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Jim Hill checked in for a night, but stayed eight months. Eight months in a brightly lit room in the basement of Building 27, 1910 Massachusetts Ave. SE, at the end of a long, stone walkway that starts only 30 feet from the doors of D.C. General Hospital. A trail leading all the way to the end—the Office of Medical Examiner. The city morgue. The last stop for those who perhaps misunderstood the advice. Who did not go gently. Who drank and snorted and crashed their way into that good night.
Building 27 houses not only the terribly disaffected—the boy who hit the pipe too often, the mother slaughtered in the summer heat—but the goners as well. The ones nobody knows, nobody wants. Out of the 3,000 bodies delivered to the back entrance of Building 27 each year, 100 belong to people whose families cannot manage the expense of burial, and so leave Aunt Lorraine to rot on someone else’s bill. Many come in as a John or Jane Doe—the ripped-off, ripped-up tourist from New Zealand, the bum by the fire—but are quickly identified and taken away. Only a dozen come in as the truly lost—the dozen or so whose names are known, but whose lives are not. Like Jim Hill, casualties of an uncollected past.
They occupy an innocuous room next to the autopsy facilities. Inside this storage space, the thud of a tightly sealed metallic door traps you, like Yossarian in the back of the plane, to look at a room full of long, white plastic bags with identification numbers scrawled onto their sides, stacked on blue metallic shelves that could hold action figures or bell-bottoms or 78s. The frigid air, pouring out of four coolers running across the top of the left-hand wall, breaks that illusion, shuddering through your pores, through the thin hair of your arms that riffles up, reminding you that you stand not in a garage or basement, but in a dumpster.
A body does a number of different things if not immediately cooled. The organisms in the liver and the small intestine break into the bloodstream. The skin first goes cold, then scuffs off, leaving a black-and-green marble coat. And the flies come soon enough—exacting their revenge on the human aggressor by gnawing on whatever is left. But a body brought in quickly can be suspended at 38 degrees, a temperature cold enough to slow, if not stop, decomposition long enough to allow the daughter or wife or bridge partner to come and fetch leftovers. Most bodies remain here for only a day or two before being wheeled out and identified through a Plexiglas picture window, in the same way a baby is shown to a family for the very first time.
But a goner lies in its bag for six months before the 38-degree levy holding back the effects of decomposition finally breaks. Then the people in charge have no other choice than to cut the loss, burn the remains, and send the ashes to a pauper’s grave.
“You’ve got to understand that we’re just flesh and bones,” explains Dr. Joy Carter, the city’s chief medical examiner. “You wouldn’t keep a piece of chicken in the fridge for six months and expect it to stay the same.”
Jim Hill died on Aug. 2, 1994, sitting in a patchwork chair, his ribs bloated and his head drooped about his shoulders—imitating sleep without the pant of life. Alone, in a small rented room in a rickety boarding house, Hill had little to show for his 69 years. A blue suit. A photo album of his stepdaughter’s wedding. A March 1988 letter from the Veteran’s Administration announcing an increase in his monthly allowance from $496 to $517. A 10-year-old Maryland driver’s license that went bad with his last DUI, but was good enough to collect winnings at the track. A scrap of paper with Psalm 23 on it: “The lord is my shepherd. I shall not want….” A four-year-old letter from his brother Max in Phoenix that begins, “First of all, Dad passed away August 6th.”
These are the facts according to the medical examiner: James Lee Hill, dead of heart disease, was brought through the side doors of Building 27 as a “storage case.” Homicide investigators detailed to the morgue went to his boarding house and were told he’d lived there for more than five years and never had any visitors. They checked with the Veteran’s Administration to see if he had been in the service or had any next of kin. Yes, the VA replied, he had been in the service, in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, but no, he had no listing of a next of kin.
“We hit a blank trail,” says Carter. “What else do you expect us to do?”
But whoever called the VA about the service record and next of kin left out a vital stat: that James Lee Hill had died. The VA continued to send checks to his post office box between August 1994 and April 1995, when his family finally found him, nine months and $5,294 later.
