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Tampa's Marcy Moore led many lives

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Published:   |   Updated: May 13, 2013 at 02:10 PM

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She belonged to the neighborhood.

Most folks south of Gandy on MacDill Avenue knew Marcella Brydon Moore only as the “Cussing Lady.” Her ribald, rapid-fire language was off-putting, to say the least. They kept their distance from the foul-mouthed, finger-pointing drifter who launched profanities and sometimes spit at passersby.

Others saw a different side. They called her “Two Hat Marcy” for her love of wearing multiple and flamboyant hats, and they were charmed by her funky second-hand clothing and other eccentricities, including carrying purses nearly as big as she was.

Those who broke through the obvious barriers of her mental illness found their Marcy to be loving, generous and whip-smart, up to date on all current affairs. She loved to celebrate birthdays; when a death occurred, she'd acknowledge it with a handwritten condolence card. She left potted plants on the doorsteps of her favorite friends, and brought second-hand trinkets and cookies for their children.

(She also left a trail of cigarette butts, 305's, from her three-pack-a-day habit. But they forgave her.)

Either way, “She was a true character,” says Melissa Angelo, who works at Kojak's, the local rib joint. “One-of-a-kind, for sure. There will never be another Marcy.”

She was a South Tampa staple, but she was also a walker -- and she got around, everybody knew that. But no one knows how or why Marcy, 66, ventured across the bridge and into Largo on April 8. On that Monday night, she stepped into the darkness on Ulmerton Road and 49th Street and into the path of an oncoming car.

She died the next morning at Bayfront Medical Center with a hospital chaplain by her side. Hours later, officials finally tracked down family members with the few clues they had.

Word spread quickly and tears flowed throughout the neighborhood, from Mr. Ray's Barber Shop to Lionhearted Toys to Spike's Place to Love's Artifacts Bar and Grill to Taste of Boston at the Ballast Point Pier. Their Marcy was gone, just like that, after being a constant presence for so long. Their only solace was that she finally was at peace, no longer running from the fears that sometimes tormented her.

And all those fanciful stories they thought she'd made up? They're finding out there was a whole lot more to Marcy than they ever knew.

Bobby Cooper, the local mailman, compares her to the movie character Forrest Gump, for her nonstop walking and all the tales she told.

She talked of mob hits and buried bodies, of identity theft and stolen property, of stalkers coming after her in the middle of the night and of “little people” hiding in the bushes. When the demons wrested control of her mind, Marcy's paranoia got larger than life.

“Look out there. You see that?” she once whispered to longtime friend, Linda Furuya, as she peered out a living-room window through the curtains. “They're out there.”

Furuya looked out and didn't see anything on the street, in the yard or on the sidewalk. “I don't see anything,” Furuya said.

Marcy insisted.

“So then, don't look,” Furuya said and shrugged.

This is what happens when you have a friend who won't take medication to control a disease like schizophrenia. You don't argue it. You present options.

“I knew Marcy before she got sick. Maybe that's why I hung in there all these years, because I know the real her,” Furuya says.

For a while, she let her friend stay at her house on Paxton Avenue and use her address to get mail. But there were too many episodes: Marcy flooding the kitchen when she stopped up the sink, Marcy trying to climb into the attic when she saw “evil boys” shooting spitballs at her from the air-conditioning vent, Marcy emptying all the dressers and closets into the middle of the room. All the drama became too much.

“I never stopped loving her, but I finally had to stop helping her,” she says. “I had to let go. And that was the hardest thing I ever did.”

No one saw her illness coming. By all accounts, Marcy had a pretty normal childhood, growing up in St. Petersburg.

The oldest of three kids, she was bossy, fun-loving and quick to make friends. She and brothers Michael and Bill would sneak into the nearby Garden State Theater to watch movies for free. She teased her siblings a lot, but was also fiercely protective of them.

When she was 13, Marcy's temperature shot up to 103. Her father, a former middleweight champion boxer, didn't believe in doctors; mother Helen did. She took her daughter to All Children's Hospital, where she was diagnosed with Bright's disease, a chronic kidney condition. When she was released, doctors predicted she'd live 10 years, tops.

Close calls would eventually become the norm for Marcy, who flirted with death on a number of occasions. “I think that was the first of her nine lives,” says Bill Brydon, 63, a retired builder in South Tampa. “Marcella had a way of escaping everything, until the end.”

No one can pinpoint when the first signs of schizophrenia appeared. Bill thinks it happened when she got pregnant at age 18, after graduating from Dixie Hollins High School in 1965. She went into a deep depression and was briefly institutionalized.

She had a shotgun wedding and gave birth to son Jeff. But the marriage was short-lived, and she was incapable of caring for her baby. Her husband's mother took over, raising Marcy's boy.

She started a new life in Tampa where some of her family lived. A comely brunette, Marcy worked as a cocktail waitress in nightclubs like La Riviera. Her picture ran in the “After Dark” feature of the Jan. 21, 1972, edition of The Tampa Tribune, which referred to her as “Attractive Marcy Moore.”

But the smiling woman in the photo got herself into trouble.

