City Paper is not for tourists
I found Marvin Minter’s body in a hovel. Only later did I realize that it was a home.
Photographs by Chris Gunn
This is my story. This is also Marvin Minter’s story. I’m the one telling it to you because I’m in the strange position of being able to. Marvin Minter doesn’t know I know anything about him. In fact, he doesn’t even know who I am, and he definitely doesn’t know I’m writing this. You see, Marvin Minter is dead.
This is the story of how I met a man who did not meet me.
It was a strange day, last Feb. 15, a bright, sunny, freakily warm winter Tuesday, with temperatures in the 70s. The last week and a half had been freezing, and the winter had worn on so long I couldn’t remember the last time I had been able to go anywhere without a coat and three sweaters on. But this day was beautiful, and I went out to take a walk. I had my camera; I was taking a photography class at the Smithsonian, and a friend had told me about a good place to take pictures: the corner of Michigan and North Capitol, where the brick silos of the McMillan Reservoir stand in silent rows out in the middle of a vast field.
He was right. The abandoned silos formed a stark picture beneath the white winter sun. But trying to shoot through the high chain-link fence surrounding the site was impossible. Then I found a little hole in the fence and a path leading into the weeds inside, a bare imprint wide enough for one person, well-worn. One small voice in my head told me not to even think about climbing through that hole. A louder voice told me, Screw it.
So I stepped through the hole and followed the path through high grass, bushes, and a few low-hanging saplings to a set of stairs that led down to the silos. The place was desolate, sedate: a long row of 19th-century brick cylinders punctuated by houselike buildings whose broken windows and rust-hinged doorways left water faucets and huge valves in full view. High above, crows soared. One dipped low, squalling, then perched on a windowsill and peered at me with black glinting eyes.
One of the silos, the fourth one in, was surrounded by trash, and I figured it must be a hangout for drunks and drug addicts—a pretty good place for them to go, actually. Aside from the rustling of some plastic grocery sacks caught in the trees, however, I heard nothing. So I figured there probably wasn’t anybody around. I moved closer.
Inside the silo, I spotted someone lying asleep on the ground.
This must be a drug addict, I thought, and I immediately realized that I did not want him to know I was there. I turned quickly, trying not to make any noise. But even as I started backing away, my brain began to process what my eyes had just seen: The person didn’t have any pants on. He was lying on his stomach, with his feet—and his butt—toward me. That was a little strange: Even the downest and outest of drunks usually wore pants. I looked again: the legs smooth and black, hairless, thin. Almost womanlike. But the hips were narrow. Maybe it was a girl—a young girl, whose hips hadn’t developed yet. Rape, I thought. Suddenly I felt very cold, and very small. I should leave. Now.
I spun around and began to walk very quickly back the way I’d come, but after a few steps I thought, Well, maybe I should wake her up and see if she needs help. So I turned around again and stepped back into the entryway of the silo. No, I should really leave, I thought. Whoever messed with her might mess with me. But I kept leaning forward, and looking harder, until I could just see above her shoulder—a beard. She was a man. Thank God.
So then I thought, I should really inspect this person. After all, it’s not every day that you come across a dead body. Really, until I thought those words, my consciousness had not fully registered that I was in the presence of death. I had never seen a dead body before. So I looked hard, fighting the sticky fly legs climbing up the inside of my stomach, fighting the urge to run away, trying really hard to make myself take a whiff and see what death smelled like. Finally, I inhaled, but I couldn’t really smell anything. Well, it’s been cold lately, I thought. He’s been pretty well-preserved.
I had my camera. I should take a picture. I thought of the photojournalist I’d talked to a week earlier, who was going back to Jerusalem because “there aren’t enough bullets in D.C.” Those were his exact words. Well, I’ll take a picture and send it to him. I raised up my camera and took a picture, framing the body inside the doorway with a vine hanging down over it. Then I realized I hadn’t adjusted for the low light inside the silo, so I took another one, this time with the sun shining on the curves of the backs of his thighs, the color of his smooth black skin darkening where it disappeared into the crack of his butt, but otherwise unchanging all the way down to the white bare soles of his feet.
I was too far away, though, and I knew my picture wouldn’t really show much detail. I stepped forward, forcing myself closer, feeling spirits, and maybe his killer, about to jump me any minute. Spirits. Suddenly, as I raised the camera to my eye, I felt this huge wave of guilt. How could I take a picture without his permission? A picture of his naked rear end, no less? And I remembered all the careful handling of death I’d grown up with, of how you shouldn’t go into those old haunted houses or stay too much around places where people had died.
This was a really sacred thing, and I was in a sacred place. I should leave. But no, I thought, this is my chance to see this thing, death. Maybe I will never have this chance again. I walked to the entryway and very quietly lifted the dead vines shrouding the way, so I could get a good look at him.
His eyes were sunken, closed. His face was covered with a scruffy beard. Along the side of his cheek were several red gouges, deep chunks taken out of his face. But there was no blood. Just the gouges.
His hand was up next to his mouth, like a sleeping baby’s. He was wearing a watch. The hands said 3 o’clock. Funny how I figured the watch should have been stopped or something, but it was ticking away, keeping good time.
I leaned forward so I could see him even better, took a few steps around to his side. Instantly, I realized that I was now well inside the silo and had no idea what was going on outside. All my philosophical struggles between the solemnity of death and respect for the spirits and my unabashed curiosity popped like soap bubbles, and I was left with the stark reality of a dead body lying 3 feet in front of me, and whoever had killed him maybe just as close. I should leave. For real.
I ducked out of the silo fast and looked around. No sign of anyone, but who could be sure? The crows seemed to be getting more frantic. I walked very quickly past the silos, back up the stairs, and out the winding path to the cut in the fence. As I ducked through the hole, a man waiting at a bus stop turned and looked at me. I waved and grinned, figuring that would allay any suspicions. “Hey there,” I said. “Nice day.”
