The Stink Bomber
On this particular Monday afternoon, Phil Thomas is clean-shaven and neatly dressed. At least by his standards.His short-sleeved shirt appears to have been recently pressed; its blue-and-white squares widen slightly as they descend over his belly toward a pair of oil-spotted polyester pants. An intractable row of long black hairs rises up from Thomas' left cheek, apparently missed by the morning's shave. Another overlooked patch swirls about the vast underside of his chin. His graying mane is slicked back over his ears in a bulky heap, evidently without the aid of pomade.
Thomas' 6-foot-1-inch frame fills one side of a green vinyl booth inside the Preston Road Denny's in North Dallas. His uniquely blunt views on the educational problems plaguing minority kids in Dallas, delivered in a volatile voice, command the curiosity of neighboring diners. They can't help but listen, though they don't join the conversation.
"You want to know who the enemy of the black youth is?" Thomas asks, his blue, bloodshot eyes darting beneath a pair of thick, black eyebrows. "It's the black parents. It doesn't take too long to figure that out."
Thomas continues, expanding the list of enemies he sees threatening children. His voice rises and his sentences run together. The conversation of two nearby African-American men is disturbed by the erupting opinions of this vociferous white man.
"It's the attitude of black leadership that black people alone are going to solve the problem," Thomas says, referring to South Dallas, which he broadly labels a ghetto. "It's not going to budge until the lousy, stinking, rotten attitude of the black community changes."
Thomas is of the mind that the future of African-American youth is like a basketball that black educators and their parents are slam-dunking down society's drain. He believes that black children--he calls them his "ghetto kids"--spend too much time jamming and jawing on the basketball court, when they desperately need a basic education and vocational training. The kids aren't university material, he says, but they certainly have enough brains to hold down decent jobs that pay a living wage.
At the same time, Thomas says, Dallas-area educators are dropping the ball in their obligation to prepare students for the real world. The incompetence of the public school system, combined with a woeful lack of financial resources, is a recipe for social disaster.
Fortunately, Thomas has the answer, and the answer is used vending machines.
Describing himself as the "best one-man think tank in town," Thomas is the founder of the Great American Dream Machine, a nonprofit organization that he hopes will make the future brighter.
With a staff of one, Thomas wants to save his "ghetto kids" by turning them into "Biz Kids." He envisions public-school students running their own businesses by managing school vending machines, which Thomas would purchase used. He would also lend the students his own business expertise, and use of the salvaged computers he has stockpiled at his North Dallas house.
In no time at all, the kids would learn the ways of the business world and make a profit, half of which would go to scholarships and half into Thomas' pocket. The kids would get jobs, and Thomas would earn a little extra income to supplement his dwindling pension.
For the last two and a half years, Thomas has been trying to peddle his vision to Dallas educators, offering bundles of money to elicit their cooperation. But they refuse to cooperate.
School officials say they have given Thomas numerous opportunities to present his ideas, but have failed to find a way to satisfy him. In part, that's because Thomas can't find a way to make his plan seem feasible. And he isn't exactly the well-funded business man he claims to be. In fact, he's quite the opposite.
Spurned by the educational "gods," Thomas has plugged in a fax machine and launched a continuing campaign against employees of the Dallas Independent School District, the Dallas County Community College District, and various county and city employees. Almost daily, Thomas deluges officialdom with paper--pleas, promises, and dire prognostications of what will happen if his ideas are not embraced.
Often, his weapon of choice is public information requests--often frivolous--that school administrators are obligated to respond to by state and federal open-records laws.
DISD and DCCCD officials say Thomas has forced them to waste countless hours of staff time and their employees have grown weary of his sometimes abusive demeanor.
When Thomas isn't taking his frustrations out through the fax machine, he's getting into verbal and physical altercations about town, according to Dallas County court records.
Since 1995, Thomas has been charged with one misdemeanor count of assault and one misdemeanor count of making a terroristic threat. The latter incident involved Thomas' stated desire to drop an atom bomb on the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, thereby obliterating it and the ghetto. Chamber officials say the threat came after Thomas spent more than a year attending and disrupting their meetings.
