Thursday, January 26, 2017

Where's Willy?

I've been in Redding for almost 15 years. When I arrived, it was to become a partner in one of the coolest, feel-good projects around, helping bring downtown back from the dead with Jefferson Public Radio's restoration of the Cascade Theatre. 

Because I spent so much time waving the flag for downtown revitalization, giving interviews about our fundraising projects and progress, I jokingly called myself 'the Mayor of Downtown' a couple of times. And then someone set me straight. Somebody else already held that title.


Everybody knows Willy. He's the guy that sat on the bench at the corner of Market & Placer for years upon years, with a greeting for anyone who waved, and a joke for anyone who got within earshot. He was easily recognized by his Gandalf beard and wide brimmed hat, long coat (even in the summer) and tobacco pipe. 

We've known each other casually for years. I get to work, and there he was, sitting and smiling, waving and chatting with anyone who was interested in engaging him. Every time I ever spoke to him he was intelligent, pleasant and full of humor. He would tell me that he was listening to NPR on his headphones, and never never let me walk away without telling me a joke.

People call him Homeless Willy. And he was - homeless - for awhile. Well for a good long while. But how he got that way is quite the story (which I'll tell). Doni Chamberlain - back when she worked in newsprint - wrote a great article about him when he was going in-between sleeping at the mission and in an old car in the backyard of a generous friend. But several years ago, he got some help and was able to get into a low-income apartment nearby. So he wasn't technically homeless anymore. I gave him a ride once from Safeway to his apartment, which was just a few blocks up the hill. And I want to stress that Willy didn't ask me for the ride. I offered. Because I like him. Willy has never asked me for anything. He's not a panhandler. A friend slipped him a $20 once at Marketfest and told him to buy himself dinner. Willy brought him back the change. He's that kind of guy. 

Then Willy disappeared.

I don't know when he stopped coming around.  But I first realized that he was missing when I went over to talk to the man sitting on the bench out at the end of the street, thinking it was Willy, and it wasn't him. It was another guy. Gray hair like Willy, but a much shorter beard. And different hat. At first I thought Willy had gotten a haircut and a beard trim. But no. I asked him if he knew where Willy was, and he said he'd never heard of him, but that his name was also Will. Not Willy. 

I really don't know why curiosity didn't get to this pussycat until just recently, but a good long time went by before I finally started asking around about Willy. And I'm a little embarrassed about that. But once I started asking around, I couldn't stop, and it became kind of an obsession.

I started with the mailman. I knew he delivered to the apartment complex Willy lived in. He told me that he wasn't there any longer. And hadn't been for awhile. I started asking friends. I posted a photo on Facebook from the story Doni had written 8 or 9 years ago and asked if anyone had seen him. Nobody had, but everybody knew who I was talking about. 

I went on the internet, and plugged in his name. I knew his full name, I knew the year of his birth. And because I knew that, I was able - in pretty short order - to find out that he has a lot of relatives.  On Facebook, I connected first with a niece he'd never met back in Illinois, who connected me with a sister and finally his brother.

His brother told me some fascinating things. Willy (his family members call him Bill) was a DJ at a public radio station back in the days when public radio was just getting going. Maybe that's why I like him so much. He was also a brilliant electrical engineer, who joined the Navy during the Vietnam era. When he returned he married, had a daughter, married again, had two sons, and ended up in Sacramento, as an Engineering professor at Cal State.

Then his world, his head and his motorcycle were shattered in a hit & run accident that left him in a coma for over a year. The driver, says his brother, fled the country to avoid prosecution. When he awoke, he had no job, no more insurance, and brain damage. According to his brother, it was "years before he was able to walk, talk, read, write, eat or take care of himself."

Willy ended up in Shasta County, where his parents had relocated. He lived with his sister, who was raising her own children, but at some point there was a falling out. His parents also passed within a few years of each other, and eventually Willy was out on his own. His choice. He was able to find a place to lie his head because of the generosity of people who gave him a spare space, whether it was the mission, a garage, a sofa or a car in the backyard. But that was how he existed for many years. Everyone knew where he could be found during daylight hours, and that's where his family would find him.

But suddenly, I couldn't find him anymore. And my search to find Willy led me on an interesting path. I brought up the subject at dinner parties and book club. I need to be careful about how I frame some of this because I don't want to get anyone in trouble, but let me just say that I used every resource I had to try to dig up some information on him. I'd heard a rumor that he'd passed away. So I worked hard to dispel that one. I pulled some strings with funeral homes. Police officers. Firemen. Government agencies. The VA. The Mission. There were lots of people who couldn't "confirm or deny" anything, but basically let me know that they hadn't seen him, and he wasn't in their system. But that was also good news, because no death certificate had been generated either. But where was he?

