Thursday, April 27, 2017

Something Beautiful

Elliot was my homeless friend in town. He passed away on April 6 due to natural causes and the affects of his passing on my little town have been profound.

He landed in our town around 2008, appearing one day out of no where. We called him the "man of mystery" because no one knew his story and he was incapable of really putting all of the pieces together to convey who he was or what his past had entailed.

Through the years, rain or shine, heat or snow, he stood as a sentry outside of our McDonalds. Sometimes bundled in a coat, sometimes shirtless, but always there, listening to his music which undoubtedly quieted the voices that ran through his head.  He was a constant, always grateful in his quiet way, for whatever was offered him. If we didn't see him outside McDonalds, we knew he would probably be inside the Starbucks next door, at "his" table. If we didn't see him around his usual spots, posts on our community page would start popping up...."Has anyone seen Elliot? Im hoping he's ok." For the week after he died, the Starbucks employees kept a vase of flowers on "Elliot's table."

As a town, our citizens came to love this man. We wondered who he was, where he had come from, what his story was, but regardless of how much or how little we actually knew, he was accepted as one of ours.

On April 22 our little community put together a memorial service for Elliot. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. Standing room only, spilling out into the church foyer and yard, a community of all different types of people, medical personnel, clergy, the addicted, the mentally ill, the homeless, housewives with babies, business owners, all standing shoulder to shoulder to say goodbye and pay their respects to this kind soul who found a safe haven and lived among us for the past 8 years.

The lessons that man gave to us just by being himself were priceless. Elliot had carried his brother's phone number with him all of these years and when he died, the medical examiner called him. He was completely shocked to hear what his brother's life had entailed and the impact he had had on all of us. He and his wife flew into town to be at the memorial and he shared his story. I am going to share it with you below, because it shows that EVERYONE has a story.

Elliot's story makes me think of my list of all of our children, that I pray for each day. I pray that they will not be alone, that they will be "found," and met where they are at, that safety will surround them, and that they will be seen and cared for. Elliot's life in my town is a picture of exactly that prayer being answered. I am sure Elliot's momma prayed for her precious lost boy too. Elliot was found, he was loved, and accepted, and cared for and I am so grateful that I got to share in some minuscule way in that process. I feel like God gave Elliot to us to allow us to experience giving with no expectation of return, accepting the least of these among us just as they are, laying down our judgements and just serving. What beautiful lessons he gave to us.

                                                                  "Elliot's War"  