Thomas, who has informed court officials that he suffers from "severe depression," has been ordered to have no contact with the Chamber and is currently on probation.
On at least two occasions, officials from DISD and DCCCD say, security officers have had to escort Thomas from school grounds after he became too disruptive and threatening. In August, DISD employees were advised to hang up on Thomas if he continued to yell and swear at them on the telephone.
But Thomas has not been deterred.
At 61, the retired engineer has no responsibilities, little money, and very few friends. His four children are grown and reportedly don't visit him often. His wife of 31 years divorced him in 1985, then died. With unlimited free time on his hands, Thomas fills the void by working until 2 or 3 in the morning, typing memos and faxing his enemies.
He works from his North Dallas home, where the roof is collapsing and a band of raccoons has taken up residence in the attic. Thomas, who has been cited for multiple city sanitation violations since 1986, says he hasn't cleaned the house in nine years.
His home is the reeking bane of neighbors, who have filed complaints with the city expressing frustration with the mess. "I'm concerned for the safety of people who go inside the house," says one neighbor, who didn't want to be identified for fear that Thomas will retaliate. "You never know with people like that when they're going to go off."
Thomas says he is well aware of his reputation with his neighbors, and with school officials who have yet to jump on the Great American Dream Machine bandwagon. That makes him all the more determined to continue on his warpath.
"Phil has one of his own bad qualities," says Thomas, referring to himself in the third person, as he often does. "And that is when he hears the word 'can't,' it's like waving a red flag in front of a bull."
The 6400 block of Prestoncrest in North Dallas, just minutes away from the Galleria mall, is lined with elegant brick homes with immaculately trimmed bushes and mowed lawns.
Then there's the Thomas residence.
Weeds more than a foot high have overgrown the front yard. A crumbling walkway leads to a porch cluttered with tools, a rusting mound of chains, various metal pipes, and a stack of water-soaked insulation. An old three-speed Schwinn is parked between a Die Hard battery and a cup full of used spark plugs.
Four aluminum ladders are propped against the roof, curiously stationed around the house and plainly visible from the street. They form an archway, of sorts, leading to the backyard, where three broken-down cars sit on the barren dirt and a rusting jungle gym swaggers in the breeze. A broken fan resides with an old drinking fountain, a dishwasher, and a large machine called a "Pitney Bowes Photographer," its top pried open and its guts exposed.
The house itself is in similar straits. Wooden shingles on the back half of the roof have fallen in clumps, leaving gaping holes that expose the inside of the house.
Since 1986, inspectors from the city's Street, Sanitation and Code Enforcement department have cited Thomas nine times for various infractions, most involving neighborhood complaints about high weeds, illegal parking, and garbage. Of those complaints, one is still open, says Cherita Johnson, the western division manager for the department.
One neighbor claims the city could do more, and isn't willing to push Thomas to clean up his house.
"The city is very scared of him. That's why we can't get anything done," says the neighbor. "Those stepladders have been there forever. They're a poor attempt to convince city inspectors that he's working on that house."
On a Tuesday afternoon, Thomas stands inside a first-floor room that he uses as an office. It is packed with dozens of pieces of used computer equipment, mismatched desks, copy machines, and filing cabinets. A "Milano" poster boasting of Italy's "Galleria Vittorio Emanuele" hangs on one wall. Another is covered with antiquated world atlas wallpaper. A wooden patch is nailed to the ceiling to keep out water from the leaky roof.
Thomas is doing what he says he does every day until 2 or 3 in the morning--hovering over a fax machine, pushing angry letters into the lives of various Dallas-area public employees. An NFL notebook filled with fax numbers rests at the side of Thomas' weapon. A flashlight and screwdrivers lie nearby.
Time spent with Thomas consists of listening to his long-winded complaints about impossible bureaucracies, their simple-minded employees, and all the other idiots out there who just don't understand him. Despite the presence of strangers, Thomas wanders through the house, muttering to himself, occasionally slipping into conversations with people who are not present.
