I graduated from Cape Cod Community College in the spring of 1969 and transferred up to Salem State. My high school classmate Ricky Fleming was in the same circumstance, and we found an apartment together in Marblehead. I hitchhiked back and forth to and from the college.
Maybe a couple of months after I’d started at SSC – where I began as a Junior in 1969 and finally graduated in 1974 – I answered an announcement for potential disc jockeys at the college radio station and got a position. I was given a Sunday afternoon one-hour time slot to begin. This was in a small room down on the basement level of the student union, and the station itself had the signal strength to carry radio waves as far as both the boys and girls dorms and not much farther.
My first show was all Beatles all the time. I still had most of my brain cells then and put together a lovely weaving and connected-ness of Beatles songs from between the years ’63 and ’69, say following “I’ll Be Back” with “Sexie Sadie”, “There Is a Place” with “No Reply”. Just before my hour came to a close a young kid with long hair appeared before the corridor window and knocked on the door. When I opened it he asked if I was the one playing all the Beatles music and I said I was. He said “great show” or “fucking fabulous” or something and I thanked him and we shook hands. The next day we ran into each other sitting on the wall or walking in front of the union and introduced ourselves, and who knew we would become best friends, amigos, multiple times roommates, and ongoing conspirators in the never-ending fight against “the Man”.
We went to a whole bunch of concerts together. We went to lots of political events together. We did a lot of drugs together.
Last night I went to bed early so as to talk with my wife Susan — just after 9pm, the end of the day in which we celebrated our nine-year marriage anniversary. After a while we both began nodding off and then my phone pinged quite loudly as it does when I receive a Facebook message. I turned the phone on and without my glasses squinted at a text from Carmin MacDonald – Billy’s daughter – informing me that her Dad had passed away last Saturday night. I rolled over and woke Susan and told her and I have mentioned his name so many times in our 10 years together that she knew, and I sobbed a little. Six hours or so later, 3:17, I woke up from a dream with people I didn’t know and I was telling them about Billy dying and one of the guys burst into tears, and I got up and sat in a chair in the dark living room for just 12 minutes and then came down here to the basement to write about my friend Billy.
Yesterday morning when I woke up, on my wife’s and my anniversary, I could count on seven fingers the names of the people in my life I truly give a good god damn about – people intrinsic to my very core. Today I only need six. Not long after meeting up with Billy the day after the Beatles I moved in with him and David Parr into a third-floor apartment on Kosquisko Street in Salem, Another time I lived with Billy and Mike Mason down at 102 Derby Street, two houses up from the “Pig’s Eye” bar where I spent a lot of time and from which I could crawl home. Billy and I lived on Orange Street. Billy and I lived on North Street. Billy and I couch-surfed at my parents house in Wareham, at my sister’s house in Barnstable. I called him in 2003 or something when I suddenly became homeless after a break-up and crashed for a week with him and Carmin at his brother’s house in Cambridge, which he was up from Costa Rica to paint.
Costa Rica – at some point Billy had made the move down there, got married and had a kid and would live there nine months out of the year and come back to Massachusetts every summer and paint houses three months and make enough money to live the rest of the year. He wasn’t crazy about his wife, and they eventually divorced, but he was forever raving about his daughter. He mostly stopped drinking and using drugs about the time I did.
Just yesterday morning, as Susan and I were walking through the woods at Breitenbush on our brief anniversary getaway, I told her the story of Billy calling me late September, early October 2001 and telling me he was down on Martha’s Vineyard painting his brother’s newly rebuilt vacation house and there were only two weeks before his paid-for plane ride back to Costa Rica and he was desperate to get the work done. And was there anyway in the world I could stop my life and get my ass down there and help. As it turned out, I had recently left a Director-level job at the Merrimack Valley YMCA and was painting with a small crew made up primarily of active junkies and I said yeah for sure. I grew up maybe 30 miles from the ferry in Woods Hole that takes you to the Vineyard but I had never been there once in my life. A couple of days later Billy met me in Vineyard Haven and drove me in the shitbox he was driving way out to his brother’s house at the far end of the island and other than commuting home every weekend to see my sons in Lowell, living with their mother after we had separated, I stayed the two weeks with Billy and then two more months after he left. Eventually the house was painted.
I told that story to Susan yesterday out of the clear blue. Maybe it was coincidence. Maybe it was some degree of prescience. Maybe it was simply that Billy was one of the few foundational humans in my life so why wouldn’t I be talking about him. And then, 12 hours later, I heard he was gone. He stopped coming back to the states more than 15 years ago, so I hadn’t seen him in a long, long time. We stayed connected through email, sometimes Facebook. The pictures above are lifted from his Facebook profile. I for sure have some pictures of him in a big box of pictures behind the recliner upstairs, pictures almost surely drug or politics or other counter-culture related. Maybe I’ll look later and post one. In a little while I am going to reach out on FB to some folks I know would want to know. People loved Billy.
I was lucky enough to be one of them.