Ricky Smith is searching for someone.
Dressed in jeans and a black shirt with lettering that reads, "Caution: The person wearing this shirt performs Random Acts of Kindness Everywhere," he's circling the block around 2100 Lakeside Avenue, a men's homeless shelter in downtown Cleveland operated by Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry.
He's looking for a person to help.
"I try to find the loner," Smith says, driving his black Ford Explorer on a second trip through the neighborhood populated with nondescript brick buildings. "It's usually a guy really upbeat or looks like it's his first time being homeless."
At East 20th Street and Hamilton Avenue, he pulls up to a man with sandy blond hair pulled tight into a ponytail. He's walking alone.
Smith rolls down the window. With a barstool-rehearsed pickup line, he says, "What's going on man? Are you hungry? Do you want to grab a bite to eat?"
Maybe it's Smith's warm smile and sincere delivery. Or maybe the man is hungry. But tentatively, he replies, "Uh, all right," and gets in the car.
"What's your name?" asks Smith.
"Carl," the man says. Carl Engelhart III.
"You're not weird or anything, right?" Smith jokes.
"No," Engelhart says. "I was actually thinking the same thing about you."
"Carl, I do this thing called Random Acts of Kindness, where I just do nice things for strangers," Smith says. "What type of food do you like? Do you know any jokes?"
Smith plans to take Engelhart to Target to buy him food, clothes and toiletries. But at this juncture, Engelhart has stopped talking, and Smith can sense his passenger's discomfort.
So he pulls over and does what comes naturally. He tells a joke.
"How do you make a tissue dance?" Smith asks. "Put a little boogie in it."
Engelhart is silent — his hand resting on the SUV's silver door handle. Smith turns in the driver's seat to look at him.
"Why did Tigger look into the toilet?" Smith asks. "He wanted to see Pooh."
In a hushed, life-worn voice, the 52-year-old Engelhart replies. "Just for the record, I'm a writer."
"You write your own jokes?" Smith asks.
"I write actual books," Engelhart retorts. "I'm a real strong essay writer."
Smith puts the car in drive.
"I'm terrible at anything over 22 pages," Smith says. "I'm actually a comedy writer. Do you need any toiletries or anything? Like an outfit? Blanket?"
"Clothes. Yeah," Engelhart replies.
Smith, 37, is a cynic and self-professed jerk who became a social media celebrity five years ago with a life-of-the-party personality he refers to as Drunk Ass Rick. It started on Facebook and migrated to Twitter. He spun the moderate fame into a writing gig for Adult Swim's Black Dynamite. But he's also the always-grinning founder of R.A.K.E., or Random Acts of Kindness Everywhere, a nonprofit he started more than two years ago after a string of setbacks including a divorce. He's crisscrossed the country four times since then, using social media and his ability to connect with people and make them laugh to spread kindness — from buying Starbucks for the person in line behind him to playing the kazoo for sick kids. And his message is beginning to find its own legs. This month, Smith is using his connections with ridesharing service Uber and friends he's made throughout the U.S. to give 31 makeovers to people in need in 31 U.S. cities.
"Do you trust me to give you a makeover?" Smith asks Engelhart. "We can dress alike and buy matching shirts."
Engelhart, a skilled laborer with tool-and-die and computer numerical control experience, tells Smith he's been homeless on and off for three years. He spent time in jail on various theft and drug charges, which has kept him from getting a job. "They're not real receptive to felony background," Engelhart says dryly. "Shit happens man. It's a random example of how anybody can end up here."
"Favorite music, Carl?" Smith asks to lighten the mood.
"Heavy metal. Machine Head," he says.
"I have never heard of them. Give me a song," Smith says. "I'll pull it up."
"Play 'I'm Your God Now,' " Engelhart says.
"Is it like, death metal?" Smith asks. "The most I can go is like Rolling Stones."
Engelhart hasn't heard this song in a couple years. He takes his hand off the door handle for the first time since getting in the car.
"I had to sleep in my car for like a year," Smith says, as he pulls into the West 117th Street Target parking lot. "I went through a bad divorce. I get it. It's not about me buying you something. It's the fact that, Carl, hopefully it gets you inspired for another day. That's the honest-to-God truth."
Smith met Shayla Gaither on her fourth day in Cleveland. She was studying to be an anesthesiologist in the U.S. Navy and had moved here in 2005 for a residency at University Hospitals.
Smith was attracted to her intelligence and drive. "I told her within 30 minutes of meeting her that we would get married," Smith says. For most people, that's a crazy thing to say to someone you just met. But Smith's ability to approach anyone and say anything often pays off.
They got engaged in 2008 and married one year later in Las Vegas.
