In March, I published an article called "The X-Dog and Me" which told a number of anecdotes (mostly amusing) about life with my first guide dog, X-Celerator. There is a passage in that article about a number of trips we made to Miami Beach to hang out with my late friend Tellis. After I published that piece, I received a number of inquiries asking me what happens to Tellis after the guide dog story ends and a few questions about how we came to meet and become friends.
Tellis and I were very close. He and I talked on the phone frequently, when we both lived in Cambridge, we would hang out for a coffee or something almost every day and we spent a lot of time talking about all sorts of things from our very different backgrounds. Tellis died from an overdose of prescription pain medication that he was using as prescribed. The VA hospital in Miami coordinated poorly between his different doctors and prescribed him a fatal dosage and it killed him in 2011. So, I haven't spoken to Tellis in nearly eleven years and I miss him daily.
Human memory is highly fallible and one's memories change over time. Much of this story comes from things Tellis told me over the years and some of it happened before I was born. Some of Tellis' stories take place during fire fights in the jungles of Viet Nam where he was paying far more attention to staying alive than on trying to make sure he remembered the event in detail. So, this article is based on my memories of the memories Tellis shared with me; the reader should, therefore, accept that this is all based on truth but many of the details are likely constructed by me as that's the nature of human memory.
Lastly, this piece will contain some profanity in the dialogue. Tellis would often use the n word and, as I'm a middle aged cis white male, I will use the term "n word" rather than risking hearing a lot of hate for quoting an African American man verbatim. If you're highly offended by profanity, I suggest you explore my other articles as only a tiny fraction of the more than 500 I've published contain profanity and I can't recall ever having included a racist slur in any of my articles but I haven't reread all 500 of them lately. This essay contains profanity in the dialogue as spoken by Tellis.
I remember the date explicitly, it was March 3, 1997. I had been released from Melrose-Wakefield Hospital's psychiatric ward the night before. (You can read about my lifelong battle with depression in an article I wrote last August called "In My Room.) Among the release instructions the very nice nurse gave me was that I should start attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and the following day, I called AA Central Service in Boston and heard a man with an accent that would make Matt Damon proud answer the phone. I felt a bit timid and told him I had an interest in trying AA and asked if there were any meetings in Harvard Square.
The meeting at noon that day was held in a nice Lutheran Church on Winthrop Street. Although I had passed it about a million times, I didn't know the name of the street so Susan, my lovely wife, walked me to the front door of the church and I went in. Tellis saw me enter the room, grabbed me, dragged me to the front row of seats and said, "You're new. You sit up front and raise your hand when it's time to share." For years after that day, Tellis would say, "I remember your first day, Susan was kicking your fucking ass in through the front door of a recovery meeting and she looked like she meant business."
I don't remember that first meeting too well as I was still in withdrawal from booze and other drugs I would take now and then. I do remember thinking that the meeting was all right and that I'd probably come again.
The following day, I returned to the Lutheran church at noon to attend what I would learn was called "The Looney Noonie" by its regular attendees. Tellis came into the room, sat beside me and asked, "Do you have a sponsor yet?" I didn't know what having a "sponsor" meant in this context, is AA like a country club where a current member has to sponsor you to join. So, I told Tellis that I didn't know what a sponsor was. He told me that he was now my sponsor, gave me his card and instructed me to call him daily.
Over the following year and a half, Tellis and I would see each other most days, talk on the phone really often and grew to be very close friends. Then, in October 1998, Ted Henter called me and offered me a job with only one downside, I had to move to Florida.
Tellis and I remained in touch with each other while he was still living in Cambridge and he would come to Florida once a year or so so we could go fishing together. Tellis had been fishing his whole life, I didn't start with the sport until I moved to Florida at age 38; every time Tellis and I fished together, I caught more fish then he did which would cause me endless amusement and Tellis some entertaining irritation.
Tellis As a Child
Tellis was born in Boston in 1948 and lived in the then impoverished Roxbury neighborhood. While we talked almost daily, he didn't speak of his childhood too often. I know that he had a very physically and verbally abusive father and, as he was the only other male in the household, he would jump in and fight his dad when the father mistreated his mother or one of his sisters, a fight that Tellis lost every time, usually taking a great beating, until he turned fifteen and figured out that he was now bigger, stronger and healthier than the father. This would lead to a dramatic drop in the violence in their home after an incident in which the teenaged Tellis gave his dad a very solid beating.
When Tellis turned sixteen, he dropped out of school and started getting into trouble, never anything too bad but trouble nonetheless. When he was seventeen, he took and passed the GED exam and the following year, he joined the US Marine Corps.
Tellis The Marine
When Tellis arrived at basic training, he thought he had gone to heaven. Army food was better than he had at home, there were a lot of other African Americans around and all he had to do to succeed was do what he was told to do. He told me that his time in basic was one of the best times of his life.
