St. Petersburg, Florida — When the sun rises, Al Nixon sits for his impromptu therapy sessions. Nixon isn’t a trained therapist — he actually works for the city water department. But in the early morning hours, he’s a trusted confidant and counselor to whoever passes by.
“He knows everything about me,” said Renee Rutstein, one of his regulars.
Rutstein said she didn’t feel weird sharing her secrets with a man on a bench “because he’ll never judge me and he always shoots me straight.”
Bernadette Dorset-Mills said she has never met a wiser man. “He’s like the guiding force,” she said. “He’s not judgmental and he takes you for who you are.”
Nixon, however, doesn’t do a lot of talking during the sessions. “Listening is the number one skill all mankind needs to know how to do very well,” he said.
It’s a skill he has clearly mastered.
When Nixon started coming to the bench seven years ago, the therapy was for him. He needed a quiet place to clear his head, and the last thing he wanted was to hear other people’s problems. But then a woman he had never met told him something he’ll never forget.
“She said, ‘Every day I see you, I know everything is going to be OK.’ And that made me realize that when you speak to someone, or you smile, you let them know, ‘I value you.’ And people pick that up,” Nixon said.
Sometimes he’s in high demand, Dorset-Mills said. “When I walk by, sometimes I don’t even get a chance to chat with him because there are other people waiting in line,” she said.
In appreciation of him, Nixon’s faithful put a plaque on his bench that said, “A loving and loyal friend and a confidant to many. Forever and always.”
“I teared up,” Nixon said. “That was powerful.”