"God! I can't stand people who lie to me. The worst thing you can do to Phil Thomas is put garbage in his computer," he says, staring down at a fax somebody apparently sent to him.
Redirecting his attention to the conversation at hand, Thomas explains that two problems continue to frustrate his plan to save the ghetto kids.
"I kept believing that when these people showed interest [in the Great American Dream Machine] it would happen. The second thing is I have this reoccurring health problem that would wipe me out for two months," he says, meaning the depression that he doesn't like to talk about. "But I really do think I have DISD boxed in. I don't think they are going to ignore me this time."
As he talks, raccoons can be heard scurrying about the attic. A powerful, almost unbearable stench fills the humid house, the result of nearly a decade of filth that has never been challenged with a sponge. Thomas breaks out in laughter when asked why he doesn't clean the house.
"That's a good question. Actually it wasn't this bad until I started this wonderful journey," he says, straying into the hallway to explain why there's a gaping hole in the ceiling. "A pipe separated and let water into the insulation, and the insulation got heavy and it fell through. Now my raccoons are up there, and occasionally they knock stuff down."
The condition of the rest of the house ranges from similar to worse. A stairway leading to the second floor is virtually impassable, its thinly carpeted steps cluttered with extension cords, telephones, and discarded shoes. Thomas uses two upstairs bedrooms to store mounds of used computer equipment which he buys at bankruptcy sales. A bathroom door is ajar and the light doesn't work. From the darkness, the unmistakable stench of urine rises from a broken john and escapes into the hallway.
Downstairs in the kitchen, the refrigerator appears rusted, but is really covered in a brownish blanket of grime. A Kmart Pharmacy "poison hotline" magnet clings to the refrigerator door, underneath a Mylar "Happy Birthday" clown balloon that looms from atop the freezer. The window over the sink, like most others in the house, is covered with tin foil.
A neighbor says that in recent months he has been approached by several people looking for Thomas, including sanitation inspectors, officials from the Dallas County Mental Health/Mental Retardation center, and Thomas' youngest son, James. When they showed up at Thomas' door, the neighbor says, Thomas refused to come out. (MHMR officials declined to comment on whether Thomas is a client, and members of Thomas' family could not be reached for comment.)
Nearby residents say they worry about Thomas' safety--and their own.
"He's just a nuisance and he's dangerous," says a neighbor. "I don't think he's a particularly vicious person, but if push came to shove, he'd hurt you."
The time he does not spend on household chores, Thomas instead uses trying to sell his dream of vending machines and scholarships to local school officials. But there are some gaps in the picture Thomas paints of himself.
For starters, his Great American Dream Machine is not much of a nonprofit organization, except in Thomas' mind. And there aren't any Biz Kids merrily raking in money and business experience by selling candy and soft drinks.
Thomas claims he's already spent $60,000 of his own money pursuing his vision, but where that money might have come from is difficult to discern.
Born in 1935, Thomas received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Penn State in 1957, and a master's degree in electrical engineering from Drexel University, also in Pennsylvania, in 1961. Thomas says he moved to Texas from Pennsylvania in 1965 to take a job with Texas Instruments. (Texas Instruments spokesman Neil McGlone confirms that Thomas worked at the company's manufacturing operations division plant in Lewisville, but McGlone would not confirm the dates of employment.)
Thomas also claims he once worked for Rockwell International and was stationed in "Arabia," where he became best friends with the chief justice of the country's Supreme Court.
In 1954, Thomas married his wife, Lillie, and in 1985 they divorced. Lillie left the marriage with control of the majority of the couple's possessions, including various stock options that were in the names of their four children.
Lillie died two years later, according to Thomas. Some people who have gotten to know Thomas believe Lillie's death sent his life into a downward spiral.
But divorce records indicate that Thomas' personal problems may have started in the mid-1980s. In her divorce petition, Lillie claimed that the marriage broke down because of "discord or conflict of personalities." The court also agreed with Lillie's claim that, by 1985, Thomas had "dissipated $170,000 of the estate within the last two years," although the court record provides no details of what happened with the money.
