LANTANA, FL — Jimmy Bryce’s mobile home is painted bright sky blue with a deeper blue trim. It is surrounded by flowering plants and trees and a collection of paraphernalia: a bright blue painted stone lion, smaller animal statues and figures that have changed over the years, a wood carved lobster atop his mailbox, a weathered styrofoam buoy, a diverse collection of rocks and shells from the island at the end of the block, cement paver stones salvaged from a neighboring lot, and a mismatched set of solar ground lanterns left behind by other neighbors. His collections reflect those things most important to him: his Maine roots, his work as a gardener, animals big and small, and the street where he spent some of the best and hardest years of his life.

View Street is home to about 50 manufactured houses, of varying ages and models — from trailers that settled here more than 40 years ago, when the street was a “tin can tourist resort,” to modern pastel colored cottage-like homes that have arrived in the last 10 years. It is a street that has had to remain tolerant of diversity of styles that run from the sterile to the eccentric. Jimmy’s yard is crowded, even cluttered, but, if viewed with an open mind, aesthetically pleasing, imaginatively stirring and alive in a way that is startling now.

Jimmy died last week, apparently the night before Thanksgiving, apparently in his sleep. Neighbors broke in to his house to find him the day after Thanksgiving when he didn’t show up to claim the turkey leg one had saved for him. He was one of the younger residents of a street where older residents are dying with numbing regularity. But the unclaimed turkey leg was an ominous sign. He loved the rituals that marked the seasons, and took comfort in the gestures of consideration that proved he had friends who cared about him.

He had too many other opportunities to feel unnecessary, unwanted, unloved, inconvenient and, maybe hardest of all of those, misunderstood. He was born about 60 years ago, almost completely deaf, and with a brain malformation called Chiari Syndrome that causes hydrocephaly with problems that worsen over time. He learned to read lips and adapted well to the limitations of his hearing. He worked with horses, had pets, drove a car, and had his own home. But the ramifications of the Chiari multiplied over the years, taking away all but the last of those.

Dizziness by then had made work, driving and caring for a pet impossible for many years. Ringing in his ears tortured him. Loud noises — the only kind of noises he heard — made his head hurt and made thinking impossible. He got disability benefits, and, when visiting an uncle known as “the Sheriff of View Street,” discovered there was a place he could still enjoy life. He bought his own trailer and moved to View Street a little more than 10 years ago. He did work around the park for residents, helping with their gardens and tending to the common grounds. He spoke about his education, his travels, his work as a lifeguard. He had one older lady friend, and then another, my mother. He made her life complete, giving her the most loving relationship she had ever known.

But he also grew harder to understand, and at times the struggle to make sense in the face of condescension and derision infuriated him. He dwelled on slights that were both deliberate and incidental: the neighbor who startled him repeatedly by blowing his horn when driving up behind him; the neighbor who borrowed $5,000, promising to pay it back and to take him to doctor appointments as interest — and then did neither; the neighbors who complained of lapses in his work and his erratic ways, the neighbors who didn’t bother to try to understand him responded carelessly; the neighbors who, unlikely to pick fights with those they considered more equal, scapegoated him . . . and the list grew, as one bad turn begat another.

Running into him became trying, for those he had real grievances with, for those who didn’t want to be involved, and for those who remained sympathetic but struggled to respond to the litany of repeated and increasingly incoherent complaints. Even his small talk was challenging, as he strove to make sense from the words in his head.

Sometimes his head seemed to clear and he was happy again — with the island at the end of the street, keeping track of the stray cats and wildlife around his home, eating a lobster dinner, sitting on the sand with my mother watching the water and the sky. He was much better, people said, that last week — emerging from his house after a long period of sullen solitude.

Then suddenly he was gone, leaving an echoing silence, a void in the lives of those who helped him and who he helped, and his yard, which now serves as a portrait of a man who made the best he could of what he had.


One Response

  1. Poor Jim.
    He would appreciate your attention.

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