Elliot was born in the Bronx October 29th, 1959… …….. For a time he lived across the street from Yankee Stadium and that may be why he always loved the NY Yankees. He had every baseball card of every player on the team… He even had Mickey Mantle, Bobby Mercer, and Ron Bloomberg, they were his favorites.
At a very early age, his family moved out of the Bronx to a small sleepy little town in Suffolk County Long Island, called Brentwood NY. In the 1960’s, it was a beautiful little town, just beginning to develop. Brentwood even still had some unpaved roads, farms, and wooded areas where raspberries and blueberries grew wild.
We played together as children, just as brothers do when they are young. Our favorite sport was baseball. He pretended to be his favorite Yankee and I pretended to be my favorite player on the Mets. We played baseball in our front and backyard, we even played in the street. Then, with other kids on the block, we made a makeshift ballfield in a little clearing located across the street from our house in the woods. We gathered together other boys on our “block” (Nolan Street”), made a team and played against other “block” teams that were in the neighborhood.
In the fall, after it became too cold to play baseball, we played football. The heavy coats we wore protected us from knocking each other down, fighting for the ball. We put together football teams and somewhere in-between baseball and football, we played basketball. However, our hearts were always in baseball.
Together, we built a go-cart that we used to race. Actually, we built two. The first was a prototype and neither was motorized. We would take it to the hill by Mr. Timpte’s house on Hilltop Street. We ran as fast as we could, pushed from behind and then jumped on and rode all the way down the hill. How we didn’t get run over by a car was a miracle. The first one was a prototype and we lost every race to a kid down the block that had one purchased from a toy store. We went home, took all our peddle cars and the little red wagon apart. Specifically, we took the wheels and axles off and incorporated them into our little racer. When we were finished, it looked like something right out of the TV show, “The Little Rascals”. It looked like hell. But, we won every race from then on.
In the winter when it snowed, we use to drag our sleds to Hilltop and shed ride down the hill. It was very tiring since we had to drag the sleds up the hill as well. Daddy would come home from work and tell us about the sled motor hidden in the attic. He said when we were old enough, he would let us have it to get back up the hill after each run. Imagine that, we really believed that there was such a thing. Good one Dad, you had us fooled for years.
We rode our bicycles all over the neighborhood. We especially liked tearing it up on the minibike trail that was carved into the woods across the street. Sometimes we would venture far away into unknown territories.  In the summer, we would ride all the way down Islip Avenue to Islip Speedway where we found a little hole in the perimeter fence, sneak in, and watch the cars drag race. That was so much fun!
Our parents bought us a little tent that slept four comfortably. We used to set it up and camp out next to the pool in our backyard or even in the woods across the street. (I heard you were still practicing this same concept, kudos to you for that). Sometimes we invited two of our friends and sometimes it was just you and me.
Some days in the summertime, we would walk down to Hills Supermarket and carried packages for old ladies (they were probably 30 years old) and put them in the trunks of their cars. We were compensated very well, nickels, dimes, and sometimes even quarters, which was very good money for the 1960’s. By night, we would sneak out of our tent and ride our bicycles to Grant’s shopping center. We went to the movies and sometimes played pinball with the change that we had earned that day. We also spent some of the money on “chocolate ice cream”, which always was, both of our favorites…… I remember, one time we snuck out of the tent at night, rode our bicycles all the way to Carvel and Daddy walked in the front door, we ran out the back….! We hoped on our bicycles and rode as fast as we could home, in order to get there before him. We made it back in the nick of time, even though Daddy drove a 1966 Mustang. Of course, he brought us our “chocolate ice cream” so we didn’t miss out anyway. Actually, from Carvel, your favorite was “chocolate ice cream sodas” and mine was “chocolate ice cream thick shakes”. We also loved McDonald’s and I heard you still do, just like myself.
On holidays, we went to our grandparent’s apartment in the Bronx, since much of our family still lived there. We played stickball in the street and learned how to play handball with the kids from the neighborhood. That was a lot of fun too.
The 1960’s were over, the Mets had just won the World Series and our family moved to another suburban town on Long Island called Massapequa. Yes, this is the same town where Jerry Seinfeld and the Baldwin brothers are from. I’m not sure if he knew Seinfeld, but he definitely knew the Baldwins, since we all went to Massapequa High school together.
Now, where we lived in Massapequa, it was close to Jones Beach and even closer to the Great South Bay of Long island. Elliot and I always loved going to the beach. Sometimes we took the bus, sometimes we hitchhiked, and sometimes we even rode our bicycles there. When we became teenagers, our Uncle Gary bought us a little yellow speed boat…. The launching ramp was about a half mile away and since we were too young to drive, we would push the boat down Merrick Rd (you can equate Merrick Road with your Broadway, just to give a visual). Some drivers passing by would either be annoyed that we were creating a traffic jam or generally felt for us, would pull over and pull the boat the rest of the way to John J. burns Park where we would launch it. I must say, this worked out very well. Sometimes we went flounder fishing. Sometimes we used our feet to collect clams buried in the sand during low tide (It’s a Long Island thing), and sometimes we just went for a ride.
While in high school, Elliot continued his love for baseball and played on the Massapequa baseball league teams. Did I tell you already that he played shortstop and was very good at it? He was also a power hitter and led the league two years in the row for batting average and home runs. I used to love to watch him play. He also took Karate lessons as did I and we used to practice in the backyard. My father called it, “Playing Karate”. Eventually he earned his black belt.
When Elliot got his license, the same uncle that gave us the little yellow speed boat, bought him his first car. It was a 1968 Chevy Impala super sport convertible. It was dark blue, with a white convertible top and a white bucket seat center console interior…. It had low mileage, but needed extensive body work which we worked many days and nights on. Eventually, he was able to get it repainted and had a really nice stereo installed. Elliot always loved music and back then in the 1970’s his favorite bands were the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and The Who.
Elliot was very good in high school, an A student. He was very popular and had many girlfriends. In his senior year, my parents took him to see many colleges that were located upstate New York. Since he was so good in school, he could have gone to just about any school that they could afford. In the end, I guess he just wasn’t interested. I don’t really remember the exact reason why he told me that he didn’t want to go.
These next couple of segments should answer a few questions. It was during the height of the cold war, Elliot’s sister Debbie, who is also very smart, went to college for computer engineering. Elliot’s father (Victor Cohen) started out as an airplane mechanic who worked for United Airlines and somewhere along the line, he went to night school and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. Subsequently, his father quit the airlines and got a job with Grumman Aerospace. Elliot came from a family that was professional and very well educated.
Elliot had two uncles that served in WWII. One uncle, we called (Uncle Louie). He was a highly decorated pilot. He flew 25 bombing missions over Germany, was shot down 3 times, wounded, captured by the enemy twice and escaped both times. Another uncle, we called (Uncle Christie), served heroically in the pacific theatre and returned home minus one of his legs.
It was 1977 and Elliot had two favorite uncles. Elliot’s Uncle Gary was a decorated cop in NYC and his Uncle Tony had recently returned from Vietnam, just five years earlier as a decorated United States Marine. Perhaps this is why Elliot enlisted in the Navy and signed up for nuclear submarines. Like I said, I don’t remember why he chose not to attend college but I do remember him telling me that he chose the Navy over the other armed services because of the uniform. He said the girls just love guys in uniforms and he liked the Navy dress blues best. He went through boot camp without a hitch and they accepted him into the nuclear submarine program. If I remember correctly, specifically, “electronic engineering”. After a few years, he had made it all the way through the program, including all of the academics and training required in order to be deployed on a nuclear submarine, within the field that he had chosen. Unfortunately, I do not remember what rank he eventually earned, but he had 3 stripes on his uniform. The timeframe is a little unsure for me, but this is when and where his life changed………..
We do not know how or what or where…. But something happened to him… Was he on leave and someone passed him a bad marijuana cigarette? By the way, he was not a pot head, alcoholic, or a drug addict ever. Sure, like everybody else, but very rarely, he would take a hit of a joint. I was his best friend who knew him the very best and pot wasn’t a vice that he was interested in. Nonetheless, if a good looking girl passed him a joint on the beach, he would take a drag, just to be social. With that said, was he on leave and someone slipped him some kind of bad hallucinogenic drug without him knowing? My Uncle Tony told us a story where that happened to him when he was in the marines. Elliot was also about to be deployed on a nuclear submarine where he would be subject to many existing environments present in other countries. Therefore, was he subjected to many inoculations that may have had detrimental side effects? We just don’t know…and neither did any of the doctors that we took him to.  All we know is that he developed a mental illness that changed his life forever and took him away from us. I’m just not going to talk about all of the so called experts that we took him to. They just put him on medicine that only made him sick and num. I’m also not going to talk about the pain and anguish that his family has gone through over the years. However, I want you to know that we tried to help him fight his demons as hard as we could and never stopped loving him. He ran away four different times, Twice to Las Vegas and twice to California.
Soon after he was honorably discharged from the Navy, he went to Israel in pursuit of his roots and perhaps, to get closer to God in order to give him enough strength to fight off the demons that were inside his head. There, in Israel he learned how to speak Hebrew.
The last time I talked to him, was on the telephone, he had called collect from Las Vegas and I would say it had to have been 2003 or 2004. The last time my mother heard from him was 2008. He was in Las Vegas and asked for a couple of hundred dollars because he said he wanted to go on vacation with a friend to California. My mother did (as she always has when he would call) send him some money and that is the last we heard of him, until I received a call from the detective that told me my brother was dead.
As a trained investigator myself, I have been trying to put together what he has been doing and where he has been the last nine years…. What I have found out so far, is that he showed up on the door step of the city called Placerville. What I have also learned so far is that many people here loved and cared for him. It was the “many” here that has been the most successful in helping him fight those demons that I mentioned. Not all the medicine in the world or his very own blood relatives have been able to help him in this fight. However, the many here have given him some kind of semblance of a life. I can only believe that he was happy here and he was accepted for who he was. Know this………Elliot fought an unbelievable exhausting uphill battle for the last 35 years. I will call it, “Elliot’s War” I believe that he never wavered one little bit. He fought to his last breath and in the end it wasn’t the demons that put his fire out. Instead, it was high cholesterol……and the predisposition for heart disease, specifically clogged arties. His father died of the same thing at 60 years of age, Elliot died six months short of his 58th birthday….
How can I ever thank the “many” that have given my brother so much love and respect? Well…. I am Elliot’s little brother Neil Cohen, born one year and ten months after him. Like many in my family, including Elliot, I too have taken the oath of office. I work for a very special department in a very special agency, in a very unique division. This department was formed after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. My duties are very complicated and difficult to explain, some of which, I am not allowed to explain. However, I can say this; my work environment includes keeping the people of our beloved country safe from harm, from both foreign and domestic and since my job is not very transparent, I have sometimes thought it to be thankless. However, after hearing what you all have done for my brother, I will never think that way anymore.