Finally, after two weeks, I posted a Facebook query on the Redding Crime 2.0 page. Within a few hours, of posting to a site with more than 17,000 followers, I had the answer. Somebody said they saw him by a Chevron. Someone else said he was still on the bench where he's always been. Somebody else said he'd been spotted on Lake Boulevard. And then somebody said that they knew somebody who had been visiting a relative in a nursing home, and had been surprised to see him there. 


It took all day to get the name of the facility, but I was finally able to, and within a half hour I was at the front desk of a nursing home just a few blocks from my house, having a laugh with Willy once again. He says he's been there for a year and a half (I think it's been 7 months, but I'm not dickering with him over it).

I'm just happy that he's alive and doing well.

He was surprised to see me, but we sat down in the lobby and chatted and laughed for an hour and a half. He is as eloquent and sharp as ever. I didn't press him for the details about why he went to the hospital, but he tells me that's where his coat and pipe disappeared. In a way, that's probably good news because he no longer smells to high heaven of pipe smoke. His beard is so long that it has reached Dumbledore status. He no longer wears a leg brace, but he does have a walker. He's bright eyed, cheerful as ever, and regaled me with ridiculous jokes the whole time. He wasn't wearing the leather hat with the braid around the rim that was his trademark for so many years. Because he's not, its easy to see the palm sized chunk of skull that's missing under his scalp from the accident so many years ago. 

He told me about the accomplishments of his children, and the meaning of the number 22 in his life, and how his father was a bus driver and learned most of his jokes from his passengers. I told him about the meaning of 21 in my family, and how my great great grandfather was the superintendent of the Austin horse-drawn street car system. 

I don't how Willy could possibly be any more humble than he already is, but when I started reading the posts from people on Facebook expressing concern for his well-being and his whereabouts, he was deeply moved. "To hear how much they love and care about me makes all the difference in the world," he said. And he meant it. He also wants everyone to know that he plans to return to that bench when he's feeling better. So keep a look out for him.

On a sad note, he did tell me that things are strained enough with his family that although he appreciates their concern, he's not interested in them currently knowing his whereabouts. And I promised that I wouldn't divulge his location publicly, but I did tell him that they might be able to figure it out on their own. And I'll let them know that he is alive and doing as well as a brilliant man with brain damage and a sense of humor could be doing.

Today is the only day that Willy Armes has ever asked me for anything, in the 15 years I've known him. After we took a selfie, and hugged, he thanked me for visiting him, and asked me, "When are you going to come and visit me again?"

This has been one whirlwind of a day, but somehow a playlist with some appropriate songs came to mind (but feel free to suggest some more). And thanks to everyone who helped me figure out where Willy went.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Great Cassette Purge of 2017

My husband and I have a serious difference of opinion when it comes to stuff. He calls me a hoarder, and I think he's way too quick on the draw to throw things away. I like to keep things that I think I might need someday. A purple feather boa, a bottle of orange finger nail polish, an earring that lost its mate in 2002, that self-help book about finding true love that someone gave me after my divorce that I never read, and boxes and boxes of cassette tapes. You just never know what that stuff is going come in useful, right?

 Meanwhile, I think my husband throws away stuff we should be holding onto. Several pairs of perfectly good socks, an ice scraper, two squeegees, and a never used faux snakeskin bible cover were all tossed last week. He admonished me when I pulled out one of the squeegees, but less than 24 hours later, we were using it to remove snow from my car, so was I feeling pretty vindicated.

 But for the past two weeks, he and I have been working together as a team to systemically go through every cupboard, desk, shelf and box in our house in a major effort to purge items that we just don't need.

Gone are half burned candles covered in dust. All those VHS tapes I recorded movies onto during HBO free preview weekends aren't taking up space in my living room anymore. No longer living in a cupboard in my dining room is the red skull shaped drinking mug filled with plastic black widow spider rings I got at the Dollar Tree for one of Sophia's childhood Halloween themed birthday parties. I went through my closet and took every skirt, blouse and sweater that I haven't worn in 10 years, and filled up 5 garbage bags. That polka dotted bra with the underwire poking out? In the trash can, along with 4 or 5 half emptied bottles of moisturizer and some lipstick that I haven't worn since before the mortgage crisis of 2008.

Then Eddie summoned me down to the basement, into the room with the sacred bins. The bins that have fallen into the untouchable category, stacked in a corner, not to be messed with. Granted, some of the totes were filled with my clothes (from the last time I weeded out every skirt, blouse and sweater I hadn't worn in 10 years), but most were filled with baby clothes and toys that I've been saving for the day my daughter has a child of her own, and artwork from her youth. Her first attempts at writing her name, a calendar she made in the first grade, and a painting of her future garage band.