When Lillie's name comes up in conversation, Thomas briefly forgets his obsession with minority scholarships. To this day, Thomas remembers the day when he and Lillie started dating back in Shellsville, Pennsylvania. It was love at first sight.
"She was standing back at the sandbox at the one-room schoolhouse. She was tall and thin, with long brunette hair. She asked me to the sophomore dance, and we went to all the dances and football games afterwards," he says, adding that the two didn't have much in common except that they were in the same place at the same time.
They got married just after high school. Thomas went on to become an engineer, and Lillie a teacher. After the couple relocated to Texas, Lillie landed a job at DISD, though district officials could not confirm when or where. Her career as a teacher helps explain Thomas' current fixation on public education.
Thomas never mentions the divorce when speaking of his marriage, but he says Lillie's absence has taken a heavy toll on him.
"I remember thinking that'll take me six months to get over it, and it wound up taking six years," Thomas says, bowing his head and lowering his voice almost to a whisper. "It's an acceptance problem." More than a decade later, Thomas is apparently still having problems accepting reality. Dallas County court records show that he is prone to aggression and suffers from "severe depression."
In 1994, Thomas pleaded no contest to one class-A misdemeanor count of assault, and was ordered to pay $660 in court fines and undergo 12 months of supervision.
The charge stemmed from an October 1, 1994, verbal confrontation between Thomas and an employee of the Kroger grocery store in Richardson. During an argument with employee Abel "Rocky" Acosta in the store's parking lot, Thomas grabbed Acosta's necktie in an attempt to elude approaching police officers, according to court records.
When he was arrested, the retired engineer had $100 in the bank, $20 in his pocket, and $2,500 in monthly expenses, records show.
Now, Thomas can barely manage to keep a roof over his head, or a clean shirt on his back. DISD employees who have encountered Thomas say he has a severe hygiene problem that often precedes him. His aroma, combined with his abusive descriptions of African-Americans and his time-consuming demands, makes it difficult for them to understand his true intentions.
"In front of our employees, who are African-American, he refers to our kids as 'my ghetto kids,'" says one employee who has dealt with Thomas. "He's come to look at our records for three days, all in the same outfit. [We] won't sit in the same room with him because of his odor."
At 7:45 a.m. on Thursday, August 28, a "meeting" of the Lincoln High School faculty advisory committee convenes inside a tiny conference room next to Principal Napoleon Lewis' office. Phil Thomas, wearing his oil-stained pants for the third day in a row, is seated at the head of the table next to math teacher and committee chairman C.B. Jackson. Three teachers occupy the opposite end of the table, wondering why, exactly, they have been summoned.
They are here, it turns out, because Thomas has asked for a meeting to pitch the Great American Dream Machine, and school officials have decided to oblige.
After Jackson makes a brief opening statement, Thomas starts explaining to the educators, once again, his vision of scholarships, vending machines, and enterprising students.
He is interrupted when librarian Cheryl Mohr asks who is taking minutes of the meeting.
"This isn't a faculty advisory committee meeting as far as the school is concerned. It's a faculty advisory meeting to take care of some of the problems we've had with this fund-raising effort," Jackson informs the group, tilting his head in Thomas' direction on the word "this."
Like good pupils, the teachers gaze at Thomas intently as he hands out copies of the school's 1995-'96 extracurricular activities budget. He explains that too much money is being spent on student activities, like the choir's trip to London and especially sports.
"London? What are you talking about? Did they go to London, too?" Mohr asks in a surprised tone, momentarily guessing that Thomas knows something she doesn't. After reassuring the teachers that he knows how every dime in the school is spent, Thomas admits it's possible the students just stopped over in London on their way to Vienna.
"The choir performed in Vienna, Austria," Jackson says, pulling off his glasses and squeezing the bridge of his nose as if a migraine were forming in his head.
England. Austria. That's not the point, says Thomas. The point is that the school is wasting money while students need scholarships, and they need them now.
Besides, he's been through this whole discussion with former DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery to no avail, and he wants action. Now.
