Remembering the life of `The Mayor of Apponaug'

Warwick Beacon ·

Manny Gomes was celebrated at a memorial service Dec. 14 that recalled the many lives he touched after surviving a catastrophic accident while he was homeless and later becoming known as “The Mayor of Apponaug” for the good works he did for his neighbors in Warwick.

Manny had contended with cancer much of the past year and died Nov. 28, shortly after being brought to Kent Hospital from his apartment at House of Hope’s headquarters complex on Post Road, Warwick. He was 60.

Soft-spoken and gently extroverted, Manny often was seen caring for the sidewalks along Post Road in the Apponaug neighborhood that includes Warwick City Hall – sweeping, raking and shoveling, as the seasons dictated.

Manny did the same for his neighbors, especially longtime residents who were elderly, burdened by illness, or had to care for handicapped relatives, helping them with yard work, clearing their snow-covered driveways and hauling rubbish bins to the curb.

In so doing, Manny became House of Hope’s goodwill ambassador, helping to close the breach between people like him, who had once been homeless and were now living in House of Hope apartments, and residents of the surrounding community, some of whom had been wary when the housing units were created 15 years ago.

In a 2014 interview, Manny recalled chatting with a resident, who was active the in area’s Crime Watch and who had been uncomfortable when the housing for formerly homeless adults was proposed.

“She was so shocked that I lived here,” Manny said.

“She goes: ‘You live over there?’

I said, ‘Yeah.’”

“And she says: ‘You’re not crazy?”

“I said: ‘No.’”

The Apponaug Area Improvement Association later presented him a thank-you certificate for his work keeping the sidewalks clean and helping his neighbors, who began calling him “The Mayor of Apponaug.”

Accident leads to new life

What was not apparent to onlookers as Manny Gomes raked and swept in Apponaug was the extreme pain he experienced daily, the aftereffect of a horrifying accident that marked the end of a long period of homelessness on the streets of Providence.

On the raw, rainy night of Jan. 10, 2000, Manny sought shelter in an industrial dumpster near Rhode Island Hospital. Filled with paper boxes, the big container had seemed a reasonably clean and safe refuge.

“It was like 5 o’clock in the morning,” Manny recalled. “I heard this big rumbling sound.”

The noise was part of a routine process, as the dumpster was lifted by the huge mechanical arms of a garbage truck, emptying the contents, Manny included, into the bay of the vehicle. Refuse-handling apparatus entrapped, then crushed his body.

“I could hear my bones cracking, and blood was squirting out of my mouth,” Manny said. His pelvis, legs, one arm, ribs were broken or cracked, and his internal organs ruptured.

“Oh my God, just take me,“ Manny cried.

Up in the cab, the truck’s operator at first couldn’t hear Manny’s pleas, the radio blaring over the noise of the trash equipment. Then somehow he did.

“Where are you?” the driver yelled.

“I’m in the truck. Stop. Stop,” Manny called back.

Slipping in an out of consciousness as a Providence Fire Department rescue truck carried him on the short trip to Rhode Island Hospital, Manny heard the chatter on the paramedics’ radio.

“He’s alive?”

“Are you serious?”

“He’s alive.”

Surgeons set his broken bones and sewed his torn-up tissues, and for months, nurses carefully tended him. But, as he healed, hospital social workers could not find a homeless shelter or similar place willing to take such an alarmingly injured man. Doctors delayed his release as long as possible, but finally, officials said that he no longer needed hospital-level care.

Which led to the irony of Many Gomes being discharged to his former “home,” the streets of Providence. He was rolled in a wheelchair to the front door, much of his body encased in a cast and supported by a brace. Distressed, one nurse took $5 from her pocket and gave it to Manny, telling him: “Oh, please be careful.”

At that moment, a friend who had heard about his pending departure, showed up and drove him to Beneficent Congregational Church, which was operating an overnight homeless shelter. He was allowed to stay during the day as well as the night due to his injuries. And soon, someone suggested that he apply for a place at House of Hope Community Development Corporation, a homelessness agency he’d never heard of.

Comes to Warwick

At House of Hope Manny was offered one of 11 efficiency apartments at House of Hope’s Fran Conway House on Jefferson Boulevard, a former convent that provided transitional residences based on the “Housing First” model for homeless people who are contending with ongoing problems that might disqualify them from standard housing. The “Housing First” theory assumes that when someone has a safe, stable home, they can better deal with the underlying problems that caused their homelessness.

In Manny’s case, one such problem was heroin addiction.

His addiction had followed a familiar course. After working years as a waiter and bartender in downtown Providence hotels and bars, Manny had been injured in an automobile crash. Doctors prescribed painkillers. When prescriptions ran out, he turned to heroin. He lost his job, and, supporting his drug purchases with petty crime, he was in and out of prison.

At House of Hope, Jean M. Johnson, the homeless agency’s founding executive director, laid down the law: Manny was to undergo substance treatment, and never use drugs at House of Hope. Every morning, he took a bus to a methadone clinic, which enabled him to avoid relapses and continue to heal from the Dumpster injuries.