I kept walking swiftly but played it cool and collected, acting like a person who had to be somewhere soon, as opposed to someone who had to leave somewhere quickly. As I rounded the corner of Michigan Avenue, I noticed the chill in the afternoon air that warned of the coming winter night. The hair on my scalp and arms began to switch its reason for standing up—from fear to cold—and I started thinking of other, mundane, things, like the need to buy a few more sweaters; my finances, which probably weren’t very amenable to a few more sweaters; my irresponsibility in general with things like that, the perfect example being the phone-bill fight I’d had with one of my roommates that morning; and a 5 o’clock appointment that afternoon, which I might be late for now that I had spent so long looking at a dead body.
Well, at least I have a good excuse this time, I thought, imagining myself calling to apologize and explain. And then, thinking of all the other excuses I’d made up in the past, I decided they probably wouldn’t believe me. I mean, “I found a dead body”—what is someone supposed to say to that, and how is that supposed to make me late? Finding dead bodies doesn’t really take time out of your day. You just find them and go on, right? Well, it’s still worth mentioning, in any event. I should find a phone and call to say I’ll be late.
I crossed the street and headed up the driveway into Children’s Hospital, figuring there might be a phone in there, and then I thought, Maybe the guy wasn’t dead after all. The hospital is right across the street from the reservoir; it wouldn’t be too much trouble for them to pop over and check him out. I decided to make an anonymous 911 call; at least his death would be registered, so that his family could know. It took me a little while to find a phone.
“Where are you?” asked the voice on the other end of the line, after I explained why I was calling. “The Children’s Hospital,” I said. “Go get a security guard and come back to the phone,” the voice said. “Don’t hang up. Bring him back to the phone, and then I’ll tell you what to do next.”
“OK,” I said. I left the phone hanging by its cord and moved deeper into the hospital, looking for a security guard. I found some sort of lobby area with a large circular security desk in the middle of it. I went up to it and was about to speak when I realized I was just one of about eight people all wanting something from the guy sitting there, and I really shouldn’t say anything very loud. I mean, all these poor people, worrying about sick children, don’t need to know about a dead body lying across the street.
So I stood for a little while waiting for them to leave, but the moment one person left, another person walked up. I’m going to be here forever, I thought. I began doodling on the scratch pad on the desk, and then I thought, I really ought to go hang up that phone. Somebody might like to use it, and that 911 operator probably has other emergency calls he has to deal with.
I wrote on the scratch pad, “I just found a dead body,” and was about to hand it to the security guard when I realized that it seemed kind of crass, that he might think it was a joke. I scratched that out and wrote “Sir,” and then stood there waiting for some magical polite thing to occur to me so I could write it. Nothing. “Sir,” I finally wrote, “there is a man lying in the water reservoir.” I looked at it and added the word “dead” at the end, so now the note read, “Sir, there is a man lying in the water reservoir. Dead.” I was about to scratch that out, too, and recompose, but I realized I was wasting time.
I handed the piece of paper to the security guard, and he read it. His eyebrows lifted way up and his eyes got round, like in a cartoon. He called me around to his side of the desk and lifted a Manila folder in front of his face to shield us from the other people at the desk. “Is this true?” he said in a low voice. “Yes,” I said. “Are you sure he was dead?” he said. “No, but I think so,” I said, trying to think of why I had decided he was dead. “He was kind of bloated,” I finally blurted, “but I couldn’t be sure.”
“Oh,” he said, holding me by the arm. “Stay right here.” Then he called the main security desk and said he was contacting the police.
I began to think that maybe reporting this body was a bad idea. About half an hour passed, and a police officer showed up. A young blond guy. I got into his cruiser, and I gave him directions to the hole in the fence. “What the hell were you doing over here?” the cop, Officer Chris Wickham, asked. I was instantly sick of all the little-girl-like-you-shouldn’t-be-by-yourself-in-a-place-like-this lectures I could foresee for the rest of the time I had to spend with him, so I gave him my most withering look (which, to tell the truth, needs some work). Then we climbed out of the car.
Another police cruiser pulled up behind us, a friend of Wickham’s. I led them to the body. Wickham decided that the red gouges on the man’s face were rat nibbles and called the forensics team, and on second thought, stated the strong possibility of sexual assault, because of the missing pants. The three of us, with nothing else to do, then went exploring, shouting down tunnels and jumping off the low concrete walls. The two cops related the highlights of some recent bad-guy chase, during which they had been trying to catch someone on a roof and had almost fallen off the ladder they had been using.
Then it began to get really cold, and more police showed up, and I was glad to sit in a heated car while one of the cops did the report. Officer Mia Booker didn’t really need me for much, except to put my name on everything and write down my address and phone number, which she did carefully, using lots of Wite-Out. And now I had really missed my 5 o’clock appointment.
I was sort of curious about what had happened to the guy, but somehow it seemed inappropriate to ask. Just before Booker pulled off to take me home, someone shoved a white garbage sack in the back seat of the car. The man’s possessions. “Does he have identification?” Booker asked. “Yup,” the other cop said. “He had $200 cash on him and a California ID.” Then Booker put the car in gear and took me home.
The truth is, at first I wasn’t very interested in who this dead man was. I had found him; he was dead. He was obviously homeless. Maybe he was a drug addict washed up on the shores of life for me to trip over. I tripped over him, and I kept walking.
Somehow, he had seemed very natural lying there, as natural as the dead grass outside or the empty bottles piled up against the wall of the silo. In my memory, he was simply a part of the water reservoir, a part of the scenery, and I almost felt as if he hadn’t wanted me to disturb him. I even felt a little guilty that I had.
I certainly wasn’t thinking about writing about him. But then I made the mistake of telling the story of my discovery around the Washington City Paper office, where I am an intern.
My editor had other ideas. He called me into his office and shut the door.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked.
“I guess so,” I said.
“I think that body was in your path for a reason,” he said. A pause. “What we do in this industry is commodify misery. I’m OK with that. Are you?”
