Thursday, September 8, 2016

Remembering Tom Mulligan

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.


JM said...

I've lived on the next block and passed Mr. Mulligan on the street for almost 30 years, and I don't think we ever said a word to each other. In fact, I don't think he ever even looked at me. He certainly never met my eyes when I looked at him. My impression was that he just wasn't the friendly type...or maybe he sized me up as someone he didn't want to know for some reason. I do tend to be kind of shy, myself, so that didn't help, I'm sure.

Yet if I hadn't seen him in a while, I'd worry and ask my neighbors if they had spotted him. This summer, I started to assume the worst, and it was confirmed finally by the notice posted on his door.

It's a strange thing....both how I could see someone for so long and never make contact, and how much I miss seeing him rolling down the street with his Colonel Sanders-on-acid facial hair and evident independent spirit. Now, after he's gone, I realize that we had telecom technology and the German language in common, so maybe we could've struck up at least a decent acquaintance, certainly enough to say hello the thousands of times we passed by each other.

Odd how life works in New York sometimes. Really sorry to hear he's gone.

Gojira said...

Awww, I used to enjoy walking by his apt. and chatting with him if he was sitting outside, or peeking in his window to wave as I went by. Tom, such a longtime EV fixture, I will truly miss you. Rest now, you fascinating man, you're another loss in a neighborhood already too full of them.

Hernan Otaño said...

He had a great hearty laugh. RIP Tom.

Anonymous said...

So sad. RIP..while walking around and taking photos, I saw him all the time..
East Village Corner

Anonymous said...

RIP Mr. Mulligan. His woodworking shop is def one of the most beautiful spots in the East Village. There's something so cozy about it esp in the evening when the light's lit up.

Anonymous said...

For so many year I too walked by his apartment and would glance in to see him amidst his many books and wondered who he was. Thank you EVG for sharing his story with us.

Anonymous said...

This is sad. Another interesting neighbor gone, his presence will be missed in the park.

Is it possible to do a remembrance on the weekend or later in the day? Some of us work and it would be nice to be there.

cmarrrtyy said...

e was a true presence on E10th. I saw him rolling around for years and never spoke to him. A fend who lived on the street thought he was spying on everybody. So he didn't want to talk when we passed hi or his storefront. My friend wears an aluminum hat. But this summer i knew there was something wrong on 10th. I didn't see him. But I knew. Mr. Mullian had that kind of presence.

Anonymous said...

Rest in peace, Tom. Tom always had a big smile and kind words for my kids as we walked to school every morning. Thank you for being such a beautiful part of our community.

Anonymous said...

I was always to grateful to the white haired man in the perfect apartment full of books with plants in the window that he allowed passersby to glimpse into his world. He was an inspiration and a mystery. One day I saw him sitting at a large table reading an upraised paperback book but his hand was shaking so bad, that I don't know how he could have read it. But there were other people sitting with him at the table, so I figured that they could help him. I thought about writing him a letter (addressing it to the white haired man) to ask whether I could construct a book holder for him or read to him, or help him if he needed help. But I became consumed with my own day-to-day struggles and I never did contact him or introduce myself to him. I wish I had written him a letter at least telling him how grateful I was for allowing passersby to glimpse into his world, as doing so always had a calming and happy effect on me. I never did, and now I realize how important it is to show appreciation to people when you have a chance while they are alive. R.I.P. Tom Mulligan.

Scuba Diva said...

Fortunately I did talk to him because he was a friend of Richard's—who passed away a few weeks ago.

I have to wonder if Tom's apartment will become a bar, a nail salon, or a dry cleaners now, though.

Perplexed said...

I worked with Tom for years in the Telecom field. It took a while to get to know Tom, but when I got to know him we became great friends. I would go out to eat lunch with him and Don DeRisi all the time and had many laughs. When I met him in the early eighties he was still in good shape. As time went on Tom started to need a cane to help him walk.
One Friday afternoon before a long weekend, I was called to Tom’s office. I told him I was in a rush to start the weekend and didn’t have much time. I went down to his office, sat and talked with him and he told me he could stand up. I was shocked and asked him what he wanted me to do. He told me that there was a wheelchair in the maintenance room for him. I asked me to get it without arousing any of the other workers. I told him I would and Tom being Tom asked how I would get to it. I told him my plans and he sent me on my way. When I brought it back we took the side piece off and got him into the chair. He said “Let’s call Don down here and see if he notices”. Don came down and was slightly shocked. Tom turned a shocking moment into a light moment by joking with us about it. Such was Mulligan!
The company built a wheelchair ramp and redid the employee bathroom to accommodate Tom. We would take Tom out to lunch all the time with the wheelchair, always finding places that we could get the wheelchair in.
Tom had a great wit, laugh and charming personality once you got to know him. He is someone I looked up to and admired and will be sadly missed.

Anonymous said...

Was the remembrance rescheduled? I stopped by the park today and didn't see anyone.

Scuba Diva said...

Anonymous 1:28 said:

Was the remembrance rescheduled? I stopped by the park today and didn't see anyone.

We were on the 8th street and Avenue B side until well after 2 PM. said...

Tom was a great neighbor. Always top of the morning to you. Will miss him, his generous presence on the block.

Michael Sean Edwards said...

My thanks to all who attended. It was beautiful. said...

Tom's TSP corner was my bike turn corner home or west if going out. He was so friendly and all he needed was an 'ello to say a jovial hello back with a laugh more heartfelt and hearty than any imaginary santa. I knew him and knew him not but I cry when I tell people that he has passed.

I am sure he and recently passed Ernie (Enest Russell)exchanged glances, greetings,thoughts ......


Unknown said...

My parents lived next to Tom for years, and I spent many of earliest days hanging out on his couch while he and my dad sipped deli coffee and talked movies, books, art. Tom was always synonymous with New York for me, and when my parents and I moved to NJ, we continued to visit him regularly. I thought of him as a kind of great uncle. I now live in NY again and often walk by his apartment and feel a pang -- the block, and the whole city, simply isn't the same without him.