gift”

  1. lauracartwrighthardy July 24, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    Nicely done, Rhonda. And very brave.

    Poor old Tony. Such a sad waste.

  2. Hanna July 24, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    Rhonda, You did a great job capturing Tony and also putting him into fuller perspective. I remember that sonic boom of his entering the news room. I have to say I cringed when I heard it and avoided him as much as possible. You have helped me see a different–and much more human–side to a very brilliant and troubled man. And you have done it beautifully. Thank you.

  3. Arkie Mama July 24, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    Wow. Powerful post. And beautifully written.

  4. Sonny July 25, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    I can only echo what Arkie Mama said. “Wow. Powerful post.” I have a few Tony stories, too, but I don’t think there’s any way I could put them into words as poignantly and insightfully as you have.

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