Today I’d like to share with you the stories and lessons of a ‘less fortunate’ man, who taught me so much in the few years that I knew him. He was a simple man but, he had a heart of gold. I am truly saddened that I couldn’t see my buddy one more time before his last day here on Earth:(
This is my recognition Of Tony “Cookie” “Billy” Parker.
In early 2008, I started working at a bar, downtown in New Iberia, La. One of my best friends, Kristen, worked there and I was always visiting with her. So, when they needed a replacement girl, fast, I gave it a go.
Kristen and I would go hang out with each other for our slow, afternoon shifts. People really didn’t start coming downtown until about 8, so it could be a little boring sometimes when you have to start working at 3:00PM. I hadn’t been working in the bar for very long, when one afternoon, Tony walked in. On this particular day, I was sitting at work, with Kristen as my sole ‘business’. It was early and we had nothing to do.
By first sight, the man was unkempt. His beard was patchy and unshaven, he’s clothes were old and beat up, and the smell…oh, the smell. I instantly felt sorry for him. Then, something I am ashamed of happened..-I got scared. He scared me. He was dirty and couldn’t talk correctly. I did not know what to say or do with him but, I didn’t have the heart to just snarl at him to leave because, he simply looked unpleasant. So, instead, I just watched him.
He walked around aimlessly for a few minutes and talked to Kristen. He has a very crucial stutter and, though he did aim some comments in my direction, I did not understand a word that he said. But, Kristen did. She sat there and talked to him and laughed with him for about 10 minutes before he happily hopped back on his bike and pedaled away.
When he left, I was still dumbfounded. Who is this guy? How does Kristen know him? What on Earth did he say to her? What was so funny? HOW DID SHE UNDERSTAND HIM?! So, I did what any curious young lady would do- I asked.
Kristen began explaining to me how she knew, Billy (which is what everyone thought his name was at the time). She explained to me that, with patience, she has learned to understand him (kind of like we have to do with toddlers and small children who don’t speak clearly yet). She also explained to me that he would come and hang out with her everyday, so she wouldn’t have to be alone and bored when I was not there. But, what she told me next is really what stopped me in my tracks.
Kristen began to tell me how the public treated this friend she had, that was so kind to go and visit with her every day. She told me about the rude comments and how people would throw quarters at him because, sometimes he would ‘beg’ for change. Every word that slipped from her tongue was like another dagger to my heart. Why did this man have to be treated so badly? Simply because, we didn’t understand him? And that day, I decided that I was going to do just that. I decided that maybe my friend was on to something. Why judge this man? He certainly looks like he already has a rough enough life. Why couldn’t I just slow down and try to understand him? Why couldn’t I be his friend too? So, I did.
And that man changed a part of who I am, forever.
See, what I learned when getting to know Tony, was this- don’t judge a book by its cover. We can’t always just fear the unknown. That means we are scared to grow.
I did take the time out to get to know Tony. And honestly, what would I have done with those boring hours anyway? Why spend them ignoring one of the few people around, who is just trying to feel accepted? Maybe we really aren’t that different. After all, isn’t acceptance one of those things that everyone strives for? So, I let myself be open to getting to know Tony.
In the years I worked in the bar, I saw somethings happen to Tony that made my heart cry out. He’s been called a bum, useless, and a crackhead. People usually thought he was homeless. I’ve seen this man be belittled, shunned, kicked out of places for his appearance, and simply ignored or made to feel wrong because, he had the nerve to even walk by someone who thought that they were better than he. And the facts are, those people will NEVER be half of the man that Tony was because, they don’t have the heart. Tony was misunderstood, not a bad person.
The amazing part about Tony was, no matter how bad anyone else treated him…he knew we loved him and he was our buddy. It never failed that he would come right back later, or the next day, with that same huge smile on his face.
