Bearden: Lessons in art of happiness from a guard
Finally, it was time to say goodbye. The Tampa Tribune news staff had to vacate the building it shared with WFLA-TV for 13 years at 200 S. Parker St. After years of long-distance ownership by a big corporation, we’re now a Tampa-based company. Fortunately for us, we didn’t have to go far. Just a few steps away across the courtyard, to where we used to work before the News Center was built in 2000. Other Tribune departments have always been there, which means we’re all reunited under the same roof. Once we get settled, this will be a good thing. But something’s missing.We had to leave Danny Vlaun behind. Now, I don’t need coffee to get me going in the morning. But I sure need Danny. If you could bottle his super-charged energy, his positively upbeat spirit, his infectious smile, his “All right!” affirmation, you could put Columbian bean growers out of business. A dose of Danny wipes out any need for caffeine. Danny, a former New York transit cop who now works in security, remains at the News Center. I think I speak for all of us in the Trib newsroom that not having him greet us every morning is the hardest thing about this business divorce. Because he genuinely cares about people, Danny has made the effort to know all our names. For those who lingered by his station, he picked up tidbits of our lives: our favorite sports teams, the names of our pets and children, what stories we were working on. He would remember those details in our comings and goings, making us feel special. “Hey, how about those Rays? They really gave a beating to my Yankees last night!” or “I know it’s been hard since your Mom died. Give it some time. You’ll always remember her but it won’t hurt so bad.” I’ve always been curious about people like Danny. Why is their cup always half full? Where does this cheerful countenance come from? How do they maintain such optimism in these negative times? Surely it’s because they’ve lived a charmed life with little heartbreak or disappointment. Not so, especially in Danny’s case. I’ve turned the tables a few times to learn a little about him. I know that he was born in St. Martin, the offspring of two islanders. And while he grew up in Brooklyn and has an unmistakable New York accent, he can switch to his French Caribbean voice in a heartbeat. His only brother was murdered outside a New York nightclub at age 33, over a parking space. His only sister died of cervical cancer at age 28. He lost his mother to diabetes when she was 44. And his 72-year-old father died of a heart attack while on vacation in Santo Domingo, leaving Danny with the bureaucratic nightmare of getting his body back to St. Martin for the funeral. Though he’s lost all of his immediate family members, he never considers himself cursed. Instead, Danny looks at it this way: At 48, he’s already outlived his siblings and mother. He’ll tell you he’s blessed to still be alive in a world that can be sometimes cruel and unfair. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve dragged myself up to the front entrance, wishing I had gone to bed earlier the night before so I would have a little more pep in my step. Danny would spring to the door, open it graciously and ask if he could help carry my load to the elevator. Here’s a man who gets enough rest, I always assumed. Not so. I’ve learned Danny is one of the hardest working people you’ve ever met on the least amount of sleep. He grew up dirt poor, raised by his divorced mother who depended on food stamps and Medicaid. When Christmas came, he was lucky to get a package of Fruit of the Loom underwear, and he was most grateful for it. Still, he vowed to find a better life for himself and his future children. With a work ethic that seems impossible, he’s made that possible. When Danny leaves our premises after a full shift, he changes uniforms in his car and wolfs down lunch so he can report to UPS on time for the next 7½ hours. On weekends, instead of catching up on his sleep, he’s putting in 16 to 32 hours as a security guard for Bank of America. He has goals in mind, he says, and needs to stick to his plan to make them. He got his daughter through Florida State University; he lights up with pride when he tells you she’s now working on her nursing degree. Next up is his 14-year-old son, who is showing great skills at electronics. Danny has no credit card debt and wants his house in Valrico paid off by the time he’s 54. By the time he’s 60, he should be retired and putting his dual citizenship to work, splitting his time between here and St. Martin, where he inherited a home from his father. That doesn’t mean he’s letting life pass him by. Oh no, not Danny. He squeezes every square inch of pleasure he can get out of it. On Mondays, he recounts the meals he’s enjoyed with wife, who also works two jobs as a house cleaner and babysitter. Whether he’s grilling at home or taking her out to one of their favorite haunts (Frenchy’s, LeRoy Selmon’s and the Cheesecake Factory), he always makes time for dates. “We don’t get to see each other much, so we like to make the most of that time,” he says. If there’s a fair or festival in the area, you can find Danny there on weekend evenings with his son, enjoying one of the carnival rides or games with that huge grin on his face. Relatives used to predict he would die in a motorcycle crash, given his youthful penchant for daring and speed. But the day Danny held his infant daughter in 1989, he vowed to give up street bikes and find a safer hobby. Now he works on his two prized possessions – ’86 and ’92 Mustang convertibles. Life is good, Danny says. Every morning when the alarm goes off at 4 a.m., he whispers to his wife, “It’s a beautiful day.” That something he truly believes. “I wasn’t so happy in New York. People are so rushed. This is paradise, compared to that,” he says. When he gets a little down or frustrated, he remembers what his mother always told him: Good things happen to people who wait. “I always know something good is just around the corner,” he says with confidence. In the book “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World,” author Eric Weiner goes on a global exploration to find locales where the inhabitants have a sunny disposition. He eventually learns that while geography may play a minor role in that attitude, happiness really does come from within. He didn’t have to go any farther than 200 Parker St. to find a man who personifies contentment. Thank you, Danny, for the sunshine you’ve sprinkled into my life. It’s comforting to know that all I have to do is look across the breezeway and I’ll be able to see your smiling face. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make the day just a little bit better.