Friday, March 17, 2006

Hickey Healy

In comments on a previous post, a friend mentioned Pythian Bowling lanes, and its matriarch, Louise Hinchliffe, Richie "Zisk" Drainoni, and other characters.

But, when I think of Whitinsville, I can't help but think of William "Hickey" Healy, known as "The Mayor of Whitinsville". When I was a kid delivering newspapers around town, Hick must have been in his 60s. If you prodded him, he always had a story about the "old days" in town. Whitinsville was once a burgeoning town, sprouting up around what was once the largest textile mill in the country, of not the world, "Whitin Machine Works". My dad worked there before I was born in the office, until he annoyed his way out of employment, as did most everyones relatives at some point or another. My brother Jon worked there, my brother Tim worked there in "Crib 5". Tim, like the guy that wrote "Dilbert" about his office situation, wrote a comic strip called "Crib 5 Funnies" which was extremely popular with Tim's friends, not popular at all with my mother, and grounds for dismissal from management. I loved "Crib 5 Funnies" because they were dirty, and well...funny.

But I digress... Hickey worked at "the shop" as it was affectionately known for thirty some odd years after the war (That would be WWII) and stayed in the town that had become his home. You could always see Hickey patrolling the sidewalks, tennis ball in hand. (I never knew it as a kid, but he carried it both to toss to teenagers, yelling, "GET IN!" and to maintain his grip.) He had a million corny one-liners that he would spit out on some sort of rotating basis.

He is the kind of man that gives character and appeal to small towns, full of vim and vogor and extremely unique. I would ask him what "Get in" meant, and he would shrug it off.

Hick was a little guy with a giant heart. Healy was a fixture around town, you could see him walking church street, visiting both bowling alleys, and hitting most of the establishments along the main drag. He ate breakfast or lunch at the local diner every day and sometimes quietly paid your check on his way out. He did a lot of little things for people and always kept his deeds to himself.

I remember when I was a bit older, oh say, 19 or 20, and I worked when I wasn't in the stock room at Thom McAns for a kid I played basketball with. Hick would catch a ride with me to the Auburn Mall and disappear for the three hours I was unloading stock, meeting me back at the mall later. He never said a peep, but he would go to the mall with me, take a bus to St. Vincent's Hospital and visit the elderly that had no family or friends to visit them. He would pray with them, make them laugh if he could and just be a presence for someone that needed some human contact.

Hick would sit in the back of the church at the funeral of old folks in town and pray quietly. Looking back, I guess I could always see that Healy was a spiritual man, though he never once mentioned anything about it to me, he simply embodied it in his daily life. I recall how he would find the silver linings and find ways to encourage me or point out something good that I had thought, said or done when I was down on myself.

He may have done it, but I can't recall this man talking negatively about anyone. There was an old lady, the aforementioned Louise Hinchliffe, who worked at one of the local bowling alleys. This lady was an incessant complainer, she was absolutely non-stop with gripes about everything from mustard to politics to television. Grousing was like breathing to this woman. Myself and a few of the local teen degenerates made a small living from playing pitch at that bowling alley, and had had more than a few run-ins with Louise.

Her favorite saying was "go pound sand."

I was throwing her under a bus one day to Hickey, and he said, "Louise is a very lonely lady. You've got a lot of friends... maybe she needs a friend."

This was one of the most absurd things I had ever heard, but I said "what the hell" and invited her to come to the track with me. She complained about not having money, about how bad I was probably going to drive, and wanted to know what I was up to, "why are you asking ME to go...what do you want?"

She came, and we started to go once per week together. I drove the speed limit and stayed in my lane, but Louise found a way to ramble about this that or the other thing and groused the whole ride, there and back.

When she lost a race, she would whine, when she won a race she would say "it's about time" or "is that all that paid?"

After a while, I asked Louise why she complained so much, and didn't she ever enjoy herself?

She caught me totally by surprise, "sure I do... I love to bitch. If I'm not bitching, something's wrong."