The teachers gawk in amazement as Thomas proceeds to replay the conversation, real or imagined, that he had with Woolery.
"I asked Chad Woolery why there are no scholarships, and he said, 'We don't give scholarships,' and I said to myself, 'You lying son of a bitch,'" says Thomas, who abruptly stops talking and exhales a high-pitched cackle. The windowless room seems to be getting warmer, and the teachers' patience thinner. What does this man want, anyway?
For the next half-hour, Thomas explains what he's been trying to do for more than two years: let his "Biz Kids" start their own businesses by managing vending machines and use the profits for academic scholarships, minus his 50-percent cut. And he wants the teachers to convince Napoleon Lewis to OK the plan.
What the teachers don't know, however, is that Thomas has spent the past two years explaining his plan to Lewis and every administrator all the way up to the DISD Board of Trustees. So far, nobody has been able to figure out how to make the plan work, or how to make Thomas go away.
DISD General Counsel Dennis Eichelbaum confirms that Thomas continues to make weekly, sometimes daily, requests for information that are sapping the time and energy of his staff.
"Mr. Thomas' constant barrage of requests seem to never get answered as fast as he would like them to, nor do his demands," says Eichelbaum, whose tone of voice indicates a high degree of annoyance with the subject.
Eichelbaum would apparently be pleased if Thomas went away, especially since state law requires him to respond to Thomas' requests, but Eichelbaum says he's had it with Thomas' personality.
"We have no duty to respond to the abuse we receive from him constantly, including foul language and name-calling," says Eichelbaum, who on August 21 sent Thomas a letter relaying just that point.
Convinced that DISD officials are conspiring to conceal sensitive information, information Thomas is sure will land a few folks in the slammer, Thomas says he took the unusual step of filing a criminal complaint with the Dallas County District Attorney's Office in mid-July. In it, he accused the district of violating the state open-records laws. Assistant District Attorney John Dahill confirms that he received a complaint from Thomas, but declined to elaborate on who it involves, or on its merits.
Eichelbaum says the constant shower of faxes sickens him.
"It frustrates me to no end to see that my taxes have to go not toward the education of children, but rather toward researching and retrieving documents for someone who is abusing the system," Eichelbaum says.
Like Eichelbaum, DISD Board Secretary Robert Johnston often is on the receiving end of Thomas' fax-machine stink bombs. When the Dallas Observer reached Johnston by phone last week, he had received seven faxes from Thomas that morning, five of which were information requests. In recent months, Johnston says, Thomas has also become a regular at DISD board meetings.
"If he doesn't get what he wants when he wants it, then he increases the level of his requests," Johnston says.
Thomas apparently cares little for Johnston's boss, DISD Board President Bill Keever.
On August 14, Thomas faxed Keever a two-page letter, recapping six written and verbal information requests Thomas had made to Keever and other DISD employees since April. In the fax, Thomas couldn't help but express his displeasure at how the requests were handled. Printed on Great American Dream Machine letterhead, the fax is classic Thomas.
"I have not heard a peep from you (or them). Dumb, Bill, Dumb, Dumb!" Thomas wrote. "Bill baby, believe me--it is against my religion to go away. Please take my word for it; you and the trustees don't want to go through what you are going to go through if my Ghetto kids don't get their Scholarships. As I told Chad [Woolery] during the shouting match, 'HELL will freeze over first--before I fail to get my Ghetto Kids their scholarships.' And you can take that to the bank, sir."
While some would consider Thomas' letters to be threatening, Johnston says he figures that's just the way Thomas operates. Besides, he can't do anything to stop the faxes from coming.
"The guy, when you talk to him, he's scary. He's one of these kind of people who, just to talk to him, he looks kind of deranged so you don't tend to pay attention to what he's trying to say," Johnston says.
Thomas has not limited his efforts to DISD.
As the legal assistant for the Dallas County Community College District, David Hay is the bureaucrat stuck with the task of dealing with Thomas. Like his DISD counterparts, Hay says Thomas' faxes began appearing in early 1995.