I figured I was. So that afternoon, I went down to the 3rd District police station and asked for the police report Officer Booker had filled out.
“Hold on a second.” The desk officer started looking through a three-ring binder on the desk. “Here it is. Yup. ‘Unconscious person found on the 2800 block of North Capitol Street NW.’ Is that what you’re talking about?”
She held up the page. On the back, I could read the name Marvin Louis Minter. “Yes, that’s it,”
“We can’t issue this report for six weeks,” the officer told me. “You’ll have to go down to headquarters to get it.”
But now I had a name. And that was enough to start.
First I called the medical examiner’s office. The family had claimed the body of Marvin Louis Minter the day after I discovered him, but D.C. law prevents the names of next of kin from being made public.
I tried some Internet search engines and found the names and addresses of seven Marvin Minters across the country. The top one had a Fort Washington, Md., address. Figuring that must be the one, I didn’t even call for a few days, thinking I’d find some grieving family member who might not be so happy to hear from a nosy journalist.
At last, though, I picked up the phone.
“Is this the house of Marvin Minter?” I asked.
“Yo, dad! Phone for you!” I could hear someone saying, “Just a second, I’ll be right there,” in the background.
“Um, is this Marvin Minter?” I asked.
“Yes it is.”
“Do you know any other Marvin Minters? I mean, I found the body of a man named Marvin Minter a couple of weeks ago, and I’m trying to contact his family.”
“Really? Get out of here! No, I’m the only Marvin Minter I know about.”
After that, I just went down the list.
“Is this the house of Marvin Minter?” I inquired.
“Yes it is, but Marvin Minter’s dead.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m calling because, well, um, I found his body.”
“I found the body of Marvin Minter in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago,” I said, trying not to sound flustered.
“What is this, a prank call? Marvin died in his sleep 10 years ago.”
“Is this the house of Marvin Minter?”
“He’s at work right now.”
“Oh. Do you know of any other Marvin Minters?”
“What do you mean?”
It took a few more trips down to the police station, but I was finally able to wangle a copy of the police report. Now, programmed with the date of birth of my Marvin Louis Minter, the Internet search engines yielded only a single man, who had spent a lot of time in Rochester, N.Y. Although no Marvin Minters were listed in the Rochester phone book, I figured he might have some relatives.
The first Minter I called turned out to be Marvin’s cousin.
The police, of course, had located Marvin Minter’s family in Rochester much more efficiently than I had. In fact, only a few hours after I had found him, his stepfather, Alex Trotter, had already started making arrangements to formally identify the body.
Alex Trotter called his cousin, Camilla Watlington, who lives in D.C. She wasn’t sure if she could identify Minter because she hadn’t seen him in years. That night, she lay in bed pulling together the memories she had of him, so taciturn at family reunions, and the photographs she’d seen of him on the walls of Alex Trotter’s home. Both a brother and a former boyfriend of hers were funeral directors, so she was not unfamiliar with death. Still, she knew that what she faced the next day was probably going to be one of the hardest things she would ever have to do.
The next morning, she took a cab to the D.C. General Hospital complex where the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is located. The lobby of the office is clinical, antiseptic, plain. There’s a security desk with a log book on the counter, fat and well-thumbed, filled with the uncertain signatures of people about to identify the bodies of loved ones. There are pink vinyl chairs surrounding a coffee table full of wrinkly copies of Parenting, Southern Living, and Family Circle. There are a couple of ferns in the corners, and the D.C. flag and the American flag, both looking a little wilted, stand along one wall. Behind a door on the opposite wall is the room where staff members lead relatives of the deceased.
Watlington signed in and showed her identification to the security guard. She sat down to wait. A few minutes later, a detective, an assistant medical examiner, and a social worker came out and accompanied her into the little anteroom off the lobby. They began to talk, telling her what they knew of the circumstances in which the body had been found, attempting to fill in blanks, draw conclusions.
Watlington mainly listened, answering questions when she knew answers, bracing herself. Marvin Minter was born in Rochester. She didn’t know how long he’d been in D.C., only that he had been here. He was a traveler, she explained. He’d been living on the streets for years. Finally, a Polaroid photograph of Marvin Minter was brought out, but the detective sent it back, saying it was too graphic, that the damage by “animal wounds” might be too much for Watlington. Watlington wanted to know what kind of animal wounds, and they explained that rodents had eaten away part of Minter’s face. Someone brought a second photograph back to the room. This one, a semiprofile, had been taken at an angle so the gouges on Minter’s left cheek were hidden from view.
This is not Marvin, Watlington thought. In the photo, his hair was much longer than she remembered it, and she had never seen him with a beard. The face was puffy in death, and the sheets drawn up to the chin were disconcerting. But as she studied the picture, the young Marvin came back to her: the distinct hairline, the forehead, the round shape of his face. As she looked, she grew more and more certain. The identification took no more than 10 minutes. This was indeed Marvin Louis Minter, born Nov. 4, 1959, in Rochester. He was 40 when he died.
The cause of death had not yet been determined, and Minter’s possessions were being held in case they might be needed for evidence. Watlington made arrangements to have the body sent to the morgue in Rochester, where Minter would be buried. She went home.
Watlington described the scene at the medical examiner’s office to me in her comfortable living room on 15th and R Streets NW on the last Thursday in March. It had been six weeks since I had found Marvin Louis Minter, and the following day, I would travel to Rochester to visit Minter’s mother and stepfather, Pearlie and Alex Trotter. The cause of Minter’s death was still unknown but had been deemed noncriminal, so the day before, Watlington had made a trip to the police department’s evidence warehouse to retrieve his possessions. She showed Minter’s death certificate and the authorization from his mother to pick up the things, but the security guard still asked her why it was that she, and not his mother, had come. She sat in the lobby for a long time, even though there were only two or three others there. The room was silent except for a big blowing fan at the end of the hall. She chatted with a Korean man on the opposite couch, who had come to pick up a stolen briefcase. Eventually, a man came out and asked her if she’d been helped, and she told him she hadn’t.
