I parked my car at the curb and the two men sitting on a stoop across the street made me for a cop right away. That was easy; the only white guys they saw in this neighborhood were cops, dope fiends or johns and I wasn’t looking for crack cocaine or a hooker. What they didn’t need to know was that I had no jurisdiction in Cleveland, Ohio. Both men nodded in return to my greeting and acknowledged that yeah, the boarded up building on St. Clair Avenue used to house a bar called The Cedar Lounge.
“That was a long time ago,” the older of the men said. “Dago place, didn’t allow no black folk in there. You don’t look Italian.”
“I’m about as Italian as you are, my friend. I can see why they went out of business if they didn’t welcome black folk,” I said, making a show of looking around. Both men chuckled.
“Couple of times a month big guy who do look Italian drive up and park his car, then go inside. He got a key; don’t go in through a busted window like everyone else. Must own the building, surprised he ain’t burned it down for the insurance yet. You got a key?” This time it was the younger man, looked to be about 45.
“No sir, I don’t have a key.”
“What you care about that old dago bar for?” the older man asked.
“I think a friend of mine was killed in there, back in 1988,” I replied.
“Yeah, that was rough times ‘round here. That was ‘fore we all moved in and sort of gentrified the area, you might say.” All three of us laughed. This stretch of St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood was far from gentrified. About the only thing you could say was that it was more gentrified than neighboring East Cleveland, a place that crooked politicians, governmental neglect, slumlords, dope fiends and gangbangers had turned into a cesspool. East Cleveland was a place where the grandiose mansions of John Rockefeller’s children were now cut up into rotting warrens inhabited by people too hopped up or simply too tired out by life to do themselves any better.
“Tell you what, I’m going to take a look around back, see if there isn’t an open door in the alleyway. Would you gentlemen have any objection to that? I certainly mean no disrespect toward your neighborhood, but I’d appreciate it if you would whistle if you see anyone paying too much attention to my car.”
“Ain’t disrespect, just acknowledgin’ what it’s like ‘round here. No whistlin’, but you hear me callin’ out to my woman you’ll know someone interested in your car. You think you gonna find some clue ‘bout your friend after all this time?” the older gentleman asked.
“I don’t know what I think I’m going to find,” I answered, but realized immediately that wasn’t true. I knew I would find the stink of an abandoned building long used as a toilet by the homeless who had no other place to relieve themselves at night, rats’ nests and tossed away junkies’ works, discarded condoms and empty liquor bottles.
“I don’t know what I think I’m going to find,” I said, repeating the lie, “but I’ve got to take a look. It’s been too long,” I added, and the men knew I was talking to myself now, addressing an inner need that I alone could sense. They nodded again as I crossed the street and went around to the back of the building, knowing my car would be fine while I was gone.
* * * * *
For the tenth time this day and the millionth time in my adult life I reflected on what brought me to this place at this time. I hardly knew Bobby, but I did know the difference between right and wrong. A better way to put it might be that I had a strong personal sense of right and wrong, a sensibility that had held me back in my career and was not shared by the majority of my fellow cops. To me the murder of a cocaine-addicted, has-been musician twenty years ago in a mobbed-up big city saloon was just as wrong as the murder of a priest on his way to hear confession. The opinion of most of my colleagues with whom I had shared Bobby’s story was that his was a “sooner or later murder” brought on by his own actions; if he hadn’t been killed in January of 1991, he would have been killed eventually. Maybe I didn’t pay close enough attention to my parents or my Sunday School teachers, but to me it was the murder that was wrong, not the character or circumstances of the victim.
* * * * *
It wasn’t difficult getting through the back door of the abandoned saloon. I had my choice of broken windows to climb through but put my shoulder to the door and felt some play, then delivered a flat-footed kick just below the knob and the steel door swung in slowly on rusted hinges. My pocket flashlight revealed just what I suspected, although the building hadn’t been completely trashed yet. Other buildings, apparently, were easier for the homeless and the junkies to occupy without being detected, buildings without neighbors directly across the street and buildings not situated on a main thoroughfare patrolled by Cleveland’s finest. Lord knows there were plenty of abandoned buildings nearby which did meet the criterion.
I was most interested in the area that would have housed a walk-in refrigerator and freezer. Bobby was last seen was on January 10, 1991 but his body wasn’t discovered until 11 days later and according to the autopsy report decomposition was mild. I’ve seen plenty of bodies not discovered for a week or two after death and know that decomposition will have its way with a corpse after 11 days unless it’s the dead of winter and the body is frozen. That made sense to me – it was January after all – until I checked the weather for that period in 1991 and learned that Clevelandhad been in the midst of an unseasonable warm spell with temperatures reaching the upper 40s most days and even into the 50s twice. I ran it by the coroner in Grand Rapids who agreed that the body should have been more decomposed after 11 days.
“Looks like they kept him on ice,” he told me.
“Or in a freezer,” I replied.
I found what used to be the cold room, behind a bar littered with rat droppings and fast food wrappers. There was a door frame with big screw holes that had once housed a metal door. The door was gone, probably sold for scrap long ago. Walking through what I figured for the refrigerated room, where beer kegs and food supplies would have been kept, I came to a smaller room which I knew had been the freezer. I satisfied myself that the space was large enough to stash a body, which I suppose was the true reason I wanted to get inside.
A sadness gripped me, a sadness I often felt at the scene of a murder or some other violent crime. The damn waste of it all. The sense that some of our fellow human beings care so little for the rest of us. The knowledge that too many of us meet our end not surrounded by those we love but rather with the helpless knowledge that we will never see those we love again. Too many of us die before we are ready to walk on, as Native Americans in Michigan would say. Too many of us struggle in vain to the very last against walking on.
“Everybody counts or nobody counts,” I said aloud, quoting Michael Connelly’s fictional hero Hieronymous Bosch. Connelly is one of the few crime writers I enjoy reading – along with James Lee Burke and John Sanford – one of the few who gets it right. Bobby died here. I felt it. I didn’t care if he was a drug addict in 1991 or his murder was a sooner-or-later killing. Everybody counts of nobody counts. Time to shake the bushes and see what fell out.
* * * * *
“You find anything?” the older gentleman asked when I returned to my car.
“Hard to say, my friend.”
“You gonna be back?”
“Yes, sir, I suspect I will.”
“I think you comin’ back, too. Yes, sir, believe I’m gonna see you again. I’ll be here. Ain’t got no plans to go nowhere real soon.”
“I appreciate your help today,” I said, handing the man a business card with my cell phone number. “If you see the big guy with the key I’d appreciate a call. I believe I’d like to speak with him.”
“Don’ never know when he come around.”
“I understand that. Just call if you can. I plan to be in the area for a few weeks, weekdays anyway.”
Van Morrison’s version of “Motherless Child” played in my head as I drove away. Beautifully-sad and sung by a man who, if what I read is right, may have been as tortured as Bobby for a number of years but has rejoined the living. Bobby never had that chance. Someone had to answer for that.