“We don’t send benefit checks to dead people,” says the VA’s Jim Fischl. “Just because someone asks about a next of kin doesn’t mean someone’s dead….If we knew, we wouldn’t have left him there. We would have taken care of his financial affairs and his burial. We have a special folder for these cases, we have people who deal with them. Once we get an inquiry, we have to put it in the system. Once you put it in the system, it’s in the system….It’s a very impressive system.”
It’s not clear who butchered the job on Jim Hill, but it doesn’t really matter. Jim Hill had gone bad long before the fridge and the uncashed checks and the unasked questions. Bad even before the death in the patchwork chair in the boarding house.
He was the railbird in the blue suit last seen walking across a bridge. The typesetter who drank and bet his way out of the job before the technology could take it from him. The red-haired, ruddy-faced guy who flickered in and out of people’s lives with the spiraling inconsistency of a kerosene lamp. The one you ask about when the moon is up and the lights are gone. I wonder what happened to Jim?
“Every time I’d see a slow old guy walking somewhere,” says Karen Harrington, who worked with Hill years before, “I’d think it was Jim.”
Jim Hill was born on July 15, 1925, in Quitman, Ark. The youngest of three brothers, he was raised by a Bible-wielding, wrought-iron-willed paternal grandmother whose “strictness” would keep him away from the church for the rest of his life.
“He basically thought that religion was for hucksters,” says gambling buddy Earl Thomas. “And when all that stuff came down about [evangelist Jimmy] Swaggart, he thought that it just proved his point.”
At 17, with half a year left in high school, Hill went searching for a new life. A life away from Arkansas and the grandmother and the heat—finding it where everyone finds it at some time or other—in California, in the Richmond shipyards at $1.21 an hour. But like most young men at the time, he had important business abroad. So, on Dec. 15, 1942, Hill joined the Navy and went off to war.
By most accounts, he had a rough time at sea. He got into scraps. His teeth went bad. His feet began to hurt. And by the time he returned to Arkansas in July 1946, he was a 21-year-old with a recessed molar and a throbbing arch and a drinking problem he’d keep for the rest of his life.
Of course, he tried to do what others did, tried to parlay his veteran status into a job and a house—into a future. In 1946, he signed on as a clerk and typist for the Fort Roots Veteran’s Hospital in Arkansas, earning $1,954 a year. He tried to earn a two-year degree in radio electronics from the Naughton School of Business in Little Rock: one of those G.I. Bill-fertilized schools preparing the bright-faced leaders of tomorrow with classes in dental hygiene and the fundamentals of the adding machine. He stayed less than a month. In spring 1950, he told the U.S. government that he would be enrolling in law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville that fall. He never made it.
By winter 1952, Jim Hill had followed his big brother Joe out East. They belonged to a generation of men who went to war, who saw the Big Sur off the Pacific, the skeletons at Auschwitz, only to come back to places like Little Rock and Topeka and Hamilton, Ohio, and realize—rightly or wrongly—that they had changed, but that their hometown had not. So they set off for the city. It didn’t matter what city they headed to, just so long as it had tall buildings and busy streets and important-looking people doing important-looking things. They went to Chicago and New York and Los Angeles. Jim Hill came to Washington.
He came looking for that same promise of power offered to all of us who come here from somewhere else. The promise of becoming part of the postcard: the glass-encased town of crinkly paper and finely starched men. He started setting type (“Something he just fell into, I guess,” says stepdaughter Carol Fiala) but would forever remain on the second tier—never reaching the press room of the dailies where the pensions and benefits were, but doing work for newsletter firms, small publishing houses. He could never become part of the column-and-marble Washington. Instead, he became part of its alleys.
By 1966, at an age when many of the men around him were beginning to send their sons and daughters off to college, Hill hooked onto another newsletter company, FDC Reports. And it was there he met a young widow and mother named Dorothy Howlin.
