Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Life and Death Along the River

 

For years, just south of downtown there were a couple of businesses, side by side, owned by one family. On one side was a packaged liquor store. The other was a little print shop that made up fliers that were distributed via junk mail, on doorknobs in neighborhoods and on windshields in shopping center parking lots around the metro area. The family that owned the businesses was an extended one that included several members of the law enforcement communities in St Louis and St Louis county. It wasn’t unusual for there to be cop cars from different municipalities lined up in the alley behind the shops. For hours. I don’t know what went on in the back rooms inside but the rumor was craps and cards.

The labor force used to distribute these fliers was almost exclusively residentially impaired. They were ostensibly independent contractors. Nothing went on paper. No taxes deducted and they were not paid minimum wage. The other most common defining feature of the workers was their alcoholism. They were just happy to get enough cash in the afternoon to finance their drinking till the next day. A savings plan consisted of keeping enough wine to take the edge off the next morning. Many of the men (almost exclusively men) worked for their tab. They got paid cash, at the end of the day, in the print shop and went next door to buy their tall boys and tokays, sometimes putting their cash in the very same hand that had just put it in theirs. It was very convenient for all concerned. What those two businesses were doing was mostly legal but it was also no different than any other dope vendor on the street. They nickeled and dimed a lot of men all the way down into early graves. There was a bus shelter almost right outside the door which was the exclusive domain of the work/drink crew. Every afternoon there would be twelve to eighteen men drinking and watching the buses go by. During the Reagan years, a lot of undocumented Central American refugees up from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua would hop off the freight trains in the railyard to the east and make their way to the shops. These were a boon for the print shop as they were paid even less than the boozers. This fostered a rub with the drinkers. The refugees would move on to avoid any kind of conflict that might draw attention to them.

Not everyone in the distribution was an alcoholic or a refugee. If a guy had a car, he would be hired to drive guys to and from the lots and neighborhoods where they leafleted. All it really did for them was keep gas in the tank while they looked for a real income. Some were loners staying in ramshackles along the riverfront. All of them were just eking out an existence.

The cast of characters was always evolving. Most weren’t bad guys. Most had little education and, wherever they came from, had grown inured to the circumstances of their existence. Every year a couple or three of the guys would die from their alcoholism or complications from it. Sometimes one would be taken to a hospital and die there. Sometimes they would be found dead. Sometimes a couple would get into a fight and one would get killed as a result. Within the group few were surprised and fewer mourned. Most used nicknames or just first names. In the torpor of their drink, most were never much more than acquaintances and didn’t expect or, in many instances, even want to live long lives.

Every now and then a real bull appears on the streets and these guys were very easy marks. First of all, while in their cups, any ten year old could knock them down. Second of all, they were virtually all known and disdained by the police. Cops simply aren’t prone to take a report from a longtime street person robbed of half a pack of cigarettes, a bus transfer and seven dollars and change. Chances are, that street person would just as soon have his last tooth punched out than approach a cop anyway.

River Rat was one such bull although you wouldn’t know it to look at him. I doubt he was more than 5’5” and couldn’t have weighed 130 pounds. Wiry and muscular, he didn’t have an ounce of body fat on him. One of those guys who worked out all the time while in lockup. His torso was covered with prison tattoos. Without a shirt, you could see he was affiliated with racist prison gangs - spider web elbows, iron crosses, swastikas. He had flat timed his way out of the penitentiary which meant he had done every day of his sentence and had been released to the streets with absolutely no supervision. No probation, no parole, he didn’t have to report to anyone. He had a very institutional gang oriented mindset feeling, a need to dominate every situation. He didn’t last long in the shelter and moved onto the riverfront. He worked a few days for the print shop, learned who was who, and then started to target the loners along the riverfront. He would watch for the work crews to return, from a distance, and pick up on the guys who didn’t hang at the bus stop drinking with the others. He would follow from a distance and then strike, away from the others. During his off hours, he scoured the riverfront pillaging the various cubbies where people stayed at night and stashed their stuff. Over a period of months he brutalized a number of people. His weapon of choice was a club. He wasn’t making any friends as he was establishing a reputation on the streets.

Gene Daugherty was one of the guys who delivered fliers and kept to himself. He didn’t drink or get high. He lived in something resembling a yurt on the water side of the flood wall on the south riverfront. He had bent a number of small trees together and draped them with a tarpaulin. He had a way of folding money into very tight, compact little squares which he would tie with fishing line and hang among the leaves on the shrubs. He had a fire pit outside and an old refrigerator and a couple of old chairs to sit on. Of course, the refrigerator had no power but it kept the critters out of his food. Eugene rode a bicycle cobbled together from a lot of parts. It was a peculiar contraption that had a tendency to fall apart. His front rim was a few inches smaller than his rear. He had wired some old milk crates to the rear for hauling stuff and eventually built a trailer of sorts to pull along behind him. He extremely nearsighted and had very thick Coke bottle lens glasses that totally obscured his eyes. He wore a red bill cap that he had duct-taped a battery-operated pocket radio to. He looked comical humping around on his contraption, like an escapee from a Dr Suess cartoon.

