The Street Poet of Hyde Park
by PAUL WILBORN
I might as well start with the confession.
Michael O’Reilly was the street poet of Hyde Park and I killed him. I killed his little dog too.
I mean, I didn’t pull a trigger or anything.
But it doesn’t really matter how you kill someone. Or if what you did isn’t legally murder. If a person dies and you’re responsible, then you’re a killer.
My story starts in the early 1990s. I was a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. It was still the glory days for newspapers. And the Times was a Pulitzer winning indie paper, not a chain, and they had lots of money – enough to keep a stable full of journalistic heavy hitters.
I was just another young player at that point, but I was driven. I wanted to be a star.
All I needed was the right story. And then as I was driving up Fowler Avenue in North Tampa one afternoon it appeared in the form of a guy holding a sign saying: “I’ll work for food. “
A lot was happening in the world at that moment. A southern governor named Bill Clinton was cheating on his wife with bouffant blondes and at the same time launching a long-shot run for president, deregulated savings and loans around America were going belly up, and the cold war was ending. The Berlin Wall was coming down.
In our country, somehow, another wall was coming down. Or a dam was breaking. And rushing out was wave of human beings without jobs, or homes, or family connections. Dirty, crazy, drunk, drugged, rebellious, confused – they were out there on the corner holding signs, filling up city parks or downtown sidewalks.
And believe it or not, this was new. Especially in these numbers.
So on this sunny summer day in maybe 1992, I saw my first street corner sign. I visited my first homeless encampment. Twenty people living in the woods a few blocks from a major shopping mall and suddenly, I had a story to tell.
It was a story I wanted to tell from the ground up. By talking to the people on the street. And most of them didn’t mind talking, especially when you gave them a dollar or two.
That’s how I met Davis. He was a 19-year-old refugee from the crack cocaine wars in Chicago. He’d watched his older brother gunned down on the street and decided he really needed to get on a bus out of town. He was aiming for Miami, but only got as far as Tampa.
I spent a few days with Leonard, a five-foot-tall, flamboyantly gay Native American, who dressed in thrift store three-piece suits; blacked his hair and eyebrows with shoe polish and was the proprietor of a perpetual hard-on. When he wasn’t drunk he could play the piano just like his idol, Liberace.
A day with Leonard meant stops at the Hub bar for a pocket-sized pint, a meander through a department store where he would spritz himself free fragrances, then a long afternoon at the Tampa Public Library, turning through picture books of Liberace’s Las Vegas mansion.
I also met Cavanaugh Murphy, a WWII vet and a former adviser to Gov. Jimmy Carter. Drink and depression had left him living in motel rooms with teenage prostitutes who had burned out on crack. He’d nurse them back to health, enjoy lots of sex, and inevitably fall in love with them. At some point, they’d disappear, usually with his cash, leaving him not just broke, but broken-hearted.
He called my office one day after a 19-year-old street-hooker named Margo slipped out the door.
“Paul, I’ve fought a lot of campaigns, but Margo was my Waterloo. I’m leaving the battlefield broken and bowed. Don’t come looking for me. I won’t be here. Good night sweet Prince, goodnight.”
Don’t worry. Cavanaugh was dramatic but not suicidal. He lived to love and lose another day.
I think my favorite character was Michael, who called himself The Street Poet of Hyde Park. Hyde Park was an early 20th Century luxury neighborhood along the bay. And Michael grew up there. Michael was the seventh child in a Catholic family and truth was, Mom should have stopped at six.
Michael was six-feet of bones and skin, with twitchy eyes and fingers that constantly danced as he talked. He was easy to be around except when his mental gears shifted and he became belligerent. He peddled instant poetry outside restaurants, bars and grocery stores in his old neighborhood.
“Say, how about something to cleanse your mental pores. Something to take away those nasty wrinkles around your heart. Something to make you feel as young as the day you were born.
“It’s a poem. A bouquet of nouns and verbs with a few late-blooming adjectives thrown in for … color. None have ever heard it. No one else can own it. I give it to you and to you alone. Just ten bucks. Thanks!
Me – I’m a Mars Bar
you’re a Klondike
– cold as Pluto when I approach.
We’re different planets in the
universal convenience store
I wait on the candy counter
stiff, wrapped, ready.
Chocolate skin over
a pea-nutty center.
And there you are
Tucked in the deep
sealed in silver.
Can you feel it
when your hard shell
It goes on. With Michael you didn’t get a haiku. You got an epic. This one ends with an earthquake. The candy bar and the ice cream bar sliding across the linoleum and colliding in a burst of passion that leaves them MELTING…into a pool of sweet, white cream.
Readers loved the homeless poet story. But even more important than that, my editors loved it. They were noticing me.
I got a reputation as the writer who gave a voice to people who didn’t normally appear in a daily newspaper.
Of course, there was a catch.
To me, Michael and the other odd outsiders were subjects for my work. Human coal I shoveled to fuel the engine of my ambition. I’d spend several days and nights with them, but when the story was done, I moved on.
They didn’t. They liked having someone pay attention to their lives and they enjoyed the fleeting moments of fame the story provided.
But newsprint ages quickly and they soon realized I was just a journalistic gigolo who had loved ‘em and left ‘em.
At that point, some stalked me like spurned lovers, calling my office at all hours. Paul, when can you come over? I got something great to show you.”
