Too much to bear

Last modified: 1/17/2011 12:00:00 AM
People in Hillsboro knew him simply as Mickey, the disabled veteran. Not the man whose house and business were an eyesore of junk on Route 31. Not the man whose property, full of toxic chemicals and hazardous materials, has been condemned by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And not the man who left Uncle Sam with a cleanup tab of $763,000.

Just Mickey.

"Nice guy," said Oscar Goodwin, as he walked into Williams' Store in Hillsboro, a small convenience store where the snacks engulf you like a forest. "Really harmless. When I gave him a ride one night, he told me there was nothing he could do. He had no money to pay his taxes or clean up that mess, although the town was after him to clean it up."

Janis Tsang, EPA coordinator for the Hillsboro project, said her agency hopes to start excavating and hauling junk away in two weeks, weather permitting. She said it should take six months before the site is safe, adding the public is in no danger.

"We want to put it into context so people don't get alarmed," Tsang said. "This is actually not high risk relatively speaking, but it does pose a risk."

Meanwhile, Mickey, some say, is in California now, living with his sister. She brought him west in October, someone said, after he'd suffered a stroke. He lived in the small two-floor shack with his mother, Celia Davison, for as long as anyone could remember. A release from the EPA says Celia bought the property in 1970. She died in June.

Mother and son spent years buying and selling used stuff - tables, chairs, computers, scrap metal, car parts, appliances, everything, including the kitchen sink - and setting up their business in front of a trailer next door to their home.

And business, it seems, was bad. At least in recent years. Celia and Mickey had no electricity, no running water, no heat. Just a woodstove that produced a stream of smoke from the chimney.

"You'd see that little puff every morning from that cinder block," said Jennifer Morgan, Mickey's neighbor for five years. "We were going to bring food over. We heard at church in town that people do that. Oh my gosh, that poor guy."

Mickey was described as short and wiry by one neighbor, short and stocky by another. He didn't drive, instead riding his bicycle, sometimes a half mile down the road to Williams' Store. The man behind the register the other day said Mickey often bought cigarettes, cat food and bags of ice. Mickey ran a tab and paid on time, once he got his check in the mail, aid from an unknown source.

"He was an ordinary guy like us," Goodwin said. "He got into this situation where he just couldn't afford to do anything. It wasn't his fault. Like every other American, we're in a situation where some people just can't get out of it."

But Mickey helped where he could. He volunteered at the local American Legion hall, Post 59, washing dishes, shoveling snow, taking out the trash. He loved to shoot pool there, and his skills as a horseshoe player were unparalleled.

Caryn Houghton, a part-time bartender at the Legion hall, helped Mickey build his woodstove.

"He was great," said Houghton, the clattering of dishes from the Legion's kitchen filling the bar. "He'd pick blueberries for everyone. He considered us, I think, his family."

Another customer said Mickey was a lifelong resident of Hillsboro. He said he went to grade school with him 50 years ago.

No one knew anything about Mickey's father. They knew Celia, though, who passed down the family business after her death. Morgan says Mickey took pride in his work.

"It seemed like he thought everything was special," Morgan said. "All his stuff, it didn't seem like he thought it was junk."

A lot of it remains, just a few feet off Route 31.

The front door is buried behind snow, a mountain built by a plow. There's a welcome sign with a lighthouse, a painting with a woman holding a little girl, both surrounded by flowers, and a cross made of blue lightbulbs above the door.

The serenity is broken by signs with bright-orange letters that tell you there's danger and not to trespass.

Over to the left is what's left of the former local flea market. Wooden fences and broken chairs sit in front of a trailer, its door wide open, the ground near the entrance covered with 2 feet of snow.

Inside are boxes and stuffed garbage bags and magazines on coin collecting and Kiss record albums and picture frames and tiles hanging from the ceiling. A shed behind the trailer bends hard to the left like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Neighbors said it's been a mess for years, yet they said nothing, until recently. The state's Department of Environmental Services contacted the EPA, which found arsenic, chromium and zinc in water and soil samples.

"(Neighbors) wanted a push to have this property cleaned up," said Kelly Dearborn-Luce, Hillsboro's building inspector. "I even had one neighbor say they didn't want to complain when Mrs. Davison was alive because that was her only income. Some of the neighbors felt bad, but they knew it was a mess and had to be cleaned up."

The home and trailer will be gone soon, its most recent owner remembered for what he brought to the area, not what he left behind.

"What was nice about Mickey is he never bothered anyone," Goodwin said. "He wasn't after your money. Mickey never asked you for a thing."

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)




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