City Life

Now 90, Bernice May Still Holds Barkeep's IOU

To survive in this town, it helps to be hardworking, good humored and tough. There, we've described Bernice May.

By Paul Wilson
Published January 21, 2014

The woman who scrubbed floors for a downtown Hamilton bar owner wonders if he was always just waiting for her to die. She's going to make him wait some more.

Bernice May just turned 90. 'Nobody upstairs wants me,' she says. (Image Credit: Paul Wilson)
Bernice May just turned 90. "Nobody upstairs wants me," she says. (Image Credit: Paul Wilson)

To survive in this town, it helps to be hardworking, good humored and tough. There, we've described Bernice May.

She was born in Hamilton, never been up the hill to Ancaster. "I don't associate with rich people," she says.

Her home is Cannon East, a narrow frame house not far from the old Ivor Wynne.

Bernice has never been to Ancaster. Her world is Cannon Street East. (Image Credit: Paul Wilson)
Bernice has never been to Ancaster. Her world is Cannon Street East. (Image Credit: Paul Wilson)

Husband Frank died 50 years ago, in the midst of a family funeral. So she raised the five kids on her own.

She came into a little money some years ago. Her employer borrowed it, then wouldn't pay her back.

But Bernice carries on. Friends held a birthday tea party for her last week. Now she is 90. "Nobody upstairs wants me," she says.

Frank May died 50 years ago. Bernice saves her poppies for him. (Image Credit: Paul Wilson)
Frank May died 50 years ago. Bernice saves her poppies for him. (Image Credit: Paul Wilson)

I met Bernice nearly 20 years ago. She didn't want to talk to me, but her daughter convinced her it was the right thing to do.

Bernice was working at the Grapes & Things bar, on King East across from the Connaught. She scrubbed floors and washed dishes.

Her brother died and left her $16,000. Her boss at the bar, Paul Pappas, heard about her windfall. He asked if he could borrow $10,000.

Bernice was beside herself. But it felt like family there. Pappas wrote her an IOU.

Paul Pappas wrote an IOU to Bernice May 25 years ago. He hasn't honoured it yet. (Image Credit: Paul Wilson)
Paul Pappas wrote an IOU to Bernice May 25 years ago. He hasn't honoured it yet. (Image Credit: Paul Wilson)

He declared bankruptcy, but still lived in a house in Ancaster's Meadowlands that cost $300,000 back then. And still managed to take a two-week vacation to Mexico. And he never paid Bernice back.

I wrote a story about her for The Spectator, and touched base with her every now and then. And one day she had me over for lunch. The good china was out. She had made salmon sandwiches and there were Fudgee-Os too.

Bernice wanted me to meet someone. Jim Wentworth, used car wholesaler, was the other guest for lunch.

After reading what happened to Bernice, he had stopped by her place one day and gave her an envelope. Inside, a cheque for $1,000.

Wentworth told Bernice he would be back. He returned each month, until the total hit $10,000.

"What happened there was against everything I was raised to believe," he said then. "Here was somebody who had taken advantage of Bernice's kindness. You don't do that. I just had to do something."

Every Christmas after that, a card would arrive at my home. I came to know Bernice's shaky handwriting so well.

I would call her in early January, to thank her for the card and to wish her Happy Birthday. The last few years, I've stopped by too, sometimes with my wife Marnie.

This year, however, no card arrived. A couple of weeks ago, I called Bernice's number. It kept ringing. My gosh, maybe she's gone.

But then that voice, still strong. Turns out she had a gift for me this time. I'd need to stop by to get it.

There was a silver box of imported biscuits the size of a TV tray. And the finest Christmas card I've ever received. Open it and there's a snowy forest scene that lights up. You're not supposed to do this, but I turned it over. With tax, that card cost more than 10 dollars.

We talked about Paul Pappas, but only a little. He went on to run a couple of places in Hess Village, Garcia's and Smooth Herman's. He never got in touch with her again. "I think he was waiting for me to die," she says. She still has the tattered IOU.

Pappas didn't pay his debts, but that's not Bernice's way. She's already paid for her plot at Woodland. And she still hasn't spent the $10,000 that her good Samaritan delivered. "Earning daily interest," she says with pride.

She's lost track of generous Jim Wentworth. She believes he's somewhere in the Maritimes.

She's still in the house on Cannon, the fixer-upper she bought with her son in the mid-'80s for $23,000. One floor would be handier, because she has to climb the stairs to her bedroom each night on her knees. But she says it's fine.

She decided the place needed a new roof a while back. She gave the guy a $2,000 deposit, "and I never saw one shingle." His name is Jason Dennis and he's been given jail time before for bilking customers.

He'll be in court again next month, but Bernice won't be looking on. At 90, there are nicer ways to spend a day.

Paul Wilson wrote for The Spectator for a long time and CBC Hamilton for a short time. Twitter: @PaulWilsonInHam

12 Comments

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By Prayerful (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2014 at 10:06:29

"Woe to those that deal in fraud,
Those who, when they are owed something from others, exact full measure,
But when they owe something to others, they give them less than what is due.

Do they not think that they will be raised up again on a tremendous Day?

The Day when all people shall stand before the Lord of the worlds? (Qur'an, chapter 83, the cheaters)

May God protect this lady from those who would do her harm, and may He show her His good pleasure.

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By o holy night (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2014 at 10:17:43

Did RTH become a christian blog while I was away on the weekend?

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By Wilsonian (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2014 at 11:17:33

Another beautiful piece by Paul Wilson. I'm so glad he's got an outlet here to share his stories from Hamilton's heart. Still can't understand why the Ceeb parted ways.

P.S. Confidential to o holy night, Christians don't usually quote the Quran.

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By o holy night (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2014 at 13:23:29 in reply to Comment 97010

t'was tongue in cheek - it's just getting a little religious in the comment section lately - no harm intended, just a friendly jest

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By MattM (registered) | Posted January 21, 2014 at 14:27:02

Great to see you writing up stories for RTH now, I love all of them.

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By Jim Street (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2014 at 14:54:13

The Ceeb never gave him this much freedom or space. This is the Paul Wilson I know and love. Welcome back Mr. Wilson!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 21, 2014 at 15:02:22 in reply to Comment 97021

If you've read any of Mark Fenton's photo essays, you know RTH doesn't go in for restrictive format. We're delighted that Paul is willing to write the occasional story.

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By Jim Street (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2014 at 15:51:29

Thanks Ryan for giving Paul the space he needs to tell his style of stories. Much appreciated!

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted January 21, 2014 at 17:21:36

The CBC, at least CBC in Torotno, doesn't seem to have understood Paul Wilson's work. Most of the rest of us do. I would love to continue to read his masterful capture of the essence of this remarkable city. Paul gets it. And shares it. And I love it. Thank you Paul, and thank you Ryan, for making this possible.

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By xyz (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2014 at 20:37:24

Bernice May's positive attitude and the kindness of Jim Wentworth in trying to rectify an injustice not of his doing is inspiring.

Paul Wilson's stories capture the nuances and the feel of Hamilton and its people in a way that no other local journalist or politician has ever done or probably ever will do. Thank you Paul. May you keep doing what you do so well for many years to come.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted January 22, 2014 at 13:48:54

Terrific story by a terrific writer!

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By j (registered) | Posted January 23, 2014 at 18:12:58

A delightful and uplifting story about a good woman.

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