Upon getting to know Tony, I learn that, if he slowed down..he won’t stutter. I learned that he is NOT a crackhead. He was simply born with a slightly slower learning ability and was kept uneducated by whomever he lived with, so they could get his check every month. A check that Tony never personally saw. He would sit and talk to me for hours. It was all starting to make sense.
People may think it was weird but, Tony and I formed a real bond. A real friendship. He was really a person and I really accepted and respected that. He’d show up when I was closing and stay with me sometimes just to make sure I was ok and not alone that late at night. I used to give him rides home, after he’d help me clean the bar. He would even tell me what road to drop him on because, ‘where he lived wasn’t safe for a pretty girl like me.’ I’ve watched this man work for hours to earn $20, then turn around and buy a daiquiri from me JUST so he could tip me. ( he normally didn’t have money. I’d buy him a couple drinks every now and then but, he normally couldn’t afford to buy anything for himself.). I’ve watched him proudly accept a suit and put it on. We had a dress code at the bar that I worked at, at that time. That night, he walked in looking spiffier than ever, in his suit. He had the biggest smile that I had ever seen, on his face.
I even once watched him refuse $50 that someone offered him. And when they asked him why, he simply replied, “I didn’t earn it.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Tony would ask us for quarters and he’d take a couple of dollars if you gave it to him. But, I guess, when it was small amounts from a bunch of different people, he didn’t feel like he’s putting them out. Because, he would not take that much money from this guy who was just offering it to him. I felt so proud of this man. He had nothing yet, he wasn’t going to take that large of a hand out, without working for it. And, just so you all know, the guy offering the money spoke with one of the bar owners and worked out a deal of Tony mopping the floor that night, for his $50 payment. Everybody wins.
When I would have to work doubles, all weekend for festivals, he’d show up on his bike with plate lunches for me. I normally didn’t eat them but, only because I really was not sure where they came from. However, I never let him know that. I would kindly thank him and visit for a while. I would then slide my plate lunch under the bar because, I couldn’t eat it with customers, anyway. It warmed my heart that my friendship was so important to him.
As time went on, more and more people did warmup to Tony. There are lots of people out there who love him. It never stopped the bad completely but, as time went on..he made more and more friends. Our friends would question us and we’d explain. Luckily, good, compassionate people do still roam this world.
Tony always just wanted to laugh, hang out, and be accepted by everyone he would meet. He actually had a good sense of humor and tried his best to keep us laughing. He is one of those treasures that most people don’t have because, they don’t bother to notice or worry with him. Some people just didn’t have the compassion, patience, or desire to try to know who he was. Tony just wanted to have friends and be someone’s friend. I truly believe that he tried to do the best that he could, with the hand that he was dealt.
I’m very sad to say that I hadn’t had the pleasure of talking to Tony in a year or two. I am a few years past my ‘going out’ phase and my life has been pretty overwhelming for the last two years. I actually tried waving to him, when I saw him on his bike a couple of weeks ago. He didn’t see me. Today, I am feeling very sad that I did not turn around that day and go say hi like I wanted to. I will miss my ol’ buddy. But, I will never forget the memories that we shared, the beautiful heart that he had, or him.
Anyway, I don’t want to make today’s post too long and drawn out.
I would simply like to leave you with this thought:
Look around you today. The sun is shining and the birds are chirping. No matter what is going wrong in your life right now, it’s still life and it’s still beautiful. If Tony can smile everyday, so can you. And next time you see a random stranger or someone who seems less fortunate, don’t fear and judge them. Embrace and show love to everyone, regardless of age, race, social status, etc. You truly never know who has a beautiful heart hidden in them and what unexpected lessons you will learn from opening yourself up to something you aren’t familiar with.
I dedicate this post to Tony Parker, a hidden hero. A man who probably never knew how much he taught me and how big he opened my heart. I don’t think he ever knew how much he mattered to a lot of people. May you rest in Peace, Tony. A Teacher of great lessons and a hero that was hidden amongst us.