By Brian Davis
There are groups of people in our society who always seem to be in the way. Those people who find solace in a bottle. Society calls them “drunks” and “bums.” They are arrested by the police on a regular basis, and swept away. Pedestrians see them sleeping in a doorway and forget about them as long as they pass. But in a memorial service for Charles “Boogie” Akers those who remembered Charlie repeatedly mentioned “God’s way”, and this is “what God wanted for Boogie.” As Ron Reinhart, Director of Salvation Army’s PASS program said, “As a provider, even being an alcoholic myself, what we may think is best for someone, like sobriety, may not be what God meant for this person.”
There was a great mythology associated with Charles Akers. Some said that he was a college graduate who lost everything. Others claimed he was a former well-paid business executive who had lost everything. In reality what was known about Charles was that he had a great sense of humor, and was a kind and feisty individual. He loved to dance and he loved Hank Williams. He would go to dances and ask everyone to dance until he found someone who was willing.
Akers was born in 1933. He was educated through the sixth grade. He used to say the only thing that kept him out of high school was 8th grade. He was just learning to read in the past few years. He loved to sing, and he was fond of Mad Dog 20/20 alcohol because of its cheap rice and intoxicating effect. He did have a mental illness, and had received funds from his father’s railroad pension fund. He had interactions with the Cleveland Police over 400 times in the last 30 years: most were called that involved Charlie’s public drunkenness.
He was struck by a drunk driver on Saturday August 22 and died early on Sunday morning. Police records indicate that the driver was charged with vehicular homicide for striking and killing Charlie near W.52nd and Lorain.
In 1997 and `998, he had some cusses in his lifelong battle with alcoholism. He had obtained 43 consecutive days of sobriety while in the PASS program. Reinhart believes that given the opportunity and the time, he “absolutely” would have made progress with his drinking problem. “The only way to reach him was through patience and tolerance.” Reinhart said.
“He was alike a kid in a toy store when he was sober,” according to Reinhart. There were many new experiences that he discovered at PASS, included going to Bob Evans Restaurant. He found the joy of sitting down at a meal and being served. He also was so proud to be able to buy things, even food for people with his own money. Reinhart said, “We were fortunate to be a part of that. He went to Bob Evans regularly while sober.”
David Simmons, a friend of Charlie and service provider, described how proud Charlie was of his clean suit that he got while at PASS. He would show off his clean clothing and his lifestyle.
This is a life foreign to most people, but he lived on the streets for thirty years from one bottle to the next. He reportedly said, “Live life to the fullest, because no one else is going to live it for you.” In fact, he got his nickname from a song that he used sing about boogying all night while the ladies. He would pan handle or scrape together money to buy alcohol to cover up some childhood trauma or abuse, and then sleep it off. He left no family or history that can be verified. His parents did buy him a cemetery plot years ago, which local homeless service providers were able to find in Akron where he was buried.
The Cleveland Fire Department who had to come to his assistance on many occasions came to pay their respects. Members of the Second District Police unit also visited Charlie’s memorial. Homeless service providers from both the East and West Side who had helped Charlie and had been touched by Charlie came together for his memorial service on August28 on the near West Side.
His friends from the streets were well represented. His drinking buddies remembered him. One gentleman said that he was going to drink a bottle of Mad Dog for Charlie, and then he was never going to drink that kind of alcohol again because it made him sick. Another man said that no one again would pan handle on the corner of W. 40th and Lorain because “that was Charlie’s corner.” Another man lamented because he had brought Charlie a bottle some time in the past.
Eric Wolf, a hard core homeless man who never came in for services, said before he was homeless when he first got to Cleveland he met Boogie. He said that he allowed Charlie to baby-sit for his kid. Hen Eric got home, “the id came running out to say that Charlie was going to sell him for a bottle of Wine. E was a hell of Goodman.” Charlie wasn’t much of a babysitter.
Mark Budzer, Outreach Director of Volunteers of America said, “He was one of funniest people you could know. He was a good guy. Like a member of the family.” Budzar said you could look past his faults and take care of him when he was in need. Budzar will miss Charlie saying, “My name is Jimmy. I’ll take whatever you five me.” (Boogie’s rap that he used while pan handling.)
Reinhart said, “He didn’t lie about who he was. He knows who he was and what he wanted.” Simmons said, “He kept getting back up. He is a testament to man’s ability to pick themselves up and continue.”
Simmons, a recovering alcoholic, said he met Charlie in the drunk tank at the Justice Center. “He was so annoying, He was singing and telling jokes, and you just wanted to kill him” David grew to enjoy Charlie, and tried to help him when he could. “He was a rare individual, a truly honest human being. The only people who could communicate with him was those he was drinking with,” David said.
The death of Charlie fraught with irony. He was struck by a drunk driver while he had spent his life drinking and staggering along the Cleveland streets. He had never stepped out in traffic in all those years of drinking. His service was held across from where he spent many years pan handling. In fact, he was known to cause some disruption for the funeral home in the past because of his irreverent behavior.
For social workers, Charlie is the person that they wake up nights in a cold sweat worrying about. Service providers extend every effort to get an individual to a point of self -reliance as dictated by societal norms. There was a great deal of anguish by many providers over Charlie Akers, but Charlie survived and work up every day. He never gave up the struggle.
As Reinhart said, “He opened my eyes to not try to run things in neat squares when you are working with human beings. He changed my outlook on how to deal with people.” Budzar said he agreed with the sentiment expressed at the Memorial Service that,”Charlie taught us how to take of each other.”
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published 1998 Issue 29