A few minutes later, he came back with a clear sealed bag labeled “Marvin Louis Minter”: Minter’s possessions. Watlington could see through the bag that they were soiled and wet, so on her way home she stopped at a CVS to buy some alcohol to clean them with, and then at a liquor store to get a small bottle of brandy to fortify herself for the task. It bothered her more touching his things than seeing his body, but she did it, carefully swabbing everything with liberal douses of alcohol.
That was Wednesday. On Thursday, Watlington laid everything on the coffee table easily, talking to me the entire time. There was a black quartz Timex watch. The watch I saw on Minter’s arm. Water-resistant, made in the Philippines, still ticking, its hands matching the hands on the clock hanging over Watlington’s couch: 7:15.
There was a green nylon wallet with $484 in bills in it—somehow the cop had miscounted. Watlington wondered why her nephew hadn’t just checked into a motel that February night, rather than stay out in the cold as he did.
There was a little pile of cards: various IDs, phone cards, business cards, a D.C. library card.
There was a child’s beaded bracelet: silver interspersed with turquoise stones and mother-of-pearl hearts.
There was a folded newspaper picture of Martin Luther King Jr.
There was a button made from a silver buffalo nickel.
And there was a letter from Marvin Minter’s mother, which Watlington had spread out carefully to dry and then stored in a plastic sleeve. It was dated Oct. 8, 1999:
I have prayed and prayed that someday you would go get [stained beyond recognition] and really work with [more stains] so you can have a [stained] life for yourself. It seems if that’s impossible task for you. I feel [stained] at you are living on the street [stained] that’s the life you choose and there is nothing anybody can do about it. Your father Vincent is living in a Nursing Home, your aunt Cartie is [stained] and your uncle Paul is very sick. [stained] a $20.00 money order for you. [stained] Pray that God will take care.
That was all. Carefully, Watlington put the things back in the bag and handed it to me to take to Minter’s family in Rochester. Watlington had altered only one thing: The original $484 had been wet and covered with dark stains. She had taken the bills to the bank and exchanged them, so that Minter’s mother would not be alarmed when she saw the money.
Rochester is nine hours northwest of Washington by car, a city of steakhouses and shopping centers, babies in big parkas, and houses with roofs built steep to let the snow slip off. On the television at the hotel, the Italian channel hosts talk shows and soap operas, and the weekend I was there, a local radio station hosted a Polka Festival, mixing Polish with English as if they were the same language.
The Trotters’ house is in Gates, a suburb near the airport, northwest of town. The streets are wide, lined by ranch houses with big yards and spindly young trees. Theirs is a neat gray house with smoke-blue trim. A forest-green Buick and a spotless white ’78 Corvette sit in the driveway.
The Trotters welcomed me into their home, light and clean and comfortably furnished, with matching sofa sets in the living room and the den, and a glass table pushed up to the wall in the kitchen. Even in his absence, Minter’s imprint was here. In the living room, a table full of sympathy cards surrounded a large framed photograph of Minter and an album filled with pictures from his funeral. Plants were scattered on end tables and in corners, condolence gifts the Trotters had received when he died.
Behind a door in the kitchen were the steps leading down to a basement apartment originally made up for Minter. There were wall-to-wall carpeting and a television in the main room. A kitchenette along one wall featured beige Formica counters and new linoleum that looked like tile. In the corner was the bedroom, with two beds in it.
Pearlie Trotter had the basement redone in the hope that some day her son would come home. She had imposed only two rules— rules he didn’t like, but they seemed reasonable enough to her: no cooking while drinking, and no women. But apart from a few months a year and a half ago, he never stayed in the basement apartment. “I just want to be free,” he told her once. “This neighborhood is too clean,” he told her another time.
Now Pearlie Trotter sat at her kitchen table and opened the plastic bag that contained her son’s possessions. She wished she had something more of his—childhood photos, his report cards, the drawings he did in kindergarten. But one Sunday afternoon in 1991, the house that Marvin Minter grew up in was destroyed in a gas-line explosion. Alex Trotter suffered only minor injuries, but Pearlie Trotter spent three months in the hospital, with burns over nearly half her body. All of the family possessions were lost, including the entire collection of photographs—and all of the keepsakes from Minter’s childhood.
As she spread her son’s few belongings on the table, Pearlie Trotter remembered the other things he liked to have with him, possessions she had begged him to leave at home but that he had insisted on carrying in the little backpack he always kept on the streets: his high school diploma; the associate’s degree he had earned through a correspondence course at the State University of New York (SUNY) Empire State College; a newspaper photograph of himself at age 12 in a magician’s costume in front of his church, wearing the crown that made him King of Aenon Baptist.
He’d been crowned for winning the church talent show with a magic act he’d practiced for months. His older brother, Reggie, had won it the year before, and young Marvin had been aiming for the crown ever since. Pearlie Trotter recalled the standing ovation he’d received at the end of his act, the pride with which he’d worn the crown.
She remembered her son—a solitary child, a loner, a thoughtful soul. “He had an old man’s spirit,” was the way Reggie Minter put it. “He had a way of being alone even in a crowd. He always kept himself apart. He had an inner court and an outer court, and very few people made it into his inner court.”
There are no photographs, no papers, no old toys. But there are places. The Otis Street community, with its stop signs on each corner, wooden houses with rocking-chair porches and small yards behind short chain-link fences, is the neighborhood of Marvin Minter’s youth. Driving through those streets, Pearlie Trotter told me, she always thinks she just might catch a glimpse of her son, because these streets were his streets. The asphalt where, as a kid, he rode his bicycle up and down and up and down until it broke and George Girvin next door had to fix it. The stoops where, as a teenager, he hung out talking with his friends late into the evening.