“I’d say they were different, yes,” says David Swit, then managing editor at FDC Reports. “….She was very quiet, very reserved. He was, well, boisterous.”
On a sunny day in April 1970, the Baptist matron with beehive hair drew the boisterous bachelor back to the church, if only for one afternoon. And all of a sudden he had “it.” The wife. The two daughters. The three-bedroom ranch in the suburbs. The Chevy Nova.
He opened up his own typesetting business in a room on the 10th floor of the National Press Building. Armed with a light table and an IBM Standard, he competed for private work and government contracts. It seemed as though Jim Hill had at long last found his stake in the marble, his piece in the postcard.
But he would lose even that. Lose it on all the nights he wouldn’t come back to the ranch and days when clients would find the work undone and the workman drunk on the floor. Lose it on a trail of DUIs and halfway houses and drunk tanks. By 1980, he had aborted it all. The marriage had ended. The business was gone, and the world had begun to learn the rules of a new machine.
He began composing for a couple of firms, now doing layout in place of type. The work seemed plentiful at first, but slowly receded into part-time and then no-time with the rise of the Mac and desktop publishing. And in winter 1988, following a prolonged stay in the hospital and some time crashing at a friend’s house, he found a place. Not in the best neighborhood, he told friends, but a place nonetheless. A room in a boarding house on Otis Street NE. And it was there that Jim Hill began to fade away. He couldn’t afford a phone and could not bear the thought of his family seeing his fall. He’d call for birthdays and Christmases, complain about his back or his legs. He’d ask about the kids, and then he’d say good-bye—the disconnected voice of a disconnected man who had walked (albeit very, very slowly) away from the past.
Earl Thomas bet and worked with Hill for a number of years—long enough not to worry when Jim would disappear for two, three months at a time. He always found his way back to the track or onto the phone. But in the cold, late fall of 1994, when Earl awoke from his sleep and opened his eyes he knew.
“I just had a feeling that he was no longer here,” Earl says.
He hadn’t seen Jim in some time, not since that day months before, by the Press Building, when he looked straight at Jim and could see that his friend’s mind had slipped. (“He gave me that hesitant look for a second, like he was trying to place me. I’ve known him for 30 years, and he gives me that look….”) Jim looked old then—in his face and his hands and his suit, that damn blue suit.
But in Earl’s dream, Jim had the look of brightness to him, in his clothes, in his hat, in his face. He looked like he did when they first met, just after Earl’s wife died from cancer. Even his hair had a youthful truth to it—a genuine red, one that had been lost after years on Grecian Formula.
“My God, Jim,” Earl said in the dream. “You look so young.”
“I’m in perfect health,” Jim replied, as he began to walk away. “I’m just fine.”
Between the time Jim walked away and the moment Earl awoke, another gambler appeared. This one gave Earl three numbers to play in the Lotto when he re-entered the waking world.
“Seven-one-one,” Earl said, putting his head against the pillow. “I’ve got to play em.”
I find Earl sitting in the outside cafe by the National Press Building: a bald man with an orange complexion and a brown polyester jacket to “keep the cool in.” A typesetter who ran his own shop and bet the horses like Jim, Earl had come to D.C. from Alabama, believing he could enter a law school—maybe Georgetown—and help the orphans of the world. But he couldn’t find a law school that would take a high-school drop-out.
“I first met Jim Hill….” he begins almost immediately.
We talk about Jim, about his habits and manners and favorite venues.
“Anywhere they had beer,” Earl says, putting out his cigarette. “Anywhere they had beer.”
Jim didn’t have a Cheers, according to Earl. Places like those are reserved for social alcoholics—the ones who put down a fifth of Jack Daniels drink-by-drink under the guise of friendship. Jim Hill shoved that mask down the dumpster a long time ago. He didn’t seek out people to drink with. He could hang with the polo shirts in Georgetown or the scruffies in Mount Pleasant. It made no difference. He just needed beer.
“He might have been a shot man when he first started,” says Earl. “But he was strictly beer by the time I knew him.”