“I’m sorry. On deadline. Too busy. Maybe later.”
Some showed up at my office to collect alimony, like Davis, the crack refugee.
“Paul, I met this girl and…well…now my left nut is swollen up the size of a grapefruit. Can I get $20 for the emergency room? And maybe a lift?”
For the Street Poet, it wasn’t really about money, though I was his human ATM – providing cash for beer and cigarettes whenever I saw him.
Michael really wanted just two things. He wanted me to love him like a friend. And he wanted me to see him as a fellow writer.
I did love his crazy poetry, but that wasn’t his passion, just his living. He saw himself as a novelist. He kept dropping off new versions of his magnum opus at my office.
I wish I could tell you his book was a Tampa version of A Confederacy of Dunces, and that Michael was another diamond in the rough like John Kennedy Toole. But his novel was just lots of typewritten words, single-spaced. And what he wrote one day seemed to have no connection with what he wrote the next.
But he was convinced it was great.
“Paul, what do you think? You know any agents? Maybe the newspaper would publish it?”
I begin to dodge his phone calls and his favorite hangouts and eventually, he got the message. Our affair was over.
Turns out I really wasn’t done with Michael or these other characters.
I felt like there was a bigger story to tell. A story that didn’t really fit in a daily newspaper.
I was hanging out with some actors and one told that he thought there might be a play to be pulled from my collection of stray dogs.
So I went back to my tapes and notes and crafted a series of monologues using each character’s actual words. What tied them together was a character called The Street Poet. In the only fictionalized part of my play The Poet breaks into a newspaper office to free his imprisoned friends from the computer of a bloodsucking feature writer.
I guess it relieved some of my guilt by making myself the villain in my own play.
And wouldn’t you know, these characters helped open new doors for me.
I got an offer to present the show at a Fringe Festival at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. It was a big opportunity and the show – now called Stray Dogs – got a lot of advance publicity – a journalist taking his street subjects into the theater. Nice hook.
I hired a good director and cast my actor pals, but decided to play the Street Poet myself.
I hadn’t spoken to Michael for a year or two. But I thought he would like to see himself portrayed on stage. His character was the hero and an actual writer.
So his dream was coming true – at least on stage.
So I drove around some of his spots and sure enough, I found him and invited him.
I got to the theater early on opening night, to a big commotion. Michael was in the arms of a burly security guard. He’d gone belligerent and insulted everyone. Taken a misguided swing at a theater volunteer.
Look, don’t call the cops. I’ll get him home.
Back in my car, Michael switched gears. He was suddenly a lost little boy.
“I’m sorry, Paul. So sorry. They didn’t know who I was and I told them I was the star of the show.”
I drove him to a wooden house in Sulphur Springs, a low-rent neighborhood near the dog track. Michael was always broke but never homeless. His family made sure he had a roof over his head, even if it was modest.
“Listen, Paul, I’m kinda broke. Can you help me out? Maybe we can stop at that store there.”
It was our regular routine. He asked. I bought.
This time a case of beer, two packs of cigarettes and, over his objections, two cans of Dinty Moore beef stew.
His little house was messy and smelled like a wet dog – which turned out to be a spiky haired mutt he called Shelly. The dog was named after the poet, or maybe Michael’s sister, who was also named Shelly.
The dog was quickly in his lap and I took some comfort in the fact I wasn’t leaving Michael alone.
“Look. I’ll be back. And I’ll bring you the script. Maybe you can come see the show another time.”
He was silent but not fighting.
He popped the cap off a beer and settled back.
“Paul, please, please come back and see me. I’ve got some new writing to show you.”
I promised I’d be back.
We did three shows over the weekend. The audience seemed to love it and I sure loved the applause. Even though the reporter was the villain, people didn’t think I was really a villain. I was the guy who gave these forgotten people a voice.
There was a girl I’d been trying to date for months but she had always treated me like a pal. She saw the show on Saturday and decided it was time to move our relationship to a … deeper level.
By the end of the weekend, I was a very happy thespian.
I slept in on Monday and didn’t read the paper until I got to the office.
There was a story on the front of the metro section about a fire in Sulphur Springs. A 28-year-old man named Michael O’Reilly had apparently drunk a lot of beer and fallen asleep on his cloth couch with a cigarette going. He died early Saturday morning.
About seven hours after I left him.
I put the paper down and ran to my car. I drove madly to his address. The walls of the house were blackened but standing, wrapped in police tape.
It was the smoke, not the fire that killed him.
I found out from a neighbor that Shelly had survived, but was taken to the pound. Which meant by Monday afternoon the dog was dead too.
I called his brother, a reporter I knew, who was now working in Cleveland. I confessed everything.
“Listen,” he told me. “Don’t worry. We knew something like this would happen someday. I’m just glad to know he had a friend.”
I was about to hang up when his brother thought of something.
“We’re doing a memorial service next Friday in Tampa. I think we’d all love it if you’d come and said a few words.”
So there you have it. I killed the Street Poet of Hyde Park. And his little dog too.
And instead of landing me in jail, his death put me in front of another audience.
His brother introduced me to the friends and family gathered for the service.
“Michael didn’t have an easy life, but he had people who loved him. We’ve asked Paul Wilborn, to say a few words. He and Michael were good friends.”