Rino Thunder and Jim Flynn 8/03 photo Bob Arihood

Rino's Last Days

After I asked a police officer to call the BRC homeless outreach van on that subzero night in February 2003, Uncle Rino was taken to Peter’s Place homeless shelter and soon transferred to a nursing home in Long Island. A few months away from booze and cigarettes did wonders for his health and mobility, but he was miserable in the institution. When spring broke, Rino made a several attempts to escape, and in May he succeeded in catching a bus into Port Authority and was strong enough to walk three miles to Tompkins Square. Rino spent a few nights on the street and then found a friend who was willing to let him rent a tiny room in the back of his apartment with a portion of his Actor’s Guild check. Rino eventually was unable to manage the stairs and spent weeks at a time cooped up in the apartment drinking and smoking. Sometime in mid August he decided he would rather stay on the street where he could at least interact with his friends from the community.

Outside, Rino’s health quickly deteriorated, and several times, when I came to make his cardboard bed, he pleaded with me to take him to my apartment in Bushwick. I told him the best I could do was call the BRC van for him again. He declined vigorously. 

It was not long before Rino was covered in flies and reeking of urine and feces. Despite desperate pleas of wanting to die on the street, Kim, a super on St. Marks, called an ambulance, and Rino was taken to Beth Israel Hospital. After a week, rumors began to circulate that Avenue A’s resident movie star had passed.

For the third time in two years, Rino somehow made it back to the park in a wheelchair.

I’ll never forget the first time I walked up to Rino on the street and handed him a copy of Stranger to the System.  His eyes glowed with resolve as he paged through and looked at the pictures of his friends.

“You know what you have right here in Tompkins Square Park?”  You have the best university in the world. You have people who come from all over to pay money to go to NYU, Columbia, but this is real. What you can learn here, you can’t learn anywhere else. And I thank you. Thank you for writing this down.”
Rino had long ago bestowed upon me the honorary title of nephew. That night he proclaimed me a grandson.

“If you want to go to Hollywood, they’ll give you your own place and you’ll have your own car. Why? Because you’re my grandson. That means something down there. It means something to be Rino Thunder’s grandson.”
My friend Bob Arihoud snapped a picture of Rino and me that ran in an article by Lincoln Anderson a week later in the Villager.

As the summer wore on, my visits with Rino grew bleaker. He was obviously in tremendous pain, but each time the word ambulance was mentioned, he sprung up in fierce protest. “Please let me stay here. Don’t let them take me away. This is where I want to be. I want to die here, on the street.” 

The last time that I saw Rino in the park, Nelson Hall and I were walking up Avenue A after a busy night of selling books. It was Nelson’s first anniversary of sobriety. Rino greeted us eagerly.

“Hey Rino, we got some girls for you. There’s three of them, all just turned eighteen. They said the wanted to come hang out, but we promised them you’d introduce them to Charlie Sheen.” (Rino appeared with Sheen in several films.)
“Charlie can’t waste his time with an old Indian like me. Say partner, would you buy me a beer?”

Nelson put off Rino’s request, and the two old timers reminisced about the glory days of the Lower East Side. Nelson thanked Rino for letting him stay in his penthouse apartment while he was homeless in the eighties. (I’ve since learned that Rino would sometimes have five or more people from the street living in his place.) Nelson and I went on to talk about finding Rino a nursing home in the area. Before we left Nelson handed Rino a dollar, but declined a trip to the bodega, “It’s not too late, Rino. It’s never too late.”

Two days later Rino, unconscious, was taken away in the ambulance. Some people  who had helped him into a new pair of pants the day before say that his legs were crawling with maggots. A week later Rino’s friend Donna saw me selling books on Avenue A and told me that she had been to visit Rino in Bellevue, and it looked as if he didn’t have much time left.

“I’m here to visit my uncle Manuel Candeleria in the ICU.” The people at the desk were nice enough not to have any questions about my skin color.

A sterile calm washed over me as I entered through the swinging doors. The patients were barely animate. As I walked down the hall, I noticed a lady I had regularly seen sleeping on the benches at 8th Avenue subway station squirming on her bed and moaning softly through a respirator. I wondered how many other people in the unit had been living on the street. Although it was not the first thought that crossed my mind, it did occur to me that this must be costing Bellevue a fortune.

Rino was lying on a bed in the corner. His silver hair had been shaved, and tubes sprang forth from his withered body. A copy of Stranger to the System that had been dropped off by his friend Stanley rested at his bedside. Gazing out over the roofs of Stuy Town, I could barely make out the colored elms of Tompkins Square.