After the wedding, they moved to San Diego, where she'd been assigned by the Navy. Smith, who had been running his own events marketing company in Cleveland, looked at the move as an opportunity to finish college and go to cooking school.
"Cooking is creating something," Smith says as a big toothy smile comes across his face. "It's an intimate thing."
But he didn't go to cooking school, and Gaither was deployed to Haiti and Djibouti, Africa, in one year, leaving Smith alone in an unfamiliar city with nothing but a couple odd jobs. So he went out and drank. He took to social media to share his drunken exploits such as taking 10 shots of vodka in one minute. Drunk Ass Rick was born. "It's almost impossible for somebody to be saving the world, and then your husband is alone in San Diego doing shots," Smith says. "If we had moved to D.C. or were in Cleveland still, I have no doubt in my mind that we'd still be married."
Nineteen months into being married, Gaither told Smith via Facebook message that she wanted a divorce. She kicked him out of their apartment the day she came home from a deployment and served him with divorce papers two weeks later.
With nowhere to go and no full-time job, he began sleeping in his car.
At a bar in San Diego a month after moving out, Smith ran into San Diego Charger Antonio Garay, a former Cleveland Browns player and acquaintance from his days hosting parties in Cleveland. Garay told Smith to come live with him. Smith grudgingly accepted.
Although he'd grown up in a two-bedroom house in Warrensville Heights, his parents sacrificed to send his sisters, eight and five years older than Smith, to Northwestern University. They sent him to University School, where, in an effort to break out of his introverted shell, he became the school's first black student body president.
This wasn't the position he expected to be in.
"I was embarrassed for my mom and dad," Smith says of what had become of him in San Diego. "You don't want them to feel like their son is lost out in the world."
About a year before the divorce, Smith's hilarious pop culture rants on Twitter had caught the attention of a Comedy Central executive who encouraged Smith to move to Los Angeles and pursue a career in comedy writing.
Although unwilling to leave San Diego at the time, Smith decided he didn't have anything to lose. He studied the craft, commuting almost daily between San Diego and LA.
He tried stand-up for the first time at the L.A. Improv's open mic night on Valentine's Day 2012. "[I] didn't know it was Valentine's Day until I was at Kinko's faxing divorce paperwork over at like noon," he says.
It was then that Smith moved out of Garay's house and briefly into the LA home of actress Tichina Arnold, the Martin and Everybody Hates Chris star who he randomly met on a trip to New York in 2011.
"I know how it feels," says Arnold, who moved to Hollywood from Queens, New York, to pursue acting in the late 1980s. "Making a move or being at a place in life where you want to change, you need change."
In LA, Smith did background work on shows such as CSI: NY, where he played a cop. It didn't pay well, and he ended up living in his car again, but it got him onto TV sets.
"Hollywood homeless is what it's literally called," Smith says. "Because everyone does it."
On the set of a TV pilot in September 2012, Smith was introduced to Carl Jones, who created The Boondocks animated series. The two got along well, and two days later, Jones offered Smith a writing job on Black Dynamite, a new animated show based on a 2009 Blaxploitation parody film of the same name. It was his first real break in the entertainment industry.
Smith's run of good fortune, however, was short-lived. Four days before his first day on Black Dynamite, his car was stolen. He got a bicycle to get around, even losing weight from all the pedaling. But five months later, the bike was stolen outside of a nightclub.
"Who gets their bike stolen outside of a club?" he asks sarcastically.
Distraught and with $25 to his name, he walked into a Little Caesars Pizza, bought five pizzas and handed every slice out to homeless people.
"Basically it was an F U to God," says Smith, whose lone tattoo is the outline of a crucifix on the back of his right hand. If he gave everything he had away, he rationalized, there would be nothing left for God or anyone else to take.
"I posted it online and people started doing the same thing," he recalls. "It blew up."
Outside the Agora Theatre and Ballroom, Smith is onstage hyping about 3,000 fans of Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly for his late August music festival. He's dressed in jeans, that black "Caution" shirt, a backward Cleveland Cavaliers hat and a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors that look like slices of pepperoni pizza — his favorite food.
Smith has a decade on MGK and even more on most of the kids in the raucous crowd, a mass of mostly white kids with tattoos, piercings and mohawks. To an outsider, his message of kindness might seem out of place here.
With nothing planned or rehearsed, Smith introduces himself and R.A.K.E. Then he brings a fan wearing a Golden State Warriors hat onstage.
"We got a dunk tank over here," Smith says into the mic. "Chris has a Warriors hat on. He don't know where he at right now."
Smith leads Chris and three people from the crowd over to the tank and pays for everyone's throws. The Warriors fan ends up all wet, but Smith gives him a high-five.
