Home February 2011 On the Lighter Side

On the Lighter Side

I am completely and utterly obsessed with Ted Williams. If you don’t by now know the story of the “Homeless Man with the Golden Voice,” then you’ve probably been living under a freeway onramp – in which case, you in particular might want to get hip to this.

Twenty years ago Ted Williams developed a drug addiction that reduced him to a homeless felon. But he’s got this Voice. This great, booming radio voice that he perfected when he was a teenager. A Voice that he thought would be his ticket to stardom. Instead, it earned him the street name, “Radio Man,” among the thieves and prostitutes he considered his friends.

One day, Doral Chenoweth III, a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch saw Williams on the side of the road holding up a sign advertising his God-given gift of voice and decided to talk to this guy. On video. The footage goes viral, and now Williams is the voice of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

It’s an only-in-America scenario: The man goes from homeless to household name literally overnight. He’s on late night talk shows. He’s reunited with his mom after 20 years. He’s been promised the former home of LeBron James by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have also offered him an announcers’ job.

But it’s not the rags-to-riches aspect of this story that has me glued to my computer screen. I’m hooked – completely and utterly – by how perfectly Ted Williams personifies teshuvah.

Teshuvah, is often translated as “repentance,” but it really means “turning” – specifically “turning back to one’s self.”

We’ve all made mistakes, some with dire consequences. We’ve hurt people. We’ve lied. To see someone like Ted Williams – who claims to be two-years sober – reminds us that the damage we’ve caused, no matter how horrible, is often not irrevocable.

Julia Williams, Ted’s 90-year-old mother, said she first heard from her grandkids that her son was panhandling. The hurt was too much to bear.

“I’d wake up and see him and that sign and I’d say, ‘Why? Why? What has happened here?’” she told a morning show reporter. “To do this, it’s a hurting thing.”

Drug addicts are, at the root of it all, liars. They lie to themselves. They lie to others. And they do it expertly. But on this count, Ted Williams is not covering up the truth. He admits to committing crimes, neglecting his kids, his grandkids and his mother. He admits to being a drug addict and to throwing away a Voice that he credits G-d with having given him.

By admitting his mistakes – and even admitting that this newfound fame makes him want “to take a nerve pill” – Ted Williams is showing a remarkable amount of humility and repentance.

Only time will tell if he’s really “turned back to himself.” But the signs so far are good: When he reunited with his mom, he didn’t address her as “Mom,” or as “Julia.” He called her “Mommy,” a term he probably hadn’t used since his pre-drug childhood.

When I watch Ted Williams I don’t see a strike-it-rich story, I see a story of basic human redemption. The kind we all hope is out there for us, no matter how great or small our transgressions. I see that if we are truly sorry, we can be truly forgiven.

Joseph Telushkin, quoting a thirteenth century rabbi wrote, “With whatever part of the body he sinned, he should now engage in good deeds. If his feet had run to sin, let them now run to the performance of the good.”

The same voice that told 20 years’ worth of lies is now dubbed “Golden.” But it’s going to take more than a velvety sound to make that moniker stick. It’s up to Ted Williams to do true teshuvah to make that Voice of his really Golden.

And I’m rooting for him.

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