I was much impressed by her honesty, and it really let me relax and just let her be who she was, and not feel like I had to do something about it. Hick's simple kindness opened my heart to opportunity to be a friend to this old lady that really needed one. It was so easy to dismiss her as an old nut-job and avoid her. What most amazed me was that she had never really liked Hick or been nice to him at all.

It was a completely foreign idea to me that you could show kindness and love to someone that didn't like you simply because you chose to be a kind and loving person. I began to wonder if this guy was like a small town Ghandi or something, had he ever just been a jerk like I was?

When I was about 22, Hick would occasionally take a ride with me to the dog track, where he would bet $2 one several races and I would generally lose my paycheck. Driving home one time, I got distracted tuning the radio and Hickey gasped, I looked up just in time to lock up my brakes and stop just before rear-ending the car stopped in front of me. Hick was visibly shaken, but even then he composed himself.

I was apologizing all over the place and swearing to pay better attention. "I could have smashed that car and hurt us both Hick, I'm so sorry..."

"But you didn't hit him you stopped in time, right?"

I had never been spoker to that way by someone 70 years old, he gave me the benefit of the doubt. He somehow knew he didn't have to "I told ya so" me, and his simply forgiveness was incredibly effective when it came to getting me to pay attention while I was driving him around from that point on.

On one of those trips to Lincoln Greyhound Park, Hickey figured I was older enough to hear the story of "Get in!"

When Hick was a young guy, like all young guys in Whitinsville, life was well, BORING. As a teen, I was always looking to get out of town, go to other boring little towns and tell myself there was something exciting going on somewhere.

Woonsocket, for kids from Whitinsville, was a big town, with lots of crazy stuff going on it the likes of which Whitinsville had never seen. There was a particular area of Woonsocket where prostitutes congregated, and the lads from the small town would go chat them up, heckle and usually run away.

There was one particular lady of the evening named Rosie. Rosie was built like a linebacker and worked her profession like one, too. Rosie was best known for being out in all kinds of inclement weather. Pouring rain, sleet, and even snow would not keep Rosie off her street corner.

These guys would rive 30 minutes in a driving rain storm just to see if Rosie was working her block. She was almost always there, and they would simply yell at her to go home and get out of the rain, "Get in Rosie, GET IN!" Then they would drive home.

Man... was Whitinsville dull.

I appreciated him telling me that story for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it was funny as hell at the time, secondly; it meant he trusted me, I was a grownup, I could handle it. I also had thought that he was saintly, and he was willing to show me that he was once a stupid kid like me.

I can honestly say that this man walked through his life undaunted the entire time I knew him, at least as far as I could see.

When Hick was about 72, he got throat cancer. They did what they could, but in the end, he wasn't going to make it, and he knew it. He would still walk Church street, but now he would occasionally accept a ride instead of enjoying the walk. He would also have to wear a sweater all the time, even in July, to keep warm. He walked around carrying "Ricola" drops in his pocket and would give them out, and say, "these things are great". He would sit at the diner with a bowl of soup in front of him that he couldn't eat. I would ask him he was every time I saw him, ask him what I could do for him, and he would without fail smile and say, "oh I can't complain" and he never did.

Bill Healy died the death of the just. He was content, peaceful and had no regrets.

I sat in the back of the church, right where William "Hickey" Healy had sat for so many funerals, and sobbed. Even then I knew I was really crying for myself. I wish I could say they were tears of gratitude for having known Bill, but they weren't. I was struck by the deepest sadness I had felt since my mother died when I was ten years old.

As a kid, my heros were football players and rock stars, people everyone loved. I though that the key to happiness had to be getting as many people as possible to adore you. This small town man who lived humbly and quietly showed me a wonderful way to live. It took decades to sink in, but my heros today look a lot less like Robert Plant and a lot more like Bill Healy. Hick's simple daily lessons have hopefully taken root. It appears the key to happiness is not so much about acquiring admirers, but learning how to love people.


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