"This June was a heavy month for him," says Hay. "I don't think I'd be too far off base if I said he's made eight or 10 requests within a few weeks." Hay describes some of Thomas' requests for information as silly.
"Sometimes he'll ask for information for which no documentation exists," Hay says. "One time he wanted to know how many trees we had at one location. I had to call the architect, and he said, 'Hell, I don't know.' Another time [Thomas] wanted to know the square footage of a particular department."
Hay's weirdest Thomas anecdote, however, is of an incident that occurred in February 1995. That month, Thomas filed a civil lawsuit against the district because he suspected that employees at Eastfield College's Bill J. Priest Institute were printing campaign material for the Democratic Party at taxpayer expense.
Thomas, who litigated the case himself, alleged that some students told him they saw employees printing literature for the Democrats, according to court records. At the time, Thomas was interested in starting his own "United Nations" print shop. He had gone to the institute to learn about the printing process.
The case had a few fundamental flaws. Namely, Thomas didn't name the witnesses or the culprits involved. Although he claimed that the illegal printing took place daily from June to September of 1994, few other details were available. In fact, when DCCCD attorneys were set to take Thomas' deposition on June 30, 1995, he was a no-show.
"I'm not sure how it came about that Mr. Thomas found out about this, but a student made a photocopy of a donkey," says Hay, who chuckles at the recollection of the case. "Somehow, Mr. Thomas made a quantum leap--from that one picture--that Eastfield College or DCCCD was reproducing literature for the Democratic Party, which it was not."
As part of his complaint, Thomas asked the court to make the school reimburse the printing costs and use the money for minority scholarships, minus the cut Thomas should get for "acting as a good citizen in this matter." He also asked the court to hold a new election, though he didn't specify for what office.
Thomas moved to dismiss the suit on July 12, 1995, when he fell ill with his re-occurring depression, but he still is convinced that a great scandal has gone unpunished.
"I thought the evidence was so obvious," he says, shaking his head at the outcome. "Never did get to build that print shop for those kids."
Three months after Thomas abandoned his pursuit of the print-shop scandal, he was back in the mood for rabble-rousing. His primary target this time was the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce and its chairman, Sam Brown.
"The first time [Thomas] came to [the] chamber I recall he was selling candy. He said he was raising funds to help [his ghetto] kids. Many of us contributed the first time, then he started coming back," Brown says. "At one point, he approached me about what he calls some kind of dance, which I never did understand. In the process of this, I rubbed him wrong somehow."
From the fall of 1994 and into 1995, Brown says, Thomas attended chamber meetings to present his views about the black community. Although Thomas' perspective was upsetting, Brown says he and other members tried to be patient.
"I was really at a loss of what was going on. I felt sorry for him. It didn't seem like he had much financial resources," says Brown, who notes that Thomas became more intense as the months slipped by. "He got very hostile, hollering and screaming at us. I mean real hostile. It was very, very upsetting; very hard to stay calm."
"I always thought that the Black Chamber of Commerce was the most logical organization to revolutionize the ghetto. They have been a big fat disappointment to me. Their board of directors stink. You want [sic] have any trouble replacing them. Things that are rotten have a habit of falling apart after a while," Thomas penned. "What I shall do now is drop a small atom bomb on their headquarters, which will level both them and the ghetto."
Brown says that in the following days he asked Thomas to abort his fax campaign and stay away from the chamber's headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
"That didn't stop him. He came to one of our meetings right after that. He brought a bull horn," Brown says, adding that Thomas had to be escorted out of the November 14 board meeting.
For the most part, Thomas agrees with Brown's version of events, including the part about the bull horn.
"They have a shouting match," he says, referring to himself and Brown. "Sam says, 'Phil, we don't need any whites coming down here and telling us how to raise money for our kids.' At which time I said, 'Sam, you're a damn racist bigot.'"
Thomas was promptly escorted to the front of the building, where he used his bull horn to inform passers-by that Brown was a damn racist bigot. Thomas kept contacting the chamber for four more weeks, until December 21, 1995, when Brown filed a complaint with Dallas police.
