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.

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