Journalists all share an obsession with a few things: we love free food and booze, we must be the first to tell any story — big or small, and we love news and information. We seek it out, we drink it up like sponges and we’re a bit obsessed with following it and then reporting it.
I heard about something that happened recently, in Pompano Beach, Florida. I immediately scoured local news sources online to get some details. I spent hours looking for any tidbit of info I could find on this event, which had really shaken me up. Nothing. So I slept on it, and searched again the next day. I checked the New York outlets too, because the story was about a fellow New Yorker. Nothing. Weeks later…after this story unfolded…still nothing. Not a word written anywhere that I could find. I truly expected to find something, some little report or blurb, somewhere. Nothing.
So, to fill that void I’m writing the story myself about an incident in Florida (with what little information I have) and the person involved in it, just so it gets done. So it’s published, at the very least, on my little nameless blog. Because this story deserves telling. I never intended this tale to be my first personal blog post ever. I thought my first blog post would be about a guy I had a crush on or some wine bargain I’d come across. Something trite and trivial, like a story about purses or movies.
Instead, I’m going to blog about one of the nuttiest people ever to cross my path. A guy that words simply can’t describe. Somebody who didn’t make the news one day or any day in Pompano Beach but was important, impactful and significant in a million ways to a ton of people.
First, let me give you background. Us journalists, we also love background. And long-dragged out stories.
So here goes: I live in a renovated condo building in Harlem. It has 16 apartments and we all basically bought and moved into ours at the same time.
I can say, without any doubt that this building is unlike any other in the city. Maybe in any city. Most of us are around the same age, all professionals. About 10 guys in the building are gay (first rule of real estate – follow the gays) and well, we all do a pretty good job of keeping the new local wine store in business. We have that in common.
Sometimes in the summer we do potlucks on the roof and in the winter, we go into one guys’ apartment on the third floor – he has the biggest table, and a fabulous place setting for 12…more than the rest of us have. We have a blast.
We have had our share of fights too. We had to create our own rules and bylaws for the building and so the first war that erupted earlier on was dog-gate – should dogs be allowed on our roof? Well, the no’s won and there were lots of nasty exchanges circulating face-to-face and on our building’s email group – this writer a central character in building warfare. Of course, all wars and infighting have been put on the back burner these days, following the news out of Pompano Beach. There is a ceasefire of sorts at Casa Loma (the odd name the developer gave our building.) We prefer Casa Loco for a million reasons.
We also gossip like crazy. It’s like one big Melrose Place at Casa Loco. One day, a resident knocked on my door and said he had a secret about another resident, and that he’d tell me, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I explained that I could commit to only to telling three people in the building. He told me that was a fair compromise, spilled the story and I started spreading the news by phone before my door had shut behind him.
As you’ve guessed by now, I’m a writer and journalist. We have another one of those on the top floor too. We have a few PR people living among us, a psychologist, a couple of finance types, an anesthesiologist, and two personal trainers. We have one public defender and we finally got a corporate lawyer in our abode. We’ve needed that legal voice on the board.
A real estate agent is always a plus in a Manhattan building too. Fifth floor resident Shawn Smith filled that role for us. If you needed refinancing comps, he dug them up. He had seen the inside of every other building in Harlem, and when any of us were feeling stressed about our new home purchase, he assured us ours was the nicest in the area.
When real estate sales slowed to a grinding halt, Shawn stepped in and replaced our outrageous super (another story, another time) and was mopping the floors and taking out the trash to make some cash. At first, it was awkward. He was our employee and an owner himself. But I think it only fazed the rest of us. He mopped with a certain joie de vie, I must say, and always with great care.
I’ve never met anyone who was as unfazed and able to let things slide as much as Shawn. Over the years I yelled at him a few times because of one stupid thing or another. The very last time he was in my apartment, he was doing something gross and snot-related in my kitchen, so I threw him out. He laughed in my face. My rant slid off his back like water. He always laughed at me, and smiled and never yelled back. Took it all in stride with an easy giggle.
Until very recently, Shawn’s temperament shifted.
That easy stride just disappeared. Back in November, Shawn had been knocking on my door a lot. He’d sit on in my living room and literally freak out about money and his apartment and everything. I would walk him through the logical solutions to his concerns but they never stuck. Once his eyes looked so sullen and dark, I told a few neighbors something was really wrong with the usually cool Shawn. I think, since Shawn, while wacky in a million ways, had his ‘shit together’ as they say, nobody realized how bad this little shift in personality was.
That’s why Pompano Beach was so jarring.
On February 9, 2011 Shawn jumped off the balcony of a hotel he’d checked into in Pompano Beach. And that was the end.
And nobody wrote about it. Nobody reported it. It just happened. Eventually, people wrote on Shawn’s Facebook page – kind words and photos and they’ve been writing ever since. But the day after he died I was really twisted when I couldn’t find anything written about our friend and neighbor Shawn – even there.
Shawn was a funny, crazy (poor word choice, but he was crazy in a good way) outrageous guy. I learned more about man-on-man sex than I ever needed or wanted to know from Shawn. He was overly descriptive about everything he spoke of. Shawn loved to talk and he was unfiltered, unabashed and unstoppable. He said whatever came to his mind – literally. A trait I have never seen in another soul.