“How are you partner?” Rino’s eyes glared with intense focus as I leaned over the bed. “Me? Me, I’m living in hell.”

Rino looked no worse than the many times I had spoken to him in the park and he didn’t even remember my name.  Now, despite his fierce complaints of aches and pains, it occurred to me that I had never seen the man more animated. Rino listened eagerly as I relayed the latest news from the park. He passed on his regards to Grey Wolf who had recently completed a detox on Avenue D.  Just then, the pastor from Graffiti’s Church walked in and sat down on the other end of Rino’s bed and said a quick five minute prayer. After he left, I asked Rino if he was a Christian.

“I suppose so. It’s all the same spirit. How about you?”
“I believe in the spirit.”

Rino smiled and asked me to bring him the bottle of water on the windowsill. He gulped down half before a nurse passed by and told me to take it from him because he might asphyxiate. Rino didn’t hesitate to voice his displeasure, and he spent the next fifteen minutes trying to convince me to give him the bottle. Once again I wasn’t letting Rino drink.

When the water fiasco ended, Rino asked me about the book. I opened up the copy on the table and turned to his page.

“We are all individuals. The only one you can change is yourself.” Upon hearing these words Rino wilted back into the bed. “You remember telling me that Rino? That was three years ago.”

“It’s too late now. My body is already gone. I just want my spirit to be in peace.”

I ignored Rino and went on to talk about how St. Brigid’s Church on Avenue B was going to be converted into a nursing home, and that maybe if we pulled a few strings we could get him in there. He could ride around Tompkins in an electric wheelchair. At the time it seemed plausible. Three times I’ve heard rumors of Rino’s death, and all three times they’ve been gloriously smashed.

Rino just doesn’t die.

When the nurses arrived to bring Rino his food, I grasped his hand and bid farewell. “Rino take it easy on these nurses here. They’re not used to working with movie stars.”

I walked out of Bellevue hoping that the next time I saw Rino would be in a nursing home, but when Donna spoke to me three days later and told me that his condition had improved enough to be taken out of the ICU, I felt sure that I would see him in the park in a few weeks.

A week later I received a phone call from Lincoln at the Villager. He had word from Bob Arihoud that Rino had passed away. I immediately took the train to 1st Avenue and walked to the park. Photocopies of Rino’s picture had been taped onto benches all over the Living Room. Grey Wolf confirmed the news and embraced me as tears fell. He was drunk.

After a long silence I took out my cell phone and called Lincoln. I passed it around the park so that Rino’s friends could offer up a eulogy for his obituary. After Grey Wolf hung up I spied Nancy walking across the Living Room. She was in tears when I approached, but not for the reason I expected. She showed me that her arm was in a sling and told me that the man she had been staying with for the last few weeks had beat her. Not wanting to heap any additional burdens on Nancy, I refrained from telling her about Rino, but before we parted she let me know that a service was being held at 7:00 the next Tuesday at Graffiti’s Church.
The night before Rino’s service, I was stuck for eight hours on a broken down bus returning from the National Coalition for the Homeless annual conference in Washington D.C. I went to teach school the next day without any sleep and returned to my apartment for a nap. Numb to the world, the screeching of my alarm didn’t wake me until eight. By the time I reached the church, the doors were closed.

I heard from Nelson that thirty people were at the gathering. Each was given an opportunity to speak about Rino. Some were charitable in their portrayal while others didn’t hesitate to cast grievances. All knew him well, and all were sad that he was gone. Had I been there, I would have said this:

When I first sat down to talk with Rino, I was a curious stranger. As I gradually got to know the man, we shared a depth of feeling that I had never imagined possible between two people so separated by space and time. I respect Rino for telling the truth about the hellish despair to which he had succumbed. There were many forces that actively stacked the odds against him, but he never denied his own role in the mistakes that cost him so dearly in the end.

Rino knew that the only way out of his predicament was to leave the community he had known and loved for twenty years and be whisked away to dreaded isolation in an institution. Though we all wished otherwise, that was a decision he could not make. Rino didn’t stay in the park just because he was an alcoholic. He stayed because he feared being alone more than he feared death. There may not have been a roof over his head, but Tompkins Square was indeed a home. Though the cold sidewalks and fleeting comforts of the bottle would eventually claim his body, through all his torment, Rino never surrendered his fierce pride. There were times when I hated the man for what he had become, but I will always love him for the defiant warrior that he was.
Rest in peace Uncle Rino.
Now you know.