“I call it ‘life rising’ because watching a sunrise makes me feel centered before starting my day,” said Nixon, 58, who works for the St. Petersburg water department. “After the first few times, I decided to keep going to the bench to sit every morning at 6:30.”
About a year later, a woman stopped to say hello, and she said something that changed his perspective on his daily ritual.
“She said, ‘You know, every morning when I see you sitting here, I know that everything is going to be okay,’” Nixon recalled.
“That’s when I knew: I needed to pay attention to the people walking past,” he said. “I needed to make eye contact and let people know that we mattered to each other.”
Instead of staring straight ahead at the waterfront, Nixon started smiling at people and striking up conversations. And pretty soon, more than a few early-risers began joining him on the bench, sometimes even unburdening themselves to Nixon, who was by then a familiar face.
As Nixon would sit contemplatively on the bench, they would open up to him about their lives, asking him for advice about relationships, careers and personal problems.
“I was happy to listen,” Nixon said. “I wanted them to walk away knowing they didn’t have to feel alone.”
Since then, he has continued his morning tradition for about two hours a day, seven days a week, weather permitting. His presence and his openness to listen have made him a celebrity of sorts in St. Petersburg, where some locals have nicknamed him the Sunshine Mayor.
“Al is that sunshine,” said Noni Kerr, 53, a retired phlebotomist who first stopped by Nixon’s bench in 2018. “If I could talk to him every day, I would. Everything he says comes from the heart.”
Whatever anyone tells him stays at the bench, noted Dee Glowa, 58, who met Nixon while she was out strolling with a friend three years ago.
“He listens without judgment and without any kind of return expected,” she said.
“Al is this calm, constant presence, day in and day out,” said Jeff Franzen, 63, a retired real estate developer who met Nixon while taking a walk along the waterfront a few years ago. “His unique gift is that he listens to everyone.”
“The pandemic had everyone quarantined and connection-deficient,” Franzen said. “Yet for those who ventured outside and walked past Al’s bench, they were greeted with a smile and asked how they were doing. He’s truly the de facto mayor of St. Pete.”
In appreciation, some of Nixon’s friends and admirers anonymously installed a plaque on his wooden bench two years ago.
“Al. A loving and loyal friend and a confidant to many,” it reads. “Forever and always.”
“I was stunned when I saw it — I felt honored,” said Nixon, who regularly posts photos of favorite sunrises on his Facebook page, as well as quotes such as, “It’s really how we feel about ourselves that makes us treat others good or bad.”
“When you’re in your 50s and 60s or beyond, a lot of people feel their purpose hasn’t been fulfilled,” he said. “I’ve never really felt that way. But I do know that at this stage in life, this is definitely my purpose.”
Nixon said he was born and raised in St. Petersburg and now has three grown children and a long-term significant other who is also a good listener.
Every morning, he rises at 4:30, puts on a fedora and sits on his front porch to sip a cup of coffee and clear his head before driving seven miles to the waterfront downtown, he said.
“You have to have an open heart and an open head, because you never know who’s going to walk up and what they might need,” Nixon said. “Every person who stops by the bench deserves my undivided attention.”
While most people simply wave or drop by briefly to make small talk, others are anxious to step into his “office” and spend a few minutes with someone who will listen, he said.
“During the pandemic, there were lots of people who lost someone they love,” Nixon said. “Last year was my most difficult year because there was a palpable anxiety that people carried around and needed to release. I was glad I could put my mask on and be here for them.”
Whether a person wants to share financial problems or a broken heart, Nixon said he has an open mind.
He remembers the day a couple stopped by the bench to talk about problems in their relationship.
“The husband was always working and was rarely home,” Nixon said. “It was ruining their marriage. I told him: ‘My friend, if your lady’s revelation didn’t scare you, then maybe the possibility of losing your wife will. At some point, you have to be okay with yourself and know what’s really important.’”
The man admitted he’d poured everything he had into his job for decades instead of focusing on his family, Nixon said.
“He started to cry and agreed that he needed to slow down,” he said. “We all hugged each other, and we became friends after that. I still see them every now and then over lunch.”
No topic is off limits, Nixon noted, but some people sit down and don’t want to talk at all. They simply want to sit next to someone and share the silence, he said.
“A woman stopped once and said, ‘I just want to sit here with you,’” he recalled. “We stared at the water for an hour, then she said ‘Thank you’ and walked away.”
“She just wanted a moment of peace and to know she wasn’t alone,” Nixon said. “And in that moment, in that hour, on that morning, she truly wasn’t.”
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