For a few years now people have mentioned a man who routinely walks along Routes 5&20 in Seneca Falls, picking up trash. Generally, people don’t know much about him, not even his name.
A couple of weeks ago a guy approached me while I was at the Speedway gas station in Waterloo. He quietly handed me a sheet with the names of area food pantries and another with some healthcare related info.
I reciprocated with a hand full of free cloth masks that Karen Rothfuss of Waterloo graciously makes and allows me to distribute. Few words were spoken.
However, at that moment I thought this just might be the person people had been telling me about. It was.
It is safe to say he is a very complex individual who has lived a complicated life.
He doesn’t own a cellphone, but he gave me his address, and I tracked him down a week later at a fairly rundown apartment building in Waterloo. He has no television, radio or computer. The only computer he says he needs is in his brain. The living conditions were pretty spartan, but we had quite the thought-provoking conversation.
I’ve always felt that everyone has an interesting story to tell. It’s just getting them to speak openly. That was no problem for Louis Grant Brown. He was an open book with quite a story.
He was born 6/2/47 at Geneva General Hospital and named Lewis Grant Romanak. His mother was married, but her husband was not his biological father. A man named Walter Brown was.
Walter was Black. Louis describes himself as mulatto, which Merriam-Webster defines as the first-generation offspring of a Black person and a white person. I questioned whether nowadays that was politically correct and maybe “biracial” or “mixed race” is more appropriate. He replied he was more than comfortable with his term.
Just five weeks after he was born his mom was committed to the Willard Psychiatric Center (in the Edgemere Building) where she would remain for 21 years. Oddly, for some of that time her sister was an employee onsite.
Because his step- and biological fathers were unwilling to take over his care, at only 6 weeks old Louis was placed into foster care with Doris DeLong in Bloomfield on 7/15/47.
Doris never married or had kids of her own but often helped raise many foster kids in her household. Though he has nothing really to compare it to, he says Doris was a wonderful “mom” and person. Louis notes that he started school in Bloomfield on 9/4/52.
He was with Doris for 16 years, and though he often wondered about his parents, he was never told anything. It is likely no surprise that he says he suffered quite a bit of angst having no answers as to who, what and why he was given up on so early. It did little to help his own mental health, and he quit school at age 16.
Mental health issues seem to run in this family tree. By 17, those demons started to catch up with him, and he was placed in the Newark state school on 6/9/64. He was there four years until 8/12/68.
Shortly thereafter in what was a bit of good luck, word-of-mouth info reached Walter Brown about Louis’ whereabouts. Walter finally connected with Louis on 10/26/68, and Louis went to live with him in Syracuse on 2/21/69 for a few years. Both were excited about the arrangement. Walter had never married nor had any other kids. He confessed to Louis that he was never financially stable enough to be able to take care of him properly. Louis says Walter died on 9/17/02.
At 21, Louis legally changed his name from Lewis Grant Romanak to Louis Grant Brown. He can even recall the room number (1603) in the building of the attorney who processed the paperwork.
There is a reason I listed the specific dates and some finer points like that room number throughout this piece. I can barely remember the month and year things happen, while Louis can easily recall with great detail past events. He even recalls being told his baptism was on 6/15/48.
My curiosity found me looking online to see if there might be explanations for his incredible recall of specific dates. I found out that essentially it appears emotionally charged situations can lead to the creation of longer lasting memories of an event. Recollections like these often are more possible than everyday situations because of a strong emotional attachment to them. Research has found that negative events tend to be remembered more accurately than positive events.
Unfortunately for Louis, his whole adolescent life was spent in foster care where many children are placed because of unfortunate and sometimes traumatic situations. Not that his foster mom didn’t do the best she could, just the life of foster kids can be difficult on many levels.
Louis lives off his SSI, which he receives because of his mental health status. It is not much.
I asked how he feels at age 73, and he said he feels physically like he is 50. Maybe it is because of the many walks he makes from Waterloo to Seneca Falls and back picking up trash. I asked why he does that? “I have a spirit in my mind that the environment needs to be a certain way.”
People often give him tips along the way — or cigarettes. And boy, does he love his cigarettes. For as much as he smokes it is amazing he “feels 50.” His brand of choice is Marlboro 100s soft pack. For a low-income guy, $11 per pack is costly. I asked why not switch to cheaper brands? He just prefers Marlboros.
It is important to note that, all things considered, Louis dresses well. He often wears khakis with nice, button-down Van Heusen shirts. He also favors Hawaiian print shirts. He gets his clothes at the Salvation Army.
I asked him if his mental health issues ever cause him to be violent. He said no but because he freely expresses his opinions he has been provoked into some verbally hostile arguments.
Louis and I shared a few good laughs, and I thanked him for his time, wished him well and upon departing he asked if I could give him a lift to the store ... he needed to buy another pack of cigarettes.