Of course, this was 1966 and the conflict in Viet Nam raged on with no end in sight. Tellis shipped out, did his combat training in South Viet Nam and went into the jungle with his platoon. They would repeat their excursions daily and got bored walking an endless patrol until the next shift came to relieve them.
The boredom wouldn't last long though and Tellis would find himself in his first real life firefight. He saw Charlie running right at him, he tried to fire his M16 but it jammed, one of his buddies took out the poor enemy kid and the battle ended shortly after. "I still see that kid in my dreams," Tellis would say, "Nam was just kids killing and being killed by other kids, we were children with heavy duty firepower who didn't know what the fuck we were there for. It was all just kids…"
Tellis told me stories about going on leave to The Philippines where he and his buddies would party wildly with sex workers, booze, drugs and excellent foods. He never went into any detail about his time on leave excepting one story he would repeat sometimes.
Tellis was in Manilla and was walking with his "boy," a young person the servicemen would hire to show them around, do translation and generally help them out. Tellis' boy asked, "Telly, you so sad. Why? Do you want a girl?" Tellis said, "No." "A boy?" asked the helper. Tellis said "No." The kid then asked, "How about a duck?" which made Tellis smile but Tellis was sad because the next day he had to return to the jungle.
On his third tour of duty in Viet Nam, Tellis took a shot from a Soviet made AK47 and afterward would often say, "I got two belly buttons, one installed by god and the other by the Viet Cong!"
The Marines designated Tellis as permanently disabled and sent him back home to the US.
Tellis The Hippy
Tellis arrived back in the US at Oakland Harbor on San Francisco Bay. Tellis always loved a party and made his way over to Haight-Ashbury, hippy central, as soon as he could get there. He had a pocket full of money, the streets were filled with attractive young people, drugs were everywhere and the party never stopped, until it did. Like the drunken Marine he was, he blew through his money and started living in Golden Gate Park, still the residence of many homeless people today.
Tellis met up with a group of hippy kids who were driving their VW Microbus down to Big Sur and he joined them. He told me he lived on the beach near there for a couple of years, describing the experience with a laugh, "We weren't homeless, we were camping!"
After the passage of some time, I don't think Tellis ever told me his entire Big Sur story so I don't know how much time, Tellis somehow found his way north to Oregon.
Tellis The Lumberjack
Upon arriving in Oregon, Tellis wanted to start life as an adult anew and found himself a job as a lumberjack. He and his crew would drive their trucks into the forest and chop down trees. Tellis said he enjoyed the work unless it was raining and it pretty much rains every day from September until May in Oregon.
A couple of guys on Tellis' crew regularly snorted methamphetimine and one day he chose to give it a try. He fell in love and within a couple of months had lost his job and was using meth with a spike.
Tellis' Very Bad Years
Tellis turned to crime to support his ever growing meth habit. Tellis, even at this stage in his life was genuinely a decent person. He didn't want to stick up liquor stores or gas stations as the poor people working there would be terrified and he didn't want to make anyone feel like he did when people pointed guns at him. He refused to snatch purses on the street as he felt sad for women who were victims of such snatchings. He didn't want to break into houses as he knew they were owned by working families who may not be able to afford to get a new TV or stereo. Thus, Tellis chose just about the most dangerous job in the criminal world, he would rob drug dealers as they always had either cash or dope.
Tellis did pretty well robbing drug dealers until the situation went really badly one night. A gun fight broke out, Tellis shot two of the drug dealers and ran away. He was arrested and spent the next seven years in an Oregon State prison.
Tellis Returns To Boston
When Tellis got out of the pen up in Oregon, he called his mother and she went to Western Union to send him enough money for a bus ticket home and a few meals along the way. Tellis didn't waste his time in prison, he got clean and sober and stayed that way until he died. He had a disability pension from the Marines but would often take on an odd job to help his mom with the rent. After a year or so, Tellis had saved enough money to get his own place in Cambridge back when Cambridge still had affordable housing available to rent.
Tellis The Husband And Father
Years before I met Tellis, he got married and had a daughter. This is the part of Tellis' story about which I know the least. When I met Tellis, he was entirely estranged from his daughter and I doubt he had any contact with his ex wife either.
About three years before Tellis died, his daughter looked him up and found him living in South Beach and sent him a letter. She told him that she was working as a guide dog trainer up north somewhere and that she would like to get to know him at least a little bit as she had almost no memories of him from her childhood. They would send each other messages on FaceBook and she came to South Beach to hang out with him once before he died.
