Thursday, March 14, 2002

Walkers; Preacher Jack

Mister Garfield calls them "Walkers" in a recent email. He outlines a few examples of the walkers he's known in his time, and webituaries a Nashua character known for his bunny keeping skills.

It is strange he should send this, because just last night I was thinking of some of the "walkers" I have known over the years. I drove through Salem and Beverly after meeting with the people for whom I'm designing a website. Both towns have their fair share of walkers, and over the last several years I've seen them off and on, and wondered where they go and what they do when they aren't walking.

Here's an excerpt from Mister Garfield's email:

In earlier years, my hometown of Winsted hosted a disinherited race of street people, known collectively as "Walkers." Walkers were not G. Walker Bush's relatives --- they were people of no known address or employment whose only apparent reason to be was to harmlessly haunt the Winsted business district.

Crusty, a phlegmatic older gent with a neck brace who was widely rumored to have written the New Vaudeville Band freak hit "Winchester Cathedral" was the star, but there was also Scuzzy, a young derelict who often rode a bike with a banana seat: the Doty Twins -- who were actually Scattered Mom and Slattern Daughter; The Tree Lady, who blessed things with a sapling branch; and Russ Hazzard, a Vietnam Vet and drunk who carried a hatchet and often passed out beneath the bandstand in the park.

I mention this because Omer V. Lavoie, Sr, a mentally disabled man known as the Nashua Bunny Man passed away last week, and I feel a special fondness for this man I never knew. Omer "was a familiar sight in town, tooling around its streets with a stuffed rabbit on the handlebars of a four-wheeled scooter, dragging a wagon that held a plush gorilla." He was an amiable gent, and really popular with kids. He claimed to have lost his mind when "a television dropped on my head."

Mr. Lavoie raised and sold bunnies. His life was bunnies. "He loved them to pieces," said one Nashua businessman. "It was all he could talk about." His home was a sort of Bunny Fantasyland. A hand-painted sign shaped like a rabbit welcomed visitors. One outer shack was labeled Bunny Maternity House and decorated with plastic bunnies wearing pants and dresses, and the whole yard was littered with plastic rabbits and easter eggs.

Cleaning the hutches and caring for his lapidary friends was Omer's primary interest, though he managed somehow to father six of his own. Mr. Lavoie was often a mess, but the bunnies and scooter were always immaculate.

To a man who reminds me of home and who can serve as inspiration to Chris Geiger, who recently acquired her first guinea pig, "8.0."

Mr. Lavoie sounds familiar even though I've never seen or met him. I had intended for this to be my entry today, and was thinking of writing it last night, so getting Mister Garfield's email today made it even more timely for me to put this "remembrance" of walkers up.

When I worked in Beverly, there were mentally unstable, homeless, and addicted people who would walk up and down the street, just like the ones referenced above in Winstead.

The office we worked in was once a furniture store, and the whole front of the office area was glass, suitable for window shopping from the outside, and homeless guy watching from the inside. "We" was a gang of employees comprised of Morgan, my then boyfriend who shortly thereafter became my husband, the secretary Marian, Clayton, Harry (I could do a whole entry on Harry's exploits alone... but I won't), Jeff and myself. We would watch for these guys and yell out "Hey! There's [insert homeless guy nickname here]," and we looked forward to seeing them.

Your day was never complete until you saw all of them. It's kind of sick in retrospect, but the job we were doing was insipid at best, and we passed the time the best we could. Eventually we all sort of "adopted" a guy as our own, and when they'd walk by we'd yell "Hey Harry, there's your guy!" and everyone'd cheer. For me, it became a way of saying a prayer for my guy.

I felt bad that they were walkers like that, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. The kinds of guys that if the city of Beverly was hosting a major event would probably be put on a bus and dropped off somewhere. Or, they were guys that wealthier towns like Hamilton and Wenham probably DID put on a bus in the morning and drop off in Beverly to get them off the nicer tony streets and away from the people who couldn't stand to see them. So I'd pray for them when I saw them.

There were a ton of these guys, but three people who stand out in my memory very clearly.

We called the first guy "The Bear" because he so closely resembled one of the bears in Disney's Beartown Jamboree Jug Band... without the jug or the hat. He was my guy.

He had a slow, loping gait, seemed partially lame on one side, and so he could be seen coming for quite a ways. He would kind of grin maniacally while walking, shake his head, talk to himself. He had big teeth, and wore a green winter ski parka. He always had a cigarette going. He was prematurely silver, and I didn't think he could be much older than his mid-30s.

One day I was walking out of a luncheonette with a sandwich and pretty much walked right into The Bear. I was shocked. For the last year I'd been watching this guy and cheering for him... we kind of kept score of which guys would walk by the windows and get excited when we saw them.

So there I was, face to face with The Bear. He smiled at me and walked past. I was sort of relieved, and didn't know what to say... and was sort of stunned the way you are when you see a celebrity (reference my Topher Grace entry for example of the same). He then turned around and called out, "Hey..." and I stopped in my tracks. I turned around to see him, and he was smiling. "You work over there, don't you?"