Gene was very isolated. He had withdrawn into himself and would only have the most perfunctory conversations with people. My wife was doing street outreach. Trying to engage and build rapport with mentally ill folks. Her work had brought her into contact with Gene. It took a lot of time and coaxing but she finally reached a point where he was open and glad to see her. Her next step was to get him to come to the shelter during the day, when no one else but me was around, so he could take a hot shower. It was a process of building trust in hopes of connecting him with more meaningful help. After a while, I became okay in his eyes too. Eventually we were able to get him to occasionally come to our meals program. He would show up toward the end of the service when most people were gone. He wouldn’t sit at the dining tables with others so I let him sit with me. Sometimes he would come and squat next to me, not even taking a chair. He was a very bright guy, relatively well read with lots of arcane interests and fascinations. Still he had episodes where he was clearly in a different state of mind. He would sometimes growl and bark when people got too close. One day a nearby gas station/convenience store asked me over to view some security video. Gene had bicycled up and unloaded his baskets and was spreading wet clothes across the floor. He became irate when he was asked to pick his stuff up. He didn’t harm anyone or do any damage. They were as concerned about him as anything. I told them what little I could without violating his confidentiality and asked them to call me should anything like that recur. He occasionally shopped there without incident afterwards.

River Rat made Gene a particular target. He would lurk around the shop and whenever the bike was in the alley, he knew it was easy pickings. Gene started to divide his cash and put it in different pockets. Rat got hip to that fairly quickly. He knew about how much Gene would make in a day and he would beat it out of him. Gene managed to escape him often enough. He kept going to work. But eventually Rat found Gene’s yurt. Gene was such a creature of habit he wouldn’t move. He kept the main campsite and built another smaller, more obscure one nearby. Once Rat beat Gene so bad, he broke his arm. It was several days before we could convince him to go to an emergency room. By then it was terribly swollen and discolored. Still, he wouldn’t talk to the police or consider moving. 

Gene was found beaten to death in his camp. The general assumption on the streets was the killer was very likely River Rat. His proclivities, including his targeting Gene, were well known. I think every person the detectives spoke to said so. But nobody knew for sure. The police even picked Rat up and questioned him. Nothing. They held him for about a day and released him due to a total lack of physical evidence. Gene’s death was written up in the paper. His peculiar appearance had made him something of a known eccentric on the near south side and the violent nature of his death and the mystery of who done it made it a topic of the week but for those of us closer to the situation. I was interviewed for the article and took the reporter to his campsite. It was a big write up with pictures. I think the hope was the article might shake something loose.

Time passed. Not much changed although things got tougher for Rat on the streets. Maybe the prosecutor couldn’t charge him but that didn’t change anybody’s opinion. He had achieved a pariah status among society’s pariahs. Fall was coming. The weather was changing. People had been seeing less and less of Rat so nobody thought much of it when he disappeared altogether. Most assumed he simply moved on to greener pastures and victims if they thought of him at all.

After the following winter, skeletal remains were found on the north riverfront. Turned out to be Rat. His bones had been scattered by animals. Some had teeth marks. It was impossible to determine the exact cause of death with any certainty. His skull had been crushed but there was no telling how or when. Even Rat had to put his head down and sleep from time to time. His write up was only about six sentences.

Nearly a year later, I was contacted by relatives of Gene. One of them had searched his name on the internet and found the article about his death. Ten years earlier he was having some sort of episode where his family felt a need for him to be hospitalized. He refused. They sought and got an involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital. He was released a short time later and disappeared never speaking to his family again. They had been anguished during the intervening years. They were saddened to know of his death but were relieved of the uncertainty of not knowing anything at all. They were thankful to know there were friends and kindnesses at the end of his life.

 

 

 

Tom Burnham was born in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Cut his teeth on the north Texas plane and came of age causing trouble in River City, St Louis, Missouri. He has done volunteer work and been a foot soldier in social activism since he was a child. Aside from spending 35 years working among the denizens of city streets, particularly those living with mental illness and HIV, he has collected and honed his stories in an oral tradition. Committing them to paper and posterity is a relatively recent endeavor. He sometimes lectures at some of the universities he dropped out of. His motto was, ‘avoid the authorities’ and then he became one.