After not showing up to work or answering her phone for three days, Marcy's uncle went to her apartment in Drew Park. He found her duct-taped to a chair, beaten and with cigarette burns all over her body. Whoever did this had left her for dead.

Marcy never revealed the identity of her attackers. She would only say she “wouldn't give up any names” despite the physical assault. Her family believes it was mob-connected, for something she witnessed or for speaking out of turn. For good reason, after that, she became even more jumpy and easily agitated.

Glenn Awlestock didn't know Marcy all that long, but he never doubted her stories. He feathered and cut her hair regularly at Mr. Ray's Barbershop, and listened to her spin tales from the second chair, her favorite spot. A former hair stylist from Las Vegas, he determined early on that her mob recollections weren't imaginary.

“She knew things ordinary people would never know,” he says.

He saw some of the crazy behavior, too. From his shop, he could see her marching up and down the street, ranting and railing in some undecipherable language. He'd see her push the traffic signal button over and over at MacDill and Ballast Point, backing up rush-hour drivers all the way to the Air Force base. One day he couldn't take it anymore, so he went out and guided her back to the shop.

“Why do you do that, Marcy?” he asked. “You're getting a lot of people really mad.”

She smiled broadly, showing off a mouth with few teeth. “Isn't this power?” she said.

Awlestock said his heart broke when he heard the news about Marcy's death. He remembers when his business first opened about a year ago, and cuts were few and far between. Once he told her he had only made about $30 that week. The next day, she brought him dinner.

“She was a kind woman. And she taught me something,” Awlestock says. “Don't judge people until you know them. Because you may be wrong.”

She had long stretches of lucidity.

For three decades, Marcy lived in St. Petersburg with her mother, who monitored her daily intake of medication. She got a job at the Walmart on Tyrone Boulevard, once earning Employee of the Month. At night, she day-traded stocks. Between her paycheck and her investments, she made enough money to buy a nearby house. She kept a tidy garden, got a cat, bought nice cars. Best of all, Marcy spent more time with her now-grown son, and he trusted her with his first-born, daughter Reese.

“I think that was the happiest period in her life,” says Jeff, who runs a tree service company in Seminole. “I try to hang on to those memories, instead of focusing on all the bad times.”

But Marcy grew weary of gaining weight and feeling listless – effects from taking the drugs that controlled her schizophrenia. I'm so fat, she'd complain to friends. I hate how I feel when I'm on these pills.

From time to time, she'd abandon the regime, triggering episodes of angry screaming fits, erratic phobias and short-term disappearances. Frustrated family members would get calls from the police in various cities where she had caused a disturbance. One time, Bill saw his sister drive by in a station wagon with “Mad Dog” painted on the side. She was wearing a hard hat.

“It's a little shocking,” he says.

On several occasions, when depression took over or the voices got too loud, she was hospitalized for shock treatments. That eventually ended. In the 1970s, under a sweeping reform of patients' rights, the country began a two-decade process of closing down state mental health institutions and releasing their charges into the community, where advocates were led to believe that specialized programs would take over.

“They didn't,” says Rick Wagner, a past president of Mental Health America of Greater Tampa Bay. “The money went back into the state's general fund. We used to go to Tallahassee to ask for increases in funding. Now we beg that they don't cut it.”

Florida currently ranks 49th in the nation in per-capita mental health funding at $39 per resident. That's better than last year, when it ranked 50th. The national average is $129 per capita.

Emptying out the hospitals led to something prevalent today: the criminalization of the mentally ill. Jails are now serving as residential treatment facilities, Wagner says. In cases where people are dangerous to themselves or others, they can be “Baker acted” under Florida law, in which they're committed to a mental health facility for 72 hours. That happened to Marcy on several occasions.

But once released, the cycle began again. A challenging situation for a normal person would be insurmountable for her. When she found her boyfriend dead of natural causes at his apartment, she went dark for awhile.

In 2003, Marcy learned she had stage 3 breast cancer, sending her into another downward spiral. She agreed to a mastectomy, but would go for only one chemotherapy treatment. She believed “they” were trying to poison her. In fact, she announced, she didn't want to do any more drugs, ever again. Doctors told her she was giving herself a death sentence and she would not survive a year.

Family members believe they started to truly lose her after that. She sold her house for half its worth, crashed a couple of cars and finally lost her license. She got arrested a few times for trespassing when police found her lurking in places where she didn't belong. She ran through her savings. Her elderly mother could no longer be her caretaker.

That was OK with Marcy. She wanted to be free. She needed to be free.

She wasn't a panhandler. She didn't drink or do drugs, her friends say. She stayed reasonably clean for someone who spent most of her waking hours roaming outside. The neighborhood folks always wondered: Where did Marcy live? Where did she get her money?

The answers aren't complicated. She slept wherever she hung her hat. She had a monthly disability check and some funds left over from investments and a family inheritance that her brothers doled out. At the beginning of the month, she would carry as much as $1,000 in cash in her oversized purse. She complained a lot about people taking money and bicycles from her, and that was probably true. On the streets, cash and property don't last long.

