The Jock and the Madman
Angie’s image projected itself onto the back of Bruckner’s skull, so when his eyes rolled back at night, she was all he could see.
He had no girlfriend, no money to blow, no way to distract himself. He had time. He made gentle inquiries among the homeless. Was anybody missing? Had anybody seen Angie?
A tiny homeless man named Tyson sidled up one day with a piece of information. With time he became Bruckner’s oracle, a diminutive Tiresias guiding him on his quest through the homeless Hades.
“She has an apartment,” Tyson said.
“Angie has an apartment.”
“But she’s homeless — ”
“Eighteenth and Wallace.” Then he wandered away, a prophet wrapped in rags.
After Angie went missing, Bruckner had organized a candlelight vigil in her memory, even though she had only ever spoken harshly to him. The homeless vigil attendees had walked together, a rambling pilgrimage to the site where the body had been found.
Now, standing at the intersection Tyson had mentioned, Bruckner glanced around for some hint, some clue. What was he looking for? And what, in a larger sense, was he doing on this street corner at all? He asked someone on the street whether Angie lived nearby.
“Sure,” the man told Bruckner. “She lives up there.” He pointed to a third-floor apartment half a block away, with a rug draped over the window. Inside, there was a light on.
He called the building’s landlord from a pay phone. The landlord said that Angie was sick and staying in New York. But she keeps paying rent, he said.
Check comes every month.
Bruckner reeled. How foolish he had been — a candlelight vigil. Good heavens. For a woman who was just out of town. And who did he think he was, himself just an itinerant soccer player, more homeless than Angie?
Still, there was a light on up there.
Bruckner knocked on the door of tenant Sharon Fahnestock, a young woman who seemed out of place in the building. She told Bruckner she’d heard an argument coming from Angie’s apartment some time ago.
“I had no idea what was going on. Well. I had a suspicion,” she told me. “I talked about it later with some friends and they thought I was crazy, like paranoid. I just let it go.”
When Bruckner showed up, Sharon didn’t hesitate to help him. He seemed so earnest, so desperate in his pursuit. “He was obsessed with solving this crime,” she said.
She spilled her whole story to him. The arguing, the spooky silences. She said the hollering male voice wasn’t Red Colt’s, but some other man’s, from Angie’s past.
And whatever they were fighting about, it didn’t go well. It ended with a scream.
Homicide detective Patrick Mangold walked into the Philadelphia Police Department and found the usual flurry of messages waiting. Chaos and death. Coffee and doughnuts.
There was one unusual note, though. Something about a pro soccer player on the case of the five-pieces gal. Good grief. “Some of the guys around here were making jokes,” Mangold said. “‘This guy wanna be a cop?’”
Bruckner met detectives at Angie’s apartment, where one of the officers knocked, then knocked harder, then shoved his shoulder against the door. No luck.
“Hand me the city key,” the detective said. Bruckner paid attention — a city key! He had no idea. Then the key appeared, a battering ram. It made short work of the door. The detectives pushed their way in, followed by Bruckner and — Good. Lord.
A homeless guy on Vine Street. Nice face, wide eyes.
“Hey, man, how are you?”
“Good, good. Got me a job over at the Catholic Dialysis.”
“Yeah, the Disease.”
Others join in, telling about the good life: how they had it, or want it.
At 30 years old, Bruckner still has the childlike river of energy, but larger, and clean. He’s kinetic, all motion. The soccer’s just a side job now; he spends much of his time — and most of his money — helping the homeless.
He never hands out cash to panhandlers, not even change. But while traveling among the homeless, he noticed a common refrain: When people passing on the street offered “Just get a job,” it eased their consciences, as though their wisdom was, itself, a gift.
“But let’s say you walk into a McDonald’s and ask for a job,” Bruckner said. “The first thing they’re going to do is ask for some form of identification. These guys don’t have I.D.”
So Bruckner started handing out checks, addressed to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Ten bucks a pop, for a non-driver’s license. “Look,” he said. The papers arrayed across his desk were pages of his bank statement. They looked like this:
-$10.00 -$10.00 -$10.00
-$10.00 -$10.00 -$10.00
-$10.00 -$10.00 -$10.00
Two thousand dollars, that month. It looked like some binary code for love. More than his whole paycheck, but he makes it work, somehow, on the kindness of friends and strangers, who make donations.
I went with him recently as he did his homeless work. He drove his beat-up Ford Tempo — a hand-me-down from the pastor at his church. Bulk containers of paper plates and foam cups filled the back seat. A little red light on his dash glowed BRAKE, and he always keeps his window cracked because his air conditioner’s broken.
Off the Parkway, hundreds of men and women stood in line for an hour and more, for a hot dog and a powdered doughnut. Others stood in a second line, where Bruckner held three checkbooks on a clipboard, all prewritten. One book was addressed for state identification, another for birth certificates. The third was blank, for any other requests. All were his personal checks, and he chewed through them quickly. He had a small callus on the second finger of his right hand, where it rubbed across the bottom of the checkbook.
It looked ridiculous. A man standing in public — not a rich man — handing out money. Absurd. People thought it was a state-funded program. “It’s good, you know,” one old guy told me. “Good they’re giving back to the community.” He wore a cap that read CSC EVENT STAFF, and he savored a hot dog. I asked him who “they” were. “The government,” he said.
I felt stressed, watching Bruckner do it. I worried for his electric bill, his gas money. But in the middle of the swirling crowd, he was the picture of calm. Of peace.