Thursday, September 10, 2009

RIP Bill Hilton 1921-2009

Irving Liss, the long-time owner of Hlton's Tent City in the North End died on Tuesday. Everyone who knows Irving and knows this is true must be saddened by his passing. I did not know Irving as well as the many young men and women who worked for him in the past 62 years, but I am happy to think I knew him well enough to call him a friend, and just well enough to be allowed to write something about his passing. I am not an authority on the man and I know that the people who gave speeches at his funeral yesterday knew him much better than I did, but he was my friend and so I feel I must write something.

What to say about such a man? Irving was a great business man with a heart of gold. That's a rare combination. Many whose hearts are of gold are (as a result) terrible at business and many good businessmen and women are rotten human beings. So what should I write about--how proud I was when I told him that I'd taken the GMAT? The time sold me my boyfriend's birthday present for 1/3 it's listed price? (I was prepared to pay full retail for it. He grumbled about how expensive it was and gave me a discount saying "you're a very sweet girl to get it for him.") The way he was still cracking jokes in a bed at MGH after they'd opened his head three times?

Instead I'll tell you two stories--one about the first time I talked to Irving and one about the last time I talked to him.

I first heard about Hilton's Tent City through a couple of friends of mine who worked there. It was like the Filene's Basement of outdoor gear (with the atmosphere of an indie bookstore or coffee house). And even if you don't hike much, if you live in New England you need outdoor gear. It sounded like a great place. I called to talk to one of my friends one night. The guy who answered the phone said "Yeah?"

"Can I talk to Sean?" I asked.

"Well maybe. Just hold on a second wouldja?"

I got put on hold. When Sean picked up the phone I said "you need to talk to whoever it is who answered the phone. They need to work on their retail phone manners."

Sean said "That was the owner."

The last time I spoke with Irving was a few weeks ago. He was doing well. He was talking a bit-although he was hindered by a dry throat. He took my hand and asked "Have you had your lunch?" It was such a small thing-an almost indefinable thing (Tolstoy could explain it better than I can) but the way he took my hand and asked a mundane question in the same way that all of my older relatives (especially the ones from MA) would have done set me at ease and made me wonder how I could ever have felt awkward visiting. All of the concerns I'd had previously--"What am I doing here-I don't even work for the guy-aren't people going to think it's weird-doesn't *he* think it's weird?!"- went out the window. It was as if he'd said. "Oh good-you've come."

On that occasion, Irving was more talkative than I had seen him since before the first of three surgeries. He said his throat was dry, but they sold some chocolate ice cream downstairs that would be just the thing to make it feel better-oh and they had these great chocolates-about the size of Susan B Anthony dollars-could we get these too?

Sean and I were confused. As far as we knew the North End rehab hospital didn't have a downstairs that sold chocolate ice cream. "Maybe he still thinks he's at MGH-with the cafe in the basement." said Sean. We asked at the front desk about the possibility of purchasing chocolate ice cream downstairs and were told that yes they sold chocolate ice cream downstairs, but no we couldn't buy any because we weren't patients.

There was a convenience store we could visit--they might have chocolate ice cream. The convenience store turned out to be the Connah Store in the North End. There were pictures of the pope taped up on the wall and the proprietor's cat was sitting on the counter impeding customers from handing over their money. But we found some chocolate ice cream.

When we got back we tried to explain the situation to the woman at the front desk. No we weren't patients, but we were trying to buy something *for* a patient--might she send someone down to look for chocolates the size of Susan B Anthony dollars? "I don't know why they put the vending machines all the way down there where no one can see them." she grumbled and went in search of our chocolate.

Of course, it was important to us to find Irving his chocolate, but we also felt it was important to let Joan have him all to herself for a few minutes. So we didn't care that we'd had to go down the block and were now waiting on the nurse from the front desk.

We brought this in to Irving along with a spoon and he had at. I will never forget the sight of him sitting there in his hospital bed eating chocolate ice cream with a single-mindedness that precluded caring about whether he got melted ice cream on the Globe or on the sheets, or-for that matter most of what we were saying as he sat there.

Joan asked him to put the ice cream away so that he wouldn't spoil his appetite for dinner and we all looked guilty as one of the nurses aides came in-we were afraid she was the dinner service. So we did finally put the ice cream away (when the dinner came I came to the conclusion that he had better have eaten the ice cream.)

I don't remember what we talked about that afternoon and evening. We had the Sox game on--Irving always asked for that. We probably discussed Ikea and the difficulty of buying a mattress, my new iPhone, the computer Joan had gotten that Sean was going to set up for her soon, the postcard Kenny had sent from Yellowstone Park and several dirty jokes.

Toward the end of the evening Irving got grouchy and frustrated "Maybe I'll jump out the window!" he yelled. And while I hated that he was yelling and making Joan cry, I took it as a good sign. I thought that he must be getting better if he was together enough to be bored and frustrated.

He also asked for a piece of paper and a pen and started writing things down. He wrote down the date and the room number and the telephone number of the room "Call this number and make sure I got it right" he said. I took this as a good sign too--maybe he was going to be able to talk on the phone again.

I kissed him on the cheek and told him I'd see him soon.

I meant to see him the next day. I bought him a notebook in which to write things down-things to remember to ask Joan or the doctor. I gave it to Joan to give to him. But with one thing or another I never managed to get back to see him.

I was standing in Battery Park with a backpack on--I'd just gotten of the Staten Island Ferry and I was about to go look for the little Dutch village I'd heard about (New York's 400th anniversary) before going to Penn Station to get the train back to Boston--and Sean called me to tell me that Irving had died that morning. He was crying. He knew (as we all did) that Irving was rapidly getting worse. But he had thought (as we all did) that we had a little more time-just enough time to see him once more-maybe another week.

I wandered around stunned. I tried to pray and decided I was not together enough to manage an actual prayer (some things are important enough that you have to talk to God-even if you're not crazy about the protocol that you learned for doing so) so instead I wandered around a bit and then got on the subway to start making my way back home and preparing to say goodbye to my friend Irving.

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