There is the “Dangerous Curve,” so dubbed for the adrenaline rush young Marvin and his friends would get by flying through it at top speeds on their bikes with their hands off the brakes. There is the sidewalk panel where Marvin and his friend Earl Vick wrote their initials in the concrete. “Mickey Mouse! Mickey Mouse!” whooped Earl at Marvin’s initials, “MM.”
Here is Earl’s house, where Earl Vick still lives with his parents, Maryland and Anita Vick. “Marvin’s inner court,” Reggie Minter called them, and indeed the Vicks knew Marvin Minter in ways that almost no one else knew him. It was to their house that Marvin came to hide when he didn’t want to step out in public in the new corduroy suit his mother had bought him for church.
Marvin liked to beat Earl home from school to get first dibs on Anita Vick’s cooking, and when Reggie and Earl were out scoping girls, he liked to sit with her and talk about the universe, about college, about his family. Other times, he’d play chess with Maryland Vick, always challenging him to another game. Once, Marvin even went so far as to take up Maryland Vick’s challenge to accompany him to his job, building basements for new houses. “He just couldn’t hack it,” Maryland Vick remembered, laughing. “Yeah, well, you all would carry these 60-pound blocks around three at a time, one in each hand and one in your teeth,” Earl retorted, still defending his long-ago friend.
It was late in high school that things started changing. The adolescent Marvin grew more solitary, more private. He began skipping classes, and one day Pearlie Trotter discovered a huge wad of cash and marijuana in his desk drawer. She decided he needed a change of scene and sent him to live with his father, on the other side of town, far away from his friends. For a while, he seemed to straighten out. He graduated from high school in May 1978, and Alex Trotter drove him up to SUNY Brockport in the fall.
But Marvin Minter’s troubles followed him to college. He was drinking and failing his classes, and he didn’t get along with his roommate. He began seeing a doctor because he was hearing voices, but he didn’t like the medicine the doctor gave him, because it made him feel funny. He drank more.
He wouldn’t talk much to his family about any of this. Once, when Minter was home from college, his mother heard him talking in the other room and walked in to find him hitting the wall and shouting, “You’re not going to get me! You’re not going to get me!” She had thought he’d been with someone. But when she asked him about it later, he wouldn’t talk about the voices, and he refused to take any more medication. Soon, he dropped out of Brockport and moved into an apartment in Rochester.
He got a job at the Monroe Development Center, working as an aide helping handicapped and mentally retarded children. But after about a year, his supervisors grew concerned about Minter’s erratic behavior, and they fired him.
Minter went down to Florida to live with an uncle, Emory Green. Again, for a while, it seemed as if he were back on track. He found out about various grants that allowed him to start school again, and he got his own apartment. But something was still amiss. Later, Green would tell Pearlie Trotter that Minter would go into a room and just sit, and when Green would try to talk to him, Minter wouldn’t respond. Yet whenever his mother asked him about it on the phone, Minter’s problems were always everybody else’s fault: The teacher didn’t like him, or he couldn’t buy the books, or nobody understood him. Finally, he just bought a car and drove it all the way back to Rochester. He said he couldn’t stand the bugs down there.
Minter applied for welfare. State officials approved his application, but with some conditions: He had to get treatment for his now-burgeoning alcoholism, and he had to go back to school. Dutifully, he completed a 45-day treatment program in Rochester, but he began drinking again almost as soon as he got out, and as a result, he was evicted from the group home he had been assigned to. Nevertheless, he worked hard to complete an associate’s degree in business management and economics through correspondence courses at Empire State. It was a real achievement, but Minter disappointed his proud family by refusing to participate in the graduation ceremony.
Minter simply could not keep a job, and he drifted onto the street whenever his housing arrangements fell apart, which happened more and more frequently.
Jessie James, or “Aunt,” as he liked to call her, was Minter’s favorite aunt. As his habits grew more erratic, he grew especially close to her, despite the fact that he kept selling the things she bought him, and once put her out more than $1,000 for back rent on an apartment he’d convinced her to sign for. James is an energetic woman, funny and blunt. Whereas her sister tries to be diplomatic about her son, James points out his faults without making him look bad. She told me about the way he just listened, head cocked, as she yelled at him for the back rent. When she was done, he just looked at her and said, “Aunt, you’ll never be broke.”
Later on, James hired her nephew to do her yard work on Thursdays. He would come over pushing his grocery cart, and she would give him a clean set of clothes and breakfast, and then he’d mow her lawn or prune her bushes. One day, she came home to find he’d cut off every single one of her rosebuds. “It looked like they needed to come out, Aunt,” was all he told her when she complained. Another afternoon, he finished the work and told her, “Aunt, I’m a professional landscaper. I’ve been taking care of your yard for a while now. You need to give me a raise.” She didn’t.
Minter, like his aunt, was a voracious reader. He read everything he could get his hands on, and debated with anyone who wanted to debate. If someone wanted to talk about the Bible, he’d talk about the Bible. If someone wanted to talk about politics, he’d talk about politics.
“If you felt the sky was blue and he’d say the sky was white, by the end of the conversation, he was the type of person who’d have you thinking, I need to look at the sky a second time,” remembered Pearlie Trotter. “He would kind of pick your brains, too,” added James. “He’d look at your life and ask you, ‘What is the end product of it all? What are you getting out of that?’”
It was his stepfather’s idea that Minter try the military. Alex Trotter told Minter it was a way to have everything taken care of: He’d have three meals a day, a bunk he wouldn’t have to worry about, and health care. All he’d have to do was follow orders. It seemed like a good idea to Minter, a chance, perhaps, to turn his life around. In March 1994, he visited an Army recruiter and soon was headed south to Fort Jackson, S.C., for boot camp. But when Pearlie and Alex Trotter arrived to watch him graduate eight weeks later, they were called into an office and told that their son had not made the cut. The officer explained that Minter couldn’t qualify with the rifle. He just couldn’t hit the target. He had planned on being a cook, but it didn’t matter: Everyone in the Army has to be able to shoot.