A warrant for Thomas' arrest was issued on December 29 and Thomas was subsequently arrested and charged with making terroristic threats. In March, Thomas agreed to perform 80 hours of community service and stop contacting the chamber in lieu of prosecution. His probation from the prior assault was extended for six months.
Brown wonders what Thomas' true intentions are, but like most other people who have encountered Thomas, he says he just winds up shrugging his shoulders and hoping Thomas will leave him alone.
It seems that the only person who voluntarily keeps in contact with Thomas is W.G. Garland, a full-time instructor and counselor at Brookhaven Community College. A couple of years ago, Garland says he agreed to serve on the board of directors of the Great American Dream Machine.
"It was more of a gesture on my part at the time," says Garland, who noticed that Thomas appeared to be alone, one of the earth's "walking wounded." Garland says he has never participated in any business relating to the Dream Machine and isn't involved with Thomas' activities. But he visits with Thomas as a friend every few weeks, mostly because Thomas' heart is in the right place, even if his approach is off.
"I have never known him not to have the right motives. He's very unselfish and very dedicated," Garland says. "It's just that sometimes I worry when I don't hear from him for weeks, then when I do hear from him...he's out trying to save the world. He thinks he's the Saint Jude of Dallas."
Marching through his North Dallas home, Thomas laughs and points to a bull horn resting on a stack of cardboard boxes in his living room.
Like the rest of the house, the living room looks like a storage facility for forgotten gadgets. An upside-down "Collin Doolin For Judge" yard sign rests against the cardboard boxes, which are overflowing with wires. A collection of old office chairs and desks are hidden underneath briefcases, which in turn are overflowing with papers. A large "Happy Birthday" poster hangs on the far wall.
The only items that reflect aspects of Thomas' personal life lie in the bedroom, where a rattling air conditioner does little to relieve the stifling air. Two photos of Lillie have been placed on the fireplace mantel, which is nearly hidden behind yet another pile of cardboard boxes.
"You can see what a young, handsome, and debonair guy I was back then," Thomas says, pointing to a wedding photo that was taken in Shellsville, Pennsylvania. Next to it is a photo of Lillie that Thomas took in 1974 at the neighborhood Dairy Queen, which used to be located across the street from the Valley View Center mall. Lillie's elegance is striking. She is dressed in a floral-patterned dress, her chin resting in her hand as she smiles at her husband through the camera lens.
In the opposite corner of the room, a stuffed raccoon sits atop an old stereo system, complete with a turntable and tape deck. Thomas' music collection includes a Henry Mancini tape and the sound track from The Wizard of Oz. A box spring and mattress rest on a nearby headless frame, covered with only a sheet and two foam rubber pads. Thomas' computer, the one that contains all of his Dream Machine data, sits atop a desk just to the right of a doorway. A medication vial stands empty at its side.
"Anyway, this is how I spend my nights. I usually finish writing by midnight and faxing by 2 a.m.," he says, before he enters the kitchen and begins digging through yet another pile of boxes.
A collection of empty medication vials have been gathered on the kitchen counter, which is covered with canned vegetables and Hy-Top cereal boxes. A small, yellow sign posted on the wall offers a familiar self-help tip: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."
Holding out his paw, Thomas displays a bag of Christmas candy that he bought for his ghetto kids after the holidays. The candy is brittle and stale, and Thomas says nobody will take it from him. He also shows off several boxes filled with back-to-school folders he bought for the kids. The folders were 14 cents each, but Thomas says he talked the store manager down to a dime.
"There are more ways to help kids than Grant had soldiers. Gosh, I have so many ideas," Thomas says, plopping down next to a large copier that occupies the space where a dining table would go.
A smile momentarily relieves the sadness on Thomas' face, but it doesn't stay for long. Soon, Thomas falls back into his verbal assault on the world, disappearing into imagined conversations. His voice rises and falls, interspersed with vulgarities and furious laughter, as he tells somebody, somewhere, not to underestimate him.
"Look you dumb son of a bitch, hee hee, if you think I'm going to sit around for three years and do nothing, hee hee, because you are going to sit around and do nothing, you are dead wrong.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.