Friday, November 25, 2011

R.I.P. Black Cat Bill

UPDATE: Washington City Paper Reports that William Turner (aka Black Cat Bill) is still with us. I'm glad to hear it, (and moderately embarrassed).

Then again, who the hell reads this blog anyway? I was a little skeptical, but I wrote what I felt.


Sad news, my friends.

DCist is reporting that Black Cat Bill has passed away. Details and official confirmations remain hard to come by, but from what I understand, employees at the Black Cat are the source.

Anyone who ever spent more than a few nights at D.C.'s greatest punk rock club knows Black Cat Bill.

Whether you every actually bothered to learn his name or not, Bill was a fixture on 14th Street for....Jesus, I've been running around down there for about 15 years now, and he was outside the door of the club the very first time I set foot in the place.

Warm, good-natured and friendly, Bill was a homeless man best known for greeting the club's patrons with his infamous baritone cheer, "BLACK CAT, BLACK CAT! A little spare chaaaaaaaange for the homeless?"

Half carnival barker, half goodwill ambassador to 14th street hispters, Bill was always pleasant and charming. And he was always grateful for whatever people were willing to share with him. In the heat of Washington's summers or the dead of its winters, I never knew him to be anything other than a gentleman, even when the elements were far less friendly.

Over the years, I'm happy that I had a number of encounters with Bill. A few stand out on this evening in particular.

One night I stopped on the way into the club to ask how he was doing, and he gave me his standard answer:

"I'm doing ok for an old guy...But as long as I keep watching you young folks, I get a little more energy."

And he smiled that infectious smile of his.

Another night I slipped him a buck and asked him how his night was.

He raised an eyebrow. "It would be a lot better," he shot, "if everyone was as generous as you are."

Quite the charmer, he was.

Once, in late August of 2005, I passed him at his regular spot.

"You doing ok these days?" I asked.

"Yeah, I'm doing ok," he responded. "I know I'm doing a lot better than all those poor people down in New Orleans."

I fumbled for something to say, and failed. Here he was, homeless, unkempt, and most certainly struggling with addiction, and counting his blessings nonetheless.

But the one evening I will never forget, was the night he offered a kind word to a drunken, tearful young woman who had stomped out of the club in a huff.

For his efforts, she spat at him that she didn't need his advice, at that, "at least I'M not HOMELESS! I have a JOB!"

There was a silence on the sidewalk for half a beat. I remember being so goddamned angry.

But before I could say or do anything, Bill spoke up for himself, h
is tone even but most deliberately measured.

"I know you're not homeless," he said. "And I'm happy for you that you're not."

I was speechless. At a moment when the only thing I wanted to do was chase that little brat into the street for all of her ugliness, Bill chose dignity. But he made his point, nonetheless.

I guess I wanted to defend him, which was ridiculous under the circumstances. Bill had bigger problems to worry about than the new wave of spoiled little drunk girls that was soon to take over 14th Street.

The past few years, Bill would disappear for long periods of time. Every time it would happen, I'd get a little nervous....God knows what could happen to an aging homeless guy -- even one that everyone seems to like.

The last time I saw him it was New Years Eve nearly two years ago.

He looked bad. He must have lost 70 pounds....perhaps much more. He looked tired, and for the first time in all of those years of chatting with one another, he seemed sorry for himself.

Heart disease, high blood pressure and gangrene in one of his feet were among the ailments he ran past me. I just couldn't believe how low he sounded.

I squatted down next to him, and gave him a few bucks and some words of encouragement that felt insufficient in every way. He gave my hand a shake, looked me in the eye, then draped his other hand on top of mine. He held on tight.

"God comes first," he told me. "Your family comes second. You come third."

And then he started crying.

"God comes first," he repeated twice, as he gathered himself as best he could.

The moment seemed to last a long time. It was intimate, and it was painful, cruelly juxtaposed against the bars letting out on New Years.

It is not how I will choose to remember Bill.


I suppose that it is entirely possible that the reports of
Bill's death are false information. And I hope that they are. Perhaps the outpouring of mourning on Facebook and Twitter will serve as a needed reminder that homeless people are, in fact, human beings with names and lives.

But either way, take some time over the holiday season to follow Bill's example and try to be happy for all that you have and all that you've been given. Even when life just sucks.

And if you can, spare a little change for the homeless.


Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful set of rememberances.I had a very similar casual friendship with Bill. In the early days he would take a break from the line and we would walk over to Macdonalds for a burger, He even came in the club once to see me play. I always looked forward to catching up with him and never minded if that kept me outside past the first couple songs of the set of any band I'd come to see. He was as much a part of the night out as anything. I also watched the same trajectory from charming, generous, devil may care, to fragile, paranoid and deeply scared. The stories about his serious ailments, his struggle to get out of the shelters and into a subsidized apt. His disappointment about how far away that apt ultimately was when it came through ... And how dangerous the neighborhood was. One of the last time we talked he was very low. He said young guys in his new neighborhood were stealing from him and I needed to help him get a big dog. At this time Bill was leaning heavily on his walker and likely living in housing that didn't allow pets. When I reasoned with him about why that might not be a good idea he began to cry. It made me feel helpless about the enormity of the challenges he was facing and the trajectory of choices that led us to that corner. I just held his hand till the wave passed and wished the answers were simple. I saw him other times when things were not so blue but he never fully regained that affable charm. And then, I didn't see him and felt that same catch of fear.
I can hear his voice in my head right now like he's sitting in my room with me now. If heaven existed, i half believe maybe he and I would see one another on more time on the way in. And maybe...since, for much of my life heaven has always been a great punk rock club, it will feel familiar and welcoming. I hope that's how he felt when he passed.

t-o-n said...

Good news! WCP reports that Black Cat Bill is still alive!

t-o-n said...

To be updated when i can do so without being fired....