Pearlie Trotter told me she thought there was more to it than that, but she couldn’t be sure. “Maybe his hands were just shaky from drinking too much,” she mused. “Maybe the rifle scared him? Maybe he was having the voices problem again.”
Washing out of the Army, Pearlie Trotter said, “was a really big bummer for him. I remember him telling his friends, ‘I’m going in the service! I’m going in the service!’ He was just so proud of it—this was going to be a new start for him.
“He was really down when he got back. Really down.”
A month after returning to Rochester, Minter decided to hit the road. He had always wanted to travel and had talked about it many times with his aunt and with Anita Vick, on Vick’s doorstep in the late afternoons. “He decided to do that,” Alex Trotter explained. “It was a conscious decision [in which Minter said], ‘I know what the rules are, but I’m going to live life by my rules. This is how I’m going to do this thing, and I’m satisfied with that.’ It’s hard for me to accept, but he himself was satisfied with it.”
The family heard from Minter only intermittently after that. Every four or five months, they’d get a card or a phone call. Almost every time, he was in a new city: Chicago, San Francisco, Boston. In each new town, he went to the post office and rented a post office box. He had his monthly $500 Social Security check follow him from place to place. And he learned some important survival skills: He learned to buy his bus tickets a month early to take advantage of specials. He learned to go to the Salvation Army and explain that he had a dying relative in the next town, in order to cadge free bus fare. Every time he was near family, he’d look them up and drop in for a visit. One Christmas, he sent his mother and his aunt lobsters packed in ice from San Francisco. For Christmas 1999, he sent Smithfield cured hams.
Every once in a while, Minter would return for a few months to Rochester. He’d come over on Fridays and fry fish for his mother and stepfather. Then they’d eat and talk.
The last time he was home, in the summer of 1998, Minter stayed in the basement apartment his parents had made up for him. But his drinking had gotten worse, and once he was drunk, it was impossible to talk to him. The voices had grown more constant. The ravages of alcohol and street life had begun to show on his face.
One day, Pearlie and Alex Trotter returned from a short trip to find that their son had kicked down a bedroom door. When Pearlie Trotter asked him what had happened, Minter replied that he had destroyed the door because he had suddenly felt “shut in.”
After that episode, Pearlie Trotter decided she had to put her foot down. She wanted her son to get psychological treatment, and she thought that if they could only force him into a center, maybe then he might come around, allow the medications to really take hold, and not throw them away. She contacted the Alsego Center, an inpatient psychiatric treatment clinic, and signed him up. Because he was an adult, Minter would have to sign a consent form to be admitted, so she got the forms and explained them to him. He looked them over, and he signed them. But the next day, he changed his mind and moved in with James. And a few weeks later, he was on a bus to Boston.
North of the McMillan reservoir lie the Children’s Hospital, the VA Hospital, and, behind the VA hospital, a small woods. To the east and south are the houses of Edgewood and LeDroit Park. If you walk south on North Capitol Street, you can see in the distance the white dome of the Capitol. This was the neighborhood Minter called home. There are the Strong Hold Unisex Barber Salon and the Fairway Market on the corner of Channing Street; behind them, Prospect Hill Cemetery. If you keep going south, there are a couple more corner markets, more glimpses of the cemetery, and, on the right, St. Martin’s Catholic Church.
Down some stairs on the right, at the corner of Seaton Street, is Star Liquor Beer Wines. It’s a small storefront, easy to miss. Soda pop, potato chips, and candy are up front. Behind the counter, walled in with thick plexiglass, is the clerk who will take your choice of liquor down from a shelf behind him and put it in a paper bag for you while he tells you the price. You put your money on a Lazy Susan with a revolving door and he rings up the purchase, handing you back your change, and your bottle, through the revolving door.
The clerk is originally from Africa, a medium-size man with light eyes. When I showed him the obituary picture of Marvin Minter that his family sent me and Minter’s photo IDs, he nodded and pointed to the vodka shelf behind him. Minter came in every morning through the autumn and bought a bottle of Gilbey’s vodka, he told me. Sometimes the bigger glass bottle, at $7.49; sometimes the smaller plastic bottle, at $4.25, depending. Minter didn’t use spare change. He usually paid in bills. “He talked to himself sometimes, but he didn’t seem crazy,” explained the clerk, who wouldn’t give me his name. “He laughed if you made a joke. He was friendly.”
A few blocks beyond Star Liquor are a gas station, a Popeye’s, a Chinese takeout, and a little strip of stores that includes a laundromat. On the right is Taylor’s Funeral Home, with a large mural depicting a black Jesus bringing someone back to life. “Don’t look down on a man…Unless you gonna pick him up,” the mural says.
No one in Minter’s neighborhood, besides the Star Liquor clerk, seemed to remember him.
Minter’s family wasn’t really surprised when I told them I hadn’t found any acquaintances. “He couldn’t get along with people,” said James. “Even in Washington there, I doubt if five or six people really knew him.”
As far as I can tell, there wasn’t even one. But Minter did leave a faint paper trail behind him. The scraps of miscellaneous receipts and ticket stubs scattered among his belongings provide at least a glimpse of the final months of his life.
His police record is clean except for an arrest in D.C. for assault on Feb. 12, 1998, at 1436 Irving St. NW, down the street from what is now the Columbia Heights Metro station. The charges were dropped, and there are no details of the assault in the records. There is a homeless shelter at the Irving Street address, but the shelter’s records are private, and the people hanging around outside when I stopped by spoke no English. They shook their heads when I showed them Minter’s picture.
Minter made a few trips to the doctor for a skin rash. He got his front teeth fixed on Jan. 9, 1999, at 1 p.m. at the Beauchamp Western Dental Center in San Francisco. I called and spoke with a receptionist. It’s a center that caters especially to the homeless, and she told me she could see three or four people outside the window on the street as we spoke. They camp there overnight, waiting for the clinic to open. Nobody there remembered Marvin Minter.
Minter set up an appointment with a lawyer in San Francisco, Jim Bordelon, on Jan. 28, 1999. I called the offices and the receptionist said Mr. Bordelon no longer worked there. She didn’t know where he had moved.