Shawn was a great neighbor too. He’d help with anything, he’d often pop by to share a snack or a glass of wine and he provided us all with so many outrageous fits of laughter that I’ll try to share, but honestly I won’t be able to do his tales justice – Shawn isn’t a person that can be described. He was a force of nature that you had to experience to really understand and know.
Once I was upset about some dogs barking in the building. He was upset, as well and came pounding on my door to commiserate. I told him I’d just learned to shut it out because it was constant barking, but it was irritating. He said of the dog owners, with complete seriousness and horror and utter animation and volume: “you are a PUBLISHED AUTHOR, you shouldn’t have to listen to this!”
OMG. I laughed so hard I almost cried. And that line has become a buzz line from my building friends over and over. Me: “The pizza arrived late…” Sarcastic downstairs neighbor: “don’t they know you’re a published author.” Me: “I can’t refinance, got a bad appraisal.” Same sarcastic neighbor: “did you tell them you are a published author?”
Butter will always be another Shawn-ism for me. Once at a dinner party, downstairs on the third floor, Shawn professed his love for butter. Like LOVE. He said with enthusiasm I reserve for, I dunno, family, he LOVED butter. He kept cutting butter off in slices inches thick and eventually scorfed down three sticks in one meal. He kept asking the host, Doug, “do you have any more butter? I LOVE butter.” It was the wackiest consumption showing of all time. It’s provided endless hours of laughter as well. I may never look at butter again, without thinking of Shawn.
Sadly, part of the butter enthusiasm stemmed from substance abuse on Shawn’s part. Looking back, I guess we all should have figured that one out, but we didn’t.
Pompano Beach wasn’t his first attempt at taking his life either. Just before Thanksgiving, just after he’d repeatedly been at my door frazzled, he took a bunch of pills. He said he hadn’t slept for weeks and felt depressed. He was taken to the hospital, but oddly was released immediately. It figures they let him go though because Shawn always gave the impression all was good and he’d probably done just that at the hospital after try number one.
He told me the next day what he’d done and I said to call me if he felt blue next time. I was naïve about it. Like a phone call would help. I really didn’t understand the seriousness of it all, I guess because he had survived. He did call me again, two days after his first attempt, but I didn’t take the call because I was in a noisy party. I called him back later, but he’d already tried again. He drank Drano and slit his wrists too this time. He survived and was locked up for 64 days in a miserable place we referred to on the phone as the looney bin. We visited and he seemed remorseful (told that’s a good sign) and embarrassed (also a good sign, apparently) but as weeks went by, his voice on the phone changed. He hated being in there and didn’t want to talk. He wanted out.
He finally got out and took a train to Florida, where his father lived. He didn’t stop in to say hello. He just fled. I’m told he tried taking more pills once there, but he didn’t tell me that when we last spoke. The Saturday before he checked into the hotel, he called me. He sounded better than he had. But two things were really troubling.
One, he told me while he was in the hospital in New York two ‘friends’ had smuggled in crystal meth. I said, “did you take it?” he simply said, “they did. I could have.” This was the first time he acknowledged even an awareness of the drug. And talk about scumbag idiots. Who brings that stuff into a hospital for a patient whose doctor is suggested rehab for addiction? Nicely done you morons.
Then the second thing he said got me even more upset. I heard him say something about wine. And I yelled at him – told him he shouldn’t be drinking. He told me I sounded like his mother. But I didn’t care. I asked him about going to AA, something, therapy…anything. But that easy laugh came back. And he said he was hungry and starting reciting the contents of his father’s freezer to me. He sounded great, better than he had.
But what he didn’t say should have clued me in. He didn’t talk about New York or his job as our super, which in early lock-up was a source of great stress. Back in December wanted his job back ASAP. Not a word about the future. He was just checking in and telling me he was out of the psych ward.
I told someone in the building that I had spoken to him and that I feared he wouldn’t be coming back — that I didn’t think we’d see him anymore.
I texted him the morning he left his dad’s for a hotel. I told him I thought I had found him a potential tenant, if he wanted to rent out his place. He texted back: ok, got it, thanks. And that was it. My last interaction with the larger-than-life Shawn Smith who some days I wanted to slug, but most I wanted to embrace. That was the last I heard from the guy who used to walk in my apartment and tell me my bathroom vents needed cleaning, then he’d go get a paper towel and clean them – every time he visited. Seriously, it was his obsession and/or I’m messy.
That was the last I heard from the guy, who when I’d lost my job and he was doing sales at my gym, would write my name down as referring new members when he sold a membership so I’d get a free month…month after month. He could have lost his job doing that, but he was more than willing to help to save someone in need. I read on Facebook, a lot of people said he’d saved them. I wish he’d been able to save himself and that life hadn’t bee so hard for Shawn.
On the roof in the sun, over a glass of wine, Shawn asked me if I would write his book one day. He even had a title in mind – I wish I could remember what it was. I can’t. He said he had the craziest childhood and that I wouldn’t believe it and that it would be a bestseller. I said I would write it — that we’d sit down one day and write his memoir.
I wish I had gotten that chance.