The Cowboy, The Checkers Player and How They Both Changed My Life

This first-person chronicle is the experience of Jody Zarn, a Winnipegger who enjoys buying coffee for friends and strangers. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see the FAQs.

I’ve always loved buying people coffee. Friends, strangers, no matter who you are, chances are I’ll buy you coffee or tea. It’s my thing.

So on November 8, 2019, when I saw a homeless man standing in front of my work, it only seemed natural to buy him a cup of tea.

His name was Leroy and we instantly became friends.

Every morning, I met Leroy at the mall. I brought food and supplies from home and made tea in my office. We were visiting, and I was heading to work.

I would say, ‘Leroy was not a typical homeless person’, but there is no typical homeless person, is there?

Homeless people are just that, people. They have stories, skills, achievements. Leroy had it all.

Born in Guyana, raised in Barbados, Leroy comes from a life like you and me. He earned a degree in hotel management, worked in the hospitality industry and studied psychology at the University of Winnipeg.

And, as it turns out, he was once the best checkers player in Canada and the 12th best in the world.

Leroy learned the game as a boy from an older man in the community. He quickly rose to the top and became the third best in Barbados.

He was affectionately called the Prince of Barbados because he was almost as good as his friend, Ron King, who became the best in the world.

At one point, Leroy Adams was ranked the 12th best checkers player in the world. (Howard R. Gain)

And while Leroy’s talent for the game has taken him across Canada and the United States, his journey has not been without its challenges. He recalled a tournament in Hamilton, where, just before the match, a top player hurled racist taunts at him.

His opponent sneered, only to be defeated by Leroy in an easy win.

In 2004, Leroy was recognized as an Outstanding Volunteer for the Boys and Girls Club of Winnipeg.

Leroy learned patience, strategy, and mindset by playing games in his mind.

It sharpened his mind, which he says kept him alive on the streets, because surviving homelessness is, in part, a game of strategy.

Leroy explained that when you live on the streets, every decision you make can mean life or death. He told me that if you want to stay alive, you have to keep a cool head. If you are heading to a part of town, it could mean safety. If you choose another, death.

I had received a gift: to stop and look at what I had in life.-Jody Zarn

He was attacked more than 25 times. He told me the rules were to stay away from certain shelters or you will be mugged. Wear black or you’ll be a target (advice given by an eight-year-old Salvation Army girl).

One winter night, at 2 am and -40, Leroy finds himself at the western end of Portage Avenue.

It was very cold, but he had nowhere to go. You could only spend a certain amount of time in a given restaurant before the manager kicked you out. After being asked to leave in last place, he found himself having to make up his mind. Go left? Or ? Which way?

He chose law and came across a hotel where he worked in his previous life. He knocked on the door, explained to the night shift person that he worked there, and asked if he could please sit in the lobby until morning.

The lady showed compassion to Leroy and let him stay.

Leroy said that if he had chosen to go left, he would surely have frozen to death that night.

I suspect Leroy became homeless due to an unfortunate combination of trauma, mental health issues, and a lot of bad luck. A friend once said that we were only a lost wallet away from being homeless. There’s a lot of truth in that. Being homeless was not his fault.

I admit, when I met Leroy, I thought it was me who was “helping”. I quickly understood that it was he who was helping me.

“Dad, an old prairie cowboy, has always been one of my best friends,” says Jody Zarn. (Submitted by Jody Zarn)

This fall had been hard. My father, Henry, suffered from dementia, and before meeting Leroy, our family decided to place him in a personal care home.

Dad, an old prairie cowboy, has always been one of my best friends, and watching him decline to the point of not being able to live at home was heartbreaking to say the least.

When I met Leroy, my heart was broken and I struggled to put on a brave face for work.

Caring for a loved one with dementia means mourning their death every day. Every day you lose a few more, as their minds slip into the fog.

But something interesting started to happen.

I arrived at work depressed. I would find Leroy in our usual place and ask him how he was. He greeted me with a smile and exclaimed, “Jody, I’m pretty good!”

Here is this man who had just spent the last few hours fighting for his life in one of the most dangerous bus shelters in town, and all he could talk about was how happy he was, how grateful he was to be alive, how bright he was his future lay ahead.

He wasn’t annoyed because his caramel latte wasn’t hot enough, he was glad to have a sandwich. He wasn’t angry because the bus was late, he was happy because he had someone to talk to.

To say it was a dose of perspective would be an understatement.

After leaving Leroy, I headed to work with renewed joy. My heart was always lighter.

Jody Zarn’s father, Henry, suffered from dementia. Jody learned to face it “with gratitude, rather than despair.” Rather than be consumed by grief, I savored the simple moments. (Submitted by Jody Zarn)

I had received a gift: the gift of stopping and looking at what I had in life and truly appreciating what I had received. The good, the bad, the ugly. All this – a gift.

I began to view Dad’s dementia journey with gratitude rather than despair. Rather than be consumed by grief, I savored the simple moments. The conversations, the giggles. His voice.

My father and Leroy never met, yet they loved and respected each other from afar. Both have experienced deep adversity, but both have faced their storms head-on, with gratitude and grace.

On November 9, 2021, my dear friend Leroy passed away peacefully in his own home.

On April 8, 2022, my father arrived at the end of his trip.

It’ll be OK.

Both showed me that even on the darkest paths there is light. On the loneliest roads, there is hope.

The cowboy and the checkers player

Jody Zarn on her special bond with a stranger she met on the street and her elderly, sick father. 4:18

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