Whatever business Minter had with the lawyer, it was done soon. On April 1, 1999, at 10 a.m., he was standing in the Greyhound bus station in San Francisco, anteing up $59 in cash for a 14-day advance-purchase ticket to D.C. A month later, he was rumbling through the deserts of Nevada, the grasslands of Wyoming, the wide flat pancake of Nebraska, the farms of Illinois. He must have gotten out and peed at gas stations in Ohio, smoked in parking lots in Pennsylvania.
At 9:56 a.m. on May 5 of last year, Minter stood at a counter inside the building at 900 Brentwood Road NE, shelling out $22 in cash to rent a post office box.
In July, he bought two 20-cent postage stamps and paid with a $20 bill.
On Sep. 17, he went to Crown Pawnbrokers on 14th Street NW and pawned an Optimus radio/tape recorder for $25.
Eleven days later, he bought a $5 money order made out to Empire State College, presumably to obtain his transcripts. In October, the college sent them, along with $5 cash stapled to a cover letter, which explained that he didn’t need to pay.
Also in September, Minter wrote to his mother saying he was going to Atlanta, was thinking of getting treatment, and might need help. He asked for the address of a cousin who lived there. On Oct. 8, his mother wrote back—the note in Watlington’s plastic sleeve.
Shortly after that, he bought a collapsible luggage cart and some bungee cords.
At the beginning of December, he bought two Smithfield cured hams and mailed one to his mother and stepfather, and one to his Aunt Jessie, paying $7 for postage on each. They wrote back almost immediately, thanking him in their Christmas cards.
His original lease on the post office box expired at the end of December.
Somewhere along the line, Minter obtained a “Medical Assistance Authorization Card” for Social Security recipients, good for the month of January.
I met Marvin Minter on Feb. 15. His funeral was held Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2000.
In April, the samples came back from the lab, and the medical examiner’s office filled in the blank next to “Cause of Death” in Minter’s file: chronic alcoholism. Natural death. The time of death indicated that Minter had been lying there no more than 24 hours before I found him.
I decided to go back and see the place where I found Minter’s body one more time, just to try to feel his spirit there. And to see whatever it was I might have missed the first time. More clues to his life.
Almost immediately, I could tell that his home hadn’t been disturbed from the last time I had been there. There was a tree stump in the sunshine with a green camper’s sleeping pad sitting next to it, and an old book cover tucked under the pad to keep it from blowing away in the wind: When in Rome, by Ngaio Marsh.
Outside Minter’s door were old pots and plastic food storage containers full of rainwater and leaves. To one side of the large, arched entryway to Minter’s silo was the rusty frame of a file cabinet, turned on its side, emptied of its drawers. Inside there was a bar of soap, and nestled behind it was a grocery sack. This, I realized, had been Minter’s medicine cabinet: skin cream, Magic shaving powder (“removes beard without a razor”), Colgate toothpaste, a sewing kit, an unopened package of Twizzlers, a pair of scissors, a paper package of Advil (carefully folded, with one left inside), Tops rolling papers.
The wall from a dismembered office cubicle had once blocked the wind coming through another opening in the silo wall, but it had fallen down.
Where before, the first time I was here, I had seen only trash and old rags and Minter’s body, suddenly now I could see Minter’s home.
Along the east wall were Minter’s kitchen, his library, and his bedroom. On the west wall were his laundry room and his store room. In the middle was his front hall, plus a hanger that might have served as his coat closet. Outside were his living room, his garden, and his dining room.
The kitchen was an old oven rack resting on some bricks. Some ashes underneath told tales of fires and hot meals. Next to the shelf, a can of Quaker Instant grits, half full. On the other side, an opened can of Crisco with a spoon next to it. A pot and a sieve. A fork resting on a bunched-up black ski cap. A broom, a box of aluminum foil. Six packages of chicken-flavored ramen noodles and a little bag of unpopped popcorn, wrapped in plastic, stuffed high up in a little round cubbyhole.
Minter’s bed was a section of brown office carpet laid atop some collapsed cardboard boxes. There was a jumble of covers—an old sleeping bag, some coats, a ratty red blanket. Spare change jeweled the carpet, and underneath it all was a new-looking garment bag. Inside, in a pocket, there was a brand-new plastic bottle of Gilbey’s vodka, the kind that sells for $4.25 at Star Liquor. The seal on the cap hadn’t been broken.
On the floor next to the bed was a nearly empty five-pack of Black and Milds, one cigar unsmoked. Some matchbooks; a little two-pack of ibuprofen, the generic kind you can buy at the 7-Eleven; and an unopened package of Hall’s Sugar-Free Squares, Mountain Menthol flavored. Between the bed and the wall were a men’s hairbrush and a radio with the dial turned to 105.9 FM, the “cool jazz” station. I tried to turn it on, but the batteries were dead.
Next to the radio lay a stack of six books: paperbacks and a couple of hardbacks from the library. (I wrote down the titles and looked them up on Amazon.com when I got home: Ngaio Marsh, John Rowan Wilson, Robert Ludlum. Most were listed as mysteries, “Psychological Thrillers.” There were two with descriptions, both involving characters who hear voices or have visions.) The book on top of Minter’s stack, Headhunter, by Timothy Findley, had two Christmas cards tucked inside the front cover, the ones from Minter’s mother and his aunt.
The one from his mother had gold pine cones on a green background. Inside, it said:
Alex and I received your Christmas gift today. We were very happy to get it. You know just what we like. Thank you very much. We are enclosing $50.00 for you. Buy yourself something nice.
The one from his aunt has teddy bears and a red border. It read:
Thanks for the gift. I was really glad to hear from you and know that you are well. Traveling is on your mind. Smile—Warm climate also. I am going to Fla in February for a while. You are my wonderful and generous nephew. Keep up the good work. Write often.
