This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for many people in my life. First and foremost, my family and friends, and all the small business owners whose support has kept my business, The Bollard, in business for another year. I’m also grateful for all the great writers, artists and photographers who contribute to my publication, but this year one stands out from the rest: “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley.
For the past five years, Billy has written a seasonal column for The Bollard called Fishing in Public. It’s ostensibly about recreational fishing on the Portland waterfront, primarily the Maine State Pier, but that subject obviously has its limits — either they’re biting or they’re not. The brilliance of Billy’s column is in the anecdotes and stories he tells about his life, and in the way he writes, which is just like the way he speaks — an unfiltered, profanity-polluted stream of consciousness, with a blunt and occasionally brutal honesty. There should be a sketch of Billy in the dictionary next to the adjective “irascible,” but his temper is tempered with good humor and flashes of generosity and compassion one doesn’t expect from crusty old foul-mouthed fishermen.
I witnessed such a flash this past September, after Billy was a guest on The Bollard Podcast. Aside from writing his column (for which, I’m sorry to say, he’s paid a pittance), Billy doesn’t have a steady job that I’m aware of, and he sure as hell doesn’t drive. So I picked him up at his low-rent apartment building in Parkside and brought him to the home of podcast producer Dan Bodoff, who lives in the Riverton neighborhood, off outer Forest Avenue.
Billy has no idea what a podcast is. He’s basically computer illiterate. He writes his columns by hand, in a shaky script scrawled on scrap paper that over the years has included letters from subsidized housing agencies, methadone clinics and the like. He prepared for the podcast by bringing a big can of low-quality, high-test beer. It was 11 a.m. on a Thursday.
Dan’s pre-school-age son was home that day, and Billy was delighted to meet him. He loves kids, but has none of his own, and relishes the opportunity to teach youngsters how to fish. Before we left, he asked Dan and his son if they ever went fishing and was told that they do so very rarely and don’t have their own poles.
On the drive back into town, we passed a guy standing on a median with a cardboard sign. This reminded Billy of the time, years ago, when he’d stood on a median with a sign asking for money to buy Christmas presents for the children of a woman he was seeing.
When I dropped Billy off at his apartment, he asked me what street the Bodoffs’ house is on and said he wanted to bring Dan and his son “a present.” A true fisherman, Billy says a lot of stuff you’ve gotta take with a grain of salt, so I didn’t think much of this comment until a few days later, when I got a text from Dan. He’d come home to find two fishing poles leaning on his front porch and had no idea where they’d come from. Billy had taken a bus to outer Forest, found the house and left two of his spare poles for this father and son he’d known for all of about an hour.
The column Billy gave me for the October issue of The Bollard just wasn’t up to snuff. A friend of his had just died, and he’d been down in the dumps. Plus, the fishing season had been a disaster — he hadn’t caught anything — so he had nothing new to say. I didn’t publish that column or contact him to get one for November, since the season was over. But a few days before the December issue went to press, I remembered Billy’s story about his Christmas median miracle and gave him a call to suggest he tell that tale.
Billy sounded groggy and said I’d woken him up. It was quarter after three on a Wednesday afternoon. He wasn’t happy when I told him I needed the column by Sunday but said he’d give it a shot.
The column he handed me the next morning is one of the best he’s ever written and one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve published all year. True to his style, it has no style and not a shred of sentimentality. He simply tells the story like it was — hard and humiliating, but ultimately triumphant. I’m deeply thankful that he did.