You’d know a man like Michael Ward from a mile away. The yellowed shirt had seen whiter days and it was tucked underneath a well worn suit and below a thatch of wiry white hair. Yet his appearance somehow revealed a certain level of bohemian elegance.
He was threadbare, not in an unkempt way, but in a warm and appealing manner akin to the catcher’s mitt that has seen its share of fast balls.
If you let your mind wander, you might make up a story that this elderly Leitrim bachelor moved to America to escape the harsh Irish economy of the Seventies, He got caught between the Ireland that rolled on without him and the adopted city that most of his friends had long since abandoned when things got good again back home.
I have been haunted by the news of Michael Ward’s death. He was mowed down by a hit-and-run driver on the corner of 1st Avenue and 84th Street last Friday, left to die on a grimy Manhattan curb by someone apparently too impatient to wait for an 85-year-old man to cross the street.
I can’t get the image out of my head of this kind soul convulsing in shock on the pavement as the blood poured out of a man who had such a lust for life.
I met Mike only once, at my uncle Bobby Cleary’s funeral last December. With Bob plucking the strings of a banjo and Mike hunched over the squeezebox in the pubs around Bainbridge Avenue, the pair formed a musical conversation in a group called The Limerick Weavers and created a deep friendship that lasted through the decades in the process.
They must have delighted thousands of lonesome Irish with songs over the years and would go on to book regular gigs at places like Gorman’s, The Bainbridge Cafe, Ireland's 32, and Fiona's. I pray some of those fans remember Mike in their prayers this week as a way of saying thanks for providing a slice of home when they needed it most.
When a man of his age lugs a heavy accordion over his shoulder and crosses three state lines to pay a musical tribute to a friend, you don’t need to know much more about the measures of his loyalty and love that are woven into the fabric of his character.
“Good on yeh, girl,” he would probably have grunted as Dawn Mulvihill, Bobby’s devoted partner of 22 years, played heartbreaking airs on the violin near his coffin.
Dawn took the place of Bobby as Mike’s sparring partner during the luncheon that followed my uncle’s burial and I marveled at how Mike, this wee colorful character single-handedly lifted the heavy burden of grief from our family’s shoulders. Inspired by his effervescent spirit, many of us took turns on the microphone or the guitar to participate in the joyous musical conversation that brought Mike and Bobby together in the first place.
“I play the accordion for the old folks in the homes now,” he said, completely oblivious to the fact that he might have been a good deal older than many of the blue-haired residents in his audience.
He had no sense of his own mortality at all when he strapped on the accordion as the years melted from his small frame. When I mentioned I would be writing about this day in my Irish Voice column, he beamed.
“Yerra, someone had to die for me to get my name in lights, and sure, that’s the sad state of affairs for yeh.” With that said he threw back his head and let out a tight laugh, but not before reminding me that his name was spelled with no “E” at the end of it.
You want to believe that the hit-and-run driver kept going because he or she may not have even known they hit something.
“I heard a noise and went to look out the winow and I saw an old guy fall down to the floor,” said witness Oswado Xique.
“I’m not surprised,” said witness Fredda Stimell. “Sometimes the lights aren’t long enough for elderly people to walk across and some of the drivers are not very careful.”
It might have been a pothole that made that loud thump and in this frantic time we live in, the driver’s eyes might have been on some mobile device instead of on the road where they belonged.
You don’t want to believe that the person behind the wheel of the gold Nissan Maxima decided to carry on that night, discarding this kind soul onto the curb like an empty soda bottle. I didn’t know the man well, but I know he deserved a more dignified end to his life than what was doled out.
I’m told this eccentric character Mike Ward was a doorman for decades and I can’t think of a better person to greet you when you got home after a long day at the office.
He, no doubt, would delight the residents of the building he guarded with a song from his encyclopedic knowledge of Irish music or a story about the auld sod.
You could say that we live in a cruel world that tosses an old man to the side without any regard for the dignity of human life, but I prefer to think that St. Peter had a sudden opening for a doorman at the pearly gates and knew just the man for the job.
Rest in peace, Mike, and tell Bob his nephew misses him deeply.