"Yes..." the frightened rabbit narrator replied. "I do."

"I see you around. My name's Brian," and he stuck his hand out, and asked me mine. I replied and shook his hand and he smiled big, showing these huge teeth, and I noticed that his eyes were the darkest blue I'd ever seen.

"Have a great day..." he said and loped down the street. I ran back to the office to tell Morgan that I met The Bear, that his real name is Brian, and I was giddy. My homeless dude talked to me. All that time, he'd been watching us too. Morgan was especially psyched. He was very fond of The Bear. And we both thought it was hysterical that he was named Brian, because our boss was named Brian, and they couldn't have been more polar opposite from one another. So we found that very amusing... and we'd laugh whenever we'd have to go see Boss Brian for anything, because Bear Brian would pop into our heads. I still laugh when I think of that ...

Another guy was called "The Pink Panther," and I can't remember who he "belonged" to in the office ... He was skinny and had short, greasy, brown hair, bad teeth, and sunken eyes. We called him the Pink Panther, because he walked down the street one day with a 6 foot tall stuffed Pink Panther doll and it cracked the shit up out of all of us. He rode a bike around too. He came in the office one day because he'd noticed that a few of the sales guys would stand up not too far from the windows and throw pennies at the low wall below the windows while talking in kind of a street game. So he collected some pennies and left. He kind of creeped me out.

And the last guy burned into my memories was a true street dude, filthy, hair all matted and long, full beard, definitely looked older than he probably was, and he collected bottles and pushed a shopping cart around. I believe he belonged to Harry, for a specific reason. One day, Harry came out of the office and the guy was checking out his car, which was some late 80s/early 90s Pontiac or something "Bill Blass Signature Edition..." I guess Mr. Blass did the design of the interior or something and his logo was all over the place. The dude was checking out the car, and when he saw Harry he said, "this is a really nice car."

Harry thanked him, and in his mind made up a little scenario, that this man was really Bill Blass, fallen on hard times, and the sight of the car and logo brought him back a lot of good memories. Hence, the dude became known to us as Bill Blass. Of course.

I have no idea what ever became of Harry... Last time I saw him was in 1996 when he ran a road race in Marblehead. The runners gathered right by our house to start the race and he was there with his new wife. That was the last I've seen of him. Jeff got married and moved to New York or Atlanta or something, but it didn't work out. Morgan I've been in touch with... and Marian lives in Beverly still, I believe, and I've been meaning to get in touch with her and find out how she's doing.

When I worked in Salem, there was a guy who was about 350lbs who would wait at the bus stop with a Chihuahua under his arm. It was a sight. I don't know that he was homeless or what, he didn't look well cared for, and it was funny to see him with this tiny dog. I saw him for years, and most recently did see him when driving through Salem to go to Marblehead for some reason, about a year ago. I wonder if he still has the dog. What his deal is. I've always wanted to stop the car and jump out and say hello... I've noticed you and would love to know your story. What's your dog's name? How are you doing? I think about him once in a while, and I guess it's a way of praying... I hope he's doing well.

And there was a great honkytonk blues pianist named Preacher Jack who used to play bars in the area with a guy by his side named Sandy Berman.

Sandy used to own a blues bar in downtown Beverly but he fell on hard and nasty times and the once nationally renowned blues hall stood vacant for many years by the time I got into the acoustic music scene in the Boston Area.

We booked Preacher Jack at the coffeehouse one night. He was lanky, thin as wire, hair once red blonde was grey and red blonde, and he had a fire in his eyes and an intensity that I usually connected to someone who was an alcoholic, or currently drunk, but he wasn't. We apologized for the condition of the church hall's piano. But he didn't care that the thing was out of tune because "The Lord was going to speak through" him that night no matter what condition that instrument was in.

Jack put on a hair-raising, spellbinding, fire and brimstone, angels and devils, hardcore, deep, down, and gritty blues piano show and blew my socks off. The Lord certainly spoke through him, and I got to witness a shadow of the genius that was Preacher Jack. He was very into Elvis. "King Elvis!!!" He'd wail out while playing, as if channeling the spirit of the man... "The greatest! The King! KIIIIIIIING ELVISSSSS-ah!"

"Amen!" Sandy would yell... Sandy played the tambourine and acted as his Emcee, letting us know that the Lord was in the house, and Jack was his messenger. It was revival in spirit, and creepy and dark, and loud and funny all at once. If you can imagine.

A year or so later, I saw Jack walking around the square on Lafayette Street where rtes 1A and 114 diverge in Salem, unkempt, bearded, and preaching.

No piano.

I saw him several times over the next year, but haven't seen him since. Sandy had passed away, and I think that Jack lost his sane connection to the music scene, with no regular place to play, and no Emcee who believed in the power of his playing, he just sort of deteriorated. And again, like with the others, I wonder where he is today

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