Sometimes, she rented a room for a few weeks; other times, friends invited her to stay. Occasionally her bed was a bench or under a tree in a park. Sympathetic business owners let her crash on mattresses in property sheds or on couches in their back offices. A few attempts by her advocates to get her in government housing never worked. She wouldn't play by the rules.

“Marcy fell through the cracks, and the system wasn't equipped to handle it,” says Sally Parsons, a nurse at Tampa General Hospital. She and her partner, sculptor JJ Watts, considered Marcy part of their family. She stayed with them for a while and visited often, taking ownership of the jungle-like garden that fronts their property on MacDill. When it rained, she would run outside, arms outstretched and turning her face to the swollen black clouds.

“A dyed-in-the-wool original,” Watts says. “She was crazy, but she was a good woman. She made us laugh.” They still chuckle over her Davy Crockett hat with the raccoon tail, and the time she put on a pair of Sketchers shoes and did a pirouette.

“Why, I look like a goldfish on stilettos!” Marcy exclaimed.

Her brother Bill believes she settled in South Tampa because it was a comfort zone for her. His home in Ballast Point is on the pie-shaped property where their grandmother's house once stood, a place of happy family memories. And the local folks took to Marcy.

Early on, he let her stay with him, but it was too disruptive. He got home from work one day and she had moved the dining room furniture into the living room, and vice versa. She was wearing his clothes. He had to draw lines. If you won't take your medication, you can't live here, he told her. She refused, and never really forgave him.

“With family, you bear the brunt of the anger,” he says. She was often spotted giving the finger to drivers along MacDill Avenue. If she spotted him, “I got the double finger.”

Brother Michael, who runs a computer company in New Orleans, had similar experiences when she would show up unannounced in his city. She would stay with him, pacing the floor all night long and yelling profanities at the television. Neighbors in the complex started complaining. Once he got home from work and she was in the living room with several homeless people she had gathered.

He issued the same conditions to her: Get straight with the medication or leave. She left. The last time they saw each other was at their mother's funeral in 2010. At a dinner following the service, she went on an abusive rant at a public restaurant, disrupting nearby customers.

“It's a love-hate sort of thing,” he says. “The Marcy I want to remember is the one who was so open-hearted and caring. The devil in disguise, that's the one I need to forget.”

He treasures a photo of them, both in their 20s, standing in a parking lot near the beach. Their arms were looped around each other and they had the same toothy grin. On the back, she wrote in beautiful cursive writing:

To Mike – May you always have a cool breeze in the summer. May have you have a warm fire in winter. And always, the soft warm smile of a friend! Always, Sissy Marcy.

Rick Drummond, co-owner of Hyde Park's Wine Exchange, can barely stand the thought of not seeing Marcy anymore. He still has a stack of second-hand designer clothes for her in his garage and a plastic bag full of nail polishes for her manicures.

He lives off Bayshore Boulevard in a well-appointed townhome, a stone's throw from Bill's house. Marcy spent a lot of time in that area, bringing in garbage cans on trash pick-up day and sitting on a bench across the street in front of the home of Gail Dee and Sam Russ. She called that her “office.”

“We had two choices here: call a Realtor and move, or welcome Marcy,” Drummond says. “Most of us, but not all, welcomed her.”

He won't forget her generosity, like the time she showed up at his house with a box of Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks for lunch. The restaurateur and his guest sat at his turn-of-the-century walnut table, dining on good china. Because of her lack of teeth, he admits “it wasn't pretty” watching her eat. But being with Marcy was always entertaining.

He imagines her now, standing tall at the Pearly Gates next to St. Peter, shouting out in that boisterous voice to the inbound: “No spitting, please! No spitting allowed!” That's his Marcy, the reformed spitter.

“She was my best friend, and I didn't even know it,” he says.

Some 150 people, from all walks of life, came together Sundayto remember Marcy at Peninsular Christian Church. This is the congregation that gave her food and welcomed her to services, though associate pastor Terry Beyer admits he always kept his eye on her.

He couldn't have her going off in God's house.

Her memorial was a joyous gathering, with people sharing their humorous and poignant recollections of a woman they loved but not always understood. There were tears, too, as they agreed that Marcy's departure leaves a hole in their lives.

When a microphone shorted out and an ear-shattering buzz disrupted friend Glenn Bonner's eulogy, he waited until it stopped. Then he looked out into the pews and deadpanned: “I told you Marcy was here.”

Beyer told the crowd that Marcy had pleaded with him months ago to help her start a group to bring awareness to the homeless people being killed while walking or bicycling in the streets.

“All my friends are dying,” she said. People like her, with backstories and challenges, needed advocates who cared and watched over them. “Something has to be done.”

They never got to put together that group.

Business owners and residents say they still look out their windows, expecting to see Marcy walking purposefully down the sidewalk, clutching her big bag in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

If she was shaking her fist at some imaginary enemy – Gail Dee Russ called it “Marcy directing traffic” – all they needed was to call out her name sharply.

Marcy!  No need to do that!

She would turn slowly to the voice and when she recognized the face, the anger and tenseness would melt away. She would smile broadly and give a vigorous wave.

“How ya doing?” she'd yell back. “I'll be good now. I promise.”


mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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