Knoxville’s beloved homeless street performer dies
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A lot of people have given to Rodney Fuson over the years. Although he was homeless, he always tried to give back.
He gave walks to cars in the middle of the night. He gave inspiration to a local musician, who turned it into a song. He gave long, warm hugs to longtime friends.
“Friend” was a word he used often, but it was by no means overused or an overstatement. Rodney had friends in lots of places, who all agree that the magical, mysterious man shall never be forgotten.
Multiple people have reported on social media that Rodney was found dead Monday morning at his campsite, setting off a chain of prayers, classic Rodney stories and tears from those who knew him best.
“He could be a pain in the ass, but he was ours,” said Leslie Berez, who met Rodney roughly 15 years ago while working downtown. “There was something magnetic about him. He took time to talk to everybody and had these wacky, crazy card tricks that just resonated with everyone.”
Part of Berez’s former job at Downtown Grill & Brewery was keeping an eye on the patio and making sure no one was panhandling there. Whenever Rodney saw Berez walking toward him outside the restaurant, he would just give her a wink and walk away, she said.
“Eventually it evolved, and I started talking to Rodney,” she said. “He always had these wacky stories. ... He would never play on a sad story, though.”
Berez never gave him money but would use her employee discount to get him food whenever she could. When Berez returned to working downtown after a four-year hiatus, Rodney returned the favor by walking her to her car following late-night shifts.
“To me, that is unheard of,” Berez said. “When I started working downtown again, he was the first person I thought of. He randomly popped up and gave me a huge hug. He remembered me, which was amazing.”
Now, it’s everyone’s turn to remember him.
Anybody who has spent substantial time downtown probably has a Rodney story. There’s a good chance the story involves his card tricks, which were always guaranteed to “blow your mind.”
He was so confident he could blow minds that he was willing to bet everything in his pockets, “even the damn dirty lint,” he mentioned in one YouTube video.
But what’s even more powerful than stories about Rodney is Rodney’s story, itself, which he shared with Cruz Contreras of The Black Lillies about a decade back.
“I got to know him playing down at Barley’s,” Contreras said. “He would help us load in our gear and help look after things. ... The years of working downtown and playing music — he was just a fixture there. He’s one of those people that when you turn around one day, he’s been a part of your life for 15 years or more.”
One day, Contreras asked Rodney how he became homeless. The truth was that he used to live in Georgia and was working a good job selling carpets when a relationship ended and sent him on a downward spiral, Contreras said.
“At that point in my life, I guess the way I looked at the story was that there was some overlap in what I was going through in my life,” Contreras said. “We are all just a step or two away from a difficult situation like that.”
Contrerars turned this story into a song called “Midnight,” which was on The Black Lillies’ first album in 2009.
“He had been wanting to write a song with me,” Contreras said. “He always said: ‘I got some lyrics, I got some lyrics. You just have to set it to some music.’ I guess those were the last conversations we had.”
Berez’s Facebook post about Rodney had 51 comments and 32 shares as of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“I was shocked when I woke up this morning and saw how many times that post was shared because I don’t know 90 percent of the people that shared it,” she said. “He impacted so many people. ... His personality spreads.”
People have used social media posts like Berez’s to share stories about Rodney — stories about him selling socks, selling an Elmo doll and attempting to sell a couch he was somehow carrying through the Old City one day.
But the stories weren’t just about him looking to make a buck. There also were stories about Rodney buying an ice cream sandwich for a friend and giving up his belt to a man who forgot his own.
Downtown business owner Scott West made his own post about the time he was in trouble for his business practices. Rodney wrote a letter to the judge showing his support.
“Dear Judge Phillips,” the letter read. “My name is Rodney. Although I am homeless, Scott West has always been good to me and treated me with respect. I am writing to ask that you be lenient in your sentencing of him.”
Rodney was always good to the people he met, too, Contreras said. Although he is gone, his personality and presence will not be forgotten, he said.
“He just had this kind of a sparkle in his eye and the grin, and he just endeared himself to people,” Contreras said. “Ultimately, it seemed like when things really mattered, he had your back.
″(I feel) genuine sadness. It’s weird. He was part of the community and the Knoxville family and the downtown family community. You have all these different characters, and he was a major character. He will be missed and remembered.”
Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com