With a red Solo cup of Jameson Irish whiskey in one hand and his iPhone 6 in the other, Smith is hard to keep up with as he moves through the crowd and poses for selfies with anyone who wants one.
An MGK fan from Indiana wants to buy Smith a beer. Smith repays the fan's kindness by saying he'll arrange for him to come backstage and meet MGK when the tour stops in Indiana this month.
Before heading back to introduce another act, he looks out at the crowd from beside the stage. "Normally, like the comedian — the stage guy — in me is nervous," he says. "I feel nothing at all. Because I can't lose. It's not my demo."
This is his chance to get the message of kindness to a younger audience, and he fully admits to using the rapper's stage to reach them.
"I want to be on Ellen, but those are soccer moms," Smith says as he mimics a golf clap. He points out at the crowd. "These are the people who will change America."
He runs onstage and leads the crowd in the theme music from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
But he's fighting back exhaustion. He hasn't been sleeping well. He's been on the road for nearly two months, part of that touring with Machine Gun Kelly.
By day, he and MGK have been performing Random Acts of Kindness. They drove an ice cream truck around Detroit handing out free scoops and treats. In Charlotte, North Carolina, they visited sick kids at a children's hospital.
By night, he's the hype man, keeping the audience entertained between sets.
Today is his last date on the tour for more than a month. He's looking forward to sleeping in his own bed, and taking care of his career (in a week he's flying out to Hollywood to pitch a pilot), his nonprofit and his health.
His always-on lifestyle — partying all night and giving everything he has all day — is beginning to take a physical toll. So he has a few doctor's appointments on his schedule, too.
"I have spots where I'm losing hair," he says, momentarily removing his hat and pointing to his head. "All from stress. So who knows what's going on inside me? This tour has been harder than the cross-country trips."
His first R.A.K.E. trip came in August 2013 — with the help of social media followers — a month after hitting rock bottom at Little Caesars. He visited 17 cities in 17 days. Then 30 cities in 30 days in summer 2014. Then 40 cities in 40 days last winter. He scaled back to 32 cities in 32 days this summer right before hitting the road with MGK.
For this month's 31 makeovers in 31 cities, someone in each city will pick a homeless person, a kid going through a rough medical treatment or just someone down on their luck and take them shopping or to get a shave and a haircut. An Uber car will drive them around for free.
"My mom gets really nervous," Smith says. "It started off just giving sandwiches. Now it's, What can I do to top that shit?"
At 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday, the Velvet Dog in downtown Cleveland's Warehouse District looks like some hungover alien landscape. The sun is streaming in, the overhead lights are turned on, but it still feels dark and cavernous.
About 150 volunteers are making more than 500 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and packing them into lunch bags with cookies and chips for homeless people. It's called Hashtag Lunchbag, and Smith's friends originated it in LA. He's organized 24 here in Cleveland.
At 6-foot-3 and with a booming voice, Smith is the draw, moving like a beacon through the room. First-timers always want selfies with him. Kids follow him around. When he wanders close, people periodically stop what they're doing to tell him how funny he is or how much he has inspired them.
He's here to entertain. When he sees a tiny sandwich about to be bagged, he grabs it and holds it above his head. "Who made this?" he shouts barely holding back a laugh. "This might be the smallest sandwich in Hashtag history!"
While Smith keeps everyone laughing and smiling, Vince Caringi, a University Hospitals child psychiatrist who had been following Smith's acts of kindness on social media, keeps things moving. He rushes a loaf of bread to a sandwich station or stashes completed lunch bags in boxes.
He's seen pictures of Hashtag Lunchbag events in other cities that have more people, but he's impressed by Cleveland turnouts.
"[In] proportion to the size of the city, we have a lot more," Caringi says. "It's Midwest kindness."
Smith wants R.A.K.E. to be a functioning nonprofit. It's 501(c)(3) status is still pending. His rakenow.org website, which accepts donations and sells R.A.K.E. shirts and wristbands, brings in about $550 a month. The money pays for things such as Hashtag Lunchbag or the Random Acts of Kindness Smith performs on his cross-country trips, such as buying gloves, coats and blankets for homeless people in frigid temperatures, toys for sick kids or simply paying for the groceries of someone in line behind him at the store.
Smith estimates that at least once a month for more than two years, he's taken a homeless person out to lunch or dinner or shopping. When there's not enough money from the nonprofit, he pays out of his own pocket.
Political and social struggles aren't exempt from Smith's efforts to spread kindness. At the height of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, he and two friends traveled to the city and handed out bottles of water to cops and protestors alike.