House of Hope staffers, including Dawn Santos, Monica Spicer, Kathy Yorston and Christine Foisy, worked with him. He would open his apartment door to find a bag of clothes. And when the new Post Road apartments opened, Manny was offered one.

At first overwhelmed by the spacious apartment that he could finally call his own, Manny soon settled in, filling the rooms with carefully tended house plants, and displaying collections of Coca-Cola and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. In the evenings, he would watch his favorite TV programs, “Family Guy” and “Are You Being Served?”

Manny began helping out on the House of Hope grounds, then expanded his territory to Greater Apponaug.

“There was a couple across the street. He just had a massive heart attack six or seven months ago,” Manny recalled. “So I just went over and started helping them, shoveling and then helping with the leaf removal. And then I met another woman – she’d got two handicapped children, so I ended up shoveling for them.”

One of the benefits as he kept the sidewalks clean and met more Apponaug neighbors was that the constant work kept his mind off the pain that remained from the dumpster accident, since he was determined to avoid prescription painkillers, fearing the return of his old addiction.

“Sometimes I can’t get out of bed in the morning,” he confided to one visitor. “My body just locks right up. I’m in pain, constantly. But I try to keep busy.”

Among Manny friends was a man who sometimes came over from his office at nearby City Hall – Scott Avedisian, the mayor of all of Warwick. Occasionally, Avedisian would bring the Mayor of Apponaug a cup of coffee.

“I know you are trying to take my job,” the actual mayor of Warwick would joke. But the Mayor of Apponaug assured him: “I don’t want it!”

Another friend was Bill Earnshaw, who’d worked many years at the downtown headquarters of the Providence Journal and met Manny during the period he was a popular waiter and bartender.

“If you were Manny’s friend, he was absolutely your friend,” Earnshaw said. And the reverse was true, too. When Manny moved into his House of Hope apartment, Earnshaw would visit him Wednesdays and Saturdays, driving to Apponaug from his North Providence home.

Earnshaw had embarked on a walking regimen after suffering a heart attack, and he and Manny would go for extended treks through historic neighborhoods like Pawtucket Village in Warwick and Cranston, poke around antique stores and flea markets and explore Providence’s iconic Swan Point and North Burial Ground cemeteries.

Manny never failed to praise House of Hope, which elected him to its board of directors.

“People, if they really want to make it, they can make it here,” Manny said. “They will help you. They’ll make sure you make it. They treat you like a family. They really do.”

Saying goodbye

About 30 members of Manny’s extended family gathered for a memorial service at the Monahan Drabble Sherman Funeral Home on Providence’s East Side a little more than two weeks after he died.

Ray and Mary O’Connell, who lived across Post Road from Manny, overcame their distaste for the often chaotic drive up Interstate Route 95 to Providence to be there. “He kept our property spotless,” Mary said. “And kept me out of trouble,” Ray said.

Jean Johnson was there. And Dawn Santos, who was with Manny at Kent Hospital when he died at 5:27 on that final Monday morning in November. So was his friend, Bill Earnshaw. And Laura Jaworski, the current House of Hope executive director. There were others from his House of Hope crowd, Bill Stein, the clinical director and Taylor Ellis, the housing development manager and so many other others, who hugged one another as they arrived, swapped Manny stories and struggled to hold back their tears.

The Rev. Edward L. Pieroni, pastor of Saint Raymond’s Roman Catholic Church in Providence, began the service, standing next to a coffin whose lid was decorated with flowers tied together by a ribbon imprinted “The Mayor of Apponaug.”

Father Pieroni hadn’t known Manny, but talked before the service with Dawn Santos and Bill Earnshaw, and immediately understood the impact Manny had on so many people, even those who were strangers. If someone came to House of Hope looking for food after hours, the priest told the congregation, Manny would take a frozen turkey out of his own refrigerator to ensure they didn’t go away hungry.

From the time he had first been a priest, he has never been able to adequately explain the loss people feel when someone dies, Father Pieroni said, but that Catholic faith believes in resurrection.

“It’s no secret that the first part of his life was tough,” the priest said. “But he managed to turn his life around. He had been homeless at some points, and then he had a home. Look at the lives he touched, look at the difference he made.”

For those who miss Manny the most, Father Pieroni said it wouldn’t be unusual, in an unguarded moment, for them to think of asking him to help with a chore, or, spotting something in a store, consider buying it as a gift for Manny. They should see their reluctance to let go as their faith in God, he said, and an indication that “it’s not over.”

“The love we show each other – that doesn’t die,” Father Pieroni said. “Love lives on in the family and friends.”

“Even the sadness we feel today has a good side,” the priest said. “We are sad because we know who he was, and we had someone worth crying over. And we have to be grateful for that, because some people don’t get that lucky; some people never have anybody worth crying over.”

“Manny, may the angels meet you in Paradise,” Father Pieroni said as he ended the service. “May the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and the eternal Jerusalem. In peace, we now take our brother’s body to its place of rest.”

A short time later, Father Pieroni led mourners in graveside prayers at the North Burial Ground, which was not unfamiliar territory to Manny Gomes, since it was one of the places he and Bill Earnshaw had explored on their walks.

This story was originally posted by Warwick Beacon. Click here to view the original story in its entirety.

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