SoberMomWrites said...

You've managed to make me cry at work...again.

What a lovely and compassionate community you have. You're are a very blessed woman.


Mark Goodson said...

It's wonderful to imagine that people like Elliot won't be forgotten. Thanks for your service of remembering him to us.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for taking the time to post this. What a story. I'm happy that he found peace and acceptance in your community. Like so many others - I hope he is at peace now.


Birdie said...

It is a day that keeps reminding me that we can't change the world but can change the life of one person. And kindness. Always kindness.

Anonymous said...

I have so many reactions and questions in learning about Elliot. I wonder where he slept and lived. I wonder why he didn't call his brother or other family members? Did they look for him? He found a safe haven in your community and friendship. For this, his family can be very grateful. (As a society, we have such a long way to go to know how to help people like Elliot. I wish we could house all of the people who are struggling.)


Anonymous said...

That's an incredible story. Simultaneously, heartbreaking and heartwarming. I cannot imagine the pain his family felt not knowing his whereabouts and then the peace they must have felt knowing their lost loved one was cherished.

I know you will modestly brush this off but you are a very special person and have a very wise and good soul. I am glad to *know* you.


Anonymous said...

Holy cow Annette. Tears are streaming down my face. I cannot thank you enough for posting this on your blog. What a gift in so many ways. I am humbled and inspired all at once.