SALEM — For more than a decade, Walter Levesque has quietly brought some color to a city park bench. But his efforts aren’t just a couple chrysanthemums here, a bunch of baby roses and orchids there, or a batch of florets to beautify a public space.
Levesque’s “couch,” as he calls it, is a message to the heart of anyone walking in Salem Common: Remember those you’ve lost, love those you haven’t, and make sure you stop to smell the roses.
“In order to get respect, you’ve gotta show respect,” Levesque said this week, standing near a bench on the Common, along South Washington Square, with flowers he had attached to it a day earlier. “This is what my spirit is telling me to do, because I know there are hurting souls out there that need this — so I want to put it forth while I still have energy.”
Levesque, 57, a lifelong Salem resident, has been decorating the bench since 2006, a tradition he started in order to bring a smile to a life partner, whom he declined to identify. His arrangements appear on the bench at least a dozen times each year, and, in fact, the bench frequently pops up in photos on social media from visitors at the Common who are unsure how the flowers end up there.
At times, people have also been known to associate the display with the nearby O’Donnell Funeral Home. Others, Levesque said, often stop and pray at the bench, thinking it is a memorial.
To a certain extent, it is. But it’s just as much a message of hope, he explained.
“It started partially because of the opioid epidemic, and partly because I have a life partner directly involved with it,” he said. “Where we were homeless so much, it was a Houdini act — and there was only one way to get through to them and others, saying that they’re safe, and somebody is still thinking about them.”
So each morning whenever he could, Levesque would pop into a nearby hotel that offered free coffee to Salem’s homeless before the hotel’s guests typically started their day. He’d get a copy of the newspaper, and he’d leave the two items with flowers on the bench.
“There’s your coffee. There’s your paper,” Levesque said, pausing as he choked back tears and labored to put words together. “You’re still loved and cared for. Stop going down the bad path. Pick the good path.”
The message was also designed to give a sense of normalcy to people whose beds are covered in dirt and don’t have roofs over their heads — a community of homeless that Levesque has in the past moved in and out of, he explained.
“Like with all humans, we all have insecurities. We all have self-blame, self-doubt, and some of it is piled on more than others,” he said. “At least we have some sense of normalcy. We just got through sleeping on the ground, so it’s any sense of normalcy to make you feel like everybody else.”
‘It just makes me smile’
As time went on, the bench became a routine. He even took requests from those familiar with his work. Levesque’s early morning jobs with area florists would leave him with donated flowers in some cases, and often he bought more prized arrangements using his own cash, he said.
In time, Levesque also started calling the arrangement his “couch.”
“This is more interesting than any TV show I’ve seen or anything on YouTube. You can sit right here and watch the world go right by you — and it does, and people appreciate you sitting here,” Levesque said. “To me, this will always be my living room, because it’s better than any living room I’ve ever had. You know?”
These days, the arrangements also carry a theme. The bench this week boasts red, white and blue foiled decorations timed with the Fourth of July, and one more setup is expected on July 9 before the hot summer days make for poor flower weather. The displays will return just before Sept. 11, according to Levesque.
Few know who’s behind the display, but it is one that plenty of people notice.
“As long as the weather is good, I walk around the Common, get some good exercise,” said Suzanne Schneider, a resident in the Common neighborhood. “When I see this... it just makes me smile to see all these beautiful flowers, that somebody takes the time to do this.”
A message of support
Police Sgt. Harry Rocheville, who leads the department’s Community Impact Unit, can also appreciate the display as “support that can be given to folks suffering from this crisis,” he said. The unit he leads deals directly with the city’s homeless population and those battling opioid addiction.
“We have a mental health clinician embedded in the community, a peer support specialist, as well as a homeless outreach specialist,” Rocheville said. “If you told me I’d be driving around with these folks 30 years ago, I wouldn’t believe it.”
But that’s the situation today, and the bench helps communicate a message of love and acceptance to those lives scarred by addiction.
“I don’t think people realize there’s a core group of individuals we’ve been trying to help for the last 12 years that don’t want it, reject it, and those are the same folks we get the complaints about,” Rocheville said. “Maybe this is the best way to get the message out. Walter is doing something that’s uplifting to him, and hopefully, it’s touching other folks as well.”