New Yorkers pounding the pavement every day on their way to work have grown accustomed to the city’s homeless population. Sometimes spare change is given, while other times eyes are averted as the commuters dutifully board trains and buses to their jobs.
When William “Broadway Bill” Bateman died on a bench near the Bayside railroad station Aug. 24, residents in the neighborhood noted that even though he was homeless, Bateman was never one to cause trouble and was always up for a conversation about life.
“We see him here every day,” said one resident as she stopped her car at the scene where police were examining Bateman’s body. “He was also so pleasant — such a shame.”
A shame — many passersby used that word to describe Bateman’s lot in life. Many were sorry the man, who got his nickname Broadway Bill from his days working at Broadway Lumber in Bayside, had to live his life with nowhere to go, no house to call his own and no loved ones to care for him.
But after he died at age 70 from what a friend believed was complications from heavy drinking, family remembrances emerged from his hometown of Montgomery, Ala., and the picture that came into focus was far different than that of an unloved, unnamed homeless man.
“Some may have known him as Broadway Bill, but he was Billy to us,” said his cousin, Zelda Ross. “Billy is a son, a brother, a nephew, a cousin, an uncle and an in-law to many who loved him.”
And, most of all, Ross said, he was a human being.
“Allow me to take a moment to dispel a term that was used to describe him — homeless. There are many people who are tagged with this label that are not really homeless. Despite the offer of permanent residences they choose, for whatever reason — mentally, physically or emotionally— to wander and reside on the streets of many of our country’s cities,” she said. “Technically, Bill was not homeless. He had options to reside in many homes.”
Unfortunately, Bateman also suffered from alcoholism, according to his cousin. She said the disease that millions fight on a daily basis was a foe Bateman could not overcome. She said the disease caused him to make decisions in his life that were clearly not in his best interest, at times estranged him from loved ones and ravaged his physical and mental health.
“Regardless of his flaws, he was a human and he has a family that loves him and will miss him,” Ross said. “He has a mother that never gave up on her son. She will grieve his death as long as there is breath in her body.”
Bateman was her first born and he had two brothers, including one who had died and another who lives in New York.
Family members grieved together in Montgomery during a memorial for Bateman Sept. 9. The man known as Broadway Bill was remembered by close family as an avid reader of newspapers and novels, a sports lover most fond of baseball and a kind-hearted joker who loved Christmas.
Bateman was also recalled as a great thinker — a socially conscious man who participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 at the political and emotional peak of the civil rights movement.
In a letter read at his memorial service, family members marveled at Bateman’s steely resolve in the face of possible danger.
“Although there was danger and uncertainty that surrounded those changing times, we never once saw him display a sense of fear while forging towards the common goal of equality for all mankind,” the letter read.
And that courage was on display as Bateman decided to move his life to New York. His Aunt Laura Smith recalled Bateman’s intricate knowledge of the city — he always knew which sites needed to be seen and the best possible route to get there.
“Believe me when I say he was a wonderful tour guide,” she said. “He saw to it that we visited the various important sites in the city. We rode the yellow cabs, the subway and walked, walked and walked. If you did not have the opportunity for Billy to serve as your tour guide, you missed an awesome experience.”
The awesome experience of knowing Bateman on a personal level is a privilege shared by family and a few lucky residents of Bayside. One resident who had many conversations with him said Bateman had been talking about returning to his hometown in Alabama in an effort to kick his drinking habit and reconnect with his family.
“The visit home he was determined to make was obviously far more important than any of us could have possibly realized,” Ross said.
But even though he never made it home to get sober or renew his roots, his family will always remember him with a love that stretches more than a thousand miles from Alabama to New York.
“We knew he loved us despite the distance and life’s situations,” the family said. “We loved him and because of our love, he is not forgotten and never will be.”
Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4546.
©2012 Community News Group
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