Thursday, September 8, 2016
Photos and text by Michael Sean Edwards
Tom (“TJ”) Mulligan, a longtime resident of the East Village, passed away on July 27, 2016. He was 79. He died of complications related to his confinement in a wheelchair.
To many in the neighborhood, Mr. Mulligan was a distinctive presence, often seen in Tompkins Square Park, either reading The New York Times in the shade near Avenue B and Eighth Street, or rolling through on his way to lunch at Odessa, 7A or the Sidewalk Cafe. He would stop often to chat with some of the regulars in the Park on his way.
Thomas James Mulligan was born in East St. Louis, Ill., on Oct. 13, 1937, and raised in what was, at the time, a solid blue-collar community. His father made his living running an auto parts store.
Mr. Mulligan studied for the priesthood at St. Henry’s Preparatory Seminary in Belleville, Ill., but left the seminary after his junior year of college. He graduated from St. Louis Unversity with a degree in philosophy and joined the Army.
As he told the story to friends, “I knew I would be drafted so I decided to volunteer, because that way I could have some control over what happened to me.” He had mastered Latin, Greek and German while in the seminary, so he applied for language school in the Army and became fluent in Turkish, graduating at the top of his class. He was sent to Turkey as a corporal and served as a translator with top-secret clearance for three years.
“Nobody bothered me. I was just this weird guy who spoke the local language. There would be flash inspections all the time and guys would get busted for having their foot locker out of order. I packed my foot locker once — you could have put it in the Smithsonian — and I lived out of my laundry bag for three years.”
This kind of sanguine thinking was a hallmark of his approach to living.
[Mulligan upon leaving the Army in the early 1960s]
Upon discharge from the Army the N.S.A. offered him a job. He declined, and in 1963 moved to New York City. Later in the decade Mr. Mulligan returned to school and became proficient in the then nascent field of computer programming, specifically in managing packet switching and routing for communications networks.
In 1971, he moved to the East Village, taking over a storefront on East 10th Street that had been outfitted as a live-in woodworking shop. There he pursued his personal passion of cabinetry and continued his now quite successful career in technology.
In 1986, Mr. Mulligan was struck down almost overnight by a devastating and rare condition that affected his spinal cord and left him a complete paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair. In spite of this condition he contrived to live alone independently, finding ways to adapt his living space and habits to suit his circumstances.
He was friendly and gregarious but at the same time intensely private and independent. Those who were brave enough or foolhardy enough to ask him what he did were usually told, “I read the paper.” He showed no mercy to anyone who tried to give his wheelchair a push.
Those of us who knew him can attest to his remarkable intellect and resilience, and will miss him deeply.
On Friday, Sept. 9, between 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., there will be an informal remembrance of Tom near the Avenue B and Eighth Street entrance to Tompkins Square Park.