Tellis Moves Onto A Boat
Tellis and I had a mutual friend from AA named Tom who lived on a Freedom 40, a 40 foot, double masted sailing boat with two bedrooms and a functional kitchen. Tom was retired from the US Post Office and is featured in a book called From Rags To Retirement. Tom would sail south in the autumn and winter in the anchorage at South Beach and then sail back north to spend his summers at the Dorchester Yacht Club in Boston. Tom would often get lonely and on a whim asked Tellis if he'd like to live on a boat. Tellis jumped at the chance and would sail south and north with Tom for a few years. We would make sure we got to see them at least once per winter and would have some fun together down in Miami and we would see each other almost every day when Tom and Tellis were in Boston.
Finally, Tellis decided to get an apartment in South Beach and become a full time resident.
Tellis In South Beach
One can find an AA meeting nearly anywhere in the world to which they travel and South Beach had a number of meetings one could attend every day. The nicest place to attend an AA meeting there is called The SoBe (pronounce so be) Room. It's a clubhouse for people in recovery that is off the beaten path and attended by an odd mixture of famous celebrities, former models and locals, where "local" is defined as someone who lives in South Beach 12 months out of the year. Tellis got a job as the bartender at the SoBe room and would serve coffee, espresso, a variety of snacks and pickled eggs to the people there. He also did a lot of maintenance and made this already nice place even nicer.
A lot of the people who hung out at the SoBe room came to know and love Tellis. One day, one of the single mothers at the club couldn't find a sitter so she asked Tellis if he could babysit. Tellis was a very large man, he had his Marine sergeant's stripes tattooed on his arms, he usually had a .380 caliber pistol in his back pocket and a switchblade hidden in a boot. Needless to say, Tellis didn't look or seem like he'd be a good babysitter. But, the woman was out of choices and left her child with Tellis for a few hours. Tellis brought the child to the park across the street from the SoBe room and, when the mother came back to collect her kid, the child was overjoyed with all of the fun Tellis showed them.
This led to a part time babysitting business Tellis would do to make some spare cash. If he was sitting for a little girl, he would always arrive with a flower and a fantastic story about how it came into his possession; when he was sitting for a boy, he'd find a special rock or shell on the beach and, as with the girls, he'd have a story to go along with it.
Tellis always brought the children to the same park where he would not just take care of the kid he was babysitting but kept an eye on the safety of the other children. If an adult male whom Tellis did not recognize entered the park alone, Tellis would politely approach the guy, introduce himself and say something like, "I've never seen you here before, are you new to the beach?" With his generally intimidating look, no pervert was going to get near any of the children in that park if Tellis, who called himself "head n word in charge" and "the mayor of this park" was present. A number of the moms realized that this stranger was protecting all of the kids in the park and started trying to bring their kids there when Tellis was on duty.
Between his job at the SoBe Club, his babysitting business and his disabled veteran cheque, Tellis earned more money in South Beach than he ever had before in his life. He got himself a brand new Harley-Davidson motorcycle, he got himself a fancy pair of cowboy boots and a hat to go with them, he picked up some US Marine memorabilia to decorate his apartment with. Possibly also for the first time in his life, Tellis learned what happiness feels like.
The Memorial Service
The SoBe Club held a memorial service for Tellis which, very sadly, I could not attend as I was in San Francisco but many people who were there told me quite a lot about the event.
The locals and former models who hung out at the club showed up but so did some very famous people. A core tradition of AA is anonymity and I do not know which celebrities are public about their recovery and which are not but there were a handful of serious "A list" types in the room.
At the memorial service, different people from different backgrounds said nice things about Tellis. A mutual friend of Tellis and mine told me that a superstar rapper said something like, "T was a great guy. He treated everyone the same. He didn't care if you were famous or homeless. He and I would talk about fishing and had hoped to go out to do some angling some time." I thought that was a sweet thing for a superstar to say about a guy who never really had much in his life. What the rapper didn't know, though, was that Tellis didn't know he was famous, he called him "the short kid with the dyed hair." Tellis didn't care for rap, he liked country music. This wasn't an act Tellis was putting on, he really was the guy who lived the story you just read.
I grew up in a relatively affluent New Jersey suburb; Tellis grew up in poverty in a dangerous neighborhood. I would go to NYU; Tellis got a GED. I worked along with the "sharks" on Wall Street; Tellis went up close and personal with the Viet Cong. I enjoyed incredible privilege as a kid; Tellis didn't even know the meaning of the word privilege. I'm a nerdy hacker type; Tellis was a burly man who could lift heavy things. I love rock and roll; Tellis listened to country music. I own two homes; Tellis never owned anything nice excepting the things he bought after moving to South Beach.
The only conclusion to this essay I can think of is that no matter how different two people are, they can form a long term loving friendship and maybe more people should try to focus on what they have in common with others rather than focussing on the differences.