ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Seven years ago, when Al Nixon started showing up to the same bench in St. Pete's Vinoy Park to watch the sunrise, it was a time for personal reflection and to help cope with the stress of life.
Over the years, Al's daily pilgrimage to watch the sunrise has a new meaning for him and everyone he greets going by.
He knows most of the runners, walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and nature enthusiasts by name. Some he greets with a smile and a friendly hello as they move past his bench. Others he has developed life-long friendships with.
When our cameras were rolling, some people were hesitant to say hi to their favorite greeter. Others walked right up and chatted with Al about the latest gossip around St. Pete or shared pictures from a recent family event. When we moved farther away, the magic happened. A crowd of people gathered around Al, chatting about nothing or everything, depends on the person.
Al said he started coming to the park seven years ago to decompress mainly from the stresses of work.
But, what started all those years ago, as a way for Al to be alone, with his thoughts and enjoy the beauty of a sunrise, now can feel like a second job. His simple act of sitting on a bench and acknowledging strangers passing by has morphed into something more powerful than he could've ever imagined.
"I was reminded by a woman about a year in that this is not just about me," Al said. "Cause, when I first started coming, it was about me seeking serenity. She said she knows everything is going to be okay when I show up and keep coming."
Humans are creatures of habit. And, something about Al's consistency, stability, repetition, or whatever you want to call it has inspired others.
"The love is pure, and that's what we get from each other," Al said. "The power of a frown or smile is limitless. We get a smile; we give a smile. The smile you see of mine is the 50 smiles I see before you saw mine."
Al estimated he watches about 350 sunrises a year. The only time he doesn't show up is when it is raining. If he misses a day, his regulars don't let him off easy.
"You would think I've been gone two years. 'Where were you?' At work," Al said with a laugh. "It started out as something for my own edification, a medication that type of thing. And, I'm kind of old school. You see people, you speak to them, you acknowledge them as a human being. It morphed into you get to know people like yourself. I'm getting to know your name."
How did Al pick his bench?
"This spot is the breeziest point in the whole thing. It's cooler here, so that's why I picked this bench," Al said.
Lockdowns were some of the most challenging days Al faced. An essential worker with the city of St. Petersburg, Al continued watching sunrises day after day. With each friend who walked by, he learned first-hand the tragic toll COVID-19 took on his community.
"This time last year, people were losing people that crap gets real. They were losing people very close to them. So, a lot of tears. It's not always smile and laughs," Al said. "People shared stories that were heart-wrenching. It's a tricky thing because you can't internalize it. You have to be in a certain disposition for the next person that comes along. You have to be able to walk away from here and do your day and be okay. Most of the time, that worked. Sometimes you are a wreck when you leave because they were a wreck when they came. Last year was interesting other than the first year, probably the most difficult time to be here."
When we first met Al in the morning twilight, and we hadn't started our interview yet, a jogger walked up to Al. She asked, "why do you sit on this bench every day?"
He gave her the cliff note version of his story and complimented her smile.
She replied, "Well, it's a gift from God, whatever you are doing. Thank you, It's really beautiful."
Al said he'd seen the jogger for a year. But that morning was the first time she stopped.
"What's your name?" Al asked.
"Kristina," she replied.
"My boyfriend and I walk or run by here every day, and we think, we say to each other should we stop and talk to him because it's so beautiful that he sits and talks to people all day so I won't be afraid now," Kristina said.
"Anytime, anytime, whatever you want to talk about, I'm a good listener," Al said.
She thanked Al for talking and jogged away with a smile. And, at that moment, we saw how it all happens.
Al arrives at his bench around 6:30 a.m. every morning. He stays until 8 a.m then heads off to work. On weekends he lingers longer, enjoying time with the many strangers he now calls friends.
If you see a bench with a plaque honoring the living legend. You'll know. You are in Al's seat.