December 21, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Deep thanks to the pillar of West End

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

Never in his 11-plus years as the voice of Portland's West End did Ed King expect to make a lot of friends.

click image to enlarge

Besides publishing the West End News, Ed King also distributed free copies of the Munjoy Hill Observer. In this Nov. 2 photo, King ceremoniously hands over the distribution of the Munjoy Hill Observer to his son, William King. Ed King moved to Russian on Nov. 5, but has returned to Portland to battle serious health issues.

Photo by Liz McMahon

But it happened anyway.

"Try not to make it look like I'm living in the lap of luxury," King requested wryly from the couch in the borrowed condo atop Munjoy Hill that he and his wife, Liz McMahon, will call home through the holidays. "We've been incredibly lucky."

Then again, they haven't.

Six months ago, theirs was a dream fast coming true.

Lucid Stage, the nonprofit arts center on Baxter Boulevard that McMahon directed for the past three years, was closing for lack of operating funds.

The West End News, a rough-around-the edges, not-always-for-profit tabloid that King launched on St. Patrick's Day in 2001, wasn't exactly a cash cow either.

And so the couple, together for the past eight years, took a deep breath and decided to do something different. Something very different.

McMahon landed a job teaching English in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), Russia. The package included a healthy salary, a place to live, health insurance and travel expenses from the United States.

"It seemed like a great opportunity," said McMahon. "We both had decided that we wanted to travel, but we didn't have the money. This was a way around that."

It would be a clean break: King and McMahon threw themselves a going-away party in October -- every guest who attended was required to take something home with them.

"All of our priceless possessions," deadpanned King. "All gone."

Finally, on Nov. 5, off King and McMahon flew, along with their dog, Ruby, to their new life.

King, 62, hadn't been feeling 100 percent before the move. He attributed his discomfort -- lack of appetite, indigestion – to old age and kept it at bay with aspirin and the occasional Alka-Seltzer.

But in late November, when King returned from a brief trip to London to have his temporary visa renewed, McMahon knew something was wrong as he slowly got off the plane in Volgograd.

"He'd lost more weight," she said. "And all the way back from the airport, he didn't say a word. He couldn't even talk."

An ambulance came to their apartment and took King to the hospital. A few days later, speaking through interpreters from the school where McMahon worked, doctors delivered the bad news: It was cancer -- and it had metastasized throughout his colon, pancreas and who knows where else.

So now what?

The hospital, McMahon recalled, resembled "an abandoned mental asylum from the last century. It was really scary ... really scary."

Equally daunting was the language barrier.

"The nurse would say, 'Lift up your right hand and give me your finger,'" said King. But unless an interpreter happened to be nearby, "I had no idea what she was saying."

They knew they had no choice. They had to come home.

From the Portland International Jetport, an ambulance took King directly to Maine Medical Center on Dec. 6. As doctors there put him through a battery of scans and other diagnostic tests, King told them that the doctors in Russia had been "overly dramatic" and he didn't think he was all that sick.

"Then, 20 minutes later, (the Maine Medical Center doctors) came back with almost the same thing," King said.

Pausing, he added, "It wasn't that I didn't believe them. It was more like, 'This can't be right. They must be talking about someone else.'"

It will take a biopsy and more tests to determine just how grim the prognosis is. But the more the doctors spoke about blood counts and tumors, the more King heard their unspoken message: Don't tell anyone we're giving you any hope. Because we're not.

Then, behind this darkest of news, lights began to flicker.

Eric and Betsy Handley, friends of McMahon's family, were leaving for a month-long trip to Hawaii shortly after King and McMahon arrived back in Portland. The Handleys offered the couple their condo on Munjoy Hill – its picture window looks out over the surrounding rooftops at Casco Bay.

A Facebook page titled "Liz and Ed, we love them!" has 192 friends and counting, most chiming in with their fond memories of King and McMahon and, of course, their prayers.

As of Thursday, the "Ed King Emergency Fund" on the fundraising website gofundme.com had drawn $11,873 from 187 donors. The goal is $20,000. (Considering that King has no health insurance, the money will come in handy.)

And on Saturday evening, Empire Dine and Dance, at 575 Congress St., will host "A Carnival of Support for Ed King" – one of several such affairs planned by Portland's arts community over the next few months.

In the middle of it all sits one amazed – and uncharacteristically dumbstruck – Ed King.

A pillar of his community? Beloved by so many? Who knew?

Sure, people scoured the West End News for its weekly "Dumpster" column that chronicled whoever and whatever crossed King's path day after day.

And they chuckled at the paper's regular centerpiece – a cartoon map of the Portland peninsula (one of King's countless creations as a professional cartoonist) complete with balloon-captioned snippets of street-corner conversations he'd overheard in his travels.

But King also took pride in ruffling feathers – the higher up the political totem pole, the better. Now, even to his oldest adversaries, that's no longer what matters.

"His commitment to this community and his commitment to the West End being a stronger place is as deep as anyone's I know," said Ethan Strimling, CEO of Learning Works and a frequent target of King early on. "And I've always appreciated that about him."

King can't make it to Saturday's benefit – he's worried about "picking up something in addition to what I've already got."

Besides, he added dryly, "I'm trying to cast as few palls on as many holiday parties as possible."

Still, regardless of where this unexpected turn takes him, it feels like a good time to thank the man who started his own newspaper not to save the world or achieve any of those other lofty goals that we journalists are so fond of talking about.

"I was in it basically to keep from starving to death," King insisted. "It was purely to make a living."

Fair enough. But let the record forever show that Ed King, a local newsman if ever there was one, single-handedly connected his West End neighborhood with the city that surrounds it.

And in the process, he's enriched both.

——————

An update from the other end of the Portland peninsula: The Munjoy Hill Mothers Club's annual Christmas party for needy kids is back on track.

Linda York, who struggled this year to keep the club afloat after the death last year of her mother (and club founder), Marie Trott, said last Friday's column on her dilemma prompted scores of people to come to the rescue – and then some.

"We got more than $3,000 in toys and donations," York reported.

That was enough to put a present in the hands of every child who attended the party on Saturday, "adopt" three needy families on Munjoy Hill who faced an anything-but-merry Christmas, and open a bank account for next year's party.

"I could feel my mother's presence the whole day," said York. "She was right there at my side."

To all who stepped up, York can't thank you enough.

Nor can I.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

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