At 88, Eugene Perry regards himself as a survivor and a “prodigal son” who slammed around the world as a merchant marine, then the subway rails and streets of New York City — until he found and married Anna, who took him down a religious path.
A veritable creature of New York, where he operated subway trains for 23 years and drove stretch limousines for 10 years, Perry finds himself today visiting Valley nursing homes and senior centers as part of his church’s visitation ministry. There he tells folks his stories of a heady life on six continents. They range from his pre-World War II days around musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, Billy Eckstine, Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday to, late in his working life, when his limo dropped off noted people to Broadway theaters and the United Nations.
Then there was time he drove funeral limousines and a man rode with him in the front seat while “six of his wives” sat together “very happy” in back.
“New York was my pride and joy, and I will tell you why,” Perry said, obviously repeating a favorite line, “When you leave New York, you must have a round-trip (ticket) because you have just left the most fascinating capital of the human world.”
Perry, who spent his life on the move, recently published his life story, “Eugene: The Prodigal Son Whom God Saved,” with writer Yuvonne Brooks of Tempe, a retired Mesa Community College reading department chairman who helps people chronicle their lives.
“The whole formula for living rests on the idea that you know the right time to send in the clowns or when it is necessary to send in the professional mourners,” he writes.
Raised by his single mother and a grandmother on the streets of New York, Perry and his gang knew how to sneak into old Ebbets Field to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers. He’d swim the East River from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Manhattan Bridge and ride the back of buses without paying, although there were times when a friend fell from a bus and was killed. In the Depression, he realized he was a “young man with no trade, no talent, no money and no income” and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. When he later landed a job in the New York garment district, he embarked on a life of studying people.
“I had always operated on the hustler’s edge but now I was seeing things with a new pair of eyes,” he writes.
As a limousine driver, Perry logged more than 1,000 funerals, studying mothers burying their last children and survivors constantly looking at their watches. Perry writes about one burial service where the dead man’s wife and his girlfriend both showed up at the burial service, got into a fight and fell into the open grave.
“The service was stopped momentarily until the women could be lifted out of the ground and removed from the service,” he recounts.
A high point in Perry’s life was going into the U.S. Merchant Marine after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and eventually traveling to Europe in the largest convoy of ships ever amassed “all for one purpose and one cause,” to defeat Adolf Hitler. German torpedoes took out two ships next to his off the coast of Nova Scotia.
“Our job was to pull the men who were floating, out of the water,” he writes. “We did the best we could, but that day we lost many seamen and many ships. . . . I know what it means when you try to help someone and whatever you do is just not enough,” he said, noting that one seaman died in his lap.
Perry spent 15 years as a seaman, then worked as a longshoreman. One day while riding a Staten Island bus from work, the driver collapsed and died at the wheel, and Perry, standing on the crowded bus by the driver, took control of the moving bus and brought it to a stop on the sidewalk. The incident was turned into an eight-panel New York newspaper drama cartoon, “Disaster forestalled,” that noted, “The police credited Mr. Perry with preventing the death of over 50 people,” including a crowd of shoppers on a street corner.
From there, he was hired as a motorman for the New York City Transit Authority. He maintained an impeccable safety record for nearly a quarter century. “During the years, I turned the wheels of the trains, not one passenger was hurt while I was in charge,” he said.
In 1962, Perry met a beautician. “Her name was Anna and she was a Christian church lady” is how Perry introduces her in his book. She spurned him for a long time, but “with the patience of Job and lot of prayer,” he won her over and they were married in 1966.
While recovering from an accident in 1982 caused by a drunken driver, Perry said he was overwhelmed by a pastor who led him to Christ. In no time, he was singing in a church chorus and becoming a church officer.
The Perrys sold their home and moved to Phoenix in 1993 and immediately became active in the Fisher Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. For 12 years, they have led the church’s visitation ministry, accompanying their pastor and a team of laymen to senior homes with goodie bags. There they sing, give hugs, pray, talk to residents and hold church services.
“The people love every minute of it,” said Anna, who wears a baseball cap with “Jesus” on the back, “JC” on the front and a pin-on cross for good measure.
A trip to the Holy Land and being baptized in the Jordan River were a crowning moment of their lives together, they say.
Perry said he picked the “prodigal son” title for his book because he kept on the move all his life. “Something would be greener in the next town, the next country.” And when he was “broke or raggedy or hungry,” he turned around and came home equipped with a world of experience that served him well.
“Sometimes incidents or accidents will cause us to stop,” Perry said. “In a period of time, we stop, then take inventory. How far did we come? At what speed did we move? Were we in a hurry? Was there common sense?”
In the end, he calls himself a survivor. “You do what you think will help you to live another minute or so.”