Thankfully, he agreed with me. These things are staying right where they are. After all, that little blonde girl in pigtails in the bottom left hand corner of the painting? She's actually playing the guitar now, which I think she's trying to depict in her art. Someday this might be the cover of her first album, and all because I saved that watercolor from 2005. I'm also pretty sure her firstborn, male or female, will one day be sporting the green Carhartt overalls I've been saving since she grew out of them at age 5.

Then the bin filled with VHS tapes was hoisted onto the table for me to go through. Most of them got chucked out, but the entire day came to a grinding halt when I started coming across the home movies that had been stuck in a box, forgotten for years. As you probably can imagine, when I made home movies with my kid, there was usually a plot, some kind of artsy cohesion, or at the very least a music montage. When her pre-school teacher Heather got married, I gathered Sophia and her classmates together in a church and filmed them trying on suits and dresses and walking down the aisle in my wedding veil and heels. When Sophia and her friend made cookies, we turned it into a tutorial, "The Chocolate Chip Cookie Show." When she was 2, she and her friend CeCe went on a treasure hunt to find money so they could buy hot chocolate in "The Treasure Seekers." This is just a taste... pigtailed Sophia and CeCe, after finally discovering their treasure on the beach, head to the local coffeehouse.

I sat for hours and watched each one, because of course I haven't thrown out my VHS recorder. And once Eddie sat down and started going through the memories with me, he knew right away. These things must stay.

When we got back to the business of going through boxes again, the next item on the chopping block was a bin filled with cassette tapes. Actually, there was more than one bin. I'm not talking about pre-recorded cassettes, although there were several hundred of those. Remember the George Michael tape I just wrote about a few weeks ago? It was in there. It's gone now, along with all the rest, disposed of during the great cassette purge of 2017. I'm talking about the special cassettes I will never get rid of. My debut on the radio back in 1985. The songs of humpback whales I captured on my next door neighbor's boat when he invested in a hydrophone. A recording of me speaking Greek with my boyfriend when I lived on Crete in 1989. And the answering machine messages. I have an entire shoebox filled with cassette tapes filled with incoming messages from 1988, when I bought a Radio Shack answering machine, until I finally retired the thing in 2002. Although truth be told, I still save as many voicemails as my iPhone inbox will hold. And I've even transferred a few into my computer. When Eddie and I got married, I included one of them into the song that played when I walked down the aisle, and it still makes me cry every time I hear it.

And finally, there was one more cassette tape that I came across that brings a flood of memories back to me every time I rediscover it. It's a cassette I originally came across when going through my grandfather's artifacts; the items he'd whittled down to a few small boxes of letters, some photographs, jewelry, a coin collection and the cassette.

The tape is the first audio recording of my voice that I know of. I happen to still have a (barely) working cassette deck at home too, so I plopped in the tape and relived my childhood all over again in one half hour. I was 8, and had a slightly southern accent (perhaps because we lived in Missouri for a few years). The tape was a verbal letter to my grandparents. In it, I went into detail about how two girls at school had suddenly decided not to be my friend, and I didn't know why. I told them all about the presents my other grandmother had sent me for Christmas, and how much I liked the perfume, but was perplexed at the bottle of underarm deodorant I'd received. I turned the mic over to my 6 year old sister, who told my grandparents that she loved them more than the scale weighed. The other side of the cassette features my sister and I singing several patriotic songs with my grandmother accompanying us at the piano, introduced by my grandfather. It brought back memories of all the summers my sister and I spent at my grandparent's dancing to the radio in their kitchen, and all the elaborate theatrical productions we came up with in the years before cable TV and Facebook to keep us busy. And it reminded me of how much I loved my grandparents, and how much they loved me.

As you can probably imagine, going through the memories of 50 years took a pretty big emotional toll on me, but I'm so glad I did it, and so glad I'd saved so many relics of my childhood, of my daughter's childhood, and even the insignificant moments of those in between years caught on tape forever on my answering machine.  Its a forever reminder of who I am, and how I developed, and the people who weaved in and out of my life over the course of 5 decades. Lovers and friends, coworkers and roommates, and those who have moved on to another realm, but I still have their voices to remember them by.

Today's Great Cassette Tape Purge of 2017 playlist captures some of the favorites songs of my childhood that came to my head last weekend on my memory expedition. Don't laugh. I'm sure the songs of your childhood - as weird as they may be to anyone else - bring happy tears and a smile to your face too.