The vendor’s blanket is still there – laid out on the sidewalk outside Lake Merritt’s pergola, just like it has been for decades. It’s still covered in various wares and trinkets: Plants, figurines, a book on self-realization and a VHS copy of “A Beautiful Mind.”
But this time, nothing is for sale. And missing from this display is the man who so often sat beside it — Willie, the informal Mayor of Lake Merritt and a vanguard of the lake’s many vendors.
A memorial to the man known as Willie Ellis, 69, now stands at the site where he spent decades affectionately greeting passersby and hawking an eclectic mix of well-priced odds-and-ends along the lake’s eastern shore. He died July 22 after having been hospitalized for about three weeks — the latest in a long run of health ailments that afflicted him in recent years.
On Sunday, nearly 100 people gathered at that same pergola to burn incense and air memories of a man who became one of the city’s craftiest businessmen and an institution at Oakland’s famed lake.
“If he didn’t greet you with his voice, he greeted you with his eyes,” said Joey Ojeda, 67, a longtime friend. “You can’t be anything better than good, and that’s what Willie was.”
To most, Ellis was somewhat of an enigma — known only as the gentle “Greeter of Lake Merritt” who spent nearly every day at the same park bench across from Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
Born Robert Bailey, he informally changed his name after he left his childhood home in Alabama for the West Coast. He arrived in Oakland about 20 or 25 years ago, but he rarely spoke about his personal upbringing — preferring to offer a sunny greeting or a screaming deal on whatever knickknacks he had available that particular day.
Ellis could pull in a couple hundred dollars a day selling this-and-that for $5 here, $4 there. Yet he didn’t appear to use that money for a motel, friends and acquaintances said. Rather, at the end of every day, while the sun set low over the water to the west, he’d carefully pack up his shop and place everything in a suitcase. Then he’d walk away to sleep somewhere outside, most recently under Interstate 580 near Lakeshore Avenue.
By 6:30 a.m. the next morning, he’d be back in that same spot. And within minutes, he’d lay out that day’s inventory.
He credited his grandmother for a business philosophy that kept him going for decades – one revolving around the notion that if he wanted anything in life, he needed to earn it.
“It wasn’t going to come to him if he didn’t go out and get it,” said Leo Hawkins, a frequent visitor to the lake who knew Willie for years. “Rain or shine, cold or hot, it didn’t bother him. That carried ’til the day he died.”
“His work ethic, out here, would make any businessman want to hire him,” Hawkins added.
No one ever knew exactly where he managed to find his vast selection of wares. Many people simply donated items to him – occasionally turning his humble vending operation into an open-air consignment shop. He always seemed to have at least one of everything: sunglasses, clothes, shoes, headphones, you name it.
Other vendors would look to him like a weather gauge for how the winds of opportunity would blow that day.
“We know it’s a slow day when he leaves early – because he stays to the bitter end of the day,” said Drea “Lashes” Si, 31, who could often be found a quarter-mile to the west selling beauty products. She personally bought earrings from Ellis that she used to decorate homemade mirrors, which later sold to her customers. “Now I regret and wish I bought more things from him.”
Six years ago, another memorial to him sprouted at the lake.
In July 2016, rumors of his death swirled throughout the nearby community — prompting visitors to the lake to erect a kaleidoscopic memorial of stuffed animals, candles, bright red and purple feathered boas, and a Hennessy cognac bottle. Handwritten messages of “RIP WIllie” and “Go With the Ancestors” dotted the makeshift vigil.
Yet that year, reports of his death proved greatly exaggerated.
A reporter with this news organization tracked him down at a San Leandro hospital, where he had been recovering from a brutal robbery that nearly killed him. Two men jumped Willie as he rode his bicycle on Fifth Avenue near the lake — beating and choking him while stealing his bike, laptop, cellphone and Golden State Warriors jacket.
Passersby found him and called 911, prompting a mad dash to save his life. Despite flatlining during the ambulance ride to the hospital, he somehow survived. In the weeks and months that followed, many in the Lake Merritt community rallied around their informal “mayor” — donating money and replacing the stolen Warriors jacket. And in time, he returned to that same spot near the pergola to hawk more goods.
That brush with death took a heavy toll on his health. He struggled with a traumatic brain injury in the years that followed. And over the last year, he struggled with talking.
Ellis still tried to greet anyone who walked by – usually in that same, somewhat high-pitched voice calling out “Hey Mama” or “Have a good morning.” Sometimes, on those harder days, he’d only offer a smile.
Most mornings, he’d start the day greeting Anna Gunn. She’d hand him two thermoses filled with Ellis’ favorites – oatmeal and chicken noodle soup. Then she’d go teach a fitness class nearby and Ellis would sell his goods.
On May 31, he fell unconscious on the sidewalk and was hospitalized. A few weeks later, nurses took him off life support while Gunn and a few other friends sat by his side.
Lake Merritt seems different now, more quiet and a little less inviting, his friends say.
“There is a void,” Gunn said. “He was such a welcoming person. You expected to see him. And if you didn’t, there was concern. He was just ever-present.”
On Sunday, his ashes sat in a white urn beside pictures of him enjoying the sunlight near the pergola.
Scores of people huddled around it. And together, they offered one final greeting back to him – chanting “Willie, Willie, Willie.”