“Mysterious Bill” by Harry Kuhn

One day last year, as I waited for a bus, Bill walked by. I had not seen him much for a few years and it appeared his condition was deteriorating. He was a touch over six foot with greying hair and a full unkempt beard, thin now and gaunt looking. His clothes were dirty to the point of looking greasy and he walked with the hint of a limp as his upper body leaned into each step and then rocked back. Always tanned, he spent his days outdoors walking or looking for places to sit outside. I said hello but he seemed not to notice me, only mumbling “Hi how’s it going?” as he kept on his way.

There was a time when Bill and I knew each other quite well and were often seen together. He had been a bit of a loner when we met. Mutual friends had asked me to assist him with some basic living chores so Bill and I met regularly to gather his clothing and do laundry and then I would take him to a local grocery store to shop. We also both were regulars at The London Coffee House where I volunteered and did some part-time work. Bill began to offer his help there at snack time, taking a tray of cookies around to each person once a night. He was there all the time and he came to be almost an ambassador for the place with his outgoing, non-judgmental, friendly way. Everyone knew Bill. He laughed a lot and would share his unusual points of view in his easy going style. He was featured in some of the United Way’s promotional material on the Coffee House during fundraising season. On one occasion, the United Way sent a crew to film us on trips to do laundry at a spot owned and run by a local tavern. I was told the agency rep complained to the Coffee House director that Bill and I swore at each other so much that it was offensive. We both laughed about that. Bill would take part in trips and events run by the Coffee House as well, and there are many pictures of him posing with groups of people who also took part. I was there the day he was presented with a certificate from the United Way thanking him for his volunteer service.

His point of view was different but always interesting. When a volunteer group was cleaning the building that housed the Coffee House, he told the director that he did not see a point to it as it would just get dirty again. A new winter parka was purchased for him one year and the first time he wore it he had a bad slip on some ice. He refused to wear the parka again insisting it was responsible for the mishap.

Eventually, I was no longer able to assist Bill and the Coffee House director took over. He was extremely fond of her and the arrangement worked well for a while. But Bill continued to have difficulty keeping a residence. Cleanliness was most often the problem. Finally he did not have a place of his own and had his clothes done for free and was able to take a shower at an outreach agency nearby. The director made sure he was seen by a nurse when he needed to be and meals were delivered and kept at the Coffee House for him. The staff would daily take one to him as he sat on the steps outside.

He resisted more and more vigorously any attempts to help him, though, and his appearance grew worse along with some realities of not living anywhere. Bill walked endlessly along the main street but still had a couple of steady friends. He had been spoken to about his physical condition by the staff of a number of places he might otherwise have been able to go for some relief, but would get angry and refuse to return there rather than practice the necessary hygiene.

When I left the Coffee House I did not often see Bill except to notice him trudging along Dundas Street, alone. Not long after the last time I saw him while I waited at the bus stop, I received word that Bill had been found dead. I never knew where Bill had grown up or who his family were. He never said. I didn’t know anything at all about his background, actually. Despite his appearance the last few years of his life, to me he was always the guy who was quick to laugh, sympathetic to anyone who was upset, took pride in the service he did as part of the Coffee House community and most often greeted me by calling me a son of a b—- and breaking out in laughter. When I think of Bill, this is who I remember. A  guy I liked but knew nothing about. Mysterious Bill.

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