The conversation turns from Jim’s first love to his second.
“Gambling,” he says, “was not meant for the general public. It’s dangerous. Now a man like me or Jim, who’ve grown up all our lives around this sort of thing, we can handle it….Take the lottery, it’s just about taking people’s money.”
Earl says he and Jim would go anywhere for the sure thing: Pimlico, Bowie, Laurel, and most often, Rosecroft. All in search of the horse who could beat the favorite. Jim, he says, could pick ’em drunk—holding the betting forum inches from his face while all around him the faces blurred and the darkness dropped.
“He and I looked at the track as a bank,” says Earl. “Sometimes you withdraw, sometimes you deposit.”
Earl found Jim, I learn, not with a court order or an elaborate midnight break-in, but with a telephone call on March 26, 1995.
“I’m calling to find out the disposition of a James Lee Hill,” Earl said when he called the morgue.
“We got him,” the voice over the phone said without hesitation.
“His landlady says he’s been dead for over a year….”
“August 2,” the voice said.
As the lights dim and the crowd thins, Earl and I get up. He wants to buy lottery tickets for this week’s drawing. On the way a young woman with sunken eyes and a torn sweatshirt, flanked by two children, approaches.
“Excuse me,” she says. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Excuse me,” she says, moving closer. “Can I ask you a question?”
“No,” Earl says, lighting up his cigarette, leaving the woman momentarily stunned.
“She asked,” he explains, “I answered.”
It is late fall, 1994. A week has passed since Jim Hill wandered through Earl Thomas’ nighttime mind. A week since the hardened thought rocketed through the darkness that Jim was not on one of his usual disappearing junkets, but gone for good. Earl, knowing time had slipped, now seemed ready to pick up the clues and follow the dream to its end.
“Seven-one-one,” he tells the young girl operating the Lotto machine.
“Seven-one-one hit last night,” she replies, pointing to the results posted on the counter. “See?”
“Oh,” Earl Thomas says, looking in with the realization that he’d held the tip too long, losing $500 in the process.
“Maybe,” someone else says, consoling the gambler, “they’ll come up again.”
Jim Hill’s stepdaughter Cindy King has told me to look for a woman wearing a navy-blue dress with white polka dots. But as it happens, there are a lot of young women walking around Crystal City tonight wearing navy-blue dresses with white polka dots, and I stare them all down until I happen upon the desired response. I find that King knows very little about Hill’s early life, except that he had been in the Navy and at one time tried to go to law school. And while she seems deliberately sparse in her answers, she tells me a little about her mother and about Jim, and says that, if I want, I can call his brother Max in Arizona.
“Mr. Hill,” I say in a deeper voice that is not my own. “This is Sridhar Pappu from Washington City Paper. Did you get the letter?”
“Well yes I did….Well listen here, I’ve given that letter to my lawyer, and he’ll be handlin’ things.”
“Well as I explained in the letter….”
“There’s somethin’ fishy going on here and I’m not gonna talk to ya.”
“Well, can I ask you what sounds fish….”
“Well, there’s stuff I know, and I know it, and I ain’t gonna tell ya.”
“I’ve given the stuff to my lawyer and that’s the end of it.”
“Can I have your lawyer’s name?”
as he suspicious?” I ask Earl.
“Oh yes,” Earl replies. “Jim was a pretty obstinate man.”
I have come to find out a few things about Jim Hill. That he was raspy, raspy in a quaint, comical sort of way when he was sober, and a frothing raspy, with a quick mouth and quicker temper, when he was drunk. But in an attempt to learn more, I board a bus, pay an $8 fare, and head toRosecroft raceway.
“Where’s Jones?” asks a woman boarding the bus.
“He dead,” replies a woman already sitting down.
“When did it happen?”
“ ‘Bout three months ago. They found him last Friday.”
“Yeah. I been missin’ him and I sent someone to go look up on him, see how he was doin’ and they found him there.”
