Unpacking a box of memories, recalling an unusual friend

My wife and I, suburban empty-nesters, have been discussing a move to a Center City condo.

“Listen, buster,” she said to me one day. (“Buster” is what my beloved calls me when she’s ordering me around.) “If you really want to sell this place, you’re going to have to clean it up, starting with that storage room.”

Thus it was on one fall day I waded into our second-floor jungle of cardboard boxes, old lamps and paint cans. When I opened one unmarked box, a surge of memories stunned me.

It was Tony Razz’ stuff.

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Tony Ryczkowski, or Tony Razz, was an eccentric but brilliant old guy I knew in a previous life. I’d met him while doing an investigation of welfare hotels. He delighted in being my Deep Throat on that story, sneaking me at odd intervals into the disgusting firetrap where he lived so I could chronicle the code violations.

That, as they say in Casabalanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But not one without its … strains.

Tony was a beak-nosed stick of a man, who hobbled about town on two battered canes, dressed in layers of jackets like a Russian nesting doll. He could recite poems by heart, and hum a Mozart concerto the same way.

He was also a drunk, a moocher, a man of volcanic temper whose grasp on the reality of any given reality was tenuous. He could go from lucid conversation to near-psychotic muttering as quickly as the weather changes in Scotland.

Over the years, I rescued him from police lockup more than once.

One weekend, my wife and I trooped to his one-bedroom apartment, a bucket of cleaning supplies in hand, because the landlord was threatening to evict him. The smell, you know.

We did our best to clean the joint up. At one point, my wife went into the bathroom, Mr. Clean in hand. She was stopped dead in her tracks by the sight of Tony’s bathtub, filled to the brim with dirt.

For his plants, you see.

Eventually, Tony went to the county nursing home. On my one and only visit there he gave me the box of random junk that I’ve carted from house to house for 30 years.

But I was not there for him when he passed.

That box, and that guilt, made me think of Tony when I was foraging for a plot for this year’s Christmas play on WHYY. Tony Razz emerged as the central character of Certain Poor Shepherds. You can hear this hour-long radio drama, performed by WHYY staff, at 1 p.m. Christmas Eve and 6 p.m. Christmas Day

If you enjoy the play on the air, or read it online here, that would be a very great honor to me, and a sweet tribute to Tony Razz’ complicated soul.

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