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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Miss Ellie

Sometimes you have to go down - way down - down to the bottom rung and out to the margins of human existence - down where the streetwalkers and performers, the artists and musicians, the hotel maids and restaurant barkers, the alcoholics and 'recreational' drug users live and move and have their being, amidst the broken and not-quite-lost-but-not-quite found - to find the ones who carry the Light.

It's the place where the restorative mercies of unconditional love can be found.

The streets of 'end of the world' communities like Provincetown are such a place.

That's where you'll find people like Miss Ellie.

Rumors of his February demise were, to paraphrase Mark Twain - and, like the rest of her life - just slightly exaggerated.

While it was true that s/he had been seriously ill, Eliot Castillo, Provincetown's own "Miss Ellie" did not die in February.  Apparently, s/he had one more encore to perform.

S/he did finally succumb, however, after a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer in her hospital room overlooking Hyannis Harbor at Cape Cod Hospital on April 8th.

Estimates vary, but s/he was somewhere between 78 and 80 years old.  

Young.

Ageless.

Eliot Castillo was the father of five children, a grandfather, and a Baptist minister who moved to Provincetown in November of 2001, found a job at a supermarket deli, and, at age 70, became "Miss Ellie" - a sidewalk chanteuse, showgirl and promoter of the restorative mercies of Provincetown.

“I knew Provincetown was an open, accepting place, and I knew if there was any place that I would be comfortable, it would be Provincetown. I am happy now to be the woman I’ve always wanted to be,” s/he says in one of several online videos s/he’s posted.

The entire Provincetown community - which is amazingly diverse - warmly embraced Miss Ellie and her campy sense of fun and showmanship. Even for some of the conservative folk who live here (yes, even conservative folk live her), her sheer joy and loving nature proved to be absolutely irresistible.

Provincetown and Miss Ellie. It was a match, as the saying goes, made in heaven here on earth.

Anyone who has visited Provincetown and strolled Commercial Street over the last 10 years - especially during the tourist season - has seen or heard Miss Ellie perform.  She loaded up her sound system in a wagon which she pulled with one hand; she held a microphone in the other.

The sign on her wagon variously proclaimed, "Dreams R2B Realized,", or "Living My Dream."

Here s/he is, performing in August of last year.

Yes, I know. The sign says "78 years old."

A true lady never reveals her age - unless, of course, it is to her advantage.

By all accounts, Miss Ellie was a true lady.

And, one helluva dame!

Miss Ellie eschewed labels or strict definition. When questions, like “Are you transgender, a transvestite, a homosexual?” were asked, s/he answered simply, “I am a human being.”

My friend Alicia had gone to the Performer's Place in front of Town Hall on Friday night and placed some flowers and a neon green sign expressing love for Miss Ellie.

By Saturday afternoon, it had quickly grown into an impromptu memorial of flowers, votive candles and notes of love and condolence.

Small groups of people gathered there to mourn her loss and share stories and memories of the last decade of "living her dream".

One young woman talked about how she shared a room in Miss Ellie's apartment with a few other people. She had fallen at work and broken her leg, but didn't know how she would get to the hospital so she hobbled her way back to her room.

Miss Ellie took one look at her and picked her up "like a rag doll," she said, and carried her to the hospital where her leg was set and put in a cast.

"S/he took me home," the woman said, "and fixed me soup, feeding it to me like a baby."

Miss Ellie also helped her with recovery as well as her hospital bills. The woman sighed sadly and said, "S/he had a real generous heart. I'm so going to miss her."

Someone else said, "S/he's a real cultural icon of Provincetown."

"Our Lady of Provincetown," someone in the crowd said.

No one laughed. No one even smirked. That statement had been neither an exaggeration nor a joke.

As serious as one can be about the exaggerations of life in Provincetown - where, for some, a commitment to "living your dream" rises to the level of religious experience - the folk who gathered at the Miss Ellie memorial were as serious as a heart attack.

I can already imagine the new monument at Town Hall Square. Replacing - or across from - the statue of the soldier with a gun in his hands will be a statue of Miss Ellie in a miniskirt, low cut tank top and Joan Crawford open-toed shoes with a microphone in her hand.

A small bronze plaque will read, "Miss Ellie: Our Lady of Provincetown."

People will leave flowers and prayer cards at the base of the statue.

No. Joke.

A young man in the crowd then told a story about some kids who had set up a lemonade stand one summer to collect money for People with HIVD/AIDS. Miss Ellie went over and emptied her entire tip jar into their collection box.

That act of generosity, he said, inspired everyone around the kids to empty their pockets to contribute to their cause for People with HIVD/AIDS.

"That's just the way s/he was," he said. Everyone else smiled sadly. A few people began to huddle against the chilly Spring wind as they cried softly into each other's shoulders.

It's clear that Miss Ellie not only had a fan base but will continue, even in her absence, to have a real presence in this community.  Her generous spirit is irreplaceable and will leave a deep void in the life of this community.

Parker Palmer, the great Quaker theologian and educator, once said that it's not death we're afraid of - what we fear most is living.

Not Ms. Ellie.

S/he lived fearlessly and boldly, embracing and living the gospel that "Dreams R2B Realized".  I'm sure s/he did not "go gently into that good night"- but it wasn't because s/he was afraid.

She just knew she had run out of encores on this side of Paradise.

So, here's to Miss Ellie: A free spirit of a human being who "lived her dream" out, loud and proud, unconfined by definition of gender, age or sexual orientation, with a song in her heart -  manifested in her sonorous baritone voice - and a spirit that was - and will always be - indomitable.

Rest in peace, Miss Ellie.

May you rise in glory that far surpasses even your own expectations or wonderful, creative imagination.

Because sometimes, as Miss Ellie knew , you have to reach down - you have to reach way, way down - in order to touch a real Star. 


Read Miss Ellie's obituary.

10 comments:

Ahab said...

What a beautiful story. Rest in peace, Miss Ellie.

RevMama said...

We need people like Miss Ellie to remind us to follow our own dreams and to help others follow theirs. What a wonderful, brave, generous persons.

Hutch said...

We were in Provincetown last year for Holly Follies and Miss Ellie was performing as ever. Hard to imagine not seeing he/r there. Heaven has one hell of a band though, doesn't it?

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I second that "Rest in Peace, Miss Ellie." What a beautiful soul.

zerba said...

Her passing will leave such a major void in my P'town summers...how happy I was to know her.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

She was an original

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article. We miss Ellie so very much. A sweet, kind human being. I am so glad we met. Her voice will resound forever on Commercial Street. I am so glad they are putting up the plaque.
Love you always, Ellie
Barbara

Anonymous said...

We were lucky enough to have met Ellie and never have we known such a sweet soul. Every time I look at a video my eyes fill with tears because we miss her so much. I am so glad Ellie reached for the stars in Provincetown. The tribute on June 19th was wonderful and showed how many people loved Ellie. There were so many people who wanted to be there and couldn't. God bless you, Ellie.

Manny said...

Rest in peace Miss Ellie. I always looked forward to seeing you on my many trips to Provincetown. You always brighted my day. Sing now with the angels.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry to hear that Ellie has passed during my long absence. Ellie was one of the nicest street performers I have ever had the honor of sharing space with in PTown. Peace2u Ellie...
LOVe, Ahda, aka the wind up doll, and The gothis Bride of 91