“Oh God. Had he been sick?”
“Yeah,” the woman says with a slight sigh, “he had a heart attack.”
“I can’t believe it.”
A moment passes as the woman settles into a seat two rows back from her friend.
“Hey,” she says, popping her head into the aisle, “How much you got to spend tonight?”
This is Jim Hill’s bus—the one he’d take to Rosecroft after the state had enough and said he could no longer drive the Nova or any other car. It travels down the Anacostia Freeway, past an old firetruck in a fenced-off lot and a checkerboard water tower and a part of the river where the sun’s glint shows no blue at all—absolutely no blue at all—and a small sign welcoming us to Prince George’s County. It then continues down a long stretch of road where the houses sprinkle out, giving way to a series of layered hills, fenced in by haphazardly connected white lumber going into the horizon’s last light.
Unlike most places that once embraced the American blue-collar heart—the bowling alley, the pool hall—the racetrack at Rosecroft remains user-unfriendly, without the Au Bon Pain or the gourmet beer or the children’s activity center. The lower floor has all the charm of a high-school cafeteria—dirty white-tiled floors to complement the blue-and-white-striped walls. It is a nexus of white polyester and ever-dimming arc-lamped futures, with cashiers in clip-on bow ties instead of cooks, and steel blue cursive neon announcing: Food. Snacks. Bar.
Outside, a gray-haired, 70-ish man with an alabaster complexion, wearing sandals with black socks, sits next to me on a bench. He has lost the definitive edges of his face: The lines between his neck and his chin and between his cheek and his nose are blurred points, obscured by fat.
“What did you think about the Eight?” he asks.
I look around to see if he might be speaking to someone else.
“I don’t know,” I reply, moving down the bench. “I wasn’t really watching.”
“You see that horse?” he says, pointing to one warming up.
“Yeah. Whaddaya think of that horse?”
“Seems all right.”
“Ya see, it’s not all right. His head’s up, it’s too high, ya see. What you got to do is come out here and watch ’em. See, this is how you learn.”
“Now this next race, I’ll tell who I like in this next race. I like the three horse. Now look at that horse warming up. See how he’s too thin on the end?”
“Now you can come out here, see, and you watch them, and this is how you learn. Now you can come out here on Wednesday or a Saturday and you can watch ’em qualify.”
“Do you come out here on Wednesdays and Saturdays?”
“I’m here every day. I even bought a horse once, with a friend. Paid $18,000 for it.”
“Yeah, I put up most of it. About $10,000 or so. But he died.”
“The horse ?”
After two races he mutters something about placing a dollar on the Five and the Six and tells me he’ll be right back. I do not know his name and he doesn’t know mine. But in the frantic moments trying to find him among the cigars and the spilled Cokes and the man flailing his arms, saying, “Don’t let me do it anymore,” I begin to understand the friendship of the bet.
In the last days of February, Earl Thomas sat down to write two letters in the hope of hearing from Jim:
February 24, 1995
…Carol Jean, Cindy and I are all concerned where you are and how you are doing….
Send up a balloon,
Earl F. Thomas
February 24, 1995
I am trying to contact my friend of thirty years, James Lee Hill. I know he has been residing at your home for some years, but neither I, nor anyone in his family have heard from him in a long time. Is he alright? Is he sick? We would like to know….
Earl F. Thomas
Maybe, Earl thought, Jim would respond with a letter or a call, the same call he used to end all his disappearances:
“Hey buddy, when we gonna go out to the track?”
But the call never came. The letters came back: addressee unknown.
So on the cold, sunlit morning of March 26, 1995, Earl woke up early, got in his car, and drove north. Along the same route he used to take Jim home from the nights at the track and the late-night breakfasts at the Steak and Eggs in Arlington. On North Capitol, then Michigan, crossing over on Lee Highway. Then 13th and L, then Otis. Up the steep hill lined with weeds and down, down to the house and Jim’s landlady, Mrs. Brockington.