But Smith lives R.A.K.E. daily, even if he doesn't realize it. At a restaurant, he's not satisfied until the waiter or waitress walks away with a smile from a corny joke. In a store, he can't walk past an employee without giving him a high-five.
He seems to be the only person capable of doing what he's trying to do. But therein lies the soft spot in Smith's tender heart.
"When you have a business that only you can run, it's bad for the future," says Lenny Berry, Smith's friend and sometimes business consultant. "He has to move people into position to help him branch it out so he doesn't get burnt out."
Smith wants to set up satellite R.A.K.E. offices in other cities.
"I would much rather be Ray Kroc than Ronald McDonald," he says.
With no wife or kids, Smith's time and money are free to devote almost entirely to R.A.K.E., but it comes at an emotional cost. "My worst moments are when something great happens, and I want to share it with a wife," Smith says.
"It's a lonely thing," he says after a moment. "But instead of being depressed about it, God or whatever you believe in, made me free to do this, and I'm going to do it until who knows."
Even in the two years Smith has been doing his random acts, the impressions he's made on people weaves a surprising trail.
Revere Woods, a 34-year-old Cincinnati man with cancer, was depressed and suicidal when he met Smith. Now, he performs his own Random Acts of Kindness and has Smith's cellphone number if he's ever feeling down.
Mike Frelich* was temporarily homeless in late fall 2014 when Smith took him to dinner at Bo Loong — one of Smith's favorite Cleveland restaurants. Smith posted about it online, which resulted in Frelich getting a job as a dishwasher at Hodge's. He was able to buy a car, get off the streets and now lives in an apartment in Akron, where he works for a window manufacturer.
Kari Cupp, who's 11-year-old daughter Raegan suffers from a severe form of juvenile arthritis, met Smith in 2014 while her daughter was receiving a biweekly treatment for her condition.
"He just hung out with Raegan and her sister for a couple hours," Kari says. "They danced and they played games and laughed."
Raegan now wants part of her upcoming Make-a-Wish to include a hashtag. She wants people everywhere to perform Random Acts of Kindness and post them using #RaegansWish.
"Ricky lit a fire in my girls about helping people out who maybe aren't having the best day," Kari says, "whether it be a kind word, a little bit of money or something somebody may need."
After buying Engelhart about $120 worth of T-shirts, jeans, socks, underwear, a razor and Skittles, Smith has permanent smile on his face. He's in the midst of one of his favorite R.A.K.E. moments, because Engelhart asked for a book: Paris Match by Stuart Woods. In two years of R.A.K.E., no one has ever asked for a book.
A voracious reader with a Cleveland Public Library card, Engelhart tells Smith about one of his favorite books as they drive to Engelhart's stepbrother's house to pick up a bicycle.
"Clive Barker wrote a book called Weaveworld," he tells Smith excitedly. "It's sick. Oh, my God. It'll change your life. Trust me."
"Thank you Carl," Smith says. "Now you gave us some stuff back. See how it works? We buy you Skittles, you tell us some books to read."
Engelhart, lets out a deep cackle.
It doesn't last long. When the subject of photographing him for this story comes up, all of his pent-up anxiety about Smith's motivations spills out.
"It's just really f---ing embarrassing," he says. "[I'm] like a homeless hobo guy and they took him shopping and dressed up the f---ing pig in a silk hat."
"I don't do a thing where I dress up a pig," Smith says. "It's not taking a homeless guy, giving him food and putting him back on the corner. That doesn't help me out. That doesn't help you out. I'm trying to show people that we all get in f---ed up situations."
Smith parks the car on the street near the stepbrother's house. This is where they part ways. But Smith has one more Random Act of Kindness. Engelhart only has a simple cinch-style bag. It's not big enough to hold his new belongings.
"I'm going to give you my favorite book bag in the world," Smith says.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Engelhart asks.
"We are friends now, dude," Smith says as he empties the black backpack of happy birthday pencils and kazoos. "I'm trying to make sure I get all the weird shit [out]."
With a plane flying over, Smith and Engelhart fight back becoming too emotional. But the situation is not lost on either of them.
"It's taken bigger and bigger things to remind me that things can actually be better," Engelhart says.
"Stay up man," Smith says. "Good things happen when you keep your head up. And be good to that book bag."
"I will treat it as though it's mine," Engelhart says.
"It is yours," Smith says.
"Hence the joke," Engelhart deadpans. Both men laugh and hug.
Smith gets back in the Explorer and watches in the rearview mirror as Engelhart heads down the street.
"You see how this shit can be addicting?" Smith asks. "How can I stop? Nothing beats the one-on-one human reaction. No check I could have written for $120 to any nonprofit could have done what we just did."