Across from Minter’s bedroom and his kitchen was his laundry room, or rather, a red nylon laundry bag full of clothes and an empty 50-ounce bottle of Tide. Inside the bag, Minter’s clothes were clean and folded and smelled faintly of laundry detergent, except the top T-shirt, which smelled as if it has been worn once, but not enough to actually be dirty. It was folded neatly with the others. The clothes were new-looking, without tears or stains: three pairs of jeans: one blue, one green, and one light yellow; a gray-and-black-striped sweater; four pairs of white socks with blue toes and three pairs of gray ones; several T-shirts; two long-sleeved button-down shirts, one green, one blue; a pair of black nylon basketball shorts; a pair of khaki slacks; a dark blue long-sleeved turtleneck; a green short-sleeved shirt with a horizontal red and yellow stripe. One leftover sock, also clean. There was no underwear.
Next to the laundry room was what appeared to be a storage area containing some brand-new luggage, a Tupperware container still in its original shopping bag, and the backpack Minter had apparently used when he came here from San Francisco, still holding the Greyhound ticket stub in the front pocket. San Francisco to Cheyenne, Cheyenne to Chicago, Chicago to Cleveland, Cleveland to Washington. May 1-5, 1999. $59. Half-price because he had bought it ahead of time, on special. Folded neatly over the luggage was a sign: “Homeless Need Help God Bless.”
The last place I looked over was the place where I found Minter dead. His black tennis shoes were still there, next to where his feet had been when I found him. Nearby were a pair of black plastic flip-flops, the kind that don’t have a thong but a big strap that goes over your whole foot, carefully placed side by side. Also in Minter’s front hall was an old pair of dirty gray socks rolled down and wadded up, the way socks are when you take them off.
Hanging from the ceiling were an old gray towel, the empty hanger, and an American flag. The flag was bedraggled, stuffed upright into a little hole, and was very dirty. There were also 13 empty bottles of Gilbey’s, mostly the bigger glass ones, a few empty beer cans, and a moldering roll of toilet paper.
At the end of May, Alex and Pearlie Trotter came down to D.C. They said they were here to attend two family graduations. But there was another reason, for which they had reserved all of Monday—Memorial Day. They wanted me to take them to the place where I had found their son.
At first, I was reluctant. The idea felt kind of ghoulish, actually. I couldn’t imagine why they would want to go to that desolate place. But then I remembered the extreme care they had taken arranging his funeral. I remembered the way they had been so open with me, had wanted so desperately to talk about him, hadn’t hidden any of his problems, yet had tried to point out his strengths, to accept things rather than cover them up, to love him the way he was. So I agreed.
Memorial Day arrived, and the four of us—Pearlie and Alex Trotter, Camilla Watlington, and I—came to the hole in the fence. The path was overgrown with the jungly morass of spring, but the black plastic bags Minter had tied to the trees around his home were still there, whipping in the wind, and Minter’s home remained undisturbed.
I had left Minter’s things exactly in place, out of some sort of respect, perhaps, or maybe the hope that some homeless person might find them and be able to make use of them. Maybe it was just because I hadn’t known what else to do.
Now, his family started picking their way around, noticing Minter’s bed, his kitchen, the clothes stacked neatly in their bag in the corner. “How did you find him?” they asked me. “Where was his head? His feet? Was he lying on his stomach or his back? Which way was he looking?” I showed them.
“His head was right next to the office divider, then,” said Alex Trotter. And after a minute: “Maybe this fell on him. Maybe it knocked him out.” I realized then that the medical examiner had never bothered to tell Minter’s parents the cause of his death. I described to them my regular calls to the office, and the analysis I was finally given after I went and camped out in the medical examiner’s lobby for two days in a row. “They told me it was chronic alcoholism,” I explained. “Natural death. He had been there no more than 24 hours before I found him.”
We stood for a minute, and I thought about the serendipity of finding Minter so soon after he died, in a place no one else seemed to have discovered before or since. But his family was suspicious, unsatisfied. “What does that mean, chronic alcoholism?” asked Watlington. “What are the signs?”
Then the family began to go through Minter’s belongings, gathering things up, marveling at them, setting them back down—his radio, his books, the toiletry supplies in the grocery sack. It was far from a funereal task. We laughed, for example, about the can of grits in his kitchen—even the homeless keep grits in their kitchens.
“He had it set up kind of nice in here,” said Alex Trotter, looking at the cooking pots.
“Well, he definitely didn’t die of the cold,” said Pearlie Trotter, lifting up the heavy pile of blankets on the carpet that had served as Minter’s bed.
They inspected everything closely, accumulating a small pile of things to take home.The spare change on the bed had looked to me like just a bunch of coins. But Alex Trotter broke into a smile as he instantly recognized the coins as collector’s quarters. He’s a coin collector, and Minter often used to give him interesting coins. He figured Minter must have been saving these quarters especially for him.
“Somebody could use this radio,” said Alex Trotter, and they put it in the bag with the folded laundry.
After going through everything, Alex Trotter wanted to make sure the family got some photographs. He took pictures of the silo, and then a few shots of his wife and me and Watlington standing in front of it. Then Watlington took a picture of me and the Trotters in Minter’s doorway, and another one right where Minter was lying when I found him. Then Pearlie Trotter took the books from behind Minter’s bed and placed them in a little stack right where I’d told her his head had lain, next to the fallen blue office partition and vodka bottles, on top of the rotting leaves.
On top of the books, Pearlie Trotter laid a bouquet of fresh flowers she had been carrying. “Goodbye, Marvin,” she said simply. Alex Trotter came over and stood with her, and Watlington took a picture. “Goodbye, Marvin,” they said.
“Well, I’m satisfied,” Pearlie Trotter said finally. “I feel much more at ease. I feel a little closer to closure.”
We headed back up the path. Behind us, a gust of wind ruffled the pages of a notebook still lying by Minter’s bed, empty but for the name “Marvin L. Minter” written in shaky handwriting on the first page. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Chris Gunn.