Earl had remembered Mrs. Brockington as a nervous woman who rarely went outside and seemed wary of strangers. Years back when he’d come looking for Jim, Earl says she greeted him with a fearfully arranged chorus of “fuck off” ‘s and “go-to-hell” ‘s. So he stayed away. But too much time had passed, and Earl had to know. A gambling buddy told him Jim lived at 1214 Otis St. NE, but Earl quickly realized there is no 1214 Otis Street.
In a state of bewilderment, Earl stopped at a house. The woman at the door told him that she believed the family living two houses down in fact rented rooms. When he went to the house, he was surprised that Mrs. Brockington remembered him from those many years before, and even more surprised that she welcomed him into her living room. Welcomed him with a collection of papers and photos and the straight-arrow confirmation.
“When?” he asked.
“A year ago,” she replied.
He called the morgue. He called the family. They called the morgue. They called the VA. They called the church. Arlington National Cemetery. And on a cold April day, workers and family gathered to say good-bye. The boy who always mistrusted the pulpit had been dragged back before it one last time.
“It was all just so nice,” says Cindy King of the military burial. “They did such a wonderful job with it all.”
It is Aug. 2, 1995. Jim Hill died a year ago today at this hour, in this house. I ring the bell. Once. Twice. No one answers.
As I am walking away, a gold Chevy Nova comes to a stop and lets someone out. From a distance, I can see him holding a plastic shopping bag stuffed with papers, his trousers, eight, nine inches above his ankles. Soon the car drives off and he makes his way to the house where Jim Hill lived.
I turn around, and quicken my pace, but not enough to frighten him. He is a man straight out of William Kennedy’s Albany: a portly man with a blackened space where his teeth should be, wearing a crooked black plastic baseball cap with a Jesus pin swinging from it, and a sweater safety-pinned to a full-sleeved checkered shirt.
“Mr. Brockington?” I ask.
“Do I look like Mr. Brockington?” he says in a wispy, Jersey-shore kind of voice.
“I don’t know,” I reply. “I’ve never met him.”
He smiles and sticks out his hand.
“Name’s Francis,” he says.
“Did you know Jim Hill?”
“Can’t say that I did,” says Francis. “I’ve only been here for a few years.”
“Are you sure you didn’t know him? He died about a year ago.”
“Did he walk really slow?”
“He wore a blue suit…all the time. Kinda ruddy lookin’.”
“Aw yeah, I knew him. Guy smoked himself to death. Used to go out to Maryland to get those cigarettes. Can you believe that? I tried to giv ‘im some chew, but he didn’t take to it.”
“Naw….I used to go up to his room at night, look in on him, ya know? Then I went away fer a week, and when I come back they tell me he’s dead….Say, that guy was a seaman.”
“He was in the Navy.”
“I think he was in the Navy.”
“Yeah, he was. Did he ever say where he went in the Navy?”
“Naw. Talked a lot about it though. I was in the war, got a discharge. Medical.”
“Yeah. But I go down there the other day, down and see them bums down at the VA and they say I ain’t in the computer. They’re a bunch of bums, they are. I’m not in the computer? I told ’em, see, I told ’em, “I went to war.’ ” He was a quiet man,” Mrs. Brockington politely tells me as she rejects an interview the next day, “who kept to himself, who didn’t like visitors, and wouldn’t like you being here now.”
“Can I at least see his room?”
Her husband, a thin man with a medium Afro, small teeth, and long, delicate-looking arms, leads me up the rickety, unvarnished steps to a landing on the second floor where a washer and dryer divide the two rooms at the right from the one at the left.
Mr. Brockington turns left to open a lattice-work, black-metal screen door, then another door. I enter into a room with a slanted ceiling and shaggy brown carpet, a small black-and-white television, and two or three mended chairs. To the front is a tired wall of orange and yellow, made more orange and more yellow and more tired by the filtered morning sunlight passing through the thin pink curtains. Whether they were his curtains or chairs I can’t be sure. Another man now lives here, but he’s gone for the day.